The Carretera Austral, The Southern Way Road Trip III
I knew that driving the Carretera Austral would be beautiful. I just wasn’t fully prepared for how beautiful it actually was. The drive was relaxing, and yet at the same time stimulated all of the senses. Peace and beauty were to be found around every twist and turn in the road.
That is why I had to politely get rid of our hitchhikers. They were actually turning a relaxing drive into a bad family vacation. How did we let this happen?
We had just finished our tour of the marble caves in Rio Tranquilo and were at our truck stripping off all of our rain gear. It was early afternoon and we were anxious to get on the road. Just as we were storing our gear, one of the young hitchhikers from the day before approached us.
“What are your plans for the rest of the drive south?” he asked.
“We are going to drive as far south as we can. We want to drive as much of the Carretera Austral as we can” Ol replied.
Would it be possible if my friend and I joined you? We really want to reach the southern end of the highway” he asked. “The girls won’t be joining us as they want to stay here. It will be just the two of us.”
We were hesitant because we didn’t want to wait the thirty minutes for them to pack up, but we also wanted some privacy. They wanted to join us for the entire day and we had already spent six hours with them yesterday. Also, we didn’t know how far we felt like driving and we didn’t want to commit to a plan of any sort. Traveling without a schedule has become our mantra.
I’m a sucker. I looked at the pleading eyes of the young hitchhiker and at the big empty backseat of our vehicle and I gave in. “Okay” I said. “Hurry up and get your stuff, We are leaving in a few minutes.” If it’s just the two of them maybe they will sleep, I rationalized.
I told them that we couldn’t commit to how far or where we would end up at the end of the day. I didn’t want to feel responsible for their itinerary.
After waiting for about ten minutes we decided to grab a sandwich. This would give the kids a chance to pack and we wouldn’t have to stop along the way.
We finished lunch and walked back to the truck. The boys were waiting for us and had already put their gear in the truck bed. There were also two other people with them, a young girl and a really big guy.
“We just met these guys in the campground. We told them you were driving south. They wanted to know if they could come along too” our hitchhiker beamed. Why couldn’t I say no?
We let everyone pile into the backseat and were soon on our way. On the way out of town we passed more groups of young hitchhikers lining the road. They looked pitiful with their pleading eyes and hands clasped in prayer. We wouldn’t have been able to keep our backseat empty even if we had wanted to.
In Chile, people commonly use public transportation. If the need for a car arrises, it is fairly easy to rent one. Unfortunately, in Chile, the minimum age to rent a car is twenty-five. And, the cost to rent increases the younger the renter may be. We have learned that even groups of graduate students find it cost prohibitive to rent a car. This is one reason there are so many young hitchhikers along the Carretera Austral. That along with the fact that this is one of the few routes in Chile without reliable public transportation.
When we were about ten minutes out of town I spotted another pair of hitchhikers. I told Ol to pull over. I just couldn’t pass more kids without a ride when we had room in the bed of our truck.
I asked the young boys if they wanted to jump in the back. I thought with all of our backpacks already in the back, there was little likely hood they would be blown out by the famous Patagonian winds. They eagerly accepted the ride and were extremely grateful. And, I no longer felt guilty about passing people when we had available space. We made our way around the lake and Ol occasionally stopped for photos. The road became winding as we made our way up and around the mountains. It seemed that at every turn we were entering into a new eco system. It felt like we were driving through all of America’s national parks in one day.
We saw mountains that looked like Yosemite’s Half-Dome, we saw what looked like Montana’s Glaciers, and we saw beautiful canyons that reminded us of Utah and Arizona. Some areas reminded me of eastern Washington and the Colombia River valley where I grew up. A few minutes later it looked like we were in western Washington and the Aleutian Islands. It was intoxicating.
When we came around one curve, we all gasped. In front of us was the most beautiful river that any of us had ever seen. The river was a stunning blue color that reminded me of a box from Tiffany. The water ran swift and fierce and was dotted with boulders and white water rapids.
This was the Baker river, famous for white water rafting and for being Chile’s largest river in terms of volume of water. We stopped several times along it’s banks to marvel as it made it way alongside the road and through the narrow canyons.
