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 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.  

2 thoughts on “To the End of the Road

  1. My God, how beautiful are those sunsets!! This is what I like most – the dark sky and the last ray of sun! And your story about the customs is funny – I can imagine how bored this man was until he had you under his control. I wish I found myself in the middle of nowhere – it is no fun to be where we are!

    • Thanks for this Lioudmila. It is really great been away from it all. Although we do like a bit of civilisation occasionally.

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