Carretera Austral is Chile’s Ruta 7. It runs about 1,240km North to South from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. This area of Chile is extremely rural and before this road was built was difficult to access. It was the “Beagle Conflict” with Argentina in the late 70’s, a territorial dispute over islands off the coast of Tierra del Fuego, that created a need to build this road. Prior to its construction, the only way to access most of these southern parts of Chile was through Argentina. It is a popular road for tourists to drive as it goes through very beautiful country ranging from dense forests to amazing glaciers, though much of the road remains unpaved.
We started our day leaving Argentina and crossing into Chile. With our previous experience at crossing borders, we hoped today would be a strike free, easier entrance. The immigration offices were in the middle of nowhere… I mean, nearest towns were over an hour away each side along a winding gravel road. We arrived when a group of 8 motorcyclists were trying to cross into Argentina. Considering this office didn’t have a computer, we had to wait about 20 minutes for our turn. The customs agents in Argentina were very friendly as they were reviewing our paperwork, and even discussed American politics with us. The immigration officer asked innocently, “Did you vote for Trump?”. – “uhh… no”. He replied, “Okay, good” – and stamped our books and said we were free to go. We couldn’t leave until another immigration officer searched our vehicles for fruits, vegetables and etc. This was the first time we were being searched in Argentina, as well as being searched leaving a country. This guy must’ve been new, bored… or just plain curious… he went through my bag, asking me about my medications, and more. How convenient… Steve’s bag was under the bed and didn’t get checked. He also looked through our ice chest… which was more like a cold water chest that smells like cheese. He was pretty mortified and told us that we were supposed to have ice in it…. Oh…. Duh. If I hadn’t mentioned it already, finding ice in the Patagonia is extremely difficult. If you are in the ice business, you should consider expanding your stores down South! Once that was all done, we were on our way to Chile. To our surprise, the road didn’t get better (as it usually does when we cross into Chile). With 20/20 hindsight, that should’ve been our clue… the road was never going to get better. At Chile’s office, we were greeted by a friendly dog, and a friendly employee. Once again, this office didn’t have computers, so we waited 5 minutes for him to write all the information down. Once he was done, we were free to leave – no car inspection, or further questioning. It was bizarre that the roles were reversed from Argentina. We didn’t question it, just got in our car and took off.
We saw immediately how beautiful the Carretera Austral was. Glaciers, mountains, meadows, colorful wildflowers, and plenty of rivers and lakes – we knew we were going to enjoy the drive. Throughout the next few days, we didn’t get lucky with weather, and sadly, the roads were rough – but we still found time to enjoy the beauty of the region. Our first stop on the road was Confluencia Rio Baker & Neff. It is where to rivers meet – the Baker river & the Neff river. The combining of the rivers made for an interesting mix of colors, sounds, and currents.
We next needed to find a place to spend the night, we had spent most of the afternoon driving, stopping to view, drive more, stop and take pictures – and honestly the day went by so quickly, we realized it was close to sunset. We ended up finding a free camping spot in the small town of Bahia Murta. A local dog greeted us at the site, and truly enjoyed belly rubs.
We woke up the next morning to a different dog outside our van, plus 10 chickens and two roosters. As we ate breakfast the chickens and roosters sat patiently waiting for scraps. I saved my scraps for the cute dog instead, causing mass jealousy and a group of chickens chasing me around – NOPE – I waited the rest of the morning in the car for Steve to finish getting ready.
We hit the road heading North. We stopped at a site called, “Painted Hands”. It is a site many believe to be thousands of years old, with natives documenting their tribe members by painting their hands and marking a rock. They used a mixture of grass, water and other natural resources to make the paint. Steve and I paid $2,000 CLP ($3 USD) each to hike to the site. In the end, Steve was a bit skeptical that it was authentic. I don’t feel I have enough research to confirm or deny.
After an 8-hour day of driving, we decided to stop in Villa Maniguales at a “campsite”, which was really someone’s backyard, so we could have access to a shower and some Wifi. The Wifi only worked in their garage, and didn’t work on my phone, only Steve’s. The shower was refreshing, so it was well worth the stop. It rained most of the night and early morning. So far, on this road trip, we have not been able to star gaze.
We left the campsite early heading toward Queulat National Park. Our friends Christian and Jen said we must do the Enchanted Forest trail. There was no cost in getting inside the National Park, however, the trail cost $3,000CLP (about $4.65 usd) each. We were told when we arrived that due to the heavy rain, the river towards the end of the trail was too full for us to cross to visit the lagoon. I asked then, if we got a discount since the full trail wasn’t available, and he corrected himself – you can cross the river to see the lagoon, but you will get wet.
