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The Carretera Austral - The authors’ take
‘The best road-trip in the world’ is an oft-heard phrase claimed by many. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the Carretera Austral is slowly gaining fame for being up there with the finest road trips in the Americas, if not worldwide. It is a challenging region to visit, and even as additional sections of the Carretera Austral are paved each season, the road provides access to a mere slither through an area the size of Greece.
Patagonia is an iconic region, the stuff of legends. Bruce Chatwin’s 1977 book In Patagonia, and Paul Theroux’s 1979 The Old Patagonian Express are landmark texts, but in fact much of the literature over the last century has focused on Argentine Patagonia. This will change in the 21st century. Chilean Patagonia is so unique as to baffle even those that have spent substantial time there. Glaciers are impressive objects, but most people only glimpse the snout, the tip, of these protrusions. Along the Carretera Austral it is possible to see the ice fields behind such glaciers, and the only possible response is awe. Trips to Antarctica and Greenland are substantially more expensive, and offer far less variety in terms of the range of terrain and activities possible, and beyond these two outlying locations, the Carretera Austral is the only place where it is possible to visit such ice fields.
For those with a little more time available, the history of this region is fascinating. This was truly pioneering colonisation, to places that even a century later could hardly be described as accessible. Some of these colonisers, or the subsequent generation, live in the same villages to this day. Alas the history is not well documented, so the only option is to hear it from those who lived it while you still can!
The variety of flora and fauna along the Carretera Austral warrants its own encyclopaedia, and this book merely scratches the surface of the wildlife encountered. But for those interested in nature and conservation, this region is, once again, unique, competing with some of the iconic regions of the continent (such as the Amazon and Darién), and yet surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In addition to the obvious attributes of the Carretera Austral, it is becoming an adventure activity hub. The trekking and climbing opportunities are already sufficient to keep the most avid hiker busy for multiple seasons. Horseriding is hardly considered an activity, but rather a standard form of transport. The kayaking and rafting is world class. Keen to capitalise on the nascent tourism sector, new guides and routes spring up each season. Whenever a new road is blasted, this opens up access to new climbs, lakes, mountains, glaciers and usually reaches isolated villages. The entire region is essentially a work in progress.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the Carretera Austral is that it forms a natural bridge. A trip to South America is incomplete without visiting Patagonia, and a trip to Patagonia is incomplete without traversing the Carretera Austral. Northern Patagonia is a well-established, and increasingly well-developed, tourist destination – for better or worse. Southern Patagonia, less so. Regions such as Ushuaia, El Chaltén and Calafate in Argentina, and Torres del Paine and Punta Arenas in Chile, are increasingly popular destinations in the extreme south. The problem is how to get from northern to southern Patagonia. The Carretera Austral offers a fantastic means to do so, far more interesting than a 2-hour flight at 30,000 feet or a 50-hour bus ride across the Argentine steppe (desert).
Researching this book has been extremely time-consuming. We interviewed endless travellers – from Chileans to international visitors: backpackers, hitchhikers, cyclists, motorbikers, and those with private cars. One important question we asked of these travellers was ‘what is the main problem you have encountered travelling in this region?’ in an effort to address these key frustrations in this book. Two answers appeared repeatedly: lack of relevant information, and problems booking ferries.
We have tried to provide all the information possible on the ferries, and alternative routes that avoid their use where possible. At the end of the day capacity is finite, and this problem will not be solved overnight. Being aware of it, and planning ahead, are the only short-term measures. The lack of information is a more profound problem. The region encompassed by the Carretera Austral is neither geared for, nor familiar with, tourism. This is changing, but slowly. Many villages do not have internet access, or even cellphone coverage, so it should come as little surprise that there are few websites. Natural obstacles, most obviously volcanic eruptions, occasional floods, landslides, fallen trees, relentless rain, and highly changeable weather require a greater degree of flexibility amongst residents and visitors alike. Rigid timetables and fixed bus times are neither feasible nor consistent with cultural habits of the region.
