Click here to check out our Carreterra Austral photos.
Next stop where snow becomes ice, Parque Nacional Los Glacieres…
Chile is a long long long country, as it thins out towards the most southern tip at Cape Horn the country breaks up into fragments of isolated mountain ranges and icefields separated by spectacular fjords and lakes. This region is almost entirely undeveloped and uninhibited except for small rural towns sparsely scattered along the Carreterra Austral, the long road which travels from Puerto Montt in the Chilean Lake District into the depths of Chilean Patagonia.
The Carreterra Austral is said to be one of the worlds most stunning road trips; people even drive their cars all the way from Europe to experience it, we saw at least 10 European number plates, namely French, while here. The road is best tackled by 4x4 giving access to many off road natural attractions and rarely visited towns. This region is so mountainous that the road turns into a ferry to keep on going at various points. But all good things must come to an end right? The Carreterra stops after 1000km’s in the peaceful little township of Villa O’Higgins. Man isn’t strong enough to penetrate the great southern Icefield of Patagonia; Campo del Hielo Sur, immediately south of O’Higgins is the worlds third largest supply of freshwater, where ancient glaciers seep slowly into deep mountain valleys. This has formed a solid obstacle separating northern Chile and Patagonia from southern Patagonia towards Cape Horn, further isolating the towns along the Carreterra as not many people are too keen to drive hundreds of kilometres down a dead end road.
Unfortunately for us we missed out on a good chunk of the Carreterra Austral deciding instead to jump over to Bariloche in Argentina from the Chilean Lakes District. Before embarking on this trip we had watched a wonderful documentary “180 degrees South” which looked at a man’s journey to Patagonia and his meeting with two American Entrepreneurs who were fighting to save large tracts of land in southern Chile. After doing some research on the topic we found the website for their current project Conservacion Patagonica, which is regenerating a large rural area at the southern end of the Carreterra Austral to form a massive national park; the future Parque Nacional Patagonia. After Bariloche we were eager to set out on a mission to find the new National Park, and explore at least some of the Carreterra, including the Capilla de Marmol, a magnificent example of natural erosion into the Marble rock faces on Lake General Carrera. Feeling a mighty sense of adventure we also wanted to experience reaching the end of the line, where transport stops and the road is no more, the only way forward being a cross border trek from Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten in Argentina
Transport along the Carreterra is intermittent to non-existent the further south you travel, “not even the regular buses are regular” announced the tourist officer in Chile Chico. You may be fortunate enough, if you time your trip well, to make public transport connections, but this is unpredictable so unless you have your own car the best way to travel the Carreterra is to stand on the side of the road, stick your thumb out and hope someone will let you in theirs!
Hitchhiking in Southern Chile is not easy; there is little, and very inconsistent traffic, it involves hours of waiting and plenty of patience. We were told, “the locals understand the difficulty in getting around, they will pick you up, it’s easy”. We were feeling pretty confident in getting a ride out of Chile Chico, a lonely border town on the shore of Lake General Carrera – that was until we saw a bunch of hitch hikers up the road who had been attempting to hitch a ride for quite some time. We spoke with a guy from Israel who was trying to head north and who had been stuck in Chile Chico for three days with a group of fellow hitchers; our attempt suddenly seemed futile. We swapped to plan B and jumped on the daily 4 o’clock ferry north to Puerto Ibanez, slightly off course for us, but after a day of waiting we were ready to keep moving. All the hitchhikers ended up on the ferry – at least we all gave up together.
Our few attempts at hitching along the Carreterra have been surprisingly successful, though have required more patience than either of us are usually willing to give. Our first ride was with a local Engineer, Daniel, who just happened to be dropping off someone at the bus stop when we got off, it happened instantly – almost too easily – and was a really quick ride to the nearby village of Villa Cerro Castillo with the three of us squashed in the front of his ute. Daniel was even kind enough to drive us to the doorstep of a hostel, now that’s service! The following day we knew of a bus that would be leaving at 11:30am from the town so gave hitching a go for an hour, without success, so forked out the $5000 pesos (AUS$10) for the two hour bus ride south. Puerto Tranquilo was certainly the hardest place to hitchhike from, most likely due to the fact it was a Sunday so most Chileans were at home or church. What made the five hour wait even harder was the freezing cold, gloomy, wet weather. We waited and waited for what felt like forever, with the false hope of a bus which was at ”10am”, ”11am”, no ”1pm”, “maybe it will come at 2pm”, not a single local was clear on the answer. Eventually Ronaldo and Silvio, husband and wife from Coyhaiqui on their way to visit family in Cochrane, saved the day and picked us up – only because they probably felt sorry for us, we were beginning to look like drowned rats.
