Chile: Carretera Austral
South of the port city of Puerto Montt lies the famed Route 7, also known as the Carretera Austral. Construction of the Southern Highway began in 1976 at the behest of dictator Augosto Pinochet, who wanted to bring the isolated and far-flung communities under his control. Both the border delineation and the relationship with neighboring Argentina have always been a bit murky; importing additional people and supplies into the region was seen as a major show of force. Even today, a quick glance at Google Maps will reveal a dotted border line; some areas remain in a perpetual tug of war between these two neighbors.
The highway is essentially a 770 mile dead-end, terminating abruptly in Villa O’Higgins. There are a few spurs that go west to small seaside settlements plus rough routes that venture east over the border into Argentina. There are plans to connect O’Higgins via an overland route to El Chalten, Argentina’s premier tourist town, but as of this writing (Oct 2018) it can only be done by a long trek via foot or bicycle (and a boat journey).
The farthest south border crossing into Argentina is 250 kms north of OHiggins, at Parque Patagonia. Consequently, we didn’t make it all the way down to the very end; we had a date with the Argentinian town of El Chalten that we needed to keep. We headed east out of Chile on a tiny dirt road, arriving at a border crossing that had more sheep than humans (by a factor of 4). From there is a half a day’s journey on bumpy roads until we met up with Ruta 40, Argentina’s main (dirt) road along the western border.
Also, the term ‘highway’ for the Carretera Austral is a bit of a misnomer, at least by US standards. It alternated between gravel (ripio), pitted dirt, and a some heavenly stretches of pavement.
It is also a road through wild and untrammeled wilderness: massive mountains, glaciers, fjords, and forests. Ten thousand soldiers labored during the construction of this byway; most of it opened to the public in 1988 although it was little more than a two lane dirt track. Portions of the route were not road at all; instead ferries were used to transport people and supplies between communities.
It is, in essence, Patagonia’s Ultimate Road Trip and certainly one of my most favorite drives of our entire PanAmerican Adventure.
Our first day on the road in Puerto Montt happened to be Christmas; which is not an ideal time to stock up on supplies for a week-long road trip into sparsely inhabited territory. We had great hopes for the giant supermarkets in town but they were shuttered tightly; we continued on down the road and hoped that groceries could be had a few days later in Chalten.
Large stretches of the route are by ferry, some of them lasting several hours in length. We’d made reservations online the day before and it was then that we’d learned that a massive landslide in Villa Santa Lucia had killed 15+ people and closed the only road: indefinitely. The Chilean government had set up an overnight ferry as a bypass option but it was unclear if tourist vehicles were being allowed passage. We headed south with trepidation.
From a distance, the fjords kinda look like Alaska! Or Norway.
We entered Parque Nacional Pumalin, one of the Doug and Kris Tompkins creations, after the second ferry of the day. We stopped for lunch and a few short hikes (details in itinerary, at end). The scenery is spectacular and not to be missed. The Tompkins’ have created massive parks in southern Chile and their flagship project is Parque Patagonia, further south. But Pumalin was wild in a way that few places can top; a temperate rain forest teaming with exotic species and plenty of rain. Secretly, I think it was my favorite.
I got one hell of a workout climbing back up the ladder with this 50 lb toddler on my back! In 2008, the nearby Volcán Chaitén erupted after 9,000 years of silence, forcing the evacuation of the nearby town of Chaitén and closing the park for two years. Forests in the blast path were not leveled by lahars, but instead scorched by superheated ash and gasses.
After (thankfully) finding a grocery store in Chaitén that provided a much-need pantry restocking (at astronomical prices), we headed out of town to catch the government-sponsored ferry bypass around the landslide. It was unfortunate timing, as we’d hoped to spend the night at Parque Pumalin but the ferry ticket was only good for that night; we couldn’t risk being stranded for multiple days so far north. We considered ourselves lucky that they let us (a recreational vehicle) on board at all. Priority went to trucks carrying supplies to remote towns and equipment for clearing away the landslide.
The boat was in rough shape. It was evidently originally owned by a Grecian company as all the onboard signage was in Greek and it looked as though it had spent a few too many years plying the Aegean Sea. We parked onboard, popped the top, and settled in for a night aboard. Unfortunately, it was a tough passage. Nobody fell out of their births due to a rocking ship, but I didn’t sleep a wink as we headed south, plowing up the face up each wave and then down the backside. It was similar to our night crossing to Mainland Mexico from Baja; the catastrophic scenes of the Titanic play on repeat through my head all night long. That’s what I get for growing up in the 90s, I suppose!
They dropped us around 5am in the pitch black on a tiny boat ramp. We drove past the sleeping town and began the long drive (plus another ferry!) back to Highway 7.
This ferry was so tiny we had to back on so we could make a quick escape on the other side as the current swung the boat rapidly downstream.
Fortunately, the countryside was in fine form and we enjoyed the drive south despite being a bit bleary-eyed.
Our destination that night was Parque Nacional Queulat, and we arrived into the very tidy campsite in the midst of a torrential downpour. This campground was excellently run; it was also the only campground that we paid for during our time on the Carretera Austral.
