The Southern Highway


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South America » Chile » Aisén » Carretera Austral
December 23rd 2013
Published: December 31st 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Chile Chico to Puerto Montt via the Carretera Austral


TOUCHDOWN PATRIOTS!TOUCHDOWN PATRIOTS!TOUCHDOWN PATRIOTS!

New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount scores against the perennially hapless Buffalo Bills. Pats secure the #2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a likely rematch against Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos next month.
In the "cone" of South America, i.e., Chile and Argentina, Chile's Carretera Austral is the Southern Highway attracting backpackers, camper van enthusiasts, motorcyclists, and bicyclists from all over the world. There is actually a small stretch of Chilean highway further south closer to Tierra del Fuego but the Carretera Austral is much more scenic.

I had surprisingly excellent weather during 2+ weeks in Patagonia. But now in the Lakes District, and last week in Chiloé, the weather has taken a turn for the worse - very cloudy, cool, and rainy which is reportedly typical for this region although that's not what I remember from my stop in nearby Pucón in December, 2004. Bummer.

Last blog entry for 2013. ¡Tengan feliz año nuevo, amigos!

And of course... GO PATRIOTS!

US$ ≈ 530 Chilean pesos (CL)

Chile Chico



Almost mandatory stopover if crossing from Los Antiguos, Argentina as the onward transport connections are infrequent. Not a bad place to have to spend the night and Lago General Carrera is very scenic albeit incredibly windy. Also one of the few towns in Patagonia that has an ATM (accepts international cards linked only to MasterCard). Argentine pesos can be exchanged in
CochraneCochraneCochrane

Northern Patagonia Ice Field beyond the hillls.
a few shops at reasonable rates.

Accommodation and food Got dropped off at Kon Aiken close to the main drag where my own room with breakfast, share bathroom, dual station TV, and WiFi ran me CL10,000. Took a dinner of roast cordero (lamb - popular all over Patagonia) for another CL2,000. The hosts are very nice and they were able to arrange a pickup from the minibus to Cochrane. Camping in their yard was also an option but I needed a bed after the not quite so comfortable night bus from El Chaltén to Los Antiguos. There are a few restaurants in town but only 2 were open on a Saturday: the pizzeria and Chilean joint next to it. I walked in to the latter since I was sick of pizza after Argentina (although it was always great there) but the only item on the menu of any value was the menú diario (daily set meal) for CL5,000 which was actually not offered daily, only weekdays which is more or less the norm in Chile. So I settled for a completo (hot dog) with tomato salsa and guacamole for the absurd price of CL2,500. Hot dogs with salsa and
Puerto Río TranquiloPuerto Río TranquiloPuerto Río Tranquilo

Cruising Lago General Carrera, Patagonia, Chile.
guacamole would be a recurring theme in Chile although usually for a more reasonable CL1,000.

Transport Transport Baker leaves at 9:30 am on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday for Cochrane for CL15,000 for the ~4 hour trip with a short pit stop in Puerto Guadal. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday the same company heads to Puerto Río Tranquilo instead, same time, same price. Returns from both destinations same day soon after arriving. Monday there is no service to either town. There is a daily ferry across the lake to Puerto Ibañez from where buses connect to Villa Cerro Castillo or Coyhaique. Infrequent shuttles cross the border (including stops at both checkpoints) to Los Antiguos, Argentina for 30 Argentine pesos or the equivalent in CL.

Cochrane



Strictly functional town that serves primarily as a supply point along the Carretera Austral. There is a bank with currency exchange and another MasterCard only ATM. There is also the last petrol station heading south. Good supermarkets are here too and the bicyclists I met were taking 4 days worth of food to Villa O'Higgins before the crossing into Argentina (currently much more difficult with the indefinite suspension of the ferry across Lago del Desierto). I made the mistake of heading to Cochrane without the intention of heading further south along the Carretera Austral. There is Reserva Nacional Tamango nearby but most of the hiking requires a guide and the entry fee is CL4,000 for that privilege. Getting to and staying in Cochrane chewed up a lot of time. To make matters worse, I tried in vain for 7 hours to hitchhike north to Río Tranquilo which completely wasted a day and left me and my gear covered in grit as the highway is ripio (gravel) in this region. In hindsight I wish I had shot straight for Coyhaique from Chile Chico and that is my recommendation unless Caleta Tortel or Villa O'Higgins are the ultimate destinations.

