The Carretera Austral: the road to nowhere?

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February 29th 2012
Published: February 29th 2012
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As far as the inhabitants of Chile's Aysén Province are concerned, they don't really live in Chile at all. "Acá no es Chile. Es Patagonia.", they say. How very true that statement would turn out to be.

Over four thousand kilometres long, with its capital city more or less slap bang in the middle, with its southern tip within striking distance of Antarctica and its northern one in the rainless desert of the altiplano, nudging Peru, it's no wonder that Chile's more peripheral regions feel, well, rather far-flung.

As a result of Chile's utterly bizarre geography, a crazy beanpole of a country if ever there was one, its provinces are numbered as well as named - from number I in the north to number XII in the case of Magallanes, far in the south. Aysén is number XI - this part of Chile is so far south that even the Castilian word Sur doesn't cut the mustard. This bit of Chile is austral. In other words - proper south.

If our four weeks in Aysén have left us with one impression, it is that this part of Chile feels rather disconnected from the rest of the country. A careful look at a road map of Chile reveals, extraordinarily, that it really is disconnected. There are no uninterrupted road links between Aysén and the rest of Chile: neither with Magallanes (Region XII) to the south, or Los Lagos (Region X) to the north. A combination of maze-like fjords, the world's second largest continental ice field, mountains and volcanos effectively cut off Aysén, island-like, from the rest of the country. To get to this region you have to fly, or sail. Or, of course, pass through Argentina.

A spectacular flight from Punta Arenas, a busy industrial city perched on the Strait of Magellan with Tierra del Fuego on the horizon, lands us in Coyhaique, provincial capital of Aysén and by far its largest city - with all of 45,000 inhabitants. Aysén is about the size of Scotland and Wales combined, and fewer people live there than in, say, Woking. It's one big, empty place.

Our plan is to travel south from Coyhaique as far as the road will take us. Said road is the Carretera Longitudinal Austral. The Carretera Austral wends its way south until ice field and glaciers stop it from going any further. The end of
First day on the Carretera AustralFirst day on the Carretera AustralFirst day on the Carretera Austral

Things are looking good so far...
the road is Villa O'Higgins, almost 600km south (no...really?) of Coyhaique. All in all, the Carretera Austral is a ready-made roadtrip - and we're not about to let the absence of car prevent us from having a go at it.

Surrounded on all sides by snow-capped ranges, Coyhaique is a cute little town (but for many Aiseninos, I suspect, it's the Big Smoke). It's a good place to stock up on supplies because south of here, there ain't all that much... It's got an unusual pentagonal city plan (designed to make visitors get lost) and more demented, wandering, seemingly ownerless dogs than we've ever seen before. Since leaving Coyhaique we've realised this is a recurring theme in Chile - meat for a look at the country's quirks in a later entry, I think.

Our plans for the Carretera Austral don't get off to a good start. Our first stop is due to be Villa Cerro Castillo, a tiny settlement 100km south of Coyhaique tucked beneath some pretty impressive mountains we hope to hike around. Problem is, all buses south out of Coyhaique seem to be fully booked...for the next week. Great! Plan B it is then, before we've even started - the dedo, or finger. Or thumb, to be more precise.

On that front we have significantly better luck. For, the previous night, armed with an old cardboard box and a 50p black marker, we assembled our secret weapon...

Hitch-hiking along the CA is a feasible option chosen by many an impecunious traveller - in fact, many carless locals thumb it around quite happily all the time. Two obstacles, however, stand in our way. Firstly, Chilean vehicles rarely, if ever, go anywhere anything other than full - completely full. Every cubic centimetre is occupied by the driver, his or her extended family, a collection of dogs, fuel drums, sacks of potatoes and all sorts of assorted cargo. Second is a rather more unusual cultural issue. Aside from Castilian, possibly the most widely-heard languages in Patagonia is not English, not French, not German. It is Hebrew - Israeli backpackers visit the area in very large numbers and it very quickly transpires that ayseninos are generally not fans. This is something of a long-standing phenomenon, but has recently taken on more aggressive overtones since an Israeli set fire (by all accounts accidentally but some locals are keen to
Reserva Nacional Cerro CastilloReserva Nacional Cerro CastilloReserva Nacional Cerro Castillo

