Carreterra Austral Top to Bottom – Travel Tips and Reflections

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Southern Chile
By George Kalli

The Carretera Austral is a remote, mostly gravel highway constructed during the Pinochet dictatorship of Chile in the 1980s. The highway is located in the south of Chile and traverses a total of 1,200 kilometers along the western front of the Andes from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O Higgins in the south, where further overland travel is blocked one of the two largest icefields outside of Antarctica. My girlfriend and I traveled a majority of the Carretera Austral from north to south, beginning in Chaiten, Chile on 1 January and culminating in El Chalten, Argentina on 17 February, during the austral summer of 2006. Doing so involved a total of 8 minibus rides, 3 ferry rides, 1 boat ride, 1 hired car, 9 hitched rides, and an approximately 21 kilometer hike. It truly was an amazing journey. I hope if you have any intentions to do a similar trip that you may find some of the information contained here to be useful. If not, I hope that you simply enjoy reading about some of the time we spent in this majestic corner of the world.

Without possessing your own vehicle (or even if you do), traveling the Carretera Austral can be quite a challenge. During the southern hemisphere summer months of January and February it is theoretically possible to traverse the Carretera Austral by minibus. Don’t be misled though. Just because a bus is scheduled to provide transport does not ensure that it will actually do so. This is exactly how our journey on the Carretera Austral began upon attempting to leave Chaiten. Two scheduled buses never materialized leading us to our first adventure in hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral. What a memorable experience it turned out to be. You can read about it at Patagonian Express.

Another difficulty about traveling the Carretera Austral by minibus is the scarcity of locations at which you can actually purchase physical bus tickets. From our experience, the only communities along or adjacent to the Carretera Austral in which you can do so are Chaiten, Futaleufu (only for travel north to Chaiten or east into Trevelin, Argentina), La Junta, Coyhaique, Chile Chico, Cochrane, and Villa O’ Higgins. That’s not a lot of locations for stretch of road over 1,000 kilometers long. It’s mostly a cash only affair along the Carretera Austral – no reserving your seats with a credit card. If you find yourself needing to catch a bus somewhere along the Carretera Austral outside of these few communities, you may have a significant challenge ahead of you. We tried calling ahead to the bus companies to reserve seats with promised payments to the drivers upon being picked up. Although the bus companies did agree to such arrangements while on the phone, the actual bus rides never did materialize. If they have the opportunity to sell your “reserved” seats for cash back in town, they will do so. Such was our experience. Our “reserved” seats on full buses (unlike in Peru, the concept of a full bus does exist in Chilean culture) were occupied by others who were able to pay cash for them at the bus company office back in town. This led to additional hitchhiking on our part.

We actually met other travelers who were headed north to Chaiten but were in reality traveling in the opposite direction, south to Cochrane, as a means to get around this particular difficulty. After arriving on the Carretera Austral from Argentina to the east, they were aware that Cochrane was the closest community in which they could reliably purchase transport for the remainder of the journey to Chaiten. Hence they chose to travel to Cochrane although it was over 190 kilometer detour (along a slow going stretch of road) in the opposite direction of their ultimate destination. Such an approach to travel along the Carretera Austral is advisable to those averse to hitchhiking or those, that because of other scheduled traveling plans and commitments, cannot accept the unreliability of hitching a ride.

The difficulty of purchasing tickets along the Carretera Austral is not limited to travel on the minibuses. There are several locations where travel by ferry is an option and sometimes a necessity. We decided to take the ferry from Puerto Ibanez to Chile Chico. We were in the closest community to Puerto Ibanez, Villa Cerro Castillo, which is the end of the highly recommended Cerro Castillo hike. Being that there is only sporadic transport between the two communities, we were once again faced with hitchhiking. We rode atop a two story high truckload of firewood to the road junction to Puerto Ibanez and then were fortunate enough to flag down a bus with two empty seats to take us the rest of the way to the ferry dock where we intended to pay for our passage across Lake General Carrera to Chile Chico. That’s not how it works along the Carretera Austral though. There is no place in Puerto Ibanez to purchase ferry tickets. The only place to do so is in Coyhaique which is located 198 kilometers away in the opposite direction from which we came from. We were instructed to wait until after the ferry was loaded with all its paid passengers and vehicles and that at that time the captain may, at his whim, allow some additional people to board the boat. So I found myself along the wind swept shores of Lake General Carrera in the middle of Patagonia experiencing a peculiar combination of feeling like I was in a queue trying to look my best to gain entrance into some trendy, exclusive club and yet at the same time feeling like a desperate immigrant begging for passage upon an overcrowded boat headed to the promise of greener pastures. “How the hell do I impress a Chilean ferry boat captain so he will let me on his boat?”, I found myself wondering. Well apparently the captain must have liked the cut of my jib for he allowed me, and all others who were waiting without tickets purchased in Coyhaique, to board and pay his staff directly for the passage to Chile Chico. So I guess the moral of this anecdote is to buy your ferry tickets in Coyhaique or be sure to dress to impress the captain.

