My man Alex and I spent nearly 2 months cruising the Carretera Austral (Spanish for Southern Highway), also technically known as Ruta 7 – It’s nearly 800 miles of stunning Chilean Patagonia, and one of the most incredible journeys one can make. I could write a book on the time we spent driving this road, but that’s already been done (and who has the time?) so let me just give you the highlights.
The Carretera runs from Puerto Montt all the way down to Villa O’Higgins, through jungle and forest, over mountains, rivers, and lakes, and even includes 3 ferry rides to tote your car through fjords.
Alex and I had a very disorganized, convoluted journey “planned” out, so piecing it all back together in mind as I write is proving to be a bit difficult. We had first started out on the Carretera on February 15th – perfect end-of-tourism season time to travel in Patagonia. We ended up not making it as far south as we had expected, but instead spent a wonderful month homesteading in Hornopiren and adventuring in Parque Pumalin and Chaiten before looping back north via the mystical island of Chiloe (more on that soon). Due to all of that, we didn’t truly get started on our adventure south on the Carretera until March 21st, when we loaded up Camilla the Galloper with all of the necessities that two people could imagine needing for a month long journey [read: way too much shit] and headed south again.
The first chunk of the Carretera Austral, from Puerto Montt to just south of Lago Yelcho, is all in the Lakes Region – Chile is separated into 15 distinct regions north to south, each with their own variations of terrain, weather, and culture. The Carreterra begins in the southern half of the Los Lagos (Lakes) region, passes through the entire Aisén region, and ends shortly before the southernmost region of Magallanes . I had fallen in love with the Lakes region years ago, with its green pastures and trees, huge lakes, and menacing volcanoes jutting out over the landscapes, but I had never made it farther south than Puerto Montt until this trip. It was then that I learned that the Lakes region should have another internal region named the JUNGLE region. Okay, so maybe rainforest is more appropriate, but I still can’t get over how thick the forests of the southern lakes district really are.
I’ve already verbally drooled over the majestic-ness of these forests in my posts about Hornopiren, Parque Pumalin, and the Alerce forests, so I’ll lay off that, and focus on what we’re hear to talk about today – the road! The Carretera is still very much being developed, and the part that cuts through the rainforests are a fine example of this. Driving down the gravel road almost gives you the sense that a man with a machete is going to be just around the next corner hacking away at the jungle ferns to continue the path. Thankfully, it was a bit more developed than that, and while there were the occasional men with machetes on the side of the road, they did not have to hack out a path for us to get through. Whew.
The road winds along the coast, turning to fresh pavement at the oddest of times, giving our bones a brief reprieve from the rumbling of the gravel. About an hour south of Puerto Montt, there is a small ferry crossing that takes about 30 minutes. It runs all day and night, so no worries about missing it, but if you get there at the wrong time, it may mean quite the long wait. The ferries arrive every 45 minutes, but are relatively small, so depending on the amount of traffic, you could end up waiting for the 2nd or third ferry to come. Grab a cup of coffee and an empanada from the nearby stand and take in the views.
Then you’re back on the road for a few more hours. More gravel-pavement-tiny bridges-gravel, and then it suddenly ends at the bay in Hornopiren. Luckily, as we had been staying in this quant little town for a bit, we were aware of this, and knew that for this one, we should arrange our ferry ride ahead of time. It would be a bit of a bummer to get down to the water only to realize that the ferry was all full, and you would have to wait one, two, or maybe 3 days during high season to get your vehicle aboard.
The ferries (you actually take two, one long one, then drive down a straight road across a peninsula for 11 km, then get on another one) take about 5 hours, and on a clear day is just gorgeous. You pass through fjords, past little green islands that make you think there are leprechauns hiding in them, and ends in the magical Parque Pumalin. The next 70 kilometers or so of road may be the best kept on the whole trip, so enjoy it! Through the park, it is still gravel, but very well maintained thanks to the Tompkin’s foundation, and then from Chaiten to Lago Yelcho is brand-spankin’ new black top pavement. Oh it’s glorious. The first few miles around Lago Yelcho were actually some of the worst road we had been on while heading south, but a few weeks later when we came back north, it was all freshly done!
We took our first detour off the Carretera to head towards the epic Futaleufu. At least we had been told it was epic. During off season, which we were rapidly falling into, it was kind of a dud. We had planned on spending a few days there, but the rafting season was just getting over with, and we had our first taste of having next to zero options to stay (I should note, Alex was on his vacation, and determined to travel at a very particular luxury level – while we had all the equipment to make a very comfortable camp, and there are always hostels available, he was looking for private rooms, queen sized beds, and his very own bathroom…) So we crashed one night in an overpriced, under equipped cabin, and headed back towards the carretera, making a mental note to return to Futa during their high season to really get the feel of the town.
