Finally – Starting the Carretera Austral

Today was the day I’d been looking forward to for many months, and we’d been actively working towards for a couple of weeks. I wanted to do the whole of the Carretera Austral, and that meant working our way to its southern end, where we would start the 2200+km trip north to Santiago.

Technically the CA, or ruta 7, runs from Villa O Higgins in the south, to Puerto Montt in the north. That’s 1,240 Km of mainly unsealed, rural road, roughly running up and down through the Andes.

Despite starting our roadtrip south of the CA, there is the enormous southern ice field (basically, a big lump of ice, glaciers and mountains which are totally impassible) in between the very far south of Chile, where we collected the van, and the end of the CA. The rest of Chile is only accessible via Argentina (what we did) or by boat.

Anyway, here we were, fueled up, tyres checked, chains tightened (so we don’t lose the camper off the back of the truck on the mountain roads), extra diesel secured on the roof, supplies bought, odometer zeroed, devices charged, maps consulted, wildly differing electronic estimates of journey times consulted then ignored – as ready as we could be to get underway. Even though the first couple of hundred KM we’d be re-tracing our steps, this genuinely felt like the start of yet another adventure.

We waved goodbye to the various people we’d met and chatted to at the campsite, and left to a chorus of ‘good lucks’ and ‘see you on the road’ and ‘be careful on the bends’….. In our enormous 4 by 4 I felt a little bit of a fraud, as many of these guys were genuinely roughing it – some were even planning a 6 day walk through the mountains to Argentina, the only other way out of Villa O Higgins apart from the CA.

The weather was glorious and spirits were high as we set off.

I had promised to keep photo stops to a minimum, as the scenery is always stunning and you can never capture it properly on a camera, and we did have 1200+ KM to go, excluding the trip north after the CA to Santiago….. but just on the outskirts of the village is a beautiful lake, and I couldn’t help jumping out for a quick snap…..


Later on, we stopped for a quick drink – Lauren reveling in the idea of drinking pure mountain water….. I told her it probably didn’t have too much guanaco poo in it….


I had consulted the information I had for the ferry section, and though we’d arrive a couple of hours before the 4pm ferry – then we’d either wild camp or keep moving, depending on how tired I was. My memory of the journey down was of endless steep mountain trails, slippery in the rain, but we made much better progress on our return, mainly due to better weather conditions. I started to think we’d be super early, but no problem, we could park up and cook some lunch.

Around 12.15, we were overtaken by a fast moving truck – who almost lost control as he careered past us. Odd. There was no habitation between us and the ferry – and the ferry wasn’t until 4pm, right….?

It occurred to me to check, and sure enough, there was a 1pm ferry.


Could we make it?

I decided we’d try. This was Chile – if there’s a ferry scheduled for 1pm, it’ll go at 1pm precisely – but if they see us coming, they’ll wait. Chile seems to get the balance right between organization and friendliness.

For the next 45 minutes, I balanced speed with safety – it was impossible to go faster than about 50km/hr safely, but I kept doing the calculations of average speed and km to go in my head, and was convinced we could make it, if I could just keep the average up….. Lauren kept track of our location on the gps, and I took every bend as fast as I felt was safe…. Which wasn’t very fast…. About quarter to 1, we suddenly met a stream of cars moving fast – clearly coming from the inbound ferry and not expecting anything to be on the road, as you are supposed to arrive at the ferry 15 minutes before departure…. Everyone careered into the ditches and kept moving, while I just sat there letting them go. Once they’d passed, we saw a 7km mark, and I thought we could make it…. I kept pressing on, ready to slam on the brakes should we come across a dawdler … we passed 7km, no ferry … 8km, still no ferry…. No time to stop and check the gps, anyway what good would that do, its not like there are multiple roads…..  at 8.5km the ferry came into view – but could they see us? It was now 5 to, or 3 to or 1 to depending on whether we believed the car clock, my watch or my phone….. I kept pressing on, round and round the muddy bends by the side of the lake, lauren telling me every minute what time each device thought it was (I bit my tongue).

We raced to the edge of the river at one minute to by my phone, which turned out to be the most accurate.  The same guy who’d been working a couple of days before on our outward journey was working and was laughing heartily as I spun the vehicle round and started reversing without taking breath…. They had to bring the boat closer to shore to make the angle of the ramp shallower, then we were on, no messing, and before I even turned the engine off we were a good few metres from the shore.

