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Carretera Austral, The Southern Way Road Trip Part I

February 11, 2018

We had no idea that it would be quite so difficult to get out of Puerto Williams. The town really is located at the end of the world. There are few places to stay and resources are limited. I was coming down with a cold and we discovered that the only pharmacy on the island was in the hospital. When they offered  to check me into the hospital in order to give me cold medication, I knew that we needed to leave. Also, I wasn't up for the big hike around the island. So, when we discovered two available seats on a small plane we jumped at the chance. 

So, when we landed at the Punta Arenas airport from Puerto Williams we were relieved. We knew that we could stay with our friend, Juan Pedro but we didn’t want to call him because we knew that he would want to pick us up. We were both shaking our heads, we couldn’t believe that for the fourth time we found our way back to Punta Arenas. That damned foot on the statue (sorry you will have to read our previous post, for that to make any sense)!

Over the past two months we have both have fallen in love with Chile, it’s people and it’s natural beauty. Our plan had been to leave Puerto Williams and enter Argentina. However, the logistics of doing that simply did not work. Therefore, I suggested that we sit down, check WIFI, and make a plan as to where we should go next.

Over the past two months we have repeatedly asked fellow travelers and Chileans where we should visit in the country.  We repeatedly got the same two suggestions. We should to go to the north of Chile to see the Atacama desert  and we need to drive the Carretera Austral (Southern Way), one of the most scenic drives in the world.

We decided to catch a cab and head to our favorite restobar in Punta Arenas. It has high speed internet and delicious king crab.  A full stomach would help with the planning. During the drive, we decided to stop by  Juan Pedro and Ruby's hostel to reserve a room. We could also drop off our bags. I couldn’t wait to see the expression on their faces when we show up on the doorstep of their hostel for the fourth time.  

When the taxi pulled up, Juan Pedro was leaving. He couldn’t believe that it was us. We were greeted with warm hugs. Ruby’s surprised expression and hearty laugh was priceless. That alone was worth the airfare! As usual, their hospitality was amazing.  We were offered drinks and food and a place to sit and visit. We declined, as we knew that they had work to do, and so did we. We made a plan to catch up with one another over a bottle of wine later in the evening.

Ol and I walked to the restaurant. We felt like locals when the waitress recognized us from our earlier visits and our electronics automatically synced with the WIFI. I took out my MacBook, iPad, and phone and started to work. I needed to research on our next destination. Ol settled in to the leather booth and started downloading photos for the blog. 

Before my crab salad arrived I had a semblance of a plan. We would rent a car and drive the scenic Carretera Austral, often described as one of the most scenic highways in the world. Ol agreed and I started making reservations. We ate, finished our blog posts and headed back to our home away from home to visit with Juan Pedro and Ruby. We stopped at a delightful little shop that only sells wine and chocolate. How can you go wrong with a shop specializing in my two favorite things! 

We began the short five minute walk to the hostel. We were barely a block down the street when the bag holding our wine split open leaving a broken wine bottle at our feet. Ol picked up the pieces and we continued to the hostel, complaining about Chilean paper products the entire way home.

We told Ruby and Juan Pedro what had happened and they simply laughed. "No problem! We have wine" said Juan Pedro as he opened a bottle. Before we knew it we were joined by some of their other guests. We met a retired couple from Canada who had just finished a four month long bike tour of the Carretera Austral, and two young brothers from Switzerland who had just spent a month biking from Ushaia to Puerto Williams and were going to spend the next year biking the PanAmerican highway through all of South America. (And you thought that we were adventurous!) They were also biking the Carretera Austral highway. I took that as a sign, that we had made the right decision on our next destination! 

We heard their war stories and checked out their bikes. It sounded exciting, but the thought of riding a bike day after day for months at a time also sounded insane! A drive in a rental car sounded much more appealing! Before our heads hit the pillow, we are both excited about our next adventure. At this time tomorrow, we would be driving through the part of Patagonia we had yet to visit. Juan Pedro told us that he didn't know anyone who had done as extensive a tour of Patagonia as we had.

Ol became obsessed wondering why anyone would want to bike for months on a road that you could drive in a few days. I had to remind him that people probably say that about hiking and camping. But, he did have a point, hiking allows you to see things you can only see by hiking. Why ride a bike on a road that is open to cars? However, I did admire the strength and stamina that it takes to bike up mountain passes, especially in the strong Patagonia winds. In Argentina we actually saw bikers blown over!

The Carretera Austral is Chile’s Route 7, it runs 770 miles from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia.  Despite it’s length it is a very rural highway. All of the communities connected by the road have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants combined. However, the road is also the gateway to many of Chile’s most beautiful national parks, wildlife  reserves, and monuments.

Construction of the highway commenced under the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1976. In the 20th century it is among Chile’s most ambitious infrastructure projects. The road is actually a series of paved and dirt roads and a few ferry crossings. The road opened in 1988 and by 1996 was completed to Puerto Yungay.

Connecting Chile’s southern territory of Patagonia to the rest of the country was extremely difficult. The region is comprised of thick forests, fjords, glaciers, canals, islands, and steep mountains. The area is remote wilderness with extreme weather conditions the majority of the year. 

