Carretera Austral

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Where I stayed
Hostel Monica

Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, March 3, 2006

We leave Chile Chico feeling refreshed after an excellent breakfast with home made jams at Hosteria Patagonia. We walk down the main and only street in town and prepare ourselves for a long bus journey to Coyhaique.

At 8am there is a flurry at the tourist office cum bus station, when a minibus appears together with a wad of bus tickets one of which must be issued to all the passengers with a reservation. The bus is full and 15 minutes later we set off into the countryside.

We drive along the Paso Las Llaves which takes us around the huge lake of Buenos Aires, the second largest lake in South America. It is infact faster to take the boat across the lake than to drive, but we have opted for the bus ride because the scenery is supposed to be spectacular. Besides that, the boat tickets are fully sold out in Chile Chico which seems suprising for such a small and sleepy town.

It takes only a few minutes to leave town. The windy gravel road has many blind corners which are simultaneously scarey and stunning. Views of the lake continue for hours and on our left hand side we see amazing views of mountains covered in snow.

We make regular stops during our journey, some toilet spots at secluded villages around the lake plus lots of unwelcome stops. The first lasts for about an hour when we are stuck by a road grader blocking the road. There are plenty of workmen around but it is not until there are about 20 vehicles waiting to pass by that they finish their coffee break and move the machine out of the way. Another stop is caused by more workmen manhandling cement bags which have been dumped in the middle of the road, onto the side of the road. A final stop is to help another bus which appears to have broken a rear leaf spring on the rough roads. John is amazed to see that it is fixed in about 15 minutes with a large chunk of wood.

After an indeterminately long time of sitting, we finally arrive at Cerro Castillo. Here there is a 4 day hike to the top of the 2700m mountain. We toyed with the idea of hiking this inpenetrable mountain range but quickly changed our minds when we heard from some tough Israelis that they had to abandon their hike because it was so difficult. Today the top of the mountain is shrouded in clouds and I look at the undulating hills which rise up towards the base of the mountain feeling relieved that we are not getting off the bus. Not suprisingly we see 5 ex army Israelis carrying large heavy backpacks leaving to start the hike.

From Cerro Castillo we continue on Routa 7 and the famous Carretera Austral claimed to be one of South Americas best adventure road trips. Construction on this road began only in 1980 under the instruction of General Pinochet. The 1000km road cuts across some of Chiles most wildest scenery, cost an initial 300US million dollars, took over 10 years to build and cost 11 workers lives.

Fortunately this part of the road is tarmacked and our driver puts his foot on the accelerator as we pass through more countryside. The scenery now begins to change from barren dry landscape to greener pasturelands where we see cows grazing.

Coyhaique is a new town and there are over 45000 people living here which is over half of the population within the Aisen region. We arrive 3 hours later than expected and after what seems like days of travelling on the bus I feel about 3 years older.

Compared to Chile Chico, Coyhaique feels like a big city. In the centre is a strange pentagon shaped plaza from which a series of roads emanate outwards from. John thinks that it all looks very masonic. There are cars, traffic lights, roads, restaurants, fruit stalls and huge supermarkets everywhere.

We find a room in Hostel Monica, a small hostel with large rooms situated on top of a bakery. We soon discover the rest of our travel companions staying in a nearby hostel.

Tired and weary we search for a place for some good tucker. We find Litos which is recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. We chose Congrio (a type of eel which tastes like cod) and Johns favourite, Lomo de Pobre (poor mans steak which is a huge juicy steak with 2 eggs, chips and salad). The good food and service costs just 10,000Ps (10 GBP) for us both.

In Litos we are pleasantly suprised to meet a single American girl who is currently updating the Lonely Planet guidebook for Chile and South America. She tells us that many places in Chile have needed a lot of updating but the food in Litos still gets the thumbs up. Having previously experienced some poorly updated travel guides (e.g. Rough Guide SE Asia 2005) which contain unchanged and outdated chapters we wonder whether she has really checked out all the hostels and eateries in town. Everywhere is checked she assures us. We chat on and feel a little disappointed to hear that the Hosteria Patagonia in Chile Chico will not be feauturing in new edition because cheaper and newer places are now available.

