By Tim Farquhar
For those of you who don’t know, the Carretera Austral is the road that connects Puerto Montt south to Villa O’Higgins, and then into Argentina towards El Chalten. I have been interested in getting down to this area as has casually been mentioned by various Chileans over the years as some of the best scenery in Chile, which in a country that has places like Torres del Paine, Atacama and the Lake District, I needed to see as much as I can for myself in the week I had.
We got the early flight from Santiago to Balmaceda, where we picked up our comfortable 4WD, packed our stuff and headed south towards Lake General Carrera. Some careful planning needs to be done in this area as the government are working on improving the roads and there are often closures and after the first hours stunning drive from the airport to Villa Cerro Castillo. Here the roadworks began and the paved highway turned into dirt, slowing the speed down but being surrounded by snow-capped peaks and crystal water rivers and lakes, we were happy to take our time with our average speed being around 30-40 kms per hour, stopping for photos along the way.
After about 3 hours we arrived at Rio Tranquillo, checked into our comfortable hotel, Hostal El Puesto and had a wander around town, Puerto Tranquilo is a main stop for activities such as visiting the Marble Caves and San Rafael Glacier and National Park. The Marble Caves are a group of caverns formed from wave movements over 6000 years and have a blue colour formed by the water colour of the lake.
The next morning we woke up to the news that we had a flat tyre but luckily another guest, who also had a flat tyre, had an automatic pump to blow it up again and allowed us to get to the mechanic around the corner who quickly found the problem and fixed it all up for 5000CLP ($10AUD)
From Puerto Tranquilo we drove another 60kms to our second destination of Puerto Guadal, again passing of the most amazing scenery I have witnessed. Turning a corner or crossing over a ridge you are always in for a surprise with some sharp peaks in the distance. We arrived at El Mirador de Guadal to be greeted welcomely by Stefan and Carolina who offered us a cup of tea on arrival then checked us in while answering our questions along the way. Stefan showed us to our cabin where we setup for the next couple of days and enjoyed the Patagonian views over Lake General Carrera and Mt St Valentino (the highest peak in Patagonia) in the distance. Just down the road we went for a small trek to see a powerful waterfall coming down from the mountains into Lake General Carrera which was a nice trek to warm ourselves up for the days ahead.
Our next stop was the Borde Baker hotel which is a new property that has 7 very comfortable wooden lodges with great views overlooking the turquoise waters of Rio Baker. Just down the road is the “Confluencia del Rio Baker”, where the Rio Baker meets the Rio Nef and travellers can simply park on the Carreterra Austral, then have an easy walk to the meeting of the rivers.
Travelling in October we were ahead of the crowds and had pretty much all of the attractions to ourselves which was great. The area is still quite undiscovered for non-Chileans and this was a great time to visit. There are no large hotels in the areas and accommodation is made up of small privately owned lodges, so if considering a trip in Nov – Feb then prebooking is a must.
From Rio Baker we headed north to Coyhaique which is the main town in the area which has everything you may need so a good place to restock on the things you may have forgotten or used up. We stayed here for a night at Dreams Hotel which I’d say is the biggest in the town and was very comfortable. The next day we went to Puyuhuapi where the main attraction is the Hanging Glacier and this was the main reason I wanted to visit the area.
Most of the road is paved from Coyhaique so you can make some good distance in about 3 hours, when the road becomes unpaved towards Puyuhuapi. Here you head up the mountain then wind down the other side, taking it slow the whole time. The dense forests of this area are different to the open plains further south and once we made it to the base of the mountains we were all of a sudden driving along a fjord which joined the Pacific Ocean so we were back at sea level although we felt a lot higher than that. As we drove around a bend we faced the Hanging Glacier and had to stop for a few pictures, but it was getting late so we continued onto the town with the plan to return the next day. We stayed at Casa Ludwig where there is a lovely woman, Luiza, running the B&B and she is very enthusiastic about the region and history of the area. The accommodation she owns, that was built by her father around 50 years ago is full of local history and stories of the German community moving to the area prior to WWII.
We spoke to some of the locals that night and they all advised to get up early and head to Quelat National Park in the morning, so we followed their advice and were greeted by sunshine and nice conditions for a trek. There are a few options here to cater for all fitness / energy types:
- A short 50m walk that is wheelchair accessible to get a view of the glacier and waterfalls
- A 200m short trek to another lookout which is a little higher
- A 500m trek down to the shores of the lake which takes in the sheer size of the surrounding mountains
- A 3300m trek up to a lookout a lot closer to the glacier and falls
The “Ventisquero Colgante” or Hanging Glacier is a truly spectacular attraction and any of the above options will allow you to see it. Hanging approx. 500m above the lake, with waterfalls of 300m dropping onto a rock face that is slowly appearing as its own glacier it’s a mesmerising act of nature and well worth the effort to get there. The 3300m trek to the lookout takes around 1hr 15minutes each way and is not a difficult trek but requires some careful navigation at times and does climb the side of the mountain for the first half an hour and hiking boots are a must as it is quite muddy at times. All other treks are easily accessed.
After a week of travelling on the Carretera Austral I would highly recommend this area for travellers who have already been to South America and are looking to get off the beaten track on a second visit, or combine with a trip to Antarctica. It’s all about nature here and the scenery would have to be some of the best in the world combining snow-capped peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, dense green forests, turquoise lakes and rivers and wide open spaces of Patagonia. Self-drive is an option here or a driver guide can be arranged which is an excellent way to see everything the area has to offer.
- The towns are quite basic so don’t expect to be able to buy anything aside from the basics along the way.
- Bring cash
- Bring CD’s or an Aux cable for music in the car
- Fill up with petrol whenever you see a station
- Make sure all the tyres are full
If you want to find out more about the destinations in this article, or have any questions in general please contact us.