Chile: The Carretera Austral

The next few weeks are all about boats, lakes, rivers, the sea …

Chilean Route 7 is more often known as the Carretera Austral – translating as ‘the Southern Way’.  It extends around 1240 km from Puerto Montt in the north, to Villa O’Higgins in the south.  Road construction commenced in 1976 under Pinochet’s regime, intending to link together a series of remote settlements in this sparsely populated region.  Land access has always been difficult due to the terrain – steep mountains, fjords, glaciers and dense forests; and extreme weather conditions.  In the past access generally involved having to cross into Argentina in order to reach parts of southern Chile, a situation that deteriorated with border disputes between the two countries in the 1970s.  The Pinochet dictatorship responded by pushing through this road, using over 10,000 Chilean Army soldiers with considerable loss of life in the process.  The route opened to traffic in 1988, with the final 100 km to the dead end at Villa O’Higgins opened in 2000.

These days the road is widely promoted as the Chilean ‘last frontier’ and romanticised as a pioneer road through the Patagonian wilderness.  This it most definitely is not, at least not in February, when we were amazed to find this ‘back road’ absolutely heaving with everyone from Chilean holidaymakers, many hundreds of hitchhikers, overlanding vehicles, backpackers, motorcyclists, more cycle tourers than we’ve seen the entire trip; and even the odd local vehicle …

Connecting with the route just south of Puerto Montt we bombed along to the first (dual) ferry crossing at Hornopirén.  As we bought our tickets we were told that we needed to find a vehicle to give us a lift for the 10 km section of road that connects the two ferries.  Sadly the other eight cyclists, having superior Spanish language skills and probably greater motivation, secured all available vehicle space.  This left us to time trial between the two ferry ports, so as not to delay the departure of the second ferry.  Arriving pouring sweat to the cheers of assembled passengers and grinning crew we leapt on board, reaching Caleta Gonzales and the edge of Parque Pumalín just on dusk.

Planning & scheming with other cyclists on the first, but far from the last, ferry along the Carretera

Visiting Parque Pumalín was one of the reasons we decided to ride the northern section of the Carretera.  American businessman and philanthropist (the late) Doug Tompkins was the driving force behind the creation of this 400,000 ha nature reserve.  The reserve was gifted to the Chilean state and has recently been declared a National Park.  The Park immediately stood out for the best designed, constructed and maintained infrastructure we’d encountered anywhere in Chile or Argentina.  It was also free to enter, which is pretty rare in the overpriced, overhyped and often poor quality Patagonian experience.  

It’s a very green world along the northern section of the route
Blue skies & sunshine as we pedal through the NP
Hard to imagine fire being a huge threat in such a rain-soaked part of the world …

Volcano Chaitén sprang into life on May 2nd, 2008, spewing ash and pyroclastic flows and forcing the evacuation of the nearby town of Chaitén and other villages.  Volcanic activity scorched forests and caused widespread damage in Chaitén, depositing ash mud up to a metre deep and altering the river course with subsequent flooding.  The Park was closed for several years post-eruption, reopening with a new hiking trail that showcases the volcano crater and blast zone.

A steep hike up Volcano Chaitén in Parque Pumalín
The crater steaming away – taken more seriously since it’s surprise 2008 eruption
A rainy day off in Chaitén – with regular visits to the local bakery
What do you do with all that volcanic debris post-eruption? Build some new park benches of course

We’d been all set for an early start to take a seven hour ferry trip down the coast from Chaitén around a section of closed road following the devastating mudslide at Villa Santa Lucia in December.  Then a couple of Russian cyclists (with a toddler in tow – clearly gluttons for punishment) rolled up, having taken a small launch the length of Lago Yelcho – a pedestrian only alternative to the big car ferry.  With largely traffic-free roads this proved to be a worthy option, rejoining the main route near La Junta.

Waiting for the launch across Lago Yelcho on a gorgeous day
Despite an engine issue that resulted in a mid-lake leap on to another boat, we easily bypassed the road closures
The last launch of the day heads off, while we ride off in search of a lakeside bushcamp …
… hitting the jackpot with this beautiful spot on the beach
Skirting the edge of Villa Santa Maria we pass the little cemetery
And roll into the pretty little village of La Junta
Road crew supervise a huge line-up of vehicles waiting for a temporary ferry service to bypass another landslide
The little ferry only fits eight cars, but bikes? no problem
Switchbacking up a nice section of road south of Puyuhape
Up and over under moody skies
And into the tiny village of Villa Amengual for the night
Rolling up and down …
…past ramshackle little stores
And eyecatching rock formations
Heading out of Villa Cerro Castillo with mountains playing hide ‘n seek in the clouds

Road conditions had been pretty good up until Villa Cerro Castillo.  The route is now mostly sealed to this point with a decent shoulder for cyclists.  Concern about road closures had possibly limited the traffic too, with some vehicles electing to join the route south of the trouble spots.  But bouncing on to the rough dusty road south of Villa Cerro Castillo we were appalled by the heavy traffic (exceeding 50 vehicles an hour at times), speeding past kicking up huge clouds of dust and stones.  We learned quickly that the otherwise appealing little villages were also best avoided – the nightly onslaught of bus-bound backpackers and hitchhikers made for incredibly overcrowded and dismal campgrounds.  Best to ignore any thoughts of wifi and showers and seek out tranquil bushcamps – certainly the Carretera Austral excels in this area with some of the loveliest river and lakeside camping of the entire trip.

