Patagonia, Part 4: Backtracking up the Austral and down the 40

January 17 – 21, 2011

I had reached the current terminus of the Carretera Austral in Chile’s Northern Patagonia. From Villa O’Higgins, to continue south to Ushuaia, one needs to backtrack about 300 kms (186 mi) north before catching the road east across into Argentina and then turning south.

After spending a relaxing morning at the campground in Villa O’Higgins chatting up with other travelers, I got a move on to catch the 1 pm ferry from Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungay, because the next ferry was at 7 pm. I slightly envied the cyclists and backpackers who could continue on foot south to El Chaltén, whereas it would take me 4 days to loop around to get to the same place.

My route backtracking from Villa O’Higgins, around Lago Carrera General and down Ruta 40 to El Chaltén and El Calafate. The Carretera Austral ends at Villa O’Higgins as the huge Southern Patagonian Ice Field prevents progress further south and this demarcates Northern and Southern Patagonia in Chile. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The Carretera Austral heading back north to Rio Bravo. This 100 km (62 mi) section felt the most remote of the whole route and was quite a special place to ride. The local weather was affected by the one big mountain ridge that the route crosses, being foggy and cold on one side and sunny and slightly warmer on the other side.

Yup, I’ve been there. Maybe when I come back next time, I can head right and see if the Carretera continues further south…

Back on the ferry over to Puerto Yungay.

The 20 km (12 mi) stretch from Puerto Yungay to the turn off to Caleta Tortel was quite mountainous.

The route went thru narrow canyons and the high humidity with the low temps chilled me to my bones.

A signboard showing the turn off from the principle route to the small town of Caleta Tortel, about 22 kms (14 mi) away.

Welcome to Caleta Tortel, a small coastal village near the mouth of Rio Baker.

The community was built in 1955 to exploit the Cypress trees, which are abundant in this area.

For most of its history, it only had sea and air access and land access via the spur from the Carretera Austral was only built in 2003. The unique look about this village is that all the houses are constructed on stilts and there are no regular streets in the village, only wooden walkways.

A fishing boat waiting for the tide to come in.

There isn’t much flat land here and I guess they went with stilts because the ground must be soft from all the wetness in the area. Also nowadays, it looks eco-friendly as the human construction on stilts has a much smaller footprint on the ground and local vegetation than the usual raze to the ground and pour concrete over the land.

Heading back to the Carretera and the high humidity showing through with these low hanging clouds in the valley.

The tagline of being the ‘most beautiful road in the world’ certainly rings true.

With epic views around almost every corner.

A local cowboy with an equal-sized herd of sheepdogs to keep the bovines in check. These dogs were harmless but nonetheless would come barking and attacking as I rode by. I just pick up my legs and power on through.

Enjoying the intimate feel of the tall, dense forests.

I fueled up in Cochrane, just enough to get me across the border to cheaper fuel in Argentina and headed out to look for a place to camp.

I found a nice spot along Rio Baker with ample firewood lying around, nestled under these tall trees.

I came along the shore of the river for a bit to find this secluded spot. The camping opportunities in Patagonia are just sublime but be prepared for regular nightly rains on the Chilean side.

The next morning, I reached the turnoff at El Maitén and headed along the coast of Lago Carrera General to the Argentine border. An impressive ride along 120 kms (75 mi) of stunning coast line.

The road climbed high up the lake’s rocky shores offering great views of this massive expanse of shiny blue water.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The lake was relatively narrow along this part and the steep snowy peaks appeared very close, adding to the dramatic setting.

I was looking forward to riding around Lago Carrera General and it certainly impressed. The road is exciting as it twists and turns along the jagged coast line and then the views are stunning of the turquoise waters with a backdrop of snow-peaked mountains.

A natural horse with my mechanical horse, same difference. As the road dropped down to the water I noticed this lone horse who felt abandoned. He was drinking water from the rain puddles and I felt like telling him about the fresh, sweat-tasting expanse of water just a few feet over.

sanDRina was running like a champ and the road was in good condition, allowing for higher speeds and greater distraction by the scenery.

The clear, turquoise waters of the Carrera General. When our problems with global water scarcity become more prevalent in the coming decades, this place is going to become the new Middle East.

The lake spills over the border and the half in Argentina is known at Lago Buenos Aires. The border is defined by a change in the climate and terrain and the steep mountains along the lake’s coast abruptly end as it leaves Chile for Argentina. Chile Chico is the last town in Chile and it’s neighbor across the border is Los Antiguos, where I camped for the night after filling up with cheaper Argentine petrol.

Back on the Ruta 40, heading south. The road is paved from Los Antiguous to the town of Perito Moreno where it meets the 40. The town is not to be confused with the famous glacier of the same name, which is much further south near El Calafate. The 40 is under going major construction and looks like they’ll have it all paved within a few years. So, get down here soon if you want to enjoy some of the wild-ness before it’s tamed. But it’s hardly wilderness, since the whole of Patagonia is fenced off by ranchers. The one companion along the 40 is the constant fences on either side, revealing the history of this land when big estancias (ranches) were established in the early days.

