8 mins

The road less travelled

Meandering roads, national parks and huge ice fields, this is Chile at it's best.

Parque Pumalin, Chile (Sam Beebe)

Everybody’s looking for a lonesome highway; yearning to escape the gridlock and enjoy the freedom that roads were originally built to provide. If the USA burnt out its road-trip folklore years ago – when the beats died, the cars shrunk and the golden arches grew – there are still roads in South America worthy of such legend and dying to be driven. One of them is Chile’s Camino Austral – the 1,200km Southern Highway from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. It’s not finished yet, and isn’t as long as some other Latin American motorways, but don’t think of this stretch in the way you think of asphalted, cat’s-eyed routes from A to B: think instead of a dramatic, meandering, secret road through X,Y and Z.

It currently winds up in Villa O’Higgins because the great Southern Ice Field blocks its way, but the Chilean Government say this is just a temporary obstacle – the plan being to link the Chilean Lake District with Punta Arenas in the far south without having to cross into Argentina. The Chileans, proud enough to make anything happen, have got their work cut out; the Northern Ice Field is also nearby, the weather is wild and water is everywhere (one poet called the terrain an ‘archipelagic sponge’). But Chilean civil engineers will pull it off somehow, I think.

I’d been to Puerto Montt, a sprawling salmon-farming town, before, and moving on had always meant boats: the hop to Chiloé or the three-day cruise through the fjords to Puerto Natales. But in summer the Highway can be picked up from Puerto Montt and, with a couple of ferry crossings en route, driven or bussed all the way to its end. Time slows down in these unsettled lands and the landscapes bordering this road cannot be rushed. If you are in a hurry be aware that gravel builds up into furrowed mounds – speed here and you may end up swerving into a beautiful emerald lake.

We were in no hurry however and started to make our way south, pausing at the magnificent Parque Nacional Alerce Andino, to walk in its mighty forests with the Andes looming in the background. We then crossed the tiny fjord at La Arena, about 50km from Puerto Montt, before taking the inland road to Hornopirén, a small, nondescript township with another ferry port. From here on there’s not much in the way of towns – always slim, Chile tapers to a mere sliver at this latitude. But there’s no problem pitching a tent where you stop. We did, and, apart from the occasional chirping of chucao and huet-heut birds, all is calm. It is known to rain here though, and the further south you go, the more it does so, reaching a swimmable 5,000mm a year near the ice caps – but when the skies are clear, a night camping in the Andean regions is a shooting star show.

The five-hour crossing from Hornopirén took us through Reñihue Fjord, a mellow waterway where porpoises and seals can be seen bobbing and frisking. At Caleta Gonzalo we finally got onto an unbroken road south, and to Parque Natural Pumalín. Pumalín is the main reason most travellers come here in the first place, to escape into the 3,000sqkm reserve of beautiful forests and mountains. If you know about Pumalín, chances are it’s from the environment pages of your daily newspaper because this park is owned – lock, stock and volcano – by Douglas Tompkins, the former owner of the Esprit and The North Face clothing firms. So far, he’s spent $55 million of his considerable fortune buying the land and it remains to be seen if any money can be recouped through tourism or sustainable eco-minded development. For trekkers and nature-lovers, this is merely small print – the park is lush, virgin and spectacular.

Just a few hundred metres off-road and you’re deep in the dank woods; one of our fellow walkers slipped on the wooden walkway and disappeared into a morass of wet leaves, only his head visible at ground-level, popping through the undergrowth. Group member recovered, our guide showed us some cypresses wrinkled by age, the bark ravaged by the elements. “This is the most famous tree here,” he tells us. “It’s the alerce, known to be among the oldest living trees in the world, reaching 2-3,000 years old. Today, only about 14% of the original population is left – and of that three-quarters are in the Pumalín Park, which means it will be protected forever, the species saved.”

While Pumalín might be very good news for the alerce, a truly impressive grand-daddy of the woods, not all Chileans are happy to have an American billionaire buying up all their land. Many are suspicious that Tompkins might be challenging Chile’s sovereignty or planning some dubious enterprise in seclusion.

Pumalín’s temperate rainforests foreshadow the arboreal heaven which lines the Southern Highway. We saw the coigüe (which can reach up to 50m), the vast forests of deciduous lenga and the ulmo, with its pure white flowers and sweet nectar ideal for honey. Some woods, like the tepu, are extremely dense, while the arrayán (or myrtle) tree is scattered and easy to explore. Its cinnamon bark, the colour of young deer, is said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Bambi and a stroll through its calm, cool woods is a weirdly fairytale-like experience.

Neruda’s oft-quoted words for these landscapes were uncompromising: ‘Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.’ There is an after-effect too: once you’ve been through a region where the planet seems to breathe, your own environment seems a smaller, less significant place.

A couple of hours south of Pumalín we hit Chaitén, a picture-book pioneer town overlooked by the craggy peak of Volcán Corcovado. Historically the colonial Spanish and, afterwards, Chilean governments, treated this whole region as ‘la frontera’. The main reason was the fierce resistance of the Mapuche natives, but the landscape contributed to making these latitudes impenetrable and hard to settle.

But now the town council are busy trying to turn a military outpost into a tourist destination. “We want people to stay here and get to know the real Chile, not just use the place to get to Pumalín,” a local councillor told me. “We’ve got great fishing – you can just ask a local fisherman and he’ll tell you where to catch fat fario trout. There are also lovely termas.”
We checked out these hot springs at El Amarillo, and after a long soak (no one observes the 15-minute rule on these steaming, blood-pressure-sapping waters) camped the night.

