Sensory overload on the Carretera Austral

On January 13, 2014 by Peter

I met Alice and Kaleb on January 12 at the Balmaceda airstrip at the northern edge of Patagonia. Pascale, a kind French woman who spends half the year in Patagonia and the other half in the Alps, picked us up in another Nissan Xtrail and we headed for the famous Carretera Austral. Like several other people I’ve met in Chile, Pascale decided to quit her 9-to-5 job in the city so she could spend her days living closer to her passions. She was full of positive energy and was a terrific guide. The Carretera Austral heads south from Puerto Montt all the way to Villa O’Higgins, at the southern end of Chile. The road itself is an amazing feat of engineering that took more than 20yrs to complete. It passes through wild terrain. Many people attempt to cycle or ride motorcycles the entire length of the road. It would be an epic and staggeringly beautiful adventure.

Our drive took about 5 hours, with a stop for lunch at a small restaurant near the town (and stunning rock formations) of Cerro Castillo, which you can see poking some clouds in this photo.

Cerro Castillo Patagonia

Once out of the small town, the pavement turned to gravel and Pascale showed us that she is to the Carretera Austral what Sabine Schmidt is to the Nurburgring.

Pascale in traffic on the Carrertera Austral

You can see Pascale’s reflection in the rear view mirror. She blitzed the road, drifting around some of the turns.  The road itself was narrow in parts with soft shoulders and little room for error. Extreme amounts of dust when following other vehicles, countless blind turns, and enough other cars and trucks on the road made it inevitable that we had a couple of near misses. Her quick pace created time for us to stop at several unspeakably beautiful overlooks.

Carretera Austral Laguna Verde

We arrived out our lodge, ate dinner, and then hit the hay in our little cabin. I slept in the loft in a bunk bed.

Bunk beds in Northern Patagonia

When we headed out for a few nearby excursions on January 13 in an old Mitsubishi Delica 4WD van with Carola, our guide, we had no idea that we were in for another 9 hours of Northern Patagonia sensory overload. Driving the Delica on the Carretera Austral exposed every creak and rattle in the old beast, and we could barely hold a conversation inside the van. Every time another car passed us on the narrow road, the dust cloud was suffocating. But none of this really bothered us, because the scenery was incredible and Carola took us to some amazing places. We went first to the confluence of the Rio Baker — the biggest river in Chile — and another smaller river. The Rio Baker is a beautiful turquoise color, and the other river is a dull gray. The colors and rapids when they meet are made even more dramatic by the stunning mountains in the background.

Rio Baker Confluencia Patagonia

Some kayakers showed up and tackled the rapids.

Kayaker on the Rio Baker in Patagonia

After eating our sandwiches by the confluence, Carola drove us an hour or so up into the hills above the lodge to check out an amazing fossil deposit. She billed this as a quick stroll in the woods. It was basically an hour and a half of calf-burning walking straight up a steep hill to a windswept summit with an awesome view of the mountains, valleys, and lakes of this region. We started out walking through an enchanted forest.

Enchanted forest in Patagonia

Then we climbed above treeline and had spectacular views back down to Lago General Carrera and the surrounding mountains.

Lago General Carrera in Patagonia

You can see two pockets of rain in the photo. Patagonia is full of micro-climates, and we were basking (and baking) in afternoon sunshine as we kept trudging higher and higher towards the ridgeline.

Hiking towards a fossil lode in Patagonia

The last bit of the hike was steep, rocky, and loose.

The last stretch before the fossil deposit in Patagonia

That meant we spent a lot of time looking down, which was propitious because there were fossils and little flowers everywhere.

Flower on the trail in Patagonia

The fossils themselves were impressive both for their quantity and quality.

Fossils in Patagonia

The wind was fierce above treelike, so we snapped a few photos and steeled our IT bands for the steep walk down.

We arrived back at the van with time for one more excursion, so Carola pointed the Delica downhill, forded a river, and took us to an imperious waterfall that glistened in the early evening light. We passed dozens of bushes laden with calafate berries on the way up to the falls.

Calafate bushes in Patagonia

The falls were majestic from every angle. This is the bottom third, shot with the Fuji XE-2 and 18-55 at f22 to get a slow enough shutter speed to capture the motion of the water.

Waterfall in Patagonia

And the top third:

Top of a waterfall in Patagonia

By the time we got back the lodge around 830PM, we were utterly knackered after an excellent, quite full day in Northern Patagonia.

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