trip report: Patagonia, January 2019 – part 3: Ruta 40 & driving the Carretera Austral

My current struggle in life is the constant feel of needing to optimize my time. It’s the feeling that I need to be productive whenever possible, but I don’t think I am actually any more than before in the overall scheme of things. Maybe I started to feel this way because of the combination of how easy I can waste a day and just the never ending to do lists. Whatever the reason, it makes it very difficult to relax as anything nonproductive comes with a feel of regret in the end. This specific struggle carries over into the realm of traveling as well when it comes to unplanned and free form travel. It is hard not to feel the need to do something at every minute. But at the same time, unplanned free form travel is the cure as you don’t have anywhere to be but to relax and immerse yourself in the beauty out there. There is no place better for me to relearn that than the remote regions in Chile on the Carretera Austral.

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carefree zone

In the spirit of free form travel, the hikes and activities we throughout the rest of our trip wasn’t really in any organizable order. This is due to a few travel restrictions and situational parameters that are explained in the post. So this part of the trip report will cover our decisions as we went, the specific route that we took, and our driving experiences on the Carretera Austral. Subsequent sections will delve into the different hikes and major activities that I will mention in this overview of our trip.

We pick up this trip report the day after our Huemul Circuit hike (see part 2 of this series). This is part 3 of my Patagonia and Carretera Austral trip report series. You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.

index

1 planning & research
2 trip report: getting in & Huemul Circuit return
3 trip report: Ruta 40 & driving on the Carretera Austral
      3.1 El Chaltén zero & planning
      3.2 El Chaltén to San Carlos de Bariloche via Ruta 40
      3.3 San Carlos de Bariloche to Puerto Montt
      3.4 Puerto Montt zero
      3.5 Puerto Montt to Hornopirén
      3.6 Hornopirén to Chaitén
      3.7 Chaitén to Coyhaique
      3.8 Coyhaique to Puerto Río Tranquilo
      3.9 Puerto Río Tranquilo to wild camp by Río Murta
      3.10 wild camp by Río Murta to Cerro Castillo to Coyhaique
      3.11 Coyhaique to wild camp by Río Quelat
      3.12 wild camp by Río Quelat to Ventisquero Colgante to Futaleufú
      3.13 Futaleufú
      3.14 Futaleufú to Chaitén
      3.15 Parque Pumalín & Volcán Michinmahuida
      3.16 Pumalín National Park zero
      3.17 Pumalín National Park & Ventisquero El Amarillo
      3.18 Chaitén to Puerto Montt
      3.19 Puerto Montt to San Carlos de Bariloche
      3.20 Carretera Austral impressions
4 trip report: Marble Cave on General Carrera Lake & Glaciar Exploradores
5 trip report: Cerro Castillo
6 trip report: Queulat National Park & Ventisquero Colgante
7 trip report: Futaleafú
8 trip report: Pumalín National Park
9 trip report: getting out via Mexico City
10 final impressions & budget

day 1: El Chaltén zero & planning

  • estimated distance traveled: 2-3 miles
  • mode(s) of transportation: foot
  • activities: planning & walking around town
  • housing: overnight bus

We woke up the day after our Huemul Circuit hike to gusting winds and rain battering the windows of our small private room at the popular hostel Rancho Grande (trip advisor). Our task during breakfast was to figure out the next step of our trip. The characteristically bad weather in the forecast for the next few days in the El Chaltén region made some of my ideas less tenable.

Specifically, continuing north from El Chaltén and crossing into Chile connecting to the southern terminal of the Carretera Austral by foot (see description by Stingy Nomad) would be quiet miserable under the current conditions. So would the some of hiking options in the area such as O’Higgins and El Chico Glacier (Stingy Nomad), Laguna del Diablo (wikiloc), Cerro Eléctrico (wikiloc), and Glaciar Marconi (wikiloc).

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Possible hikes to visit Glaciar O’Higgins and El Chico Glacier at the Chile-Argentine border.

A second aspect that plays into our consideration was the high housing cost we’d have to spend on for staying in town. Of course it doesn’t help that it was middle of high season and bad weather meant more people would be staying in town.

The main reason we decided to leave El Chaltén was because I didn’t want to sit around and being inefficient with our travel time. We spent the rest of the rainy day at the local cafe slogging through car rental and booking websites, blogs, and doing some excel work. It also helped that our friends we met on the Huemul Circuit was also weathering the crappy day there so we had them to bounce ideas off of.

The final decision was that we would try to make our way to the northern end of the Carretera Austral and start exploring the road from there. This was decided after tabulating all the costs up finding that a car rental was the cheapest in Chile out of Puerto Montt, about USD$688.52. It was also an full size SUV capable of serving as a shelter for us to help justifying the cost. As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, the rental car provided the most freedom for us to explore the Carretera most efficiently. This was especially true since we don’t speak spanish.

The cheapest way to reach Puerto Montt was by busing roughly 24 hours from El Chaltén via Ruta 40 to San Carlos de Bariloche and then over the border on a separate ticket to Puerto Montt. Since we stayed at Rancho Grande (trip advisor) the previous night, they offered a 10% on 2 tickets on the overnight bus to San Carlos de Bariloche for USD$181 (USD$90.50 each). The overnight bus actually saved us a night of housing costs. Time wise, planes weren’t so efficient either as flights from Argentina Patagonia towns need to route through Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile to reach Chilean Patagonia towns.

My last logistical tasks involved booking a couple nights of housing. The first was a night stay in San Carlos de Bariloche at Kospi Boutique Guesthouse (trip advisor) since we would have a overnight between our buses. The second was for our first night in Puerto Montt at an airbnb, which we decided on for the ability to wash our cloth and full kitchen to cook.

So it would be a lot of traveling over the next couple of days for the sake of efficiency of time use. I’m not sure afterwards that it wouldn’t have just been fine if we relaxed at the wine bar to weather the storm and going on from there. Anyways, I’ll get to the lesson of the trip later on.

After dinner, we bought some empanadas, snacks, and water for our long bus ride and headed to the bus station.

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Upon boarding, we were given a packaged meal with an quiche main course, a juice box, a cookie, and a bottle of water. We saved the meal for our breakfast. We left El Chaltén on a full bus just before our bed time around 9:15 pm to begin our trip up Ruta 40.

