The adventure is the road – Carretera Austral

23 May

The Carretera Austral is a Chilean region of snow bound mountains, creeping glaciers, stunning fjords and emerald cut rivers. The area was only linked by road to the rest of Chile in the 1980’s which has meant old traditions have remained untouched for years and fiercely independent locals continue to rely on farming for self-sufficiency. The pace is unhurried with locals keen to stop and talk and offer their hospitality. The Carretera Austral, which is also known as the ‘Southern Highway’, stretches 1,200km from Villa O’Higgins in the South to Chaiten in the North, and can be completed with a combination of boat and road travel. There are plenty of activities lining the road for the adventurous traveller but many will find as we did that the real adventure actually lies in the road itself and the experiences it offers. Frequently described as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, it wasn’t difficult for us to understand why this route is swiftly becoming the Holy Grail for so many independent travellers

We started our journey in tiny Chile Chico which has a population of only 4,000 people. Trees lining the streets are laden with juicy fruit thanks to the sunny climate and people pick what they want to eat as they go about their day.

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We camped at Kon Aiken and spent a day exploring the lakeshore and the surrounding mountains.

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Lago General Carrera, which is split between Chile and Argentina, where they call it Lago Buenos Aires, is a massive expanse of water covering 224,000 hectares in the middle of a dramatic Patagonian steppe. Further out in the centre of the lake, where the vast expanse of water is open to the elements, white tips dance on the surface as strong winds stir the lake. We took Mar del Sud’s auto/passenger ferry from Chile Chico to Puerto Ingeniero Ibanez which took 2.5 hours and offered gorgeous panoramas of the lake and surrounding mountains.

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We were recommended an excellent side trip to Puerto Rio Tranquilo where small boat tours visit The Marble Chapel (striking caves of marble). Frustratingly, the water was too rough when we were there so we’ve added this to our list of places to visit next time around. The twisty road leading to Coyhaique was simply stunning. The summit of glacier-bound Cerro Castillo rose out of the valley like a scene from the Lord of the Rings fantasy unfolding before us.

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Below it, the serene valleys were filled with a patchwork of green and yellow fields, shady forests and a network of clear, bubbling rivers. We passed small farms where cowboys rounded up their cattle on horseback and sipped ‘Mate’ (a traditional tea made with herbs and drunk through a straw from a wooden flask) around wood burning stoves.

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Coyhaique is the regional capital and had a ranch town feel about it. With a population of nearly 50,000 Coyhaique felt very busy in contrast to the wilderness around it but we enjoyed a day here wandering around the plaza and watching anglers fly fishing on Rio Simpson hoping to catch a brown or rainbow trout. Not far out of Coyhaique, the paved road finishes and is replaced by a dirt and stone road which threatens to shake the brains out of your head!

Our minibus climbed a steep, twisting road which led through National Park Queulat where tall, steep fjords were capped with glaciers that looked like fingers of ice. Thick tropical-like ferns with gigantic leaves lined the road and small waterfalls trickled down the sheer mountain sides above us. We craned our necks and pressed our faces up against the windows to take in the views.

We passed through Puerto Puyuhuapi which is little more than a cluster of houses clinging to a beautiful inlet. This remote settlement was founded in 1935 by four German immigrants and the neighbourhood still has a very German feel to it with homes clad in wooden fishtails and homely eateries selling freshly baked apple strudel – mmm!!

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La Junta was our next stop. A tiny village where the preferred method of transport appeared to be the horse, and the rodeo located in the centre, was King! We arrived well after dark and initially struggled to find accommodation within our budget out of the small cluster of hotels available but two friendly young lads came to our rescue and after explaining in broken Spanish what we were looking for (a budget campsite or hostel) they promptly led us to see their father who was more than happy for us to sleep in his woodwork shop for a small fee. So far on our trip, we can safely say that this has to be by far the weirdest place we’ve stayed but we were very grateful for his hospitality and we actually enjoyed a very warm and comfortable night’s sleep – albeit at the mercy of any passing window shoppers!

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By the time we’d ‘checked out’ of our shop the following morning at 9.30am (the time they had to open), we’d unfortunately missed the only bus of the day heading North out of La Junta. Not wanting to waste a whole day waiting for the bus, we decided to try hitch-hiking to Futaleufu which was about 150km away. Hitch-hiking is reasonably popular in Chile and we’d already met several travellers who had received lifts without any problems and who’d actually really enjoyed the experience. So…we picked our spot, stuck out our thumbs and grinned hopefully at everyone that passed. As we waited we practiced over and over again what we’d say if anyone eventually stopped. It took 1.5 hours before we got our lift North as many of the drivers were just travelling around locally but we were very grateful when a father and son pulled up in a 4X4 jeep and our basic Spanish earned us a ride!

On the journey we talked about where we were from, where were going and where we had been and with each exchange we were mindful to mention how beautiful Chile was. The driver seemed to think he was in a rally car and raced along the bumpy dirt track, taking corners at speed and almost taking off when he hit a hump in the road. We giggled in the back of the car as we tried to keep in our seats and prevent ourselves from hitting our heads on the roof and we had to keep checking that our bags were still in the open back of the jeep. We were very pleased to finally arrive at our destination, however the shaking sensation took a few minutes to completely disappear!

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Surrounded by striking mountains, frothing rivers and grassy meadows, the stunning village of Futaleufu would certainly be at the top of our list of places to return to. The village is centred around a tree-lined plaza and the wooden clad houses are painted in pretty pastel colours. There’s a small lake at the Eastern edge of the village, a pebble beach where you can bathe your toes in the turquoise waters of river Epsolon and mountain trails to climb for a birdseye view of the area.

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Futaleufu is a heartwarming friendly village – we couldn’t pass by someone in the street without smiles and a greeting and whilst we were sitting in the plaza several locals came by to introduce themselves, to ask where we were from and what we thought of their village. Even when we were out walking in the surrounding countryside we had locals stopping in their cars to ask if we needed a lift – no thumbs required!

The once sleepy backwater has now firmly hit the map due to its world-class rafting on rapids ranging to grade 5+ and whilst we were there we simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try some for ourselves. We hired a local guide and along with two Israeli girls, a guy from Canada and a guy from Chile we hit the white water.

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We rafted a section of the Futaleufu river called ‘Bridge to Bridge’ which took nearly 2 hours and featured some closely packed and technical grade 3 and 4 rapids. Rafting during March meant that the river was quite low however this didn’t detract from the experience. Rafting when the river is high makes it faster however it also provides additional options for taking the rapids whereas when the river is low there are only certain places that the raft can make it through safely and the pressure is on to hit the right spot.

It was a sensational experience and our guide made it very safe but great fun. We still have the cries “Adelante” (our cue to paddle forward), “Atras” (our cue to padel back) and “Mas Rapidamente” (our cue to paddle like a bat out of hell!!) ringing in our ears!!

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The road from Chile Chico to Futaleufu took us 5 days to complete but the memories of our experiences on the Carretera Austral with last a very long time. We always used to think of ‘the road’ as a means of getting from A to B, however we’re quickly learning that here, in Latin America, the road itself can be the adventure – whether its gazing out of the window at the long stretch of road ahead surrounded by a beautiful panorama, standing by the side of the road waiting for a lift, laughing as the road is shaking you out of your seat, or finding suitable accommodation for the night when that section of the road ends.

2 Responses to “The adventure is the road – Carretera Austral”

  1. Pete Lloyd May 23, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    WOW

    • latinchattin May 23, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Pete – that three letter word means a lot! Kate & Dan xx

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