From Perito Moreno, Ruta 40 is very remote and there are no petrol services en route for 460 kms (286 mi) till Tres Lagos. One could side-track to Gobernador Gregores, which is about 70 kms (43 mi) off the route, but I had no worries with the 800 km (500 mi) range of my Aqualine Safari tank.

sanDRina in the big sky land of the Argentine Patagonia.

This is where the winds are very pronounced, constantly blowing and keeping a check on the height of the flora, ensuring nothing more than a shrub could thrive here.

Small stretches of the newly paved sections of the 40.

The scenery is not that exciting, but the massive expanse of land with hardly any relief is enough to be enthralled by the landscape.

The road surface is hard with loose gravel but since there are so few turns in this remote section of the flat Argentine Patagonia, I could ride at much higher speeds than I usually did. Previously, my top speeds on gravel roads was no more than 60 kph (37 mph), but I think riding the Lagunas Route in Bolivia upped my confidence and I was easily cruising at 100 kph (62 mph) along the 40. With the correct air pressure in the tires, the bike doesn’t squirm as much and just motors along.

Ruta 40 Rocks! The current 40 runs parallel to the new 40 that is being paved and the route constantly crosses the new road and alternates which side it’s running on. In some places, the detour was quite rough with big rocks showing through, but most of the old 40 is still a pleasant ride.

I was making good time and knew I would need another day to get to Tres Lagos, so I explored a road leading away from the 40 up to an estancia and found a nice place to camp in the middle of Patagonia. There are no other plants around but I figured these small shrubs would offer at least some kind of protection from the wind, which was a non-stop howler.

This was the roughest camping experience to date due to the fine talc texture of the sand and the constant wind, which made everything dusty and my Catoma Twist not being a sealed tent showed its weakness here as fine dust was blowing up inside the tent. I quickly setup camp, which is a strength of the Twist and dived inside to shelter from the wind. I was forced to setup my stove under the tight confines of the tent’s vestibule and made sure to protect the nylon tent’s wall from the heat of the stove with the aluminum guards.

I slept well but woke up to see that my sleeping bag was covered in a fine layer of dust. However, who cares, because I knew I was in a special place, in the middle of nowhere Patagonia and woke up not to miss sunrise in this magical land.

The Earth, slowly spinning on its axis in space and constantly revealing the Sun’s rays in one place and diminishing it at the other end of the planet. What a realization it must have been for the first human to understand that it’s the Earth that spins around the Sun and not the other way around. Knowing these basic truths leads to a much richer life experience and the never-ending pursuit of deeper truths of nature.

It was bitingly cold and I covered up every bit of exposed skin before going about the routine of breaking down camp and packing up sanDRina. I’m wearing my fleece beanie under my hat and my rain jacket to provide maximum protection from the cold winds. Oakley goggles doing a good job to seal against the dust.

A memorable experience of wild camping in Patagonia.

Back on the 40 and eating up the big distances with ease. With the road hardly turning, it gave me time to gaze up at the wind-swept clouds of Patagonia.

My faster speed on the gravel caught up with me and one of my tool tubes under the bike had cracked and I realized later that I had spilled some very important tools along the 40. This was the thin-walled welding rod holder tube that held my TyrePliers bead breaker (pictured in the foreground), along with my tire irons and bike krutch. It was the longest tube that I could find to house these large tools, but the thin walls were no match for the rocks being kicked up from the 40. I had to backtrack around 35 kms (22 mi) until I found my tools spilled along the road. The other thicker-walled tool tubes that I have from Devon at Mega Tool Tube have been no problem, so far. I wrote to him and he said he would make me a thick-walled long tool tube to house these tire tools.

I was heading to El Calafate to see the famous glacier, but wanted to swing by El Chaltén first.

Less than a thousand kilometers to Tierra del Fuego, but I would be side-tracking into Chile once more for Torres del Paine.

Where a fence runs across the road, it flattens down into a cattle guard and it’s not advisable to cross them at full speed since some of the guards have big dents in them that could damage the wheel rim.

An unlucky calf trying to jump the fence and paying the price. I guess Patagonia could be the ideal pasture land with nothing but shrubs growing but due to the low precipitation, I would think regrowth could be adversely affected by overgrazing. Plus, the grazers would have to quite tough to brave the constant winds and the persistent chill in the air.

After hundreds of kilometers of nothing but barren steppes, seeing this turquoise lake near Tres Lagos was a strange and welcome sight.

I camped next to the only gas station in Tres Lagos and was advised to setup next to this wall to hide from the wind. I also managed to throw some water over my body at the station’s bathroom, since my last shower in Villa O’Higgins, but I would have to wait till I reached El Calafate tomorrow for my first shower in five days. With the cooler temps, you don’t notice your body odour and besides, there are more important things like surviving through the night, than smelling nice. All the water I camped next to was freezing cold and not inviting enough to take a dip.

I asked the station owner and his wife if they had any food in their convenience store. I was looking for something to add to my usual fare of pasta and beef liver pate, like a can of peas or beans, but they didn’t have any. However, the owner came by later and gave me a big milanesa (breaded steak) sandwich and I was truly grateful. And then again in the morning, he came over with some bread and cheese. I was touched by the kind heart of these Argentines.

