Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Sublime Carretera Austral: Chaiten to Villa O'Higgins (23rd Dec '11 - 10th Jan '12)

The Carretera Austral is a 1200km+ stretch of mostly gravel road that runs through northwest Chilean Patagonia, past fiords, forest, glaciers, lakes and mountains. The road was only opened in 1988, and before then the area was primarily connected by sea access and small tracks. So it is a pretty special place, large parts of which still remain untouched. We had had an interesting introduction to the Carretera Austral further north in Chile when we met a Chilean who had worked on the (tough, dangerous, long drawn-out) construction of the road, and who got out his personal photo albums to give us a history lesson.
We had originally planned to meet back up with a bunch of cycling friends in Santiago for Christmas, but unfortunately the ferry that we had planned to take to connect up with the Carretera Austral broke down (the road is still not connected to Chile by land, only through ferry connections, or coming through Argentina in the east). We didn't have so much time left to complete our trip as we have a deadline to get home for a friends wedding... and Patagonia was calling. So, with sadness, we missed the cyclists party and instead caught a ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten and the start of the Carretera Austral. While we were sad not to be able to see our friends we were pretty excited about heading into Patagonia, an area that we have been dreaming of cycling for a very long time.
The Carretera Austral area is pretty wild, with often wild weather extremes - we had heard stories of cyclists battling the wind, rain, storms, etc, and we prepared ourselves for nasty weather, and in particular the rain that this area is famed for. This of course meant that we had perfect weather, with blue skies our whole time on the Carretera! Instead of the problem of having to find shelter to camp in and ways to dry all our wet gear, we ended up having the problem of warm days and not enough sun-cream to get us through!
One of Jules' little superstitions (she has many) meant that we couldn't buy new sunscreen while the sun was shining as if we did it was sure to make it rain. So we had to start rationing our sunscreen as we peddled for more than two weeks under the most extraordinarily good weather! We were starting to think it never rained in this area, until on our last day on the Carretera into Villa O'Higgins, where the road ends, we had about an hour of drizzle – not too bad at all! Though the next day, which was a rest day for us as we waited for the boat to take us across Lago Villa O'Higgins, the weather gods decided to show us what we had avoided so far during our time on the Carretera. It was miserable and wet all day - ahha that was more like what we were expecting! God-forbid that our tent should get wet, so we got a hostal to get all cozy and listen to the rain on the roof.
When we started off on the Carretera Austral it reminded us a lot of our first experiences cycling in Alaska. Arriving on the ferry in Chaiten, into a green land of mountains and forest and wilderness reminded us of when we first arrived into Anchorage on the ferry. The main difference on starting the Carretera was that Jules didn't spend the entire time being terrified of bears and envisaging us being torn alive by a grizzly. Thankfully in Patagonia there are less wild animals to be scared of. However, in Patagonia because of all the warning signs and information on the dangers of the Hanta Virus (a virus spread by mice faeces and urine) Jules is now terrified of mice wee. And instead of always asking me if there might be any bears around, in Patagonia she is always asking if there is a chance that a mouse might have wee-ed in our camping spot.
We had days of sublime riding, past scenery as beautiful as I have ever seen. Wild rivers and lakes, forest, snow-capped volcanoes, glaciers. Every day was a scene from a tourism brochure. And we could wonder through this land, finding fantastic free camps and lakes and rivers to “fish” in.
I use the word “fish” loosely as our apparatus consisted of a handline and a fishing pole macgyvered up by Jules from some bamboo she had found on the side of the road. We did look quite ridiculous and when we met Christian (a very helpful Swiss cyclist) he told us that with the hooks we were using we were likely to “catch a whale”. So with a little help from him we rejigged our lines. We still weren't very serious fishers though and only had gone “fishing” a couple of times as an excuse to chill out next to a beautiful river or lake. Jules would throw her line in a few times, then get bored and declare that there were no fish in the river. So it gave us the shock of our life when we actually caught a fish. We had stopped for lunch at a lake and Jules decided to throw the line in a few times (as an excuse to get out of making lunch I think). She suddenly squealed and said in a high-pitched voice “There's a fish on my line”, she then promptly tripped over and landed in the water. However, somehow in all the confusion she still managed to land the fish, which was very decent-sized and which tasted amazing cooked up on our camp stove that night!
