Carretera Austral: Chile’s rugged Southern Highway

Tuesday, November 29th:

Originally I was hoping to hitch the whole Carretera Austral down to Puerto Bertrand but time seemed to be running out as Rolando wanted me in Puerto Bertrand by the beginning of December. I had previously set up a work trade agreement to help with Rolando’s kayak tour business, AguaHielo Expediciones. Since first meeting Rolando 3 years previous at OB in Washington I have been dreaming about traveling to Patagonia and now the time finally has come to make my way to one of the most remote regions of Patagonia Chile, the Aysen.

So I took a bus from Puerto Montt to Chaiten for 14,000 pesos ($28) which wasn’t too bad for a full day bus ride with 3 ferries. I was pretty tired after very little sleep the night before but I got up said bye to Ricardo, Kim and Mara. I took an early morning collectivo down to the bus station with all my stuff packed up tight. It turned out the bus was over an hour late because of mechanical issues. It was a very full bus and I was the only non-Chilean. It was as full as full could be and more people kept piling on. I was very thankful to have a seat so I could at least try to sleep. The bus attendant took my passport along with all the local people’s ID’s. I wasn’t sure he was going to give it back and I kept asking for it. During the first ferry I saw him writing info down off all the ID’s and I easily saw my passport amongst all the local Chilean cards (click any photo for link to whole flickr album).
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It was nice to get off the bus for the ferry and take in the views. It finally was a beautiful sunny day. Before the second ferry in Hornopiren I was woken up and asked to switch to a different bus that was continuing on the ferry and onto Chaiten. Here I finally got my passport back. On the second ferry I started chatting in Spanish with Jose and Luiz. These two guys worked on the cultivo de salmon industry and were on a work trip to Chaiten and Puyuhuapi.
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The ferry ride was a long one and the views were just spectacular. It was very great practicing Spanish with these guys, they were very patient, they didn’t know any English so we were totally conversing in Spanish and I was constantly getting them to write in my book. Luiz went and cut down a giant nalca plant and brought it on the next ferry ride. We ate it with salt and lemon. It was delicious but it was the start of the summer and their were still some worms in the plants so we had to be careful.
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The nalca had en interesting sour taste but i quite enjoyed it. I also met two Argentinian cyclists who were biking to rough dirt road of the Carretera austral. It truly was a wild road, one lane dirt/gravel road with thick rain forest on both sides. Somehow I managed to sleep on the bus quite well and when we got to Chaiten I wanted to just keep sleeping on the bus. P1140862
Chaiten was a very interesting town right on the ocean.
P1140870Nearby Volcan Chaiten erupted in 2008 and devastated the town. Since then it has been re-built quite well. There was also a nice view on the other side of Chaiten of Volcan Corcovado and I was lucky enough to have clear beautiful days for the full perspective. It was beautiful!
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I had a few people were just very helpful and friendly and one person who was trying to get me to buy a bus ticket from him to continue south. I met some girls from israel who were travel stressed and had no Chilean cash so I traded some Chilean pesos for their Argentina pesos and camped on the beach with them for free. I found a supermarcato and bought some sandwich fixings and beer and chilled on the beach with Luiz and Jose and made a fire. The Israel girls went to sleep right away but me and the boys stayed up late around a nice warm fire conversing fully in Spanish as we watched the sunset over the ocean.
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Wednesday, November 30th:

After a much needed full night sleep, I woke up bright and early around 7am to another beautiful sunny day.
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I packed my things up quick and heading for the highway southbound and kept walking. There was a bus that left Chaiten around 10am. I had that in the back of my mind just in case but I was determined to hitch hike however long it would take. Within minutes I got picked up and driven about 30km south to the highway intersection by Termas del Amarillo.
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South of here the highway was beautiful with lush green forests, waterfalls and snow capped glaciated mountains all around me.
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The road was actually paved here for a short distance. With all this it didn’t bother me too much that there was only 1 car going past me every 15 mins and it was a road worker. I just kept walking taking it all in. My pack was heavy but I was so high on life it didn’t matter, I felt great and just kept on trucking it. Eventually the nice paved section came to an end and there was a sign saying road work for the next 15 km. I could see the dust blowing and it didn’t look fun but I kept going walking past all the road work. I kept hitching even when the work trucks kept driving by me back and forth hoping they might at least drive me past the construction.
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I kept walking and after about 2 hours in total of walking in the heat and dust with all my stuff a red truck that looked exactly like the road workers stopped and picked me up. It was Rodrigo and Ramon and they were driving all the way back to Coyaique. They didn’t speak much English but I practiced my Spanish with them. Rodrigo could speak a bit of English and was excited to practice. They were both from Santiago and rented a truck for a few days to deliver home/business alarm systems to rural communities along the Carretera austral. They had finished their work and were running back to Coyaique but still wanted to get out and explore as much as possible on the way.
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We stopped to take pictures of a glacier named Yelcho. We ended up hiking all the way up to it. On route I recognized some people who were on the ferry with me the previous day. They were from England and France and were climbing trees and hiking around patagonian forests collecting insects. Crazy that I ran into them again at this random trail to glacial yelcho which I never knew existed previously as it wasn’t an official park or anything.

