The Carretera Austral

Alright, folks. We know there are many people out there who use our blog in one way or another. Some read every single post. Some read occasional posts. Others may click on an occasional post to see a few photos. This post is certainly one you don’t want to miss as it contains photos of the most beautiful places we visited over the course of our whole trip to date and is what we dreamed of when planning the entire trip. Here we go!

The Carreterra Austral is a rudimentary highway in southern Chile that leads through some of the most rugged and remote mountains in the country. Construction on the highway began in the 1950s with several failed attempts to construct roads in the region. During the military dictatorship of the 1970s, a successful system of roads was constructed although continuous improvement continues today. A large scale ferry system operates in this area for tourism as well as cargo transport to the remote villages. Along the route, dozens of national parks and private nature reserves protect some of the most special places in this incredible region of the world.

Driving the Carreterra Austral is possible in many different ways. From Puerto Montt, you have basically three options. First, it is possible to take a ferry directly from Puerto Montt to Chaiten which skips the first smaller sections of the route, but is pretty much at the beginning of the route. Taking this route would cut out the need for two smaller ferries. The next option is to drive to the west through Chiloe Island and take a ferry from Quellon to Chaiten. This is a popular route among travelers as Chiloe has a great reputation for its beauty and contains many UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its historic churches. Finally, it is possible to drive to the east of Puerto Montt and take a ferry from La Arena to Puelche, then drive to Hornopiren. From Hornopiren, a ferry connects travelers to Caleta Gonzalo from which the highway connects to Chaiten. More or less, Chaiten is generally the starting point of the Caraterra Austral. Not wanting to miss any part of this route, we opted for the third choice.

In the peak season, the Caraterra Austral is busy with travelers from all over the world. Ferries get booked up fast, so making reservations ahead of time helps avoid the possibility of waiting for two weeks for the next available ferry. Luckily, the process is easy. It can be done online but is much easier to do in person. We went to the Naviera Austral ferry office in Puerto Montt to make our reservations. Even a couple of days in advance, we were able to make two ferry reservations without any problems.

After stocking up with food and water for a couple of weeks, we left Puerto Montt and camped on the beach a few miles before the first ferry. It was another campsite with a million dollar view.

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We arrived to our first ferry in Caleta La Arena late in the morning. The ferry here runs every 45 minutes or so and is first come first served. After boarding the ferry, we went to the upper deck to get a view of the mountains as we slowly made our way to the ferry terminal. Nearly halfway to the terminal, we began seeing some odd looking ducks and then realized they were actually penguins swimming and sunbathing in the water! It was the first time we had seen penguins in the wild and the first of many penguins ahead of us. The ferry arrived 30 minutes later and we began making our way to the town of Hornopiren where our next ferry would leave the following day.

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Pulling into Hornopiren, the first thing we noticed were the huge mountains surrounding the bay many of which were capped with snow and glaciers. The clouds moved slowly and occasionally a new piece of glacier was revealed. This was what we were waiting for!

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Immediately after entering Hornopiren, we were funneled into the line up for the ferry. We eventually found a place to park where we could make lunch. Shortly after lunch, we decided to take a walk and were at once approached by some fellow travelers for help. They had arrived in a bit of a rush and locked their keys in the car. To make matters worse, their ferry was scheduled to leave in less than an hour. Even worse, they picked up some hitchhikers along the way and all of their belongings were in the van as well. We fiddled with the door with a piece of wire, tried to pry the door with some screwdrivers and eventually realized it wasn’t going to open. We decided that Laughlin would continue working with wire to try to open the door, Rico would stand in line to try to change the ferry reservation, and Evelyn and I would drive to find a mechanic that could help us out. About fifteen minutes later, we found a mechanic who would help and we all went back to the ferry lineup. At this time, cars were loading onto the ferry. Laughlin had not been able to open the door and Rico couldn’t change the reservation, so the mechanic was the last hope. Interestingly, he was able to use two screwdrivers to pry a small space between the door and the van open. He then slipped a piece of rope with a loosely tied rope into the gap in the door. Finally, he was able to work both ends of the rope to the bottom of the window and get the knot over the door lock. He cinched the knot, pulled up and the door was unlocked! It was amazing to witness and be able to help some fellow travelers. Rico and Evelyn, jumped into their van and loaded onto the ferry just in time. Also, the hitchhikers boarded the ferry completely oblivious of the previous hour’s chaos.

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After the adrenaline rush was gone, we drove to the other side of town and parked the truck. We walked around the tiny town and just watched the clouds swirl around the mountains and the tide come in. It was a relaxing day.

