The Carretera Austral – Part 1

Ranking among the world’s ultimate road trips, the Carretera Austral runs 1240 mostly unpaved kilometres alongside ancient forests, glaciers, pioneer farmsteads, turquoise rivers and the crashing Pacific. Completed in 1996, it cost an initial investment of US$300 million, took more than 20 years to build and cost 11 workers their lives. Pinochet’s quest to cut a road through Aisén was not based on common sense or a pragmatic plan, it arguably had more to do with the symbolism of a highway that tied together the disparate regions of the country.

Highway may be a glorified name for it – part of the adventure is simply navigating sections of gargantuan ruts and potholes. Yet travellers are drawn here in part because the route is not lined with Subway, Shell stations and Starbucks. Don’t skimp on planning and a good dose of prudence.
To the north of the Carretera Austral, ferry service is inadequate for the amount of traffic and only runs regularly during summer – so don’t even bother outside summer. The harsh climate can make maintenance a nightmare, with rock slides common and landslides closing sections of the road for days. In the south, the road sits barely 1m above the flood-prone Río Baker, the mightiest of any Chilean river.
The next two weeks we’ll steadily climb him up, along the natural beauty to Puerto Montt…

The bus leaves Villa O’Higgins like promised and we’re on board… One day later, but we’re moving again. Here in Patagonia goes a saying: ‘when you push up yourself here, you’ll get nowhere’. So we adopt the local quietness and see what this day day brings us.
From Villa O’Higgins till Rio Bravo all goes smooth, there we catch another ferry to Puerto Yungay… And then the bus stays silent, no more brake fluid. We have a couple of hours ahead before the fluid should arrive and we can keep going. Around the evening we hear that the fluid only shall arrive the next day. Our driver already arranged a sleeping place for that night, but we are lucky. When the last ferry arrives, there is a jeep which goes to Caleta Tortel, just the place where we want to spend the night. We’re allowed to share the back of the pick-up with another three people… So all five of us enjoy the cold and the dust, but we’ll arrive at our destination that night. End well, all well.

Caleta Tortel is a small village, with some 500 persons, in a bay at the Pacific Ocean… It gives some off-worldly experiences in a picturesque fjord. There cannot drive cars in the pueblo, since all the transits are wooden passageways. The location is idyllic, but we have a long, long, long way till our free campsite at the other end of the pueblito.
Next morning we enjoy a breakfast in ‘El Campesito’… With eggs and delicious home-made jam, from raspberries. A real delicacy! Afterwards we order a bus to Cochrane that afternoon, so we still have a couple of hours to enjoy the wooden passageways, the quietness of the location and the calm sunlit sea that surrounds us. I climb to a viewpoint, from where I can observe the pueblo and the delta of the river Baker.

Cochrane is just a transit for us. We camp there, before we want to take a bus the next morning… But since the school starts here within two days, everything is fully booked. Hmm let’s try some hitchhiking. A friendly engineer stops for us when we just arrived at our spot and we even pass the bus! Amazing. At a nearby crossroad he drops us off, as promised.
Here we try half an hour to get a car, until a red pick-up stops to look for their direction. Ilse helps them and informs if we can accompany them? They want to drive to the Argentine border, through the Chacabuco valley, an idyllic trip according to all travel guides, but it can only be done with your own transport. They agree and before we know it, we’re on a side trip adventure.
Jochen, Filip and Christian are three German guys who hired a car for three weeks on their holiday in Patagonia. Now they give us a lift through the really amazing Chacabuco Valley, a National Park in formation. An abundance of guanaco’s and choiques (a kind of running bird) greets us. Slowly the landscape changes from forest into pampa. Stunningly beautiful.
The border crossing goes smooth for all of us and we drive till Bajo Caracoles, a tiny settlement along the famous Ruta 40 in Argentina near to the well known Cuevas de los Manos. We inform if they want to visit the caves the next day and if their is an opportunity for us to accompany them… And yes, we are the lucky ones! We can go with them the next morning. Since they are searching an ATM, we’re even more lucky, they will bring us as far as Perito Moreno, only 50 km’s from the Chilean border next day. That evening the five of us enjoy a tasty meal in the hotel. What a great day…
We go sleeping in our tent, with a view over the pampa. One big advantage, this side of Los Andes is much drier and hotter. A relief after the chilly other part.

The Cuevas de los Manos are special, located in the Rio de las Pinturas valley. The site is known for its 8000 year old rock art of high quality. Most of the paintings contain hands – which also give the name to the cave – but also pictures of guanaco’s, lizards and hunters can be found. A really nice side trip, thanks to our German friends…
After the cave we drive to Perito Moreno, a sleeping town with a somewhat strange build up. We cross it thrice before we find the huge new supermarket outside town. There we’re dropped off to try and get transport back into Chile, since there are hardly buses to Los Antiguos and none at all that cross the border! So we try our luck with our thumbs once again… And yes half an hour later we’re already driving along Lago Buenos Aires – the second biggest of South America – to the Chilean border. There we cross once again the Argentine side, walk a while to the Chilean side (a couple of km’s further) before another car picks us up and drops us off at the border control… Ten minutes later, we’ve lost our fresh fruits and vegetables at the douane, but we’re in Chile again. We’re dropped of in Chile Chico, where we camp that night.

The next morning we have a scenic bus trip from Chile Chico to the crossing on the way to Puerto Rio Tranquillo. All the time we drive along the lakeside, on a gravel road with numerous ups and downs. The last km’s to the Puerto we’ve to hitchhike again, but it goes smooth! Only 20 minutes of trying… Luxury.
In the Puerto we immediately pick a boat trip to the Cuevas de Marmol, which we criss cross with the small boat. Especially the boat trip going and back to the caves is pure fun! There is a lot of wind, so the small boat jumps and dances on the waves… Much better than a roller coaster in the theme parks!
That evening we order our bus to Coyhaique for the next morning…