The Carretera Austral

We crossed into Chile at Futeleufu and started our journey down the legendary Carretera Austral. The Carretera Austral, literally translated as “Southern Highway”, was built during the Pinochet Era to connect to the southern Chilean villages, mostly for military purposes. The Carretera stretches from Puerto Montt south, about 1300 km to Villa O’Higgins. The highway is mostly unpaved and of varying conditions. From heavily washboarded and potholed, to new heavenly smooth pavement. The coolest thing for me about the Carretera Austral is that it connects villages that had previously never been connected. There only access was via boat or long rough wilderness roads. Southern Chile is made up of large lakes and long criss-crossing fiords, divided by great mountain ranges hung with great white rivers of ice.

I read several other peoples experiences and descriptions of the highway, and looked at it many times in google maps, but as usual I didn’t quite have it pictured right. As the saying goes- “The map is not the terrain.” I expected the route to be similar from start to finish. After all it is coastal southern Chile. What we found is that each area was very unique and has its own character and energy. There was variety in the climate and landscape of each town, but also variety in the character of the people. Thinking about it now this makes perfect sense. The highway moves from coastal regions close to the sea with lush rain soaked landscapes to dryer inland areas. Also, the character of each region was different because they had each developed independently of each other. Each area was isolated from their neighbors and the rest of the country. Furthermore, the economy of each region is based on different industries and have grown to different sizes.

Puerto Aysen and Puerto Cisne are right on the sea. They developed based on the fishing industries an acting as a port of areas inland. They are both very wet and are nestled in relatively protected inlets.

Coyhiaque is the largest town on the highway and home to 59,000 people. Coyhaique is located in a high, wide open valley, and well inland from Puerto Aysen. The wide valley is protected from the Pacific by a huge mountain range. The valley is dry, relative to the rainy coastal areas, but lush when compared to the arid pampas of Argentina, further east. Cattle and sheep ranching is the main industry of the valley.

On a side note, we spent a bit more time in Coyhiaque than we had planned, having a broken tail light repaired. We do not know how it happened, but one morning we found out that the red lens for the break light was broken. In the States if you break a tail light, in most cases you would have to go in to a dealer, or a junk yard if you are lucky, and buy the whole plastic assembly. This is basically a big plastic thing that holds all the lenses and lights for that side of the car. We showed up at parts shop hoping to get the replacement part at a reasonable price. Most places told me No way! Another shop told me that they could get the piece but that it would be $65 and would take 10 days, no gracias. Luckily, as I was getting disappointed at a third shop, a friendly local mechanic saw my dilemma and said that he knew someone who could fix it. I was totally surprised that it was even possible, but thankful that I had the option. By this point I had pretty much lost hope. He took me in his car several miles into a residential neighborhood and knocked at the door of a house. The guy said that he could do it and asked if I was ok paying $15, hell yeah I was! Several hours later we had our repaired light as good as new. It is awesome that he was able to fix this piece. Back home, a broken piece would have ended up in the landfill, and the new one would have been shipped in from Germany (or maybe China) and would have cost me 5 times as much. This is an example of the difference in mindset that Chileans and Argentinians have.Tortel (Caleta means creek). Tortel is, even today, a small, picturesque town perched on the steep slopes surrounding a couple of small interconnected bays. What is amazing about this village is that, despite it being settled in the 1930’s, with it’s incredible remoteness, tucked away between two huge mountain ranges, it grew independent of vehicles. There was no need for them. The land was steep and rocky and with the village’s fishing roots, there was just no need. It was a water centric culture. Aside from boardwalks connecting the different homes all transportation was via the water. The relatively new Carretera dead-ends at the edge of town. From the parking area residents and visitors alike walk the rest of the way to their destination. The village is truly centered around the water, even today garbage is brought down to one of many public piers where a boat stops to haul the bags away. It will be interesting to see how this village changes as tourism increases.

Villa O’Higgins is a another strange place, it is the end of the Carretera Austral Highway. Located right on the Argentinian boarder, Villa O’Higgins was established and at great expense by the government to established border control against their neighbors. There is little economy in town aside from tourism and military bases. We spent our Christmas Eve here in a cozy hostel with many other travelers, surrounded by joy and happiness of others who also have the good fortune to travel.

The Carretera Austral was a big surprise for us and despite visiting during some unusually bad weather we loved getting away in this truly end of the world sort of place. We saw lots of construction during our journey down. Chile, clearly, recognizes the tourist draw to this area and are do their best to straighten and smooth this wilderness road. It will be a different journey 10 years, or even 5 years, from now.

Be sure to read the picture captions.


Anyways back to the Carretera Austral and it’s diversity. Near the southern end of the Carretera is Caleta

We were on the Carretera Austral from December 12th to the 31st of 2016

8 Replies to “The Carretera Austral”

  1. John Salmon says: Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful adventure with us, Todd and Alex. The narrative and the pictures are both terrific.

    1. Thanks John. It is a lot of work to put them together with the poor internet, but it is really like to reflect on our travels.

  2. Marlen Conrad says: Reply

    Enjoyed reading about your adventures! M

    1. Thanks Marlen!

  3. So glad you remember about algae and fungi, and lichens!
    Thanks for the pics and story.

    1. Of course. I learned that at outdoor school in 6th grade.

  4. Ditto on what everyone’s said. Awesome story telling Todd, now I understand what Mom means when shes says you tell them differently from Ola :). Love the pictures, it’s not as good as seeing it myself but definitely shows the fun you’re having! Really crazy to see how much water there is – the colour of the water in the first picture after the hitch hikers is gorgeous. What an experience it must have been to hear the ice crashing at the Parque National Queulat!

    1. Thank you. That picture is of the Rio Baker. The river is huge, Chile’s Largest, and drains the massive Lago General Carrera / Lago Buenos Aires. The color of the river and the lake is this beautiful rich blue. The glacier was great too.

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