A long day on the Carretera Austral – North from Coyhaique

One of the few times we could see anything but rain…… 

We left Coyhaique after filling up the car with fuel, the fridge with vegetables, and ourselves with pizza and cinnamon buns. We planned to stay the night in the Quelat national park, famous for its trek to a beautiful ‘hanging’ glacier. Not sure what a ‘hanging’ glacier is, but we were sure it’d be fun to find out.

The road remained tarmac for about 20 minutes, then we were back to our old friend the ripio. In actual fact, there is a tarmacked, slightly longer route, but undoubtedly quicker, but this would take us off the Ruta 7/Carretera Austral and we had vowed to drive every metre of this famous road.

Just because.

The area north of Coyhaique (what we could see of it amongst the dense rainclouds) was pretty but more developed than in the ‘deep south’. We saw farmhouses and fields with cows and sheep for a while, and I felt a little sad because it felt less remote, and I wondered if that would be it for ‘proper isolation’ on the CA. However, soon the mountains again closed in and we started winding up and down through deep valleys with steep sides of lush vegetation.

As we climbed up and up, I watched the outside temperature gauge drop from 8 degrees to 1, as the rain turned to hail and then to snow. The ripio gave way to slippery mud, which certainly made the steep descents interesting. There were regularly large rocks in the middle of the road, having detached themselves from the towering cliffs above. The wind was howling round the van, we were enclosed in clouds and being battered by rain/hail/snow slush, and even though it was barely mid-afternoon, it felt dark enough to be evening. There was nowhere safe to stop, visibility was minimal and I really started to worry about what would happen if the van let us down in some way. I could tell Lauren was also not enjoying this particular Ruta 7 challenge, from the deep silence emanating from behind me. Silence is rare in our household. She even talks in her sleep.

Eventually, after an exhausting and challenging drive, we made it to the park just before 5pm, having dropped down significantly in elevation and found some more (short lived) tarmac. Despite the miserable conditions, I was buoyed up to see the park ranger coming out of his little cabin. I love the national parks in Chile, they really do seem to want to make it as easy as possible for people to get out into the wonderful natural environment the country has to offer, and the rangers at the less well known parks seem positively delighted to have someone to talk to. So I was looking forward to a chat in his nice warm cabin, and a cosy campsite sheltered from the wind.


Friendly ranger jogged over to us, holding his jacket over his head against the rain, and told us that due to rock falls and an avalanche, the park had been closed until further notice for the public’s safety. No cosy chat, no nice campsite, hiking trails and ‘hanging glaciers’ for us. A look at the map told us there was nothing much within an hour – in fact google maps and mapsme both showed the Carretera Austral heading straight through a long fjord. The ranger told us that had been when the road was closed due to rock falls, and a boat had been required – the road was now open but he told me to be very careful given the weather, as there had been reports of serious rock falls and damage on that section of road.

I don’t really know what to make of warnings of rock falls, as its not like you can avoid a rock if it starts careering into your path. I’ve often thought that in the UK when you see a sign warning of possible rock falls, but here it felt a little less of a joke. The road is cut straight into the rock face, and you drive between the side of the mountain and the fjord. There are passing points, but elsewhere its impossible to squeeze past another vehicle. How was I supposed to “watch out for rock falls?”. I was so tired, but the ranger strongly recommended we not wildcamp in these weather conditions, so we set off for the hour drive to the tiny village of Puyuhuapi. It was pretty wild, and I was flagged down by one of the guys doing some work on the track to be told, again, to be careful of the rock falls. In fact, I realized they really meant watch out for rocks that have already fallen as the track was littered with them, and in the gloom, and against the backdrop of ripio, it was actually very difficult to make them out. There were some monsters.

We found a campsite (well, it said camping but it was just a family who let people stay in their backyard and jump on their wifi), and after I maneuvered the van into the extremely tight space, Lauren doing a sterling job of directing in the pouring rain, which had been joined by thunder and lightning, we jumped in the back, put the heating on full, and collapsed on the bed. Sometimes its nice having your bed with you wherever you go 😊

OMG Tarmac!!!!

The last two days were a bit of a culture shock.

Driving  from Rio Tranquilo, we came to the worst section of road so far. It wasn’t scary-twisty-windy-mountain-edgy-sheer-drops bad, like the extreme south down to Villa O’ Higgins, it was just bone-rattlingly bumpy, incessant washboard that was so uneven and irregular there was no way to ever get into a rhythm.

I tried speed – impossible, too likely to skid; I tried just ambling along at 30 km/hr – awful, just bumps and the lack of speed just meant the van went sideways as much as forwards. I swear at times it actually jumped sideways. I tried driving with one wheel on the edge – but the edge kept falling away. There was nothing to do but just take it. Hours of juddering, headache-inducing, arm-wrenching, up and down dusty mess. And when it rained, hours of juddering, headache-inducing, arm-wrenching up and down muddy mess.

At least the scenery was, as usual, stunning (I need more words for stunning/beautiful/lovely, suggestions in the comments please). The autumn colours were particularly evident around Cerro Castillo.





Then, just like that, when my arms were actually hurting from holding the wheel straight – we shuddered rounded a bend and hit tarmac.

I wasn’t prepared.

I wasn’t ready – it even had a yellow line down the middle and I couldn’t see a single pothole.

WTF? This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The feeling of relief mixed with resistance at such ease continued as we approached what turned out to be an actual ‘city’ (for Patagonia), Coyhaique. Population 50,000! How had I missed that?!

About 50 km out, we started passing farms – actual mechanized agriculture and houses. It was horrible! There were even flat bits. After all the nothingness and mountains, it suddenly felt like we were in Norfolk or something.

We found a campsite, and the next day, this feeling of slightly wide-eyed delight allied with unease continued – I had an actual latte made on a real coffee machine, rather than nescafe, with a cinnamon roll for breakfast. Lauren had French toast. With syrup! We went shopping and found green broccoli and red red peppers. We had pizza. (Yes, it was all about food). The ‘city’ had shops that went beyond basic necessities, and people with make up and smart clothes. I counted three pharmacies!

In the main square, there were buskers, guys passed out slumped on the floor, a (closed) tourist information office, free wifi and even a black woman! I felt like running up to her and hugging her, which i am sure she’d have found very strange bordering on racist. But cosmopolitan or what?! Mind you, the following sign reminded us that even in this thriving metropolis, and despite two weeks of driving north, we are still considered to be in the ‘deep south’ by Chilean standards. That’s a hell of a long way to go to Santiago…..

Quite a way to go, then……

It hasn’t really been that long, but we both were slightly conflicted and agreed to enjoy it all, stock up on vegetables, return for more latte and French toast tomorrow morning, then get the hell out of here and back to the Ruta 7.

Luckily, I hear the tarmac runs out again not far north.

My arms have almost recovered….

Bring it on.