Hitchhiking shorter distance along the Carreterra Austral is certainly easier and having a sign of where you are going helps. Getting the 18km’s between Cochrane and Conservacion Patagonica was less hassle, although we did have to walk a total of 13km’s to and from the drop off point because the only people driving though the park were overcrowded 4x4’s, from France of course. We walked to the very outskirts of town in order to be certain the only people we were flagging down were actually heading where we wanted to go. Elvio was on his way to work in Coyhaiqui and was the first ute to drive past, he thankfully stopped for us and seemed thrilled to have some company, even if it was only for twenty minutes. Hitchhiking is easy for bags too, when we arrived back from our three day hike we discovered Treeny’s day bag had mistakenly gone walkabout on a bus, thankfully it was returned that evening, slightly dusty and hagged.
To be in Patagonia is to live the simple life, where time goes slowly, where the people are relaxed, easy going and friendly, and where one can feel disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the real world. We experience all this in the places we stay, be it a family run campground or Hospadaje. Having the tent has certainly allowed us more options, when a hospadaje is too expensive we head for the camp ground. In Cerro Castillo we landed in a Ranch La Araucaria – home to more horses, sheep and cows than we could count. We were welcomed in with open arms by the owner, who led us straight to the field to lasso some lambs. Little did we know the cute little lamb was tomorrow nights dinner. Treeny didn’t hang around for the assassination, although the skinned, and open carcass on the dining table the following morning was a pleasant reminder of where our meat comes from. Being on this farm was like stepping back in time where cooking involves a wood burning stove, and a hot shower requires putting more wood on the fire and the food comes straight from the field. Refreshing!
A Hospadaje on the other hand is staying in the comforts of a local’s house, which is typically run by an older lady. It’s like staying at a Grandma’s place, with their lace curtains, woollen blankets, and antique furniture decorating the home. In a Hospadaje you share the living space and kitchen with the owner, and they have a few comfortable spare rooms for passers by to sleep. It’s all very friendly and offers a glimpse into the lives of the locals, it’s also extremely affordable. Our favourite Hospadaje so far was in Villa O’Higgins, Hospadaje C.Austral, where the owner Fernando and his gorgeous daughter Fernanda made us feel like we were at home and part of the family. Fernando even put up with our company on a Saturday night trying to decipher our shocking Spanish, this takes plenty of patience.
The friendly people don’t stop at where you stay though. We visited a café in Cochrane for a coffee, when local cowboy Washington Luis Baez Torres rode into town on his horse for a coffee and slice of cake, as you do! We quickly learnt about the history of the town, and Washington’s family - he claims his direct Ancestor is Spaniard Jose Luis Baez Torres who first sailed Torres Strait in northern Australia, hence the name. He was a professor in Sweden for twenty years so took a liking to Treeny upon learning she too studied there, he persisted on testing her Swedish; she failed miserably. And the coincidences just kept on coming, it turned out the lovely café owner Gabriel was a retired Architect, he proceeded to show us his drawings and his prized possession a gigantic plotter (large scale printer) out the back. Washington was so friendly he invited us to his ranch, and even allowed Treeny to be a cowgirl for fifteen minutes as she rode home on his horse.
The weather in Patagonia is as unpredictable as Chilean shop opening hours. We were fortunate enough to have arrived in Puerto Tranquilo as the sun was beginning to burst out of the endless sky of heavy black clouds – although this didn’t last for long. We jumped on this opportunity and boarded a boat to take us to see the Capilla de Marmol. Over many hundreds of years or so the howling wind and splashing water of the lake have slowly eroded the marble cliff faces into a network of caves and undulating formations. The caves are stunning; Iain was in his element, he loves a good rock formation and a bit of erosion. It was incredible to see how powerful wind and water can be.
