Patagonia’s Never-ending Road
It’s not quite finished, and may never be, but Chile’s Carretera Austral may be the ultimate long-haul drive.
The dueling volcanoes towering above the Chilean fishing hub of Puerto Montt are the first sign that this is no ordinary road trip. This is Mile 1 of the 770-mile Carretera Austral, the only artery through Patagonia’s wilder northern half. A few years ago, my partner and I set off with two other couples and one shared goal: to snake down this so-called Southern Highway in a modern-day caravan of three pearly-white Subaru Foresters, camping, hiking, and rescuing each other when things go wrong—as they inevitably do.
Dreamed up by Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s onetime dictator, in the late 1970s, the Carretera Austral has emerged in recent years as an iconic road trip in South America. Yet the misleadingly named “highway” remains very much a work in progress. Less than half of it is paved, and the parts that aren’t can be more theoretical than actual. In fact, on day two of our three-week journey, we had to ditch land altogether and drive our cars aboard a series of ferries down the foggy fjords between Hornopirén and Caleta Gonzalo, two quaint seaside villages.
Solid road began again in Pumalín National Park, whose temperate rain forests are like those of British Columbia, with taller peaks and deeper woods. After a few days hiking through its waterfall-covered hills, we forged onward past the port town of Chaitén—rebuilt after the 2008 eruption of its namesake volcano—and on to Queulat National Park, where a massive hanging glacier spews meltwater over the edge of a cliff. While camping on the nearby banks of Puyuhuapi fjord, we decided to bathe in a series of hot springs next to the frigid sea. As we unwound after a long day on the road, dolphins swam about below us.
During the trip, we were so intoxicated by each new vista that we didn’t even touch alcohol until our second week. But then we splurged. Chile is a wine country, but there are nearly two dozen cervecerías in this part of Patagonia, where microbrewers craft hop-heavy lagers with glacier water. So we stocked up on beer and food supplies in the area’s only real city, Coyhaique, and then zigzagged around the castlelike spires of Cerro Castillo, a massive granite peak. At Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a tiny adventure hub on the edge of a turquoise lake, we rented kayaks to paddle through a series of marble caves.
At a certain point, all of the beauty became a blur: Andean peaks, Caribbean-colored lakes, and sunbaked steppes. And then civilization returned in the form of the fishing village of Caleta Tortel, where wooden boardwalks connect a few cabins along a green fjord. Suddenly the only stop left before we reached the southern terminus of the Carretera Austral was Villa O’Higgins, a gaucho town that feels like the end of the world.
The Foresters limped in on spare tires, making funny noises, and with mud and dust covering nearly every inch of their white paint. It’s the sort of scene that might cause panic in a car-rental agent. We simply took it as a testament to how far we had come. — Mark Johanson
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