Next morning John and I head to the bus station to book up our next journey. We are now in the month of March and it is officially off-peak season. This may mean limited transport options. A number of private bus companies are dotted around the town. We find one company which will drive to Chaiten on Sunday (tomorrow). It is also possible to stop off in Park Quelate en route although the subsequent bus connection to Chaiten is not until Wednesday. As we agonise over our options and are joined by Pieter and Gaelle who also seem undecided about where to head next.

After about an hour, the lady in the shop looks as though she is tired of our indecisiveness so we all hastily make our decisions. Decision making is pretty tiring when travelling and its difficult when little is known about where we are going. For us all the scenery in Chile has been spectacular and we just hope not to get too behind our schedule. John and I decide that we will make the long drive to Chaiten, Pieter decides to stop at Park Quelat and Gaelle decides to stop in Villa St Lucia.

After booking up our bus tickets its easy to make our next decision. We walk around town and after what we initially feel may be a wild goose chase finally find a bicycle hire shop. Pieters improving Spanish helps us to make a good deal of 2500 Ps (about GBP2.50)per bike for the rest of the day. Its bright and sunny and so with a picnic lunch we excitedly head out to the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique which is just 5 km from the town.

After days of sitting on buses, we all feel full of energy. The road up to the park is incredibly steep and rocky and by the time we reach the park entrance, even marathon runner Pieter is looking a little sweaty.

We pay an expensive 2000 Ps which is only 2 GBP but nearly 3 times the cost for a local Chilean to enter the park. Even the ranger thinks this is unfair but he still isnt fooled by Johns beginners Spanish as tries unconvincingly to say that he is Chilean.

Leaving the rangers hut and turning another corner of the road I am soon cursing the ranger who assured us that the 11km circuit within the park will not involove any more steep hills. Its obvious from the fat size of the ranger that he has never cycled around the park before. Its hot and sunny and for about 4km everyone is just pushing their heavy mountain bikes up the hills.

We stop for lunch at Largo Verde, a peaceful lake within the woods. From here we expect that the road will pass downhill but it still continues steeply uphill. My legs and arms feel weary and as we turn each corner to see another huge hill, I wonder whether I should continue with the rest of the circuit, or whether I should just count my losses and return the way we came up.

Eventually we start flying down the hills. The simple map which we received at the rangers hut shows that we are suddenly covering huge distances. We turn off on a small footpath to visit some more lakes. This is definately the best part of the day. We push ourselves initially uphill again but then cross wooden bridges and hurtle downhill through forest tracks beside tranquil lakes.

By the end of the day we are all exhuasted. The downhill stretch from the rangers hut back to the road is a little too much for me and as my back tyres swerve left and right over some loose rubble I lose control and fall off. Fortunately I am going slowly and only cut my hand. Pete recommends that I should walk down the steep parts of the road and helps by regularly signalling when I should jump off my bike again. At the bottom of the mountain he says that it only took 12 minutes for me to descend what must have taken at least an hour earlier in the day.

We ride back into town looking like triumphant soldiers. The circuit was certainly a lot more physically demanding than any of us expected but we all agree that it was worthwhile and a really good day. We celebrate with pisco sours, pizzas and unbelievably large servings of ice creams before falling into a deep deep sleep.

Next morning we wake early to start a 8am journey onwards. Our hostel owner has been up since 5am preparing a batch of 400 empananas (a Chilean pastry containing steak and olives). He expertly rolls out each dough ball in 30 seconds and has a huge pot of stewed beef which he prepared the evening before. We look hungrily at the empanas and alfores cakes which we see in his bakery but strangely only receive the standard Chilean breakfast. This consists of cold bread rolls, sweet jam, powdered hot milk and instant Nescafe coffee

Its raining and dark outside and a good day for travelling. We don our waterproofs and wander down to the bus stop. Here we meet Gaelle, Pieter and we soon head off on another 10 hour bus journey up the northern part of the Careterra Austral.
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