Up the Carretera Austral

We crawl out of our tent into a morning of light rain and walk past the argentinian border patrol cabin on the north end of Lago del Desierto. It’s time to walk to Chile.

It is about four kilometers through a very muddy forest until we cross the physical border. Our feet are wet and cold, so we keep moving. Eventually we stumble upon a tall, rusty border marker that stands between the trees. Nobody out here.

From here the trail becomes a wider dirt road and our pace quickens. Sixteen kilometers left to the tiny port on a large lake where we hope to catch a ferry to the southernmost town on the Carretera Austral: Villa O’Higgins.


Unsure of where to turn after a juncture in the road, Léa tracks us using the GPS on her iPhone. This leads us to a small airstrip and we have to crawl under barbed wire to get back to the main path. We’re on our way!

Just as the lake appears on the horizon one of the chilean border police pulls up in a quad, wearing a helmet that makes him look like a spaceman. He looks us up and down (perhaps scanning us in his space helmet?) and then offers us a lift down to his border patrol office by the lake. We say yes without hesitation.

Léa sits on a seat behind him, with handles built-in for a second passenger. I sit backwards on a luggage rack, my back to Léa. No handles, and my feet rest on a small trailer.

Scariest ride of my life.

We are flying downhill, power-sliding through corners. I can’t even see the ground because it’s moving too fast. My feet are bouncing aggressively off the trailer which has an unpredictable one meter radius of motion from the hitch. My feet are going everywhere. My butt is bouncing off the rack. My hands are holding on for my life. My arms are getting tired of pulling my body out of the air, back down to the rack. And I can’t see any of the tight turns coming because I have my back to the road. I am just praying that it doesn’t get any worse, or I’m sure I’ll fly off and scrape my entire face off on the rocky ground, and puncture all of my lungs.

We finally pull up to his office, and get off his deathmobile. I have to pry my own hands off of the luggage rack, because they are stuck in a death grip. Léa tells him how much fun it was, and he seems disappointed that she enjoyed it.


He ushers us into his office, and gives us the border crossing forms to fill out. For me it is really painful to hold the pen, and I probably look like I’ve never written before. I scribble out my information onto his stupid form.

After looking through our passports he proceeds to give us a lecture about how serious an issue it is that the argentinian border police gave us a stamp the day before, instead of today. But, after a lot of yammering, he finally lets us go with a warning.

First he almost kills me through his own recklessness, now he’s threatening to send us back to Argentina on a small technicality. I hate this man.

With our passports stamped, we wait two hours at the tiny “port” for the boat to come. Really it’s just a shack with a wood stove. That’s it.

Boat arrives at the “port”

Here we meet a group of other backpackers and cyclists, some of whom were waiting four days for this ferry. Sometimes it just doesn’t come if the weather is bad. They were lucky they had fishing poles, or they would not have eaten.

Luckily, the ferry arrives on time and we all climb aboard and fall asleep. We arrive in Villa O’Higgins three hours later, where we take a shuttle to this tiny town and all of us proceed to the best-known backpacker hostel, called El Mosco. There’s about ten of us who’ve just arrived in time for a christmas eve dinner. We organize a pasta dish within our group, and the hostel owners kindly spread their own dinner between us, and it becomes a proper christmas feast. We make an apple crumble for desert, and everyone is elated.

A few hours later and we’re many bottles of wine into a cheerful evening, complete with guitars and singing. We even butchered some christmas carols!

Villa O’Higgins

After two days of relaxing, and celebrating a cozy holiday with a nice group of people it’s time for us to begin our journey up the Carretera Austral.

So, the Carretera Austral is a road that was Pinochet’s brainchild. The idea was to extend Chile’s main highway all the way to its southern tip. However this is easier said than done, and these more remote areas only gained basic road access in the last twenty years as a part of the slow, ongoing attempt to extend the road further and further.

This makes it an excellent road for backpackers and cyclists to tour as it brings you through very remote places in Patagonia, with a seemingly infinite number of side trips, all with minimal tourism. The small towns usually have a bus about two or three times per week without any published schedule, so we’re just hoping our timing will work out and we won’t get stuck anywhere too long. If we do, then we’ll just do our best to hitchhike our way out. That is how you travel the Carretera Austral.

From El Mosco we get on a bus to take us to a junction in the road about four hours away, where we’ll either walk or hitchhike 22km to the small town of Caleta Tortel. The bus leaves a bit late, and I’m pretty sure our driver is an alcoholic gaucho.

From here we do not go straight to our destination. Oh no, sir. We drive out of town, then turn around because one of the passengers forgot something, go all the way back to her house, then head back out again, encounter a pickup truck flipped over on the road, tie the truck to the bus with a rope, flip the truck over, untie it from the bus, and then drive aboard a ferry that takes us across a lake, get back on the bus, stop at a lookout point to see a mountain whose profile slightly resembles a human face, and then the driver stops at our junction in the road.