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Last minute tickets means back of the bus near the bathroom. The positive was that at least it didn’t smell, but people passing by through the night can be bothersome if you are a light sleeper.

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day 2: El Chaltén to San Carlos de Bariloche via Ruta 40

  • estimated distance traveled: 957 mi / 1540 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: long distance buses, foot
  • activities: traveling – bus sitting, sleeping
  • housing: hostel/hotel in San Carlos de Bariloche

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Ruta 40 is the symbolic Argentinian highway that stretches all the way across the country from north to south. It is a popular highway for many travelers and hitchhikers.

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Even though the mysticism of Ruta 40 is well popularized and often brought up as a comparison to the Chilean Carretera Austral, the only true similarity between the two routes is that both parallel the Andes. The portion of Ruta 40 that we traveled through was mostly a barren landscape. I’m being over critical here, but it’s hard to enjoy a bus ride without much to look at.

The bus wasn’t necessarily the smoothest ride overnight. We passed sections of Ruta 40 that was still unpaved and bumpy sections and made stops at towns along the way. At least we had nowhere to be and the fatigue will eventually push sleep on you.

Just as you finally fallen sound asleep at 6:50 am, the bus arrives in Los Antiguos and everyone is woken to switch buses. For some, this was their destination on Lago General Carrera and most likely to cross into Chile at Chile Chico (michaelkowalczyk.eu). We made sure to use the bathroom before boarding the bus again at 7:15am. We were given another meal with the same food before we hit the road again. I was out cold much quicker on this bus.

It was around noon before I finally woke up as the bus took a pit stop at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The gas station had meals, coffee, and snacks for purchase and we stayed there for about 25 minutes before hitting the road again. I honestly don’t remember what I spent my time doing for the next 4 hours until we reached the town of El Bolsón (wikitravel), the bohemian hippy town of the Argentinian Patagonia. It was the destination for more than half of the travelers on the bus. After dropping passengers off in El Bolsón, the bus took another 20 minute break at a local gas station. The last couple hours of our ride finally justified the huge windows on the side of the bus as we started to head back into the mountains

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now that’s what I came to see

I wasn’t the only one to perk up at finally having something interesting to see out my window.

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“ooo, I could definitely use a dip into that river to wash off this 24 hour bus stench,” thinks everyone on the bus.

It was very clear on the drive in why city of San Carlos de Bariloche (wikitravel; Bariloche for short) is the outdoor central of the region with plenty of hikes among the lakes and peaks (trekbariloche.com).

For us, the region around El Bolsón and Bariloche would have to wait until our next trip back to Patagonia as next destination was our rental car in Puerto Montt in Chile. We would have a night in Bariloche once our long bus ride finally ended around 7:30pm in the middle of town. Our housing for the night was Kospi Boutique Guesthouse (tripadvisor) halfway between downtown and the Bariloche bus station.

We stretched our legs out while making the mile walk from downtown Bariloche toward our hotel. It was a nice walk that took us through the middle of the built up town. Other tourists would refer to Bariloche as European feeling. I think that fits the description of the town center in that there are plenty of posh shopping, bars, and restaurants built up to represent the historic town feels of European mountain towns and to attract tourist dollars. I am not call the feel prefabricated as I didn’t spend enough time there to know, but it was just the surface impression I got.

Once you are out of the town center, the housing and more similar to what we’d seen in South America consisting of more modern block concrete buildings. That’s not to say it wasn’t interesting as there was also plenty of cool graffiti.

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spirit animal

We reached the hostel like hotel and were very happy to have a real bed to sleep in for the night.

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day 3: San Carlos de Bariloche to Puerto Montt

  • estimated distance traveled: 218 mi / 351 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: foot, long distance buses, uber
  • activities: traveling, grocery shopping
  • housing: airbnb in Puerto Montt

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In South America, there are many different bus vendors and it might be difficult to find the right one to get to your destination. Previously, we would roll up at the bus station and ask around the different vendors until they pointed us to the correct one. However, bus online travel agencies are starting to be more prevalent and fellow travelers recommend busbud.com to book ahead.

Our bus from Bariloche to Puerto Montt was at 12:30pm so we took our time in the morning and walked over to the bus station after our checkout at 10am. It was very crowded at the bus station with locals and tourists alike trying to find any space they can as they wait for the bus. We decided to frequent the little restaurant cafe for a light lunch where there were places to sit for customers.

The bus was slightly late and that was the closest it was to the schedule for the rest of the day. The route curves around the scenic Lago Nahuel Huapi, but the best views were on the left side of the bus and we were on the right. We didn’t mind since the views were muted with the on and off rain throughout the rest of the day. The bus made a few stops included about an hour at the border crossing and another long delay due to road construction.

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Lago Puyehue welcomes us to Chile.

It was about 2 hours after our schedule arrival time did we pull into the busy city center of Puerto Montt. I decided to check the rideshare apps out of curiosity and found that Uber was cheap in Puerto Montt. We opted for a quick USD$2 ride covering the 1.4 miles to our airbnb rather than spending a half hour walking since we got in so late.

We met our Airbnb host Felipe in the lobby of the apartment complex and we given a tour of the place. We then headed to the local supermarket to get dinner and load up on food for our travel on the Carretera Austral and other car camping supplies we thought we’d need.

It was very late by the time we ate dinner and hung our washed clothes to dry overnight. We fell asleep once again to the rain coming down outside.

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day 4: Puerto Montt zero

  • estimated distance traveled: 1 mi / 1.6 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: foot
  • activities: grocery shopping, cooking, drinking, relaxing, Netflix
  • housing: airbnb in Puerto Montt

The weather turned out to be nasty once again as we woke up in the morning. On top of that, our cloth weren’t completely dry yet since we didn’t get around to laundry until late the previous night. We were still pretty beat from our long bus rides over the past couple of days. Logistically, I saw that the airbnb was still available for another night, so we were able to contact Felip and extend our stay. I was also able to push back our rental car reservation by a day and lower the overall cost of the rental.

