Southern Chile’s Aysén Region boasts some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes on earth. It is a place where mountains reach to the sky, water touches the horizon, and the scenery engages the soul. It’s also home to one of the world’s greatest road trips in the spectacular Carretera Austral. This journey through South America’s final frontier is a life-changing experience for anyone fortunate enough to travel its length.
The “southern road” runs 1,240 kilometers (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to its southern terminus of Villa O’Higgins at the Southern Patagonian Icefield. Along the way it traverses vast fjords, lush lenga forests, windswept grasslands, braided rivers, glacial lakes, and majestic snow-capped mountains. The road itself is an adventurous affair, characterized by hairpin turns, white-knuckle steeps, endless potholes, and a serious lack of guardrails. Watch your gas tank and make sure to carry a spare (or two)—the road is dotted by few homes and fewer towns, meaning self-reliance is your safety net.
Commenced in 1976, opened to traffic in 1988, and completed in 1996, the epic route is a relic of the Pinochet regime. It was ordered by the dictator in an attempt to connect the dispersed, rural communities of the Aysén Region. Now a designated national scenic highway, it provides access to 100,000 Chileans who would be otherwise isolated by the region’s extreme geography. The adventurous road brings new meaning to the adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. I would even venture to call the Carretera Austral a destination journey—it has become a favorite route of backpackers, cyclists, vacationing Chileans, and, of course, long-haul freight drivers (who tend to show up only at one-lane bridges or steep narrows).
We grab our bags in the tiny Balmaceda Airport. The size of an office building, a small café and a rental car booth are nestled beside the ticketing counter that also functions as the baggage check and service desk. Outside the building, an air traffic control tower and a few industrial warehouses are the only structures in the large, windswept landscape. It becomes clear that we’re about to head into one of the more remote corners of the world.
After Samantha’s struggle to communicate with the reservation agent, we’re handed the keys to a Nissan X Trail, a newer crossover vehicle that appears to be more sporty than utilitarian. Mental images of insanely steep hills, river crossings, and uneven tracks split with boulders flash through my mind. Skeptical of its ability to handle rural South American travel, I hand the keys to Gabe for first shift. Incessant gusts of wind whip as we layer up, blowing our bags over and removing the hat from Gabe’s head. My concerns begin to be assuaged as we realize the rig easily swallows up our gear, has a 4WD locking mode, and an aux plug-in for tunes (an essential feature).
We climb in and press the engine start button—we bump fists and roar to life along with the engine. Samantha grabs the map and Gabe loads up the route on his phone via an offline GPS map. The paved road in Balmaceda quickly turns to gravel. The only signs of civilization in our mirrors are quickly obscured by dust.
We’ve been informed that our journey to Parque Patagonia should take around 5 hours, 8 if we stop. Given the spectacular beauty of the constantly changing landscape and Gabe’s arsenal of lenses, we decide we should give ourselves a solid 8. We pick up one of the only paved sections of road as we careen into the unknown. At any given moment, one of us has their jaw on the floorboard while the other is pointing and shouting. We realize that if we stop as much as we want, the journey could take days.
As we snake down a series of hairpin curves, Cerro Castillo comes into view, its summit permanently shrouded behind mysterious, motionless clouds. The imposing peak that dramatically rises above the Ibañez River is the centerpiece of the Cerro Castillo National Reserve, a relatively unknown paradise for backpackers and climbers. We stop in the small village that shares the peak’s name. A few shops and homes abut both sides of the road, but something unique catches our eyes—two old blue and green busses, joined together at the side, sit on the right side of the road.
A large sign adorns the top of one. Its conjoined twin has a windshield covered in the stickers from travellers past and an open door. It turns out, we discovered La Cocina de Sole, a lovely burger shop with a unique dining experience and one helluva view. We order three hamburguesa comletas, and grab three cold cervezas from the market across the road. Seated at the tiny tables inside the bus, gorging on delicious Patagonian beef and refreshing beer, Cerro Castillo stands watch over us. I began to feel the presence of something powerful, something simultaneously exhilarating and unnerving—the feeling of adventure.
We hop back in the car, passing a group of backpackers with thumbs up. Their backpacks rest against the posts of a large wooden sign branded with black letters: Senderos Patagonia. A few meters beyond the sign, the pavement turns to gravel—the path extending into the great beyond.
The split streams of the milky blue Ibañez River braid its massive cobbled floodplain. Burnt trunks of lenga trees stand eerily on the banks. It is obvious a great fire once raged through the valley—was it natural or manmade? We would later learn that there is no lightning in this corner of the world, so mother nature wasn’t the culprit. What we are seeing is the result of massive fires set by ranchers—the region’s first settlers—in an attempt to clear low-lying land for sheep.