We weren’t so lucky with the weather the first day we arrived in Conservacion Patagonia. The mission to get there was easier than expected, despite the 7km walk to the headquarters when the heavens decided to open up on us. We finally arrived, and as usual everyone was at lunch, the place was deserted. And then it poured. Thankfully they have shelters in the camp ground where we were able to hide for the day.
The future National Park of Patagonia is beautiful. As the site is still under construction we were the only people there – other than the builders, administration staff, and the volunteers. We tried to organise volunteer work here to help build trails and with regeneration projects, but our arrival was unfortunately too late to be able to contribute. The sun came out for our second day which involved a 20km hike over a high mountain plateau with spectacular views out across the Chacabuco Valley. The place is teeming with wildlife. Iain has become obsessed with Guanaco’s as you will see from the photos. The park will be fully operational by 2015, we can’t wait to return in the future and see the park established and set up for some breath-taking long distance trekking.
Eventually we made it to the end of the line. Villa O’Higgins is an extremely small and relatively new town at the very end of the Carreterra Austral. Nothing really happens here. It’s the quietest town with barely a soul about, and the most interesting vernacular architecture in the most unlikely of places. The town is preparing for incoming traffic, Fernando our hospadaje owner told us they are paving the streets and building up the towns’ infrastructure in preparation for the new road which will connect O’Higgins with Argentina. Sadly, the Carreterra in 2016 will no longer be a dead end road and towns like Villa O’Higgins will become not so sleepy towns anymore.
For now travellers only come this far if they are intending to trek or cycle over the border to Argentina, an exciting way to venture on when you reach the end of the line. The cross border trek involves a Boat, 22km trek, Boat and bus connection to El Chalten in Argentina. With shocking weather we were stuck inside virtually the whole time in O’Higgins, which turned out to be 3 days due to our boat being cancelled.
The boat to begin the cross border expedition finally turned up, one day and three hours late, to navigate across Lake O´Higgins to Candelario Mancilla, which is probably the most isolated border post in South America, the only way in and out being by foot, horse or boat. We were slightly worried doing the 22km trek – after clearing Chilean immigration, we had to carry everything we own, that is over 20kg each of gear. The trek took us up, down and around lakes and mountains to the Argentine border post on Laguna del Desierto. Because of all our gear this was probably the hardest trek we have done. Our luck began to run out as we tried harder and harder to push ourselves faster and faster in order to get the boat at the other end to take us on to El Chalten, Argentina. Once we arrived at the Chile-Argentine border we practically ran the remaining 6km to Laguna del Desierto. We were thoroughly proud of ourselves making it to the wharf with 10minutes to spare only to find out there were no more boats for the day! Thankfully we had our tent Zephyr, with no other way to get across the lake and far too exhausted to walk, we had to spend the night at the Argentine Border post. The location was beautiful with Mount Fitzroy peering out of the clouds in the distance and the lake only a stones throw away. Oh, and did I mention it was still raining?
Our ride across the lake actually arrived on time the following morning and was the most expensive transportation we have paid for to date, costing AUS$52 for a 30minute boat ride, working out to be AUS$104 per hour – even our flights were cheaper than this. We got to the other side where the bus connection to El Chalten was waiting for us and then kicked us off because the driver decided he didn’t have enough space for the two of us. To say we were furious would be an understatement. Four hours of waiting in the rain later we managed to get a lift with a tour group and finally made it to our destination El Chalten.
The cross border trek was a fantastic experience, it really tested our strength and endurance and was a challenge we feel we both accomplished rather successfully. It is definitely not the kind of trip you can do in a hurry, although it could be done in a day, there are so many things that can delay or prolong the trek that it is best to organise spare days before and after just in case things go wrong, like it did for us.
We hope to one day come back to Chilean Patagonia to do the entire Carreterra from beginning to end – wherever that may be, stopping to enjoy the spectacular scenery and explore the northern end which we unfortunately missed out on this trip. Patagonia and the Carreterra, their towns, vistas and people are amazing it was so nice to jump off the tourist trail, slow down and relax the way the locals do.
Click here to check out our Carreterra Austral photos.
Next stop where snow becomes ice, Parque Nacional Los Glacieres…