The sensational Southern Highway

Puerto Montt, Chile to Paso Roballos, Argentina
November 1 2014 – November 6, 2014

Three ferries in one day

A picture perfect Volcano viewed from the Hornopieren ferry stop

A picture perfect Volcano viewed from the Hornopieren ferry stop

We set off very early that Saturday morning, fully waterproof in our yellow fisherman’s suits, ready for the inevitable downpour that never happened. We were the first in line for the ferry at La Arena and were greeted by a frigid wind and dramatic lighting across the bay. Our first crossing was short and easy and so we chose the slightly longer coastal road down to Hornopieren to catch the next boat. The distant snowcapped peaks were whimsical against the rich blue sky, and when we arrived at the ferry ramp, we found ourselves next to a volcano that looked like it had been drawn for a children’s fairytale, perfectly conical with a flawless cap of snow. It was fortunate that the view was nice, as we found ourselves waiting a very long time for the ferry to arrive, and when it finally appeared it was weaving around the bay like a drunken sailor, and we hoped it was no indication of the state of the captain.

After 45 minutes of demented roving around the bay the Ferry approached the ferry ramp. Within a few minutes the long line of articulated trucks began the mind-boggling task of reversing their double length chariots onto the ferry that was parked at a 45 degree angle to the dock. We marvelled at the spectacle with three Argentinean riders before we were all allowed to take our bikes onboard. We then learned that the ferry had some mechanical problems, and had been trying to fix them while meandering across the bay. Their band-aid had come unstuck two minutes after we pushed off from dock, so we spent another hour floating around the bay, at least with a different view this time, and a comfortable chair. We tucked into the food Roberto San sent with us, grateful for his generosity as it was now well past lunch time.

Views from the Hornopieren - Lepetú Ferry

Views from the Hornopieren – Lepetú Ferry

Once the captain was finally content that his new band-aid to the problem would stick, we started moving through the fjords towards Lepetú. The steep mountains riddled with waterfalls were awe-inspiring, and made the 4 hour ride seem shorter than it was. It was a race to the front as we were deposited at Lepetu, since the short bit of road to the last ferry is dirt, and dusty, and you don’t want to be behind any cars for that. We arrived at the final ferry ramp of the day in the soft, angled light of evening and it was very hard to feel late, or rushed, in the presence of such beauty. Our last ride offered views of mountain tops being kissed by the last rays of the sun before unloading as at Caleta Gonzalo. For all the details on the ferries around la Carretera Austral check Chilean Ferries.

The stretch of road between there and Chaitén is one of my favourite bits of road from the whole trip: a twisting dirt road, with some rocks, but manageable enough for me to ride at a decent speed. The best part was not the road itself, nice as it was, but the dusk light and the lush greenery occasionally offering occasional peaks onto lakes and mountains in the distance. This will always remain a perfect couple of hours of in my memory.

Pristine evening light as we rode from the last ferry of the day into Chaitén

Pristine evening light as we rode from the last ferry of the day into Chaitén

We arrived in Chaitén after dark and found a decent meal in one of the two restaurants that was open late, then we crashed in a quaint hostel on the lake.

Learning about Lambs and Mate

We spent our morning in Chaitén inspecting the houses that were buried under the flow of ash and mud that came rushing down the river bed during the 2008 activity of the Chaitén Volcano, a great reminder to be thoughtful about where you decided to build a home. Further south the road was a pleasant ribbon of smooth, winding pavement and we had it all to ourselves. After several hours we stopped for lunch in a small town, La Junta. It was technically not yet open for the season, but the owner, thoughtfully cleaning glasses behind the bar called to his wife, and she agreed to feed us, as long as pasta was acceptable for us. We nodded hungrily and discovered that our meal came with a complimentary glass of wine (for me) and a massage (for the Wolf.) The owner was an ex weightlifter, familiar with back and neck pains, and the next minute the Wolf was on the floor getting treatment.

Feeding the lambs at Camping Torres del Simpson

Feeding the lambs at Camping Torres del Simpson

After lunch, the road took a turn for the unpleasant. The paving devolved into particularly dusty brand of gravel, worsened by the company of cars, trucks and later extensive roadworks. The roadworks delayed us for an hour at a time and I was completely covered in dust by the time we finally found the location of the Torres del Simpson Camping outside of Coyhaique. Fortunately the campsite was a glorious bed of plush grass, pruned daily by two precious little lambs and guarded in the rear by a stern range of mountains. There was not a speck of dust to be seen. Nacho and his wife Sandra run a organic vegetable farm, in addition to providing a well appointed camp spot for folks exploring the Carretera Austral. They also provide an important service, teaching gringos the intricacies of the Mate drinking ritual. We learned that it’s typically a group activity, and the pourer is the only one permitted to move the bombilla around in the cup. Once it’s passed to you, you must drink until you finish all the liquid and the bombilla starts slurping as it takes in air. You must only say Gracias once you are finished, because you won’t get another turn once you’ve uttered the word. After a mate filled morning, we once again got the wheels rolling, armed with tips from Nacho on the best spot to see glaciers.

