Chile: Carretera Austral, the northern part

Route: Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi – Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda – Chaiten – Puerto Montt

05/01/2018
Leaving the town of Coyhaiqe, I have to climb another 10 kilometer or so out of the town on the paved road with a constant stream of traffic before I can turn off to the old section of the Carretere Austral on gravel. It’s a steep climb up a 750 meter high hill. Same complaints as the previous days: all land is fenced off and it’s hard to find a place to pitch the tent.
At night, it rains continuously, just like it has the past week or so, but the days are dry, warm and sunny. I can surely live with that.

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Coyhaique from a distance.

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06 – 11/01/2018
About twelve kilometer before (south) Manihuales I rejoin the paved section of the Carretera Austral. which continues to be paved for a while now. But, there’s a possibility to take a gravel road about nine kilometer north of Manihuales, which I prefer over the asphalted road. I find a cosy place to pitch the tent, right next to the river. It’s close to the road but I don’t have to climb fences today. For the first time in months, I make a nice camp fire.

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This gravel option lasts for 21 kilometer and provides more nice wild camping spots further on. A small part of the road even has no fences either side of the track. This must be like the Carretera of the old days. The rest of the day I follow the smooth pavement and have an early stop a few kilometer before Villa Amengual, so I can do my shopping in the morning.

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From Villa Amengual, the road climbs over a small saddle before going steep down into the valley of the Rio Cisnes. After the junction to Puerto Cisnes, the Carretera becomes gravel again and climbs towards the ‘Portezuelo Quelat’ before going down to the next river valley and eventually some kind of sea arm. After a few days with rain, today was a nice and sunny day again.

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@ Villa Amengual

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From the ‘Mirador El Lobo’.
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Swiss cycling couple riding down from Alaska.

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If you can cycle all day between the fences, you can sure camp between them as well (check the height of some of these fences !)

The nights continue to be wet and it takes some time for the tent to dry. By the time I arrive at the entrance of Parque Naional Queulat, the sun is out again.
The main attraction here is the ‘Ventisquero Colgante’, a ‘hanging’ glacier. A 3.3 km trail leads up to a viewpoint. It’s a spectacular thing, but seeing where the glacier is now, compared to where it used to be in 1940 and 1970 as you can see in the N.P. building… I don’t think there ‘ll be much glacier left to hang here in a couple of years.

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‘Ventisquero Colgante’
Now, if this isn’t a spectacular view point !

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Puyuhapi is a nice little town, but not nice enough to convince me to stay for the night.
A bad stretch of ripio, with stones as big as fists follows for the first 15 kilometer or so. It’s late evening when I pitch the tent at a camping twenty kilometer south of La Junta. I’m the only camper (yesss, it’s gonna be quiet 🙂 ) and the owner has to fire up the wood stove for his only guest in order to have some hot water for the shower.

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The question is: “Who is …..” 🙂
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Met these nice Belgians along the road.
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I think a King Fisher ?

La Junta is another little town with a few small village stores. Normally I’d be continuing on the asphalt going north, but the landslide in Villa Santa Lucia still hasn’t been cleared (and apparently won’t be before April), so I take a left turn, cycling west towards Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda. A few very nice camping options at the beginning of the road, but it’s still too early in the day for me. The gravel goes from good to bad, to very bad, to a bit better again.
I’m riding in the valley of the Rio Palena and the scenery is excellent.
Big shame is the amount of traffic traveling this route, in their usual style, speeding at centimeters beside your legs, leaving huge clouds of dust behind.
In October last year, I rode further upstream along this river in colder and wetter conditions. About ten kilometer before the end of the road, there’s a ferry to cross the river, but that’s only running until 6 pm. I won’t make that and have again difficulties finding a place for the night. Not because of fences, but due to the jungle here. Eventually I pitch the tent near a waterfall in front of which some heave bulldozers destroyed the vegetation recently.

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Rio Palena

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The last picture before the camera fell down and broke 😦

Next day, after crossing the river, I notice there are several nice options to camp between that side of the river and Puerto R.M. Balmaceda.
The compulsory registration process for the ferry was some of the most inefficient things I have ever seen in my life. There was one lady sitting inside the office when I arrived. It took the lady and the man with the tattoo of a skull on his hand 35 minutes to make the booking (no idea why they “work” as a duo, instead of each taking a customer ??). Then there was a group of six kayakers ahead of me. It took just under an hour to arrange the registration and booking for them. The lady had to enter their passport numbers four times before she succeeded. Then it was me. They reached succes in my booking in 24 minutes. Lucky I arrived in town three hours before the ferry left.

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The ferry ride through the Gulf of Corcovado is scenic, with good views of the snow capped volcano Nevada.

North of Chaiten, the road is paved again. Here I enter the Parque Nacional Pumalin which, just like Parque Nacional Patagonia further south, is a park established by Douglas Tompkins and his wife, he the owner of ‘The North Face’, she of the clothing line ‘Patagonia’ and ‘Esprit’.  They donated it to the Chilean state in March 2017.
The temperatures are tropical and so is the environment. All dense jungle with big ferns and other rain forest plants. Wild camping would be very hard here. I climb the volcano Chaiten, which erupted in 2008 and made a devastation in the town further down. It’s a hard hike up the steep hill, but the views are spectacular. I can see the Pacific Ocean, the ‘Lago Blanco’ where I would camp later that day and the crater two lakes, a brownish one and a green one and also a new mountain arose after the eruption.

