A drive full of marvels, even including the road
COYHAIQUE - It was the prospect of tackling a rugged surface, steep curves, and sheer roadside drops that first attracted me to the Carretera Austral, Chile’s southern highway. Yet a clause in an insurance policy sparked a frisson of doubt: If my rented 4 x 4 ran into a ditch, I’d have to pay a crane operator to haul it out.
For more than two decades, Chilean army engineers defied harsh weather and fearsome topography to lay a highway through some of the most inhospitable regions of Chilean Patagonia. Construction began on General Augusto Pinochet’s orders in 1976 (three years after he had seized power in a coup) at the Lake District settlement of Puerto Montt. By the mid-1990s, Pinochet had been swept from office, but the engineers were still hacking their way through the Patagonian wilderness.
They finally put down their tools in 1999 at Villa O’Higgins, some 770 miles to the south, where 400 chilly inhabitants eke out a living in the mountainous wastes of Aisén Province, officially known as Region XI.
Controversy dogged construction from the start. Many Chileans fretted at spending $300 million on a project for a local population of just 80,000. For outsiders, however, the Carretera is simply an astonishing engineering feat. Passing through a corridor of backcountry cut by raging melt-water rivers, majestic glaciers, temperate rain forests, and two continental ice sheets, it is one of the most spectacular drives in South America.
With a friend, Josh Goodman, I had come to drive the most rugged southerly stretch, a 330-mile grind between Coyhaique, a hiking and climbing center, and Villa O’Higgins. There is Chilean territory even farther south, but it is separated from O’Higgins by an insuperable mass of permanent ice, towering peaks, and deep fiords.
We picked up the truck in Coyhaique and motored off beneath the striking volcanic columns of Cerro Macay. For the first hour, the highway’s paved surface undulated through a meadowland dotted with wooden cabins, sheep pens, and ox carts. Even when the road hooked abruptly west beneath Cerro Castillo’s jumble of 8,700-foot basalt spires, we were still cruising comfortably in fifth gear.
Some 55 miles from Coyhaique, however, the pavement ended abruptly. Josh engaged double traction, and the truck slid and bumped over the Carretera’s gravel surface.
Aisén’s austere geography deterred settlers for far longer than in Chile’s more pastoral regions. Only in the early 20th century did determined pioneers clear enough of the dense forests of lenga and coihue, varieties of southern beech, to support small-scale cattle and sheep farming.
Even today, this is tough terrain: Road crews remain busy clearing rockslides and repairing flood damage all along the Carretera. Near glacier-fed Lago General Carrera, the army simply dynamited the road from walls of sheer rock: A momentary lapse of attention could cause a precipitous plunge to the turquoise waters far below.
Safely skirting the lake, we pulled into Puerto Río Tranquilo and found a comfortable bed for the night at El Puesto, a guesthouse built from cypress and adobe and insulated from the fierce Patagonian gales by layers of volcanic ash. “Very few tourists die on the road,’’ its owner, Tamara Ullrich, told us. “Of course, there was that family of four who went over the edge last year . . .’’
Like many of Aisén’s inhabitants, Ullrich is a migrant from Santiago, lured to Patagonia by its raw nature and huge spaces. A century ago, the region’s sheer wildness had bred speculation that Ice Age monsters still roamed its inaccessible interior. In 1896, a German settler stumbled on the skin and bones of a milodon, a giant sloth long believed extinct. London’s Daily Express dispatched its star reporter, Hesketh Prichard, who gripped Britons with his adventures near Puerto Río Tranquilo, returning home without a living milodon but with sufficient material for a best-selling book, “Through the Heart of Patagonia.’’
The following morning, we turned down one of the tracks that snake off on both sides of the highway. Still under construction, it heads northwest and passes close to the Northern Ice Field, a permanent ice cap fractured by jagged peaks and raked by glaciers. Dark forests of lenga and arrayan, a cinnamon-barked member of the eucalyptus family, crowded over the track. In 30 miles of driving, we saw just two other cars.
Crunching to a halt outside a hand-built log cabin described to us by locals as a cafe, we were greeted by Thomas and Katarina Poppitz, a couple in their 40s from Munich. The two had scoured the world to find its most remote corner, Thomas explained. They finally alighted on Aisén eight years ago, where they bought 85 acres of virgin forest and set about building a house and a new life.
“I felled only seven trees to build the cabin. All the other wood came from dead trunks,’’ Thomas said, as Katarina skipped out to pluck some fresh greens from their vegetable patch to make lunch. For the first two years, he said, they had slept in a car. They were currently installing a stream-powered turbine to provide electricity, and planned to build a couple of cabins to accommodate tourists.
It was hard to imagine visitors arriving here en masse, but the couple had chosen their location well. Just six miles down the trail, we scrambled up a bank of glacial moraine, and gazed at an uninterrupted vista of 13,314-foot San Valentín, the highest peak in Patagonia, its broad flank scythed by glaciers.
The great virtue of the Carretera is that such sights, once the lonely reward of toiling pioneers, are now within the grasp of the motoring tourist. Within an hour, we were back on the Carretera at Puerto Guadal, sipping pisco sours on the veranda of Terra Luna Lodge, a wood-framed hotel. Here well-to-do guests fish trout-rich rivers and buzz the ice caps in light aircraft by day, and chill in the hot tub at night.
For many, Puerto Guadal marks the southerly limit of a trip on the Carretera. To the south, the population grows still thinner, the lodges more rustic, and hot tubs fewer and farther between. The recompense is a landscape carved by the torrential currents of Río Baker, one of Patagonia’s most powerful rivers, and a sea-borne humidity that gives rise to the oddity of cold, moist jungle.
We pressed on, first to Cochrane, a rugged town that displays a certain frontier charm, its houses patched together with corrugated iron and mismatched wood planks, and finally to Villa O’Higgins, where the highway ends at a huddle of weathered cabins.
From here, the easy way out is to make a dogleg turn and head back north. The alternative is a march across the Andes on foot to Argentina. Those who, like us, choose the latter option can take heart from a message the Chilean army carved in wood outside O’Higgins, intended as a monument to Aisén’s pioneers and to those who built the Carretera: “Obstacles are there to be overcome.’’
Colin Barraclough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.