4x4ing the Carretera Austral

Written By: jeff

Posted On: July 17th, 2011

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I'm a truck drivin' man. Copyright

On Monday morning after saying a quick goodbye to Matt, I went into town to have a quick breakfast and find a car to drive.  I quickly hit a roadblock as all the agencies seemed to be out of cars.  Furthermore, the prices were even more outlandish than I had originally heard.  I started doubting my plan and my resolve to drive the carretera.  So, I went to have a coffee and think about my plans.  I finally decided to bite the bullet and pay the exorbitant costs.  After all, driving through Patagonia is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The terrain is magical and I love the mountains.  I ultimately decided that I would regret NOT doing it and taking a bus up to Chaitén, my stopping point.

I went to 5 or 6 agencies with no success. My final hope was Budget Rent a Car.  After my enquiry, they confirmed that they had a truck available.  I closed my eyes to the cost so as not to cause myself any more pain.  They needed about 2 hours to prep the truck so I headed into town to buy supplies for the road.  By 2PM, I was off to explore.

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Mountain lakes everywhere. Copyright

The first day, I headed south a bit to explore a small lakes region.  Once I left the main road, I hit the ripio roads, or dirt roads.  I first headed out to Lago La Paloma where I had a quick lunch.  I then headed up past Lago Elizalde and Lago Atravesado.  All of these were to the southwest of Coyhaique.  I crossed the the southeast side passing by Lago Pollux and Castor.  The scenery was more beautiful on this side.  On the other side, the terrain was mostly flat filled with many farms.  While the east side had its farming side too, there were many more trees and foothills.  I got some great photos of the area.  The sun started to set and my visibility decreased so I decided to head back to Coyhaique for the night.  I wanted to head on a little further, but was afraid of arriving too late to find a place to sleep for the night.  I did have my sleeping bag as a backup in case I needed to sleep in the truck, but I preferred a regular bed.  Plus, I could get a nice cup of coffee in town in the morning before leaving.

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The road can get a little bumpy at times as the sign indicates. Copyright

I got up Tuesday morning and headed out for a quick breakfast.  Around 11, I got on the road and headed north.  My destination for the day was Puyuhaupi, described as a picturesque mountain town.  There was a small route past Lago Castor that would take me north along the Argentinean border.  Given the scenery I had seen last night, it looked to be the ideal place to go.  I made a wrong turn and wound up at the border near Lago Castor.  I backtracked and headed through Coyhaique Alto, a military border post.  So far so good.  The landscape changed as I had moved just enough east to where the dry, desolate pampa began.  The road was not well-traveled and I felt good that I had a 4×4 truck.  But, I knew that if I had a flat or an accident, no one would be passing by anytime soon.  It had been a while since I did any real 4x4ing so I enjoyed the challenge.  The road was just difficult enough to keep me alert, but not so bad that I ever felt out of control.  That Land Rover training I had had years ago came in handy.  I came upon a farm in the middle of nowhere with the road blocked off.  I thought I took a wrong turn so I turned around.  With no one outside at the farm, I was not keen to keep going.  Having grown up in Texas, I knew you could get shot for that kind of behavior.  Of course, in Chile, no one has guns, but it was the principle that kept me from going through the gate.  At the checkpoint in Coyhaique Alto, I found out that I indeed was on the right track and could’ve advanced.  But, given the time of day, I thought it best that I go north an alternative, more direct route.

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Local birds like these were everywhere. Copyright

I passed through Villa Ortega, a small village in the mountains which took me up to Mañihuales.  The roads were remarkably good except for the off-the-beaten path I had taken earlier in the day.  I had heard horror stories about the roads and wondered where they had come from.

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Some got around on motorcycle. Copyright

Just outside of Villa Amengual, I saw two girls hitchhiking and decided to pick them up.  Hitchhiking in Chile and Argentina is done with greater frequency than in the US and I had heard that there would be plenty of people doing it…even the locals hitch.  They were two Israeli girls going up to Puyuhuapi too.  They had the typical Israeli traveler story: young and recently out of the military, and traveling for a bit before starting university.

The road turned tough and we hit a patch that was being worked on.  At the same time, this stretch turned into the most beautiful so far.  We gained altitude as the day went on.  The vegetation took on a sub-tropical look with plants looking like they belong more in the jungle than in the middle of the Patagonian mountains.  The last 30-40 kilometers were along a sea inlet that led us right to Puyuhuapi.  We stopped off to take several photos.  We passed by the Parque Nacional Quelat and got a couple of shots of the Quelat glacier.  It was all very stunning.

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Waterfalls on the side of the road, a common site. Copyright

We arrived in Puyuhuapi and I let the girls out to find housing.  Since I had to be in Chaitén the next day by 2 to return the truck, I wanted to find out how long the drive would be.  On the map, it didn’t look very far, but if the road was going to be in the poor condition we had to the south of Puyuhuapi, I was going to budget more time and, perhaps, move on tonight.  I was told that I only needed 3.5 hours to reach Chaitén so I decided to stay in Puyuhuapi.  I had a quick dinner and got off to bed so I could get an early start.

I left Puyuhuapi around 8AM after taking a few pictures of the cute town.  I wished I could’ve had a day here to enjoy the town.  It was definitely a place to enjoy.  But, I was off.  The morning brought with it much fog and I enjoyed the mystical views all around.  As the morning wore on, the fog burned off revealing beautiful forested mountains and lakes all around.  I also saw here much deforestation, something I had seen a little bit along the way, but here it seemed more pronounced.  It was sad to see few efforts to reforest what had been harvested.  I’m sure timber is a big economic driver here, but there I saw little evidence that there was any long-term plan to renew the resources being extracted from the land.

I passed by Lago Yelcho which had more glacier-capped mountains alongside it.  After a few pictures, I moved on and arrived in Chaitén just before noon.

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Glacier at Quelat National Park. Copyright

This was one of the more scenic parts of the Patagonia tour for me.  And, despite the cost, I was glad I decided to drive it.  I saw a great variety of forest vegetation, pampa, lakes, glacier-capped and snow-capped mountains, flora, birds, bridges, rivers, and streams.  it was difficult to get here and to know how to navigate it.  After making the trip through it, I was glad that it isn’t easy to get here.  I’m sure that over time, the number of people visiting will increase.  Certainly, as the road improves so too will the travel infrastructure which will result in more visitors.  I can only hope that more people will not result in the destruction of this jewel of nature.

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Leaving Chaiten for Chiloe. Copyright

Originally Published February 28, 2008

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2 Responses to “4x4ing the Carretera Austral”

  1. [...] then I recommend heading to the southern town of Coyhaique in Chile. From there, you can access La Carretera Austral, or the Southern Highway. The road is still unpaved in some parts. It is a paradise for campers, [...]

  2. Hey man, this looks awesome. Beautiful place.

    I pretend to do the same on bicycle. Did happen to have 3G signal? I will probably need to connect to the internet every day trough the trip. That’s one of my biggest concerns.
    Tomas Vergara recently posted..The Chase – Now Online

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