The bus comes when it comes, and it reaches its destination sometime later. If you want Swiss public transport and Swiss timetables, the Carretera Austral is not the place for you! The Carretera Austral is magical partly as a consequence of its isolation and lack of outside influences. Writing a guidebook fundamentally threatens precisely this source of uniqueness. Is universal cellphone coverage beneficial? Do you want to be able to download emails at the snout of the San Rafael Glacier? Paving the Carretera Austral has obvious benefits to the local residents, but do we really want this last remote spot in Chile to resemble the road atlas of the rest of the country? The original colonising generation is being rapidly replaced with a younger generation, who have access to airplanes and internet and television. Immigration to the region, from abroad and within Chile, is fundamentally altering the local culture. Will this be to the long-term benefit or harm of the region? Will Coyhaique eventually become a crime-filled urban sprawl as many other cities in Latin America regrettably have?
The Carretera Austral forces visitors to consider these questions. There are no easy answers, and the region is changing so rapidly that even from one summer to the next the transformation is visible to the untrained eye. Castro (Chiloé) has a new airport, as does Chaitén (at the northern section of the Carretera). Protected by extensive national parks and natural barriers, and simply for its location at the extreme end of the planet, the Carretera Austral is perhaps better protected from the ills of the ‘economic development’ we are supposed to await longingly. Chatwin wrote of Patagonia, ‘It is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness.’ That restlessness is reflected in the curiosity, the desire for adventure and to get off the beaten track, of visitors exploring the Carretera Austral. But let’s not forget Jan Lundberg’s warning: ‘It’s hard to destroy wilderness without roads’ – visitors to this region have a responsibility to preserve it.
It always puzzled me why other children forgot to mention South America in geography classes. For as long as I can remember this was the mysterious continent I had to visit. Straight after university I packed my bags and headed south, and never quite left. During a year-long assignment in Mongolia my wife and I discovered we were expecting a baby, and for all the joys of life in Ulaanbaatar, raising a family there did not appeal. Instead of endlessly moving to where work dictated, we opened the map to decide where we wanted to go to start a new chapter in life. One place sprung to mind – Patagonia.
I had motorbiked through Patagonia in 2001 as part of a Guinness World Record expedition to establish the fastest passage through the Americas by motorbike, and we had visited the region numerous times since. But it was not until 2011 that I realised I had not actually visited the true gem of this region. I drove down from Bariloche to Cochrane along the Carreterra Austral and discovered a region of verdant jungle, eye-popping glaciers, stunning lakes, and rivers of colours I did not know existed. Thus began my love affair with the Carretera Austral.
I began to receive endless emails from friends, bikers, backpackers, cyclists, etc, asking for information about this mysterious region. Instead of replying to each, perhaps it would be easier to write a summary to send to people? As I thought about the size of such a summary I realised ‘book’ was a fairer description, and thus I approached Bradt, who leapt at the chance, and supported the project from a crazy idea to the book you now hold in your hands. Patagonia is now open. Enjoy it, and protect it.
One of my great passions is to jump on my trusted motorbike and explore the vast Patagonia region. I like to cross the Andes and go on the 4x4 tracks and do the river crossings to discover absolutely pristine lakes and rivers where most don’t dare venture. I first explored part of the Carretera Austral in 2010. This spectacular road trip is like a magnet to me, and I have returned multiple times since to further explore this region. I have backpacked through 27 different countries and yet I rate the Carretera Austral as the most spectacular road trip by a wide margin. Where else can you see 1,200km of pristine troutfilled lakes and rivers, rugged snow-capped mountain ranges, glaciers, ice fields, volcanoes, fjords and temperate rainforests? This is truly one of the last great largely unexplored frontiers left on our planet and long may it remain that way for future generations to appreciate.
I met Hugh Sinclair in Bariloche in 2011 and quickly discovered that he also is a motorbike fanatic and shares my passion for the Carretera Austral. One night, over an ale or two in our local, we were discussing our adventures on the Carretera Austral and our frustrations over the lack of quality information available. We both agreed this road trip is worthy of its own dedicated quality guidebook to help promote sustainable tourism, and the idea evolved from there. A year later and I can proudly say that I feel very privileged to be a coauthor of the first international guidebook to this region.