Extending into the remote southern end of Chile, Route 7, the Carretera Austral, is a 1240 km road through national parks, lakes, mountains and glaciers of rural Patagonia.
After crossing into Chile at Paso Futaleufú, we drive road 231, through the village of Futaleufú, a charming little town where we are surprised to see hords of backpackers trying to thumb a ride. This area draws adventure seekers for its excellent rafting and kayaking rivers.
For the night we stop in Villa Santa Lucía where 231 meets the Carretera. The campground is a grassy yard beside the only grocery store in this 2 street town. Across the road fenced dogs bark at everything, day and night. We meet a young couple from Estonia who are bicycling through Chile. They have to tell us where Estonia is. In case you don’t know either, it’s near Finland.
Now on the Carretera Austral, we drive south, stopping first in the rustic village of Puyuhuapi to get supplies.
Then on to Parque Nacional Queulat. A long bumpy dirt track takes us into the campground where luckily we get the only site that allows a vehicle.
Everyone else has to park in the parking lot and walk to their site. Weird. The forest is thick around us and we hear interesting bird calls, but see none.
A short trail takes us to a lake. Across the water, up high, is a hanging glacier. Thick ragged layers of blue ice between dark rocks. Spectacular.
Two waterfalls descend off its face, falling forever through the air, endlessly replenishing the lake below.
At night we hear the booms from the glacier as it shifts and calves.
We stay one night in Coihaique. It’s a large center with plenty of shops. We decide to look for new tires. Probably shoulda coulda woulda bought these sooner. But we didn’t. Unfortunately, the Bridgestone tire shop doesn’t have our size of tire. He tells us that we won’t find them this far south in Chile.
In our campground we meet a young German couple named Paul and Ana, who are hitchhiking south. Bob offers to take them to their next destination a few hours down the road. It was nice to have chatty company for awhile. We drop them off at the village near Cerro Castilla and stop to admire this incredible mountain. With unusual jagged peaks, it resembles a castle in the sky.
We had read that the Carretera is a combination of paved and gravel. Not exactly accurate. The pavement runs out at Villa Cerro Castilla. We find ourselves driving over more rock than gravel. Very rough. Tough driving. At about 2 pm, we stop for construction. The road worker tells us the road won’t open again until 5 pm. When we finally start up again there are less than 20 vehicles in the line. An indication of how few people actually drive here.
As luck would have it, just to add one more challenge to the day, we get a flat tire. It is dirty work getting the spare out from underneath and replacing it. Yay Bob.
So it is late by the time we arrive in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. This laid back village sits on the edge of Lago General Carrera, a lake which is shared by Argentina and Chile.
At over 200 km long, it is the largest lake in Chile. But mostly recognized for its stunning turquoise color.
There are at least a dozen overlanders vehicles here. So we spend two nights parked on the beach, mesmerized by the gorgeous water. It’s a beautiful spot.
In the morning we search for a tire repair shop. We find Daniel working out of a shack, a pile of used tires in the yard revealing that we have the right place. He is quirky, but competent.
That done, we decide on a tour to the Marble Caves. The fibreglass tour boat is wide and deep with 4 bench seats painted orange. There are 8 of us plus a driver and a guide. At first they hand out rain jackets but both Bob and I have our own. Next we buckled blue life jackets over the raincoats. Then they hand out green rubber ponchos. Going to get wet, are we?
Within a minute of leaving the dock water is spraying over my head. After 5 minutes and many dousings, I am starting to feel like we are on Disney’s Wet & Wild. Water trickles inside my shirt and down through my socks. It is not a warm day. We all wrap our ponchos around us and under our butts, knuckle clenching the seats.
At first the boat meets each wave head on, airborne over the crest, then banging into the trough. In the middle of the lake we change direction so that the waves hit us sideways. No matter. Still more cold hard spray.
When we finally reach the caves though, we are on the protected side of an island. The water is calm. The sun comes out.
The large marble formations have been worn smooth by the waves over thousands of years. Our boat putts in and out of caves. We can reach up and touch the marble, the deep blue, grey and cream veins running together, creating lovely patterns.
Suddenly the weather changes again. It starts to sleet rain. The wind is fierce and all the green ponchos are flapping. Before we set out across open water for the dock, the guide gives us safety instructions in Spanish, interpreted to me by an Argentinian guy, who can speak a little English, as “Be safe”. Hmmm, is that the same as “Hang on”?
On the ride back we crash over wave after wave. Large ones. Behind me, the Guatemalan guys are hooting and hollering in enthusiasm. Meanwhile I am trying to decide whether to stay with the boat or swim for shore. But we don’t tip.