As you have probably figured out by now, the willingness to hitchhike is a good trait to possess along the Carretera Austral. However, hitchhiking itself is no easy matter. Vehicles are very few and far between. I would estimate that we saw between 2 to 5 cars per hour while hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral. We heard numerous stories of people waiting in spots for up to 4 days waiting for a ride. With that knowledge, we felt lucky that the longest we ever waited for a ride was a little over 4 hours. Here’s some graffiti from Villa Santa Lucia that attests to the lack of rides.

Hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral can also tend to resemble an economics case study in supply and demand. In certain locations, such as Villa Santa Lucia, Chile Chico, and Queulat National Park, it is not uncommon to see several groups scattered along the roadside hitchhiking. There is often much competition for the scarce rides that are available. I’ve heard accounts of hitchhikers stretched out for over a kilometer along the Carretera Austral in Villa Santa Lucia. Hitchhiking along the Carretera Austral requires perseverance, patience, and most importantly, luck. Perhaps, if you are keen to a new and unusual way to learn a foreign language, you can learn Hebrew from the numerous Israelis who hitchhike, many so exclusively, along the Carretera Austral.

One of the more unique tests of our patience occurred while traveling by minibus along the southern shore of Lake General Carrera from Chile Chico to Cochrane (a very scenic stretch of road). After not seeing any structures or other vehicles for quite some time we arrived at a small village consisting of perhaps a dozen structures. Oddly enough there were some workers assembling a rather out-of-place looking metal framework of a building resembling a small hangar of some sort. The bus driver announced that we would be taking a 15 minute break to complete some needed repairs to the minibus. Subsequently, tires were removed and welding equipment began operating under the bus in the vicinity of the rear axle. We quickly identified this as trouble and knew there was absolutely no way that it would only take the promised 15 minutes. What did only take 15 minutes to occur was a small brush fire that was inadvertently caused by the welding.

There are several locations from which you may depart from the Carretera Austral and head east into Argentina to spend some time. If you have the time to do so this is advisable, especially with the current exchange rates. Argentina is cheaper and a better overall value than Chile (at least in the austral summer of 2006 it was). We crossed over into Argentina three times; from Futaleufu to the area around El Bolson (see El Bolson) , from Chile Chico to Los Antiguos (see Los Antiguos), and from Villa O’ Higgins, the southern terminus of the Carretera Austral, to El Chalten and Los Glaciares National Park, both in Argentina.

The ultimate way to complete (or to begin if you are traveling south to north) a trip down the Carretera Austral is to travel between El Chalten, Argentina and Villa O’ Higgins, Chile. This involves a boat crossing of Lake O’ Higgins and then a hike (or bike if you are of the bike touring variety) across the Chilean/Argentinean frontier to Lake Del Desierto. From Lake Del Desierto you can take a boat to the other end or continue hiking to the other end where buses are available to take you the remaining 37 kilometers to El Chalten, gateway to Los Glaciares National Park. The best source of information concerning bus and boat schedules and other logistics is online.

Chilean customs is located less than 1 kilometer from where you are dropped off along the shores of Lake O’ Higgins. Likewise, Argentinean customs is located along the scenic shores of Lake Del Desierto from which there is a great view of Mount Fitzroy. We actually rented a room in quite a nice and comfortable cabin from the Argentinean soldiers stationed there. Here is the view out across Lake Del Desierto from the window of the refugio.

The trail between the two border stations is obvious. It is actually a rarely traveled road on the Chilean side of the frontier. At the Argentinean border, it turns into a proper footpath. Those that hiked took 5.5 — 7.5 hours to complete the traverse. With the exception of two who covered the same distance in less than 5.5 hours, it generally took bike tourers at least 7 hours to get to Lake Del Desierto. Navigation of the heavily loaded and bulky bikes was quite difficult along the narrower trail once reaching Argentina. There was also a knee deep river crossing in Chile that was more difficult for those with bicycles. If you chose to hike along Lake Del Desierto instead of taking the boat, it should take between 3.5 and 5 hours if you don’t lose the path, which several groups we met managed to do. Taking a bike along this section of trail is not advisable.

If you do decide to complete the crossing from Villa O’ Higgins to El Chalten you need to be aware of the lack of banks. There are no banks to speak of in either Villa O’ Higgins or El Chalten. Foreign currency, with the exception of US dollars and possibly Euros, are not readily accepted for payment in either town. Ideally, you should possess sufficient pesos from both Chile and Argentina before departing Coyhaique, Chile (if heading south) or El Calafate, Argentina (if headed north). Although there are banks and cash machines in Chile Chico and Cochrane, Chile, we found that they were not compatible with our Visa/Plus system bank cards — only MasterCard system cards were compatible. Luckily, we were able to withdraw money from an account using a Visa debit card with assistance from one of the tellers within one of the banks. Otherwise we may have had to resort to what some other travelers were forced to do — hang out in markets that accept credit cards (there seemed to be one in Cochrane, none in Villa O’ Higgins, and at least three in El Chalten) and ask other customers to allow you to pay for their purchases with your credit card and to give you the equivalent cash — not a good way to spend your first day in a country.

I wish you the best of times and luck if you decide to venture along the Carretera Austral. If you have any questions feel free to email me at georgepdx at hotmail dot com.

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