This is our stop, and we ask the driver cheerfully if he wouldn’t mind one more detour to take us closer to the town we’re going to. But nope. NOW he’s on a schedule.

He takes our bags off the roof, and drives off. We’ve got over twenty kilometers of road walk ahead of us to get to Caleta Tortel.

We start walking down the road, surrounded by goats. There are four of us. Francisco from Argentina, Abdel from France but living in Argentina, and us – from France, USA and Turkey, met in Switzerland and living in Spain. This makes for easy introductions, everywhere we go.

After about an hour of walking we finally see a truck coming our way, so we stick out our thumbs, but it just keeps going. Bastards!

This happens two or three more times, but luckily Léa and I finally succeed in convincing some italian tourists with a pickup truck to stop. Probably because my hair was looking extra good that day…either that, or because I was hiding behind Léa. We hitchike into Caleta Tortel.

Abdel in the back of the pickup truck

We arrive at Caleta Tortel to find a village built with raised pathways between the houses and along the coast of the lake. It’s really impressive and adorable, and funny to see more stray dogs than people roaming about this shoots-and-ladders town.

We approach a hostel recommended by some other travelers we’d met. We knock on the door. The woman who runs the place, Giselle, opens up and asks us what we’re about. Not an easy person to talk to, she explains to us that her prices are low because she offers very basic rooms, and that the other hostels in town shouldn’t be accusing her of stealing all the business just because she’s economical. We happily agree, but are forced to hear her defense in this imagined trial…every time we see her it’s the same story over and over again. She’s a bit of a weirdo.

We spend one night in Caleta Tortel and then continue north to the larger town of Cochrane. We go grocery shopping, eat at a real restaurant, and sleep in comfy beds.

Next stop is just a few hours away. We’re going to visit Puerto Bertrand, a very small village on the shore of Rio Baker. It’s famous now because of the dams they’ve constructed – a very controversial topic in the greater area. The river water is beautiful, and the main attraction is rafting.

We go rafting.

We had a great time on the river doing a few rapids and entering a recirculating wave.

Back at Puerto Bertrand there is virtually no tourism. Our “hostel” is a spare room in someone’s house. And our restaurant for lunch….another old lady’s house. It’s fun to jump into their lives for a moment, having conversations in the living room.

The next morning we part ways with Abdel. He is an excellent human being, and we hope to see him again, perhaps in Spain.

Our next stop is Puerto Rio Tranquilo, which is famous for marble rock formations that form caves along the lake that you can explore by boat.

We all hop on a boat, and have a smooth ride with the wind at our backs down to the marble chapels as they call them. The color of the water is such a sweet carribean blue. Fun fact: a millionaire purchased an area of marble cliffs on the other side of the lake and is having a house carved there.

The tour of the marble chapels is fun, with our captian explaining the geology of the area and taking us into caves and tunnels that we’re surprised our boat can fit inside.

The way back was not smooth. It was very rough, but in a fun way. Our boat was chugging up large waves with the bow pointing to the sky and then SMACK, the hull of the boat hits the floor of a trough between waves. A very interesting ride!

After our adventure to the marble caves and back through a wild lake we manage to hitchhike with a chilean family several hours north to the main town of Coyhaique. This town is surprisingly modern. We hit a hipster pizzeria called Mama Gaucha and spend the night in a charming little hostel.

The next morning we hop on a large ferry for a twenty-four hour trip up to Puerto Montt. It’s a comfortable boat, especially compared to our ferry on the Amazon river. Also its logo is a dolphin breathing fire, which is something I can get behind.

From Puerto Montt we take a twenty minute bus to the much cuter town of Puerto Varas. It’s set on a lake with two majestic volcanos on the horizon. We find an irish pub to celebrate our New Years Eve.

The next day we work out a canyoning trip on a nearby river. The guide is a spritely french man. We all suit up like neoprene penguins, and in the river we go. There were slides, jumps, sideways running, and a pretty long final repel. Not really Léa’s cup of tea – especially compared to the death road mountain biking and patagonian horse riding – but for me was really great fun.

Tired from our adventures, we grab a night bus out of Puerto Varas to Valparaiso. We’ll spend a couple days here before our final adventure in Easter Island, and then…gasp…we head back to Spain. So soon? Let’s get some rest on this bus.

Bonus puppy pic, Villa O’Higgins


Bonus puppy pic, Caleta Tortel


Categories: Posts in English

1 reply »

  1. Excellent job, a fantastic pictorial and verbal report on an amazing adventure! Bravo!! Jim and I really enjoyed taking the trip vicariously, though we would never have been as brave as you and Lea, even in our youth! Sorry we will miss seeing you when you in SF, Austin. We will be up at Lake Tahoe. But we will hope to see you on your visit!


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