Despite my inclination to be as efficient as possible, sometimes the weather gods and fatigue will force you to realized that a zero day is needed. We were still able to enjoy the local flavors in our own way. Puerto Montt is the Salmon capital of Chile, so we thought it was appropriate to enjoy some. During a break in the rain, we walked back to the supermarket and put together a menu of salmon, steak, and Chilean Carménère wine for the day.

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day 5: Puerto Montt to Hornopirén

  • estimated distance traveled: 75 mi / 121 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: uber, car, foot, ferry
  • activities: pickup rental car, drive to Hornopirén, explore Hornopirén
  • housing: car camp at the docks in Hornopirén

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After a restful zero day, we were ready to hit the road. Blue skies was a welcome sight as well. Our first task of the day was to pick up our rental car from Budget, so we took a Uber there after checking out of our airbnb.

Our rental was a Chevrolet Captiva SUV for 14 days at a cost of USD$688.52. It wasn’t the cheapest of rentals, but it was last minute and we required an automatic transmission. We also went with the international rental company, which appeared to be less of a hassle regarding insurance covering the rental, which I had through my credit card (upgradepoints article about it though it doesn’t include U.S. Bank Altitude card that I used), and liability, which I assumed my insurance from home might have still covered.

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our mobile home for the next 2 weeks

Lastly, I wanted to inquire about the possibility of taking the rental across the border in Argentina so we can have more flexibility. But, they weren’t able to get us the paper work since it was last minute, but it might have been possible otherwise with more time and an additional fee (worldly adventurer & lonelyplanet thorntree). The reaminfication of of this meant we would have to remain fully in Chile. It would also mean that our drive would mostly involve an in and out on the Carretera Austral, that is we would have come drive back as far as we would drive in. The benefit of an in and out was that we can skip things on the way in if the weather was bad and hit it on the way out. This was the reason that I alluded to in the introduction for our hikes and activities not in any organizable order.

We didn’t have far to go on the first day and were pretty much limited by a major ferry crossing at the town of Hornopirén that would take us to Caleta Gonzalo. Looking on the Transportes Austral’s website, the earliest ferry we could take was the following morning so that was the option we booked. More on the ferry later on, we just had to get to Hornopirén on this day.

The Carretera Austral, or Ruta 7, leaves downtown Puerto Montt directly and the initial stretch was on a well paved road mostly along the coast. We could see little islands mixed in with fishing boats as we drove.

After a couple hours on the road, we came to the short ferry crossing for this day from La Arena to Puelche run by Transportes del Estuario. There is no reservation for this ferry as it runs every 15-30 minutes. The wait for the ferry will most likely take longer than the ferry ride itself.

While on the ferry, we met a hitchhiking European couple looking for a ride to Hornopirén. They were friendly and spoke english, so we were happy to give them a lift. They were good company as the next section of the Carretera Austral wasn’t so interesting with lots of construction working on the first gravel section we would encounter.

Once we reached Hornopirén, our new friends left us to find housing while we checked in with Transportes Austral to verify our ferry tickets for the next day.

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Afterwards we met up with our new hitchhiking friends to explore the picturesque town of Hornopirén starting from town center and following the path up around Río Negro.

We returned to a food court full of local vendors for dinner.

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Plenty of seafood around at the local food court.

Meg was starting to feel a bit of a sore throat from a possible sinus infection through the day, so we said goodbye to our friends after dinner. We stopped by the local pharmacy for some cough drops before looking for a place to park our car for the night. We ended up back at the docks. There was even wireless reception here unexpectedly.

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We were told to line up early for the boat, so we figured we’d just park where the line started. It the first of many amazing sunsets as we turned in early for the night.

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day 6: Hornopirén to Chaitén

  • estimated distance traveled: 102 mi / 164 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: ferry, car, foot
  • activities: ferry from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, hike Sendero Volcan Chaitén
  • housing: room at Hostel Casa Indömita near Chaitén

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We woke up next morning already in the line for the ferry. It was a very cold night as we bundled in our winter sleeping bags making it difficult to get up. Meg took the dramamine in anticipation for the boat ride, though it might have been too late already. We boarded the ferry early in the morning for a long 5-6 hour boat ride.

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the slow process of loading up the boat

Transportes Austral is the main ferry operator for the crossing from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo and their boats can be booked up a couple days in advance for cars. Early booking is recommended as they only run the ferry twice a day. There are plenty of spaces for bikers and people. If their schedule doesn’t work for you, there are a couple alternatives. The first is the Somarco ferry that travels the old ferry route from Hornopirén to Leptepu, a short 15 minute drive to Fiordo Largo, and finally a second ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. The other options is the more interesting ferries through Naviera Austral. They run ferries directly from Puerto Montt and Quellón on the Chiloé Peninsula to Chaitén. We actually tried for this last option to return to Chiloé on the way back from Chaitén, but there wasn’t any availability left the days we had.

Meg wasn’t feeling great again, so she spend majority of the ferry ride laying out on one of the many empty seats. I walked around the boat to get a view of the many snow capped mountains around. Heading southbound, the best views were at the back of the boat in the eastern direction.

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I was happy to finally disembark the boat around 2pm. Caleta Gonzalo is the beginning of the road accessible portion of Parque Pumalín, one of the first conservation projects by North Face founder Douglas Tompkins. A detailed description of our hikes in Parque Pumalín can be found in part 8 (coming soon) of this series.

There are several hikes in this section of the park. Meg said she still wasn’t feeling great, but good enough for us to do a short hike. She was willing to tough it out since we hadn’t done anything active for a few days. So we headed for the most popular hike in the park, Volcán Chaitén (Parque Pumalin).

The hike was short but a continuous climb through brush then burn from the 2008 eruption. The view at the top into the cone with teal ponds and smoldering inner cone surrounded by dead bent trees was quite the sight (see part 8 of this series for details – coming soon)

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While the hike was indeed beautiful, it was also the beginning to a trying end of the day. Meg was felt ok through majority of the hike, but started to deteriorate near the end. As we rushed toward town, she ended up puking on the side of the road. We made the call at this point to get a room for the night. Once we reached the town of Chaitén and had internet reception,

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we found a cheap and decent place just outskirts of town at Hostel Casa Indömita (agoda, iOverlander). Unfortunately being in a hasty state, I drove past it on the backwoods dirt road the hostel was on and ended up down a hill at the beach. When I tried to drive back up, I found the ash and sand mix that made the ramp didn’t agree with my front wheel drive SUV and I was stuck. After a struggling in futility only to get the car stuck more, brief moment of pure panic rushing over me. I took a few deep breath and decided to go for help.

