Carretera Austral

We’ve had some epic road trips already and we have arrived to the start of one more. Dotted with National Parks, the Carretera Austral meanders through ancient forest and follows great rivers, icy lakes and silent fjords from Puerto Montt to a dead end in Villa O’Higgins down South. We will take this “highway” from Cochrane going North for some of Chile’s most beautiful landscapes. But it promises to be a rough ride…

We had hoped to find something to fix our kayak in Cochrane so we could navigate the mighty Rio Baker but alas we only find a dusty old life jacket for a bargain in the local ferreteria. We’ll try our luck later in the first big city on the way. The first stretch of the carretera is a decent dirt road of compacted earth, nothing our van can’t handle. We pick up some hitchhikers – they had been standing there since we drove into town 4 hours earlier – who once lived in the area and they tell us about la Confluencia, a bit further down the road. We follow up on their advice and make a quick stop when we see the sign. The grey Rio Nef flows into the turquoise Rio Baker at a mighty rapid in the biggest river of Chile. We agree with them, definitely worth pulling over and walking for 10 minutes. Our first planned stop is in Puerto Rio Tranquilo the next morning. We come here for a tour to the marble caves on Lago General Carrera, the Chilean name for Lago Buenos Aires. We insist at the booking agency to pay by credit card, but upon arrival that seems to be a “major problem” for the operating company. When they realise that we’re actually willing to walk away if we have to pay cash they concede and let us join them to buy 2 tickets worth of gasoline for the boat. Satisfied by their creativity we hop aboard and head out to the caves. We’re not sure whether it is alcohol, drugs or simply a bit of lunacy that fuels our 2 guides but they sure are making a show out of it – or so they think. They see animals and creatures everywhere in the marble. We are impressed by the whale, seal and the dog but overall find the tour a bit disappointing. The predominant feeling for the both of us in a tour group seems to be annoyance. I guess we’re getting spoiled by the freedom and solitude of our own van.

Back ashore we immediately hit the Carretera again. From here the road is getting really rough as we start 120 km of the worst gravel with potholes everywhere. Normally you can easily avoid most of them by zigzagging across the road at moderate speed. This time, however, we just have to pick the line which we hope will damage the car the least and go for it. Luckily the desolate cloud forest scenery makes up for a lot. We stop to take some pictures and see that the car looks a bit crooked. Walking around it Hannes finds the culprit… a flat tire. This time there is no one with a pocket compressor who we can call so there is little else to do than change to the spare wheel and go even slower! After about 3 hours driving we hit pavement again. Hah… so smooth, so silent, so fast! We’re in Villa Cerro Castillo now, where we would like to do a hike in the National Park tomorrow. An idea that we quickly reconsider after checking out the tourist info and realising that the hike costs 10.000 pesos, or 12 euro, per person. Agreed, trails have to be maintained, but more than 10 euro for a walk?! No thank you, Chile. We decide to immediately drive on and are very happy that we did so. While ascending the switchback road towards the National Park the sun sets the sky aflame again after a grey and rainy day. We take the road through he park hoping to be able to camp somewhere along the way. Dusk is settling fast, so we are driving slow and it’s all eyes on the lookout for the big whiskers. Suddenly Hannes slams the brakes and grabs for his camera. It’s not a puma, but 2 huemul deers that descend from the forest to a river! All over Patagonia there are conservation programs set up for these endangered, native species and finally we get to see some! We’re over-excited, and all but forget that we were trying to spot pumas.

We arrive in Coyhaique the next morning. This regional capital is our hope for fixing the leaking kayak. We settle on a camping and start our quest. Great, DIY chain stores have been invented here already and they are even well-supplied. Hannes glues up the bottom of the boat and we use the drying time for some needed laundry and dishes. It looks like the silicones are holding, so we can finally find a river now, of which there are plenty along the Carretera Austral. Our next stop is Parque Nacional Queulat. Due to bad road conditions and even worse time management we arrive on a beautiful evening after the park has closed. When we return the next morning the weather has turned completely and a drizzle starts falling when we set out on the hike to the glacier viewpoint. Actually the weather gives the green cloud forest a mystical atmosphere and it feels right, as if wet and dripping is how this landscape is supposed to look. The view of the hanging glacier is wonderful. Once in a while a cloud moves in to obscure the view, but a bit of patience always brings it back out. Too bad this didn’t happen in time to actually see the massive ice calving of which we could now only hear the rumbling. Now all we have to do is hope for the weather to turn again. We are close to Rio Palena which we could kayak all the way into a marine reserve around Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda – we will only say that name once – some 70 km downstream. And it does turn, oh boy, did it turn. We set out with the kayak, camping equipment and supplies for 4 days with a pleasant 20 degrees and the coming days our weather app predicts up to 28. On day 1 we navigate about 20 km, including some fun but easy rapids. Still it’s quite exciting in the middle of nowhere with an inflatable kayak. The river is wide and slow, so any obstacle can be seen and avoided from a distance and that’s a comforting thought. Somewhere on the left bank is a road parallel to the river in case we need help, but still, we would not want to be in real trouble with all our sleeping equipment and electronics on board. We’re shivering from the wind and splashes of frigid water by the time we get out of the boat and quickly change into warm clothes before we eat, sleep and repeat.

