Carretera Austral ~ What We Have Learned

24 March – 28 March, 2018

Ruta (Route) 7, aka the Carretera Austral, is the only highway that runs through the northern section of Chilean Patagonia. Part of the Aisén region, starting in the Lakes District in Puerto Montt and ending 770 miles south at Villa O’Higgins, it is the least populated region of Chile, with only about 100,000 inhabitants scattered throughout its towns and villages. We had read that it is a natural wonderland of islands, mountains, fjords, lakes, and forests, crossing many protected natural areas, so of course we wanted to visit. We envisioned renting a car or “Wicked Van” in Puerto Montt and traveling leisurely at our own pace, stopping when Mother Nature’s wonders called to us.

After reading some less than flattering reviews of the condition of the Wicked Vans and calculating the cost of renting a car for 6 weeks, we scratched both of those options. Since we were traveling in the shoulder season, if we had van problems, who knew how long before another vehicle came along to assist us. Also, the drop-off fee for a rental car, if not returning it to the place you rented it, was at least as much as the total rental fee…wow! Our next option was to take buses through some stretches and rent a car for shorter periods in others.

Balmy day along Lago General Carrera

Our two-day stop in Chile Chico was relaxing and the apartment we rented right next to the ferry, which we would be taking into the interior of Chile and part of the Carretera Austral. Walking the quaint little town and enjoying happy hour from our living room, looking out onto Lago General Carrera, was a nice little respite.

Departure day to Puerto Ibanez was sunny but chilly, and very windy, not surprising for Patagonia. It was so windy that whenever I stood on deck for photos I had to wrap my arm around the rail to stay upright. The wind never ceases to amaze me here.

After a 2.5-hour lake ride, we hopped into a van and were whisked away to Coyhaique, a city where we had hoped to rent a car and spend a few days exploring. The weather forecast was nothing but rain for the next several days, so time to go to Plan C or D, as we didn’t want to be traversing mud-slick roads in a remote part of Chile, particularly because this is what we had read about the Carretera Austral:

“While this may be one of the continent’s loveliest roads – there’s no bad scenery – it’s still one of the most hazardous. Paved segments are steadily increasing, but blind curves in dense forests and sheer mountains, narrow segments with steeply sloping shoulders, and frequent loose gravel all require drivers to pay the closest attention to avoid head-on collisions, rollovers, and other accidents.”

 Coyhaique is a city of roughly 50,000, nothing remarkable and felt a bit gritty and run-down, so we were glad we were only doing an overnight here. The next morning, bright and early, we hopped a bus to Chaiten, and some of the rainiest weather we had experienced yet. We agreed that letting someone else maneuver these winding, mud-slick roads was best.

Queulat National Park

For someone who loves to be out in nature taking photos, this was a lesson in patience for me, as we traveled through Queulat National Park, known for its waterfalls and hanging glaciers, and I had to be content with watching the scenery move by through rain-splattered windows. The vegetation was changing from windswept steppe to something resembling a Costa Rican cloud forest, with elephant-ear foliage, broad-leaf ferns, and lichen clinging to everything.

The bus dropped us in Chaiten, a sleepy little town, where we had two days to decompress. We enjoyed getting to know Frederico, the proprietor at our hotel. He had spent time with the World Gymnastics Organization in Moscow in 1972 and 1973 and had lived and worked with Olympic hopeful gymnasts for 6 years in California, in Temecula of all places, very near where we now live. Frederico generously offered us a lift to the bus station the day of our departure.

Some sights we missed due to weather:

What we have learned…

  • Patience is an absolute must when traveling in Patagonia.
  • Weather is consistently unpredictable. Expect rain and high winds.
  • Transportation is also unpredictable, probably more so when you leave the busy season behind. Buses that ran several times per week may only run once a week, or no longer run for the season. If you don’t want to be stranded in a small village for a week, you may have to go to Plan B.
  • Always have a Plan B, C, and D.
  • If the weather forecast is promising, having your own vehicle is probably the best approach, although not the least expensive. If we did this trip again we would probably rent a car and focus on the Carretera Austral for 6-8 weeks, bringing a tent along when we couldn’t find accommodations in some of the smaller villages.