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Tow service wouldn’t be something easily accessible out here, but fortunately, the owner of the hostel was very friendly and resourceful. With a towing rope, another piece of scrap boating rope he found on the beach, his 4×4 truck, and me doing my best to spin my wheels, we were able to get my car out after an hour.

Meg was able to her hot shower and crashed soon after. I returned to the beach on foot and witness another wonderful sunset on a beach all to myself.

I returned to the hostel on a high note of another gorgeous sunset. We would have to return to the hostel on the way back so Meg can enjoy the view once she felt better.

Little did I know at the time, there was a final blow on this day waiting for me as my SD card in my Sony a6000 had malfunctioned and subsequently ate up all the pictures I took from this day. You might have noticed earlier that there was no summit picture of Volcán Chaitén, so the hike report found in part 8 (coming soon) will involve some imagination or you can check out the write up from Rick of Best Hike who visited shortly after we did.

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day 7: Chaitén to Coyhaique

  • estimated distance traveled: 239 mi / 385 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car
  • activities: a lot of driving, changing a tire and getting muddy
  • housing: room at Apart Francisco Bilbao in Coyhaique

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It was another rainy day when we woke up. With Meg still not feeling great, we decided to play it by ear and just use the day to drive south as far as we can. The end goal was the major city in the middle of the Carretera Austral, Coyhaique. The decision turned out to be a mostly good choice.

We filled up on gas in Chaitén and stopped by the local store to buy some medicine for Meg before hitting the road. Chaitén was recently rebuilt with great infrastructure after major flooding and ash fallout from the 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén (wikipedia, youtube). We would return on the way back, but we continued on south for now on the Carretera Austral.

The road out of Chaitén was a well paved road curving through the valley between looming mountains with the low cloud cover making them seem ever more mystical. This would the consistent theme throughout our drive today. We first passed the entrance to the southern El Amarillo portion of Parque Pumalín, which we’d return to on our way back. Then we reached a large one lane suspension bridge call Puente Yelcho over the Yelcho River draining the large Lago Yelcho.

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The drives continues around Lago Yelcho before continuing through forests and pastures. Just before we reached the small town of Villa Santa Lucía, the road turns into a rough dirt road.  This was because of the a devastating landslide that took out half of the town in December 2017 (Youtube, World News) that left 21 dead caused by a glacier detachment from heavy rains. A year later, the road is in the process of being fixed up, but the town have yet to recover with a major portion of it still under the mud with destroyed houses sticking out of it.

At Villa Santa Lucía, the road 235 branches off the Carretera Austral allowing for a side trip to Futaleufú. It also provides a couple different routes to connect into Argentina as well. We would return to this on our way back, but for now we continued on through the rain.

The next portion of the drive was paved and started to follow along Río Frío that combines with Río Palena near the Los Largos and the Aysén Region border. You don’t really see much from the road until you cross it just before the town of La Junta.

Afterwards, the road becomes gravel again around Lago Risopatron on a ledge about the lake before alternating back to paved around Puyuhuapi and then back to gravel afterwards when the road started to curve around the bay/fjord. The road becomes paved again as it enters Parque Nacional Queulat (CONAF) and the entrance to the Ventisquero Colgante hikes. We’d return for the hike later as it was pouring by the time we drove through.

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The road curved back around to the bay/fjord know as Canal Puyuhuapi and there were several outlooks you can pull over at. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of dolphins chilling here.

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The next portion of road becomes a bit rough as we return to gravel road before a switchbacking climb into the heavy clouds.

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At the top of the climb, I can see why these guys are waiting for a better day to head down hill.

There is another possible hike near the top of the pass call Bosque Encantado (wikiexplora), but was closed when we visited and still currently due to a landslide (CONAF). We actually drove right by it on this day without knowing it was there and only looked into it on the way back.

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After a curvy downhill, we were finally back on paved grounds at the junction with X-25 leading to Puerto Cisnes. We continued on the Carretera Austral as it followed the deep green Río Cisnes. There are a few viewpoints along along the way with overlooks at the river. With a break in the rain, these were welcomed breaks after a tough drive through Parque Nacional Queulat.

The Carretera Austral then crosses Río Cisnes and gains some elevation with a nice overview of the drainage.

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The continues down the other side of the pass into a valley with granite mountains all around. The road first passes Laguna de las Torres before continuing down to the valley into Villa Mañihuales. The rain had started up again and the the low clouds continue to make for a mystical scene.

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After Villa Mañihuales, we came to a crossroads. The official Carretera Austral heads back into the mountains to the left on a gravel road. Meanwhile, there is a new paved road X-50 built that is longer curving out to Puerto Aysén before connecting with the Carretera Austral before Coyhaique. The time difference would be similar, but the questions were “did we have enough of gravel road?” and “how officially did we want to stick with the Carretera Austral?”

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the crossroad of paved vs official

We thought why not, might as well complete this now since we’ll take the other way on the way back. And we were reward right away with some scenic crossing of Río Emperador Guillermo on a old looking wooden bridge and views up the drainage.

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Then further along, we drove through fields of lupines.

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This is where our bad luck caught up with us. First was the construction that delayed us for about an hour.

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tire popping in real time

Then just as we started moving again, I feel my steering wheel pull to the right. I must have stopped on some sharp rocks or debris, because my right tire popped. I knew the tires weren’t looking the best to begin with and should have discussed it when the rental company, but lesson learned. So we ended up in the construction zone changing our tire in the mud. At least the rain took a break for us to change the tire.

We should have taken the paved road. At this point, we weren’t in the best of moods having had a couple tough hurdles thrown our way the last couple of days. I was covered in mud at this point. And Meg was still feeling a bit sick. One thing I’ve learn while traveling is that despite trying to be as frugal most of the time, the best way to make problems go away is to just throw money at it.

