In Patagonia

Chile’s road to nowhere: 6 stops along the Carretera Austral

One of the most ambitious building projects in Chile’s history has long been the holy grail for adventurous road trippers.

Friday, July 29, 2011 Category: Tourism
Lago General Carrera, one of the most beautiful lakes in Chile. (Photo: Hector Garcia/Flickr) Lago General Carrera, one of the most beautiful lakes in Chile. (Photo: Hector Garcia/Flickr)

Chile’s most rugged road trip begins in the port city of Puerto Montt, and runs southwards some 770 miles (1,240 km) to the town of Villa O’Higgins, tucked alongside the 9 million acres of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park.

Begun in 1973, the Carretera Austral – or Southern Highway – winds through some of Chile’s most pristine and extraordinary landscapes. In fact, the name is something of a misnomer, with the “carretera” often little more than a narrow gravel track through dense native forest and high Andean peaks. The Carretera Austral is not a trip for the faint of heart, but it allows hearty travelers to encounter Patagonia as they’ve always imagined it: majestic, untouched and wild.

The trip from north to south is long and far from easy, with ferry crossings over several fjords and branches to the east and west connecting its main trajectory to tiny fishing villages. Here are This is Chile’s top six recommendations for stopovers on your way into the wild.

Parque Pumalín: At the northern end of the Carretera Austral, Parque Pumalín is one of Chile’s most famous privately-owned parks, founded in 1991 by North American Douglas Tompkins. The park has some of the best infrastructure in the area, making it an ideal introduction to the landscapes that characterize the region. You can arrive along the Carretera Austral from the north via Hornopiren Park, and travel by ferry to Caleta Gonzalo, which serves as the park’s administrative center with trail heads, cabins and visitor information.

La Junta: The northern Patagonian region of Aysén is Chile’s most sparsely populated, so the few towns scattered amongst its mountains, forests, and rushing rivers maintain the feel of remote villages along a forgotten frontier. A good choice for a stop between Parque Pumalín and the route’s administrative center at Coyhaique is the attractive village of La Junta. Set at the intersection of two river valleys, this inland village offers good access to towering granite domes and lush riverbeds.

Puerto Chacabuco: Technically a slight detour from the Carretera itself, the small fishing village of Puerto Chacabuco lies at the end of one of the deep, wide fjords characteristic of the fragmented Patagonian coast. Accessible by ferry from Puerto Montt, the town has become increasingly important for tourism in the region, serving as the primary jumping-off point for visits to the spectacular glacier at Laguna San Rafael, perhaps the most famous attraction in northern Patagonia.

Coyhaique: Less picturesque than other places on this list, Coyhaique is nevertheless an obligatory stop along the road, if only for practical purposes. As northern Patagonia’s principal city and administrative center, Coyhaique is home to roughly half the region’s population, and provides travelers on the Carretera Austral with all the services otherwise missing along the way. Located about halfway along the trip, Coyhaique is for many a much needed, if brief, return to civilization.

Lago General Carrera: Chile’s largest lake covers over 700 square miles (1850 km2) split between Chile and Argentina, where the lake is known as Lago Buenos Aires. Originating from glacial melt and surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the lake is one of the most beautiful in all of Chile, and the handful of villages that sit along its shores (namely Puerto Ibáñez and Chile Chico, connected by ferry) enjoy a surprisingly sunny climate in the midst of Patagonia’s typically stormy weather. Aside from the panoramic mountain vistas, the star attraction here is the Capilla de Marmol – or the Marble Chapel – a network of vaulted natural caverns eroded by the lapping waters of the lake from the gray stone along its edges.

Caleta Tortel: It may not be the last town along the Carretera Austral, but Caleta Tortel could hardly feel farther from the world at large. Set at the mouth of the Baker River and a small bay of the Baker Channel, the town of Caleta Tortel was founded in 1955 as a timber town and has only had road access since 2003. Set on the water amongst steep forested hills and surrounded by frigid gray channels and estuaries, the town’s handful of colorful houses juts into the water on stilts, connected not by roads but by a series of wooden walkways that pass along the edges of hills over the water through dense foliage.

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