Up the Sunny Carretera Austral

We have pretty much completed driving the Carretera Austral from South to North, a journey of more than 1000kms and it has to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world.  In many parts the pristine wilderness is stunning with valleys, glacier topped mountains, gushing rivers, crystal clear lakes and fjords.  The drive was made more spectacular as the week wore on the sun came out so we could enjoy the wonderful views.
In many parts the road is rough but some parts are tarred and shortly the whole length of it will be tarred. Most of this part of Chile has only really been populated for a hundred years but development is coming.  There is an increase in tourism and plans to dam some of the rivers.  If these plans go ahead it will forever change this wonderful place, and not for the better.  
As we left our camp by the mighty Rio Baker, Gilly and I both commented how much more “developed”this part of the road seemed to be compared to further south.  Mind you “developed” was very relative.  What had happened is that the gravel road had changed to almost double track from single and we did actually pass the odd car or house.  Mind you public transport was still scarce so during the week we gave a number of lifts to hitchhikers including a young women who lived in Prague.

We arrived in the small village of Rio Tranquilo which is set on a lake famous for its marble caves.  When the sun shines the glacier water sets off the caves wonderfully.  There was only a bit of sun when we arrived but we still decided to go and booked a trip for after lunch.  Over lunch the wind picked up so it was a pretty choppy ride out there.  Although we did not get to see the caves in all their glory in brilliant sunlight they still made for an impressive sight.



Continuing up the road the next highlight was the basalt spires near Cerro Castillo.  Unfortunately the weather still was not playing ball so we only got to see glimpses through the clouds.  On arriving in Cerro Castillo the road turned to tar.  The first tar we had seen for 1,000kms since before the Chilean border.  On a quick, inspection of the truck the gravel road had taken its toll.  The front disc brake cover had broken again but more importantly the front shock absorber had broken loose.  We decided to push on to the largest town on the road, Coihaique to see if we could get some repairs done.

As we approached Coihaique the scenery changed again.  The mountains became less imposing and instead the scenery opened to green hilly pasture with large fat healthy cows everywhere.  The town of Coihaique came as quite a shock after been out in the wilds.  It was a bustling metropolis of 50,000 people and had all the things we needed to continue our trip.  Following a recommendation from our friend John we found a good welder in town.  He quickly and inexpensively welded both the shock absorber and the disc brake cover and I refitted them back on the truck.  Let’s hope they hold.

As we did most nights along this road we found somewhere to camp either by a river or by a lake.  Nearly always these came with spectacular views and were wonderfully tranquil.  The weather was also changing and the sky’s were clearing so we could enjoy the views even more.  





We also reconnected with our hunter gatherer roots.  I was given the task of the hunter and sent out to catch food from the river.  Usually this did not result in anything but one evening Gilly noticed that the fish had started jumping and I was sent out again. Luckily I landed a trout big enough for 2 to eat.  Alisha and Lucy had already gone to bed but with the excitement were soon up and helping out in the river in their nighties and wellies.  I never did catch that second trout we needed so portions were pretty small for dinner!

The girls were the gatherers and collected tubs full of wild blackberries that we enjoyed in a number of desserts and smoothies.  Mind you Alisha and Lucy seemed to eat more than they put in the tub.



The tar did not last and we were soon back on the gravel road.  One section of road was been worked on and was closed every day between 1pm and 5pm.  In part this was so they could blast away at the cliffs to widen the road.  So that particular morning we set off early so we could make it to Parque Nacional Queulat before the road closed.  The evening before had been glorious but that morning it was close to freezing and a heavy mist hung over the rivers and the lakes.  It was still misty at 11am when we stopped to do a walk in “the Enchanted  Forest”.  The vegetation had changed again and was now a dense forest of ferns, trees and fuchsias.  It gets very wet in this part with 4m of rain during the year.  The walk was wet but wonderful and felt very Tolkienesque.  As we climbed the mist began to clear to reveal a wonderful glacier set against a cobalt blue sky.







We only just made it to our nights camp at the National Park before they closed the road and then set off on another walk to see another glacier, this one hanging off the cliff edge.



The following days saw us have fantastic weather and the scenery was magnificent and a feast for the eyes. Again in the morning it was misty allowing us just peaks of what was to come but by mid morning the most would clear to reveal a treasure trove of views.