One of numerous stream crossings
suggest otherwise) to a large swathe of Chile's prime attraction, Torres del Paine National Park. Regardless of the reasons for the animosity (which is startlingly strong at times) hitch-hiking successfully in Chile requires some means of indicating to potential rides that you are not from Israel. Hence the home-made sign saying we are visiting from the UK - Chileans are famously curious about outsiders so hopefully our recycled cardboard box will bring us luck. And so, loaded with supplies for our upcoming hike, we trudge out of Coyhaique on the one road south, set our packs down, put on our best smiles and waited...

For a grand total of five minutes! Alex's karmic interpretation of the rules of hitch-hiking (namely, that by giving lifts to others as we did around Salta we accumulated positive karma we would then be able to spend at a time of our choosing as hitch-hikers ourselves) may indeed have some truth to it. Our karma tank was full enough to get an almost immediate lift out of Coyhaique. Either that or the fact that Alex stood in front (and looks rather prettier than I do). Although our first ride took us only about a fifth of the way to Villa Cerro Castillo, it was quickly followed by two more. We rode into Villa Cerro Castillo in the open back of a lorry barely an hour later than we would have on the public bus - and, of course, about $20,000 richer. Ah yes, in Chile the currency is again the peso, but a much smaller one than in Argentina, about 800 of them to the pound rather than 7 and denoted by the $ symbol, making $20,000 rather less impressive than it looks.

There isn't much to do in Villa Cerro Castillo, a tiny settlement of a few hundred souls huddled in the shadow of hulking Cerro Castillo, a spectacular craggy massif topped with many sharp, rocky spires which give it its name. A hiking trail some 65km long, four days in the walking, skirts around the mountain taking in its array of valleys, torrents, lakes and hanging glaciers. It's a beautiful place, wild and raw with some exceptionally spectacular camping spots - but it's certainly hard work, too. Steep descents over loose scree, interminable scrambles along river beds and climbs up and over snowbound passes see us return to the village exhilarated but very, very tired and very, very dirty (wet-wipes can only achieve so much). A rest day is needed to recover and let blisters heal, which happily coincides with a local rodeo festival. These take place up and down the country (an appropriate expression for Chile!) in January and February - in these isolated parts of Patagonia they bring people from many miles around for a couple of days of eating, drinking and chasing cows around on horseback. Rodeo chileno, as it's called, is not about riding crazed bulls or unbroken horses - rather more weirdly, it involves a pair of mounted gauchos sandwiching a young bull between their horses around a semi-circular arena before slamming the poor creature into giant padded barriers in the corners. Yes, indeed...

The locals are out in force, many dressed up to nines (our hostel ample landlady in a rather shocking red basque), the men in smart gaucho garb typified by short jackets and wide-brimmed, flat-topped hats called boinas. At first the spectacle is bewildering. A judge installed in a box above the ring calls out each pair's scores - "tres puntos bueno!", "cero punto bueno!", "seis puntos bueno!". After a later, detailed explanation by some young Chileans we met along the CA, I am to be honest none the wiser of how points are scored but apparently the skill lies in getting the bull's head and sides to touch the crash-barriers, and in doing so by maneuvering one of the horses' forelegs between the front and back legs of the bull. The scores may have seemed utterly random to us, but the locals evidently knew what was going on, cheering wildly at a "seis puntos" that looked exactly like the "cero punto" - nul points, if you will - one we'd just seen. Mindboggling but a great way to appreciate the fundamental importance of horses and cattle to this far-flung corner of Patagonia. Beer flowed freely and a hut next to the ring was on hand to provide sustenance to the spectators, providing us with our first typically Chilean dish, the churrasco palta: a tasty minute-steak slathered in pureed avocado and sandwiched in a sort of flat bun. Very tasty. After the cow-slamming fun was over the party (consisting mostly of beer-guzzling, I suspect) continued well into the night. We, of course, were safely tucked up in bed ready for our next section of the CA.

