The Carretera Austral

Christmas greetings to everyone at home. The first couple of nights camping went surprisingly well and we are now in the small Chilean town of Coyhaique stocking up on supplies for the next few days when we will be roughing it on the edge of a glacier in one of the national parks. Back in Argentina, I think.

I can´t possibly do justice to the magnificence of the landscape in this region with all the distractions in this little Internet cafe, besides I have to head off to join the others in the Supermarket and ensure that we buy the right ingredients for my Cowboy Beans (or are they going to be Gaucho Beans?).

The hanging glacier is every bit as gorgeous as it looks in the photograph and I actually enjoyed the three hour trek up through the temperate cloud forest to get to the viewing point. I made sure that I stopped enough times to photograph the fascinating vegetation along the route and only just managed not the be the last person back.

Since getting back into Chile we have been travelling on the “Carretera Austral”: literally the “Southern Highway”, also known as “Route 7” and formerly known as the “Carretera General Augusto Pinochet”. It consists of 1,200 kilometres of road which was laid down in the 1970’s to link up some of the more inaccessible communities of Southern Chile and, despite the fact that it has yet to be properly surfaced, is a great favourite with cyclists and motorcyclists taking the long route down. Much of it passes through breathtakingly beautiful scenery that was once the preserve of a few tiny communities and even fewer dedicated explorers.

Sources are vague on the subject of how many conscripted soldiers El Heneral sacrificed to build this road but the numbers are rumoured to be high and its real value has long been questioned. Many of the settlements served by it were in danger of dying out altogether before this monumental plan was put into place, in fact the entire length probably still serves less than 100,000 people. There are currently plans to extend and tarmac it; an expensive operation that is likely to have a substantial environmental impact on this remote wilderness. Foreign journalists have criticised the policies of successive Chilean governments for their attempts to “tame the South” but one wonders whether they have any idea what it is like to live in or govern a country that is over 4,000 k in length but less than a twentieth of that distance in width.

In addition to the distances involved, the geography of this region with its myriad islands, fjords and lakes makes touring an extremely challenging undertaking and Grahame and I were a little disappointed to find ourselves visiting so little of the coastal regions. Apparently the Dragoman tour used to take a ferryboat for part of this segment but it proved so unreliable it had to be abandoned. Anyway, it is impossible to see everything in one trip and we loved the landscape so much we might even decide to return one day.


Categories: Latin America

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