The Carretera Austral, highway 7, is the southern most road of Chile. It is 1200 Kilometers in length, starting just south of Puerto Montt and ending in the south at Villa O’Higgins. The road was only completed in the 1980s. It links widely separated towns and hamlets, with various ferry crossings between certain sections of the road. This area is a web of mountain peaks, glaciers, lakes and rivers. The road is impassable at times in winter.
We are completing the Carretera Austral from south to north. We started our journey on the Carretera Austral just north of Cochrane. We decided to make the journey ~200 kms south to Villa O’Higgins, even though we would be backtracking, and once again we have been rewarded for our efforts.
Villa O’Higgins itself is a small town with basic services. The journey to Villa O’Higgins and the surrounding area is spectacular.
We set off from Cochrane early morning. It was below freezing so it was not easy to get out of our cozy sleeping bags, and brave the cold to pack up the tent and get underway, but we did it. We did make one error of judgment. We forgot it was Sunday and that the gas stations may not open at this time. We could not go anywhere without gas as gas stations here are spread far apart and with any unforeseen circumstances we could find ourselves stranded. Both gas stations were closed, so we prepared ourselves for the wait until they opened and we could fill up. However the gas attendant living in quarters near by spotted us and came to fill our car up. We are still not sure if it was opening time or if he purely came to serve us. Either way we now had gas and had learnt a valuable lesson yet again.
The day before we had a similar experience when trying to get money from an ATM. At some of the old ATM’s our US credit and check cards do not work because they have a chip in them. When I first tried the machines, they would not allow me to withdraw any money. We had just crossed back into Chile so had minimal Chilean pesos. It was a Saturday, which meant the banks were closed for the weekend. If we didn’t have money we could not go south until the banks opened on Monday and we could get funds. Luckily the second time I tried it worked. It turned out the machines were low on funds and they had just serviced them.
Gassed up and with sufficient funds we set out. The sun had risen but had not made it over the mountaintops to the valleys and lakes below. Low lying mists danced across the lakes as the first rays of warmth drew it upwards and towards the light. The snow on the mountain peaks and glaciers glistened. The road itself was gravel, like the majority of the Carretera, but in decent condition. The “ahhh’s”, Ohhh’s”, “epic’s” and ‘OMG’s” continued throughout the journey.
Two and a half hours later, some 122 kms, we boarded our first ferry on The Carretera Austral, from Yungay to Rio Bravo. It is a 50 min journey on a free ferry that runs 3 times per day in each direction. It is a small ferry that can only take ~8 vehicles. It was a really pleasant crossing. Keira got to act as Captain and hold the steering wheel.
Just when we thought the scenery couldn’t get any better it did. The magnificent lakes, now in full sunshine provided calm waters in which a perfect mirror image of the surrounding snow capped mountains was projected.
We both commented that we didn’t think such pristine beauty existed in the world anymore. But here it is and we feel so privileged to be experiencing it.
We arrived at Villa O’Higgins but this is not in fact the end of the Carretera. The end of the road is 7 kms further south to the ferry terminal, so we drove that extra distance.
On the way into O’Higgins is a magnificent lake, that Mike had been eyeing earlier as a perfect fishing spot. There are not many places to camp outside of Villa O’Higgins as the road takes up all the available space between the mountains and the lakes. There was one perfect spot, and lucky for us some locals were just packing up from a day of picnicking there.
Paradise! What a kitchen, bedroom, living, and dining room to have for a couple of nights. And Mike did indeed fish.
Plan is to head north again, through Cochrane. Looking forward to celebrating Keira's 5th birthday on March 30th.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESIONS: rubber band ball – rubber bands come in handy for all sorts of things/solar panel for charging our car batteries; first aid kit-used to patch up a girl Vanessa from Santiago who had fallen off her bike
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- fishing with the locals ; Keira- making sand dinosaurs with her Dad ; Riss- the drive to Villa O’Higgins/having a dragon fly land on me and hang out.
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike- figuring out the electrical problems with the car; Keira- being car sick; Riss- being puked on by Keira again
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- coconut milk curry made on our camp stove/finding bacon, Keira- toasted marshmallows roasted over camp fire; Riss- rice flour crepes made by Mike
BEST CAMPING SPOT: by the Lake near Villa O’Higgins- location not be disclosed
Wow! We have had an amazing few days. Our two long days of driving were adventurous and spectacular. The roads north through Argentina were a mix of paved and rough gravel road, but not bad at all.
Our first night we headed to Cueva de Las Manos, cave of the hands. It was past closing time when we arrived and the website stated no camping, but there was no where to get out of the wind, so we asked at the park office if we could camp there the night. Under the circumstances they agreed to allow us to camp in the parking lot. The guides were so nice and accommodating allowing us to use their kitchen and eat inside. The winds picked up, and so they invited us to sleep inside. We had a really awesome evening hanging out with them all.
