The Carretera Austral: 1200 km of unpaved road

As Lottie is playing catch up on the blogging front, having had no computer for over three months, I’ve stepped in to take over and lighten the load.

Our time on the Island of Chiloé had come to end and with heavy hearts, we said ‘Ciao, no vemos’ to our dear travel companion Michael.

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Initially the plan was to catch a casual 44 hour bus from Castro, Chiloe to Punta Arenas which would mean we would only be a further 5 hours away from the gates of the Torres Del Paine National Park! All buses being fully booked for three weeks ahead however, meant that we had to magically hatch a plan B: hitchhiking down the mighty Carretera Austral.

The Carretera Austral is an unpaved road that runs down the Pacific Coast of the Patagonian Andes and is famed for its remoteness as well as its pristine wilderness. In terms of distances it’s more or less like the equivalent of driving from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

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Amazingly, the construction of this road actually only started in 1976 under then dictator General Pinochet, and reached Villa O’Higgins, the last village on the road, in 1999. The official reason for this mammoth project, was to connect the remote fishing and logging villages that made up the West coast of Chile from Puerto Montt South. However others suggest that this would have been an efficient way to roll out troops down south should a war break out with neighboring Argentina.

Anyways, enough with the boring history..

We’d heard that if we could reach Villa O’Higgins, a dead end, we’d be able to take on the Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten traverse which consists of taking a boat, followed by a strenuous hike over the border and then another lake crossing. Game on we thought!

Admittedly, I was a little anxious at the idea of hitch hiking through some of the most remote and unpopulated parts of the globe, and with the low season fast approaching, we knew the number of passing traffic going South would diminish by the day.

But, as the saying goes, a journey of a 1,000 miles starts with a single step, and so with this in mind we started our journey not knowing where we would spend our first night on the Carretera Austral.

Michael offered to give us a lift to the first port, where all cars and pedestrians have to board a landing craft that would take us to the other side of the Fjord where the hitching would truly begin…

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The crossing took roughly 25 minutes. We perched ourselves on the landing slip with our thumbs in the air.

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Luck stroked within seconds! A young couple from Switzerland, traveling around in a yellow van, offered to take us to the next town along, Hornopiren. Boom! In the van was another couple from Chile who had also caught a lift with them earlier on. It felt like a convergence of the hitch hikers.

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If you’ve already done hitchhiking then you’ll know what it feels like to picked up. We were buzzing. However, briskly brought back to reality by the fact that at the end of our first day 1,120km still stood between us and Villa O’Higgins.

Campsite in Hornopiren, a very peaceful place.

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Campsite 1

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As we woke up the following day, not only had the heavens opened over us, but an animal, of the feline species, had invited himself into our little home away from home . Packing away a soggy tent before breakfast isn’t the best way to start the day but we had to crack on if we were to make the next ferry.

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This little fella invited himself for some warmth but had to be thrown out soon after as I caught him head buried in our food bag.

The weather was truly nasty that morning, although not cold. We pressed on to the “port” and boarded the ferry which would take us across two Fjords which both ran through the famous Parque Pumalin. This park is one of the few outdoor parks in Chile which is privately owned. Douglas Thompkins, founder of The North Face, bought land here many years ago in the hope of preserving it. If you want to know more about Douglas and the work he has done in the region then I can highly recommend 180° South, a fantastic documentary; which instigated my curiosity for the region.

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Second ferry of the trip

On the ferry a stalking game begun to try and assess who could potentially be our next ride along the Carretera. I preyed on various folk and decided to pounce on Gab and Jez, who remarkably were on their honeymoon. Gab is Argentinian and Jez was from the UK but they had been living in Bariloche for a while. They agreed to take us as far as Chaiten, the main town in the North of this region, but would not be able to get us there until the following day as they had planned a few “sight-seeing”stops before then.

Wow were we in for a treat. Introducing the jurassic like, Parque Pumalin.

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These Alerce trees, incredibly, were here 1,000 years before JC was around.

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Following from Sendero Alerce, we set off to explore a series of waterfalls. Do bear in mind that if you ever decide to go here, it is best to go under your own steam as local buses to do not stop at the different trail heads.

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Moving on from this magical place, we set off for our next campsite at the base of Volcano Chaiten, with the view of ascending it the following day.

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View from our spot at Campsite Volcan Chaiten.. Nuff said.

The following morning, after an early start, we set off by car to the base of the Volcano where the summit rises at roughly 950 meters. Unfortunately, perhaps from the first hike we did, Lottie realised she had a painful knee injury but was determined to get to the top.

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With our new made friends at the top!

