Carretera Austral: Cerro Castillo to Villa O'Higgins
|Written by Jared on January 29, 2013|
Start: January 4, Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo
Another twelve days of endless gravel roads matched with mostly blue skies and scenery that is out of this world. It hasn't been all fun and games though. We've driven over 880 miles of dirt roads during our two weeks on the Carretera Austral. Gas costs around $8 per gallon, and it's been 10 days since we've seen fresh vegetables aside from blackening carrots. Parts are rattling off our car and every time we turn the air on clouds of dust erupt from the dash.
But, the more you have to work for it, the more rewarding the adventure. And considering how incredibly lucky we've been with the weather, it's pretty easy to take our mind off the discomforts of travel in this remote part of the world.
After leaving Coyhaique we settle down at a nearby park on Laguna Chinguay. This campsite has the best facilities and cheapest prices we've found yet in a Chilean park. For less than $10 a night we have all the firewood we can burn and nice covered shelters for when it rains. We were forced to suffer through a day of cold, wind and light showers, but thanks to the handy-dandy tarp we picked up in Puerto Montt we managed to stay mostly dry.
After two nights on Laguna Chinguay we drove to the town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Along the way we passed one of the more famous sights along this section of the Carretera. Cerro Castillo, our first real taste of the spikey basalt mountains of the southern Andes. The mountains aren't very high, only a few thousand feet, but they are capped with jagged peaks the likes of which we've never seen.
At Puerto Rio Tranquilo we resupply at the local grocery stores, now used to the limited selection and planning most of our meals using frozen or canned goods. We find a perfect campsite on the lake that is sheltered from the wind. Unfortunately the bad weather continues and we spend the evening with intermittent drizzle and colder-than-usual temperatures.
For a third consecutive day we face rain, this time it doesn't let up for more than a few hours in the afternoon. Enough for us to check out the local campground in the town of Cochrane which has only two shelters that were both packed with very disgruntled-looking bicyclists. We opted to stay in a guesthouse for the night during our work day. Aside from our Concon beach house, is the first night we paid to stay indoors since 11 weeks prior in Bolivia.
The gravel roads around the town of Cochrane prove to be the worst we encounter on the Carretera Austral. They are heavily corrugated in parts, especially around corners and on hills, making it rather dangerous driving as the road narrows. Slow and steady was the motto as we drove another incredible scenic stretch of dirt on our way to Camping Nadis about 50 miles south of Cochrane.
After the turnoff to the campground we encountered three or four gates that needed to be opened. Jessica and I alternated, but she got stuck with the busted fence our first time through. Put your back into it!
We also had to cross this rickety wooden suspension bridge during the 10km stretch to Rio Nadis. With just enough room to spare on the side and a 6000 kilo weight limit, we made it easily. Larger vehicles wouldn't have been so lucky.
At Camping Nadis was undoubtably the best campground we've been to in Chile, and I would guess it will easily find its way into the top 10 of this trip. A wood-fired kitchen, hot showers, great dining area, plus another pavilion with a fireplace and tons of wood to keep us warm. The owners speak English, German and Spanish and are incredibly friendly. They also sell farm-raised produce, meats and arrange horseback rides through their ranch and the surrounding mountains.
The best part of this place is the scenery. No view from the campground is lacking a snow-capped mountain. Five minutes away is the gigantic Rio Baker, and across the river are dozens of waterfalls that are large enough to be heard from your tent at night.
From the owners we learned about how the residents of Chilean Patagonia have spent years fighting the efforts of hydroelectric companies to dam this and many other rivers. In an unheard of move, the Chilean government sold the water rights to many rivers in Patagonia to private international companies who are now making plans that would result in the flooding of dozens of ranches, including theirs. If plans go through, the spot where Kobus is standing in the photo above would be 70 feet under water. For more information check out Patagonia Sin Represas.
Our next stop was the town of Caleta Tortel, famous for its miles of boardwalks. There are no streets, the road ends in a parking lot once you reach the tourist information center at the top of town. From there it's down through the maze of steps and walkways.
We had hoped to camp here, but the campground is a mile and a half hike on the other side of town. Although it's free, it offers no amenities and the thought of schlepping our gear up and down several hundred stairs sounded very unappealing.
Instead we walk down into town in hopes of finding a grocery store to pick up a few easy meals for the next couple days. We walk along the boardwalks surrounding the water, through most of town, and manage to find supplies at a store that's mercifully still open during siesta time. More frozen chicken and mixed vegetables for us! Apparently the stores are restocked on Sunday and our visit on Friday couldn't have been at a worse time.
Since camping options seemed a bit slim south of Caleta Tortel, we opted to haul it to Villa O'Higgins. The deciding factor was the ferry. It's free but only runs three times a day. And we were told by multiple people that it's small, only four cars at a time. It's actually big enough to fit 14 cars, so after a batch of tailgate pasta and red sauce we decided to head over on the last boat of the day.
It was another two hours of driving to Villa O'Higgins on good but narrow dirt roads. This section was completed last, opening in 2000, and sees very little traffic compared to the sections around Cochrane.
A mile or so before town we spot the giant blue truck of our friends Mark and Sarah and decide to pull up next door and camp for free on the river. The weather is beautiful our first night, but turns a bit worse the second, cloudy and cold. Nevertheless, the scenery continues to amaze.
The town of Villa O'Higgins, on the other hand, does very little to impress. The free wifi at the library is a bonus (sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), but the torn up streets and incredibly expensive gas and groceries have us heading back to our campground rather than spending time strolling around town.
Villa O'Higgins suffers much due to a lack of overland vehicle passage into Argentina. It's hundreds of miles on dirt roads to reach civilization and goods must be shipped or trucked down weekly, further raising the prices in an already expensive country. A medical emergency here means a very long drive subject to the ferry schedule, or a prohibitively expensive helicopter evac.
The pass has been scheduled to be completed, but Argentina is supposedly holding up the progress. All that is missing is five miles of road and a bridge on the Argentinian side. Chile has paid for this work several times, but the money keeps conveniently disappearing and offers by the Chilean army to complete the work are falling on deaf ears.
After two nights on the river at Villa O'Higgins we we turn about with plans to backtrack 150 miles to the Argentinian border. We decide to spend another two nights at our favorite campground, Camping Nadis. Kobus does a bit of fishing and manages to land the one native species of fish that can be caught here. It's like a cross between a perch and bass, and aside from being a bit boney, proves to be quite tastey.
The only downside of Camping Nadis are the horseflies. They bite, but they don't really hurt much. The problem is that they are everywhere and are especially annoying while you're trying to cook. Luckily they die easy, but I still end up taking out a dustpan from the kitchen every hour or two.
Up Next: Back into Argentina! We're only a couple weeks from the end of the road at Ushuaia.