It was an unexpectedly stressful moment on the CA – but really not that stressful, because if we hadn’t made it we’d have just cooked lunch and played Uno til 4.

I love not having a real schedule 😊 .

Villa O’ Higgins


Villa O’ Higgins is a small cluster of single story wooden houses, organized into 4 blocks across and 7 down, huddling below imposing mountains that almost completely circle the village. After the long trek south, we were happy to spend a day in the warmth of the campsite kitchen, swapping stories, charging our multiple devices, and drinking mint tea. Well, I say that, but Lauren spent most of the day out in the freezing cold, playing with her sticks and her new found canine friend (yes, after being assured he had had all his vaccinations…..).


There was an interesting bunch of fellow campers – researchers for an American conservation NGO, backpackers, hardened cyclists ‘doing’ the CA, and overlanders getting close to the end of a 2-year trip down the americas. This was no ‘gringo trail’ bunch – people who make it down here need to have some perseverance and grit. Mind you, we’d done it the easy way – there are a hardened bunch of cyclists who are totally hard core and I have huge respect for them – we pass them occasionally toiling up a hill in the rain or struggling down a steep incline, covered in the dust thrown up by other vehicles – they camp out in the cold, windy patagonian nights, and are just basically super hard core. I keep wanting to stop, usher them in out of the cold, give them cups of tea and offer to give them a lift for the next few hundred miles…..

We did venture out into ‘town’ – it seemed deserted; the ‘supermarket’ was in someone’s house, the tourist information booth was manned by a young lad of about 16 who didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t give us any information about anything, and the only café we saw was closed. The grand ‘plaza de armas’ – main square – was deserted every time we passed through – I got the impression the state had built it, and the community centre and library (lovely wooden structures) to compensate for people living in such a remote place.

The church and the town museum…..
The bustling, busy main square…….

One imposing building was the library, where we went hoping for decent internet. Entirely built out of wood, heated, well stocked and welcoming, we lingered for a while chatting with the librarian, who had her three kids with her – but alas, our search for internet good enough to upload even one photo was frustrated. The librarian told us the only decent internet was at the school, so suggested I take my laptop, sit outside the school and connect – she got the password off her son, but I couldn’t get it to work, and frankly, I wasn’t bothered enough about updating this blog to sit in the just-above-freezing cold to do so.

Over breakfast one day, we got talking to an American guy who was part of a team of environmental researchers working for an American NGO on conservation in a number of countries, including Chile. Their focus in Patagonian Chile is on Huemels, a rare deer whose numbers seem to have been declining. They had been carrying out a baseline on the huemel population in various areas around the southern ice field – all only accessible by boat – and invited us to join them at a meeting in the community centre later that day to present their findings. We had a long conversation about conservation and community involvement in such efforts – I had been tangentially involved in similar work in Mozambique in the past – and it was fascinating to hear what they had been up to, and to note the parallels and similar challenges despite being a totally different context.

We duly turned up at the community meeting, doubling the audience, and enjoyed the presentation and in particular the drone footage of the area. They had put together a virtual reality programme of the local glacier and surroundings, which they gave to Lauren, who wandered around quite un-self-consciously ‘exploring’ the glacier in her headset.

Lauren is actually out on the glacier……

Over chocolate biscuits and mate we discussed community participation and what could be done – I felt a bit of a fraud, but only two members of the community actually turned up – and I think it was good for Lauren to be exposed to such discussions and to meet people actually working on conservation, as she has in the past expressed interest in following a career in this area. The Americans and their Chilean counterpart were clearly very dedicated, and tough, as well as having a scientific background to support their work, and I wish them luck as they face familiar challenges of institutional coordination among government bodies, community and NGOs, the impact of increasing accessibility as the road will eventually be upgraded, the need for remote communities to supplement diet and income with hunting….

It was an unexpectedly interesting discussion at the end of the road, and made our trip to Villa O Higgins worthwhile in itself, instead of being just a starting point for our ‘real’ start of the Carretera Austral.

Cochrane and the Deep South

The ferry that took us across the section of the Carretera Austral that doesn’t have roads. 

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.