This feels like a million years ago now, especially as I’m posting it from Peru which is still in the midst of a national emergency due to catastrophic flooding. Anyway enjoy the bad formatting and lack of links courtesy of posting from my phone!*
I’m sure the Carretera Austral will be a great road when they finish building it. Supposedly it was finished in 1996, if by finish you mean, blast a dirt track through the mountains and alongside a few fjords. Originally it was named after its instigator, that nice man Augusto Pinochet, BFF of Margaret Thatcher and Chilean Dictator from 1973 until 1990. He was installed after the CIA helped to overthrow Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government which I’m sure was an innocent mistake, as we know how passionate US governments are about democracy. Anyway, when uncle Augusto wasn’t arranging for people he didn’t like to be pushed out of aeroplanes or worse, he thought it would be a good idea to build a road through remote southern Chile to err..well nowhere really.
Maybe it’s a particular trait of unelected leaders that they feel the need to leave a legacy (cf Theresa May, answers on a postcard what her legacy will be but my personal fave so far is her revitalisation of British satirical media!). [Sorry! Now that I’ve seamlessly slipped in a rant from the delightful moral highground that I occupy and that in no way required the use of my giant shoehorn- I’ll revert to the usual ‘and then I went to X and it was a bit underwhelming and too expensive..’ soon I promise].
The ‘Southern Highway’ starts at Puerto Montt and travels south for around 1240km until it reaches the small settlement of Villa O’ Higgins – that barely existed until they started building a road towards it. VOH (catchy..) gets it name from Bernard O’Higgins [liberator of Chile or something – I’ll just have some more wine while you google that..] and was created mainly to send a message to Argentina to not get any ideas (Argentina responded in kind by offering to take things outside, and built El Chaltén a few years later).
The CA doesn’t even *go* all the way between Puerto Montt and VOH – several sections still require you to get on a ferry. Truck drivers and long distance buses in southern Chile, basically anyone who wants to get anywhere in a hurry, take a shortcut via Argentina. If you want to get to the very far south by road, ie Punta Arenas & Torres del Paine, then there’s no choice but to travel via Argentina (there are also flights and the Navimag ferry, which is no longer affordable enough to be much of a backpacker option, in my cheapskate opinion. And there’s no road access at all to Puerto Williams).
The stunning view (of Cerro Castillo) is typical of the Carretera Austral, the smooth tarmac is not..
I spent most of my time around the Carretera Austral (and in Chile, full stop) seemingly arriving in or trying to leave the town of Coyhaique, a place I’d never heard of until about a week before I arrived in Chile, and initially had no interest in other than as a utilitarian hub with ATMs, coffee and bus connections. (After a week and a half in Chile my overriding memories are of the Coyhaique Unimarc superstore, for its lockers, toilets, random Waitrose Ketchup and ample queuing time in which to contemplate my life choices..).
The scenic setting of the Unimarc:
Regarding travel along the CA, guide books suggest you should do epic amounts of forward planning and have the survival skills of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears. So it was looking pretty good for me.
They also emphasise not to travel in high season (Jan & Feb) because it will be really crowded and you’ll struggle without bookings made well in advance. So broadly, the options are: high season- nowhere to stay, buses full, better weather (not necessarily good weather), things more likely to be open. Or out of season: accommodation (that isn’t closed) will be available, but many buses and ferries don’t run, lots of sights/national parks close or are off limits due to weather. Hmm what a choice! Given my timing, I didn’t *have* a choice but I can now definitively confirm: don’t go to Chilean Patagonia in February! [Unless you have: your own transport, limitless time/patience, shitloads of money or the willingness and equipment to regularly wild camp. Which is why the small minority of other travellers I saw that weren’t hitchhiking Chilean students, were cycle tourers!]
I was lulled into a slight false sense of security as the same advice is given about Argentina and I hadn’t really experienced any issues (as presumably Argentina is expensive all year round and Rios Grande and Gallegos are depressing at any time of year, which were my main complaints about Argentine Patagonia, not that you would have noticed).
And initially , it all seemed fine! That first night was spent camping in Chile Chico, which is like Los Antiguos but nicer, with better facilities and more tourists. I did spend the afternoon in suspense as to whether the town’s one ATM would work with my (visa) card as I’d read dark reports online about only Mastercard being accepted. (Intriguingly – to me – I’d read the theory that the visa network was switched off in Chile to stop Argentines hopping across the border and withdrawing useful money). The suspense element was due to the ATM taking a daily siesta to be replenished – but to my immense relief it did work for me. If necessary, you can spend Argentine pesos and US$ in Chile Chico’s supermarket’s, and you can buy Argentine currency with Chilean Pesos but not the other way round – go figure..[Sorry I realise this may be boring intel but travellers in Patagonia are haunted by obsessive worries about not being able to get usable money in their next destination. And if they’re not, they should be!]