Suiting up for another chilly day in Patagonia, which isn’t so bad if you have enough layers and the right kind of protection from the wind.

The road is paved from Tres Lagos south, at least till Rio Turbio (turn off to Puerto Natales). This is the 90 km (56 mi) one-way route into El Chaltén.

The views along the way were beautiful and I was hoping for clear weather in El Chaltén.

Getting closer to the chills of the snow peaks of the Andes.

And voila, the small touristy town of El Chaltén under the famous towering Fitz Roy Mountains, which were sadly covered under clouds. A clear view of the peaks is a rare experience due to the micro climate that the tall mountains create. This hamlet is a hiking base and was packed to the brim with foreign tourists, ranging from bus loads of backpackers to herds of European motorcycle tour groups. I took a picture and turned around. From Villa O’Higgins, which is not that far as the crow flies from here, the overland route by foot comes in to the north of town.

A picturesque valley and I would’ve liked to spend more time here, but the commercialization of a place turns me off.

Heading back to the 40 along Lago Viedma with the Perito Moreno Glacier just across those mountains.

This whole area from El Chaltén down to El Calafate is part of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to protect the numerous ice rivers flowing down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. There was no entrance fee to the park from the road.

sanDRina posing with the turquoise waters of Lago Viedma, which is colored like so due to the minerals held in suspension that are eroded down by the glaciers. You can see the broken cap of the red tool tube, which spilled the tools along the 40.

The four days to loop around from Villa O’Higgins to El Calafate was a wonderful experience, especially as the contrasts of the two side of Patagonia were quite evident. The lush, green side of the Chilean Patagonia striking against the dry, wind-swept steppes of the Argentine side.

Next: Patagonia, Part 5: Perito Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine

Previous: Patagonia, Part 3: Carretera Austral | Lago Carrera General to Villa O’Higgins

Patagonia, Part 3: Carretera Austral | Lago Carrera General to Villa O’Higgins

January 13 – 16, 2011

I was in the midst of Chile’s northern Patagonia, deep along the Carretera Austral and getting a feel for living in a remote land. After a few days in Puerto Aisén, I continued south around Lago Carrera General and to the current terminus of the Carretera Austral at Villa O’Higgins.

The wood shed of the small hotel that I was staying at in Puerto Aisén. Even in summer, it’s quite chilly here and fire places were roaring.

After resting for a day, I continued on south. The first and only wind power turbines that I saw in Patagonia. If there’s one place in the world where the winds are constant and strong, it’s here and I’m wondering why there aren’t more wind turbines. If the government really wants to harness energy from Patagonia to supply the north, let it be thru wind rather than hydro.

I fueled up and restocked my grocery supplies in the biggest city in this region, Coyhaique and then headed to the massive lake coming up. A sign board of the towns on the southern section of the Carretera Austral. From Puerto Yungay, it’s another 100 kms (62 mi) to Villa O’Higgins.

South of Coyhaique, I rode through this valley lined with jagged snow peaks.

A billboard at the turnoff to Rio Ibáñez, fighting the proposed damming of Patagonia. It reads, “our rivers are much more than electrical energy.”

This was a classic image of Patagonia that I had before I got here and it’s just like it looks in the pictures, but of course, it’s a much grander feeling when you’re actually in this huge valley, devoid of much human activity, except this snaking, winding path.

The pavement ended about 100 kms (62 mi) south of Coyhaique and it soon turned into washboard. The route was climbing up the opposite side of this valley with the snow peaks coming and going into view.

Nice to be back on the dirt and on the pegs after the central paved section of the Carretera Austral.

Rivers flowing down from glaciers and ice caps up in the mountains. Is it worth losing these kind of places in the name of energy from dams for continued economic growth?

I came around a corner and found these blokes from New Zealand taking a break. They flew into Los Angeles, bought these used DR650s and set off on a 6 month ride around Latin America and found buyers for the bikes in Buenos Aires. They hadn’t planned too much for spare parts and their tires were bald and one guy’s rear sprocket was way past its usable life. I told him to watch the down-shifting. They were loving all the things I did to sanDRina and were happy to see a well-setup DR in the wild. And of course, they asked what all the switches were for.

Coming up behind them was this Brit on a BMW R100GS with a DR front end. A proper Franken-bike.

I admired all his self-fabrication and envied his wind guards that he cut from oil containers. So, in the middle of Patagonia, there was a bike meeting of 4 1/2 DR650s and a half of a Beemer.

The crazy chap made his panniers from plywood and had a livery of zebra stripes; he could be mistaken for dinner in the savanna.

The Kiwis told me of a great place to camp along Lago Carrera General, so I headed there for the night.

It was slow-going with so many wonderful photo opportunities.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

A turquoise river flowing from an unseen glacier that cloudied-up the water with pulverized rock held in suspension.

The road was in good condition, allowing for higher speeds but the views were constantly distracting.

Besides the epic scenery, the fast-changing weather held my rapt attention with the thick clouds changing day into night.

