The town of Coyhaique is located about half way through the Carretera Austral and is also the biggest “city” with a burgeoning population of 50,000. After so long spent on empty roads and surrounding wilderness it was a bit jarring to pull into the main plaza and be surrounded by a bustling downtown. It was however a good place to restock up on groceries and spend a day on the internet checking in with the world again and trying to buy Argentinian insurance which we had forgotten to buy before setting out. After an entire day of going to every insurance agent in town and trying to contact insurance agents in Argentina, we gave up and made up a fake paper to get across the border. The problem for the Chilean agents was that they aren’t set up to insure foreign vehicles so their computer forms won’t accept our license plate (too many numbers and letters) and we don’t have a RUT which is the Chilean equivalent to a social security number. After printing out our nicely faked insurance papers we hit the road south. The second half of the Carretera turned out to be even nicer than the first half if that is even possible. As you go over hills and drop into different valleys the microclimate changes rapidly from lush green temperate rain forrest to dry grasslands with reddish hued rock outcroppings reminiscent of Colorado and Utah, then back to forrest again. Something we noticed along the entire route was the large amount of dead standing trees, marching from the valley floors all the way up the sides of the mountains. They were everywhere and so many of them. We finally asked some locals what it was all about. Apparently back in the late 1800s and early 1900s the government had a system of land handouts to settlers much like the one in the US. The only stipulation was that they had to prove they were using a certain amount of the land by clearing a specified number of hectares of trees. The colonists decided that burning was the most efficient means of accomplishing this. Due to this initiative almost the entire area was burned, with the fires going out of control and burning almost everything. Even after all this time, the dead trees are still standing.
We soon got into a routine of starting out for the day in late morning driving for a few hours, then finding a nice spot off the road somewhere to cook lunch and relax for a while before setting out for a few more miles before finding a campsite for the night. The great thing about being this far south in the summer is the long days. The sun doesn’t set until around 10:00, which gives plenty of time for taking it slow and getting some hikes in.
In the town of Rio Tranquilo along side the spectacularly colored Lago General Carrera, we took a side road along the Rio Exploradores on the advice of another overlander (FromAtoB.org). It was one of the nicest drives along the way. We found pullouts all along the road to great little free camping sites right on the river. Unfortunately we had left our tent set up at a campground in town so had to content ourselves with stopping for a few hours to enjoy lunch and some fishing (for Luis). Probably the only bad thing that I can think of for the entire stretch of the austral is the presence of tabanos, oversized horse flies that constantly buzz around you taking bites out of your flesh whenever given the chance. They proved to be spectacular little buggers in that even after slapping them off you and thinking them squished and taken care of, they pick themselves up and fly back for another taste. They really are hard to kill! In this particular stretch they were even worse in numbers, if that is even possible, and eventually we had to head out or be driven mad by their buzzing and biting.
The next morning we got up bright and early and made our way down to the lake for a boat trip to the Capillas de Marmol (Marble Chapels). A small portion of the shoreline around the lake consists of marble that has been hollowed out by the water from the lake into caves and arches with beautiful striations of color, dipping into the impossibly turquoise of the lake. We were lucky enough to have gone early and had the whole place to ourselves.
A little further down the road, we went searching for a campsite recommended to us by our friends LIfe Remotely, on the Rio Nadiz. As we were following the narrow dirt road in, we came to a bridge crossing the fast flowing river and thought for a moment that our friends had been messing with us. It was a suspension bridge and looked too small to accommodate vehicles. There was a sign saying a maximum weight limit of 6,000 kilos. We did some quick calculations in our head, then I got out to spot the truck to see if we could even fit on the bridge. It turned out we did, just barely. As we started to cross, the bridge started moving up and down from the weight of the truck. I had visions of cables snapping off and us and the Landcruiser crashing into the raging river below and was soon running across the bridge. It turned out the sketchy bridge was worth it, as the campsite, located on a German/Chilean couples property was amazing. Set in a narrow valley along side the river, it was pure relaxation. We expected to just stay the night and leave the following day, but ended up staying another day to relax and enjoy the place.
