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The start of the Carretera Austral

Road made by the Capitan GeneralThe northern part of Patagonia in Chile is dominated by a wilderness of temperate rainforests, glaciers and immense rivers and lakes. It is not surprising that people had not settled in this area until 'recently'. Around 1900 the first expeditions were sent to explore the unknown land. All those discoveries were made by crossing the Andes Mountains from Argentina. In that time Welsh immigrants established the first settlements in the most accessible areas in the east close the Argentinean border. Nearly fifty years later, however, the western part still remained unpopulated. This changed when the Chilean government started to encourage homesteads in this region. Unfortunately, in this process about 1.2 million hectares of forest went up in flames. At present, the results of those fires are still visible in empty valleys which are clearly less beautiful and diverse then their surrounding unaffected areas. During the 1960's, more villages appeared and roads were build. Small airports made connections between the towns. Beginning in the mid 1970's this campaign to populate the wilds of Northern Patagonia was embraced by Augusto Pinochet, who invested over US $300 million in the construction of the Carretera Austral (which means Southern Road). This is a 1240 km gravel 'highway' that runs from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O'Higgins in the south. The last part near Villa O'Higgins was not completed until summer 1999/2000. This southern part was especially isolated because further south the immense Patagonian Ice fields are located. The east (Argentina) is blocked by the Andes mountain range and the coast is characterized by a combination of rainforests and fjords. Before the Carretera Austral was finished, the villages in this area could only be reached by horse, airplane, and some by boat.

Of course, we are curious to witness this landscape ourselves. However, at the moment we are still in Argentina, just a little bit south of Villa O'Higgins, in a beautiful national park called Fitz Roy (El Chaltén). We are so close to the Carretera Austral, but at the same time it seems unreachable, because there are no roads to Argentina at all in the southern 300km of the Carretera. To get to the first border crossing we will have to make a detour of almost 1000km through the Argentinean pampas, which we have already experienced more than enough. We have heard stories about cyclists crossing the border from Villa O'Higgins to Argentina using the help of horses to cross the mountains. Those were not exactly success stories. One German was guided by a local farmer from Villa O'Higgins through the difficult mountains. Once they reached the border the guide wishes him good luck and tells him that he just has to keep on walking to the east, over the mountains, to get to the 'Ruta 40' in Argentina. The poor guy wandered for two days through the mountains, before finally finding a path. Another cyclist had no trouble finding his way, but his bike that was tied on a horse was heavily damaged during the trip. Several times the bike got stuck behind branches of trees but the powerful horse felt just a slight resistance and bravely continued ...

On Wednesday the 2nd of January, we are making ourselves up for another month through the windy pampas, when suddenly five cyclists pop up in the small village El Chaltén. Apparently they come from the north which is strange because that is where the uncrossable border to Chile is! We eagerly listen to their story and hear how they managed to cross the border by a combination of ferry navigation over a large lake, bike pushing through the forests, and a lot of carrying over a small path along a second lake. This adventure took them somewhat more then 3 days. When we want to do the same trip in opposite direction, we only have 2.5 days, because we are told that the ferry only leaves once a week on Saturday around lunchtime and now it is Wednesday evening! This will be tough, but is sounds like a nice challenge and compared to the pampas ... Let's do it. We will be accompanied by a Canadian couple who also has the desire to cycle the complete Carretera Austral.

Leaving at 5:00 in the morning we start our trip by cycling 40 km through a beautiful scenery of snow powdered mountains along a crystal clear river to a lake called 'Lago del Desierto'. This is where the Argentinean road ends and where we will have to walk 17 km along the narrow lake to the Argentinean customs. For a moment we hope to travel by boat, because along the road we see signs that advertise a tourist trip to the northern part of the lake, leaving three times a day (would this be cheating?). However, we are informed by a lady who lives near the lake, that this boat doesn't exist anymore. It was forced to stop its schedule because of diplomatic conflicts about the Chilean Argentinean border. There is tension in this area because it is still not decided where the exact border is located. On maps this part of both countries is even not shown!

Two days not cyclingIt is impossible to cycle even a meter over this path along the lake. This trail is full of steep climbs and is very small because it runs straight through the bushes. In the beginning we are so naive that we try to push our bikes through the forest with all the gear still on it, but soon we realize that this is an impossible strategy. Like our Canadian colleagues, we take our backpacks and stuff them full with half of our luggage. We must look like beasts of burden with those heavy bags on our backs. We continue with Tore pushing and carrying an empty bike and leaving the rest of our luggage and the other bike behind. After some time we drop our stuff, walk back and carry the second load. This method makes the trip three times as long, but it really is the fastest way for us. It is almost 20:00 in the evening when we pitch our tent near a small stream 15km from the south of the lake. We have worked really hard for the past 15 hours and fall asleep almost instantly.

The next morning we continue and soon reach the Argentinean customs. In the small house three officers live who seem to enjoy their solitude living in the forest. At least, they have a splendid view over the Lago del Desierto with the Fitz Roy peaks in the distance. In the time that we get our second load of luggage they have plenty of time to fill in all the formality papers in threefold, including full description of all our belongings. From the customs we have to walk another 7km over a small path that leads us towards the real frontier. Because it is mainly steep uphill it takes almost 3 times 2 hours to reach this desolate place. We see that in Chile the way transforms from a small path into a soft gravel road. In fact, this point can be considered as the real starting point of the Carretera Austral, but will it ever really be used? The road goes over 15km mostly downhill, ending at the Chilean customs where our ferry will leave tomorrow around noon. We must be able to cycle on this road and reach that place in time tomorrow morning. Let's have some sleep.

The southern end of the Camino Austral


The road is indeed downhill and it has a difficult surface. It is therefore not surprising that the five cyclists we have met had to push their bikes all the way up. For that reason this adventures trip is probably easier from Argentina to Chile then in the opposite direction. At 10:00 in the morning we finally reach the Chilean customs (Carabineros de Chile) who have, like their Argentinean colleagues, a splendid view over a lake (Lago O'Higgins). They also have enough time to check our entire luggage thoroughly upon fruits, seeds, meat, and vegetables. You are namely not allowed to enter Chile with any of those products. During the formalities we can get a glimpse in their books and see that in the year 2001 not more then about 25 individuals have used this office to get from Argentina to Chile! What are those carabineros doing here? The only way they can escape this place is with the ferry that runs just once a week.

A fresh carabinero arrives

We see the ferry arriving over the windy lake as indeed told at around 12:00, but unfortunately for us, the captain has changed his schedule. Instead of leaving directly to Villa O'Higgins, he first cruises to some farm at the other end of the lake. He promises to return tomorrow and bring our Canadian friends and us to the place we want. Why on earth have we worked that hard the last days? Anyhow, this gives us time to help a new fresh carabinero who arrived by ferry, moving (together with his sheep) into his new house. Did he and his wife know he would live in such an empty area for the next years?

The captain keeps his promise and a little bit seasick we finally reach Villa O'Higgins, the official start of the Carretera Austral. The next month we cycle north and we can say that the area is really as beautiful as we were told. Especially in the southern part of the Carretera we see almost no traffic and the mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers, and rainforests make an extraordinary scenery. The landscape changes continuously which makes every cycling day a pleasure. This is definitely worth those few days of running, carrying and pushing through the forest there in the South!

Confluence of the rivers Baker and Neff

See also the map and more info of this area.

 

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