When I saw the first of these signs, I was ready for some ‘danger’ around the corner, but then I realized, they were just warning about the corner itself.

Climbing up along the side of this valley…

…and then dropping down and flowing over these hills.

The Carretera is characterized with these slender, tall trees. Perhaps it’s a result of the constantly wet environment, letting the trees grow as tall as they desire.

Taking a break in the middle of the road and not worrying about any traffic.

I turned the corner and wow, a complete rainbow to welcome me to the jewel of Chile’s northern Patagonia, Lago Carrera General.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The lake is massive, the second largest in South America below Lago Titicaca and its most striking feature is the almost unreal color of its waters.

I found the camping spot that the Kiwi riders told me about and it was just past the small settlement of Rio Tranquilo. The road stays high up along the cliffs and it was a steep descent down to the shores of the lake.

My spot for the night under these trees with a fantastic view of the lake.

The iridescent blue waters of Lago Carrera General. The changing sunlight determined what kind of blue was shown and I guess rainbows are quite common here with the humid air easily catching the Sun’s photons.

There was a fire ring with a picnic table and home was setup for the night.

Preparing dinner with a view.

I started cooking more rice than pasta after I realized it didn’t really take all that much more time to prepare rice. And with the adjustable flame option of the MSR Dragonfly stove, I could have it simmering on a low-enough flame to make a good pot of rice without burning it.

Frying up some dehydrated spices to add flavour to dinner. This was also made by my aunt in my mother’s village outside Madras, India. It’s a mixture of onions, garlic, mustard seeds, fennel and other such ingredients, which are dried and when fried release their flavours.

The fried spices were added to the rice with a can of tuna and tomato sauce. Good eats on the Carretera Austral.

I woke up to rain the next morning but after waiting a while, the sun came out and made it a happy day. The nice thing about rain is that once it’s done, it leaves behind clear air.

Continuing south around the lake.

It’s known for great trout and salmon fishing.

The blue is just surreal, especially contrasted with the surrounding greens. At the southern edge of the lake, the Carretera continues in a one-way direction to Villa O’Higgins. From here, there are only two ways to get back into Argentina by road. One is going east around the lake to cross at Chile Chico or a smaller border crossing a bit further south at Paso Raballos.

Since I was heading all the way to Villa O’Higgins, I would be back-tracking up to this junction in a few days to continue to Ushuaia. Lago Carrera General with a back drop of snow-peaked Andes and Laguna Negra in the foreground, which was considerably darker than it’s more turquoise neighbour up north.

From El Maiten to Villa O’Higgins, the Carretera is even more remote than the relatively more populated region in the north.

The route followed Rio Baker, which drains Lago Carrera General to the Pacific. The river flows along the eastern edge of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, the largest continuous mass of ice besides the polar regions.

The changing characteristics of the Carretera Austral. The route climbed more into the mountains compared to the relatively flat riding in the past few days.

Rio Baker and the glaciated turquoise waters of Patagonia. This is the site of the proposed dam by HidroAysén. They want to flood this valley and generate power. The company bought the water rights to this area during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and thankfully haven’t been able to capitalize on it, yet. Besides the issue of destroying natural beauty, Chile sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and its frequent seismic activity is well-known. Does it make sense to build a huge dam in a place that could possibly experience a massive earthquake? I hope the recent disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with make authorities around the world pay more attention to the consequences of building risk into unstable places.

Passing through the biggest town in the southern half of the Carretera Austral of Cochrane. I topped up with petrol and was heading for Puerto Yungay.

A signboard in Cochrane informing of the ferry schedule for the ride to Villa O’Higgins.

The route flattened out a bit before heading for those mountains.

I made quick work of the 125 kms to Puerto Yungay, as I was trying to catch the last ferry at 6 pm.

The road wound up the mountainside and one could tell that this was a relatively recently constructed road compared to the other parts of the Carretera.

Arriving at the ferry from Puerto Yungay across to Rio Bravo. These two Americans were cycling from California, but skipped countries along the way and in their words, were traveling around the world by cycling through ‘safe’ countries. From here, they were heading to New Zealand, then Japan, then flying to Europe.

A monument to Puerto Yungay, which was once the terminus of the Carretera Austral, at kilometer marker 1150. The Cuerpo Militar de Trabajo (Chile’s Army Corps of Engineers), who built the Carretera Austral, recently extended the route another 100 kms (62 mi) to Villa O’Higgins, which was only opened to traffic in 2000.

The terrain is quite rough here and the lake and its steep cliffs prevented the southern continuation of the route, but this ferry was put in as the solution. It’s a free service that runs three times a day. It goes north to south from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo at 10 am, 12 pm and 6 pm. Coming back south to north at 11 am, 1 pm and 7 pm.

The 45 minute ride went by quickly with nice views of the nearby moutains.

The southern port of the ferry at Rio Bravo and the continuation of the Carretera Austral.

