When we envisioned this overland adventure it always centred around Patagonia. For some unconscionable reason this remote coastal mountain range has always lured us. We’re drawn to mountains and ocean, and Patagonia has all of that going on, with extra helpings of volcanos, glaciers, rainforests and waterfalls. Additionally, as a mountaineer, Rob had also been taunted by magazine articles and books about the infamous and forbidding peaks of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, and Torres Del Paine since he was young.
Now, after nearly 2 years of scheming and planning, we were finally rolling off the ferry in the early morning fog into the town of Chaitén. This town was completely evacuated in 2008 due to the eruption of a nearby volcano. It is now rebuilding in hopes of catering to the growing influx of tourists heading down the infamous Carretera Austral into the heart of Patagonia. The Carretera Austral is a road that was built by the dictator Augusto Pinoche in the 1980s to link the remote southern fishing villages and lay solid claim to the remote Austral territory. The road actually begins in Puerto Montt, but because we preferred to first visit the island of Chiloé we would start a few kms south in Chaitén.
After stocking up on extremely expensive gasoline and filling our spare fuel cans, we pushed on through the rain. Despite only sleeping for two hours Rob was feeling rejuvenated by the caffeine and beautiful landscapes that emerged from the fog. Mountains! Waterfalls! Rainforest! Amazing. The roads started paved but (predictably) then turned to rough single lane gravel soon enough. No problem. This is exactly what we built El Cóndor to withstand.
The roads occasionally eased off enough to permit sustainable vibration at 60 km/h. But without warning they would deteriorate into nightmarish washboard and potholes that would require crawling for dozens of kilometres at 20 km/h, or less. If we could maintain an average speed of 45-50 km/h we thought we were doing okay.
The first few days were spent camping beside beautiful mountain lakes and bouncing down more of the famous potholed road. At one camp Rob took the opportunity to bring out “Sparky” our little DJI drone camera. Unfortunately it was not properly calibrated and instantly flew itself into a tree! Luckily the tree was climbable and Rob could carefully retrieve it from the branches 10 meters up. Liam was scared about the whole ordeal, but mostly for the safety of Sparky.
We were really looking forward to stopping at the Puyuhuapi hot springs for a cozy soak in the outdoor pool overlooking the inlet, but we were sadly rebuffed by the $100 entry fee! We all felt extremely disappointed by that, but using a full day worth of budget for a one-hour hot tub session just did not make sense.
Another memorable campsite was an oceanfront pad at the residence of a young family. The family had just caught a load of small fish and the husband was busy cleaning them on a table on the beach. Both Liam and Averie were enthralled by this and sat in silence watching him gut and cut fish after fish. A three ring circus could not have held their attention any better. We got some extra entertainment later when a pack of vultures came to clean up the scraps! The next morning we were sent off by a surprise visit from a pod of dolphins!
One of our “must-see” highlights of the Carretera was Parque Nacional Queulat to view the Ventisquero Colgante glacier. After paying our entry fee we quickly packed the camera bag with some water, a few granola bars and set out for an “easy” 3km hike. You would think that us mountain-savvy Canadians would know how to be prepared for a day hike in the mountains? You’d think we would maybe pack rain coats for a hike in the rain forest? Nope. By the time we reached the amazing scenic viewpoint we were soaked, filthy, and hungry. And then we had to turn a round do it all again in reverse! It’s a good thing the view was spectacular enough to make the whole ordeal worth it. The kids both kept a great attitude despite their soaked clothing and empty stomachs. After changing clothes and gorging on a hot pasta meal in the van, we hit the road again.
Very quickly we noticed the GPS route beginning to look like a wet spaghetti noodle. The road began to climb up the most convoluted set of gravel switchbacks that either of us had ever experienced. Thankfully we did not encounter any other vehicles on the tight turns until we reached the crest of the pass. Down the other side we were stopped in our tracks by a huge majestic waterfall. It’s name; Salto El Cóndor. Perfect!
