Bumps In The Road

Hello from the Carretera Austral, a 1,240 km journey through Chile’s Northern Patagonian scenery. We’ve nearly completed the southern portion and so far it’s been about cliffy mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, rural scenes, a few small villages and a whole bunch of potholes and washboard dirt road. The kind that chatters your teeth out and makes new rattles on your truck. We’ve had more moisture than we’d prefer. But still. Its been pretty and we’ve seen some beautiful things. And as of yesterday, we reached some much deserved pavement.

I have to say it was a little hard coming down off of such intense scenery and hiking in El Chalten & Perito Moreno. We loved it so much. It felt slower paced in the fun department for a few days afterward, but then things really picked up again and as I look at my pictures I can see that we did a lot of really cool things these past couple of weeks and saw some new stuff! Which tells me what I already know- moving ahead to new places means you see & do more interesting things. You can’t know until you go!

The hillsides of Posadas where the cave paintings were

We retraced the long dirt road out of Perito Moreno NP and headed northwestward to the sleepy little town of Lago Posadas. While getting fuel there, the friendly owner told us that during the covid lockdown, a couple of trucks like ours from Germany and Switzerland joined them for 2 months. Whoa! Looking around, I think that would have been hard because it’s such a tiny town and I’m aware that Argentina had a very strict and long lockdown.

Lago Posadas has a beautiful, crazy blue lake and some really interesting & colorful rock formations reminscent of the Southwestern US. However, it isn’t really set up to see them well. We walked out to some cave paintings and an arch but the wind & flying dust really made us just want to get outta there. Heading out washboard Route 41 late in the day, we covered some lovely scenery in beautiful evening light and found a picturesque campspot hidden from the road. I still get excited about the special places that we can park our truck with nothing and no one around. I guess it’s the same feeling as having your own tropical cove to yourself: Magical.

Argentina border at Paso Roballos

To reach the Careterra Austral in Chile, we used the Paso Roballo border crossing. It seems so improbable to have a border crossing when there is no town, no development and no people around- Jon didn’t believe our directions were right. But there it was- a one man Argentina border office and a 3 man Chile one. Things are done the old fashioned way with big books & handwritten details of who was crossing back & forth all while sipping mate like a drug. We sat down at the desk and chatted a little with the officers. At least for the Argentina side, its a solitary job, in a quaint old stone building that I would’ve liked to photograph. Neither border came inside our truck. Nice! We like it that way.

On either side of the border is massive Patagonia National Park. It sits in a dry area of the Patagonia steppe with great weather. Broadened to its current size by Tomkins Foundation, The Chacabuco Valley is an impressive valley left to regenerate itself after years of exploitation for cattle & sheep ranching. Rewilding efforts have returned native flora & fauna to the park and the results are impressive. On the Chile side, there are two different campgrounds to visit, hikes to do, museums, gorgeous miradors, and a fancy park headquarters with a hotel and a full complement of guanacos to mow the grass. The road is full on washboard and a pain in the butt to drive but for the rest of the park infrastructure, no expense was spared by Tomkins. We passed the picnic area where Doug & Kris first got the inspiration to make a park, we visited Doug’s grave, we enjoyed the aesthetics of the beautiful campgrounds and we hiked all over.

Tomkins Mirador Patagonia NP

One morning, Jon & I biked up to the Tomkins mirador and then did a loop hike to Lago Chico. Love the duathlon type days. It was a fantastic hike. Can you believe the color of that water?!

On another day, we did the Lagunas Altas long hike together with Ivan. Another great day. Happy hours sitting out on the grass in less than a winter get-up of clothes have been rare over these past months and finally we felt like we had a little bit of summer.

Typical Tomkins Foundation Construction, Patagonia NP

At the first campground, a ranger knocked on our door around 8pm and said there was a puma outside so we went running out to see. Finally! A puma sighting! It was a juvenile, headed slowly up the hillside and we got a good look at it but the pics were poor because of the brush and the light. Nice to see though. The ranger told us that the next campground would have better chances of seeing more pumas. Yay!

Then a couple of days later, we’re sitting having that beer in the grass at that very campground and I saw a large puma go running by in the distance. Upon walking closer to the perimeter of the far side of the campground, it turned out to be a female and off to the side were two big cubs lying in the grass playing. I ran back to the truck to get the binocs and the better of our crappy camera selection and we got a good long look at them and some OK pics. It was kind of neat the way everyone in the campground, which there were about 15 of us, stopped and we were all standing on the sidelines watching the pumas. They would come and go from the woods & brush back into view. They live right around the area. The park is full of guanacos for them to eat (we saw a couple of their carcasses in the park) and they are protected. It was an incredible opportunity to enjoy something we’ve been pining to see for a ridiculous amount of years. I have a feeling we’ll never see them again actually.

It’s not every day you fill up your water tank with guanacos around!
Rio Cochrane

We moved to the Tamanga sector of the park outside of the little town of Cochrane which had a lovely campground alongside the town’s namesake river. From there, we launched our packrafts and paddled upriver toward Lake Cochrane to where trails come down that lead to miradors. From the miradors, we could see some light stretches of rapids further up and the opening into the big lake. So we walked back down, picked up our rafts and then carried them up the trail to a spot above the rapids. Then we could kayak out to the lake entrance and then down the rapids. We did this a couple of times before kayaking back to the campground. Crazy colored crystal clear water. And 2 more Huemul deer sightings- one in the campground of course. Because that’s where the best wildlife is seen! Its proven!