A lake lined with marble

We arrived in Puerto Rio Tranquilo late afternoon, after lunching on a massive El Lomito sandwich in Coyhaique. We immediately set about finding a glacier tour in town – on the sound advice of Nacho, who firmly believes the San Rafael Glacier is one of the best to see. We probably never be able to verify this belief as the weather was turning the next day, and none of the companies in town would take us. We moped back across town and checked into a warm cabin with a fireplace to lift and warm our spirits. The wind picked up that night, as if to reassure us that it was all for the best. The next morning we set out to discover the reknowned Capillas de Marmol in the Lago Gral Careterra. These Marble Chapels rise up out of the sparkling turquoise waters with such beauty they would inspire a religious experience in the most rational heart, even if it was only to worship mother nature herself. After snapping an absurd number of photos, we made our way back to shore, and continued along the spectacular Carretera Austral, or the Southern Highway.

The Capillas de Mármol (The Marble Chapels) An astonishing series of marble formations in Lago Gral Carrera

The Capillas de Mármol (The Marble Chapels) An astonishing series of marble formations in Lago Gral Carrera

Caleta Tortel

We made it Cochrane at lunchtime and promptly found ourselves in one of the town’s better restaurants, Ada’s, for a hearty lunch. Satisfied, and perhaps a little sleepy, we went looking for accommodation. Most often, the first few places we see are either unkempt or overpriced, or in the worst case both. After two duds, we found an affable old couple with a nice clean room at Hospedaje Katita. We explained we were going to drop off our filthy mud-encrusted luggage in the back, head to Caleta Tortel for a night, and return to sleep there tomorrow. They agreed to our plan and we apologised profusely as we dragged our mucky bags into their unblemished home. Then we were free to revel in the joy of light, unloaded bikes on the 126kms of dirt road to the timber town consisting mainly of stilt houses.

The wooden walkways and stairways of Caleta Tortel

The wooden walkways and stairways of Caleta Tortel

There are no roads in the town, and until recently there was no road to the town either. It was only accessible by boat or air. In 2003 the town was connected to the Carretera Austral and now it’s possible to drive to the top of the town, park your vehicle and hike down into it along the maze of wooden walkways and staircases. It was early in the season, so there were few tourists, and we explored the coastal town in a light evening rain.

The next morning we set off to hike over hill towering over the bay. Two local dogs decided to join us, one a hyperactive bundle of joy, and the other his perfect foil as a calm, unflappable chap. The route started on carefully constructed wooden paths leading us across the swampy ground. Soon the path disappeared and we found ourselves sloshing through the landscape, a picking our way over the rocks. It’s a good thing the views were worth it, because an hour before the end of the hike, the rain started to fall, and we were as muddy and bedraggled as our luggage in Cochrane by the time we returned to our little hotel. We dried ourselves off, picked up our gear, and headed back to the bikes to ride back to Cochrane in the rain, once again, grateful for our yellow fisherman’s suits.

Crossing to Argentina

There are some moments when a hot shower feels better than anything you could imagine. Our shower after arriving in Cochrane was one of those showers for me. After warming up, we headed into town to feed ourselves, and once again found ourselves dodging raindrops. The next morning we loaded up the bikes and set off for the border. We had chosen to cross into Argentina at the small border of Paso Roballos, because it was out of the way, on a small road, and the small roads are always more fun (except when they are too challenging for me to ride.) We also hoped that they would be less likely to insist on insurance at a small border post. Technically you are not supposed to enter Argentina without insurance, and we had read mixed reviews on how strict they are about it at different borders. We knew about this since entering Chile, and we had been trying to buy insurance ever since. We spent a whole day marching across Santiago, enquiring at every insurance provider we could find. The story was always the same, without a RUT (Rol Único Tributario, the Chilean taxation unique contributor roll identification number) buying insurance was not possible. After trying for weeks, the only solution was to buy into some group insurance deal online through a German guy based in Argentina, at over $100, which seemed extortionate. We decided to take our chances and proceeded into Argentina lawlessly uninsured.

10338419_1397579660481202_3644653681468633606_oAstonishingly, it began to rain shortly after we left Cochrane. Luckily we were aptly dressed in our yellow ensembles, prepared for any amount of falling water. I was regrettably unprepared for all the mud however. Our progress was remarkably slow, as I wormed my way across the slick ribbon of road cutting through the mountains. We arrived at the Chilean border several hours later, me exhausted, stressed and cold, and the Wolf mainly irritated at my repeatedly slow pace. He satisfied his irritation by taking the most unflattering portrait possible of me ever.

Then we covered the many kilometeres of no-man’s land before reaching the hut that was the Argentinean border. The aduana was friendly enough, operating his border with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, with a spectacular mountain view out his window. He never asked us about insurance. And just like that, we were in Argentina: country number 14.


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