The Carretera Austral – Chile’s Southern Highway – begins nowhere and leads nowhere. Over 1000km in length, it was hewn and blasted through the wettest, greenest and narrowest part of the country. This sliver of Patagonia is a majestic land of snowcapped volcanoes, Ice Age glaciers, emerald fjords, turquoise lakes and jade-coloured rivers, set among lush temperate forest where giant trees seem to drip with rain the whole year long. The Carretera was built with the very purpose of settling this damp, secluded sliver of territory, but the only way to reach it from the rest of Chile is by boat or plane or overland from Argentina. Few roads can feel more remote.
Although some picturesquely rickety buses ply the route, they are irregular, unreliable and can’t take you everywhere you’ll want to go. It’s far more rewarding to rent a 4WD pick-up truck, pack a can of fuel and plentiful supplies and drive yourself. The slippery, loose-gravel surface demands the utmost respect, so don’t expect to average more than 50km/h. As the locals will tell you: hereabouts, if you hurry, you never arrive! Lashing rain, gales and passing vehicles – albeit few and far between – are the only likely hazards.
The pleasures, however, are many and varied: make pit stops to wallow in the thermal springs at Cahuelmó after the bone-rattling ride, enjoy the warm hospitality and delicious cakes at Casa Ludwig in Puyuhuapi, or feast on roast Patagonian lamb by the fireside at El Reloj in Coyhaique. Most of the route affords incredible views of the Andean cordillera, and along the way you’ll see dense groves of southern beech and immense lakes like miniature seas, as well as the amazing “hanging glacier” in the Parque Nacional Queulat and the Capilla de Mármol, a magical grotto carved into the blue and white limestone cliffs looming from Lago Carrera. But the best bit is the feeling of driving through utterly virgin lands – especially the southernmost stretch that leads to pioneering Villa O’Higgins, completed only in 2002. The road seems to fly over the barren crags to the place where, according to local legend, the devil left his
Jan and Feb are the best months to drive the route. Casa Ludwig, Av Otto Uebel, Puyuhuapi; El Reloj, Baquedano 828, Coyhaique.