We spent a couple of days in the verdant and pristine Parque Pumalin.  This is not a National Park as such but is owned by Doug Tompkins, the husband of Kris Tompkins who owns Parque Patagonia.  Doug bought large swathes of land the size of Rhode Island and has run them as a large conservation project.  This has been somewhat controversial with the Chilean people but seems now to be accepted.  Eventually it will be handed over to the Chilean government to be run as a National Park.  For now it’s free for the public to use with some lovely camping areas.  The scenery had changed yet again with deep forest and ferns.  There was also some immaculate grassy areas that made you feel as though you were on the grounds of an English stately home.  Then as a backdrop there were mountains with sparkling glacial snow on them.

We spent two nights in the park, one on the Southern section and one in the North.  In between we stopped in the village of Chaiten.  In 2008 the nearby volcano had unexpectedly erupted and devastated the village but it is now slowly recovering.  We could see the volcano still slightly smoking from the town.  We could not go much further North as the road ran out and the only way out from here was by ferry.  But first we camped one last night in the Northern section of the park.  From our campsite we had the most magnificent view of another snow capped mountain (no, we don’t get sick of seeing them).  But as the afternoon wore on the breeze picked up and lifted the volcanic ash that was lying around up.  And just like that the mountain faded into the cloud and just as our journey up the road was coming to an end so were the views.  But the memories of this special road will last much longer.



To the End of the Road

Ushuaia at the bottom tip of South America might call itself “Fin del Mundo” but where we’ve been for the last few days has felt even more the like the “End of the World”. 

The Carretera Austral runs 1257km down Chile between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. The far end at the small town of Villa O’Higgins is 600km north of the bottom of Chile but after that the road runs into unpassable mountains, glaciers and fjords. If you want to go south to the towns of Peurto Natales and Punta Arenas you have to go through Argentina. Of course it is the remoteness as well as its stunning scenery that make it so attractive. 
After our mammoth 3 days of trekking in El Chalten, we had a day relaxing, doing jobs and hanging out with www.twogypsiesandaprincess.com before hitting the Ruta 40 north again. The scenery was very dry and desolate with very few people. The famed epic road-trip route is now nearly all tarred. We had heard that the border crossing at Paso Roballos was very beautiful, so we headed off the asphalt and onto a tiny gravel track that wiggled its way through first semi-desert and then green pastures backed by snowy peaks. We didn’t see the need to pull far off the road that night, as only one vehicle passed us the whole time. At the border post only one of the amiable Argentinian guards had bothered to put on his uniform, the others just ambled through to process our passports from the kitchen next door. Unfortunately their Chilean counterpart a few kilometres on had let the effect of his isolation go the opposite way. As he had less than a handful of people to process every day he was absolutely sure he was going to do it properly. He didn’t have a clipboard but he should have!  He was insistent that he needed to have the children’s birth certificates, even though both their parents were present. Eventually we found them in a stack of documents we haven’t needed so far on this trip. He confiscated the usual vegetables and fruit, we’ve learnt to have a sacrificial pile of a potato and a couple of manky carrots to hand to keep Chilean customs happy, while stashing away the herbs, ginger and spices which are harder to replace. He then gave Steve a quick lecture about food hygiene and insisted he put the butter in the fridge, admirable apart from the daytime high around here is about 12°C. 


You wouldn’t believe this track went to an international border post:


Park Patagonia just the other side of the pass is owned by Kris Tompkins, the former CEO of Patagonia clothing. She and her husband have bought huge swathes of Patagonia and have rehabilitated the land of former run down sheep estancias. Removing fences and non-endemic plants, allowing it to return to its natural state. The park is an important wildlife corridor between two other national parks. They have donated two other national parks further north back to the Chilean people and have another far bigger one donated as an NGO. It is so impressive what they have done here to return this unique and beautiful environment back to its original state and then opened it up for everyone to enjoy. 

The scenery was stunning with snow capped peaks, tumbling rivers and lots of guanacos. We found a pretty camping spot tucked down out of the wind in a little glen. Exiting the park we hit the Carreterra Austral and turned south to get to the bottom of the road. The road certainly lived up to its reputation as we passed through Lenga forests, high mountains and turquoise lakes. If Bilbo Baggins had stepped out of the woods, he wouldn’t have looked out of place.

We had heard about the problem with the lack of transport, in fact any sort of vehicles, in this region so we picked up some hitch-hikers just outside Cochrane. The student couple from Santiago were very happy to get a lift as they had been waiting for two days already. 

