The Carretera Austral-Part 1
The Carretera Austral is a true overlanders dream; over 1200 kilometers (over 700 miles) of dirt road running through Chile’s southern region, where the land breaks off into hundreds of fjords and tiny islands, connecting Chile’s remotest region with the north. I read somewhere that the idea of the Carretera Austral is as big as the road itself, and I have to agree. The road begins in Puerto Montt and meanders through huge valleys bordered by snow topped mountains, past huge glacial fed turquoise blue rivers and lakes, skirts the northern and southern ice fields, and ends in the remote village of Villa O’Higgins. The road was started in the late 1970’s during the Pinochet regime (and was in fact named after him for a while) and didn’t open to traffic until the mid 80’s, with the last 100km opened in 2000. It isn’t until you actually drive the road and get an appreciation for the vast wilderness that one appreciates what a feat of engineering the road truly is.
While the Austral is considered one continuous highway, several ferry rides are still required to drive it. We hadn’t done very much research on how to actually get there until we arrived in Puerto Montt and realized we where going to have to shell out some money for a ferry ride. So we started looking around. It turns out there are a few different ferries one can take to reach the town of Chaiten, from which the road continues almost 1,000 kilometers south to Puerto Yungay where another ferry (thankfully free of charge) is required to reach the last 100 kms to Villa O’Higgens. In the end we decided to take the cheapest ferry which actually turns out to be a series of 3 ferries and involves driving the entire road from Puerto Montt.
We set out from Puerto Montt skirting around the eastern side of the Reloncavi Sound, took a short ferry hop across an estuary, and arrived in Hornopiren. The scenery reminded us a lot of the the coast back home, with rocky shorelines and lots of sea birds. Passing through the small villages, brightly colored boats were pulled up above the high tide mark making a nice contrast with the grey colors of the ocean.
We found a great little campground just outside of Hornopiren to settle in for the night. The next morning we caught a series of 2 ferries, the first a 4 hour ride through narrow fjords, and the second a short 45 minute hop across a sound to Caleta Gonzalo. The weather had been cloudy and rainy for the last few days, but today the sky cleared and the sun came out, letting us enjoy the spectacular scenery from the ferry. One of the most amazing sites to us, amongst the beautiful white topped mountains, was the amount of water everywhere. I don’t think I’ve seen so many waterfalls in my life!
The last ferry of the day finally let us off in the “town” of Caletta Gonzalo inside the Parque Pumalin, a private conservation park set up by an American. It was getting late in the day so we set out to find a campsite. The park is a pretty interesting story in conservation management and is beautifully maintained with great campgrounds, hiking trails and well signed. Read more about the park here: link.
The following day we started heading south feeling like we were finally beginning the Carretera Austral. In the afternoon we spotted a really nice campground on the shores of a beautiful lake that our guidebook promised offered great fishing opportunities, which immediately drew Luis who has been anticipating his fishing adventures for quite a while now. The campground was probably one of the nicest we’ve seen since leaving the States, with a beautiful rock shelter that had a barbecue built in and stocked with wood, just waiting to grill. The niceness of the place was reflected in the exorbitant price, but the promise of hot showers, grilled meat for dinner and fishing enticed us to stay.
Over the next few days we slowly made our way south, taking a quick detour to the town of Futalefu, enjoying the scenery along the way. The Carretera is one of the remotest places we’ve been, with long stretches of beautiful open country between small towns. We were continuously amazed at the spectacular scenery, with new jagged snow capped mountains, big bright blue rushing rivers, and almost nobody to be seen around every corner.
The dirt road is part of the charm of the Carretera Austral, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But because of our lack of air conditioning, and the rising temperatures which accompanied the sunny days (which we are in no way complaining about ) we ended up driving with the windows down. By the end of the day everything in the truck, including us, was covered in dust. I knew it was bad when a few days in while making coffee in the morning, I picked up the pot for milk, realized it was covered in dust and decided we’d been eating dust all day for days now, what’s a little more?
One of the highlights in the northern section of the highway was our stop at the Parque Nacional Quelat for a small hike to see the ventisquero colgante or hanging glacier. It was a good chance to stretch our legs out a bit, and the view at the end was reward enough.