All of this beauty was to be found alongside a dirt highway with little or no people in sight. We had this entire pristine river and wilderness to ourselves. Well, to ourselves and our six hitchhikers.
After driving for several hours, we came to the first small town since leaving the marble caves. It was the town of Cochrane, the destination of the two young boys in the truck bed. As soon as we drove into town, the hitchhikers spotted friends who ran down the street to greet them. There were hugs all around. The boys gave us hugs as well and thanked us for the ride. It made me feel happy to have helped these young kids get to their destination.
It amazed me that on this incredibly beautiful highway, we could drive for so long and so far and see no people. Not even an occasional house or building could be found for hours at a time. There were no small towns, and no convenience stores or gas stations. We were truly in a remote and pristine wilderness.
We continued on not knowing exactly how far we would drive. It was getting to be late afternoon when we came to a beautiful valley. Hundreds of white potting soil bags lined the road. I asked Ol stop because I wanted to see what they were. The twenty-five pound bags were all filled with Sphagnum peat moss. As an avid Gardner I have used many of these bags to line my hanging flower baskets. Now I understand why this stuff is so expensive, it is harvested in remote areas, apparently by hand.
We continued our drive but it was getting late. With our tour of the caves, we had had a long day. Our passengers were talking amongst themselves. They were getting loud and I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. I needed some peace and quiet. I pulled out my headphones and tried to listen to a podcast.
I could still hear them. I gestured to Ol that I was ready to call it a day. However, we were in the middle of nowhere, twenty kilometers from the next small town, Puerto Yungay, where the road ends and a ferry takes vehicles and pedestrians to the next stretch of the highway..
I decided that I could make it to the ferry. Surely, there would be a campsite on either side of the crossing. It was a long twenty kilometers.
When we reached the ferry terminal, we discovered that we had missed the last crossing of the day. The next ferry ran at 10:00 a.m. in the morning.
I was ready to let our passengers out so that we could go find a campsite. There were none to be found. In fact, the town of Puerto Yungay consisted only of the ferry terminal and a few other building that were vacant at this hour.
We all got out of the truck and approached the terminal building. It was dark and had no electricity. If not for the human shadows that could be seen in the window, it looked deserted. However, upon entering, I found that it was crammed with bikers cooking dinner and settling in for the night. A light rain had begun to fall and the bikers and hikers were seeking dry shelter.
Our young hitchhiker approached us.
“Are we going to take the ferry in the morning and continue to the end of the road?” He asked.
“This is as far as we can go tonight” Ol replied. “We are going to let you out here and we are going to find a campsite.”
“What time will you be back?” The hitchhiker asked. “It will be very difficult for us to catch a ride if you don’t come back. We would like to ride with you to the end of the road and then ride back with you.”
“I don’t know what we are going to do yet” I said. “We don’t have a plan. We may just turn around and head back north. We have to return the rental car at some point. Maybe you should just make your own plans.”
I was trying to be nice, but at the same time I couldn’t believe that this young hitchhiker was planning on staying with us for four days. I opened the doors of the truck and gathered up the kids belongings. I was beginning to feel like their mom. This was too much for me.
Ol handed the hitchhikers their belongings. I was ready for some much needed privacy and rest.
The kids just stood there at the ferry terminal staring at us. They did not thank us for driving them hundreds of kilometers over a two day period and they did not say goodbye.
“What time will you be back?” I heard him ask again as I shut my door.
“We don’t know if we are coming back” Ol said as he climbed into the truck. “You probably should plan on finding another ride. Be safe and have fun on the rest of your adventure!”
Ol quickly put the truck into gear and drove off. We were back on our way and finally alone again. Ol wanted to drive to the nearest town and find a hotel. I didn’t care. I was just thankful for the peace and quiet!
We made our way to the small town of Tortel. It was dark, raining, and late. Nothing was open at this hour. The main area of town looked like a large parking lot and was filled with vehicles. It appeared that there were no roads in the town. Cars could park in the main plaza but walking was required to reach any of the building or homes. We could see that the town was surrounded by water with only one road leading in and out.
We couldn’t find a place to park but noticed several people sleeping in vehicles. We decided to park on a hill at the end of town. We got out our sleeping bags and reclined our seats. Car camping it was!
