Driving the Carretera Austral in Chile

Two men with furrowed faces under wide sombreros enter the arena. Callused hands leisurely hold the reins of the horses and short ponchos striped in natural colors fall around the cowboys’ shoulders. A gate is opened, a young bull set loose. Let the game begin!

The huasos, as Chilean cowboys are called, work in twos and have to corner the bull against the fence three times. The horsemen’s strength and skills are masterful, but so are the bull’s. At times it succeeds in outrunning the horses or evading the circuit, which leads to puntos malos (penalty points) for the huasos.

Understanding a Rodeo

I ask my neighbor how much time each team is allowed in order to achieve their goal. I get a bewildered look. It takes a moment before he answers, “They have to corner the bull three times. Time is not relevant”.

The answer characterizes life here; time has an entirely different meaning than it does in my world.

Summer in Patagonia is rodeo time. Mind you, summer in the southern hemisphere is December-February. Those are the months to harvest, fish and have fun. It is also the best time of the year to travel the Carretera Austral.

The epic 1200-kilometer road connects northern and southern Chile – from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgings. Note that the most southern road border with Argentina is on R 264, along Lago General Carrera; at Villa O’Higgings you can only cross the border on foot or by bicycle.

The Carretera Austral was mainly constructed during the 1980s under Pinochet’s regime and initially bore the name of Carretera Presidente Pinochet. Because of its inaccessibility, Chile started to colonize this area only by the end of the 19th century, and even now large areas have never been explored by man.

Coen and I drive up the Carretera Austral with a private vehicle, starting our road trip in the far south on the Argentinian border: the deep-blue Lago Buenos Aires (for Argentinians), or Lago General Carrera (for Chileans). The washboard road mauls the Land Cruiser and us to pieces, yet the views of blue-tinged, snow-capped mountains that line the horizon amply compensate that discomfort.

Driving the Carretera Austral

In Puerto Rio Tranquilo I hunt for groceries, a challenge because vegetables are scarce in Patagonia. I am lucky to obtain one pepper and two avocados. We’ll be living on cans and rice for a couple of days.

We rough camp in a dead-end valley called “Valle Exploradoras”, where we bathe in an pure, totally unpolluted river. I am glad to have brought a bottle of eco-friendly soap (for hair, body, dishes and clothes). Above the river towers a mountain wall, topped by a glacier which seems to be hanging in the sky. There’s enough wood to kindle a fire which keeps us warm in the evening. As soon as the sun is down, temperatures plummet.

For a week we meander along the roads, admire views, rough camp, study constellations under the blackest skies imaginable, and simply feel perfectly content to be here. We come upon a side road that leads to the fishing village of Puerto Cisnes. Anglers with waders stand in the fast-flowing river to catch their meal for the day.

Just before the village is a cemetery. Many graves are colorfully decorated with flowers, but too many have plastic children’s toys. The realization that medical care often can’t reach these people fast enough confronts me with the downside of living in this bewitching part of the world.

Weather, Wildlife & a Hot Pool

Chile’s Patagonia is known of its abundance of rain, which nourishes the prolific growth of trees, bushes, plants, vines and weeds. In the verges are rhubarb plants larger than man. They are called nalca, and locals eat them raw with a bit of salt. Near Chaitén are hot pools, which are a welcome change after days of chilly weather.

After two days of continues rain, the sun returns and we camp on the beach of Santa Barbara. Early morning a lone cowboy appears from the fog and slowly puts up his hand in greeting. Birds welcome dawn with their chatter. A school of dolphins exercises right in front of us. It’s an excellent start of a new day.

Practical Information

  • The Carretera Austral leads farther north, up to Puerto Montt. This road trip is only possible from December-February because that’s the only time ferries ply (the stretch described above doesn’t include a ferry crossing; near Chaitén we crossed back into Argentina).
  • You can travel the stretch by public transport, but there are few buses, especially along the most southern part of the Carretera Austral, and you may have to hitchhike as well. There are villages with budget accommodation and places to eat, but be prepared and bring some water and food in case you get stranded.
  • Car rental agencies are in El Calafate (Argentina) or Puerto Montt (Chile). Make sure the agency allows you to cross borders with the rental car.
  • For trekking,buy out Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes or for general travel information check out the Insight Guides series.
  • For additional stories on Chile, enjoy here on our Landcruisingadventure website.

All photos by Coen Wubbels.

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