After Parque Nacional Patagonia we drove the short journey to the town of Cochrane, where we had various faffy things to do – I wanted to get the tyres and chains checked on the van before heading even further south and even further from ‘civilization’ as we now term any town over a few hundred inhabitants. We also needed groceries after the Chilean border crossing, and desperately needed to get some laundry done.
For the first time we parked up just on the road – although this time, in the company of other overlanders in the main square, which gave us access to the free town internet, enabling us to contact family for the first time in a few days and let them know we were still alive. We met a swiss couple who had just spent three days with one of the couples we’d met on the boat on the way over, and the German family we had met at the border also turned up, having finally finished off their stock of fruit and veg. Lauren enjoyed playing with their 5 year old twins, who reminded her of her much loved, and much missed, cousin in Portugal.
Cochrane is a pleasant little town with a real frontier feel – there really is not much south of here before the road ends at the impassible southern ice field. There are no high rise buildings, the town square is a pleasant space with gardens and benches and free wifi, and the main supermarket is also a hardware store and a clothing store. Everything has strange opening hours – only afternoons, or a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon – and even in a couple of days you see the same people multiple times. I love these little towns that aren’t big enough to have separate shops for each product/service, so the ‘shop’ sells food and clothes and fishing tackle, the cafe is also an electronics store, and the laundry is someone’s house, which doubles as a campsite.
By lunchtime, we had managed to get a mechanic to look at the van, to buy gas, fill up with fuel, get groceries, get laundry done, and still found time for coffee and cake in the café.
After this, it was time to set off on the most southern leg of the Carretera Austral. The Carretera Austral just means ‘southern highway’ and runs from Puerto Montt in the north, to Villa O’ Higgins in the South. It was built under Pinochet, who wanted to connect the remote region that at that point was only accessible by boat or through Argentina. Chile was in conflict with Argentina (something to do with the Beagle channel) and didn’t want to depend on them for access to their territory. More than 10,000 soldiers worked on the highway, and many died in the process. There are little memorials to different soldiers along the route at particularly scenic spots.
The CA cuts through incredibly remote and mountainous territory, and a number of sections remain dependent on ferries. We joined almost at the furthest south and the plan was to go all the way to Villa O’ Higgins (by the way, named for Bernardo o’ Higgins, a half-Irish, half-Spanish guy who is seen as the liberator of Chile and was the first leader of independent Chile) and then turn round and ‘do’ the full Carretera Austral, supposed to be one of the most challenging and beautiful roadtrips in the world. And the section to Villa o’ Higgins, only completed in 2000, is the most remote part of this remote route.
We set off from Cochrane and (I know this is probably getting quite boring, but it’s true) the drive was spectacular, although this time the weather was a mixture of sometimes torrential rain (making the incredibly narrow tracks and sheer drops even more fun) and brilliant sunshine. We were rewarded with some fantastic rainbows. I lost count of how many waterfalls cascaded down the mountains by our side, and the vegetation looked almost tropical at times, and somewhat alpine at others.
Halfway we reached the ferry section, and waited in the heat of the little café (nescafe coffee and powdered milk…) for the boat to arrive. When it did, it disgorged four Argentinian bikers and a local couple who all piled into the café to warm up and dry their gloves. We exchanged stories and warnings about particular sections of road.
Backing the van onto the small ferry was somewhat nervewracking, as the guy in charge insisted I watch him rather than my mirrors. He knew what he was doing, but instinctively I wanted to look in my mirrors….. and kept getting shouted at in Spanish. Anyway, we got aboard without incident, and went up to the tiny cabin for the half hour crossing. A young American couple who had driven down from the States with their dog were also on board, as well as an Argentinian couple with a camper, and a couple of local families. The ferry is free as it is seen as simply part of the highway, and runs twice a day out of high season and four times a day in ‘summer’ (Nov-Mar).
The section after the ferry wound through steep sided mountains with dozens of waterfalls. The autumnal colours were more pronounced here (I guess we are heading into colder territory) and some of the reds and yellows on the mountainsides were really beautiful. Often, we’d go round a bend and gasp at the view, but I couldn’t stop on such steep and narrow roads. Not that it would really have mattered, there was very little traffic. We listened to a BBC podcast series, which seemed incongruous with its references to social media and various British scandals, as we meandered up and down the mountain trails. Patagonia is a great antidote for worries about Brexit, politics, corruption and the general parlous state of the world. I was too focussed staying on the road to worry about anything else.
The ‘road’ now was genuinely single track – this part of the Carretera Austral was only constructed in 2000 – and while there were few vehicles, it was always a shock when we met one. There are two ways of approaching this kind of track – go slowly and cautiously at all times, assuming you might meet someone round every bend (my approach), or go fast and assume there’s no one round the bend and take evasive action when necessary (locals). One reason for my caution is that the sides of the track fall away very steeply – sometimes down a mountain or into a lake, often simply a metre or so down the gravel – and with our top-heavy vehicle I don’t fancy our chances of staying upright in a quick swerve off the road. Quite often, the track was simply a line of gravel dumped on top of wetlands or up the side of a mountain.
We averaged about 40 km/hour, but eventually made it to Villa o Higgins, which seems a quiet little place, literally at the end of the road – a population of 600, supposedly, though I don’t know where they all are.