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.
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.
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:
- Rio Simpson National Reserve in Coyhaique
- Whitewater rafting in Futaleufú
- Marble Caves in Puerto Rio Tranquilo
- Parque Pumalin, nature sanctuary, outside Chaiten, established by California businessman Douglas Tompkins, and his wife Kris McDivitt Tompkins, former owners of the Esprit and Patagonia clothing empires.
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. 🙂