The city in front of us was the largest on the Carretera Austral, Coyhaique. Here we booked a homestay like place in the back of a sushi restaurant with plenty of hot water, powerful heater, and a comfortable bed. I would have to wait til the next day to solve the tire issue, but at least we are in a large enough place that I can find a solution. After washing our muddy cloth in the shower and eating dinner, it was time to call it a day.

It was a day that was very scenic despite the rain, illness, and car problems. Going over it in my head, perhaps majority of the problems we been encounters was because I was pushing us too much to be efficient with our time traveling. Over the last few days we have covered a lot of ground with one zero day just to avoid the bad weather in El Chalten. It is too late at this point to do anything about what has happened but move on. All of the issues did help in adjusting my attitude on the trip. The main thing is the realization that its ok to just relax and enjoy the ride without worrying about being efficient at all moments. It has been such a long time since we had a completely free-form trip that it took a week or so before I relearned that lesson. 

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day 8: Coyhaique to Puerto Río Tranquilo

  • estimated distance traveled: 137 mi / 221 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, boat
  • activities: throwing $ to solve a problem, driving, visiting the Marble Caves
  • housing: wild car camping overlooking Lago Gral Carrera

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After a restful night of sleep, Meg was starting to feel better. So we just had to solve the other problem before continuing on, which involved throwing money at it until it when away. The problem was finding a replacement tire for the car. I had read that the roads south of Coyhaique was worse and mostly gravel, so I would like to have a spare especially with our experience so far. Since there wasn’t an Avis or Budget shop in the area, we were on our own. We had to check with a few different auto and tire shops before we found one that had a tire that fit and USD$200 was the amount I threw at them to make my problems go away. We stopped by the local store and bakery and were on the road around 11am under blue skies.

The immediate section of the Carretera Austral out of town was through a large prairie until the town of El Blanco. Then the Carretera Austral turns away from the plain at a junction back into the mountains entering Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo (CONAF, parquenacionalcerrocastillo.cl). Here, there are the opportunities to do a multi-day or day hike to Cerro Castillo. We would make that decision on the way back since it was midway through the afternoon by the time we arrived.

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So that’s what mountains look like without clouds and rain.

Just before we reached Villa Cerro Castillo, we came to a perfect overlook of the valley and the Carretera Austral winding through it.

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Meg’s nemesis on roadtrips

After the town, we ran into more construction and last bit of newly paved road we’d see heading south. The view of the Cerro Castillo range from the road itself made up look forward making the hike on our way back.

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goodbye paved roads

After going over the half paved pass, the gravel road drops down to the valley following Río Ibáñez. These were some of the worst roads we’d driven even though it was through a beautiful valley. The increased traffic and terrible roads made it difficult to stop and take pictures so we continued on. Then the Carretera Austral turns away into another forest valley and pass before dropping down next to Río Murta.

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The road continued to follow Río Murta as it drains into Lago Gral Carrera.

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Our destination for the day would be somewhere here around Lago Gral Carrera. We continued to follow the lake until we reached the town of Puerto Río Tranquilo. A major tour site here are the Marble Caves. There are a couple options of visiting them, kayaking or boat tour. The last boat tour of the day at the Explorasur Excursiones on the edge of the town was leaving at 5:30pm. Since we arrived just in time for it, we just decided to go with the boat option. We were glad to have gone with the boat tour as the waves of Lago Gral Carrera were no joke, though the Marble Caves were more sheltered. A more indepth look at the excursion can be found in part 4 of this series (coming soon).

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way to ruin the picture you gooftyball

We were plenty hungry after our boat ride so we ended up at Cerveza Arisca (tripadvisor) to splurge on a meal out. The place was pretty expensive for what it was, but we enjoyed the thin crust pizza and appetizer plate of truffles, salmon, and cheese.

After dinner, we backtracked to a pullout spot on the Carretera Austral overlooking Lago Gral Carrera I remembered coming in. It was the perfect wild car camping spot.

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home for the night

When the sun started to set, I thought the view was amazing. But it just got crazier and crazier going from orange to pink to purple, becoming one of my favorite sunsets ever, not just on the Carretera Austral. I understand why the Tompkins chose this place to call home with the whole world available to them.

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day 9: Puerto Río Tranquilo to wild camp by Río Murta

  • estimated distance traveled: 98 mi / 158 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: foot, car, tour shuttle and boat
  • activities: glacier hike on Glaciar Exploradores, drive
  • housing: wild car camping by Río Murta

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We woke up to another perfect day on the Carretera Austral.

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Prior to turning in for the night, we decided on plans with Explorasur Excursiones to for a glacier walk on Glaciar Exploradores for the day. It wasn’t a cheap affair at USD$233.87 for 2 people turning away many budget travelers out there, but these are the things I’m ok splurging on. I did not regret it one bit. 

The tour took us toward the glacier over dirt roads and a pond that washed out the former road to reach the trailhead. The guides were well prepared to lead and instruct us on crampon and glacier walking techniques. The hike took us over the moraine at the foot of the glacier and Glaciar Exploradores. While the pace of being in a tour group was slow, it was a wonderful day (See part 4 of this series for in depth details, coming soon).

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that’s some large ice

We were famished by the end of our tour so we celebrated a perfect day again at Cerveza Arisca (tripadvisor).

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At this point, we made decision that this was the furthest South we would travel on the Carretera Austral. This was so we can put the lessons I relearned to practice. We had driven by so many places and hikes on the way down, that we wanted to take our time and enjoy the drive back without the feel of trying to do everything. While there is also plenty to see south of Puerto Río Tranquilo, it would have to wait til next time. Ideas that I will discuss in my final impressions.

After our decision, we spent some time walking along the beach at Puerto Río Tranquilo and enjoying the nice evening.

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Our lodging for the night would involve finding another wild car camping spot along the Carretera Austral. So we started the drive back north until we found a good on the banks of Río Murta.