The next stop south is a tiny lakeside hamlet, perched on the shore of Lago General Carrera, called Puerto Rio Tranquilo. It is well known locally for boat trips on the lake to unique marble-like rock formations, and seems worth a stop. Problem is, nobody knows when the bus goes there from Villa Cerro Castillo. We asked five people around the village and got - I jest not - five different times. Most people also helpfully added that most buses that pass through the village have come from Coyhaique and are hence already full by the time they get here. Your only hope for a ride south is for enough people to get off at Cerro Castillo. Hardly very positive news. The only alternative is, once again, the dedo. And that is not without its difficulties, even beyond those I mentioned earlier: the prime time for getting a ride is before 7 am. Sleep in any later and all those juicy pickup trucks will be long gone. Great! And so, under steely Patagonian skies and a confidence-sapping drizzle, we settle down to wait again. If it carries on like this it doesn't seem like we'll make it to Villa O'Higgins...

But the karma tank still has juice in it, and within an hour or so (during which time perhaps two other vehicles pass) we're speeding out of Cerro Castillo courtesy of a young Chilean soldier from the next region up visinting Aysén with a friend. South of Cerro Castillo the CA is entirely unpaved, narrow, windy, potholed and treacherous. It makes its way, mile after painstaking mile, through a wonderful landscape of broad rivers, rainforest-covered slopes (Aysén is easily Chile's wettest province, on the receiving end of metres and metres of rain annually) and shadowy peaks shrouded in blankets of cloud. This is Patagonia, all right.

We arrive in Puerto Rio Tranquilo in the wind and rain - most disheartening - but get together with our soldier, his friend and another Chilean couple to charter a little boat to take us out to the Capillas de Mármol, or Chapels of Marble. And miraculously, incredibly, the sun appears and the cloud parts for just long enough. The rock formations are indeed quite extraordinary, islands of white, patterned, marble-like rock perched in the azure waters of the lake like those limestone rocks in Southern Thailand (think "The Man with the Golden Gun"). You'd hardly believe you were in Southern Chile on (what started as) a particularly stinky-weathered day. The freezing waters of the lake reminded us of that fact, not that it prevented our soldier from taking off his clothes and jumping in. Crazy Chileans! And, sure enough, the weather closed in again as we made our way back to the jetty, leaving us back in a wind-battered and thoroughly miserable Puerto Rio Tranquilo. A bus was rumoured (rumour being absolutely the right word - nobody can tell you anything definite here when it comes to transport) to be passing through. A German student couple we waited with had been stuck in town with nothing to do since the previous day, waiting for the mysterious vehicle to appear (it didn't). Fortunately, on this particular day, it did - and even more fortunately enough people got off for us to get on. There would have been no choice otherwise that to wait until the following day - thumbs were out but nobody was stopping. Such is the reality of living and travelling in this part of the world. Time changes. Being in a rush suddenly becomes absurd. Waiting hours, waiting days, for buses that don't come, or thunder past already full, is the new norm. "He who hurries gets nowhere", they say here. We were only just beginning to see how.

And so we hopped ever southwards...

Cochrane - a tiny settlement of 4,000 people which is - incredibly - the largest town between Coyhaique and Punta Arenas, a huge distance.

