Ruta 7- The Carretera Austral
After disembarking the ferry, we skirted North up the coastline towards Parque Pumalin, Chile’s largest private park founded by Doug Tompkins, former owner of The North Face. It didn’t take long for the nicely paved road to turn to bumpy gravel. With the afternoon clouds hanging over us, we entered the park with a slight sprinkle beginning to fall on the windshield. Although we could not see it, we were in the presence of Volcan Chaiten. The most recent eruption was in 2008, and the devastation caused was still very prevalent. The eruption caused much of the forest to burn and many rivers to flood. With such a dramatic explosion, the nearby towns were evacuated and the park suffered the brunt of the ash fall.
Necks cranked out the windows in awe at the eery scenery, we drove the length of the road to the very end. About halfway down, I spotted something in the bushes. I told Nate to stop and we got out to check it out. A truck had caught a section of soft gravel, causing them to roll ever so gently down into a ravine. Yikes! After making sure there was nobody inside the truck, we hopped back into our own truck, taking caution not to make the same mistake.
The next morning, we packed a couple of day bags and hit the trail. Squeaking passed the caution tape, we started the trek up the still-active volcano. Following along the well marked trail, we stepped over branches and rock debris. I just so happened to find the most perfect walking stick which served as a great balancing tool, as well as a bow and arrow… all-in-one. Score!
As we crested the top, we got our first glimpse of the culprit that had created such an upheaval in this gorgeous park. As the smoke poured out of the top, we sat eating our apples, admiring the reds and oranges that cascaded down this powerful land mass.
We returned to our campsite through the fern-gully-like forest and heated up a pot of water to rinse ourselves off before making a delicious pizza with leftovers from the night before. (Sorry folks, pictures of the pizza only. Nate wouldn’t let me post the naughty pictures I took of him bathing in the field. We are still waiting to hear back from Playgirl on those.)
With Chile’s infamous Carretera Austral calling our names, we hit the road once again. The Carretera Austral is an 800 mile long, mostly unpaved road that winds itself through Chilean Patagonia. We drove through the sleepy town of Chaiten where homes still sat, abandoned and ruined from the volcanic eruption.
The clouds hung heavily atop the mountains as we slowly made our way down the beautiful road. We stopped for a roadside lunch and chatted about how surreal it felt to finally be surrounded by the majestic region of Patagonia, something that was only a dream for so many years.
Wanting to get off the beaten path for a bit, we decided to take a side road towards Reserva Lago Roseelot , where we found a perfect little pirate camp spot along the water. We explored our surroundings and that night, shared beers with a couple of new friends. We practiced our Chilean spanish, which is very different than “normal” spanish and confusing as hell. Basically, what we learned is that Chileans need to have their own dictionary and if you add “-ito” to the end of any word, you’re good to go. 😉 After many cheek kisses, “mucho gustos” and hand shakes, we bid farewell to our new friends and cozied up in the back of the truck for another peaceful sleep.
Winding along the Carretera Austral, between snow covered mountains and shimmering lakes, we made our way to Coyhaique. We did all the things overlanders need to accomplish when in a city; laundry, internet, a meal out and a nice hot shower before we hit the road again South towards Cerro Castillo. We stopped at the mirador for yet another roadside lunch and finally experienced the whipping winds that everyone talks about in Patagonia. As Nate opened his door to get out, the wind grabbed it, ripping it out of his hand and swinging it open towards the front of the truck. Oops, guess we need to work on our muscles 😉
We ate our veggie sandwiches on homemade bread from a ‘panaderia’ (bakery) all while admiring the crisp, tall spires of Cerro Castillo. The rugged peaks shot straight in the air, snow filling every crevice. The road wound itself all around the beautiful towers, causing us to pull over on the side of the road every fifty feet or so for a photo-op.
We followed the magnificent road over glacial lakes, past landslides and through burned and flooded forests, aptly named Bosque Muerte (dead forest). Poor Truck would be forced to pull over more times in this stretch of the journey than all of Central America so we could thoroughly enjoy the scenery and take pictures so we would never forget. The landscape was so powerful. There was hardly another soul in sight. Getting out of the truck and standing in the middle of it all gave you chills down your spine.
As if we couldn’t be more impressed with what the Carretera Austral had to offer, we spotted a bright blue mass of water at the end of the road as we crested the hill towards the town of Rio Tranquilo.