When we finally arrived in Villa O’Higgins, the end of the road, we were itching to get up close and personal with a glacier. We had been seeing them from a distance practically the entire drive on the Austral, but hadn’t gotten as close as we would’ve liked. Some friends we had met had taken a boat from Villa O’Higgins to the O’Higgins glacier, and had good things to say, so we hopped on the over priced boat and headed out. The ride started out on a beautiful sunny day crossing the calm lake and we sat up top and enjoyed the sun and views. By the time we started getting close to the glacier the sun was still shining, but an icy wind had picked up to such an extent that the boat was getting tossed around and it was hard to stand up on top. We did manage to get up close to the glacier and were rewarded with spectacular views and a whiskey with glacial ice to help warm us up. I think it is probably a miracle we came back with both cameras, as my hands were so frozen I almost dropped mine over board at least a dozen times .
Villa O’Higgins is the end of the road for the Carretera Austral and it is literally a dead end. There is no way to cross to Argentina and no way to keep going south. We had actually found out there is a road that goes from the village to Argentina, and there are even customs officials there, but the road on the Argentina side is interrupted by a river with no bridge. At this time of year due to snow melt the rivers are running at their highest point and after making some inquiries we were told the river was about a meter and a half (about 5 feet) deep and running fast. During the winter we were told you can cross by vehicle with no problem, but that was a little too much water for us, so we turned back and headed north back to Cochrane.
Just before we were about to hit the road that would take us to the Argentina border we ran into our friends Logan, Reid and their dog Zephyr of American Recess, who decided to join us. We stopped along the way at the new headquarters of the Parque Patagonia, another private park in progress started by a former CEO of Patagonia, the outdoor gear company. It was interesting talking to the supervisor of the park about their future plans. The campground for the park doesn’t allow vehicles at the campsites, but he let us camp alongside a lake up the road for free. We spent a great afternoon hanging out with Logan and Reed, and they even let us try out their stand up paddle board on the lake. We just might have found our next sport. The next morning we woke to the sounds of a lot of hooves hitting the ground. At first I was a little disoriented and thought we were in the middle of a stampede. Soon we heard some very weird sounds, part horse whinny part something else enitrely. I finally peeked my head out the tent and realized we were surrounded by a herd of Guanaco, a distant south american cousin of the camel, who were grazing all around us. It was a pretty cool start to our morning and a great good bye to the Carretera Austral.
The entire stretch of the Carretera Austral encompassed some of the most beautiful areas we have traveled through on our little adventure. A huge part of the charm of the area is the remoteness and lack of development, allowing you to appreciate nature at its finest. Unfortunately, the area has a very uncertain future as the marching steps of development are looming. The government has plans to pave the entire stretch of the carretera within the next five years; already there is about 200-300 kilometers completed. From what we have seen as far as the speed of work goes down here, it will be longer than 5 years, but eventually people will be able to drive from one end to the other on smooth asphalt roads. This is sure to open up the area to more development as more people have access. We sincerely hope that development is done in a thoughtful way so as to protect the beautiful natural areas. The other big threat to the area right now is that a few foreign companies who own all of the water rights in the region want to put in large dams on the main rivers, flooding a good part of the area, in order to create electricity that they will then sell back to the country for profit. There is huge resistance to the dams by a good portion of the residents of the area. Almost everybody we talked to was very much against the dams, as their homes and livelihoods are at stake. There are even numerous billboards speaking against them and almost everywhere you go cars and houses are sporting Patagonia Chilena Sin Repressas stickers. Last year the area was the site of big protests and blockades by people speaking out against the dams and trying to bring attention to the matter. At one of our favorite campgrounds on the carreterra and indeed almost the whole trip, the owners had some very good literature and posters showing the extent of what will happen if the dams are allowed to go through. These people’s land, which had been in the family for generations would sit 20 meters (almost 60 feet) under water at the bottom of a lake if the dams are allowed to go through. After our 3 weeks in this amazing area, we can only agree wholeheartedly with the people of this area. These dams would mean the loss of one of the most spectacular natural areas we’ve seen, all for the profit of a few foreign companies. If the pictures above weren’t enough to convince you of the beauty of the area here’s a few more. Patagonia Chilena Sin Represas!