Chile’s Carretera Austral is a road that should definitely be placed on any “adventure travelers” short list. I spent three short days and two nights on this route. I started my portion of the Carretera Austral after leaving the Argentinean town of Los Antiguos. I crossed the border and passed through the Chilean town of Chile Chico. As soon as I left town and started on the gravel road, it felt like good old Pinochet built the route for motorcycling. For the first hundred miles, the nice tacky smooth dirt road seemed to be built specifically for my KLR. I was listening to a Bruce Springsteen /Eddie Vedder heavy iPod playlist and was in heaven. Around pretty much every corner I was greeted with great mountain vistas, deep blue lakes, farm land, ranches, canyons and forests. The terrain and road were constantly changing. It was a really fun ride!
A little history on the route, courtesy of Wikipedia:
The Carretera Austral (CH-7), formerly known as Carretera General Augusto Pinochet, is the name given to Chile’s Route 7. The highway runs about 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia.
Carretera Austral provides road access to Chile’s Aisén Region and southern part of Los Lagos Region. These areas are sparsely populated and despite its length, Carretera Austral provides access to only about 100,000 people. South of the highway’s start in Puerto Montt, Coyhaique (population 44,850) is the largest city along it.
Construction was begun on the highway in 1976 under the presidency of Augusto Pinochet in order to connect a number of the remote communities. Before that, in 1950s and 1970s, there had been unsuccessful attempts to build access roads in the region. The highway opened to traffic in 1988, and by 1996 was completed to Puerto Yungay. The last 100 kilometers (62 miles) to Villa O’Higgins were opened in 2000. In 2003, a branch road to Caleta Tortel was finished.
As you can see, the road is relatively new and constructed primarily of gravel (of vastly differing qualities). My first (very full) day on the route was spent riding (fairly slowly) along the south and western shores of the enormous and very scenic Lago General Carrera and eventually on to the village of Villa Castillo. Due to the road conditions and my “not exactly early” start, I showed up about half an hour before sunset, which was much later than I had hoped.
On my way to Villa Castillo, I had my first experience with police in South America. I was waved over on a gravel road, on the shore of Lago General Carrera in the middle of nowhere. On the positive side, it was an extremely scenic setting. Since my grasp of Spanish is…somewhat incomplete…I was a bit unsure of the exact dynamics of this encounter. Long story short, my new amigo, the biggest Chilean I’ve seen so far, with aviator glasses, military boots and that whole look, was bored. Relatively speaking, my KLR is a huge bike compared to the local machines. So, I’m guessing this guy wanted to check out the unusual foreigner, with a big bike full of luggage. He seemed to be quite impressed that I was able to listen to my iPod while riding. He wanted to check out everything, which made me a bit nervous. But, fortunately, he was very courteous, nice, friendly and affirmed the good reputation that the Chilean police have. I think my lesson from this encounter is to i) never be in a hurry with the police, ii) do my best to have a conversation and iii) be friendly, but stand my ground with them.
Villa Castillo is a tiny settlement. I don’t think it even has a gas station. It’s one hotel was full, but I was able to find a good enough room in someone’s house (hosteria) for something like $12. The town is in an absolutely beautiful setting. It’s located in a valley, surrounded by several impressive peaks. It seems to me, surprisingly, that relatively few tourists make it to the town. I’m guessing that many people are turned off by the road conditions and the remoteness of the region. I liked it. It felt as if I had gone a bit back in time. The locals didn’t seem to be too troubled by anything except drinking their mate’, which they seemed to do pretty much constantly.
Apparently there are some good hikes as well as some interesting horseback ride that can be done in the area. I didn’t have a lot of time, so instead, I went on a hike to an area that has several prehistoric native finger paintings. I enjoyed seeing the paintings and I appreciated the fact that they were something like 10,000 years old. But, to be honest, for as much hype as this place was given, I was not overly impressed. 10,000 years ago, Egyptians made pyramids. That impresses me. Castles impress me. The Coliseum impresses me. Metal work, wood work, and sculpture impress me. But dipping your hand in something red and slapping it on a wall, well, not so much… Maybe I should think more about the uniqueness of the art. Perhaps I need to be more culturally sensitive…instead of looking at these finger paintings like 10,000 year old graffiti.
After my finger painting hike, I left Villa Castillo and enjoyed paved roads, all the way to the industrial feeling and regional center of Coihaique. This area was full of farms, ranches, cows, horses, sheep and crops. It seemed to be fairly developed, as well as the greenest and most productive land I had yet to see in South America.
After leaving Coihaique, the road returned rather quickly to an increasingly rough gravel road and the countryside became increasingly fairly wild. The road was full of water filled potholes and usually covered with some type of nasty, lose large rocky gravel. To make things even more fun, there was a light drizzle coming down and the road was incredibly twisty, seeming to be either going up or down a mountain pass. Even better, the local gauchos drove their trucks (almost always red) like possessed idiots. I was lucky enough to meet one such chap who was coming around a corner out of control, effectively forcing me off the road. The driver stopped, hopefully to make sure I was ok, but I think its best he didn’t get out of his car…
It seemed as if it took me an eternity to travel approximately 200 miles from Villa Castillo to the small town of Puerto Puyuhuapi. Once again, I arrived about 30 minutes before sunset; a habit that I really need to break. Close to Puerto Puyuhuapi, I entered some type of cold, Chilean rain forest, complete with rain (of course), a really bumpy road, lots of big hills and tight turn after tight turn, followed by more turns. It was tough and very slow going.
In rural areas, like this, the Carretera Austral isn’t just for people. I saw quite a few of the local gauchos driving their cattle down the road. I also saw lots of sheep and goats wandering about on their own. And, on a pretty regular basis, I saw cattle and horses alongside of the road. Sometimes they were tied up, but usually they were allowed to wander freely.
On the morning of my third day, I spent about an hour and an entire can of WD-40 cleaning my very dirty chain. I snugged it up a bit and checked the KLR for loose bolts, and of course, found a few (one engine mount bolt was loose). Given the KLR’s reputation as an oil burner, checking the level has become one of my daily, and sometimes hourly vigils.
I left Puerto Puyuhuapi and traveled about 150 miles through a very green countryside. Along the way, I met two local motorcyclists and rode with them for a while. The roads continued to be quite rough, until I made it to the interesting little town of Futaleufu. En route, I crossed the Rio Futaleufu several times, which is a very famous river for white water rafting and kayaking. From what I saw, the river was really beautiful. It flowed through rocky gorges and had an amazing deep glacial blue color. I would have loved to have stayed a few days and checked the river out, but, given my schedule and on the advice of a local couple, I headed off to Esquel, Argentina.
A bit more gravel, another border crossing and about an hour and a half of nice paved roads and I made it to the pleasant little town of Esquel.