Road tripping in Chile and Argentina gets you into the wild hearts of both countries – with jaw-dropping mountain landscapes, vast glassy lakes, and thrilling off-road terrain
The Carretera Austral through Chile is a road that will satisfy your soul. It begins from the seaside town of Puerto Montt in the north (where Chile’s Lake District ends), to the village of Villa O’Higgins in the south, snaking south for 1,240 kilometres into a land of dense forests, snow-tipped mountains, glacial streams, islands and swift-flowing rivers.
We spent a week riding Carretera Austral’s dirt roads, which was well worth the extra effort, despite the gravelly, muddy and corrugated parts. The pothole-peppered track took us hundreds of metres above sea level on Mount Jeinimeni, which gave us day-long views of a lake the size of a city.
Everything is super-sized – we felt like a dot in the landscape as we wound our way up and down the mountain passes. Take extra care. There are no barriers on some of the steep hairpin bends, and the road is gravelly and corrugated.
Just north of Chile Chico, the ground either side of the Carretera Austral changed dramatically with barren plains giving way to a grassy, lush landscape. The orange, reds and russet leaves of autumn were just appearing and the sight and vegetation soothed our souls. Queulat National Park is definitely worth the detour off the Carretera Austral too – here you’ll find The Hanging Glacier.
Some fantastic off-road riding. Your efforts on the loose gravel, stretches of sand and corrugations will be rewarded with a pastel, watercolour landscape of soft textures – chiefly creamy mochas, milk chocolate and swirling dark browns.
You’ll also pass Laguna Miscanti and Miniques, two sparkling brackish lakes, one a blue curacao liqueur colour and the other a beautiful inky midnight blue. En route, you’ll also come across Salar de Talar, a glittering, salty lake the same aquamarine blue as the Indian Ocean. Make sure you stop and dangle your legs over the edge of iron red rocks, perfectly rounded and smoothed by the blasting winds. It’s possible to enter Argentina at the border of Paso de Sico but remember to stamp your passport out in Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, 145 miles away.
Get ready for an earthy, rollicking feast of fun. We bobbled over loose gravel, frozen streams, slushy mud and oodles of slippery sand. The ride was worth it just to see what I labelled ‘Boulder World’, an incredibly impressive collection of stand-alone rocks bigger than an average sized house, some the size of ships. Be warned: It's not for the faint-hearted or those who prefer smooth tarmac. Both of our bikes went down a few times. But we survived!
Imagine boulder-lined desert, mountain lakes and forests of monkey puzzle trees amid big snowy mountains. Welcome to the road between Zapala and Caviahue. In the 19th century these evergreen coniferous trees, native to Chile, were named in response to a remark that an attempt to climb one would puzzle even a monkey!
The ten mile ride over on thick gravel ripio to Copahue leaves the senses tingling, with mud baths and hot natural springs waiting at the end. Sadly, we attempted the ride in winter when the dirt road dwindled to a pebbly thread of slushy mud and injurious ice, so we had to give up. I hear Copahue is a sight to behold, though, and that during the summer months, the ride is straightforward.
The route between San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura in the Neuquén Province, Argentina, provides access to several lakes in the forest area of the Patagonic Andes and is definitely not one to be missed. It is equally popular with folks on four wheels, two wheels, and on foot.
The lakes are famed for their salmon fishing, beauty, clarity and hidden aspects. We wouldn’t have missed this road, even though it did feel a little wrong to be riding on so much asphalt through colihue cane forests. The day’s ride ended on a sweet note, though, as we followed a steep trail that zig-zagged down to a mysterious looking lake called Lago Lacar. Here, a long, narrow bar of opaque blue mist hung beautifully over the freshwater, backed by hills as far as the eye could see. Sunlight glinted off the lake, clouds swept in from the west. And a caracara circled above. Perfect.
Via La Vuelta a los Valles – Return to the Valleys: Oh my, what a thrilling ride waiting for you! Valles Calchaquies is the classic off-road track. We encountered bee eaters flying overhead, gravelly sand, sandy gravel and, well, more sand. Vernacular architecture was common in the valleys, some boasting neoclassical columns and Moorish arches. Cachi was full of cobblestones, with a tranquil plaza overlooked by noble mountains and a road that that led us across Parque Nacional Los Cardones.
Interestingly, the local furniture is made from the wood of cacti, cardon, in the treeless Andean foothills. A superb little spot in the desert and one I’m glad we took the time to discover.
To my mind, Ruta 46 is as good as the Carretera Austral – I can't understand why it is so little-known. It took us from one national park to another, via a scenically steep mountain pass, riding 1,200 metres above sea level through big sky country, past striking volcanic deserts all the way to Laguna Blanca.
The lake formed when lava flows dammed two small streams. Now it is home to coots, grebes, upland geese and the odd flamingo. The road led us to Zapala, a touristic city in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, Argentina for an overnight stop.
Ruta 231 will lead you through Puyehue National Park, out of Chile and back into Argentina, along sweeping roads that curve around mountains and down to a plain of powdery volcanic ash. And despite what Google maps may tell you, it most assuredly exists!
At times it feels like you are riding through the Land of the Dead, with the tall trees seemingly robbed of life amongst a thick carpet of brown leaves in a sepia-tinted world. Life returned in Villa La Angostura, a village in the south of the Argentine province of Neuquén, on the northwest shore of the Nahuel Huapi Lake. It’s an upmarket town and ski resort.
Your passage from Cachi to Salta offers a diversity of landscape that becomes borderline ludicrous. One minute it felt like Mexico, with sandy plains dotted with cacti. Then round a corner, at 3,300 metres, we stumbled upon foothills that looked like something you'd see in Iceland, but completely covered in cocoa-powder. Not what I expected at all!
After a deviation off road down a rocky track, it was back to the main drag on Ruta 33, where the scenic schizophrenia continued. After few miles of dramatic New Zealand-esque landscapes we passed through a sub-tropical rainforest, which in turn transformed into Scottish hills and then lush green English farmland. All in the space of an afternoon. All in the smallest segment of South America – a slice of Argentinian pie I could continue to dine out on for months.
Swing a right westward off Ruta 40 back onto the 7 north towards Uspallata, and you're in for a treat: dense clusters of brooding clouds, dark grey steely skies and the purple presence of the Andes with hoarfrost gripping at every low level bush. The unpaved track between the 39 and 412 roads was the first time I’ve off-roaded smiling in a smattering of snow!
Arriving in Barreal that afternoon felt like someone had turned up the colour saturation in Photoshop. Up to then, I’d been become blasé about the bland landscape of wind-tortured plains and dusty mountains that looked like elephant skin. But like a tap of a wand to a magician’s hat, out popped stark poplar trees against fiercely blue rivers running clear and an ancient dried out lakebed ‘La Pampa del Leoncito’.
Every centimetre of the 10-kilometre mud-flat was a pattern of cracked crazy-paving. When the sun broke through, it turned the colour of Maldivian sand. Needless to say, we spent nigh on an afternoon simulating spirals, figure of eights and playful attempts at crop circles leaving only traces of our tyre-streaked fun.
Lisa Morris is on an 18 month 'bottom up' motorcycle ride through the Americas – Argentina to Alaska – with her partner Jason Spafford. Having passed her test shortly before the trip, she is living proof that anyone can jump on a motorcycle and trade the life conventional for a ride of a lifetime! You can follow her adventures at twowheelednomad.com.