The current terminus of the Carretera Austral is at Villa O’Higgins and the route is impeded by the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field. However, there is a drive from the politicians in Santiago to continue the route and link it with Chile’s Southern Patagonia region of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. The proposed route heads from Rio Bravo to Ventisquero Montt and onwards with 9 ferries to Puerto Natales. The first part, which branches off from here has been built, but the continuation from Ventisquero Montt is still to come. They say it could be another 20 years before the route to Puerto Natales is completed, due to the harsh, icy terrain.

It was 7 pm around now and I rode along the Carretera looking for a place to camp for the night and about 10 kms south of Rio Bravo, I found this clearing in the trees and setup camp as it started to rain. The forest was wet but I managed to get a fire going after dousing the wet limbs with some petrol.

These small flowers on the ground in my camp got picked up by almost anything that touched them with small grips at the end of the purple hairs lodging themselves between threads or I can imagine, animal fur. When I tried to remove them, they would self-destruct and fall apart into the numerous individuals pieces that make up each flower ball. An interesting tactic to spread its seed around.

Rio Bravo with the Carretera Austral running along its shore, deep in the southern reaches of Patagonia. The next human settlement was Villa O’Higgins, leaving me close with nature.

Washing my pots in the pristine rivers with biodegradable soap.

My camp was located in these trees, on the shores of Rio Bravo.

The next morning, after packing up a wet tent with overnight rains, the Carretera continued south.

There was one big mountain ridge to cross and the sign warned of steep and tight curves.

From the summit, looking ahead through the fog and wintry weather. It was cold and wet but the desire to reach the end was enough to keep me going.

After a few more curves and climbs, the weather turned for the better revealing the closeness of the snow-capped peaks along the route.

It was raining just across the ridge there, but I was glad to be in the sunshine here and took a break to warm up my cold fingers in the sun.

The route being cut into the cliffs as the mountains were right up against the water.

The clouds cleared as I got within 20 kms (12 mi) of the end and I was rewarded with beautiful views.

Lago Cisnes, which the route wraps around as it nears the end. I came along the left shore and…
Click here to see the high resolution version.

…crossed along the southern boundary and within a few kilometers…

…I arrived in Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral.

It’s a small outpost with about 500 inhabitants that was only recently connected to the rest of Chile via the Carretera Austral. It was settled in the 1920s by European immigrants and renamed in 1966 to honour Chile’s independence hero, Bernard O’Higgins, who was born of Irish and Basque descent in the 18th century.

I found a place to camp for the night and then continued along the road to the actual end of the route, a few kilometers south of town. There’s free WiFi access in the town square as HidroAysén tries to buy the favour of the local people so that it can go ahead and flood Patagonia.

South of town lies the huge Lago O’Higgins, which straddles the border with Argentina and their half is called Lago San Martín, named after Argentina’s independence hero of José de San Martín. It’s the most irregular of the large Patagonian lakes with eight well-defined fingers, four on each side of the border that runs along the mountains to the left. To the right is the huge Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which feeds the lake through numerous glaciers. An interesting feature is that this is the deepest lake in South America with a maximum depth of 836 m (2,742 ft), even though it only sits at an elevation of 250 m (820 ft). Besides damming Rio Baker, HidroAysén would like to build a dam across Rio Pascua, which drains this lake into the Pacific.

At the unceremonious end of the Carretera Austral. From this port, tourist boats leave for day trips to the O’Higgins Glacier and provide transport for bicyclists and hikers for the route to El Chaltén in Argentina. That route consists of taking this ferry for $40, hiking 12 kms along a rough horse path, which is not suitable for any kind of motorized traffic and then catching another ferry across Lago del Desierto to El Chaltén. For motorized traffic, the only way to El Chaltén is back-tracking up to cross at Chile Chico or Paso Roballos.

A small glacier hanging above the town as I returned for the evening.

From the campground, looking across the valley and marveling at the fact of this huge extent of ice, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, lying just behind those mountains. It dictates the current terminus of the Carretera Austral. To continue south, the route must go around the ice field, either via ferries along the coast or via land in Argentina.

Next: Patagonia, Part 4: Backtracking up the Austral and down the 40

Previous: Patagonia, Part 2: Carretera Austral | Futalefu to Puerto Aisén

Patagonia, Part 2: Carretera Austral | Futalefu to Puerto Aisén

January 9 – 12, 2011

Winding through the wet and verdant side of Patagonia is the Carretera Austral, a famed, remote route linking the towns in Chile’s Northern Patagonia. It’s one of the great destination roads in the world, renowned for its lush forests and numerous glaciated lakes. Being cut off from direct road access to the rest of Chile keeps this region isolated and charming.

In southern Chile, the Andes spill into the Pacific and thus in many places, water becomes the only means of connection to the rest of the country. There’s a ferry service from Puerto Montt, the last city in contiguous Chile to the small town of Chaitén (which was destroyed by its volcano in 2008), where the Carretera Austral currently begins. Small isolated communities existed here, long before any connections via land, as they were sea-fairing peoples. During Chile’s last military dictatorship, General Augusto Pinochet decided to forge a road through the wilderness in order to better integrate these isolated communities with the rest of Chile. The project hasn’t been completed yet, so land access only comes from crossing over from Argentina.