Always happy not to have to rely on the local bus service …
Winding from lake to river
Finding a perfect riverside bushcamp for the night
Lots of distractions from the traffic and dust
And Chilean holidaymakers don’t get out of bed early so we have the road mostly to ourselves until mid-morning
Except for the trickle of other two-wheeled travellers – great to cross tracks & share stories
Messages passed down the track …
All the hues – the startling blue of Lago General Carrera
Gates invite exploration …
Closing in on Villa O’Higgins …
Another day, another peaceful campsite
A less welcome tyre repair
Clouds closing in, but we rarely rode in the rain
Cyclists packing up after a cozy night in a bus shelter
The road into Tortel
Formerly a tiny fishing village connected by a series of stairs & boardwalks, Tortel was inundated with tourists
Nautical touches
South of Tortel the road narrowed, traffic dwindled & we found our favourite section of the route …
Never climbing more than a couple of hundred metres above sea level, there’s still a lot of vertical …
Buildings held together by rust
Big landscape, small cyclist
Happiness is a dry, snug little refugio
It’s a gloomy, rain-delayed start, but the mist & clouds create an ethereal landscape …
… as we wind our way to the end of the road at Villa O’Higgins
Villa O’Higgins is immediately appealing …
And we are quickly directed to the village festival with a free asado on the go
Watching gauchos as they await their (usually short-lived) ride on unbroken horses
This guy lasts longer than most …
The skill of the supporting horsemen is obvious as they pluck riders to safety & round up the horses

Despite earlier delays with the ferry service across Lago O’Higgins we secure a booking for the following day.  Eight cyclists line up, waiting for the Harbourmaster to make a call on the weather …

Line-up of trusty steeds awaiting the ferry

With the large, luxurious-looking cruiser out of service with a broken motor we eye up the alternatives.  This one looks solid, if less opulent, but capable of transporting eight bikes, sixteen passengers, gear and crew for the reputedly rough crossing.

This boat looks nice & sturdy …

It’s not until we step on to the boat that we realise that this isn’t it – our transport is the tiny vessel bobbing alongside, completely obscured by the larger boat and looking decidedly unseaworthy.  Sealed into the tiny cabin with dismantled bikes crammed around, we bounce in a semi-submerged fashion through the waves, eventually being safely deposited on the jetty at Candelario Mancillo.  An eclectic bunch of cyclists representing Australia, NZ, Russia, Japan and Colombia ride off – with a notorious border crossing ahead …

Eileen heading up the first climb away from Candelario Mansillo
At Kilometre 1 …
More of those wind-sculpted trees …
And a not unfamiliar sight on this trip
The Chilean section is jeep track & we’re soon on the border …
It’s thatta way …
From here a little bike & hike is required to manoeuvre bike & BOBs
With a few water & mud obstacles along the way
It’s pretty gorgeous actually
And the descent to the lake & the Argentinian Immigration Office begins …
Happy to find that the trailers fit nicely in the huge ruts
And the reward … camping on the edge of Lago del Desierto & waking to sunrise over the Fitzroy Range

Like many cyclists before us we forgo the option of the afternoon ferry, opting instead for a night camping on the edge of the lake.  In the morning we jump on the launch across the lake, arriving just a short spin from El Chalten and the delights of Monte Fitzroy and the north of Los Glaciares National Park.

Until next time …

Rubber side down,

Ed & Gaye

7 comments on “Chile: The Carretera Austral

  1. All too soon my vicarious (Sp?) bike trip,via your postings, will be ending. What a wonderful adventure it has been. I fully expect first word when your adventure will be noted via book? Also a standing invitation to you two is extended for a stopover at our home. Food, libations and cozy room will be at your disposal.

    9Sp?

    1. We dream of your gorgeous home & hospitality! Just a few weeks now until Ushuaia, it still seems a little unreal to be approaching the end of an all-consuming adventure! Still another couple of blogs & some videos to come. Love & appreciate the feedback :)

  2. Finished so soon? Bring back the PEE sign, it’ll be great for our toilet.

    Good one.

    TnT
    Ps I’ve sent you an email. Your landlord insurance is due at the end of March

  3. Really enjoyed that blog post guys. Am typing from an Air BnB bed in Malaga, Spain after a 2 week mini cycle tour. Had 2 weeks holidays from work so popped south to catch some sun rays. It has been such a long, dark, rainy winter in Ireland. Am almost sorry your trip is over. What an achievement. An extraordinary journey. Soooo many memories. Enjoy the time off the bike now back in the real world. Take care, Michelle, xx

    1. Hey there, mmm south of Spain sounds nice … we’re heading into the southern hemisphere winter but Anglesea in winter is definitely warmer than southern Patagonia in early autumn! Hope you had a great trip. Already thinking about the next ride ….

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