We awoke at sunrise decided to head back north. The hitchhikers would be on their own. Since we had already been this way, I thought that we might make better time. We retraced our path and still found the scenery breathtaking. Again, we stopped several times along the beautiful Baker river.
Going in the opposite direction only changed the view. Different mountains framed things a little differently. We saw glaciers we had missed the first time.
We also saw more of the signs that warned us to be on the lookout for the Huemul, the endangered south Andean deer. We had first seen these signs on our first road trip into Patagonia. The signs are large and rather obtrusive and are posted throughout the region.
The deer are native to Chile and Argentina, and despite our efforts we had yet to see one. The Huemul and the puma are the only two native animals in Patagonia that we have not seen. I was determined to see one of them.
Just as we drove out of the small town of Cerro Castillo we noticed several cars pulled off to the side the road. We slowed down and looked to see what was happening. Thats when I saw him! Standing in tall weeds just along side the highway was a beautiful Huemul, grazing in the afternoon sun. We joined the lucky onlookers and watched as the amazing animal slowly wandered back into the forrest.
After lots of photos we got back in the truck and continued on our way. We were making great time as we were the only car on the road and we weren’t stopping every ten minutes for photos. We had a surprise pit stop as we ran into our British biker friends from the Marble Caves who were battling it up a steep pass. We decided to pull off and make them some hot tea and give them each a few Patagonia beers for the evening. What we like to call trail magic! After a nice visit we continued to the town of Coyhaique for dinner.
We were both feeling great and decided to drive as far as we could before we set up camp for the night. We made it as far north as the lively little town Maniguales, located on a pretty lake. We found a paid campsite in town and got some much needed rest.
The next morning we got an early start and set off for the one national park on my bucket list we had yet to visit, Parque Nacional Quelat. Our goal was to see the spectacular waterfalls and the famous hanging glacier before we had to return the rental car.
As we neared the park, the scenery began to change again.The road started to wind around the mountain. Waterfalls were abundant. The roads in Quelat were difficult to drive. The park is covered by a deep, dark forest and is sub tropical. The raging rivers, large plants, and ferns that covered the roadsides looked like something from Jurassic Park.
As we entered the park we saw two hikers trying to catch a ride. We told them to hop in back. They were appreciative and glad that they wouldn’t have to walk another twenty kilometers to the next trail. We stopped at several large waterfalls for photos and made our way to the park office to register.
We parked and started a short hike to view the famous hanging glacier. After being surrounded by the beauty of this park, I wish that we would have allocated more time to hike here. We needed another three days to really enjoy it. I will just have to put this on the top of my list for our return visit to Chile.
It is funny how we have allocated seven months to South America and we can still run out of time. I keep telling myself that it just isn’t possible to see and do everything.
Unfortunately, the time was up on our rental car and we had to return it to Coyhaique. We made our way back into town (and of course we helped a few young people get back to town) and booked a hostel for the night. The hostel owner was sweet and took all or our laundry and had it folded and back to us in just a few hours.
Coyhaique is not the kind of town to spend a great deal of time in. We spent the afternoon trying to find a ferry or bus out. Ideally, we would catch a bus going north up the few hundred kilometers of the Carretera Austral that we didn’t have time to finish. From there we could catch a ferry to Puerto Montt and Isla de Chiloe.
We quickly found that it was almost impossible to leave the town anytime soon. Most of the busses out of town were completely booked until the following week. I could not imagine myself staying in this town for a week.
We did find one bus that would take us to Reserva Nacional Futaleufu. To leave we would then have to take a van, a small boat across a lake, another bus, and then a ferry. The only problem is there is only one boat and ferry crossing each day, and the few available seats go to locals first. We could easily be stuck there for several days.
We had one last hope, the airport. I did a quick search and found that we could fly from Balmeceda, the nearest airport, to two destinations. We could fly back to Punta Arenas in a few days, or we could catch a flight in the morning to Santiago.
If we went back to Punta Arenas I would lose all hope of ever leaving Chile! I quickly booked two tickets to Santiago leaving the next morning. We were finally on our way out of Patagonia! For the fourth time on this journey Santiago it is!