South of the great lake, a gravel road winds its way along the river towards Cochrane, the last settlement of any size and the gateway to the Reserva Nacional Tamango. Beyond Cochrane, the road snakes its way through a dense carpet of evergreens and giant nalca. After just over 100km south, you come to the embarcadero de Río Vagabundo, the launching spot for boats to the tiny, remote hamlet of Caleta Tortel, also reachable by the gravel road that forks west from the Carretera. Further south, at Puerto Yungay, a car ferry crosses Fiordo Mitchell and a precarious road leads to the Carretera’s final stop – tiny Villa O’Higgins.
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The last major stop on the Carretera Austral, the ranching settlement of COCHRANE lies 50km south of Puerto Bertrand. The town’s paved, orderly grid of streets spreading out from the neat Plaza de Armas, and array of limited services, make this a prime spot to rest up after the wildness of the Carretera Austral.
Visitors fall in love with Tortel as soon as they see this scattering of houses on forested slopes surrounding a pale emerald bay. Located at the mouth of the Río Baker between the northern and southern ice fields and a logging spot for a lumber company, Tortel soon grew into a scattered settlement of quaint wooden houses, each with its own jetty and linked by a network of walkways and bridges made of fragrant cypress (slippery when wet). There are no streets here, and even the fire engine is a boat. Tortel is in some ways more isolated than the rest of the settlements along the Carretera Austral; there is only one direct phone line to the municipality, with extensions to everywhere else, though landlines are coming soon.
Within easy reach of Tortel by boat are two glaciers: Ventisquero Steffens, which originates in the northern ice field (3hr north by boat), and Ventisquero Jorge Montt, an enormous bluish ice-wall that comes from the southern ice field (5hr by lancha; 2hr by motorboat), best done in a group, as the trip is charged per vessel.
Tiny VILLA O’HIGGINS was built on a simple grid, with the Carretera Austral running along the western side all the way down to the Bahía Bahamondez on the enormous glacial Lago O’Higgins, 7km away.
Most of the earliest settlers – who came at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was most easily accessible from Argentina – were British. The first Chilean settlers did not arrive until the 1920s, and the town wasn’t officially founded and given its present name until 1966. Until 1999, this cluster of wooden houses huddled against a sheer mountain face was reachable only by a small prop plane from Coyhaique or by boat from Argentina but is now on the verge of being connected to Argentina’s Ruta 40, which will make travel between the two countries considerably easier if you have your own vehicle. Cosmopolitan Villa O’Higgins is not, but it is a triumphant finishing point for cyclists “doing” the Carretera Austral, as well as a springboard for reaching some of the area’s more remote glaciers.
Argentina the hard way: the El Chaltén crossing
Argentina the hard way: the El Chaltén crossing
The crossing between Villa O’Higgins and Argentina’s El Chaltén is still remote and challenging, yet more and more hardy travellers are prepared to take the boat, followed by a strenuous hike over the border and then another lake crossing. The sixty-passenger Quetru, connected to Villa O’Higgins by a private minibus run by the owner of El Mosco, leaves Bahía Bahamóndez at 8.30am and arrives at the hamlet of Candelario Mancilla at around 11am. Just beyond the dock a signposted dirt track leads uphill from the main dirt road to the only accommodation option – a campsite with no facilities apart from drinking water obtained from a stream and two or three basic rooms available in the owner’s house. Get your passport stamped by Chilean border control further up the main road before you set off for Argentina.
To the border
Beyond, a gravel road winds uphill through patches of woodland to the international border; on the way, you will have to ford the shallow, glacial Río Obstáculo. Beyond the border, marked by signs welcoming you into Chile and Argentina, the 7.5km stretch of trail to the Argentine Gendarmería on the banks of the Lago del Desierto becomes a narrow, muddy footpath snaking its way through hilly forest and scrubland; cyclists have to push and sometimes carry their bikes. After getting stamped into Argentina, you can either pitch a tent at Camping Lago del Desierto, stay in the basic cabaña run by the gendarmes, catch the motor launch Viedma across the lake or hike the remaining 15km along a steep, thickly forested path on the left side of the lake, emerging at the guardería by the pier on the south side.
Minibuses to El Chaltén meet the arriving motor launches. While it is possible to complete the border crossing in a day, particularly if coming the other way from El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins (since the last part of the hike is all downhill), boat schedules are weather-dependent, so you must pack enough food for several days. To book a guide and packhorses, visit villaohiggins.com. Rumours abound that there are plans to build a road on the Argentinian side to connect it to the border, perhaps as early as 2013, so the time to do the crossing is now.