The Carratera Austral is a picturesque road in southern part of Chilean Patagonia. It goes from a tiny village Villa O Higginis in the south to Puerto Montt in the north. On its 1150 kilometers you can see beautiful little towns and villages, tremendous mountains, fjords, blue lakes, glaciers, and even tropical forest. It is a nice alternative to the dry and deserted route 40 on the Argentina side of the border. Just be ready that it might to take you longer to travel through it than you plan.
The Carratera Austral is a highlight of Chile and an important achievement for the country. It is a 1150km road linking parts of the country that were previously incredibly isolated and accessible only by boat or airplane. The rugged landscape of steep cliffs and deep valleys made the project a nearly impossible endeavor. The construction was put in motion by General Pinnochet in 1979 and was finished in 1999, though some of the northern parts were opened in 1982 and 1989. The workforce for this project was composed primarily of the Chilean military.
We met up with the Carterra in Chili Chico where we jumped on a little bus up to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. The drive along the enormous lake Gral Carrera was beautiful. The lake was a beautiful turquoise due to the sediment just below the surface which reflects sunlight differently than the water on most lakes. The road wound around the surrounding mountains and was often wedged between a cliff dropping down to the lake, and a steep mountain side above.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo is a little village located on one of the bays of Lake Gral Carrera. It seems like it used to be a quiet place, but a couple of years ago the tourism scene exploded with the Marble Caves being its local attraction. All along the main road are tents that were put up in a hurry to offer boat rides and accommodate the growing number of tourists stopping here on their way through. We walked out of town to a place on the water offering Kayak and Canoe rentals where we rented a canoe to explore the caves on our own. The water was bright turquoise and calm. There were numerous motor boats full of sightseers. Their boats were too big to go through most parts of the caves so with the exception of a few kayaks, we had the place to ourselves. The weather started to turn and after about an hour a boat operator told us that we had to return to the rental place immediately. The waves and swells had grown very quickly and we were happy to be in a familiar canoe instead of a kayak.
Our next stop north was Cerro Castillo. Just out of town is an archaeological museum featuring painted hand prints on the side of a rock cliff believed to be over 10 000 years old. On the way to the paintings we saw a condor fly right above our heads. They usually stay way up around the mountain tops, so when the 3 meter wide wings flashed over us, even the guide scrambled for his camera.
There is also an epic trail system in Cerro Castillo, that can take you into the mountains for days if you want. We opted for the shorter excursion, 1000 meters up to a glacier fed lagoon, then back down the same day. The walk up was really beautiful,.On the way to the top you can see big, steep canyons and a breathtaking overview on a long river valley, where Cerro Castillo village is located and numerous mountain cordilleras around. The last part of the trek was pretty intense, mostly on the rocks and straight up, but the view of blue lagoon with a huge glacier above was worth of the effort. After a little break we kept going to two big boulders on the side. It looked like they are close, but in reality it took us an hour to get there. We refilled our water bottles in one of the waterfalls coming from the glacier. Along the way we also tried Calafate berries, found all along the trail, which left our teeth and mouths stained blue and purple.
Coyahaique is the Chilean capital of Patagonia. We spent there only one afternoon and night, it was just a quick stop on our way north to Puyuhuapi. But it enough time to check out the center with a very vivid square and do some shopping. Puyuhuapi is a sleepy, fishing village founded by German settlers in the 30’s. This is the only spot along the Caraterra that the road meets the ocean by means of a beautiful fjord. Most tourists coming here to see the nearby glacier, hot spring or Queulat national park with its evergreen forest. The area of Puyuhuapi is a land of volcanoes, their activity creates a specific micro climate and it was the first time during our trip when we saw a tropical scenery, full of intense green plants. We decided to skip them all and just relax and enjoy the quietness and nice scenery of the village. First day we went on the little boat tour with a local fisherman and spent an afternoon out on the water. We viewed the tropical coastline, a distant glacier, and soaked in a hotspring bath where we were occasionally burn by bursts of hot water bubbling up through the rocks. On our way back we saw dolphins jumping next to the boat, and were treated to fresh rock crabs taken straight from the guide’s crab trap. They were delicious. Another day we did a short hike up through the woods and meadows to a lookout of the town. Along the way we saw an idyllic scene of cows and horses living free and happy lives.
Our last stop on the Carterra Austral was the port town of Chaiten. In 2008 a nearby volcano eurupted resulting in the evacuation of the town. People started to return illegally 6 months after the disaster but had little to no support from the government. This included a lack of water, power or transportation, which left the people of Chaiten bitter and upset towards the Chilean government. 8 years later the town half resembles a ghost town with abandoned buildings on every block from people who did not to return. Though the people are still feeling the effect of the volcano, they are beginning to prosper due to the increased quantity of tourists passing through Chaiten to catch a ferry to the nearby Chiloe island. There is not too much to do in Chaiten except visit the Caraterra Austral museum, situated in the middle of a military base, or a walk around the half abandoned streets and waterfront.