Caleta Tortel is a small fishing, wood-cutting village built entirely on boardwalks at the edge of a huge fjord. The road in stops in a communal car park and after that its all on foot on the boardwalks above the sea on the steep slopes. The rain was lashing down and the clouds were low, so we didn’t get to experience the full beauty of the place. But we did get to snuggle down in one of the wooden huts for a salmon dinner. It was quite a strange experience wandering around the deserted village, all the sensible locals were inside out of the rain, and getting lost along the maze of boardwalks. 

The next morning we still weren’t decided if we were going to go all the way to Villa O’Higgins at the end of the road. The rain had been lashing down all night and we were worried about the state of the gravel roads, we needn’t have worried as although they were single track they had been well made. Waterfalls were everywhere, tumbling down the mountains to swollen rivers and lakes. We arrived at the ferry at Puerto Yungay just as the ferry was about to depart, so we took it as a sign and decided to continue on. We crossed the free 45 minute fjord crossing with 7 long distance cyclists and no one else. We have seen lots of these hardly souls over the last few days, we are so impressed with their tenacity and cheerfulness even in the pouring rain. 

It was three more hours to Villa O’Higgins, a tiny town of just 500. It really did feel like the ends of the earth. We still had 8 more kilometres to the true end a ferry on another fjord, so off we set. Perhaps not the wisest move in such a big truck as the largest thing the ferry takes is bicycles but we made its safely there and back along the track between the bottom of the cliff and the fjord below. 

Back in “town” for school we were approached by a couple of European travellers asking desperately for a lift. They had got stuck not just because of extreme lack of transport but also because they had walked and taken the ferry in from El Chalten in Argentina and there was no bank in Villa O’Higgins. We’d actually been told to look out for one of them Jeff by Marissa and Michael (gypsies and a princess) in El Chalten, as they knew him and had dropped him at the ferry at the other end. We said we were happy to take them north but we were going to stop just 10kms away for the night next to a lake, before we headed on. They were a sweet, young pair and we managed to squeeze everyone in out of the persistent rain for salmon, chat and wine before Hanna slept in the cab and Jeff in his tent. 


The dripping woods in the swirling mists made for an atmospheric drive over a few passes. We crossed back over the fjord on the ferry and made our way back past the town of Cochrane as the sun came out at last. We had been there just 3 days before but it felt far longer. We felt the round trip of 450km was definitely worth it, as the scenery was gorgeous and sense of remoteness was complete. A few kilometres north the sun came out at last and we found a pretty spot next to the unbelievably turquoise Rio Baker. 



Glaciers and Hiking

We were all relieved to have the tyres on the truck. It had been a very frustrating experience. Brett, my brother in law, had been magnificent and we were very grateful for Victor’s help in Punta Arenas. But the delivery company (with the exception of the guys in Punta Arenas who were fantastic) was dreadful. Needless delays and misinformation meant the service was dreadful and compounded the frustration. So as soon as the new tyres had been fitted we were on our way out of Punta Arenas and on our way back to Argentina. We had intended crossing back over into Argentina the following day but we arrived at the very quiet border at about 6pm and with no where to camp decided to head across. It was a really easy crossing and in less than 45 minutes we were back in Argentina and heading back up Ruta 40. Soon afterwards we pulled off to the side of the road to camp for the night. It had been relatively calm when we went to bed but at around 1 am the notorious Patagonian wind really started to blow so I crawled out of bed and manoeuvred the truck further behind a mound to get some more shelter from the wind. The next day we drove into the small pretty tourist town of El Calafate. We decided to celebrate having finally got the tyres with a lovely Argentinan Parilla dinner which consisted of 2 types of steak, sausage and some lovely Patagonian lamb all washed down with a bottle of red. On returning to the campsite we saw some familiar vehicles had pulled in. Michael and Merissa were there with their 4 year old daughter, Ciara together with Kai and Karina. We had briefly met them before in both Ushuaia and Puerto Natales and Ciara, Lucy and Alisha had got on great. They quickly disappeared off to our truck to play while we grabbed another bottle of wine and caught up with the others in Kai’s truck. The next morning we were all heading out to the famous Perito Merino glacier. The weather was pretty good so we were hoping for some great views and it did not disappoint. The glacier is fantastic and you get pretty close to it on the boardwalk trails. Ciara, Alisha and Lucy were happy to be all together and went running around. We had seen a lot of glaciers in Antarctica. In fact they were everywhere so we were concerned we might be disappointed with this one. We need not have worried as the glacier was very different. As it was on its own with the lake and green hills around it, it looked very different to the ones in Antarctica and was certainly spectacular. imageimageimageimage The glacier was not just a visual experience but also an audible one. While we were there it creaked and groaned. It is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world and advances at the speed of about 2 metres per day. As we were walking around we heard lots of rumbles of thunder which were pieces of glacier braking off. We saw one sizeable bit fall off and into the lake which caused a big wave to ripple out. On the side of the lake were much bigger bits that had broken away and it must be really impressive to see these break off. imageimage That evening we all headed to the side of a lake to camp up for the night. For the first time in ages it was actually warm enough to eat dinner outside. As the girls were getting on so well we decided to stay an extra day. The decision was made easier by the beautiful sunrise we had that morning that gave great views over the lake to the surrounding mountains. imageimageimageimage However the good weather would not last all day. As is usual in Patagonia we pretty much had all four seasons during the day and some of them more than once. With the girls playing well together, Mike and I decided to try our luck at fishing. The first session in the morning was unsuccessful so we were sent back in the afternoon to try to get some fish for dinner. We were rewarded with two lovely fish, a rainbow and a brook trout and they tasted great cooked on the fire that evening.image
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That night it absolutely threw it down with rain so we were away first thing the next day. After stocking up with things in El Calafate we headed back up the Ruta 40 to El Chalten a small town right next to the Fitzroy mountains. This is the hiking capital of Argentina and we were hoping to do some good walks. However when we arrived the weather was miserable and the rain had turned to snow on the mountains.