Even with all the twists and turns, Patagonia is magical.  Lots of adventures to come, so please check back. 🙂

No Man’s Land ~ Argentina or Chile

24 March, 2018

This post could have just as easily been entitled “Are We Nuts?” 

One of the biggest challenges when doing your own planning for a trip to Patagonia is connecting all the transportation dots. Given its remoteness, this is not a task to take on lightly. Even during peak season, bus and ferry schedules can be a bit sketchy in the interior of Chile, but move into the shoulder season and it is anyone’s guess if the bus or ferry lines run on time, if there is a bus or boat running more than once a week, or if there will be one available at all when you arrive at your destination. Since we both wanted to venture into the interior and travel some of the infamous Carretera Austral, it was particularly important to connect the dots so as not to get stranded. Complicating this matter is that you can literally read through countless websites and forums and get conflicting information.

Planes, trains, automobiles, and boats is Terry’s specialty when planning our trips. He will tell you I don’t know which way is up most days so he just refuses to relinquish this part of the duty. I am relegated to accommodations and activities, which frankly I think is a lot more fun to plan anyway.

While doing some research during a very windy, rainy day in El Calafate (have I said how wild the Patagonian weather can be?), Terry got a somewhat panicked look on his face. Upon reading yet another website, it appeared there was no public transportation available from Los Antiguos, Argentina to Chile Chico, Chile.  Los Antiguos is a remote border crossing so it seems the only way to move from one country to another is on foot or putting out your thumb. We had often read that hitchhiking is commonplace in Patagonia, but I had said this wasn’t something I wanted to do. Seems I was about to reconsider that decision.

But I digress for a moment…

While planning our trip, we packed no less than three separate times, using various bags, whenever our route changed. Since we weren’t able to book the refugios we wanted in Torres del Paine National Park, I set aside my backpack, opting for a roomier bag that still allowed for shoulder straps, although not near as comfortable as one’s own fitted backpack. One of our travel rules has been that if one of us wants to bring something that the other might find unnecessary, that person bears the burden of carrying said item(s). For me it was our vitamins and some creams and lotions I couldn’t leave behind. For Terry it was the electric toothbrush. My choices necessitated a roomier bag. When I discovered I might be carrying all my bags across a remote border crossing, I thought I might live to regret the decision to displace my backpack.

So, during one of our rest days in El Chalten, we laid out our belongings, and with the mind of a backpacker looking to shave ounces from her pack, I proceeded to set aside items I thought I could do without. Jackets, earmuffs, and gloves were set aside, and bottles of this and that discarded, with the hopes of replacing them. My full-size deodorant mineral stone soon became a mere shell of itself as I broke away the plastic container and cut it in half. I was not budging on the supplements however. 😉

At 9:30 the next night we hopped on our overnight bus to Los Antiguos, not knowing what to expect in the morning. It’s a wonder we got any sleep but the bus tires on the pavement seemed to do the trick. I awoke to watch the dark golds and oranges of dawn diffuse across the Patagonian steppe, softening to rose and violet, with a promise of a beautiful day unfolding.

We pulled into the bus station and were able to catch a taxi to the border, 2 km (1.2 miles) away. And that is where we knew things could get interesting. We moved through Argentine immigration, then stepped outside with all our bags. A long, lonely road stretched before us, 7 km (4.2 miles) from the Argentina border to the Chile border, a section of road dubbed “No Man’s Land”. Well, at least it was flat, paved, and the sun was shining. We looked at each other and said “let’s do this”.  About 15 minutes into our walk, Terry turned to me and said “you are a good sport”. I smiled and turned back to the road with the thought of  “remember this when you find my personality less than pleasing.”

In another 15 minutes we saw a car on the horizon and Terry stuck out his thumb. A smiling young couple in a beat-up jalopy opened the door and welcomed us. Our last hitchhiking experience had been decades ago and our only hope was that their backfiring car would make it to Chile. It did and they could not have been nicer.

Another trip through Chilean customs and immigration and we headed down the road the 5 km (2.5 miles) into Chile Chico. A collectivo (van) picked us up within 20 minutes and delivered us to our lodge. Life is good, particularly when in the presence of kind strangers.

Note to self: When given a choice, always go with the backpack. 🙂