As we were bumping along, the dirt road lead us to Lago General Carerra, a pristine, crystal blue lake shared with Chile and Argentina (called Lago Buenos Aires by Argentinos). The lake shimmered in the sunlight and projected the brightest emerald color I had ever seen.
We followed signs for a campground in town and set up camp. That evening, we made plans with a few others to go see the Marble Caves the next morning. We set our alarm an hour before we needed to be ready to leave and fell asleep to the laughter of our new friends inside the kitchen.
The next morning, we popped the truck cap open and started brewing our coffee. We noticed that all of our new friends were already awake and talking with each other, but one cannot think straight before a cup of coffee. We ignored all around us until Alex came up and asked us if we were ready to leave. But, we still have an hour! But, we need our coffee! What time is it, anyway? This is what happens when you don’t need to know what time it is anymore (or don’t know what day of the week it is for that matter) and have not set your alarm in over six months. Apparently, we had missed daylight savings time and were now being forced to skip our morning cup of joe. Ouch. Oh well, we packed a quick bag, grabbed some granola bars and wearily followed our new friends down to the boat launch all while debating what the true time really was.
Turns out they were right, as the owner of the boat was ready and waiting for us. We loaded into the 15 passenger boat and set off, soaring above the sparkling blue waters. We made it about 400 meters before our “bad boat luck” set in and the motor cut out. It seems that every boat Nate and I step on has some problem or another, so we apologized to our fellow boat mates and waited for two other boats full of tourists to come save us. Ten minutes later, we were good to go!
After a windy and bone chilling ride, we arrived at the phenomenal Marble Caves. Over the course of 6,000 years, waves created the mystique caves. When the sun shines down on the turquoise waters, it creates a glistening hue and an array of colors shimmer over the rock surface. From deep canals to statues barely being held up by thin rods of rock, it truly is a bewildering natural beauty in the heart of Patagonia.
That night, we got together with our new friends and shared many stories and many glasses of vino. We decided to travel together with Alex and Audrey, a couple from France who are backpacking to wherever their hearts may take them, and with Steven, who is riding his bicycle throughout South America and also happens to be from France, to the border of Argentina. The next morning, we packed up truck with all of our things, Alex and Audrey’s two large backpacks and Stephen’s four or five bags and bicycle. Then, we proceeded to stuff Truck full to the gills and jammed all five of us in the front and hit the dusty path!
About halfway to Chile Chico, the town closest to the border, Stephen hopped out with all of his things. He wanted to complete the road around Lago General Carerra/Lago Buenos Aires and we had brought him to the point where he left off. After about a half hour of loading his various bags to the back of his bike, and proudly attaching his France flag, we bid farewell. Good luck, Steven!!!
We continued on with Alex and Audrey, stopping every so often to stretch our legs and take in the beauty that surrounded us. At one point, we pulled over and found the most perfect pirate camp spot at a magical azure lagoon at the bottom of a hill. Despite our every attempt to reach our haven, including Alex trying to persuade the security guard at the entrance to a mine, we had to leave our beautiful oasis behind and continue on.
We pulled into Chile Chico in hopes of finding a perfect camp spot on the water, to be almost blown away by the intense winds from the lake. We retreated to the town, where we found a quaint campground perfect for our backpacker friends and our truck as well.
We made a quick trip to the grocery store, where we found fixings for a delicious meal later that night. I thought it was just Nate that jokes around in the grocery store buuuutttt then we found these two! It must be a French thing 😉
Upon our return to the campground, we grabbed some beers and ran down to the beach, where Alex attempted to fly his kite in the gale-force winds. After unraveling the cord, he was ready for take off. No more than 1.5 seconds after Audrey let the kite go, Alex was being twisted and pulled into the air and the kite disappeared behind the tallest trees I have ever seen. Mission failed. 🙁 Just as this was happening, two overlanders, Zuzana and Kamil, pulled in. We chatted them up and invited them over to our camp spot later that night to share a few beers. To our surprise, they showed up!
We had a great last night with all of our new friends, enjoying a deliciously prepared meal by Alex, drinking probably a little too much and sharing numerous stories from our travels. We have met many great people on this trip and are happy to say that we have five more to add to our list of new lifetime friends 🙂 PS: If you ever get a chance to have a French man cook for you…don’t stop them! It was a phenomenal meal and the best we’ve eaten in a few months!