Seeing as we plan on being stationary for the remainder of this trip (in the lakes region of Argentina), I feel confident in this assessment: the Carretera Austral was the most gorgeous stretch of highway we’ve traversed. Enchanting. Otherworldly. Eye-boggling. I also feel confident saying this: if you love nature and gots the scratch for one South America vacay in your life, go here.
The Carretera Austral runs south from Puerto Montt, Chile to Villa O’Higgins, Chile, through countless fjords, rivers, lakes, mountains, wildlife, glaciers, trials, campgrounds, vistas, and wonders. It was constructed during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet — who, as we’ve learned, though Chile does a decent job of downplaying this fact, was a bad bad dude (not the good kinda bad dude) — to connect some of the most remote communities in Chile.
The route and the areas surrounding the route are overwhelming. You could spend years here and only see a sliver of the sights. We exhausted two weeks, driving or ferrying nearly the entire route — skipping only the most southern part near O’Higgins, as you can only cross the border down yonder by foot.
We supplemented the drive and ferries and hikes with our latest junk food addiction: Megatube Queso 3Ds. Conical like Bugles with the fluffiness of pork rinds and the cheesiness of Cheetos, 3Ds are delectable and dangerous. Andrea and I can polish off a large-sized bag in a matter of minutes. We usually buy two: one to share with the kids in the van, and one to bing later that night in bed…. They give your farts a fun cheese funk too.
For those of us that live in the Northwest of the US — and for those of you that don’t, you should reconsider your life decisions — nothing you’ll see on the Carretera Austral will look unfamiliar. You’ve seen fjords in Washington. Rainforests in Oregon. Wildlife in Wyoming. Glaciers in Montana. Mountain, rivers, and lakes in Idaho. It’s just that there’s seemingly more here. And everything is more extreme. The mountains taller and jagged-er. The rivers clearer and cleaner (you can drink from most of them). The lakes bluer and prettier. And so on and so on. It’s like the Northwest on steroids. Or us on Megatube Queso 3Ds.
The Douglas Tompkins Parks
Douglas Tompkins, the founder and initial CEO of NorthFace, spent much of his life and wealth in this area of Patagonia. It’s impressive and admirable what he and his wife accomplished here. They purchased large swaths of Earth, both privately and through The Conservation Land Trust, formed the largest private parks in the world, and then later donated those parks to the Chilean government to form the largest national parks in South America. In contrast, I recently figured out how to use a bidet.
We spent our first and last nights on the Carretera Austral camped in his parks, Parque Pumalin and Parque Patagonia, opposite examples of Patagonia’s extremes. Parque Pumalin is verdant and dense and wet. Parque Patagonia is austere and open and dry. Both parks were infinitely fascinating. You could — and probably should — spend weeks in each.
(The view from Mirador Tompkins in Parque Patagonia)
We spent a day exploring the Catedral (cathedral), Capilla (chapel), and Cavernes (caves) de Mármol (marble), just outside of the quaint Patagonia town of Puerto Rio Tranquillo. Took a boat from a dock on the outside of town a half hour or so into the Lago General Carrera, South America’s second largest lake (after Titicaca). Between the glacial blue water and grays and purples and greens of the caves, it kinda felt like boating through a kaleidoscope.
We spent another day ogling Cerro Castillo from our campsite. The weather never cleared enough for us to hike, but the sights were worth the stay. These mountains are nearly — nearly — as captivating as Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine further south in Patagonia. So if you only get one shot at Patagonia in your life, you’d still get the jagged mountain experience here.
Guanacos and Rheas
Parque Patagonia is, sort of, the transition point between the steppe plains of Argentina (dubbed the pampas) and the beech forests of the Chile. It’s high desert. Though not deserted. Wildlife flourishes here.
We saw loads and loads of guanacos, sort of a wild llama, and rheas, sort of a shorter ostrich, here. Never saw any pumas — though, as told by one park ranger, shortly after he chastised us for letting our puma-bait kiddos roam free in the park, the pumas saw us…. Also played chicken with a couple armadillos.
It’s difficult to convey, through words or pictures, how impressive and inspiring the Carretera Austral and surrounding terrain is. Kilometers and kilometers of unadulterated, resplendent nature. And while other areas of Patagonia have more grandeur — like where we ventured south after here, El Chalten, Pertito Moreno, and Torres del Paine — for us, this area was la mejor. The best. Earth, for us at least, will have a hard time topping it.
We hope to travel here again one day. Perhaps on bikes. And we hope to see you there.