The next morning Carolina took us for a tour of the caves. The caves are situated in a stunning canyon. The cave paintings have been dated to 8 million years. They consist mostly of hand prints, but also have pictures of Guanachos, Guanacho foot prints, and other animals. The paintings are like a geneology of families, as the clans would gather and all place their hand prints on the cave walls during ceremonies.
There are several crossings that you can take from Argentina into Chile to meet up with the Carrera Austral. We were going to take a lower crossing said to be a more rugged crossing, however Mike had some concerns about the vehicle. Also, we had heard the crossing at Chile Chico was incredible, so we decided to opt for the later, and we were so happy that we did.
Once again we were at a loss of words to describe the scenery we drove through. Those of you, who know Mike well, also know that every few months he comes across a word that he likes and then uses all the time. Well his word at the moment is “epic”, and I must say it is more than appropriate. I heard “epic” many times during that drive and a quite a few awesome, holy s’s, OMG’s and OMB’s escaped our lips. Then we were both silent and just made primitive “ahhh’s and “ohhh’s”. We also stopped taking photos realizing that this too could not capture the shear beauty.
The road itself was dirt and “rippo”, with potholes and many rivets. It followed the edge of Lago Tranquillo ( Lake Tranquil) with huge drop offs of 200 or more meters. We were lucky to meet very few vehicles coming the other way.
The border crossing itself was the most thorough one we have experienced to date. We had to remove our bags from the car to have them x-rayed. The customs officer went through all our boxes, fridge and even climbed on the roof to inspect our rooftop lock box. She was very nice and we got the all clear, as we had already handed in our remaining fresh fruit, and had no dairy products.
Chile is concerned about fruit insects and other diseases that may enter the country from Argentina. They have already lost quite a few of their grape vines this way, which has impacted their wine industry. As Australians we are use to strict customs restrictions, so it is more understanding what is acceptable and what isn’t.
It was exciting when the adjoining road finally met the Carrera Austral. We have heard so much about this area, and it had been one of the main attractions for us when we first started planning the trip. Even so, neither Mike nor I had looked at any images of what we might see. We were pleasantly surprised when the scenery continued to be “epic”.
We reunited with Carina and Kaj at Cochrane, sharing stories about our border crossings.
Keira was excited to once again have cats and dogs at our camping area. She was elated to have chickens running through the campsite and some baby chicks too. We have re-named Keira the “animal whisperer”, as she attracts animals of all varieties that instantly take a liking to her.
We stayed 2 nights in Cochrane, resting after 2 long days of driving, resourcing our supplies, doing some washing and general maintenance
I think there is one misconception that people have of “an overland adventure”; you aren’t really on “vacation” as such. You still have to do the daily chores of washing dishes, washing clothes, preparing meals, car maintenance, cleaning and tidying up. Quite often these tasks are done in less than adequate conditions including freezing rain, blowing winds and with freezing water. However, we are still doing this in another country and getting to experience cool stuff during the other times. And when the weather and location are perfect, these things are not really chores at all.
I say this as I sit in a camp chair overlooking a lake, with the mountain vista, clear skies, sun and no wind (the first time in months). Not a bad living room!
We have decided to add a new page to our website: a “kids page”, as Keira has become more interested in telling people her stories and sharing her photos. Look for it soon.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: hot water bottle again; good brakes and the car in general as it allows us so much freedom
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- having a “few” drinks with the female guides at Cueva de Las Manos; Keira- seeing and touching an armadillo/going to the caves/playing with the guards cat; Riss- the border crossing at Chile Chico/hanging out with the guides at Cueva de Las Manos
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike- getting pooped and pee’d on by an armadillo; Keira- the long drives- feeling car sick on the curvy roads; Riss- absorbing the beauty and trying to file away those mental images and feelings; washing clothes in freezing water
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- finding bacon in the store, Keira- finding marshmallows in Cochrane; Riss- cheap coconut milk in supermarket in Cochrane- in Argentina when you can find it, it is $10-20 a can!
BEST CAMPING SPOT: staying with the guides at Cueva de Las Manos
In Argentina, there is a tradition of placing padlocks at significant locations on bridges. Couples write their names on the locks, locking their love inside or sealing them as a symbol of their love. Keira and I decided to place a lock on the bridge in El Calafate as a symbol of our family’s connection. We had fun doing it.
El Chalten is approx. 230 kms northwest of El Calafate. It is a popular area for hiking, with amazing views of Mount Fitzroy and the surrounding ranges. That is, if the Patagonian weather co-operates, that is a “big if.”