Being remote and rural, most of the road is unpaved and enjoyable. However, as no place on this planet can escape modernisation, large sections of the route around big cities have been paved over. I took my time and visited small fishing communities along the route and enjoyed the ability to wild camp in beautiful places.

A massive welcome sign into Chile at the border crossing near Futalefú. The two countries like to show up each other and I get the feeling, Chile wants to show-off its superior development.

My route along the Carretera Austral. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The road is paved the 10 kms (6 mi) from the border to the town of Futalefú, which has survived through the years from its land border connection with Argentina, as it is not connected by roads to the rest of northern Chile.

At a campsite on Rio Futalefú, just outside town that cost 3000 Chilean Pesos for the night, equal to US$6.50.

Fire! Getting a fire going with wood supplied by the camp owner. It’s the height of the southern summer and the sun is setting later into the evening the further south I go. It’s around 8:30 pm now and while it feels strange to have a fire when it’s light out, I needed to get to sleep for an early start.

Setting up my kitchen, which has grown to include oil, soy sauce, garlic sauce and coffee powder. And that little spice jar on the right is Smoked Curry powder that I found in Bariloche. Just like in Alaska, they like to smoke fish and meats down here and I was beaming to find curry powder infused with the aromas of traditional smoking.

A simple meal of pasta going into a soup from bouillon cubes with a can of beef liver pate stirred in. It might make some people squirm, but hey, it’s cheap protein, so throw some spices on it and refuel the body.

In the morning, as I was packing up, I met James, who was getting ready to guide a raft down Rio Futalefú. He’s a rafting guide from the US, who came down for the Chilean summer with his current outfit to guide a group of American adventurers. He said this river is an excellent one for rafting and gets to the Pacific in about 60 kms (38 mi).

Setting off from Futalefú to catch the Carretera Austral.

A taste of the numerous lakes and the views to come all along Chile’s Northern Patagonia region.

It was 75 kms (47 mi) to the junction of the Carretera Austral.

However, the ride there on this spur was interesting in its own right.

Crossing Rio Futalefú as it flows to the ocean.

I was happy to be in a place where blue lakes and snow-capped mountains are the common sight. It might get tiring after the first few, but this was candy for my eyes. This whole area of southern Chile was under the Patagonia Ice Sheet during the last ice age, which ended here about 17,500 years ago and all these lakes are what’s left of the ice sheet along with two huge ice fields up in the mountains, which drive the local climate. They say the melting of this ice sheet alone raised global sea levels by 1.2 meters and it’s been predicted that if we reach a tipping point in the current warming of the planet that triggers the Greenland Ice Sheet to melt, sea level will rise by 7 m (23 ft) in just one century. I wonder if all our coastal cities can cope with that kind of rapid geologic change.

On the Carretera Austral (CH-7) and it starts to impress right away. This is one of the great destination roads in the world, famed for its remoteness and unending natural beauty. The route technically starts in Puerto Montt, but the road south of there from Hornopirén to Chaitén is still under construction and is traversed by irregular ferries. So, the overland route is best accessed from Futalefú.

The road has many different characteristics and in the upper parts, it’s long and straight with great views of snow-capped mountains to cross further south.

Pretty soon into the ride, it’s hard to avoid the local controversy going on here. The Chilean government wants to build dams for hydroelectric power all through Patagonia and it’s contracted the Spanish company HydroAysen to figure out how to do it. However, the locals are fiercely against it, along with international environmental groups and it’s an on-going situation. ‘No represas, Fuera HydroAysen’ = No Dams, Get out HydroAysen. Another point is these billboards, which can be found in remote places where some form of modern infrastructure project has just been completed by the government. I guess the people here have felt isolated and ignored by the rest of Chile for a long time and now the government is working hard to show them that it’s bringing progress to the region in terms of bridges and paving. It was amusing for me to see a brand new concrete intersection in the middle of nowhere and then a huge billboard with the photo of said intersection and the message, “Look at how we’re progressing Chile” (by the ministry of public works).

The Carretera Austral was built during the 1980’s by the Chilean Army’s Engineering Command and it is only since 1988 that travellers have been coming through here on their own vehicles. Previously, visitors and locals had to come via sea and the numerous fjords that define the land-sea border here.

A distance board indicating all the major towns along the route. The official name of the highway is Longitudinal Austral (southern longitudinal route). They sure do exaggerate the steepness of the grade here and the interesting thing was to note all the different forms of vehicles used for the road grade signs; it changes almost with every sign.

This is beautiful country.

Lenticular or wave clouds, sculpted by the fierce winds of Patagonia, which were less intense on this side (compared to Argentina), but they were always blowing. These clouds form on the crest of waves when moist air flows over mountains. Their lens-like shape has been mistaken for UFOs in better formed specimens.

Rio Palena, near the first major settlement along the route of…

La Junta and the famous sign of the highway, bearing the name of General Augusto Pinochet, the previous name of the highway. It looks like this fence around the sign is quite new as previous travellers have been able to get right under the sign.

There’s a gas station across the sign and a detailed distance board of all the communities north and south of La Junta. I was heading all the way to the end at Villa O’Higgins, 824 kms (512 mi) away. Villa Santa Lucia is the town at the junction to the road coming from Futalefú.