Caleta Tortel - quite possibly one of the most other-wordly places you can imagine. This far South, the Chilean coastline is one of hundreds of islands separated by thousands of miles of sounds, channels and fjords, a maze of land and water almost completely untouched by human influence. Tortel is perched on the edge of one such fjord, so inconveniently positioned that the road only got here twenty years ago or so. Its position is responsible for the village's utter uniqueness - it has no roads, no cars, no pavements, no streets. To get around Tortel means navigating miles and miles of wooden boardwalks and staircases which connect every single house in the village, hugging steep slopes or built right over the waters of the fjord. It is utterly bizarre. While in Tortel we manage to get together with a group of ten others - an international collection of British, Irish, German, Chilean, American and Peruvian - to charter a small boat to take us on the four-hour journey through the maze of islands and water to the vast Glaciar Jorge Montt, another river of ice spilling out of the Southern Ice Field straight into the waters of the Pacific. The waters of the fjord near the glacier's snout are choked with brilliant blue icebergs, and before heading back to Tortel our nice captain takes the rather bizarre step of fishing out a television-sized block of ice out of the water before stowing it in the hold. At the time we were rather puzzled by this, but he explained it was to use in drinks back in town. Weird but there you go. Several weeks later while browsing the BBC News website, we came upon a rather intriguing story of a man who had been arrested in the Patagonian town of Cochrane (how strange these stories seem when you have been to the places they talk of!) on suspicion of stealing ice from a certain Jorge Montt glacier - in the supposedly protected Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins - in order to sell it to expensive cocktail bars in Santiago, eager to advertise thousand-year-old ice on their drinks menus. The man had been stopped with tonnes of glacier ice in the back of his lorry. We could scarcely believe it. Was our captain that man? Who knows - but we may well have been immediate witnesses to quite possibly one of the most unusual crimes we've heard of. Unbelievable!

Villa O'Higgins - the end of the road. Really, the end of the road. A few mies further south lies the ice field. A place of mountains, glaciers, lakes so isolated that until a few decades ago getting supplies meant riding for many days - if not weeks - to the closest town. Getting to Villa O'Higgins involves taking a vehicle barge across another of those sounds - there is nowhere for the road to go. The CA was only extended this far south in the 1970s. A brass plaque at Puerto Yungay, where the road suddenly stops - literally at the water's edge - only to continue on the other side of the channel, commemorates the construction of this pioneer route into the deep south of Chile. The profile and name engraved in the plaque are familiar: this road was built courtesy of a certain General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

A few days' stay in Villa O'Higgins allowed us to join some of our new-found friends from the criminal-abetting glacier trip to hike up a mountainside to the impressive Glaciar Tigre Sur, yet another huge monster of ice eating its way through solid rock. Not one of our more pleasurable experiences - although the sights at the end of it made it just about worthwhile - the hike saw us get hopelessly lost on the way up and the way down, forcing us to battle through dense undergrowth, climb down rocky precipices and clamber along narrow cliffs we really shouldn't have been clambering along. Lesson of the day - going on hikes with others isn't necessarily a very good idea. A lovely morning spent on horseback completed our stay in this out-of-the-way, llittle-visited corner of Patagonia.

The return leg back to Coyhaique followed a slightly different route, allowing us to visit the beautiful Parque Nacional Jeinimeni near Chile Chico, a small town on the border with Argentina which produces huge quantities of soft fruit for the export market - one of the town's major products is cherries, and we certainly didn't hold back, gobbling several kilos of them over our two-day stay. Another ferry ride, this time across the huge Lago General Carrera, saw us arrive back in Coyhaique nearly four weeks after we'd left it, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with our cardboard sign...

But the CA doesn't start in Coyhaique - far from it. It continues north, much further north, all the way to the port city of Puerto Montt. Feeling brave after our successful jaunt south, striking north seemed like a good idea. Well, it wasn't. An extended spell of torrential rain and a complete absence of reliable bus service ("sometimes the bus comes, sometimes it doesn't") put paid to that idea. Fortunately for us, though, reliable internet has made it to the smallest of Patagonian villages - even if bus timetables haven't - and we were able to book a couple of seats on a flight to Puerto Montt instead. A week of waiting for buses in the rain? Or sixty minutes in the sky? The choice was clear.

Our odyssey from Coyhaique to Villa O'Higgins and back was a genuine eye-opener - a window onto the Patagonian way of life. A place where popping to the neighbouring town might mean six hours in a car. A place where fresh fruit and vegetables are a novelty. Where driving for twelve hours to watch cowboys ride wild horses for the afternoon is a perfectly natural thing to do.

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