El Chalten is also known for its strong winds. There is little natural tree coverage in the town to provide shelter. My memories of the town are images of huddled over hikers, fully immersed in raingear bracing themselves against the blustering winds. It is like a quest there, judging the right time to hike between bouts of wind, rain and cloud coverage, to get the best views or even a glimpse of the mountain vista. We met people who during a 5-day stay never got to see the mountains due to dense cloud coverage.
The first day we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by meeting Jeff, our friend from Switzerland that we had met in Buenos Aires months before. We were all very excited to meet up again and spent the evening together exchanging stories, with Keira saying “hello Jeff” every few moments and trying to monopolize his time.
The following day we gave Jeff a ride to Lago Desierto, 50 kms down a very rough but picturesque road. He was completing the walk around the lake, with a ferry ride and a border crossing to Villa O’Higgins in Chile, the very southern point of the Carrera Austral.
It was an extremely rainy and windy day, but we still got to see beautiful scenery, waterfalls, and a glacier. The afternoon we had the pleasure of spending more time with the Snaiths. Keira was very excited to see Lucy and Alisha again.
The following day the weather cleared enough for us to do a hike. We hiked the El Pilar hike to a mirador (viewpoint), which afforded us magnificent views of Mount Fitzroy and the glacier and lake below. It was amazing. Keira was excited to see caterpillars, woodpeckers and many other varieties of birds.
The weather for the remaining days we were in El Chalten was not so good. However we found the coolest place to hang out, a campground called Bonanza, 10 kms out of town. The campground is situated in a small forest area next to a river, a beautiful location. What was really cool was the incredible playground that the managers had created out of natural materials. They even had a zip line and a tightrope. The pet sheep that acted more like a dog, their cats and kittens and many dogs added to the homely but rustic atmosphere.
Camping in our roof top tent, has been a challenge in Patagonia due to he high winds. We did camp one night however the noise of the wind and the movement of the tent do not make for a restful sleep. So we decided to splurge and stay in a dome tent at Bonanza. It was still like staying in a tent and equally as cold but we did not have to cope with the winds or packing the tent up in freezing rain. It provided us with a little more space for a few days. Mike had work to do, and was able to complete this sitting in the small restaurant at the campsite. Like a lot of places electricity was generated through solar or a generator, so hours for electricity and hot showers were limited to the evening hours. Mike used the outlets in our car as back up for his computer.
Keira and I entertained ourselves playing on the playground, completed paintings in the great outdoors, playing with the animals, watching the sheep and dogs play fighting, and exploring the area.
We had a wonderful treat one afternoon of chocolate banana pancakes.
El Chalten does not have good Internet access, so Keira, Mike and I headed back to El Calafate for 2 nights, so Mike could download work. We also picked up more chocolate and a few clothing items for Keira, as she is rapidly outgrowing hers.
We will head off tomorrow heading north to Cueva de Los Manos (a cave with ancient hand paintings) and then we will cross the border back into Chile to start the Carrera Austral.
Still having a great time.
xoxo Rissy, Mike and Keira
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Hot water bottle- makes getting in cold sleeping bags a little easier
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- the hike with views of Mount Fitzroy ; Keira- playing with the pet sheep ; Riss- the hike with views of Mount Fitzroy
WORST EXPERIENCE: Mike-; the incessant cold and wind/not getting my fair share of the hot water bottle; Keira- getting headbutted by the sheep ; Riss- trying to pee by the side of the road with no tree coverage and gale force winds/washing dishes in freezing cold water
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- asado meal of a variety of roasted meats Keira- chocolate/banana waffles (see gallery for pics) and dulce de leche/iced cupcakes; Riss- finding jars of peanut butter, a rare commodity and rice flour crepes made by mike
WORST FOOD EXPERIENCE: all ok
BEST CAMPING SPOT: Bonanza- near El Chalten
Our time in Rio Gallegos was spent visiting mechanics, spare parts stores, Mike working, visiting pet stores, and local parks, and recovering from bad chest colds. The saving grace was a supply of delectable pastries from the many panaderias in town.
Once again we were impacted by Argentina’s “money game”. We had run out of the Argentine pesos that we had changed for US dollars in Buenos Aires, at the rate of 13.3 pesos to 1 USD. If we withdraw pesos from the ATM the rate is 8.3, a significant difference when you are talking large sums of money. Kaj and Carina were facing charges for car repairs so they were in the same situation. Luckily, Kaj and Carina were able to get money sent via Europe to a bank in Commodoro Rivadera at the rate of 12.5. This was not straightforward and required a lot of research on their behalf. So Kaj made an overnight bus run and got money for us all. It will definitely help our daily expenses.
Finally after 11 nights and 10 days in Rio Gallegos, we were back on the road, with both vehicles running well. (Or so we thought)
We were all happy to be back in our vehicles, back on the road and back camping. We had all missed the freedom, the outdoors, and our vehicles, which have now become our homes.