Continuing south at dawn, with the clouds still at car height, we passed the junction to a village, Futaleufú, the namesake of a river world-famous among whitewater rafting fans. A bit further south and we entered the region of Aisén. Although lowly populated (just 100,000 people live here) and largely unvisited, this hidden corner of the planet is rich in history. Magellan baptised it the ‘Lands of December’ in 1520; 17th and 18th century explorers associated it with mythical, Eldorado-like regions; Lord Byron’s adventurer-pirate grandfather struggled through the perilous fjords with the help of the Alacaluf tribe; and, a few decades later, Darwin and Fitzroy sailed through, exploring the geological mysteries of a polar region nowhere near the poles.

Our more modest explorations took us on to the waterfalls and awesome hanging glacier of the Parque Nacional Queulat, as well as the unrustic luxury of the Termas de Puyuhuapi hot spring complex. Scores of fishing lodges are also nestled into hidden corners, offering five-star fly-fishing for a few hundred pounds a day. Fishing for me was always a wet, sleepy affair round Lancashire ponds, and like some deep set neurosis, I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a rod. Driving seemed more purposeful. We did stop and eat some fish near Puyuhuapi however, but these were worm-like minnows, the puyes which give the place its name, and looked like mushy white-bait. They are ‘exquisitos’ we were told, a delicacy. They were repulsive.

At Piedra del Gato, on the southern fringes of Queulat, the road has been blasted through mountainous territory and small crosses appear along the highway. When I asked a local what the crosses were for he said that construction workers had gone for their after-work drinks – meaning Chile’s Class A alcoholic beverage, pisco – at the top of the cliffs and fallen asleep. When the dynamite-blasters got to work in the morning, “the earth, along with the workers and their bottles, came crashing to the ground”.

Though it runs between the gentle-sounding extremes of latitudes 42° and 52° south, the Camino Austral is a road to the end of the world. There have been fragments of road down here for decades but it was Pinochet who had all the bits connected (the road officially bears his name, but no one uses the full title). It leads next to Coihaique, the main cattle and tree-felling hub, and the only serious town in Aisén. Founded in 1929, it is the main administrative and commercial centre and, to put the puyes behind us, we got stuck into a paella at La Olla, a real restaurant with Spanish leanings. The open valley of Coihaique was once the territory of the Tehuelche, the tall nomadic tribe that Magellan had seen way over on the Atlantic coast and called the ‘Patagones’. Cave paintings of hands and guanacos, the local camelid, are dotted all over the region.

Passing through yet more protected woodlands, we headed for the next, and last, townette, Cochrane. This stretch of road skirts lots of lakes and rivers, the most important of which is the massive and massively beautiful Lago General Carrera, shared with Argentina, where it is named Lago Buenos Aires. In South America, it is second in size only to Titicaca, and the turquoise waters (the deepest in the continent) have turned this valley into a fertile place of fruit trees with its own gentle microclimate. Marble overhanging sculptures – locals call them capillas or ‘chapels’ – worn away by the movement of the waters, line the banks. A complex river system, fed by Andean rains and melting ice (with the fast-moving, voluminous Río Baker at its heart) shoots off to find the Pacific. American rafters were paddling desperately in the frothing, tumbling narrows of the Baker; we drove on and promised to come back to do ‘that kind of holiday’ another time.

It was all gaspingly beautiful, lonely and tranquil. After the Río Baker, some drivers may be inclined to turn around. My co-driver certainly was, as some Chilotes had told us that there were no more ‘highlights’ after the big river.

“What’s the point of driving on?”

“Well, to get to the end?”

“Then what? Turn round and drive back?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

It wasn’t that there was any need for more stunning forests, rivers, lakes and vistas, but when you take a road on you just have to finish it. So we pushed on towards Cochrane. Look at a map and you’ll see how fragmented the land is here, with swampland, meadow and bare prairie jostling against ice fields, volcanoes and mountains. In fact, the landscape takes on a mystical air of unreality, noted by Sara Wheeler in her Travels in a Thin Country: ‘We climbed very high in the crepuscular light, the road a slender silver precipice above the luminous lake, and as the sun set we drove through configurations of rock as if we were travelling through pages of Dante.’

At Cochrane we refuelled – the last chance to fill up before heading into nothing. We were in an ultra-remote setting for the last 200km of the Highway. The woods were serene, spooky even. What we thought was a lost cow turned out to be a huemul, a Chilean deer, heading for the underbrush and the cover of mist. What is rare elsewhere is common here, and vice versa. After seeing the huemul, the journey really had come to its close and we pitched our tent not far from where the barrier marks ongoing construction work. If you accept the basic idea of the Pan-American Highway as a continuous longitudinal route from north to south, Villa O’Higgins is the last stop on a journey that could begin in Alaska. There are plenty of other roads, of course, but roads are about ideas and, at best, about the way humans link themselves to each other and to their natural surroundings. Most roads seem to fail disastrously at accomplishing this ideal. The Southern Highway fulfils it magnificently.

When to go: The summer months of December to March are ideal for visiting as the ferry crossings on the northern section of the Highway are open and there’s more sunshine, longer days and less rainfall. From June to September, severe snowfall can block the road occasionally leading to the closure of Balmaceda airport near Coihaique.

Temperatures in Aisén range between 11°C and 18°C in January, and between -2°C
and 7°C in July.

Health and safety: There are no major infectious diseases in this temperate zone but take all the normal precautions with food and drink.

Take care when driving as even gentle curves are hazardous on the gravel surface. Locals shoot up and down the road in pick-ups and it’s best to let them pass and maintain a speed of 60-70km/h.

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