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On top of the Volcano Chaiten.
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Lago Blanco, seen from the Chaiten Volcano.
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I camped along the Lago Blanco in National Park Pumalin. There are only 6 pitches or so, all having their own little shelter.
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Sunset at Lago Blanco

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Next day make another hike in the park to some waterfalls of which the higher one is very spectacular. I also make a hike into a part of the park where there are still some Alerce trees, these big and old guys which were also in the ‘P.N. Los alerces’ in Argentina which I visited a few months ago.

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Lago Negro, National Park Pumalin

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Alerce Tree
Alerce Tree

After the five hour ferry ride from Caleta Gonzalo to Hornopiren (with the snowy cone of the Hornopiren volcano just behind the turquoise sea) there isn’t all too much time left for biking. I’m leaving Hornopiren nevertheless. It’s a small village where all traffic seems to stuck up, waiting for one of the two daily ferry’s. Pretty soon, the Carretera Austral turns into ripio again, the version with the big loose stones, and a climb between 10 & 14%. Quite a bit of traffic, so I’m riding in a constant cloud of dust.
On my map, I’ve seen an alternative smaller route along the coast of this little peninsula. It’s longer, but I hope it has less traffic. It appeared even to be paved for a while. It’s been a while, but today I find a nice place to camp at the tip of a bay.

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Soon, the alternative road turns to gravel as well. Gravel with washboard, but no big climbs. I’m having a full day of riding along the Pacific Coast. Major problem here, just like the previous days, are these big black and orange insects, almost as big as the tip of your thumb. I don’t know if they are horse flies as well. They look much meaner. They always come in pairs, or in two pairs, circle at high speed around you for a couple of times and then come to hang right in front of your face (so they must be able to fly backwards, as I’m cycling at that moment). It’s intimidating.
The tricks is not to try and hit them while they fly around you. They’re too fast. You must wait until they’re staring you in the face. But while you hit one, there are still three left.
It must be quite a sight, riding a heavily loaded touring bike on gravel, with stones as big as eggs, trying to stay upright while you’re swaying arms and legs to get rit of these flies, face covered with bandanas to protect yourself against dust and flies. A few of them land on your sweaty back and sting you there.

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Riding my bike along the Pacific Coast 😀

A lot of nice, old wooden churches along this route. Near the tip of the peninsula, I find a side road of this side road. I have to cross a shallow river, but get rewarded with more spectacular views. The sea water is surprisingly warm so far south.

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It was not my idea to ride into the town of Puerto Montt, but my camera fell down from a pole a couple of days ago, and the lens broke. I still have a small point-and-shoot camera for back up, but don’t want to rely on that one the whole trip.

About 30 kilometer before Puerto Montt, I pitch the tent in a field above the road, whit good views of the Pacific below me. No wind protection, so hope the weather will be quiet tonight.
It’s been a very hot day and it’s impossible to go inside the tent while the sun is at it. After the flies lunched of my back during the day, it’s now the mosquito’s eating diner at my back.
Lot’s of scratching tonight…

In the whole of Puerto Montt, there’s no wide angle lens.
None.
I check every shop and asked every shop whether they knew a place…, I checked tourist information. They all said I might be lucky in Santiago. But checking the Chilean Sony store online… they even don’t have it in stock. Seems like I’ll have to continue shooting pics with my old Nikon point-and shoot cam for the remainder of the trip 😦 .

Riding the Carretera Austral is maybe not the easiest thing, but it can be done by anybody who is in reasonable shape and has a bit of stamina and a decent bike and gear.
It’s not the distance what makes the route hard. There are other factors:
The (often bad) ripio, the head-winds, the rain, the steep climbs, the horse flies, the traffic at times, the longer stretches without any service,…

What about the Carretera Austral as a biking route ?
Is the scenery nice ?
Yup, it definitely is and I enjoyed it.
BUT, I think it is seriously over-hyped.
Often, the Carretera is described as one of the world’s best cycling routes.
This depends on perception of course, and while I find the route to have way too much (unkind & speeding) traffic, again, somebody else could think differently.

Often the route is described as wild camping heaven as well.
That’s a flagrant lie.

After a couple off days on the route, I started asking cyclist coming from the opposite direction about their opinion of this so-called wild camping heaven. All, without exception, said they “couldn’t see that”.
No question of perception here.
For the most part along the Carretera it was hard, if not impossible to find a wild camping spot for the night. Often I kept riding for another 20 kilometer after I started searching for a spot and still ended up in a bad place or at a camp site.
Mostly because all land is fenced off, or unsuitable for camping (steep hills or dense jungle).

Overall, I’m still happy I cycled it, but I think there are routes in various parts of the world that are very spectacular as well, with better camping options, less traffic and more considerate drivers (Sweden, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, Usa, ….)

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6 thoughts on “Chile: Carretera Austral, the northern part”

  1. Hi Koen, how fanastic it is, here its been raining for 1 month and half, so make us dreaming again…
    have a good trip and see you next year…may be
    Sylvie and Arthur

    Like

    1. Hi Sylvie & Arthur,

      Summer is in full swing here. It’s getting warmer, and as I’m getting further north, the climbs are getting higher.
      In short: nothing but fun 😉

      Like

  2. Very interesting traveling journal my friend, as always your pictures are witness of fantastic natural Geography. I’m sorry about your camera lens. I hope you can get a new one soon. – H.J. form Georgia, USA

    Like

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