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day 10: wild camp by Río Murta to Cerro Castillo to Coyhaique

  • estimated distance traveled: 102 mi / 164 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: foot, car
  • activities: drive, hike Cerro Castillo, laundry
  • housing: homestay hostal baquedano in Coyhaique

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Our goal for the day was to visit Laguna Cerro Castillo. We talked about 4 day and 3 night backpacking options here, but decided to go with just a day hike. The main issue with the backpacking option was that it was a point to point hike requiring a shuttle or hitchhiking (see part 5 for details, coming soon), so it was more effort than we wanted to put in.

We hit the road early on the day around 6:30 am waking up with the sunrise.

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Our drive took up back into the Río Ibáñez valley and this time, we were able to pull over at a scenic overlook for capture a nice shot of the valley.

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There was a pretty standard setup for day hikers just outside of Villa Cerro Castillo and the hike itself did not disappoint. The exposed hike provides views all the way up of the valley and then as you hike over the pass, Cerro Castillo and it’s pristine blue lake welcomes you (for more details see part 5 of this series, coming soon).

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After the hike, we headed back on the road toward Coyhaique. After 2 nights in the car, we decided to get a real bed for the night. We book a night a homestay hostal baquedano (bookings.com) which included a washer for us to do laundry and a kitchen for us to make breakfast and dinner.

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day 11: Coyhaique to wild camp by Río Quelat

  • estimated distance traveled: 130 mi / 209 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car
  • activities: drive, relax, Netflix
  • housing: wild car camp near Río Quelat outlet to Canal Puyuhuapi

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The forecast called for afternoon rain for the day so we decided to just have a lazy day. We waited until our check out time to hit the road again, partially because we were also waiting for our cloth to dry more.

We took the paved highway 240 out of Coyhaique this time around, which was pretty interesting in itself as the road toward Puerto Aysén follows Río Simson cut through a canyon. Along the way, we stopped at a popular pull off for a small waterfall.

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Before the road reaches Puerto Aysén, we took a right at the intersection for X-50, which was another paved road to return to the Carretera Austral. This was an enjoyable section of the drive as well since the road follow Río Mañihuales providing for some nice views of the river including crossing it once.

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We took a bathroom and ice cream break when we arrived in Villa Mañihuales at Cafe Alba (facebook). They had my favorite flavor in South America, lucuma. Continuing on, stopped at a few spots along Río Cisnes to admire it cutting through the mountain bluffs.

Pretty soon we were back in the Parque Nacional Queulat (CONAF). We were looking for camping area at this point since we wanted to camp before reaching the entrance to the Ventisquero Colgante hike, it would be our activity for the next day. Once we pass the junction with X-25 toward Puerto Cisnes and the road became gravel, saw a pull out with a view of a tall waterfall.

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We decided to continue on however because the pull out was pretty popular because of the waterfall. The next pull off area was the trailhead for the closed Bosque Encantado (wikiexplora) due to a landslide (CONAF). This was a possible activity I had on my list should the weather lighten, but that decision was made for us.

Then came the many switchbacks taking us downhill to Río Quelat for it joined the large bay/fjord of Canal Puyuhuapi. It was here that we found an awesome pull with a large boulder obscuring the view of the spot from the road. According to iOverlander, dolphins are often spotted swimming in the fjord from here. We didn’t see any dolphins while we were here, but a hawk took great interest in us when we relax, ate dinner, and watched Brooklyn 99 over the rest of the afternoon and evening.

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We’ve seen some amazing sunsets on this trip, and this was no exception with the storm clouds playing with the light.

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day 12: wild camp by Río Quelat to Ventisquero Colgante to Futaleufú

  • estimated distance traveled: 135 mi / 217 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, foot
  • activities: hike to Mirador Ventisquero Colgante, drive
  • housing: El Barranco Lodge in Futaleufú

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It rained through the night and was still drizzling by the time we woke up. After breakfast, we decided to continue with our plans to hike to Mirador Ventisquero Colgante. It is one of the only trails here in Parque Nacional Queulat (CONAF). We were only the second to hit the trail that day and that was a good thing for us based on how muddy the trail was. The end point was an overview of the hanging glacier, Ventisquero Colgante, with running waterfalls into the teal lake below (see part 6 of this series for in depth details, coming soon).

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We were a muddy mess by the time we were back at the car and the rain started to come down once again as we hit the road.

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it never ends

We stopped for lunch in La Junta at Mi Casita de Te (tripadvisors) to reward ourselves for the muddy hike. It was very full for lunch, so we figured it was a good choice. I enjoyed it, but I like these rustic homemade dishes.

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Our next destination is the town of Futaleufú (wikitravel), named after one of the best white water rivers that runs by it. Our plans was to do some rafting and hiking around the river. Looking at our limited housing options, we decided to splurge on a fancy hotel Hotel El Barranco (tripadvisor). We booked 2 nights anticipating a full day of rafting. Coincidentally, El Barranco was also the most recommended restaurant in town when we asked around. So we would be living it up.

After lunch, we continued our drive north continuing along Río Palena, which I thought was pretty.

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At Villa Santa Lucía, we turned on to the dirt road Ruta 235. It took us a little bit of time to find the exact place to connect with it since the original intersection was destroyed by the mudslide. After continuing around a forested valley and the cliffy section around Lago Yelcho, we turned left onto Ruta 231.

What I thought was a pretty river was shattered when we cross the bridge over Río Futaleufú. I looked forward to seeing more of it in the next couple of days.

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The weather continued to improve as we continued down the dirt road into town. Other than a couple sections of construction, the views were terrific such as that of Cerro Tres Monjas, the jagged peaks in the distance.

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After we reached town and checked into our hotel, we walked around town. I had read that most rafting expeditions only offer bridge to bridge trips and I wanted more. So walked around town talking to different outfitters. Luckily, we found the guys from Expediciones Chile willing to run a longer portion from the Río Azul confluence all the way to the end.

Having figured out our rafting plans, we headed back to El Barranco (tripadvisor) for dinner. The splurge continues!

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Salud!

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day 13: Futaleufú

  • estimated distance traveled: 43 mi / 69 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: raft, shuttle
  • activities: raft Río Futaleufú
  • housing: El Barranco Lodge in Futaleufú

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Rafting on the Futa was awesome and that was pretty much what we did through the day. It was well worth the cost. We were the only ones to sign up for the tour on the day, so we literally had a private tour of the Futa. The views from the river is almost beyond words, but I will try in part 7 of this series (coming soon).