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Lottie feeling quiet chuffed with herself and satisfied that her “summiting a volcano” virginity had been taken away.

If you’re interested in David Attenborough type clip, watch this:

Next was Chaiten town, where we had to plan our next move as we had to leave Gab and Jez, who were to spend a couple of romantic nights at some hot springs.

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Before setting off, we had one last lunch with Gaby and Jez following which, they dropped us at the local tourist office/ cafe.

Twenty minutes passed when I noticed that I was not in possession of my camera, triggering a massive WTF moment and induced myself into panic. In the distance though, I saw a familiar looking car which happened to be Jez’s. The long and the short of it was, that I had left it on the roof of their car and they had only realised this when picking up other hitchhikers 20km down the road.

After an hour or so of waiting, we got picked up twice in quick succession, bringing us to the town of Santa Lucia.

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First glimpse at a glacier. As we moved down South, they would soon become ‘the norm’.

At Santa Lucia, I suggested we stayed in Cabanas which essentially equates to a little cabin. There we were able to get a comfortable night’s sleep, do a laundry and have a long over due wash. Tip-top.

The next few days went by incredibly quickly, as we were conscience of time and how we had to be at the Estancia to start work by the 15th of March… and we hadnt even done Torres Del Paine yet!

So we sped on.. Well not quiet. Five hours!! We were stuck at Santa Lucia trying to hitch. And not only that, but there was a queue of ten other hitchers. Incredible.

In the end we got everyone to agree that no one was going to be picked up and hired a mini van that would take us another 250 km South to a small village called Puyuhuapi.”Together we stand, divided we fall”, or so the saying goes… It was on this particular journey, as I was gazing through the van to the spectacular scenery unraveling before us that I realised that we were “living the dream”, so to speak. It was only a few months ago that I was spending up to two and a half hours commuting to work, seeing my life roll by me at an unfathomable speed. It’s that burning desire for wandering that has lead us to where we were now: a stuffy, warm and condensate van tearing through some of the most remote regions on the planet. The sense of desolation at times is incredibly great for the spirit.

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“The journey is the destination”

We got to Puyuhuapi at dusk, and immediately started to hitch some more, eager to get as many klicks under our belts as possible for the day..

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Next up, was 300km of unpaved road in this bad boy.

We were a little apprenhensive at the idea of getting in the back of this delivery truck, that was on his way back to Coihayque, the main town of the South, having dropped goods in surrounding villages.

Needless to say that this was a shockingly uncomfortable journey, but we were gaining kilometers and what-more, at no cost!

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Lottie, to be fair was travelling in absolute comfort on this blow up mattress (which needed re-inflating every 30 minutes). Not looking too impressed! Across, passed out, are two other hitchhikers from Japan!

That night, having arrived in Coihaique in the early hours of the morning, we decided to camp where we could: someones front garden.

Coming out of Cochrane, with only 400 odd kilometers to go, we could feel that the end was near. Only Tortel, a tiny village nestled at the end of a Fjord and 35km due West of the Carretera Austral, stood between us and the finish line. Tortel is a quiet little lumber town with an intricate walkway system built by the town’s inhabitants which run several kilometres around the cove making it unique! The milky blue glacier water contrast vividly with the lush green hillsides.

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Walking the boards in Tortel with our friends from Santiago ,who kindly gave us a ride there.
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Tortel with it’s board walk

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We were able to get a lift back to the junction for our last haul to Villa O’Higgins, more hitching. Ugh!

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Lottie with our Villa O’Higgins sign, which the previous hitchers had left and that we would also leave behind for the next ones.. Hitchhikers solidarity at it’s finest.

We eventually made it to our final destination, Villa O’Higgins exactly a week after we had said bye to Michael, 1,200km further up North.

Our last night on the Carretera Austral would turn out to be our favourite one as we spent it with Peppino, a local fella who kindly offered us a place to camp in his garden.

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Peppino’s joint.

He was quick to invite us to meet his pet cow who kindly walked into her milking box for us to milk.

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We went back and made the best hot chocolate ever, much to Lotties delight.

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We stumbled across some gauchos in action that night. I think we had missed the slaughter of this young cow by no more than half an hour.

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Local gaucho at work.

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Locals came to buy the meat straight off the fence.

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Breakfast inside Peppino’s little cozy home with more friends made! Felipe and Diego cycled the Carretera Austral while Jayne, who works at Gatwick, cycled from Puerto Montt to Ushuaia for a charity- spectacular effort!

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We made our move early to make sure we had sufficient time to make the boat that would take us across Lago O’Higgins.

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And so, after seven days of high speed hitching we officially completed the Carretera Austral feeling very content.
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