We crossed over to the Aisén region the next day, and immediately knew we were in for a treat. We traded dense jungle for more open spaces, higher mountains, and more glaciers! As it was Holy Thursday, and Easter on the horizon, we knew we needed to bunker down for the weekend, or risk having no food or shelter over the holy weekend in a very Catholic country, so with little to no planning, we ended up in the little town of La Junta. Had we done more research on the area, we probably would have gone another 50 km down the road to Puyuhuapi, which is much more touristy, with more amenities that we love, like restaurants and hot springs.
La Junta treated us just fine – it’s located perfectly in the center of the country, horizontally, with a road conveniently running 70 km west to the ocean, and 70 km east to the mountains. We headed west for one day, enticed by signs for some hot springs, only to find them closed due to lack of heat. No worries, we had ocean to seek out! So we continued all the way to the end of the road, where there was a small two car ferry that crosses a river, and drops you off at a tiny little village called Puerto Raúl Marín Balmaceda. We had no idea what we were getting into, or where we were going, but that’s why we bought a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We fumbled our way through the sandy streets in search of any sign of the ocean and getting all the strange looks from the locals, when we finally came to a small bay. Success! We drove out a small sandy path over some dunes and came to a perfectly deserted little beach, right where the ocean spilled into the bay. Totally. Worth. It. We spent the afternoon relaxing, had a picnic, and our little lake dog realized once again that not all water is created equal – some is veeeeery salty. Then we had our own private dolphin show. I’m not kidding, guys, I think this pod of dolphins was just hanging out by our beach, putting on a show just for us. They would calmly swim down one way past us, and then come flying out of the water just a few yards from shore, chasing each other and playing. It was so cool! Once again, I had to fight the urge to swim out and join them. Hopefully in the next life I’ll come back as a dolphin.
The next day we drove east up to the serene Lago Verde. Our day of adventuring unfortunately got cut short by my back pain flaring up and me needing to go lay flat on the floor for a few hours, but nonetheless it was a beautiful drive!
We spent Easter Sunday hunting for hot springs, and ended up passing on the overly crowded (and overpriced) Termas de Puyuhuapi. Alas, I settled for a hot bath back at the cabin, and our hunt would have to continue another day.
Heading south from La Junta, we went towards the namesake of the region – Puerto Aisén. Maybe it was just because it had the same name of this beautiful region, but I had expected a lot more from this town. Unfortunately, the coolest thing about it was the suspension bridge in the middle of town. Of course, from here is a great place to take some boat tours out to Laguna San Rafael Glacier, but having a small dog with us had to deter us from that one. We spent the day searching for a huge waterfall, but did not succeed. I’m still convinced the road workers we asked sent us in the wrong direction as a joke, but who knows…
So onward we went. We passed through Coihaique, the capital of the region, to make it to Lago General Carrera, one of the most famous sites in Chile. Again, with our total lack of planning, we ended up getting stuck by Cerro Castillo for two hours while we waiting for the road to open – this is one of the wildest parts of driving the Carretera Austral – they are still building it. And to be on a major highway while it is still very much under construction seems like quite the crazy thing to me. I’m sure it is not a thing they would allow in the U.S., but just about anything goes in Chile. Every day from 1:30 pm to 6:30 pm, a large chunk of the highway is shut down for them to do dynamite blasting to make the road actually a road. Then they let the cars pass through while they are still removing the boulders from the path. This was by far the wildest part of the road that we traveled – it was so freshly chopped out of the earth, covered in potholes from all of the machines traveling on it, and extremely tight hairpin curves up and down the mountain. We witnessed one near head on collision and missed a few ourselves – Chilean drivers are overconfident to say the least.
At last we made it safely to Puerto Tranquillo, which is the main little tourist town on the lake, and destination nation for anyone and their grandmother who wants to get into a boat to visit the Catedrales de Marmol. Again, being the beginning of low season, I can only imagine this town is much more happenin’ in the summer months, so we opted to stay at a nicer “resort” around the corner of the lake near Puerto Guadal and take advantage of the solitude and off-season prices.
We stayed by the lake for a few days, taking day trips to go explore. It is obvious why this is the main attraction of the Aisén region – every place you go is just stunning! We spent one morning taking a tour of the Catedrales de Marmol, which are every happy adjective you can find and still not good enough. This place is everything they say and more. Unreal. Just go.
Then we went to explore Valle Exploradores, which is just west of Puerto Tranquillo. The glacier views are absolutely incredible up this road, and there is supposedly a fantastic hike to even better views (again, had to pass that one up due to my back issues. Lame.) Just be careful of the sides of the road. It’s far too easy to pull off to the side and then end up almost sideways!