The sky becomes increasingly darker, the mountains surrounding each valley disappear. Large rain drops began to hit the windshield. As the storm picks up in intensity, our view disappears. The landscape suddenly has the feel of a jungle—waterfalls pour over every rocky surface, and the verdant forests seem to glow. The storm would last for hours, allowing our crew to turn our gaze from the scenery inward to ourselves. We seem to get to know each other a little better with each transition.
The conversation comes to an abrupt halt as the sky clears just in time to reach the northwestern end of Lago General Carrera, South America’s second-largest lake. The deep, turquoise waters and massive size render us totally speechless. Verdant hillsides and red cliffs contrast its brilliant hue, while snowcapped mountains rise in the distance.
We reach Puerto Río Tranquilo, a small tourist town that serves as the gateway to guided treks. We pull into a one-pump gas station. The clerk runs out and informs us that they are out of regular and only have diesel. This is the reality of life in rural Chile—sometimes supplies run out, and you may be stuck waiting a few days until the next delivery. We do an assessment of our fuel level and the remaining distance. We certainly have enough to make it to the park, but do we have enough to make it to fill up in Cochrane? We decide to push on—our tour guide, Nadine, awaits us at the campground.
Feeling the time crunch starting to set in, we agree to cut our stops. That agreement goes out the window when we reach Puente General Carrera, a beautiful suspension bridge that crosses over the confluence of Lago General Carrera and Lago Bertrand. The waters that flow between the two gemstone lakes appear to be even more vibrant in the contrast of the bright orange paint on the bridge’s structural steel and cables. Glaciers on the massive mountains of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field are visible to the west. The scale becomes surreal—the bridge looks like a miniature of San Francisco’s Golden Gate placed in a landscape that dwarfs the entire Bay Area.
I run down a short path to the pebble beach below the deck where a Chilean father and son fly fish next to what looks like a long-term encampment. A large tent is set against the hillside and a small fire ring is filled with charcoal and tin cans. As I gaze to the icefield, images of idyllic evening campfires with freshly-roasted fish and river-chilled cervezas under the Milky Way flow through my mind. I smile at the duo and dip my hand in the bone-chilling water, entranced by the purple and red boulders several meters below the rippling surface. My hypnosis is broken as Gabe shouts to me from the deck of the bridge.
We place the GroPro on the hood and continue on—this is work, after all. The stretch of the Carretera Austral that winds along Lago General Carrera has become quite worn. Infinite potholes seem strategically placed with no path of avoidance—good thing it’s a rental. After splashing through enough of them, the roughness seems to fade. My teeth rattling in my skull, I glance back in the rearview mirror to see Samantha soundly sleeping while we bounce through Patagonia.
South of Lago General Carrera and Bertrand, we ascend another pass and crest a hill, awarded with a sweeping view of the confluence of the Baker and Chacabuco Rivers. The evening sun is piercing massive clouds, creating a dynamic sky and casting a soft light on the bulbous green hills and frothing rapids at the confluence. I slam the brakes and pull off onto a grassy bank. Samantha and Gabe grab their cameras as I take off running down the steep side to a rocky perch directly over the Baker.
We immediately learn why gaiters are on the recommended gear list provided by Chulengo Expeditions. In Patagonia, everything wants to stick to you. The various ground-cover plants and shrubs have evolved to be hitchhikers, sporting all sorts of thorns, burrs, fuzz balls, and seed pods that attach themselves like Velcro to your shoes, socks, and thighs. I quickly realize it could take 20 minutes to remove all the detritus from my socks, and accept the discomfort as we push on.
We take a left turn off the Carretera Austral at the sign for the park entrance. The weight of time lifts from our shoulders a bit as we realize we’re only a few kilometers away with plenty of daylight to spare. In Patagonian summer, the sun rises around 4:30 a.m. and doesn’t say goodnight till after 10:00 p.m. We climb out of the river valleys and into large grasslands. We spot two creatures high on a grassy knoll—guanacos. Native to the region’s arid mountainsides and vast grasslands, the guanaco is the iconic Patagonian animal. I stop the car one last time when we crest a hill and see a herd of hundreds roaming across a huge flat. Bathed in brilliant light and set against the backdrop of airy peaks, my body becomes flooded with euphoria.
After driving along the serene Valle Chacabuco, we finally pull into Parque Patagonia. Beautiful stone buildings flanked by tall cigar-shaped poplars, planted by pioneering ranchers to identify their homes, adorn well-kept grounds dotted with guanacos and hikers. We pull into the West Winds Campground as our guides, Nadine and Ben, stroll up sporting dark skin and wide smiles. The long road is finally over, but the journey is just beginning. I look around at the pristine wilderness that awaits our footsteps.
I think I’ll sleep well tonight.