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Carretera Austral

Posted by on Jan 3, 2016

The famous carretera austral, the highway 7 in Chile, is a 1,240 kilometer (770 mi) long road connecting remote regions of Patagonia. More than half of it is still unpaved. We weren’t quite sure where to begin at first. The starting point is around Puerto Mont, but requires three ferry rides. Another option is to visit the big island of Chiloe and take only one ferry to Chaiten on the mainland, and continue south from there. This was our first plan of action.

There are frequent ferry connections from mainland Chile to the big island of Chiloé. Together with Wolfgang, the German traveler with his G-Wagen, we had met in Puerto Octay, we embarked onto the 20 minute ride.

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Our gps thought we were due for an off-road challenge and guided us across muddy fields and deep puddles of what looked like cow pee.

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With dirt-covered vehicles, and two smiling men, we arrived at a beautiful, empty beach. Sanddunes covered with tall grass gave us some cover from the elements.

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Although Wolfgang was hesitant at first to give up on the modern comforts a campground may provide, he quickly grew fond of the beauties of our beach wild camp. We had a great time at this place, meeting a Swiss couple again we’ve already met in San Pedro de Atacama, and the Austrian couple Karin and Hermann who decided to caravan with us.

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Once we were all settled, Tara immediately made herself busy protecting our new home. We found her several hundred meters away, ferociously barking at a little altar. I couldn’t quite understand at first, thinking she may be seeing another animal. I approached in an attempt to show her that the little altar is nothing to be afraid of. I touched the structure, then the flowers, telling her it’s all ok, but without any calming effect at all. Then I realized the focus of her anger was something completely different. It was a little white statuette deep inside the cavity. It was Mother Mary she was barking at! As I was gently lifting the figurine out for a moment, to let her sniff it and confirm its not alive, she approached with extreme caution, occasionally jumping back and resuming to growl. After several decreasingly cautious approaches, I thought she finally gets it, and understands there’s no reason to bark her lungs out any further. She comes closer once more. And. Bites straight into the head of the statuette! Shit. Caught in complete surprise, I frantically open her mouth and remove the figurine. With slight teethmarks, but largely undamaged, I put the statuette back in, and cover the opening with the fake flowers, so it’s out of her sight. Looks like our dog, isn’t the spiritual kind…

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Chiloé is an archipelago comprised of several islands. In particular the large island, that we traveled on, is known for its unique architecture and culture. Chiloé comes from a Mapuche word for “seagull place”. Small wooden churches, houses covered in many kinds of different wood shingles, and colourful facades, make up the unique character of this place.

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We’ve experienced different kinds of climates on this island. The pacific coast can be quite harsh, with strong waves and cold days. Further in the north we found a hidden bay, protected from the wind, and providing an almost tropical beach feeling. The coast facing the mainland was also rather mild and pleasant, with warm days and cold nights. Nevertheless, days are getting noticeably longer and colder as we head further south…

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One of the goals of our journey is to drive far enough South to see penguins. Although there is still a lot of road to go to reach the southern most city in the world, we couldn’t resist the temptation and already visit a first small colony of Magellanic and Humboldt penguins here on Chiloé.

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We had the impression there would be many ferries connecting Chiloé to the mainland. When we came to Castro, we learned that there is actually only one, once a week, departing from the port of Quellón all the way in the South, to Chaiten. It was expensive, and the departure too many days away for us, so we decided to change our plans and try the mainland route instead.

One short ferry ride back towards Puerto Montt and we were on our way South. We staid on a farm the first night and were invited into the warm living room to watch Turkish soap operas after dinner. There are about four different kinds of these telenovelas on Chilean TV! They were rather excited to have a real Turk made of flesh and blood visit their premises.

Excited that we finally made it onto the Carretera Austral, which is seamed with forests and beautiful mountain ranges, we visited the first national park for a little hike to a waterfall.

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Tara loves hiking, but hates the leash. She wants to be at the front, but she occasionally allows Erdem to lead the pack instead.

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Contemporary dangers found in the deep forest…

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A first short (30 min) ferry ride to continue the road. Locals call the carretera “bimodal”, since it requires driving and taking ferries.

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A few miles later, we got to the port of  Hornopiren. There are hundreds of seagulls floating down the river and flying back upstream to get back onto the ride. A nice spectacle to observe!

 

We had been advised to reserve the 5-6 hour ferry ride to Caleta Gonzalo in advance. Nevertheless, there wasn’t any problem finding a spot on one of the boats leaving three times a day. Passing by the fjords, and lush green shores, was quite interesting, and time went by rather fast.

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On the ferry a passenger made us aware of a nail stuck in our tire. Great! Right at the beginning of a washboard and pothole filled, hundreds of mile long, gravel road. We were all a bit nervous to remove the culprit once on shore. But we got really lucky! No piercing. It went in sideways and there luckily wasn’t any damage. While working on this, we noticed a nail in Karin&Hermann’s car but decided to leave it in until we get to the next town.

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A beautiful stretch of the road, leading through the temperate rain forest of Parque Pumalin, Chile’s biggest private nature reserve.

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The town of Chaitén was interesting to visit. It had severely suffered from a volcano eruption in 2008 which covered the area in ashes and flooded the town. People were evacuated, but a small amount of people returned to rebuild the town. Only a few houses still show signs of damage. Most are rebuilt, but the town has a bit of a melancholic atmosphere.

