Carretera Austral Part 2 – The South
We had planned to spend the night in Coyhaique but were pretty unimpressed with the town so we decided to keep going after stocking up on groceries.
Its not too far south from Coyhaique when the pavement runs out but just before this happens there is a national park (Cerro Castillo) with a nice wooded campsite next to Laguna Chagua. We decided to spend a night here and go on a hike on a trail from the campsite. The trail was lovely climbing through some forest to a view of the laguna before continuing to climb up to a viewpoint over the valley. We continued going up which meant scrambling up a steep scree slope until we were way above the valley but we didn’t make it over the ridge as the slope got too loose and steep.
We carried on heading South on a very windy day and got to Puerto Rio Tranquillo after passing over a very beautiful ridge with great mountain views. We drove around trying to find somewhere to spend the night and ended up parking on the lake shore. Lago General Carrera is one of the largest lakes in South America and we were lucky to see it in bad weather and good. The contrast couldn’t have been greater.
Puerto Rio Tranquillo is the launching spot for trips to the Marble caves. We decided to give it go. The weather wasn’t great and the high winds created large waves on the lake which our little fishing boat battled through.
The caves themselves are OK though not spectacular but the small boats do enable you to go right into the caves and the rock really is marble. However it was the crystal clear aqua marine water in the sheltered bay that won it for me and made you want to grab a snorkel and dive right in, until you remembered you were in Patagonia not the Med and it was bloody freezing!
The return trip was slower as it was into the waves and much wetter, but the boat captain handed out full length waterproof ponchos, so we hunkered down against the cold waves and stopped off for a much needed hot chocolate once we were safely back on dry land.
The next day we took a side road from the Carretera Austral – Valle Exploradores. We drove this 50k route in pouring rain on the way out and were delighted with all the waterfalls pouring off every surface. However we arrived at our destination, Glacier Exploradores, in appalling weather so we decided to wait out the storm and hope for an improvement in the weather the following day and we weren’t disappointed. We set out early to hike up the terminal moraine of the Glacier to get a good view, but we were a little disappointed as the actual glacier front was still a long way away.
Our drive out of the valley was beautiful in the sunshine although many of the wet weather waterfalls had disappeared. After re-joining the Carretera Austral we continued to head south towards the town of Cochrane and spent the night in a very scenic location overlooking Rio Baker.
Cochrane itself is a lovely little town where we had a nice lunch and picked up some groceries. More importantly we managed to buy a replacement bottle jack after we discovered that ours had rusted shut (and then broke when I tried to open it). Luckily we had discovered this trying to help someone else and not stranded at the side of the road with a flat tyre ourselves.
We took another side trip from the Carretera Austral to the town of Caleta Tortel. This is built right on the hillside of a fjord and until 2000 was only accessible by boat. The town itself has no streets or pavements just boardwalks to navigate around and vehicles are left in a large parking area at the top of the hill. It’s very pretty but I wouldn’t rely on being able to buy anything there !
A bit further South of Caleta Tortel there is a free ferry which bridges the Mitchell Fjord to the Southern most section of the Carretera Austral. The last 100km of the drive is very beautiful and the road ends in the one horse town of Villa O’Higgins.
A quick scout around town didn’t keep us there very long so we found a beautiful camping spot right on a river a few km’s outside town. A few hours after we arrived our friends from www.liferemotely.com joined us having clocked us from across the river !
We had heard a rumour that crossing the border was possible from Villa O’Higgins in a vehicle but on investigation in town we learnt that although maps may show a road there was a bridge missing and no road on the Argentinian side – the victim of alleged political corruption !
We decided to head back North and cross into Argentina at Chile Chico which meant driving round Lago General Carrera. The sun shone and the views over the lake were amazing.
The Carretera Austral treated us well with mostly blazing sunshine, blue skies and no wind. The views were incredible and the sense of remoteness blissful. Others have had less luck and terrible weather has dampened their experience – its all the luck of the draw in Patagonia, let’s hope our luck holds out!