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The futa!

Expediciones Chile also runs the upper part of Río Futaleufú and we would have gladly ran it with them the next day, but they had a private group hire them out already. So next time.

After our excursion, we dropped off all our wet cloth from rafting and those that didn’t quite dry from a few days ago at the local laundry shop on Calle Sargento Aldena, between Perdo Aguirre Cerda and Bernado O’Higgens that is the cheapest in town (wikitravel).

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We were also famished even though they fed up halfway down the river. It was a bit early for most restaurants, but we found a place down the street from the laundry shop that served burgers and beer. That was all we needed.

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day 14: Futaleufú to Chaitén

  • estimated distance traveled: 131 mi / 211 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, foot
  • activities: hike Piedra del Aguila, drive
  • housing: car camp at El Volcán campgrounds

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After a great breakfast at Hotel El Barranco (tripadvisor) as part of our stay, we decided to explore the area around Futaleufú a bit more before continuing north.

We first drove east toward a bridge crossing the Río Futaleufú. Here we found signs indicating a dedicated mountain bike route.

Looking at local web pages (fundeencantado), there seem to be several different treks. However, some parts of the specified treks are dirt roads that cars can travel on. Perhaps these are the same ones indicated for mountain bikes as well. Wikitravel specifies 2 other hikes not listed, but involves traveling through private property. Either way, the trails seems not the most organized or established. For more detail, see part 7 of this series (coming soon). For us, we spend the an hour driving around the area trying to get views of Río Futaleufú.

Next, we headed for our main hike of the day, Piedra del Aguila. It wasn’t a long hike, but gain elevation aggressively with very few tree cover. In the end, the view from the eagle’s rock provides 270 degree view of the surrounding valley (see part 7 of this series for in depth details, coming soon).

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It was a hot hike with little to no cover from the blazing sun, so we were glad to see a area along Río Espolon where locals were swimming and sunbathing. I jumped into the glacial fed waters to cool myself down, but for only a few seconds.

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We took our time driving out of Futaleufú stopping a couple more times to looking at the gorgeous river.

The most unexpected view, however, was driving along the perfectly still Lago Yelcho.

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We continued to head north once we to the Carretera Austral. We thought about stopping to hike one of the only trails in Parque Nacional Corcovado (CONAF), Ventisquero Yelcho (wikiexplora). However, that would have to wait for another day since it was getting late and we were hungry. Our next stop ended up being the food bus Natour (tripadvisor).

The sun was setting by the time we reached our campsite for the night in El Volcán campgrounds (parquepumalin) in Parque Pumalín. We decided to end here to set up for our hike the next day, Volcán Michinmahuida.

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day 15: Parque Pumalín & Volcán Michinmahuida

  • estimated distance traveled: 47 mi / 76 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, foot
  • activities: hike Volcán Michinmahuida, drive
  • housing: room at Hostel Casa Indömita near Chaitén

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We decided to hit up the Volcán Michinmahuida trail as it was listed at the longest and harder trails in Parque Pumalín. We figured we should tackle it first after our couple nights splurging in a nice hotel. Plus there was very little information about what we’d see on the hike at all.

It ended up being a long and tough hike through the forest before ascending to the foot of the glacier. See part 8 of the series for in depth details (coming soon).

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We decided a stay indoors was warranted after the long hike so we booked another night at Hostel Casa Indömita. Before we went there, we headed to Chaitén to pick up some groceries and to book our return ferry back to Puerto Montt. I had hoped for the overnight ferry from Chaitén to Quellón on the Chiloé Peninsula through Naviera Austral to something new on the way back, but it was full. So we ended up booking the same ferry back. Lastly before we headed back to Hostel Casa Indömita to cook dinner, I couldn’t resist a completo hot dog and Meg couldn’t resist the fries that came with it.

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Returning to Hostel Casa Indömita (agoda, iOverlander), I was able to show Meg the magnificent sunset we had to ourselves on their private beach with Volcán Corcovado along the horizon.

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day 16: zero in Pumalín National Park

  • estimated distance traveled: 131 mi / 211 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car
  • activities: drive, relax, Netflix
  • housing: car camp at Grande campgrounds in El Amarillo

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The forecast wasn’t great as we woke the next morning calling for cloud cover and plenty of rain throughout the day. So we were going to play it by ear. We drove out toward Ventisquero Yelcho (wikiexplora), a short and one of the only hikes in Parque Nacional Corcovado (CONAF) with plans to hike it if we could see anything. However, when we reached the hike, the clouds had obstructed all the mountains around and they didn’t look friendly either. Taking our lessons for this trip to heart, we decided on a zero or do nothing and watch tv day.

We drove toward the Grande campgrounds in the El Amarillo section of Pumalín National Park. It was the closest camping area and close to our intended hike for the following day, Ventriquero El Amarillo.

There is a closer Ventisquero campgrounds, but the road to access it is said to require a 4×4. This is perhaps due to very steep gravel sections. We we hiked part of it the next day, we did see the steep sections with some concrete tracks for cars to have traction on, but the incline was no joke. We also only saw parts of the entire track.

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Shortly after to picked out our camping area at Grande, it started to rain and kept on throughout most of the afternoon and night. We left the trunk door open and watched binged the 99 the rest of the day with the serene sound of rain drops coming down.

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day 17: Pumalín National Park & Ventisquero El Amarillo

  • estimated distance traveled: 44 mi / 71 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, foot
  • activities: hike Mirador and Ventisquero El Amarillo, drive
  • housing: room at Hostel Casa Indömita near Chaitén

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It wasn’t raining when we woke up, but there was plenty of cloud cover. The cloud cover would turn out to be a good thing since majority of our hike for the day was in the open.

We started off early in the day since it was longer that our original intent. We were looking to hike to Ventisquero El Amarillo, however the information about the hike from the Parque Pumalin started from Camp Ventisquero, which we’d have to walk to since we didn’t have an all wheel drive SUV.

Since we had to walk there anyways, we decided just to include the Mirador hike that was on the way into Camp Ventisquero. As it turned out, the portion to the Mirador was some of the steeper portions of the hike, but the view point was decent looking out over Río Amarillo drainage and the hanging glacier at the end of the valley.