Copec is the national oil company and they’ve got the route pretty well covered. Cochrane is the last place with a proper petrol station, but it can still be found in Villa O’Higgins. Being remote, especially via land, petrol prices here are higher than the rest of Chile, which is already pretty steep. The cheapest was in the biggest city of Coyhaique at CP736/L ($6.04/gal) and the most expensive in Villa O’Higgins at CP935/L ($7.68/gal).

I was planning to spend the night near La Junta, but a couple, traveling on a new Honda TransAlp from Santiago approached me and told me about this hanging glacier that we could camp at a bit further south. Sounds good to me.

Putting in my wind-stop liner as the temps dropped with the receding sun and the TransAlp couple, Francisco and Liz swinging by. It was their first time going off-road and I made their ride a lot more comfortable by lowering the air pressure in their tires. They had just gotten into motorcycling recently and wanted to practice and learn how to tour by motorcycle before setting off on their dream ride all the way up to Alaska.

As the route gets close to its first encounter with ocean waters, I passed by the thin, long Lago Risopatrón. The road was cut into the cliffs and the views were wonderful while standing on the pegs.

Coming up to the small fishing village of Puyuhuapi at the mouth of the fjord of the same name. It was settled by German immigrants in 1935 and its tourism potential is growing. You can see the route continuing along the left side.

It was getting quite late in the day, but the bonus of riding near dusk is the beautiful light at this time of day. Local time was 7:30 pm.

The sunlight hidden behind clouds brought a warmth that is easy to capture.

We set up camp at Parque Nacional Queulat, just off the main route and we didn’t have to pay any entrance fees since it was so late in the day. This is the glaciated river flowing from Ventisquero Colgante (colgante glacier) back up behind this ridge.

A panorama of the park giving you a glimpse of Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier, up in the mountains there.

The river was full of huge boulders, all brought down from the immense force of the mineral-rich water.

The next morning, we set off for a 2 hour hike to get much closer to the glacier.

The trail went through wet forest that was full of lively plants. This huge-leafed Nalca plant is typical of the region and Francisco said the stalk is a delicacy, tasting similar to rhubarb.

A weeping wall – water soaking down the rock face and allowing moss to flourish.

We got to the view point by mid-morning and there was still cloud cover over the top of the ridge and hiding the glacier, so we waited for the sun to warm up the air.

The glacier is constantly melting and its huge waterfalls is transporting that age old locked-up fresh water down the mountains and in turn, eroding the land. The waterfalls has a height of around 500 m (1,640 ft) and in the time that we were there we saw a new waterfalls form and disappear after a while.

After giving it an hour, the clouds lifted and revealed Ventisquero Colgante in all its majesty. It was a sight to behold; a river of ice hanging in a high valley and the color of the ice, a vivid blue showing the purity of the water held in there. There were frequent loud cracks that reverberated through the valley as the glacier slowly retreated, back to its mother, an ice field in the mountains.

On the way back down, a view looking west towards the route as it runs along the shoreline of this fjord.

A natural arch on the trail from fallen trees.

Saying goodbye to Francisco and Liz on their new Honda TransAlp, who set off from Santiago for a three week trip to the south, their first big motorcycle trip. Francisco was mining me for all sorts of various information regarding what tools were needed, how best to carry food and electronics, etc. I remember doing this to other travellers when I, myself was in the initial stages and it felt good to pass on this knowledge. They’re saving up for a house next and then the big trip to Alaska in a few years. Long term planning makes long term travelling a breeze.

Setting off southeast back on the Carretera Austral, running along this fjord.

When the route gets narrow, it raises your awareness as the surroundings close in. The huge leaves of Nalca plants added a new dimension to the scenery.

Between Puyuhuapi and the turn-off to Puerto Cisnes, the route is the most twisted as it climbs up and over a mountain ridge that extends to the sea.

Gaining elevation quickly through continuous switch-backs.

A pretty back drop as the route reached the summit. As I got more level with the peaks, I could see that they were all connected to an ice field extending over their tops.
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A close up of a steep valley carved up by the flow and ebb of these rivers of ice. If we can transcend the business of our daily lives, the drama of Nature can be revealed. Yes, it’s hard to imagine this drama as it happens on time scales much larger than our few decades on this planet, but once awareness is raised of geologic time, stemming from the much larger cosmic time, there’s a hectic story being played out around our human civilization.

It was hard to pay attention to the road as new snow peaks came into view and my search to see if they were revealed to be part of yet another mountain glacier or not.

Tall trees and snow-capped mountains define this section of the route.

Coming down from the mountain, the first branch off of the Carretera Austral takes you along this newly paved section to the fishing community of Puerto Cisnes, about 30 kms (19 mi) away.

Puerto Cisnes at the mouth of the Puyuhuapi Canal.

It’s a small town with fishing still the primary activity and all supplies are still brought in by weekly truck deliveries on ferries from Puerto Montt. Even though the town has been recently connected via road to the Carretera Austral, commercial traffic is low on the route since it’s not easily connected to Puerto Montt.

