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.Read More
Fly-fishing in Aysén
Fly-fishing in Aysén
Aysén is the most exciting fly-fishing region in Chile and is internationally renowned, drawing serious anglers, including a number of Hollywood stars. The season varies slightly according to the area, but in general lasts from October or November to May. You need a licence to fish (CH$10,000), widely available in sport-fishing shops. For more info, contact the Servicio Nacional de Pesca at Victoria 2832, Valparaíso (32 281 9100, sernapesca.cl). A number of first-class fishing lodges have sprung up around the region; most lodges are of an extremely high standard.
“Doing” the Carretera Austral
“Doing” the Carretera Austral
“Doing” the Carretera Austral requires a certain amount of forward planning, and time should always be allowed for unexpected delays. In peak season, the villages are covered by a combination of minibuses, ferries and even local flights, but outside the summer months the services drop right off, barring the regular long-distance flights connecting Coyhaique to the rest of Chile. Cyclists will need to carry all necessary spare parts and supplies, because of the challenging road conditions and absence of bike shops (barring Coyhaique).
The words “Carretera Austral” or ‘Southern Highway’ conjure up images of a smooth, paved, multi-lane road, right? Wrong. The Carretera Austral is still very much a “triumph” of man over nature, and Chile’s ultimate road trip to boot; though parts of the road have been “tamed”, it is still a challenging – not to mention spectacularly scenic – drive. Those with their own vehicle may need to consider the entering it via Argentina and Futaleufú (make sure you have the correct paperwork) as the ferry services connecting the top end to Hornopirén are less frequent outside the summer months.
What type of car do I need?
Most car rental agencies will insist that you rent a 4WD for the journey, but while certain sections may be easier to drive in a 4WD, it’s not mandatory. However, a vehicle with high clearance is.
What are the road conditions like?
The question you should be asking yourself is not “Will there be potholes?” It is: “Which of the following potholes should I hit to minimize the damage to my vehicle?” Some sections are more challenging than others; see below for a brief guide to the different stretches of road.
Will there be anywhere to buy petrol?
The vast majority of settlements along the Carretera Austral have petrol stations, so you needn’t worry about running dry.
What essentials should I bring?
Make sure you have a spare tyre (neumático), and all equipment necessary to change said tyre, as you’ll only be able to rely on yourself and passing motorists (all of whom should stop and help you should you need assistance). It’s also a good idea to carry food, water and a sleeping bag.
What about crossing the border into Argentina?
You’ll need to have the required paperwork from your car rental company as well as relevant insurance.
Any other precautions I should take?
Try to avoid driving at night, as not all curves in the road are marked with reflectors. Driving too close to other cars is a bad idea as the loose gravel flying out from under the wheels of the vehicle in front of you will crack your windscreen. Do not attempt to take corners at high speeds on the ripio (dirt and gravel) sections of the road, as you’ll skid right off the side of the road. If travelling via Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo, book ferry tickets in advance.
Road conditions by section
Chaitén to Villa Santa Lucia Partially paved, otherwise heavily potholed and prone to landslides in rainy conditions.
Villa Santa Lucía to Futaleufú Valley Somewhat potholed, mostly good gravel road.
Villa Santa Lucía to Puyuhuapi Somewhat potholed, at times narrow road.
Puyuhuapi to Puerto Cisnes crossroads The most challenging section is the Paso Queulat – narrow, steep, deeply rutted and with tight curves.
Parque Naciuonal Queulat to Puerto Cisnes Partially paved; the rest is a somewhat potholed dirt-and-gravel road.
Parque Naciuonal Queulat to the turn-off for Puerto Aysén Newly paved.
Coyhaique to Puerto Aisén Completely paved but with some blind turns.
Coyhaique to Cochrane Partially paved; otherwise mostly good gravel road with few potholes.
Cruce El Maitén to Chile Chico Mostly good gravel road, but narrow and with precipitous drop on one side.
Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins Mostly good gravel road, steep in parts; ferry crossing required at Puerto Yungay; some sections are very narrow with hairpin bends and sheer drop to one side.