The area has become a famous route for long distance bikers, who will spend several months biking the route. It is also a favorite route for backpackers who will hike the parks and hitchhike along the route.

Even driving the route in a car is difficult. The signs are few and far between, and the distances between towns is great. Planning our route was also complicated. If we were to drive south we would take a few ferry rides and we would be near El Chalten, in Argentina. 

I found one company that would allow us to rent a car at one end of the highway and drop it off at the other end, but it was cost prohibitive. It would also require us to fly north only to end in an area we have already visited. Buses were not an option as they don’t travel entire length, and we wouldn’t be able to stop when we wanted for photos, sightseeing, and hiking. 

My research eventually led me to the small town of Balcameda. It has an airport which and is located in the middle of the route. Rental cars were affordable, and it was a relatively cheap and easy flight from Punta Arenas. There were two flights a week, and luckily for us one left the following morning. I called the rental car desk at the airport. Although Eric on the other end of the line spoke no English, and I spoke little Spanish, I think I made a reservation. I gave him a credit card for a guarantee just in case. 

The next day, we said hasta lluego (see ya later) to Juan Pedro and Ruby. We have learned there are no goodbyes in Punta Arenas. They invited us to accompany them on a cruise to see the whales in mid February, just in case we showed back up on their doorstep for a fifth time!

Before we left Juan Pedro took us to meet his mother and father and a tour of their diesel engine business. His parents were sweet and treated us like family. Juan Pedro's father gave us a photo calendar of Patagonia and his mother gave us a bag of candy for the road. We then hopped in Juan Pedro's car for the drive to the airport. Again, we hugged our friend before getting on the plane.

Balcemeda is the only airport in the region and though it is in Chile, it also serves and is shared by Argentina. The airport is in a deep valley surrounded by high plateau steppes. The high Patagonian winds make the landings a little tricky. The nearest city is Coyhaique, which is an hour away. When we arrived, we went to the tourist information office in the airport and then to the rental car counter. Eric, who I had spoken to on the phone remembered me and had our car ready. I was thankful that we had a reservation as all four rental car companies were sold out, and there were lines of disappointed travelers. 

Ol and I set our google maps to Puerto Rio Tranquilo, the gateway to the marble caves, one of the most amazing sights along the way. Five minutes after leaving the airport we were grateful that we had rented a 4 X 4 truck. The road immediately turned to gravel and we were still over 150 kilometers from our first destination.

The scenery was stunning. We were treated to sights of beautiful valleys, dramatic canyon walls, and rock formations with rainbow colored mountains. Wild flowers were common along the roaring rivers. We stopped at every scenic overlook as the views were truly breathtaking. The reviews were right. This had to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

It wasn’t long before we noticed hitchhikers along the road trying to catch a ride. When we passed a group of four young hitchhikers with their pleading faces we had to stop. They were all from Chile and about the same age as our children. 

We put all of the backpacks in the bed of the pickup and let the kids pile in the backseat. Only one of the boys was fluent in English, but the two girls wanted to practice their high school English with us. They wanted a ride to the next town, Cerro Castillo. Every time Ol would stop to take a picture, everyone would pile out of the car and then pile back in. At this rate, the marble caves would have to wait until tomorrow, even with the late sunset.

When we pulled into Cerro Castillo, the kids decided they didn’t want out. It was cold and getting cloudy. They asked if they could continue on to Rio Tranquillo with us. We agreed.

After about five hours (because of the frequent photo ops) we reached General Carrera Lake which is the home to the marble caves. The lake was incredibly picturesque. Surrounded on all sides by snow capped peaks the lake is a magnificent blue. It is the Chile's largest lake and the second largest lake in South America and the source of the Baker river, Chile’s largest volume river. 

Around the lake are a series of small towns that cater to adventure tourists. The Northern Ice Cap which is Chile’s largest reserve of pure water also surrounds the lake. The trees around the lake looked a little like giant broccoli and cauliflower stalks. I’ve never seen anything like it.

When we finally pulled into Rio Tranquillo, I was a little surprised at how small it was.  There were a few small buildings by the lake for the tour operators, a small dock with dozens of colorful little boats, and a small town with a gas station and store, a few hostels, and a couple of restaurants.

Ol and I decided to get a bite to eat and look for a place to stay. It was too cold to sleep outside and it was raining. We didn’t feel like setting up camp in these conditions, and besides, it had been a long day. The kids all jumped out of the truck and set off for the campground across the street.

We went into the first restaurant which was also a hostel. It advertised wifi, but it was the people we saw enjoying wine that drew us in.

We got a nice table on the glassed in patio and ordered a glass of wine. The wifi was nonexistent and we didn’t have cell service to check our hotel booking apps. We decided to take the advice of the other dining patrons who suggested that we snap up the last remaining room. Even a bad room was better than the freezing and wet campsite across the street. We would get some rest and hope to tour the famed marble caves in the morning. After that, we would continue our tour south on the Carreterra Austral, which has already lived up to its billing as one of the most beautiful drives in the world.

 

Two of the kids, saw us and came in to tell us that they found a tour to the marble caves for us at 10:00 a.m. and they would meet us at the dock across the street. We thought that was so sweet of them. Tomorrow we would cross the last thing off my Patagonia bucket list!

 

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