We headed to El Calafate. Kaj and Carina provided a ride to a hitchhiker from Chile, Felipe. Hitchhiking is very common in Argentina both for locals and foreigners, and appears to be safe from what we have heard.
El Calafate is a tourist town, providing a base from which people go to visit “Los Glaciares National Park”. It is a very sweet town with lots of trees, and after graffiti and garbage ridden Rio Gallegos, was a pleasure to visit. Although it could have done with a few less chocolate shops and helado stores. We must give Rio Gallegos some sympathy on one thing, as we quickly realized that a lot of the garbage resulted from the strong winds just blowing things away and around. We learnt this first hand as our shopping bags and receipts went flying across the car park as we packed our groceries in our car. The Patagonian winds at work again.
The Perito Moreno Glacier is 40 kms long, 5 kms wide and about 60 meters high, and is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not receding. It grows by ~2 meters per day. There is ice that also melts and breaks off daily. There are 13 glaciers in this national park.
There are definitely no words to describe the vastness, the rawness and the beauty of the glacier. Majestic may be a word that could be used, although it does not encompass the awe that you experience when viewing this glacier. There is an ear shattering thunder that echoes through the area when a piece of the glacier separates and plummets to the lake below. It causes huge waves to form over the lake’s surface. The lake is dotted with a variety of sized icebergs, creating a surreal landscape.
The glacier has jagged peaks, and deep crevices, which creates a bumpy texture in its overall appearance. It is a mixture of sapphire blues highlighting it’s crevices with pure white accents, and the occasional veins of browns and blacks through its outer surface.
We spent 3 ½ hours in the area, just staring at the glacier and willing the sun to warm it’s surface, so we could experience its shear force as a piece broke off and formed another iceberg.
We spent the following 2 nights at a free camp in the national park, surrounded by snow capped mountains, and a pristine lake. Large red foxes came through our camp in the early morning and white geese and condors flew overhead. We experienced all 4 seasons in the day, applying sunscreen, only to apply fleeces and coats 1 hour later and then to reverse the process again.
In El Calafate, we had the pleasure of meeting up again with the Snaith family, Gilly, Steve, Alisha (age 9) and Lucy (age 6), the English family we met originally in Ushuaia, and had bumped into again in Puerto Natales. The girls were instant friends from the first day they met, so we spent the day together at the glacier (it’s amazing how many majestic places that Keira has played “tag”) The Snaith’s are an amazing family. If you would like to look them up, they also have a blog: www.overlandingfamily.com
Mike was happy to have a fishing companion in Steve. They caught 2 decent sized fish that we cooked for dinner that night.
As you know we have been travelling with a German couple, Kaj and Carina, who have been wonderful traveling companions. We have shared many amazing experiences and have faced many challenges together, including a recent infestation of head lice. I think we may be hearing from their German lawyer! Their website is: www.travelrunplay.de , only catch is it is in German!
As for the vehicles, mmm, well let’s just say the mechanics in Rio Gallegos weren’t as good as we first thought. We had a fan belt literally sliced in 2 after ~ 600 kms, and Kaj found several things that had been replaced incorrectly. The result was us towing Kaj and Carina about 40 kms on slick, muddy roads in the pouring rain, hoping our fan belt had. One of the many challenges of life on the road that are easier dealt with when there are a group of us working together.
So we are now back in El Calafate and will seek out another mechanic in the morning. We are hoping to complete repairs for the last time before we move on to El Chalten and the Carretera Austral.
UPDATE: cars are repaired and we are heading to El Chalten.
I decided to add to each blog a highlights and lowlights section. I will try to go back and add it to some of the previous blogs, if you want to take a look. I thought it would be fun and a way for us to recap too.
Highlights/lowlights of this area:
Most valued possessions: jetboil (fast boil stove used for boiling water for tea); rice cooker (yes we did bring one, it allowed us to prepare some simple meals in our hostel room); a spare pair of fan belts; princess dresses again
Best experience: Mike- catching his first fish in a glacier lake; Keira- meeting up with Alisha and Lucy; Riss- experiencing the Perito Moreno Glacier
Worst experience: Mike- car problems; Keira- having a bad cold; Riss- looking after 2 sick “kids” in Rio Gallegos and trying to entertain a 4 year old in that town
Best food discovery: Mike-little cakes, donuts and baked goods from panaderias (bread and cake stores); Keira- “candy”; Riss- soy milk – we bought 10 packs, and oatmeal made by Carina and served to us in our tent during torrential rains
Worst food experience: Mike- “being ignored at food stores and passed over for locals”, Keira- “anything not candy”; Riss- getting rather tired of rice cakes and all the food has so much sugar in it.
Best camping spot: free camping in Perito Moreno Glacier National Park
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.