Accommodation and food Plenty of places to stay in town. Hospedaje and Camping Cochrane is near the Plaza de Armas and costs CL3,000/person/night to pitch a tent on the lawn. The showers are nice and hot but the camp "kitchen" consists of a 2 burner gas stove. The place has a great vibe and is populated mostly with bicyclists. The major downside is the constant cacophony of crowing roosters. It starts getting light around 4 am and doesn't get dark til after 10 pm so these roosters have a lot of time to give a shout out. But I exacted a modicum of revenge by consuming a quarter chicken each night I stayed in Cochrane. Buy them for ~CL1,200 at the small market around the corner from the campground. Decent selection of other foodstuffs there and the bigger supermarket but if coffee is a necessity, buy it before entering Patagonia. Since arriving in Chile all I've seen is Nescafe (almost exclusively), whole bean coffee with nary a machine to grind it, or ground coffee with sugar already added. Woefully underwhelming menú diario at El Fogón for CL5,500 where it's also possible to bed down with share bath, breakfast complete with Nescafe, and WiFi for CL10,000. Very good WiFi at the town library after setting up a free account good for all libraries in Aysén province. Not to shabby...

Transport There are a couple of companies heading north to Coyhaique and intermediate points. One or the other leaves ~8-9 am daily except Monday. Cost to Coyhaique is CL14,000, to Río Tranquilo is CL5,000, and expect any luggage in the boot to be coated with a fine, powdery layer of dirt. There is also an afternoon bus service to Caleta Tortel, maybe daily.

Puerto Río Tranquilo/Villa Cerro Castillo



Either town can be used to break up the 5-6 hour bus ride from Cochrane to Coyhaique but without a car or taking a tour there's not much to see with the exception of the Capillas de Marmól at Río Tranquilo. Villa Cerro Castillo is naturally situated right at the base of Cerro Castillo and there is a long day hike to a lake closer to the mountain. I skipped it because I had every intention of hiking the Cerro Castillo trek after Coyhaique but ended up with much less time than I had previously thought.

Accommodation and food I planned on spending the night in Río Tranquilo because the once/day bus arrived from Cochrane ~11 am and I expected to have to wait for a boat trip to the caves. There is Bellvista campground and a market but the only place serving set meals was Donde Kike (Where is "Kee-kay?") for CL4,000. Would have been better if Kike had still been lost. May not be WiFi in town. In Villa Cerro Castillo I pitched a tent for CL3,000 at La Araucana at the far end of town. The kitchen facilities are still a major work in progress and the hot water has to be heated with a stoked fire but other than that it's OK and the family will help in anyway possible. First morning there were no roosters but one woke me up at 6 am next day which was fine as I was headed early to the highway to catch a lift to Coyhaique. The tourist office can help find a room, maybe for ~CL7,000/person. Dining scene is pretty bleak. La Querenceria has massive steak sandwiches for CL3-4,000 or set lunches for CL6,000 (again nothing special). Restaurant Villarica is expensive but seemingly the only place in town with functioning WiFi. Buying an overpriced hot chocolate for CL1,800 did not help me avoid the evil eye as I surfed the net. Markets, especially the produce, are grim and overpriced.

Transport Buses pass each direction once/day except Mondays during the late morning or early afternoon. Again tried unsuccessfully to thumb north from Río Tranquilo after the boat trip but eventually settled on going with a tour bus that left at 6 pm, arrived in Villa Cerro
Capillas de MarmólCapillas de MarmólCapillas de Marmól

Marble Chapels
Castillo just after 8 pm, and only charged me CL3,000 (or CL5,000 to Coyhaique, also a good price). Regular minivans leave from Cerro Castillo to Coyhaique early in the morning but it's easy to catch a lift heading north at the highway bus shelter.

Capillas de Marmól (Marble Chapels) The tourist information office/bus stop seems to be the staging area for the boat trips to Capillas de Marmól. The boat owners congregate there and latch on to alighting passengers to put a group together on the spot. The boat trip for up to 6 people costs CL30,000 (each additional person CL5,000). The trip is ~1½ hours and the caves are pretty cool but just being out on the lake in the abundant sunshine with the incredible views was very enjoyable.

Coyhaique



Best place in Patagonia to stock up on any necessities: good supermarkets, camping supply stores, petrol, and most importantly banks with the first ATMs accepting VISA cards that I saw coming from the south although the fee for a cash withdrawal by foreign card was a usurious CL3,000. As far as activities around Coyhaique, there is the forest reserve near town but like most places difficult to get there without a car. I mainly used the opportunity here to rest up sans roosters and in a bed after camping for 5 consecutive nights.

Accommodation and food Hospedaje Mundaca is in an area close to the center where there is an abundance of accommodation options. I had my own room, share bath, WiFi, and severely limited kitchen privileges (full use of kitchen in all other hospedajes) for CL7,000/night. It was OK but like most houses in Patagonia it was poorly constructed and every creak and footstep was transmitted throughout the entire dwelling. Eating out was the best in all of Patagonia. There is the oddly named Hakim very close to the hospedaje where a great selection of set lunches was ~CL4,000. When Hakim was closed on Sunday I headed to the Unimarc supermarket where there is a decent cafeteria serving set meals for ~CL3,000. Salmon is delicious, plentiful, and cheap served in Coyhaique.