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In the morning, we took our time getting going as our ferry wasn’t scheduled to leave until 3:30pm. We made coffee and a big breakfast. It was a totally clear day so we were able to admire the mountains from our camper. Eventually we decided to go park near the ferry terminal and explore that side of town by foot. As we approached the ferry terminal, we were once again funneled into the loading line. When we explained to the ferry attendant that we just wanted to park, he reviewed our tickets and said the ferry departure time had been bumped up and that we were now leaving at 12:00pm! We drove straight onto the ferry happy we didn’t miss the earlier departure.

The ferry from Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo was amazing. We were lucky enough to have a completely unobscured view of the mountains, islands and fjords for the entire six hour trip. It was a fun ferry to be on as most of the other passengers were travelers bouncing from one side of the boat to the other. People watching was incredible as the mix of people was very diverse. About halfway to our destination, we were surprised to hear that an orchestra was on the ship and would give a small performance in the passenger cabin. We found a place to sit in the jam packed room and enjoyed the performance greatly. Eventually, we arrived at the ferry terminal and drove only seven miles to our camp spot for the evening.

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Before setting up the camper, we decided to take a short walk along a hiking trail right by our parking area. The trail took us through the forest, over crystal clear water and ended up near the Alerce trees. These giants can live over 3,000 years. The path was amazing and the smell of the forest was so clean. The thing that caught us mostly by surprise was how clear the water was. If not for a glare on top and rushing sound of the water, it would be nearly impossible to tell water was even there. We returned to the camper alone in the forest with no passing cars all night.

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The stretch of the Caraterra Austral between the Caleta Gonzalo ferry terminal to Chaiten and eventually the town of El Amarillo is part of the protected lands of Pumalin Park. Pumalin Park was established almost entirely due to the efforts of Doug and Kris Tompkins. Interestingly, Doug was cofounder of the clothing manufacturer The North Face and Kris established the clothing manufacturer Patagonia, Inc. Over the course of several decades, the Tompkins purchased hundreds of thousands of acres of land in this region. Eventually, the land was donated to the Chilean government in the form of a preplanned national park. Hiking trails leading all over the place are well planned, built and maintained. Best of all, there is no charge for visitors to enter the park. Several other parks in Chile and Argentina were purchased and donated to the respective governments as well. In the near future, with the help of Kris Tompkins (Doug passed away a few years ago), a massive national park called Patagonia National Park will be presented to the world. (Note: shortly after we passed this park the dedication occurred) It is certainly a privilege to be allowed access to this special part of the world and we than the Tompkins for their incredible work in making it possible.

Temperatures were a cool 53 degrees when we rose in the morning to begin another hike just a short walk from our camp spot. This trail took us by a fast rushing, narrow channeled stream with dozens of falls as it made its way off the mountain. The trail cut through the dense forest and many long sections were simply stairs or ladders leading straight up. Eventually we found the mirador viewpoint and could see Michinmahuida Volcano completely covered in glaciers rising between the green mountains below. We returned to the truck and headed to another trailhead a few miles down the road.

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The second trail for the day was a three hour hike from a parking area next to the road to the mirador viewpoint for the Chaiten Volcano. In May of 2008, a huge eruption from the volcano sent enormous amounts of rock, trees and mud hurdling town the face of the volcano to the drainage below. The evidence of the eruption is still very evident as the vegetation on the mountain is new and thousands of mature trees uprooted during the eruption still dot the entire hillside. Interestingly, ever since the eruption, the volcano still constantly billows smoke from the top. We followed the trail straight uphill for nearly two hours working up quite the sweat. We were a bit tired from our hike in the morning which made the hike even more difficult. Eventually, we made it to the top and could see the gaping hole that was created during the explosion. The contrast between the beautiful, treed mountains, lakes and rivers in the distance and the raw, bare, empty volcano was striking. We made our way back to the truck realizing we still have a lot of work to do to get into good hiking shape.

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That evening, we camped on the beach near the small village of Santa Barbara, west of the bigger but still quite small town of Chaiten. We enjoyed a glacier cold shower then relaxed with a cold beer on the beach. We made a huge pot of chili and enjoyed the sunset over the ocean. The forecast for the following day was rain. We decided it would be a good time to recover from our long day of hiking. In the night, the rain fell hard and the wind blew like like crazy, but we stayed warm in the Alaskan camper for the night.

After the rain cleared, we set out to another part of Pumalin Park near El Amarillo. As soon as we hit gravel roads, the scenery of the glacier covered volcano blew us away. Perfectly manicured grass with dense trees and spectacular mountains framed the pure white volcano in the middle. We set out for a hike to the bottom of the glacier after parking. Although we could see the glacier in the distance, it seemed that after every hour, we never got closer. Eventually we did arrive at the bottom of the glacier and were in awe by its sheer size. It was a perfect place to enjoy a well deserved PB&J sandwich!