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We would drop all the elevation from the Mirador viewpoint and hike all the way to the toe of the glacier. It wasn’t too bad since it was relatively flat in the valley. We enjoyed a snack once we reached the moraine overlooking the glacier before hiking all the way back to the car. See part 8 of the series for in depth details (coming soon).

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The hike ended being 18 miles, so we were famished by the time we were back to our car. It was still early in the afternoon, but we found El Rincon del mate open (tripadvisor). Meg was ecstatic to find the amazing Ceviche here and their pizza was also right on.

After the late lunch, we stopped by the local grocery store and dropped off a load of laundry at Lavanderia La Patagonia (iOverlander) before returning to Hostel Casa Indömita (agoda, iOverlander) for the night. We didn’t get another sunset as it started to rain late in the afternoon once again and didn’t stop til morning.

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day 18: Chaitén to Puerto Montt

  • estimated distance traveled: 156 mi / 251 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, foot, ferry
  • activities: hike Cascada, drive, ride the ferry
  • housing: Holiday Inn Express in Puerto Montt

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This would be our last day on the Carretera Austral and majority of it would involving a getting back to Puerto Montt. Our main schedule checkpoint was the ferry from Caleta Gonzalo to Hornopirén was scheduled at 2pm, so we figured we could do a short hike.

After picking up our cloth from the laundry, we headed for Caleta Gonzalo. We had about 2.5 hours before out boat and the Cascada trailhead was right at the ferry and was about 4 miles.

Even though the estimated time was 3, we had been quiet ahead of other estimates given by the park and I can typically plan our pace being 2 miles an hour. But we didn’t anticipate this hike through the rain forest to one of the more challenging hikes on our trip consisting of plenty of mud, scrambling around rocks, route finding and fording a river, and shady ladders. The end result was a hidden waterfall in a canyon. See part 8 of the series for in depth details (coming soon).

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In the end, we held to our typical pace and finished with a half hour to spare, but we barely spent any time exploring the falls.

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The exited the ferry fairly late around 8pm at Hornopirén. We could have staying in the car for another night, but we were both a bit tired of driving at this point. We figure we’d just get it over with a return to Puerto Montt to have an easy morning. Plus the coast front Holiday Inn Express was one of the fancier hotels there and only cost 10,000 IHG points. Our long day finally ended around 11pm, which was way past hiker midnight. We were out quickly.

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day 19: Puerto Montt to San Carlos de Bariloche

  • estimated distance traveled: 210 mi / 338 km
  • mode(s) of transportation: car, bus
  • activities: transit back to San Carlos de Bariloche
  • housing: Hotel Sol Bariloche

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Our last day was a transit day back to Bariloche, where I booked our reposition flight start from back to Sao Paulo with Delta Points. We asked for a later checkout since our bus back to Bariloche was at 2pm. Again putting to practice of our lesson on the trip, we relaxed and enjoyed the fancy Holiday Inn Express including an nice full breakfast overlooking the bay. Exploring Puerto Montt would have to wait til next time.

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My one job for the morning was to return the car. We logged 2220 km (1379 mi) on our trip in all.

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At the bus station, we bought lunch and a few sandwiches and snacks for the long bus ride. I had splurged the extra few bucks when booking the bus so we would get the larger lounge seats. I would recommend this to everyone since the cost of upgrading is so small. As customary, it was a perfect day on our way out.

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Again, we arrived late to Bariloche bus station so we just booked a taxi to our hotel for the night, Hotel Sol Bariloche (hotels.com). It was a basic of a hotel as you can get. We took a hour or so walk around city center, but turned in early since our flight out was in the morning the next day.

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Carretera Austral impressions

The Carretera Austral covers an immense region in Chilean Patagonia. My original attitude of optimizing our travel time to see as much as possible is impossible here because that’s just not what traveling the road is about.

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the ground we covered by foot, car, bus, and ferry

To start, the impossibility comes from a logistical standpoint. We would have need way more than a couple weeks to even drive the entirety of the and to stop along the way.  The driving itself is not easy with many curves, turns, and different conditions of gravel. A more realistic time frame is more than a month to do the drive and try to explore different places along the way.

This also assumes that no issues impede your journey, not car issues, no bad weather, no downed trees in the middle of the road, no mudslide, no ferry issues, no construction issues, and no health issues. Also factor that the time it takes to deal with issues may also take longer with deal with due to the remoteness of the region. All this makes a tightly schedule trip down the Carretera Austral is hard to maintain. While having the flexibility to change things use based on the situation is vital.

Secondly, the key experience of traveling the Carretera Austral is to see the culture, the country, and immerse in the still wild scenery. Much of this happens on a whimp or based on the weather. There is a truly rustic feeling as you visit the towns and restaurants along the way. Locals just gather and are social unlike the USA where everyone is in their own homes. Knowing conversational spanish would have opened up a whole new set of experiences for us.

You could also spend endless weeks exploring the trails and waterways along the Carretera Austral. While there are some established hikes and activities established along the way, it is also only a small glimpse at the potential of what may be available to see in the future as part of Ruta de Los Parques de la Patagonia. There are parks here that doesn’t have 1 hiking trail marked out, just all wilderness. As such, part of the journey is to take your take to stop at many viewpoints and pull off along the road in these parks that displays the true beauty of Patagonia. Some of the best scenery was starting out the back of our SUV at our “wild camp spot” in the middle of nowhere.

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Lastly going forward in time and further infrastructure development, Patagonia will reveal more and more of its secrets. The conservation efforts by the Tompkins in Pumalín National Park and continuing in Parque Patagonia are what we can look for in the future. In some cases there may exist farming or herding trails known only to the locals and eventually opened up to hikers. Example of this can be seen in Futaleufú, where the increase in tourism has lead private properties open up their dirt roads as hiking trails.

While all of this may take a while since government is mainly focus now is on road accessibility and the many paving projects, according to a motorcycle tour guide from puerto montt that I chatted with on our travels, they will come. It just means that to experience the journey of the Carretera Austral is best done free form.

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Written by John

I'm a graduate student that likes to hike and travel.

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