In the northern stretches of the Carretera Austral we passed through lush forests and past snow-capped volcanoes. We had Christmas by the picturesque Yelcho Lake and camped in the very pretty Queulat Nature Reserve where we hiked up to the hanging glacier. The north was very impressive and wild, but we were even more stunned by the area south of Cohaique, where the Carretera went through the Cerro Castillo nature reserve with its rocky mountains and the granite needles rising up to create a fortress-looking rock feature overlooking the road. We spent New Years in this park – we had thought we would be wild camping and I had bought chocolate with almonds in it to celebrate New Years (woohhoo- really living it up) but we ended up stumbling on an offical campsite in the national park where we stayed and saw in 2012 with new friends, wine and an interesting Chilean-German-Swiss-Australian celebration.
Around every turn of the Carretera the scenery just appeared to get more stunning. Following Cerro Castillo we passed through an area with amazing coloured rivers and lakes – Lago General Carrera, Lago Bertrand and the River Baker. We cycled through lush Gondwanian forest of Northofagus (Southern Beech) dripping in lichens, roads lined with the giant-leaved Nalcas and the colourful Fuschias and we had views of waterfalls falling from ice-fields and glaciers to form streams and rivers, so sublimely unpolluted.
In the southern section of the Carretera there were more moorlands, with swampy lands and stunted vegetation. We visited the interesting little town of Tortel which had no roads to it until 2003 and where the whole town is built around a collection of boardwalks. After Tortel we caught the ferry which connects the last little scrap of Carretera - the road from Puerto Yungay, which was only opened in 2000, connects to the end of the Carretera Austral at Villa O'Higgins. From here, as cyclists, it is possible to catch a ferry, cycle/push your bike up 21kms of 4wd tracks and horse trails, catch another ferry and arrive into Argentina. Which is the next adventure in store for us...
The Carretera Austral was one of the highlights of our trip so far, it is such a magical place, with so much beauty – and we were so lucky with the weather that accompanied us! We were also very happy to be able to see this area as it is now, as there are controversial plans to dam a number of the rivers for hydroelectric power. It is a big topic of discussion in the area at the moment - check out “Patagonia Sin Represas” for more information.
And last but not least... The Carretera Austral was fabulous for meeting lots of other cycle tourists!  There are many people cycling this route, and Jules and I were pretty excited about meeting other cyclists for the first time in a very long time.  Unfortunately, sometimes the other cyclists weren't as excited about meeting us!  Our first few days meeting other people we would get overly excited and jump up and down while exchanging the general cycling pleasantries.  We couldn't work out why they weren't as excited as us - until we also started meeting so many other cyclists, and realised there were lots out there!  But we made some great friends, and had some great laughs, and met a couple of super-nice people heading north to Alaska - which made us so excited to think of their amazing trip they have ahead of us.. I tried to convince Jules to turn around and head north back to Alaska, but she wasn't convinced.  So for now we continue south, about to cross into Argentina, and the Patagonian pampas of legend!


  1. Love it!! You two are truly amazing! Do come back to Alaska, even if you decide to fly sometime instead of cycle. Kris and I hope to get to Australia again sometime soon as well.
    Take care,

  2. Love the bit about sunscreen. We put our raincoats on in order to prevent it from raining when it's threatening..... What date are you going back to Oz? We now have tickets :-( will be there April 6th. Hope we can finally meet up then. We meet loads of people who have met you and have been reading your blog with interest and amusement. Sarah (and Tom)

  3. Love the story and now I am ready to go. How difficult would you rate this ride. Are there any stretches that could be considered "family friendly"?

    1. Hi Heather, Glad you enjoyed and hope it helps inspire you - it was a fantastic trip!
      Are you thinking of just the Carretera Austral? Its a great ride, but lots of rough roads and hills. But probably the main difficulty is the weather as it can be very rainy and can change very quickly! How old are your kids?
      If you send me an email (on the contacts page of my blog) with more questions I can give you some more details.

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