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About a month before we set out on the Carretera Austral, a massive landslide took out a huge section of the highway near the town of Santa Lucia. Sadly, dozens of people were killed and many were missing. The government estimated that repairing the road would take three to four months. To help travelers, a ferry schedule was set up between Chaiten and Raul Marin. We boarded the ferry after it arrived five hours late and settled in for another long ferry ride. This ferry was much less magical than the previous ferry as the boat was quite old and smelled like fish soup. It was also much smaller and the waves were larger than before meaning the ferry tipped and turned as it chugged along for almost nine hours. To be fair, the views of the mountains were unbelievable from the ship and we got to enjoy a view that other travelers wouldn’t normally experience.

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We left Raul Marin in the morning and began heading east where we reconnected with the Carretera Austral in the town of La Junta. With perfectly clear skies, we could see the towering mountains all around us. With every turn, we would sit straight up in our seats with the view presented in front of us.

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From La Junta, we continued south towards Quelat National Park. We arrived mid afternoon with just enough time to take the short hike to the mirador within the park. We hustled through the hike with limited time and rain in the forecast. Eventually we arrived at the mirador overlooking the Ventisquero Colgante or hanging glacier. This glacier is perched right on the edge of a massive cliff hundreds of feet in the air. One major waterfall sends water sailing to the rocks below. The drop is so far the water essentially turns to mist. Every so often, we would hear chunks of the glacier break off and explode when it hits the rocks below.

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Here you can see the progressive drop and explosion of ice on the right side of the waterfall:

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We arrived at our truck just in time and set out for a camp site just a few miles down the road. Just next to the road on a small pullout, we joined a French couple for some drinks and enjoyed the view of the mountains and sea.

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In the morning, we made a good push down the highway. The newly paved road ended where we camped and turned to gravel. Every so often, we passed rough sections where road work was being preformed. Eventually, we hit the switchbacks that we had been expecting since we got on the highway. The rain held off as we drove allowing us to see the never-ending mountains completely surrounding us.

As you can see from our Maps.me screenshot, the road was a little crazy in spots!

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That afternoon, we decided to splurge and enjoy a pay campsite at Las Torres del Simpson. We enjoyed the company of other travelers as well as the hosts, Nacho and Sandra.

One thing we haven’t mentioned in our previous blog posts is the culture of Yerba Mate. In southern Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, people come together several times each day and drink Yerba Mate which is essentially tea. Interestingly, there is a whole etiquette that comes along with the practice which Nacho explained as we joined during Mate time. It was quite fascinating to hear his take on the practice which is much more involved than we realized. We won’t get into the details in this blog post, but if you travel to these countries, you will have to join some locals for some Yerba Mate!

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Continuing south, our next stop was at the base of Cerro Castillo. This mountain is considered Chile’s Fitz Roy. It towers ominously high in the sky with dozens of sharp peaks and is almost always encircled by dark clouds. We set out to conquer the mountain late in the morning. The trail took us up the side of a lower mountain. Eventually we emerged above tree line and began to scramble through the scree slopes. A passing hiker warned us that the high winds make hiking the ridge almost impossible. We found those high winds about 2 miles from our final destination. The gusts were so strong, we had to crouch down and wait for it to slow. At times we hid behind rocks as the wind seemed to growl as it swept over the ridge. With threatening rain, gusts approaching 100mph and almost guaranteed clouds covering the mountain, we turned back. It was the first hike we didn’t complete, but in the end we believed it was a good choice. In the morning, we had perfectly clear skies and a great view of the peak. Needless to say, we decided against hiking it again!

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The roads turned to gravel as soon as we left Villa Cerro Castillo heading towards Rio Tranquil. These backcountry Patagonian roads meandered through pristine wilderness with snow capped mountains, crystal clear streams and dense green forests. The low driving speeds were offset by the beauty of the region.

As we neared Lago General Carrera we took a road along the north side to the village of Puerto Sanchez. The lake is turquoise blue as all of the water is runoff from glaciers in the surrounding hills. The unique stone mixed with rock creates a chemistry that erodes the marble stone within the hills creating caves that are a striking blue color when the sun comes out. We hired a boat to take us on a tour of the caves and were mesmerized by the beauty of the caves and water alike.

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These two handsome fellas kept us company as we camped along the waterfront:

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From Puerto Sanchez, we drove the remaining distance to Rio Tranquilo on the other side of the lake. We refueled, said hi to Merick and Emerick from France who we met a few days earlier and headed west towards the Exploradores Glacier via the Exploradores Valley. Around each corner, a new area of the valley opened up and surprised us with hundreds of waterfalls, countless glaciers and blue water in the streams.

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We arrived at the Exploradores Glacier and were met with the first valley glacier of the trip. There is probably a more correct term for this type of glacier, but we call it a valley glacier because it is massive and fills the entire valley vs. a smaller glacier near the mountain top. On the front end of the glacier, the deposits left behind from accelerated melting resembled a huge construction zone with piles and piles of dirt and rock. In the distance, we could see the glacier round the corner straight up the mountain from which is originates. Interestingly, this is the northern edge of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field which is an enormous ice field covering 1,600 square miles and is the second largest ice field in the world outside of the polar regions. We enjoyed the visit and got some great travel tips from some Argentinian folks at the same time.

