The Carretera Austral

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February 6th 2010
Published: March 9th 2010
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The Carretera Austral runs for over 1200 kms from Puerto Montt southwards through Chilean Patagonia along the Pacific edge of the country. In order to see the island of Chiloe as well, we had decided to miss the northern section of the Carretera and cross from Chiloe to Chaiten, further down.

We arrived at the ferry port at 10.30pm in plenty of time for sailing at midnight. After a long sit in the car - it was far too cold and windy to get out; we all finally drove onto the ferry, the Don Baldo, with the final unlucky drivers having to reverse their cars up the ramp. The ferry would sail overnight, due in Chaiten back on the mainland at 6am.

Having booked only a few days before, there were no cabins available, so we had allocated seats in cattle class, and we went off to find our seats. We settled ourselves down and tried our best to get some sleep. We slept surprisingly well and barely noticed the journey. Around 6.30, Sarah got up to venture upstairs and outside to the bathrooms. The view was beautiful, with the moon still out above the port and the sun rising over the bay in front of us as we left the port - same port! We had slept all night squashed in uncomfortable seats in a boat full of people - IN PORT! (If we’d known, we could have pitched our tent on the beach.)

After having a chat to the captain in the bridge and looking over the charts with him and checking out all the instruments and GPS, we were reassured that the trip across to Chaiten would only take 4 hours, so we’d be there by 10am. It was a very calm crossing and as we neared the coast of the mainland, the views were spectacular; of steep wooded shores, up to the snow-covered hills and volcanoes trailing into the distance.

Chaiten is a very small port, and a town devastated by the reuption of Volcan Chaiten in 2008 (only a small hill at 1,000m, no-one had previously known that it was a volcano.) The town was covered in ash andwas evacuated and it is still largely uninhabited. We understood the delay in sailing when we were within 100m of the dock. There wasn’t enough water depth for the boat to dock, so we waited until the tide came in enough.

Finally we were off the boat and on the road, the great Carretera Austral. We’d heard so much about it - one of the world’s great road trips, stunning scenery of wooded hills, snow capped peaks, turquoise blue rivers and hanging glaciers. We had calculated it would be worth the ripio for a few hundred kilometres to work our way south.

On our first day we didn’t have far to go. We drove past beautiful lakes and crossed wide and sparkling rivers in the sunshine until we arrived at Camping Ventisquero Yelcho. (Ventisquero means glacier). We pitched our tent in the sunshine on the edge of the woods by an ice-cold milky-turquoise glacial river and had a slap up lunch of scrambled egg and some strange beans. After lunch, we walked up through the damp rainforest to see the spectacular views of the glacier hanging silently above.

We had a peaceful night’s camping, but it was probably the first really cold night we’ve had and we woke to rain and low cloud hanging over all the hills. So much for the scenery….Fortunately, Steve had started constructing the prototype rain shelter the previous afternoon, with the supplies which we had bought before we left the island of Chiloe, so breakfast was cooked and eaten under the shelter. We packed upand headed off as planned to a nation park area down the road where we had planned to spend a couple of nights, enabling us to trek right up to another, more spectacular hanging glacier the following day.

As we drove that day, however, the cloud and drizzle stayed and we must have missed most of the spectacular views. We could only imagine the hills that were beyond our immediate valley. We arrived at Parque Nacional Queuelat just as the rain really set in for the day and found ourselves pitching tent in what felt like the darkest, dampest and dankest corner of the woods. Fortunately there was a picnic table under a roofed area and we got a fire going for warmth. A steaming hot bowl of lentil stew and rice warmed the cockles. It was about 5 degrees that night and it didn’t stop raining. We started to be very appreciative of all our good Gore-Tex gear and we slept in our bivvy bags for the first time - cosy!

We awoke the following morning to find that it was still raining and the low cloud was still obscuring any views there would have been. We wondered whether to hike up to the glacier anyway, but realised that we would see nothing and so decided to gain ourselves another day and move on in the hope that the weather might improve. The national park showers looked pretty awful and although the park ghuards had said there was ‘agua caliente’ it was really slightly off-polar, so we decided to skip showers and head back a few kms on the road to where we had seen a roadside hot baths. We were the only two crazy people sitting in hot baths in the rain on a Monday morning! Even in the rain, we could see that their lakeside setting was pretty spectacular.

Clean and warm again, we drove on south to the first major town we had come across on the Carretera - Coihaique. We found a great campsite just outside town and having pitched in almost sunshine, we left the tent drying out and headed for the supermarket. We had a great bbq’d steak for dinner that night and although it was cold, it didn’t rain.

We awoke to an almost sunny day, packed up the tent, picked up food supplies at the supermarket and headed off. This time we headed west to take a circuit around Lago General Carrera for the views. It was another cloudy and slightly drizzly day, and the road was steep and windy and very poor quality in places, but between the clouds and drizzle, we started to see some of the scenery, until we were rewarded with glimpses of the turquoise blue lake. We found a recommended campsite on the lakeshore and pitched out tent in the rain again. Another night for dinner under the rain shelter and sleeping in bivvi bags.

The next day was sunny, but incredibly windy, with white horses being whipped up across the lake. We drove around the remaining western and southern part of the lake, with spectacular views all round the lake of turquoise waters and snowy peaks, with fresh snow even on the low hills around us. We made it to Chile Chico, which is the border town with Argentina and where the lake becomes Lago Buenos Aires.

We made our first sucessful border crossing (we only had to drive 14km back once because we’d missed Chilean customs) and arrived in Los Antiguos, wondering if the steak in Argentina was as good as we’d remembered. Our first night in an Argentine campsite, the Municipal site - we’ll be avoiding them in future!

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