The Carretera Austral - Background information


Abridged from the History section in Chile: the Carretera Austral

The history of the Carretera Austral can be divided into four distinct periods: pre the 1973 coup, when the region was isolated, undeveloped and disconnected from mainland Chile; during the Pinochet regime, when the majority of the Carretera Austral was constructed; the years following the dictatorship when work continued (though at a more leisurely pace); and the current day, perhaps the most important and challenging stage in the evolution of the Carretera Austral.

Monument, sign, La Junta, Carretera Austral, Chile by Hugh SinclairA rare monument to Pinochet in La Junta © Hugh Sinclair

Pinochet (1973–90)

Pinochet seized power from Salvador Allende in a military coup on 11 September 1973, and embarked on the project to complete the Carretera Austral three years later. Quite what motivated the president is uncertain. Connecting remote regions of Chile to the ‘mainland’ was important, and was used as the principal justification for the massive investment. However, concern over encroachments from Argentina in ongoing territorial disputes was also a factor. In 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands and Pinochet was quick to support the British, and in particular his personal friend Margaret Thatcher, irritating his neighbour enormously. There was a valid reason to construct a road capable of supporting troop deployments in the case of an Argentine invasion, and this no doubt influenced Pinochet.

Over the next decade and a half, employing 10,000 members of Cuerpo Militar de Trabajo (Military Workforce, abbreviated as CMT) and a similar number of civilians, Pinochet embarked on one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in South America. His critics mocked the idea, suggesting it was of no use to the people, was economically unviable, and that the Aysén Province was bankrupt. Between 1979 and 1982 the road from Puerto Cisnes to Mañihuales was completed, facilitated in part by the close friendship between Pinochet and the Mayor of Puerto Cisnes, Eugenia Pirzio Biroli (see box, page 145). Futaleufú was finally connected to the Carretera Austral in 1980, up until which point its only terrestrial connection was with Argentina. By 1982 the Carretera extended from Chaitén to Coyhaique, some 420km.

Between 1980 and 1988 the section from Villa Cerro Castillo to Bahía Murta, Puerto Río Tranquilo and to Cruce El Maitén was completed, and by late 1988 it had extended as far south as Cochrane. This was of fundamental strategic importance, reducing dependence upon the ferry between Puerto Ibáñez and Puerto Guadal, and also off ering uninterrupted terrestrial access between Chaitén and Cochrane. By some defi nitions the Carretera Austral, as we know it today, was largely completed by 1988. Meanwhile, further north, from 1982 to 1992 the trunk road from La Junta to Lago Verde was constructed, presumably to provide a connection to Argentina. Chile is still waiting for Argentina to construct a bridge over the Río Pico, until then this border remains largely useless.

Natural history

Much of the region lies in the floristic zone known as Magellanic rainforest. This comprises boggy forest dominated by evergreen broadleaf trees. Between Puerto Montt and Ventisquero San Rafael, the evergreen Siempreverde forest is common and contains tracts of cypress trees. East of the Carretera towards the national border lie forests of the Patagonian Andes. There are broadleaf trees and conifers here too, but also dwarf shrubs at the treeline. In a few areas are areas of Patagonian steppe, where chilly plains are dominated by grasses and stunted shrubs. 

Wildlife, Huemul, Carretera Austral, Chile by Hugh SinclairThe elusive huemul deer is a native of the region © Hugh Sinclair

Even without deviating from the Carretera, you should see a modicum of the commoner and larger wildlife, particularly birds. But to respond properly to Neruda’s encouragement, detours are advisable, mainly to protected areas scattered off-route. Helpfully for the non-expert, printed materials provided at the reserve entrances generally list the site wildlife.

People and culture

The inhabitants of Aysén fall into four broad groups. Firstly, those that have never lived elsewhere, including some that trace their ancestry to the indigenous populations, now largely vanished. Secondly, well-established families who migrated to the region between the mid 19th century and mid 20th century, including a large number of Germans, but also Belgians (around Chile Chico) and lesser numbers from other European countries.Thirdly, in part for the endless bickering over the precise border dividing Chile and Argentina, migration between the countries particularly in the south has blurred the distinction between the two nationalities. There is less animosity between the nationalities here – many people have families on both sides of the border, and customs are shared. For example, drinking maté and use of certain Argentine colloquialisms is common around the Aysén border regions.

Horseman, El-Salto-waterfall, Carretera Austral by Warren Houlbrooke Local huaso (gaucho) by the El Salto waterfall © Warren Houlbrooke

Finally, a number of relatively recent immigrants, both from other parts of Chile and further afield, have arrived in the region around the Carretera Austral – a trend that is likely to increase. Many new hotels and businesses emerge each year largely owned by people not originally from the region seeking to escape the rat race and take advantage of the potential for tourism in this area. In addition, the recent economic crisis in Argentina has prompted a number of Argentines to look for employment opportunities across the border.

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