We started the trail when the rain had just stopped, and we only hoped it would remain so until we were done. The trail immediately looked like how you imagine an enchanted forest would – moss trees, flowers growing on the trees, vines, etc. There are numerous small bridges, but we didn’t see any trolls. At any moment, I expected Tinker Bell to appear, it felt that surreal. Throughout the trail, there are “flood” areas, so to keep the hikers dry, they have little log steps. You do the majority of the trail hopping from one to the other in hopes of keeping your feet dry. Although, you do walk through small creeks, and eventually get your feet wet. At times, these log steps move, and balance is a must. While working at Zynga, I took Derek’s TacFit classes which had days of total sweat classes, mixed with yoga fundamentals. I remember whenever Derek made us do balance drills, I would hate it – it’s just not as exciting as using kettlebells, or other fast paced drills. Well, on this trail, I kept thanking Derek in my head, because if you didn’t have a good sense of balance, most likely you would’ve fallen in the mud pit, or creek. So Derek, and every other Yoga instructor – I get it now, thanks!
The trail ended at the large river the ranger had mentioned. Sure enough, people were crossing the river to get to the lagoon – nope, not us. People crossing were knee deep in a fast river. Considering we only had one pair of trail shoes, and limited dry clothes, we thought it was best to enjoy looking at the river, the glacier, and falls – rather than cross to see the elusive lagoon. We met a retired couple from Colorado, who is spending months in Chile to visit the lake regions as well as some of the islands. They were kind and very inspiring. We made our way back to the van, and sure enough, the rain started as we got back in the van.
We continued driving through the National Park, which ended up being challenging. In addition to wet, dirt roads in areas, there was also construction. We had to be patient and vigilant. We wanted to make a few more stops in the park, but due to construction, we were forced to keep the line of traffic moving and to exit the park.
That night, we were able to find a pasture just off Ruta 7, for us to camp at. I really enjoyed camping with horses and cows.
We headed to Chaitén to purchase our ferry tickets for the next day. Before reading this, you may think that I included a lot of specific detail about the ferries. This is intentional, because when Steve and I were researching we had a terrible time finding the information we needed. If just one person reads this and finds it useful, I will feel we did our part.
We arrived during siesta time, so we filled our time with grocery shopping and filling our tank with gas. At this point, we were desperate for ice. We asked the gas attendant were we can pick up a bag, he informed us of a store. That store didn’t have it and referred us to a different store… we went on a wild goose chase for about an hour. We had been warned of this by our Santiago tour guide and numerous travel blogs we read. Someone referred to it as “getting Chiled”. Our tour guide said that the culture in Chile is still recovering from a dictatorship, and people do not like saying “I don’t know”, in fact, most people will make up the answer rather than not being helpful. Frustrated, we headed to the ferry office. There are several options when it comes to ferries north. There is one ferry that goes directly from Chaitén to Puerto Montt. This ride takes about 6-7 hours and is extremely expensive (over $100,000CLP or $150usd just for the car!). The other option includes 3 ferries (though only two are run by the same company and purchased ahead of time). We opted for the far less expensive multiple ferry route (which is actually an extension of Ruta 7). Tickets (which included our van and the two of us) for the next morning were $38,500CLP (about $58usd). We had to drive another hour to Caleta Gonzalo to get to the ferry dock, where we set up camp for the night. We asked a museum employee if we would be good to camp in the parking lot, she told us yes – but the ranger kicked us out at 9PM and sent us 5 minutes down to a different parking lot. Once again… we got “Chiled”.
Our 7AM ferry was mostly on time. The first ferry departs towards Fiordo Largo and was a short ride, we stayed in the car and tried to snooze as best as we can. Once on shore, we caravanned to the next ferry dock (20-minute drive) following the car in front of us down the short stretch of Ruta 7. The next ferry ride departs from Leptepu and was a few hours. We waited in the lounge, bought breakfast and coffee and caught up with reading and photos. Our ferry dropped us in Hornopirén where we now had just one more ferry to catch to Puerto Montt. We drove about an hour along Ruta 7 to reach that dock. There isn’t a ferry terminal or anything like that, the road just ends at the dock where we waited in line for the ferry. The ferry comes about every 30 minutes. We waited and were one of the last vehicles on the boat. The ride was about 15 minutes (and cost $9,500CLP or $14usd for the vehicle and all occupants), and not bad at all. Finally – we were back on the main land of Chile, and only a few days away from Santiago.
Next – Our final leg of the Patagonia Road Trip – Ruta 5 Chile!