Our second day starts very scenically and the wind that blew in our face the day before is gone. Stretches of paddling are alternated with floating sessions in the sun. The afternoon wind slowly picks up again, slowing us in our progress, and by 5 in the afternoon we’re exhausted and call it a day. We’re not entirely on schedule anymore but the 2 km of headwinds that we are facing right now is too much. At least this amount of wind chases off most of the horseflies which have been harassing us all afternoon. We have a relaxed evening on a river beach covered from the wind and rest for the final day. This one starts out with a magnificent sunrise over the misty and tranquil river. We jump back in our boat right away to enjoy the windless morning as much as we can. Yesterday’s choppy waters with fierce headwinds are now a mirror that we graciously cut in two with our inflatable banana. But the closer we get to our final destination, the slower we move forward as the river widens and the favorable current all but disappears. With the heat, the horseflies return as well so we spend as much time paddling through the air rather than water. Finally the water splashing on our life jackets turns salty and we reach the secluded Palena Costa protected area. The village is still quite a paddle away – underestimating distances is Hannes’ specialty – but luckily the water of the big lagoon is calm and the tide is helping us. We notice a big bird swimming in the distance and when we come closer we realise it’s a penguin. We’re truly in a marine reserve! But then further up ahead we see something even bigger splashing around. We’re speechless when we see it’s a pack of sea lions hunting right in front of us. We get closer and suddenly their heads almost simultaneously turn in our direction. Curiously they start approaching us until the entire group swarms below and next to the boat to then position themselves behind us, their eyes still fixed on us. They are properly huge, so up close! Stefanie wasn’t already feeling very comfortable anymore from the moment we were navigating in the open bay – there’s little that lives in the deep blue that she likes – but now Hannes is starting to get anxious as well. Knowing that sea lions nibble and bite divers’ wetsuits out of curiosity, we don’t want them to give that a try with our inflatable kayak, not with all our stuff aboard at least. So with pounding heartbeats we paddle towards the rocky shore of the island that we have to circle, just to be near land in case something were to happen to our kayak. Our pursuers quickly loose interest and move away from us, jumping and splashing. We won’t easily forget that encounter! That evening we camp on the beach close to the village on the beach. The horseflies and mosquitoes drive us crazy so we just set up the inner tent and spend the evening watching dolphins and sea lions swimming just meters off shore, as they return to the sea after a day of hunting in the tidal lagoon, and drinking Portuguese sangria – cheap red wine in a box + sprite to take off the edge. Luckily we are sober enough to wake up at midnight to the sound of water very close to our tent. The rising tide is just centimetres away from our feet so we jump out into the mosquitos to pull it further up the beach. The slope of the dune is so steep here that just staying on our mattress is a challenge, but at least our feet are still warm and dry.

After our DIY kayak adventure we’re starting our last stretch of Carretera Austral. The roads are good and we soon reach Chaiten, gateway to Parque Pumalin, where we sleep overlooking Volcan Corcovado. We gather our info about the park and pick out 2 hikes for the day after. The infrastructure seems as impressive as in Parque Patagonia – though a bit older – but unfortunately it is a bit too organised and the only hikes are a few crowded, short trails. First we walk to a dense stand of rare Alerce trees. These age-old, massive hardwoods are a wonder to witness. Amazing how some of these trees were seedlings more than 2 millennia ago. Lastly Hannes hikes up through forest destroyed by a pyroclastic wave to the crater viewpoint of Volcan Chaiten – Erupted in 2008 – but the clouds obscure most of the views so it’s mainly a nice uphill training of 600 height meters. After making it back to the car, the weather really changes for the worst so it is time to take our leave from this great road trip.

The Carretera Austral truly is quite the adventure! We wouldn’t call it a highway, but we wouldn’t skip it either. We trace back our steps for a bit until we can turn off to Futaleufú, where we’ll cross the border to Argentina again in the morning. Miraculously the sky clears entirely by nightfall and we can witness the super blood moon tonight. In complete solitude we watch the spectacle, well worth the sleepless night and a worthy finale for the remote South, the true Patagonia, before heading into Argentina’s favorite – read: busy – holiday destination: Bariloche.

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