La Carretera Austral


Maybe three years ago, in front of a roaring fireplace on a winter night on Cape Cod, my dad and I sat on the internet brainstorming ideas for international adventures that should belong on a ‘bucket list’ to be checked off however and whenever possible in years ahead. High on the list was a drive down the notorious Carretera Austral, or ‘southern highway’, a road built at great expense by the dictator Augusto Pinochet down the length of southern Chilean Patagonia. While at the time, flying to the southern cone of South America and renting a car to explore a harsh mountain wonderland seemed impossibly distant and impractical, this year’s climbing trip proved a too irresistible an opportunity to check off a goal hatched years previously.

The winding down of the Patagonian climbing season and my birthday marked a convenient timetable and dad dutifully informed me that he would clear his schedule to make certain our plan. Over email and internet we drew up of a long list of potential stops and destinations but agreed to keep our schedule open-ended, save for an obligatory stop in Cochamó. From there, in an SUV rented from the southern city of Puerto Montt (an upgrade that proved invaluable as we drove hundred miles of steep and precarious unpaved road) we ventured south toward the great southern ice fields and alpine landscapes that had mesmerized us in previous sessions scouring available information on the region.

Our trip coincided with another installment in a series of historical transfers of land from a foundation created by North Face founder Doug Tompkins to the Chilean government, and as we we worked our way south we had the opportunity to explore first-hand some of the wilderness areas that are actively being purchased for conservation in the form of enormous parks and preserves.

While its safe to say that we saw more mountains, glaciers and waterfalls than we could count, our tour barely scratched the surface of the dramatic landscapes that await those ready to work a bit for them. Our original plans focused on more multi-day trekking but when dad’s boots proved painful after a some long days of backpacking in Cochamó, the otherwise ambitious option of driving to the route’s end became not only tempting but even practical. Beyond the presence of mountains being a constant theme, the landscapes varied dramatically from steep and lush to wide and rolling to glacier-fed wetlands, with remote and beautiful Chilean towns and villages scattered throughout (usually selling empanadas).

Three weeks were too few to delve deep into many areas and still cover ground, but the sampling we managed has served to wet an appetite for so much more Patagonian adventure in Chile that its hard not to start planning the next trip already.

Starting out down the coast with an already dusty rental.

Coastal mountain ranges found out our particular aesthetic weaknesses very quickly.

Lago General Carrera, a massive lake that sits between Chile and Argentina with a snowcapped skyline

Common sorts of views. It was hard not to drool on the steering wheel sometimes. Oh, and this was the less impressive face of the mountain believe it or not.

This is the other side of the mountain, as seen from the drive north.

Obligatory sightseeing stops included the so called 'hanging glacier'.

The road would end occasionally and we would enjoy ferry rides through the Chilean fjords, often comparing notes with other Carretera travelers on motorcycle and bicycle.

Dad soaking in the sights in the Valle Chacabuco, purchased in its entirety for preservation by Doug Tompkins.

In addition to the mountains, Patagonia's rivers were beyond impressive with their colors, changing terrains and backdrops.

The Rio Baker was a particular favorite for a number of reasons including its color and impressive rapids.

Chimney smoke mixes with clouds as morning hits Caleta Tortel, a small coastal village in southern Chile.

Rocks, glaciers, waterfalls, blue lakes and rivers - it didn't get old.