Across from town, I came across the municipal park that had picnic benches and places for barbeques and camp fires.

I saw lots of dried wood lying around and collected remains from the other fire rings to have enough fuel to burn for the evening. I finally put my machete to use by chopping up a dried tree trunk into burnable pieces. If you’re wondering, I’ve crossed numerous borders with this machete with no problems, cause no authorities have seen it. I bought it back in Bolivia, a few months ago before I headed across the Amazon and sleep with it by my side when I’m wild camping.

The park was on the shores of this bay with fishing boats docked in the shallow waters. I watched as the waters retreated with the out-going tide. Local time is around 8:30 pm.

A lovely home with sanDRina parked among some trees and a roaring fire along a deserted beach in Patagonia.

A picnic table isn’t essential, but it makes camping all the more comfortable as a place to cook food and roll everything back up in the morning.

Cooking up some rice in a vegetable soup with tuna chunks on the strong performing MSR Dragonfly stove. Other travellers told me that using petrol as a fuel would require constant maintenance of the burning jet as it’s a dirtier fuel than propane, but so far, so good.

Frying up some crispy salted chillies, made by my aunt in her village outside Madras, India. The red chillies are soaked in salty curd (plain yoghurt) and then sun-dried. Deep-frying them to a crisp makes for a tasty condiment that’s not too spicy. I’ve tilted my smallest pot on the stove in order to use the least amount of oil possible and handy chopsticks getting the job done. There’s an intricate global supply chain in place in order to get these homemade goodies all the way from a village in India to my panniers in South America, thanks to my sister who’s been my logistical coordinator.

And voila, a tasty rice dish with some hearty proteins. After frying the chillies, some bits got broken off and the seeds also remained in the oil, so not to waste a good thing, I dumped the oil in the rice to heighten its flavour. My saturated fat intake is pretty low while I’m camping, so I can afford this oily addition to my diet.

Enjoying a tasty meal by a warm fire in southern Chile. What more do we really need?

After dinner, the simple entertainment of managing a fire makes up the evening programming. Once a fire gets going, it becomes an entity that responds to inputs that can massage the required carbon out into the oxygenated atmosphere, releasing light across its spectrum from visible to infrared (heat) along with the products of this combustion being CO2. Contributing to the ever-increasing amount of CO2 in our atmosphere does give me second thoughts about lighting a fire. However, I’ve eased my worries by calculating my carbon footprint for this trip and seeing that with an average monthly mileage of 4,750 kms (2,950 mi) on a motorcycle, my carbon emissions come out to 0.52 metric tons of CO2, compared to the monthly average of a developed urban resident being around 15 metric tons. So, a camp fire here and there feels justified.

I woke up to rain the next morning, which is very common here, hence all the lush vegetation.

I had to wait it out in the tent until it let up before I could emerge and go about the business of packing up a wet tent. Since mainly the outer tarp gets wet, I had it strapped on top of a pannier, along with the wet bike cover. It’s pretty slow-going in the morning when I camp and I just take my time, which I’ve observed to be 3 hours from the moment of waking up to rolling away on the bike. That takes care of washing up, preparing breakfast, washing the pots, packing the sleeping equipment, the off-bike clothes and putting everything back in its set place on the bike.

Heading back to the Carretera Austral. The road to Puerto Cisnes was only paved halfway.

A scenic sight of Rio Cisnes with boulders brought down from the mountains.

Back on the main route, which is paved for the next 270 kms (168 mi) past the big city of Coyhaique.

Climbing up and over a ridge with a wide view of Rio Cisnes down in the valley.

As I was passing by the pioneer village of Villa Mañihuales, I noticed this bus with a chimney on top and stopped for a light lunch.

Melinda’s Cafe is quite snazzy for how remote it is and I was happy to find wifi on this grounded bus. Since I had only a short ways left to my destination tonight, I bought a sandwich and spent an hour catching up with my digital life.

Back on the road and the impressive views are relentless.

There was about a 20 km (12 mi) section of gravel that was under construction near this bridge.

The Carretera Austral is hugely popular with touring cyclists. I saw more of them than motorcyclists. I’m moving so slowly that I kept passing these two guys every day. But hey, it’s not a race.

There’s a story behind this picture: Yesterday, when I stopped to take a photo of some snow-capped mountains with my SLR, I dropped one of my Wunderlich luggage straps and didn’t notice it till the next stop and I went back to look for it to no avail. I passed Helmut here and since they’re obviously going much slower and can see more of the road, I asked him if had seen the strap. So, today when I passed him, he waved me down and said he had found my strap. How nice of him and being German, he understood the importance of quality German-made luggage straps. Fostering good relations between motorcyclists and bicyclists.

As I rode thru Valle Río Mañihuales, the skies opened up and let loose their rain, so I found a comfy hotel in Puerto Aisén for CP12,000 ($24), ouch, but I didn’t want to set up camp in the rain and a warm shower sounded good after three days.

Next: Patagonia, Part 3: Carretera Austral | Lago Carrera General to Villa O’Higgins

Previous: Patagonia, Part 1: Argentine Lake District