We made the decision to push all the way south to the end of the road and then take our time heading back north to the lake, where the “plan” was to cross over to Argentina at Chile Chico (the border crossing by Lake Carrera). This was about 400 kilometers of gorgeous open road, passing by Parque Patagonia, which is another of Doug Tompkins’ parks, all of which we wanted more time to leisurely explore before crossing the border, but we wanted to make our goal of making it to the end of the Carretera first. Welp, this is why we don’t make plans.
We made it to the end of the road, which in Camilla the Galloper’s defense, was all we really asked her to do. We drove all the way to Puerto Yungay, where we took the final ferry to cross to Rio Bravo, and drove the last 90 kilometers of the Carretera Austral to make it to Villa O’Higgins. Then Camilla decided to make the strangest noises we had heard yet. We did a brief tour of Villa, and asked as many locals as we could find if there was a mechanic in town. Negative, ghostrider, but there was one fella who “knows about cars, and he lives in the 4th blue house down the second road, and his daughter’s name is Carolina”, or something to that effect. Right. That fella was not home. So we decided to risk going back the 90 kilometers to the hill above the ferry launch in order to push start Camilla in the morning, get on the ferry, and hope to jesús that we could make it back to Cochrane, which was the nearest thing even remotely called a town.
We made it seven kilometers.
Joke’s on us – we had only asked Camilla to make it to Villa, we never specified that she had to make it back north! So, those “plans” we made? Out the door. I got Alex to actually camp for once on this trip though, so that was a plus. I must say, there are much worse places to break down then in Patagonia next to a river with a backdrop of glacial covered mountains.
Reflecting back on this part of the trip, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The next few days after we broke down proved to be one of the most beautiful testaments to the kindness of humans, and I am so grateful for having experienced it. Here’s how it went down:
We camped the night 7 km out of town, and walked in the next morning to start our search again for some sort of help. We started with the carabineros (police), because why not? They are supposed to be there to help the people, right? Ha. It was pathetic how useless they were. I couldn’t even get them to answer me when I asked what they would do with our car if we just abandoned it on the side of the road, but I could imagine the possibilities… Anyhow, we continued walking about the small town, asking anyone we found if they knew of a mechanic or a tow truck or even a place to get wifi (Alex’s phone, which was supposed to have service the entire trip, feeding off of local Chilean cell phone towers, decided that it did not want to work anymore, just about the same time as the car broke down. Go figure.).
No luck, until finally we found the kindest gentleman, Daniel, at the Robinson Crusoe lodge who became our first saving grace in this whole fiasco. Daniel, if you ever see this, eres la raja! He patiently listened to our woes, and then began making phone calls. He probably called 5 different people around town to get the information we needed, found us a place to stay, and set us up to meet our next saving grace, a man with a truck and a nickname Tiddy.
Apparently when you live in southern Patagonia, with only one road leading into your town, you rely on folks like Tiddy quite a lot. Tiddy drives a box truck up and down the carretera every week, multiple times a week, bringing fresh supplies in to the desolate end of the road. We happened to find Tiddy just two days before he was due to head back north for another supply run, meaning that his box truck would be heading out of town with an empty load. Now, if I were him, I am not sure that I would have even agreed to let two gringos, their little dog, and their giant broken jeep pile into my box truck for a two day drive, let alone all of the extra effort he made to get us in it, but as it turns out, Tiddy is a very kind human. Thank goodness for that.
The next 35 hours consisted of many more overly kind humans helping us get ready for this adventure back north, ending eventually in this scenario:
It may be hard to tell, but that is our Cami, driving up a dirt mound, onto the bed of a box truck, which is backed in to a hole in front of the dirt mound. I guess loading docks aren’t a thing at the end of the road either. This process was an adventure in itself, we got stuck on top of the mound once, had to have another kind human pull us out with his truck, and then almost broke the whole rear bumper off of the box truck finally loading on.
At last, we were set. We settled in for the night, and woke early to start heading back north. We spent 8 hours the both days bouncing around in the in the truck cab, Tiddy, myself, Zola pup, and Alex. Nice and cozy. We made it back to Coyahique, were Tiddy dropped us off at a trusty mechanic. He fixed Cami up, but we no longer felt confident in her ability to romp around as needed, so we took a few short days to drive straight back north to Puerto Varas, and sold her off to someone who hopefully is having better luck with her than we are…
And there ends our Carretera Austral adventure. It truly is a magical place, and one of the most epic roads to travel, whether by car, bike, foot, or horse! Just always plan for the unexpected, and remember that there is kindness everywhere, especially when you need it most.