Caleta Tortel

After reprovisioning in Cochrane, we headed 100km south on the Carretera to the tiny little boardwalk town of Caleta Tortel. The whole town sits on a hillside along the sound and 10km of elevated cypress walkways connect everything because the town sits over water & peat bog. We spent an afternoon touring the little walkways, patting lots of cats & dogs and then continued the loop near sunset up to the hillside summit and back down to the trucks again where the frogs were calling in the bog.

We continued south the following day toward Puerto Yungay ferry dock to make the 40 minute crossing of the sound where the road continues. This area has virtually no development. It is just a wild road passing by the occasional ranch but is mostly plants, mountains and streams. Crazy and wonderful. And oh yeah, bikers making the popular journey. Biking the CA is a very popular thing to do and at times I don’t really understand why exactly because the road is potholed & dusty or very wet in rain and there is light but fairly constant tourist traffic on it.

The ferry is subsidized by the government to promote tourism and so it is gratis. While it was a very nice, smooth ride, we did pay a price for it because when the three of us sat inside the ferry for 15 or 20 minutes at a table looking at a puzzle, we were exposed to a nasty virus, probably covid. It took a couple of days to get it but then the telltale symptoms began and then little new surprises every day until our bodies conquered it. So we were all taken aback at how this happened because we aren’t usually in circumstances where we can get exposed like this. But then there we were. Fortunately, our bodies recognize this imposter again and we weren’t flattened and could still do things.

We arrived to O’Higgins and walked a couple of light trails, including to the very end of the road where you cannot go any further, the official southern end of the Careterra Austral. Now we’ll head north to find the other end! One thing is for sure, Fall is in the air. Villa O’Higgins is a cute little town and you find yourself walking around trying to picture what it would feel like to live somewhere this remote. Perhaps in winter. The lenga trees are starting to turn, the light is arriving later and well, winter IS coming….

So we gladly headed north, on a couple of long days of driving and recovering through the same lovely scenery. It’s funny to drive along through a tunnel of green vegetation but also look up to get glimpses of bright blue glaciers above you. And water coming down everywhere. We sat inside the truck cab for the rainy ferry ride hacking and sneezing, retracing our steps past Cochrane to new territory.

Marble Caves or Capillas de Marmol

We arrived to Puerto Rio Tranquilo, home of the Marble Caves. The town sits on the western side of Lake General Carrera, the same lake that Doug Tomkins lost his life on. It’s also a cute little tourist town that focuses on taking people out to see the caves. But with your own kayaks, you can paddle out to them on your own. So we did this the next day, in a bit of headwind, but it was a beautiful bright blue day and we could see the caves in peace & quiet in between boatloads of tourists like us. We had a few laughs trying to paddle our rafts in the wind gusts that would come around the cliffy corner. You can basically hold your ground, not progress forward in the gusts but when you turn around, wow, do you go fast! They are rafts, not kayaks, and they are packable, but not down to the roll of paper towels that they might have originally came packed as. But they are light as and we do really like them! We also discovered Arepas in this little town. They are basically a sandwich on a grilled corn dough patty. Something different for a change because we’re really running low on anything delicious these days. Our theory of “Everybody Eats” doesn’t mean that it’s much of anything you want to eat!

Lonely dirt road to San Rafael NP

There are several offshoots of the Careterra that head out to other parks or points of interest and San Rafael NP is one of them. In 2010, the government constructed a rough, 77km road from Puerto Rio Tranquilo out to the northern Patagonia icefield where there are numerous glaciers, waterfalls and a few trails to explore. They even do a boat ride out to a calving glacier but we’ve already done that stuff. We did drive all the way out the potholed road, but with a terrible forecast of a week of rain. And we did squeeze in a couple hour walk and a nice campspot for the night, but we couldn’t stay to do the trails we wanted because it continued to pour and we wouldn’t recover the amps we needed for our batteries. On the way out, the sheer number of waterfalls was astounding.

Another day of driving, another day of recovering and now we’re at Cerro Castillo NP where we’d hoped for months now to do our last backpacking trip of the season, the 4 day Cerro Castillo Circuit. But we don’t have a weather window good enough to do it. Well that is disappointing. We did get to do the showcase day hike today though- Cerro Castillo Laguna and it was beautiful.

I hope we’re not too late in the season for the other things we’d like to do on the Caraterra Austral. Health is number one though and that includes the truck.

I think we’re out of the woods healthwise, the truck seems OK and for now, we have pavement.

It isn’t unusual for us to have to give way to cattle and their handlers. Quintessential S. America!
More normal cat pics at the ranger station at Cerro Castillo

One Reply to “Bumps In The Road”

  1. Wow. How amazing are you 2. Love seeing this amazing part of the world!
    Meanwhile spring arrives here with hardly a flake of snow this past winter!
    Look forward to more of your travel tales!
    xoxo Kathy

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