From Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral, or “Southern Highway”, stretches over 1000km south through the wettest, greenest, wildest and narrowest part of Chile, ending its mammoth journey at the tiny settlement of Villa O’Higgins. Carving its path through tracts of untouched wilderness, the route takes in soaring, snowcapped mountains, Ice Age glaciers, blue-green fjords, turquoise lakes and rivers, and one of the world’s largest swaths of temperate rainforest. Most of it falls into Aysén, Chile’s “last frontier”, the final region to be opened up in the early twentieth century. A hundred years on, Aysén remains very sparsely populated, and still has the cut-off, marginal feel of a pioneer zone.
With the 2008 eruption of the Chaitén volcano now in the past, you can once again begin your exploration of the region from the north. Leaving Puerto Montt, you can travel through both Parque Nacional Alerce Andino and Parque Nacional Hornopirén, before taking the boat over to Caleta Gonzalo, where the Carretera cuts a passage through virgin temperate rainforest in the private nature reserve of Parque Pumalín, and finally emerging in the volcano-ravaged town of Chaitén.
South along the Carretera from Chaitén is the nondescript settlement of Villa Santa Lucía. From here, one branch of the road heads east, to the border village of Futaleufú, the pre-eminent centre for whitewater rafting. Continuing south, the Carretera emerges at the Parque Nacional Queulat, whose extraordinary hanging glacier and excellent trails make for one of the most rewarding places to get off the road. Don’t miss the chance to luxuriate in the secluded hot pools of the luxurious Termas de Puyuhuapi.
The main town of Coyhaique marks the centre of the Carretera; to the west, Puerto Chacabuco is the principal starting point for boat excursions to the sensational Laguna San Rafael glacier. To the south, the road loops around South America’s second largest lake, Lago General Carrera, while the final stretch of the Carretera connects the little town of Cochrane to the isolated hamlet of Villa O’Higgins, with a road branching off to the unusual settlement of Caleta Tortel.
The original inhabitants of this rain-swept land were the nomadic, hunter-gatherer Tehuelche of the interior, and the canoe-faring Alcalufe, who fished the fjords and channels of the coast, though now only a handful of the latter remain. In 1903, the government initiated a colonization programme that ultimately handed over thousands of hectares of land to three large livestock companies. At the same time, a wave of individual pioneers – known as colonos – came down from the north to try their luck at logging and farming, resulting in massive deforestation and destruction of the natural environment.
Faced with Argentina’s encroaching influence, the government set out to actively “Chileanize” this new zone. Over the years, the perceived need for state control of the region did not diminish, explaining the rationale behind the construction of the Carretera Austral, initiated by earlier governments but with the greatest progress achieved under General Pinochet. Building the road was a colossal and incredibly expensive undertaking: the first section was finished in 1983 and engineers completed the final 100km in 2000, from tiny Puerto Yungay to the frontier outpost of Villa O’Higgins, by the Argentine border.
Northern Patagonia today
In spite of the Carretera Austral, the settlements in Northern Patagonia still have a frontier feel to them and the people who live here reflect the area’s intrepid settler spirit. Their resourcefulness allows them to overcome major natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, and every spring, they celebrate their huaso (cowboy) heritage in a series of rodeos, pitting their equestrian skills against one another.