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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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 …
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