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The Carretera Austral - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
Medical facilities are limited in the Carretera – any serious accident or illness will involve evacuation to Puerto Montt or Santiago. Every village has a posta de salud, which is a minimal medical centre for minor problems. Certainly outside of Coyhaique it is unlikely that doctors will speak English.
Tap water is drinkable across Chile, although mineral water is almost always available. Food poisoning and cholera are not a great problem, but uncooked ceviche (shellfish) should be avoided. Depletion of the ozone layer, coupled with dry, unpolluted air, has led to increased levels of ultraviolet radiation in southern Chile, causing sunburn and increasing the risk of cataracts and skin cancer. Be sure to wear good sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen. Whilst on the road, it is a good idea to carry a personal first-aid kit. Contents might include a good drying antiseptic (eg: iodine or potassium permanganate), Band-Aids, suncream, insect repellent, aspirin or paracetamol, antifungal cream (eg: Canesten), ciprofloxacin or norfloxacin (for severe diarrhoea), antibiotic eye drops, tweezers, condoms, a digital thermometer and a needle and thread.
Travel clinics and health information
Medical facilities are limited in the Carretera – any serious accident or illness will involve evacuation to Puerto Montt or Santiago. Every village has a posta de salud, which is a minimal medical centre for minor problems. Certainly outside of Coyhaique it is unlikely that doctors will speak English. A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
The entire region of the Carretera Austral is astonishingly safe. The greatest threats are road accidents, or accidents relating to outdoor activities. Consider that communications are often poor, ambulances may have to travel extended distances on poor-quality roads, and medical facilities are limited.
Glaciers are potentially dangerous. Large chunks of ice fall at random intervals, often emitting small shards of ice in the process. When ice falls into lakes the subsequent wave can be sufficient to topple a boat. Trekking on glaciers should only be done with guides, as crevices are not always visible to the untrained eye. Do not touch a glacier, or approach the snout of a glacier, unless you know it is specifically safe.
Women travellers are equally safe. Care must be taken in certain rougher areas of Puerto Montt largely due to the prevalence of drunks. Taxis are the best means to travel at night. South of Puerto Montt there are very few safety issues. Around the mining areas it is possible to encounter the occasional drunk miner, but the same common-sense rules apply here as at home. Bars with suspicious red curtains are generally not the safest places in town, as they offer a range of ‘services’ not found in standard bars, and are perhaps best avoided by women travellers.
Travellers with disabilities
Where possible this book lists hotels and restaurants with facilities for those with disabilities; unfortunately, these are few and far between. For example, it is impossible to drive a car down to Caleta Tortel, let alone a wheelchair, as access is via steep steps made all the more challenging by frequent rain, and having to carry luggage. Large sections of the Carretera Austral are not paved and, although this is slowly changing, the reality is simply that disabilities have not been considered in the construction of the vast majority of towns, buildings, restaurants, hotels, public transport options, roads or tourism facilities, and nor are the inhabitants of this region accustomed to assisting those with disabilities. It is rare to see people with disabilities, whether visitors or residents, along the Carretera Austral.
Gay and lesbian travellers
While same-sex unions were legalised in Chile in April 2015, keep in mind that this is still a very conservative country and gay couples would be best advised to avoid public displays of affection. The only gay bar along the Carretera Austral is Club Angels in Puerto Montt.
Travelling with kids
Although the Carretera Austral cannot be compared to Disneyworld, it is a surpassingly child-friendly region. The author travelled the length of the Carretera Austral in January 2014 with a four-year-old daughter and a seven-month-pregnant wife. Most villages have a central plaza with a playground, although dedicated amusement parks for children are largely absent. Hitchhiking or travelling by public transport may not be ideal with children, but with a private vehicle, and not travelling for extended distances each day, the region offers excellent and unusual activities for children such as horseriding, swimming, moderate trekking, camping, boat trips, hot springs and limited cycling routes. There are very few museums, nor is there a cinema in the entire region, meaning that entertaining children on a rainy day can be a challenge. If driving it might be wise to have toys available to keep kids amused on long stretches of road.
There are usually child discounts for entry to parks, activities and hotels. Some restaurants have dedicated children’s menus, and those that do not will usually rustle up a suitable dish, or serve a smaller portion. However, note that most restaurants do not open before 20.00 for dinner.
For those with very young children, or wishing to do extended treks, a babycarrier might be a wise purchase. Buggies are not really suitable outside of the towns due to the generally poor road quality. Baby/child seats in cars are obligatory, and the traffic regulations are enforced. It is rare, but not impossible, to find hotels with baby cribs, particularly amongst the budget options. For any outdoor activities, ensure that children have decent boots and waterproofs for some mild trekking.