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March 17th, 2014

Into the Wild

The name Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, might well summon up the image of a smooth, tarmac motorway forging a path as straight as an arrow through a submissive landscape towards the South Pole. But that would be the opposite of the truth.

This artery, providing vehicular access to Chile’s most remote regions, is a testament to the imagination, talent and ambition of its architects and engineers. It snakes its way through some of the Earth’s most fractured territory, with fjords, ancient woodland, lakes, tumbling rivers, waterfalls, glacier snouts and mountain ranges thwarting its progress at every turn: surely providing one of the world's premier backdrops for a scenic road journey. 

The road was born in 1976 out of the vanity of the then President Augusto Pinochet (after whom it was originally named), who was keen to unite Chile’s land mass, constituting as it does a narrow worm of land clinging to the western slopes of the Andes for 4,300km from the Atacama Desert to Patagonia just north of the Antarctic Circle. Not much more than a patchy rough track skirting thickly forested lake shores and negotiating narrow ravines, for decades it stopped abruptly where confronted with fast flowing rivers which had to be crossed using a dozen or more simple “ferries” (wooden rafts propelled with chains and ropes). Nowadays there is just one ferry crossing and the route continues without interruption for 1,240km from Puerto Montt in the southern lake district down to Villa O’Higgins in the remote 11th Region.

The road provides a land link to the rest of the country for only about 100,000 people, and its political symbolism outweighs its actual influence on the socio-economic structure of the country. But, since its partial opening at the beginning of the 1980s, travelling along its route it has represented a challenging expedition for international backpackers and adventurous Chilean nationals. 

Back in the mists of time – 1982, in fact – Etienne (later to become our longest-serving tour leader) and I were backpacking through Chile as part of our South American journey and were intrigued by the news of this new route, which offered us the opportunity of getting further south without entering Argentina (not a practical possibility for Brits that year!). 

At that time, the road started in Chaitén, a sleepy-to-the-point-of-dormant fishing village south of Puerto Montt accessible only by light aircraft or ferry. The ferry ran just once a day, and carried a maximum of six cars. The only vehicles transported were trucks providing oil, food and basic products to the isolated hamlets and farmsteads along the route to the town of Coyhaique, the only settlement of any size in the region, 435km further south and the end of the road. There was no public transport; the only other vehicles were 4WDs driven by curious Chilean holiday-makers. 

We caused a bit of a stir when we arrived in the town, foreigners being a rare sighting in those days, and started hitching. It dawned on us after several hours on the roadside (not very bright, were we?) that if the daily ferry only transported six vehicles, once they had passed us by that was it for the day. So our progress was tortuously slow, and we had to beg for shelter from the owners of little shops – one night we slept in the stock room behind a sheet – and farms close to where our lifts deposited us. We were amazed by how many of the people who live in this region had never even been to the next village, let alone ventured beyond the frontiers of the Region. Eventually we got a lift in a lorry carrying petrol to Coyhaique and were able to relax and enjoy the wilderness scenery. As we got close to the little town, the sides of the valley opened out and bare hillsides were littered with fallen trees – cut down in an aborted attempt to start sheep farming, or for fuel or construction, as the territory had for many decades had to be self-sufficient. 

The road now extends beyond Coyhaique via exquisite Lake General Carrera and the small town of Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins. This is still frontier territory: few tourists venture this far south, it is blissfully unspoilt and as you travel the road you are infused with a sense of adventure. We offer you the opportunity to travel down part of the Carretera Austral on our trail-blazing group journey Untouched Aisén, complete with tour leader, or to fly to Coyhaique and pick up a hire car (4WD recommended) and drive south into this pristine Patagonian landscape.

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