It’s a rainy day as we leave Puerto Rio Tranquilo, headed for Cochrane about 120 km away. It is supposed to take us 3 hours. But it takes longer, although here the gravel road is decently smooth. In spite of the low clouds, the beauty is evident. The road goes around the turquoise water of Lago General Carrera and then along the Rio Baker, same color. There are a few cyclists on the road and we pass two whom we know! Mike and Louise from Vancouver. So we stop for a chat. Even though it’s still raining, they say they are fine.
We stop to view the confluence of the Baker with the Rio Neff, where turquoise water gushes over a set of falls before meeting the white water of the Neff. Spinning in a pool of color, the water then rushes southward toward a deep gorge.
For the rest of the drive we follow a narrow road high above the gorge, with glimpses of the river below.
When we arrive in the town of Cochrane we go straight to the tire shop. It’s closed but others waiting on the sidewalk tell us it will open at 3. But 3 pm comes and goes and so does 4. We find a 1 bedroom cabana just up the street with good parking space and a little wood stove. Piles of cut wood in backyards, and the constant smell of wood smoke tells us that this is how homes are heated here.
After 5 we take a last check at the tire store. Surprisingly it is open. And yay, he has 4 R15s for about $200 Cdn each. He puts them out on the sidewalk, we throw them into Vanna and set off for the Gomeria, where tires are installed. Shop owner Segundo works hastily and has the back tires installed in about 10 minutes. But then a problem. The other 2 tires are R16. Oops! Bob says he will go back but Segundo, one tire in hand, is already running for the truck shouting “Venga, venga.” Bob grabs the other tire, jumps into the truck and they speed off.
Half an hour passes, and I suspect that they had some kind of trouble.
It turned out that the shop guy did not have any more R15’s. When he tried to return the money, the credit card machine wouldn’t do the refund. In the end he gave cash. Then Segundo and Bob raced to another tire shop across town. In someone’s back yard. They found 2 more brand new, the correct size, with mega tread.
All in all it took just over an hour to get the 4 new tires installed, on a Saturday evening, for a cost of 20,000 pesos ( $32.59 Cdn.) Muchas gracias Segundo.
Sunday is a warm sunny day and the mountains around have a new dusting of white. After dropping off laundry, we walk around town, realizing that International Woman’s Day is today.
A group of women stand in front of the police station, carrying banners, banging pots, and chanting. “No means No” is one of the chants that we understand.
At the municipal building, the day’s celebrations include kiosks of home made pastries and knitted sweaters. Later we catch the first part of a musical lineup. A young man is decked out in black with silver studs adorning his pants, belt and wide sombrero.
He sings love songs, choosing women from the crowd to sing to while he stares into their eyes and caresses their cheek. The women, all ages, go gaga over him.
Just north of Cochrane we take X83 to Parque Nacional Patagonia, in the grasslands of the Chacabuco valley. This land was purchased from sheep farmers by the late Doug Tompkins, an American who owned North Face and a clothing company he named Patagonia. Recently, the park was turned over to the Chilean government.
At the visitors center we are awed by the money put into the building and the displays. Focused on both the environment and on park features, there are many multi interactive displays, including Doug and his wife in life size video.
Of the 3 campgrounds in the park, we choose Alto Valle. It’s decadente. Each grassy spacious site has a two sided shelter with a view. Ours has a table and benches that can comfortably sit 16 people. Built of stone, the bathrooms have granite sinks, fixtures that I would like in my own bathroom, and beautiful wood doors for each toilet cubicle. Feels like you are at an upscale hotel. Odd for a remote park that advocates using less.
We decide on a 12 km hike around Lago Chico. We walk through alpine meadow, with its tufts of yellow grass, leafy shrubs now turning orange and red. A mirror blue lake, white drifts on the mountains, and multi hues of rock.
It was a gorgeous 4 hour walk, ending at the Tompkins mirador, a vista of spreading lakes and layered mountain ridges. One of our best hikes ever.
This park has puma and Huemul deer, but on the hike we only saw guanacos, a heftier version of llama. A few females stood on a ridge. They were screaming, a high pitched squeal. Across the valley a lone male snorted his reply. We watched and listened for awhile. Wow.
The road through this park returns us to the Argentinian border. Both customs stops are one man operations. For a change, we have no problems. But it is the first time ever that we have been asked for an International Drivers license, which we have. Although outdated but he didn’t notice.
From the border we drive west to connect with route 40 in Argentina. Thankfully we have the new tires as it is 80 km of nasty stone and nastier rock. It takes 3 hours. Along the way we see 2 armadillos, 3 rheas, and several wild horses. Only 1 other car.
At one point a group of guanacos stand at attention, staring at Vanna as we drive by. I catch myself waving to them. Yikes, I think it’s time to get back to civilization.