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We had planned to simply drive though the valley and return to the Carretera Austral later in the day, but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave. Dozens of camping opportunities were available throughout the valley and we found one of the best. Just before bed, we saw something moving outside our window and clicked a few photos. The small animal strangely resembled a deer, but was no bigger than a medium sized dog. Later we found out that this was in fact a deer, called a Pudu, which is the world’s smallest deer and is actually quite rare to see!

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Just one drainage to the south, we exercised our four wheel drive to get to the trailhead of Lago Leones. This hike was about 11 miles round trip but was relatively easy. We hiked towards the lake which is surrounded by glacier and snow covered mountains all around. When we arrived at the lake the runoff was so strong that you could see the current in the lake itself as the water flowed into the stream below. Another lake supplied water to the river as well, but we couldn’t see it from our location. As the two rivers came together, the difference in color of both water sources at the confluence was striking. One was a milky bluish green and the other was a dirty brown. Throughout the whole day we only saw two other hikers who gladly accepted our offer to drive them to their car a few miles down the road. The French father and daughter decided not to drive across the small sketchy bridge that rocked a little as we crossed. Aside from the horseflies, this hike was one of our favorites to date.

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See the confluence here?

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And our little wobbly bridge…

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Following our hike, we were faced with a bit of a dilemma. The Carretera Austral continues south for a couple hundred more miles to Villa O’Higgins. There is no way to cross into Argentina from there so we would have to backtrack. Our next option would be to drive further to the south to the town of Cochrane then east into Argentina via road X-83 to the border crossing at Paso Roballos. This is a very popular route as it passes through the beautiful Chacabuco Valley, near the National Reserves of Lago Jeinemente and Tamago. In the near future, a national park called Patagonia Park will be presented to the public between these two areas. Unfortunately, we were up against the wall as our auto insurance was about to expire and the only place that we could buy it within 1,000 miles was in the other border crossing town of Chile Chico. We continued on the gravel roads until we reached Chile Chico and the first patch of pavement in nearly 400 miles.

As we crossed into Argentina, we were off the Carretera Austral for good and would not return on this trip. We were amazed by the beauty and diversity of this precious area of the world. Although we were on the Carretera Austral for two weeks one could easily spend several months exploring everything there is to offer in this part of Patagonia.

9 comments

  1. every single post has been amazing but this one possibly “takes the cake”! I am in awe of all you have experienced…keep up the exploring , stay safe and continue this adventure of a life time! (incase you don’t recognise who I am…I was your grand parents first Rotary student in Thermopolis in 1963!! My special year!)

    1. Ryan, Roz also was visiting Thermopolis when you were born. She came to enjoy steak dinner with me at the hospital and took us both home because your dad couldn’t get away from the office. I think you were destined to travel after being exposed to the ultra-charged environment of 2 exchange students surrounding you. 🤩 Your post and pictures are absolutely the best! The time gets shorter and shorter when we see you and we are just giddy with excitement! Be safe!❤️

      1. I think traveling is in my blood for sure! Between the exchange students and all of the fun trips we did when I was young, it is not too surprising at all!

    2. Hi Ros – We appreciate the kind words a lot! This stretch of road was what we dreamed of before we decided to commit to the trip. It was unbelievable. I remember you commented on a previous blog post and it took me a minute to connect the dots but realized you were an exchange student. It is great to keep in touch and glad you have enjoyed following along with us!

  2. WOW….every once in a while you stumble on folks doing extraordinary things in life and your trip is one of those. I’m going to miss these posts when you are done and back home. Exceptional story telling. As I’m in finance/accounting I can only wonder how you arrived at managing costs…saving for the trip.

    1. Thanks Lloyd! This has been a great life changing adventure and we have no regrets.

      Funny you should say you are in finance/accounting…. do you know anybody hiring right now?? Just kidding! It’s actually kind of funny that I’m the accountant as Laughlin keeps track of all of our finances. Anyhow, we worked very hard to save as much as we could for the trip and also came out well in the sale of our house in Casper, WY to help. Now that we are about to wrap up the trip, we hope to keep in touch and follow your adventures as well with your new camper. Also, we have met some amazing people along the way and will share links to their blogs at the end of our trip to satisfy the needs of the adventure junkies following our blog!

    1. It was a long post but it was also one of the most exciting stretches of road on the whole triop. If you are in the area you have to drive it. Also, your Class C won’t have any problems. It is about 70% paved road and the rest is pretty easy gravel. There were lots of motorhomes on the road. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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