We entered the Carreterra Austral in style, veering off paved Ruta 40 onto deserted dirt roads towards the border. Except for the border officials, we didn’t see another car for 200km. When we crossed the border, we saw the previous person had crossed 2 days ago.
On the Chilean side, we passed through Parque Patagonia, Doug Tompkins latest park development. The visitor center and campground was undergoing construction, so we didn’t stay for long. However, the manicured lawns and stone buildings seem entirely out of place – it seemed more like an upscale ecoresort in the making than a park focused on conservation efforts.
We restocked in nearby Cochrane and headed south to Tortel. It’s an odd town situated along the water, using elevated wooden walkways instead of streets. There is a parking lot at the entrance of town for your car.
Since the weather wasn’t holding up, we headed back up north. After taking a side trip to Valle de los Exploradores, an east-west valley with glacier and river views, we stopped in Puerto Tranquilo, close to some marble caves that we had heard of from a lot of other travelers. We rented kayaks for the next day and headed out early in the morning. With perfect weather, we had the marble caves all to ourselves for about an hour before the first tour groups showed up. It’s a fantastic place, and we had a lot of fun paddling through the caves with the sun reflecting on the rock. One of the highlights of this trip.
The next big town on the Carreterra Austral would be Coyhaique, another good place to restock. We actually stayed in a hostel there, the only time we paid for accomodation in all of Chile. Our host Tim prepared his wood-fired hot tub for us – it’s something we’re going to have to build ourselves at some point if we ever have a house.
Further north, the Carreterra passes through a number of national parks and reserves. We tried to go for a hike almost every day, even though Nikki’s achilles heel wasn’t quite cooperating. Unfortunately the parks typically don’t allow dogs, so we focused on shorter hikes so that we wouldn’t have to leave Leika in the car for too long. There were some great views of hanging glaciers (notably Ventisquero Yelcho and Colgante), and the weather definitely helped in getting us out to be active.
A highlight for most travelers on the Carreterra is Parque Pumalin, Doug Tompkins other (first) private park. It’s free to access, again with perfectly manicured lawns, fancy buildings and well-kept campgrounds. We hiked up to see Chaiten volcano, which had erupted in 2008.
Our favorite part of the Carreterra Austral wasn’t even on the Carreterra. Although Cabulco volcano had recently erupted, we found out that the nearby Cochamo valley was still open. We drove in through the less traveled dirt road from the Carreterra Austral. The Cochamo valley is known as the ‘Yosemite of South America,’ and even though it may not be quite as impressive as some of the views in Yosemite, we were the only people there when we did the hike. We only planned for a day trip in Cochamo, but could have easily spent a whole week hiking there. There fantastic views of granite domes with no people around.
From there it was a quick drive and ferry ride to Puerto Montt, the end of the Carreterra Austral. All of a sudden we were back in a mainstream Chilean city with all its amenities, shopping centers, and roads that made it all too easy to just pass by any attraction that would make you want to stop when traveling on gravel.