We had hoped to drive a little way out of El Chalten and after arriving did a short drive to some waterfalls. However we could not go any further up the road as the bridges crossing the river all had a 6 ton limit. We had arrived on a Sunday and wanted to do 3 hikes. The weather forecast was for good weather for Tuesday and Wednesday so we decided we would stay 4 full days and do the 3 hikes as well as have a rest day.

We camped up that evening at one of the trailhead car parks. We had been discussing doing a 2 day hike and camping overnight but as it rained that night and the wind blew and the temperature dropped to about 5 degrees we thought what’s the point. We would just do day hikes and return back to the comfort of the truck each evening. We could still get to see what we wanted this way and staying in a tent just for the sake of it did not make any sense.

The next day, Monday the weather had improved so we decided to head out to do one of the hikes. This one was a 22km hike to a mirador at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado and back that also went up 1000m to get to the mirador. As we climbed we got some views but the highest mountains remained covered in cloud. On nearing the mirador we hit the snow line and for the last Km or so we were hiking through the snow. The view from the mirador was to misty mountains as well as down to a glacier entering a lake. The wind though was getting up and we knew the forecast was for strong winds later in the day so we didn’t stay long. As we headed down we noticed that the snow was melting and the snow line had advanced up the mountain quite a lot. It got very windy on the way down but the girls did a great job completing the hike in 7 hours to complete a new longest hike for both Alisha and Lucy.
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Tuesday was meant to be the day with the best weather. But when we woke up the wind was still blowing hard. However the clouds were clearing so we decided to do the 22km hike to Laguna Torre and back. Along the way we got great views along the valley however the Fitzroy mountains remained cloaked in cloud only occasionally giving us a glimpse of their glacier covered jagged peaks. As we neared the look out point the wind was blowing a gale so we took refuge just below to eat lunch. The kids stayed at the lunch spot while Gilly and I took it in turns to go up to the viewpoint to look down on the lake. The wind was blowing so hard it was a struggle to just stand up.
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The next morning when we awoke the wind had dropped and the sky’s were clear. Was this the day we would get views of the Fitzroy mountains? As the sun rose it lit up the mountain tops turning them a pinkish hue. We set off early to do the trek to Laguna Tres. We were never going to do the whole trek as the last few kms were very steep and exposed to the wind but we hoped to reach the 2 miradors, a round trip of 19kms. As we were heading up the valley we met 2 fellow travellers we had met before. They had been up early to the first mirador and said the mountains were still covered in cloud. Undeterred we continued upwards and as we reached the mirador we were in luck, the clouds had virtually cleared and we were rewarded with a magnificent view.
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The views continued as we walked. In some ways it was fitting that the mountain had hidden its majesty until the final day. It felt as if we had had to earn it by doing some serious walking.
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We returned to the truck tired but happy. After more than 60kms hiking in the last 3 days the adult’s knees were aching. Interestingly the children, although tired, showed no ill effects from the previous days hiking.