This hike was just incredible and I think my Chilean friends were far more excited then I was to be out in the wilderness. They were telling me how few Chileans they ran into. They said most Chileans don’t do too much traveling. They are always working. All the people they met or have met in the past were foreigners like me. I felt fortunate to be be sharing many of my experiences with chilean people first hand, really getting to know them. The sparkle in their eyes just wouldn’t go away. The rain forest here was just incredible with lush plants that were all around us and big, creating a canopy above us. This hike took us through lots of giant Nalca plants taller than me even!
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It was a bush-wacking mission to get as close as we could to the glacier. Swampy thorny plants stood everywhere in our way but we kept pushing through. Finally we’re we’re out of the swamp and onto ice, rock and snow. We could here the glaciers calving so we decided not to hike right up to them and stay a safe distance. Just spectacular!
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We snacked and had some lunch back at the truck before continuing on.
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We stopped in Santa Lucia and bought a few beers for the road (for those of us not driving) we kept stopping and taking in the views the entire way.
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In La Junta we had finally entered the Aysen Region. I called Rolando and told him I had a ride right to Coyaique. He was actually in Chile Chico and wanted me to take an early morning bus and ferry across Lago General Carrera to meet him in Chile Chico and drive together to Puerto Bertrand.
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We made it to Puyuhuapi for dinner and had eggs, toast, tea and pie and it was nearly 5,000 pesos each which is almost $10… Very expensive… Oh well supporting a small town restaurant isn’t so bad.
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We kept going and the road got really bumpy as we dragged along an epically beautiful coastal road and then inland and up and over a huge mountain pass in Parque Nacional Queulat.
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We stopped for photos I don’t know how many times during this pass the road was so steep and so rugged it took a long time to make it over but eventually we did and the road got a lot better. We were driving into the night and I took a good long nap sprawled out in the cab I slept quite well. We arrived in Coyaique just after mid-night and stayed at the hostel, Maria Ester. Wasn’t a bad place, 8,000 pesos per night so like $16. I checked email, communicated with Rolando and went to sleep setting my alarm for 5:30am so I could call and reserve my bus to Puerto Ibanez in time to catch the ferry to Chile Chico. I was very tired after a long and exciting day I passed right out for a few short hours.

Thursday December 1st:

So I woke up to my two alarms at 5:30am wishing I could sleep another 5 hours. I got myself up and called Rolando’s friend at Lukas buses to make a reservation to be picked up at 6:30am to take a bus to Puerto Ibanez. It all worked out and the bus was a little late actually but I still made it to the ferry on time. The bus was about 4,000 pesos ($8) and the 2 hour ferry was 2,300 pesos ($4.65).
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The ferry ride was fantastic. It was another epically beautiful day and Lago General Carrera’s bright blue waters and desert like surroundings reminded me of Baja a little bit except everywhere in the far distance was alpine glaciated mountains including the spires of Cerro Castillo.
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Chile Chico is a border town with Argentina and Lago Carrera is actually Lago Buenos Aires at the Argentina border.

Chile Chico, Aysen Region, Patagonia Chile

Together this big lake is the second largest in all of South America and largely unknown. I met Vanesa from Buenos Aires, Argentina who was staying in Chile Chico and then heading south through Puerto Bertrand.  I enjoyed practicing my Spanish with her and another couple from Belgium on the long ferry ride.

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We arrived just afternoon 12 pm and Rolando came to meet me. He was running around getting last minute things. I didn’t actually realize how remote Puerto Bertrand was. We needed to stock up on groceries because we couldn’t get much of anything in PB. We had lunch at one of Rolando’s friends who I think spoke the most rapid Spanish I had heard yet and I didn’t understand much of anything they were talking about. Eventually by around 3 pm we were on our way to PB. It was an absolutely spectacular drive on a narrow dirt road that went winding up and down along the giant cliffed shores of Lago General Carrera with panoramic views of the lake and the giant northern Patagonia ice cap in the distance.

Lago General Carrera (4)

It felt so much like the deserts of Baja. Rolando and I stopped a number of places to take it the views and tell me about the lay of the land. Rolando was telling me all about how crazy windy this lake gets and how unusually calm it was on this day.

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He did a trip from Puerto Bertrand on the Rio Baker but through Lago Bertrand and Lago General Carrera to Lago Buenos Aires in the end of August when the lake conditions are the most favorable. Click here for a link to a video on that particular expedition.

Rolando is also interested in writing a guidebook for this very unknown area so we started talking it was just about finding the time because. I was telling him all about the Lake Superior Guide I had been working on and was still in the process of publishing but was excited to show him what Darrell and had done and how much of the information and style of writing could be useful for a potential sea kayaking guide book for the Aysen region of Patagonia.

We finally pulled into the small village of Puerto Bertrand.

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The town is situation right on the Rio Baker which connects to Lago Bertrand, Lago Plomo, and Lago General Carrera.

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I didn’t really know what to expect but Rolando was renting a house to run his business that was located up on a hill a little ways from the river.

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The house is a small one bedroom with a living area and small kitchen. There was also another pentagonal shaped building where the paddling gear was stored. This was known as the “quincho” or is suppose to be a hang out area and prep area for clients. This is where I was to sleep for now… Rolando was suppose to have a house to rent closer to the river but the owners decided not to rent it to him last minute so everything seemed to be a working progress around here. This place reminded me alot of my experience living in the trailer in Rossport in the same room as the paddling gear, it just had that familiar smell…hahaha… it wasn’t so bad. The yard was also a mess full of all sorts of junk and horse poo. There was a mother and baby horse that roamed free and liked to poo everywhere, especially in our yard. So yeah, work needed to be done. I met Michel who had been working with Rolando since the beginning of Agua Hielo and was sleeping in the main living room in the house on an extra mattress. Rolando is planning on renting another house for all us and the other interns who were to come later. Since his company was small he couldn’t afford to pay me but would feed me the basics in terms of food and provide a place to stay and access to kayaks in return for some work. I was ok with this as I was thrilled to have to opportunity to learn spanish while living and working in the true heart of patagonia, learning and living the ways. I am very excited to paddle and explore this area as much as possible. My first night we were invited down to have some drinks with some other people who were working guiding rafting trips on the rio baker. There seemed to be a nice community of people in this small town. I look forward to absorbing and see what was to come next.

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