The Carretera Austral Begins
From Puerto Montt we began our road trip down Chile’s famed Carretera Austral highway, known as one of the most amazing road trip highways in the world. The Carretera Austral was built over a 20 year period, starting in 1976, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It was a massive project, cutting through dense wilderness, mountains and glacier-fed streams and lakes to connect Chile’s rural south with the rest of the country. Numerous ferries are literally a part of the highway, all of which are necessary to navigate through massive lakes and fjords that bisect the countryside. Though small parts of it have been paved, most of the Carretera is dirt and gravel bumpiness that can make sipping from your water bottle on the bus without spilling all over yourself quite the challenge.
Before we arrived in Chile, we knew very little about the Carretera and had planned to skip most of it by hopping the border into Argentinian Patagonia before returning to Chile south of the Carretera for the well-known Torres del Paine National Park. Our desire to hike in Parque Pumalín, however, took us onto the beginning of the highway, and we never looked back
What we didn’t realize is how truly beautiful and scenic the Carretera, the towns and the nature preserves along it are, and how well-known “riding the Carretera Austral” is in traveling circles. We saw and met numerous travelers who were bicycling, motorcycling or hitchhiking the winding 770 mile long Carretera. Of course, we already expected Patagonian scenery to blow our minds, but all of the Chilenos we met living in towns near the Carretera have a sense of communal, Patagonian pride. They strongly protect their self-described “muy tranquilo” (meaning very quiet and tranquil) way of life, and some even lamented to us about Chilean visitors from big cities, like Santiago, who can be overly demanding, expecting quick service and attention, the instant gratification they are used to in such a big city. The combination of both immense natural beauty and the rural Patagonian culture, both of which have been deliberately and delicately preserved, are what made our trip down the Carretera Austral so special.
As you’ll see in the pictures below, the official beginning of the highway is actually not on land, but instead a stretch of ocean and fjords between Puerto Montt and Chaitén. A cheap bus ticket from the main bus station in Puerto Montt bought us way more than the average ten hour bus ride. The route included 3 ferry rides, the best of which was a 3 hour cruise, in perfect sunny weather, surrounded by the snow-capped peaks and ocean inlets that make up the nature preserve called Parque Pumalín. We also were lucky enough to run into our friend Ian from Cochamó, who coincidentally hopped on our bus right before the first ferry. The day flew by, allowing all 3 us time to catch up, rest our tired hiking muscles and absorb the beautiful scenery that was only a taste of what we would see in the coming days.
The next handful of posts will follow our 2 week path down the Carretera Austral. Here are a few notes to keep in mind throughout the Carretera posts…
- When you see a picture of a handful of houses and a street or two, that’s usually the whole town. The towns are all very small, with the exception being Coyhaique, the only town along the Carretera with any sort of traffic light.
- ATMs are scarce, bus schedules are irregular, and it was near impossible to make reservations for accommodations ahead of time. Definitely don’t go unless you have some buffer days built in.
- As far as scenery goes, the bus rides are just as scenic, if not more so at times, than the towns we stayed in!
- Our accommodations were mostly hospedajes, where we stayed in someone’s house or guest house and ate meals prepared by the Señora, no menu. I was able to communicate my vegetarianism quite well, but didn’t have the heart to bring up the gluten thing. Plus, supplies are limited in these areas so we ate whatever was available. These 2 weeks may as well have been called the Carretera Gluten for me.
- The weather is quite volatile in this part of Patagonia, at least at this time of year. There are a few warm and dry microclimates, but most of our days were a combination of small bursts of suns, fast-moving cloudy skies with regular rains and mist, and a good amount of wind.
- Hot water and heat are a luxury, with heat mostly coming from wood burning stoves and fireplaces. We loved the smell of burning wood in the air, but we were always pretty bundled up and dressed in lots of layers, sometimes even in bed.