Days 33 to 37: The Carretera Austral from Villa O'Higgins to Cochrane
Running through Chilean Patagonia, the 1243 kilometre (775 miles) Carretera Austral is emerging as a leading off-the-beaten track destination, especially for outdoors enthusiasts. Conde Nest Travel Magazine dubs it “the world’s greatest roadtrip”, with similar praise from National Geographic Traveller. The gravel surface for much of it can be challenging, and sometimes has long sections of washboard. At times it felt like I was cycling while strapped to a jackhammer.
Part of the allure of the Carretera Austral lies in its relatively recent arrival. Construction only started in 1976, and it wasn’t open to the public until 1988 with some sections not completed until 2000. Before the road was built, most of the small towns and villages throughout this region of Chilean Patagonia existed in relative isolation from one another, as the local geography is characterized by steep terrain, thick forests, fjords, and glaciers. Travel between Chilean settlements by land was either via difficult horse tracks, or by leaving Chile to the east and entering Argentina, travelling north or south there and crossing back into Chile where necessary. Access by boat and plane also presented challenges due to highly changeable and unpredictable weather patterns, especially in winter.
The difficulties presented by poor internal transport links were exacerbated during the 1970s after a series of borders disputes and political spats between the governments of Chile and Argentina. In order to strengthen transportation infrastructure in their more remote territory, the military dictatorship of Chile, led by General Pinochet, undertook the construction of the Carretera Austral. More than 10,000 soldiers worked on it in conditions that have been described as not entirely dissimilar to prison labour, with around 30 soldiers losing their lives during the process.
Although the motivating factor behind the Carretera Austral was entirely political, it nevertheless has resulted in an iconic and lengthy road through mainly pristine and sparsely-populated surroundings. Despite being over 1,200 kilometres long, the total population of all the towns and villages the road connects is just over 100,000. It is this dynamic which lends a wild and remote ambience to the wider Carretera region.
There was also a watery interlude early on with no road, instead a big old clunky car ferry crosses the fjord 3 times per day.
The first 120km or so was utterly gut-busting, and gave us a serious introduction as to how tough the Carretera would be. We opted to take an out-and-back detour from the Carretera to visit a small fjord-side village called Caleta Tortel which was curiously built on rocky and uneven terrain with boardwalks in place of roads and footpaths.
We also took a 2-hour circular walk above the village with epic views out across both the village itself and the wider network of fjords, hills and islands.
After that we were on our way again and heading back to the Carretera Austral to pick up our general drift northwards again.
Eventually we rolled into the tiny town/local metropolis of Cochrane with a population of 4000. Small by most standards, however in terms of permanent population it was also the biggest place I'd been in for nearly 2 weeks which was kinda trippy given that I'd mainly been on the move during that entire time. 6km outside of Cochrane is a stunning nature reserve called Tamango, and I cycled out there to do a 7-hour hiking loop though the idyllic scenery (including a river which is officially a contender for clearest in the world) before returning to Cochrane for the evening. Very strange to be cycling with the pannier bags off the bike for the first time in ages, it was like power steering out of control, and I was all over the road initially!