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Three Germans, three Austrians, and a Turk, happy that the rain has finally passed.

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Patagonia is full of beautiful wild camping spots. Tara liked this one in particular, because we found the “world’s best stick”.

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These giant leafs grew everywhere. They look like a very ancient plant. This northern part of the Carretera Austral generally looked a bit like we were transported back to dinosaur times.

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The hanging glacier, with thundering waterfalls coming out from underneath.

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We saw two rain-drenched, suffering cyclist while driving down the road. A few minutes further we decided to stop and make some hot coffee for them. We possibly didn’t choose the best spot to stop — judging from the rock slide in the back — but the bicyclists sure were happy.

 

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Gauchos. A common sight in these regions. We loved the furry leg cover these guys and girls were wearing.

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Some campgrounds leave more permanent memories than others. The cause is usually the people running it. This is Nacho, of Torres del Rio Simpson, Chile. He is such an entertainer, the camping experience in his place, is quickly turned into a crash course in mate drinking, asado making, singing, guitar playing, and organic gardening.

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Hermann

Karin

Wolfgang

After restocking in Coyhaique, the biggest city in the region with about 50.000 inhabitants, we continued south to Cerro Castillo.

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It is an all day affair to climb this mountain. Our group decided to take horses for the biggest stretch and hike up the rest of the way to the lagoon on top. 4 hours on horse, and more than 2 hours hiking/climbing the steepest part, brought everyone back very exhausted. The views were incredible though…

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Right as Erdem arrived at the lagoon, a big piece of ice got loose and fell down into the water.

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Proud horsemen at the local rodeo. We were lucky to arrive on the weekend of this country wide event. What an interesting experience!

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Patagonia is in bloom.

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Lago General Carrera. This lake has incredible colors, ranging from turquoise to purple, depending on the sun. This is the second largest lake on the continent, after lake Titicaca, but possibly the most beautiful of all.

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The marble caves! We were lucky to find a couple of hours of sun, to visit these magnificent rock formations.

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Traveling with some fellow countrymen and women, has many advantages. One being, the pleasant change in cuisine: Käsespätzle, Palatschinken, Schnitzel you name it.

We decided to stay together for Christmas Eve. Fire roasted salmon, with potatoes, and carrot yoghurt salad, would have been enough delight. But our hungry men, also grilled a two kilo chicken with stuffing, and we made Semmelknoedel (Austrian dumplings), and had delicious ice cream cake for desert. Not a shabby meal, for campground cooking. Topped with an entertaining “white elephant” game and a surprise birthday party for some late arrivals, we spent a lovely Christmas together.

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Wolfgang, who had originally joined us for a few days and had no intentions of coming this far south was quite unsure about continuing further on. With the help of his family on Skype, we eventually convinced him to drive into the cold, wet winds at the end of the world. However, his truck, the good old trustworthy G-Wagen had other plans for him. A complex electrical problem kept him from moving any further. His engine stopped intermittently and needed a Mercedes specialist’s attention. Our ways had to part. We’re so lucky to have shared unforgettable moments in sublime landscapes with such a kind gentleman. I’m sure we’ll see each other again in the future. We just don’t know where yet.

1 Comment

  1. Heinz Neunzig
    January 4, 2016

    Hallo Sarah,

    ich verfolge eure Reise seit laengerem mit sehr grossem Interesse. Ich bin richtig neidisch, weil es immer mein Traum war und ist durch Suedamerika und durch die Welt zu reisen. Ich bin Deutscher und habe mein ganzes Berufsleben bei Mercedes-Benz gearbeitet. Ich bin jetzt im Ruhestand und lebe in Alabama. Auf diesen Bildern habe ich ploetzlich einen alten Kollegen wiedererkannt, naemlich Wolfgang Soellheim. Er war im Vertrieb von Mercedes zustaendig fuer Sued-Amerika. Er spricht fliessend spanisch. Ich hatte von anderen ehemaligen Kollegen gehoert, dass er mit einem Mercedes-G eine Sued-Amerika-Reise geplant hat. Was fuer eine kleine Welt. Ich fahre uebrigens auch einen G. Wisst ihr, ob er einen Blog, website oder Kontaktadresse habt, die ihr mir mitteilen koennt. Wie geht es ihm und wo ist er jetzt. Er hat sicherlich Unterstuetzung fuer seinen G bei Mercedes in Chile bekommen. Die Inhaber sind aus Deutschland, Familie Kaufmann. Solltet ihr ihn kontaktieren, richtet bitte viele Gruesse von mir aus. Er soll sich bitte mal per email melden.

    Euch wuensche ich weiterhin eine gute Reise, viele schoene Eindruecke und berichtet bitte weiterhin so begeister wie bisher,

    Beste Gruesse aus Alabama

    Heinz Neunzig

    PS. Von einem ehemaligen Kollegen aus Stuttgart, Heinrich Wangler, erfahre ich soeben, dass die beiden Kontakt hatten und das Problem mit dem G geloest ist. Ein kleines Laempchen im Tacho hatte sich geloest und fuer einen Kurzschluss gesorgt.

    Reply

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