The Carretera Austral, meaning the Southern Highway, is the name of Chilean Highway 7 that runs north-south from Puerto Montt to Villa O’ Higgins, connecting the southern remote rural towns in the long skinny country. The beauty of the Austral is that many parts of the highway are still unpaved, and it gives a wild feel that pairs well with the natural surroundings. It is apparently a rite of passage for cyclists who come from all over the world to bike the 770 miles of hills and gravel roads. In some portions of the highway we saw more cyclists than vehicles. But the country is paving more and more of the road every day and from what we saw, in a few short years it will all be asphalt and it will be a much different experience traveling on it.
We crossed the border from Argentina aiming for the middle of the Austral and camped our first couple nights on the raging and spectacular Rio Futaleafú. This river is famous for white water rafting and for good reason. We were watching the kids’ every step and camped far away from the water. On this side of the Andes, everything seemed bigger, taller and greener.
I think the most common complaint about the Austral is the weather, which is notoriously cold and wet. This side of Chilean Patagonia is between the Pacific ocean and the Andes mountains and the moisture from the ocean accumulates before the peaks. So it was a big surprise when we ended up having a couple of perfect beach days on the river. It was spectacular. Big open space all to ourselves with views of snowy mountains and a big blue river. All that plus unlimited firewood to keep the grill going all day long. The only shortfall was Simon not getting any fish. It is a big river and famous for fishing as well but it needs time for exploring.
From the river, we drove west on the dirt road to intersect with the actual Carretera Austral from where we headed south. On the way there were more snow capped mountains and glacial rivers. Like Rio Futulafeu, many rivers run milky this time of year from the “rock flour” present in the glacial runoff. This quiet area which gets a lot of rainfall is dotted with family-run cattle farms and cowboys getting around on horses. We were in this stretch for a few days and ran into only one party of visitors from Santiago. There is much less tourism in this part of Patagonia. Compared to the lake district, we noticed fewer protected reserves and parks, and more agriculture where farmers have lived off the land for centuries.
Puerto Raul Marin was a spontaneous detour from the Austral. We were literally at the crossroads and took a right turn at the last minute curious about what it looked like at the coast. The drive was a bumpy forty miles through spectacular scenery. Bridge after bridge over multi-colored rivers with backdrops of waterfalls and glaciers. It took us over two hours to make the journey.
It was on this bumpy road that our tire rack bumper failed us. Our van came with a rear bumper with a spare tire carrier made by Aluminess. They make lightweight after market accessories popular with these campers. Aluminum proved to be not strong enough. After so much impact from bouncy roads, the aluminum bars that held the tire just sheared right off. We were very lucky though. We only had to backtrack for half an hour before we noticed the spare tire laying on the side of the road. We very well could have backtracked the entire way for hours and not found it – with so many ditches and drop-offs on this road. We let out shouts of joy and celebrated our lost and found, even knowing from then on, it meant the spare tire would be traveling on top of our bed. Just one more thing to add to our set-up and take-down routine.
When we arrived at the coastal town of Raul Marin we were a bit underwhelmed. It was nice but we felt there wasn’t anything special, which actually said more about us than about the town. We had a sea lion pop up a mere few feet from Simon while he was fishing, dolphins swam by day and night, and there were miles of soft sandy beach. As I write this, I realize there must be something seriously skewed in our perspective to not feel impressed. But the kids disagreed. Give them some sand and water and they will have the time of their lives. We spent New Year’s Eve, aka Ty’s birthday here enjoying a couple of sunny beach days in the middle of Patagonia. Who would have known? Happy 5th Birthday my love.
From the sea we drove back to the Austral and continued south with the destination of the Queulat National Park in mind, where we visited a very photogenic hanging glacier, Ventisquero Colgante, after a few hours hike. Having seen a few more since, this one might still be one of my favorites. It is amazing that one could travel in one day from dolphins to glacier surrounded by rainforest in this part of Patagonia. This area is so diverse, it is incredible.
Our next destination was Rio Cisnes. This portion of the Austral is full of fishable rivers. The challenge here is that unlike the Argentinian side, these rivers are less travelled, less documented, and finding success in these rivers requires more exploration. The good news is that we have found most rivers have pretty good access, better than Argentina. Every few miles, there is usually some public access, and even when there isn’t, some gates are unlocked cattle gates. Permission can be granted if you do run into somebody and most of the time you don’t run into anyone. Simon says fishing around here, if there is more than one fisherman it is too crowded.
So we came to Rio Cisnes to chase after the king salmon. As I mentioned, the challenge with fishing some of these Chilean waters is that you have to spend time to get to know the river. We camped at three different spots on the river over 80 miles moving from the river mouth eastward towards Argentina, and at each spot Simon fished for a day or two and explored on foot the few miles close to camp. He had some success with a few small browns and rainbows and no luck with salmon or the big trouts. On his own, he would have been able to explore more spots moving the van up and down the river as he fished. But with the family occupying the van, he had to leave us a home base.
Even though he didn’t get his monster fish, the experience following the river was rewarding for all of us. It was incredible to see the landscape change from lush to arid as we meandered east, and it felt like an adventure. In these parts there were more farmers and ranchers and hardly any tourists.
After the Cisnes, we had choices to make. There were just too many rivers in this region. If we spent the time we needed on each river, we would never make it out of here. Plus, I and the kids, the non-fishermen, would probably be driven mad. So we chose to go to a smaller, even lesser travelled river, the Rio Nirehuao. On the way, we went to take a look first at the Rio Manihuales, a popular flyfishing river that runs north to south. This picture below is of the very scenic upper Manihuales. We could have free camped anywhere on the bank of the river, but we had already decided to go to Nirihuao. Oh the choices that we face every day on this trip.
After almost two hours on a one lane dirt road, we arrived at a campground called Campo Lindo looking for some creature comforts and did we ever find those comforts. What a beautiful camping spot run by a lovely older couple. There were only three waterfront sites well spaced apart and each site came with an outdoor sink and barbecue. I cannot remember the last time we had our own kitchen sink and this one came with a view.
We discovered the calafate berries here. Native to Patagonia, it is mess of a seriously thorny shrub and harvesting those blue-black berries is a labor of love. These berries look like blueberries but these are smaller, more tart, more juicy and full of seeds. To eat these, we popped them in the mouth, sucked the juice and spit out the seeds. Folklore says once you taste the calafate berry, you are destined to return to Patagonia. We really hope that legend is true.