Eventually the rainforest gave way to more arid Andean valleys with snow topped mountains. More than once we remarked on its similarities to the Kananaskis area near our home. We dropped down the valley into the welcoming little city of Coyhaique. We decided to dive into the center of town to have a look, instead of just gassing up at the truck stops on the outskirts. When we reached the Central Park we were delighted to find a weekend craft market and a lively folk dance competition! We watched the dancing while eating some home made chocolates and then attempted (again, fruitlessly) to bargain with a local on the price of some hand knit wool toques. MJ almost came back with a beautiful wool poncho, but somehow restrained herself.
On the way out of town we had to make a sudden stop to watch a mountain bike race on the slopes next to the highway. Liam was more than impressed. He loves biking, but this was the first time he’s personally witnessed what “real” mountain biking is. He has vowed to sign up for mountain biking camp as soon as we get home.
The roads from Coyhaique to Cerro Castillo were delightfully paved but immediately turned to very rough gravel. At the town limit we paused to politely decline a couple of young hitchhikers. We pushed on down the road, which alternated between bad and terrible, with occasional stretches of bearable. Eventually we arrived, shellshocked and dusty, in the town of Puerto Rio Tranquile on the shores of the beautiful blue Lago General Carrera.
This relatively pleasant town exists, as far as we can tell, only to service the tourists who come to see the Catedralls de Marmol (Marble Cathedrals). These are caves along the shore of the lake that have been eroded into the granite by the ceaseless waves. We arranged a boat tour that same evening as we were unsure how long we were planning to stay. We could not find an English speaking tour guide, but luckily we met a nice young tourist from Santiago who could translate fairly well. The Cathedrals were an amazing sight, and well worth the effort to reach. The kids both really enjoyed the bumpy boat ride too.
When we arrived back in our campground we were happy to see the two hitchhikers we left in the dust back in Cerro Castillo setting up their tent. They had eventually paid for a ride on the bus, and had no hard feelings for being turned down. We began to talk and were impressed to learn that they had been vagabonding now for 4 years! They had left their home in Leon France, criss-crossed Europe, India, Asia and now South America. We decided to spend an extra night in Rio Tranquile to enjoy the hot showers, get our laundry done, and obtain our Argentinian Visas. We also learned that the French backpackers were heading the same direction as us so we decided to offer them the two empty seats in El Cóndor.
Day seven would be our final day on the Carretera Austral proper. We loaded our new passengers into El Cóndor and turned south once again. The kids were delighted to have some new (and more interesting) travelling companions and proceeded to talk their ears off about unicorns and Star Wars for every waking moment. Both of us were happy to let someone else try to carry those conversations for once. After turning off the Carretera a few kms short of Cochrane (interestingly also the name of a town very close to our home in Canada) we began the climb up and over the Andes towards Argentina.
The scenery was spectacular, to put it mildly. We were also excited to find our first Guanacos! These are a type of Llama like animal (mountain camel?) who apparently thrive in the high Andean plateau. At first we thought we were lucky to spot just a couple. Soon we realized that they are as thick as mosquitoes in Winnipeg, and you could not turn your head without seeing a pack, nor take a step without putting you foot in their fertilizer. We were also excited to spot our first flamingos in a lagoon near our campsite at the top of the pass. And what a campsite it was! The views made it difficult to do anything but gaze in open-mouthed wonderment. We all watched the sunset on the mountains with a cup of wine and a smile, remarking that only a solitary vehicle had passed by on the highway since we had arrived. We had this glorious Andean pass all to ourselves!
The following morning we cruised on some relatively smooth roads down some the east side of the Andes for the first time. We both had some trepidation about our first border crossing. Did we have all the right paperwork? Will they recognize our vehicle insurance? Will they understand our Canadian registration document? Will they mind that we are transporting two French hitchhikers? We were pleasantly surprised to find the border guards at their tiny remote outpost to be very laidback and friendly and we were quickly stamped through the gates into country #2 of our adventure!
Unfortunately, the remaining 75 km of gravel road to bring us to Ruta 40 took over 3 hours of painfully jarring washboard and large rocks! Now we understood why we didn’t see ANY other vehicles using this pass. We actually had to stop at one point to inspect the front suspension and let the shocks cool down. By the time we hit Ruta 40, Rob was ready to workship the inventor of pavement and swear off gravel roads for the rest of the Pan American adventure.
To see more of our journey on the Carretera Austral check out the links below.