Transport Regular buses head north to Chaitén and south to Cochrane. Instead, I easily caught a series of 3 rides all the way to Villa Santa Lucia but I regretted not stopping in Puyuhaupi. Navimag and Naviera Austral maintain offices in town if ferry tickets are desired.

Villa Santa Lucia



I had read on several traveler's blogs that this town was best avoided but unfortunately I got stuck there for one night. There is one hospedaje asking a ridiculous CL10,000 for a room or CL8,000 to camp. There is another place to camp for CL2,000 but don't expect to sleep late with the roosters in the same yard. There are also no restaurants in this town and only one of 3 minimarts sold water for the outrageous price of CL1,500 for ½ liter. There were many tourists here even though the town does not seem to want them.

Accommodation and food Not much to add here. Camp at the pink house for CL2,000/person or fork out for a cabaña if there are several to split the cost. No place to eat except whatever is available at the markets. Best to bring all your own food.

Transport Buses to Futaleufú leave at 2:30 and 6:30 pm and for Chaitén at 1:30 pm and early in the morning, both destinations for CL1,000, maybe CL500 for a large bag depending on the driver's arbitrary assessment. Board the buses in town not on the side of the road as several people told me. There is also a bus all the way to Coyhaique originating in Chaitén that passes through, possibly not on Wednesdays.

Futaleufú



Visit here for rafting the famous river or crossing to Argentina. There are 2 sections of the river for rafting: class IV+ which cost CL45,000 for purportedly one hour of rafting according to other tourists I met and a class V section for CL80,00 which was unfortunately not being run when I was there because the water level was too high.

Accommodation and food Many hospedajes and cabañas in the small town. The respective rates seem to hover around CL10,000/person with breakfast and CL45,000/4 people. Some places have WiFi. There was a great take away stand next to the hostel where a plato del día goes for CL3,000 - the lasagne was excellent.

Transport Buses to Chaitén leave at 6:00 am and 12:00 pm for CL2,000. Possible that the transport to Argentina stops only at the Chilean border post. Also service all the way to Puerto Montt several times per week.

Chaitén



Small town all but abandoned after the 2008 eruption of the volcano of the same name. Lots of damage remains and many former inhabitants have yet to return but Chaitén appears to be having a revival. There's good accommodation, several restaurants and markets, and a couple of worthwhile places to visit on public transport. Not to mention it is a major port for the ferries to Puerto Montt and Chiloé.

Accommodation and food The currently unnamed hostel has been the best place I've stayed in Chile. I was the only guest so had my own room with a share bathroom and kitchen use for CL7,000. There's no WiFi (though probably soon) but a PC is available. Really comfortable place run by a great family. Restaurant scene is unremarkable but the markets are pretty well stocked.

Transport Best to buy Naviera Austral ferry tickets on their website (simple registration required), print out the confirmation, then take it to their office when it is not crowded. Paper schedule that I picked up in Coyhaique is woefully inaccurate; the website seems to be correct. I left on the Puerto Montt ferry at 8 pm in a butaca (comfortable seat) and the trip took ~12½ hours. It was really cold in the passenger seating area. Cost
Capillas de MarmólCapillas de MarmólCapillas de Marmól

Oddly textured
was CL16,000, vehicles can be transported for an extra fee, and some boats have schwanky cabins for ~CL30,000/person. Approximately weekly ferries sail to Chiloé with more services in January and February. There is a daily bus to Puerto Montt leaving at 12:00 pm for CL10,000 but it arrives in Puerto Montt around midnight which did not sound appealing. Buses south leave regularly (but maybe not daily) all the way to Coyhaique with all the relevant intermediate stops.

Volcán Chaitén Great hike to the crater rim. Catch the 12 pm Puerto Montt bus to the trailhead for CL1,000; return bus seems to pass around 4:00 pm or you may get lucky as I did and catch a ride back to Chaitén with one of the many construction workers.

Termas Amarillo Difficult to get to without your own transportation but start early if trying to hitch. I cadged a lift from Chaitén to the turnoff, started to walk the 5 km to the pools, and quickly caught a ride. Non-resident entry fee is CL3,700 which would have been fine if all the pools were full. As it was only the main pool had water and the horseflies were out of control as they are in much of the area including the volcano. Heading back to Chaitén, I walked back to the highway and caught the 3 pm minibus from Futaleufú for CL500.


Additional photos below
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Capillas de MarmólCapillas de Marmól
Capillas de Marmól

Profile of a dog
Capillas de MarmólCapillas de Marmól
Capillas de Marmól

Cave in. Thankfully not while we were there.


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