Ben and I did a 45 minute hike up to the boat launch; we had hoped to see the famous Queulat Ventisquero Colgante (Hanging Glacier); unfortunately the boat only goes with four people aboard and we waited an hour in the rain for other visitors to arrive before finally conceding defeat. It is possible to hike to the glacier (2.5 hours at a fast clip) but we were soaking wet and in need of sustenance; we headed back to the camper.
The next day the road was filled with beautiful valleys and miles of road work.
We spent Night #4 in the shadow of Cerro Castillo and the Ibanez River. Gorgeous and quiet.
Somehow we missed the marble caverns outside of Puerto Rio Tranquillo. We showed up in town and there was nary a boat in sight. It was also blowing like stink and we have at least two family members that don’t do well with motion sickness. We gassed up and continued on down the road. That is an adventure that will have to wait for another year.
We were hitting Southern Chile in late December – full summer down on the Southern Continent. The wild lupine and roses were in full and glorious bloom.
After a long day of driving we turned off onto the small dirt road to Valle Chacabuco. This is the headquarters of Parque Patagonia, the flagship project of Americans Doug and Kris Tompkins. Mr. Tompkins passed away in 2016 on the nearby Lago General Carrera after a lifetime spent advocating for the environment; Ms. Tompkins continues to lead the charge for preserving vast tracts of wild land in Southern Chile and beyond.
30,000 sheep used to graze in Chacabuco. The Tompkins’ bought the land, removed the fences, and worked to return the valley to its native state.In January 2018, the area was deemed an official National Park by the Chilean government and today, along with nearby preserved lands, measures approximately 640,000 acres.
The park headquarters is gorgeous: wood, stone, and slate roofs with giant black and white photographs of local wildlife adoring the walls. It was was also waaay beyond our budget (a family room during the high season is $800 usd/night). It’s also not every park that has a private plane parked casually on the lawn. Guest? Ms. Tompkins? Government? Who knows.
We had stopped at the lodge to get directions when two male dueling guanacos leapt over the fence and tore through the parking lot, screaming like banshees. One misjudged the landing of a wild leap and did a nosedive (and full roll) down the the hill. And here we thought guanacos were sedate beasts!
The campground was situated on the other side of the river with only a pedestrian bridge so we set up shop in the parking lot and it was here that we experienced our first taste of true Patagonia wind. It. was. wild. We made a quick dinner and then dove into the shelter of the camper.
The next morning we took a short hike before preparing ourselves for the Argentinian border at Paso Robales.
We were worried about this border crossing: it’s 100km on long dirt roads from any town with services or internet and is infrequently staffed. Moreover, we’d read that Argentina requires proof of insurance before entry, a requirement that is typical but is also usually available at the border or nearby. Here, however, it was not available, and there had been a string of overlanders turned around due to improper documentation. We tried to buy it online but couldn’t find insurance that was available for non-Argentinians. It was a catch 22. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
The greeting committee was not very social.
The common border setup for non-chummy neighbors is this:
-You check out of the country that you’re leaving. Get your exit stamp in your passport and then have your TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for your vehicle cancelled.
-You drive through no-man’s land until you reach the border station for the country you’re trying to enter. Get your entry stamp in the passport and then do a new TIP.
Depending on the process, it can be quick (45 minutes) or very, very long (all day. cough, cough BOLIVIA). Checking out of a country is usually easy; it’s getting into a new one that can be difficult. In this case, it took a while, simply because the two border posts were 30 minutes apart and secondly, we were only one of a few vehicles that would pass through that day and we were evidently good company. Success! Argentina was last (new) country* of the big road trip.
Take a look at this sheep; that isn’t wool around its face but the stickiest, sharpest burrs I’ve ever encountered in my life. They went all the way through flip flops and were horrid to pick out of polar fleece. They must have been brutally uncomfortable for an animal lack a means of burr removal.
*To drive all the way to Ushuaia at the tip of the continent, you have to go back into Chile and then once again back into Argentina so we still had a bit of country jumping before the very end of the trip.
Carretera Austral Roadtrip – 7 Days
Route: Puerto Montt (Chile) to El Chalten (Argentina
Kms: Approx. 2000
Stock up on gas and groceries in Puerto Montt
Ferry #1 – La Arena (no reservation needed)
Night #1: Hornopieren Boondock
Ferry #2 – Hornopiren: Reservation needed
Ferry #3 – Caleta Conzolo: Reservation for Hornopiren covers Ferry #3
Activity: Parque Pumalin (DO NOT MISS). Several good hikes in area, including Sendero Los Alerces and Sendero Cascadas Escondidas
Town: Chaiten – fill up on gas and groceries
Night #2/Ferry #4 – Due to the landslide, we had to do an overnight ferry from Chaiten to Port Raúl Marín Balmaceda. The road has reopened; no ferry required.
Ferry #5 – Rio Palena.
Night #3: Queulat National Park
Activity: Lots of good hiking in the area. We tried to see the glacier, but missed out due to fog/rain/non-running boats
Ferry #6 – un-named: road construction required a ferry bypass
Night #4: Cerro Castillo
Activity: Cavernas de Marmol (Marble caverns)
NOTE: Once in Argentina, get gas and visit the ATM in Gobernador Gregores
Night #6: Random Gas Station
Arrive El Chalten!