CC isn’t quite on the Carretera Austral: to join it you have to head west, and then either go south towards Villa O’Higgins or the long way around Lake General Carrera and on towards the north. Another way of going north is to take a ferry across the lake, which leaves you in the tiny town of Puerto Rio Ibanez. (While in CC I had to discard the possibility of going to see the marble caves, which are the most popular sight in the region and a `must see`, as the day I wanted to go the trip wasn’t running as it was the tour agency guy’s birthday or something..).
I took the boat across – it’s probable that I had another one of those immensely delicious Chilean boat hot dogs though oddly I can’t remember!
Rather than heading straight for the allure of civilization in Coyhaique, like 99% of people on the boat, I though it might be *interesting* to spend the night in Ibanez. (BTW, the ferry goes 1-2 times per day all week I think in high season- anyone’s guess the rest of the year). I found a budget room (the only kind in Ibanez) in a very basic hospedaje (guest house) that was also a tiny shop and restaurant. It was a Friday night so I went looking for action – which transpired to include admiring the very stunning mountain and lake views, spotting a handful of other tourists, and buying supplies to accompany the blueberry beer that I was now delighted to remember I’d brought with me from CC. The combination of incredible scenery and *wtf am I actually doing in this random place* I felt in Ibanez pretty much summed up my whole Chile experience (though the scenery was a little less majestic in the Coyhaique Unimarc).
The next day I caught one of the buses to Coyhaique (they meet the ferries – do they run at other times? Don´t know but I doubt it). I discovered that despite being a small southern Chilean city with few notable features, finding available accommodation in the place was along the lines of showing up at the last minute in Edinburgh during the festival. I declined to pay £25 for a skanky hospedaje dorm bed then regretted it when I found everywhere to be full, and the campsite apparently closed (and the dorm bed gone when I went back). The tourist office told me of the one remaining place I could find a bed: a last chance saloon hostel on the premises of some sort of university summer school. It was seriously basic but by that point I really didn’t care. (To enhance the fun of traipsing round town bed-hunting, it was raining all afternoon and evening). The guy running the place didn’t turn anyone away – once all available floor space had been covered with mattresses, some people laid out their camping mats in the lounge area and at least one tent was put up in the front yard. Looking around at the desperate/relived/soggy faces inhabiting this converted classroom I had the feeling that this must be a bit like when your village is evacuated due to flooding, or something [but now I’ve witnessed the catastrophic situation in Peru due to flooding I know that was an insanely idiotic thing to think. Doh.]
My plan for the following day was to consume the town’s entire supply of coffee and
piss about on the internet-conduct detailed research for the next stage of my journey which I would resume on Monday. In between I gawped at the stunning scenery, and sniggered mildly at the name of another Chilean luminary – Arturo Prat – who has a street named after him in Coyhaique (and lots of other things all over the country).
In a typical planning fail, the next leg of the journey actually required going back on my tracks, as I wanted to hike around the ‘poor man’s Torres del Paine’, a mountain called Cerro Castillo (another spiky Patagonian stunner, it turns out). Beyond that, my intention was to race north, as I hoped to spend as much of March as possible in Peru before flying home.
Cerro Castillo is located north of a little village of the same name, and I camped there for a couple of nights, all the while gazing up in awe at it.
Villa Cerro Castillo
In fact the only time I didn’t gaze at it in awe was when I climbed up (some of) it – to the Laguna viewpoint – a steep one day alternative to the multiday hike that’s also possible.
As I walked, I was relieved to find that this hike is now much more popular than the information I’d found suggested: this may suck for solitude seekers but as an inexperienced solo hiker with no survival skills I was very happy that there were others ahead of and behind me (including a couple of blokes between 50-70 who easily overtook me..). The whole route was knee crunchingly steep (yes poles would be a good idea, no I didn’t have them) but worse than that was the terrifying second half, above the tree line on an exposed morraine slope.
It felt genuinely dangerous and the vertigo I increasingly feel as I get older was not helping. I could really have done with the distraction of some company at that point (who I probably would have effed and blinded at but..). I would have turned around and gone back but I knew that going down was going to be just as terrifying and to go through that without seeing the actual sodding mountain seemed ridiculous.
Although by the time I got up there, the cloud that had descended earlier refused to budge so I still didn’t see the actual sodding mountain. Ha!
At the bottom, there’s a strategically located and charming restaurant (Puesto Huemul) where I bumped into the two who’d overtaken me earlier: Canadian Chris and American Marty. We chatted for a bit while I had what felt like the most well deserved beer (or two..) of my life.
*(PS I cracked and finished this in an internet cafe. Oh the nostalgia!)