Chile: A wild, rolling-eyed beast of a route

The Carretera Austral highway bumps and shudders you through the remote Aysén region of Southern Chile, while the Andes and ice fields clamour for your attention

By Adrian Phillips
Published 1 Mar 2017, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 12:19 BST
Rolando, horse trekking near Villa Cerro Castillo

Rolando, horse trekking near Villa Cerro Castillo

Photograph by Christopher Toothman, Courtesy of Senderos Patagonia

Morning comes, loaded with the sounds and silences of the wilderness. A breeze rises and dies among the trees that fringe the clearing, the horses nicker intermittently, and out on the lake some ducks thrash and squabble before all is calm again. "Patagonia is about moments like this," says Mary, and I nod my appreciation of the moment through the hum of my electric toothbrush.

Yesterday evening, the camp had unfolded around me in minutes. The horses were tethered, my tent pitched, a windbreak improvised from tarpaulin and whittled branches. Rodrigo magicked a whole salmon from his saddlebag and we ate it fresh from the fire with pieces of lemon and tomato while a billion stars convened above us. Now everything is dismantled with the same swift efficiency, until only the cheeky meadowlark that'd insisted on sharing our breakfast would ever have known we'd stayed.

And we're off again, along the narrow cattle trails. Welcome to Aysén, in Southern Chile, a region the size of England but containing just one person for every two sq km. A region so remote that until recently it didn't even feature in Chilean weather forecasts. For several years, real-life gaucho Cristian and his wife, Mary, have led riding trips through the foothills around Villa Cerro Castillo. Their multi-activity company, Senderos Patagonia, has recently joined forces with Rodrigo, whose family own much of the land hereabouts. I've joined them on a two-day trek.

My priority, though, is not to break my neck on the land. "Negra's lovely, but you'll need to show her who's boss," Mary had warned yesterday, and then I'd spent the afternoon muttering prayers and clinging on for dear life. Whenever we dropped too far behind the others, Negra would break into an unbidden trot that left me bouncing and flapping like a Jack-in-the-box; when she loped over a log, I nearly lost my teeth in the back of her head.

But by the second day, I'm anticipating my horse's sudden dashes, interpreting her huffy grunts, and coaxing her around low-hanging branches rather than letting her drag me through them. I start to appreciate the mint-green frosting of lichen on the lenga trees, the scent of tobacco on the leaves. We cross streams and toil up sandy tracks, the horses snorting and struggling for purchase, before reaching a plateau with views over Cerro Castillo, its peak crenelated like a Crusader castle.

This is horse country, and my companions are horse people, through and through. Mary arrived from the US a decade ago, but the others are direct descendants of the tough pioneers who first settled Aysén in the early 1900s, drawn by the promise of cheap land from a government desperate to prevent Argentinian claims on empty territory.

Guiding the packhorse at the front is Rolando, a gaucho with a greying moustache and no front teeth, his great-grandfather one of the original five families to inhabit this pocket beneath the mountains. Behind me is Rodrigo, whose grandfather helped establish the town of Cochrane to the south in the 1950s. "He made his money driving horses — 100 at a time — to sell in Coyhaique, over 300km away." Right at the back is Cristian, the horse whisperer.

"These guys know the terrain like the backs of their hands," Mary tells me. It's Rolando who finds a big hairy armadillo's shell, and points out the Magellanic woodpecker jutting sideways from a tree trunk, its tufted head a blaze of crimson. Rodrigo spots a pair of grey-brown fox cubs, legs splaying as they scamper back up to a fissure in the rock. "Foxes and pumas are the only predatory mammals here," he explains. In the past, farmers ran pumas down with their dogs, but recent education efforts have resulted in puma numbers climbing. "Cristian has seen a couple of pumas," Mary reveals proudly.

Cristian says nothing. "He's quite quiet," Mary concedes, as her husband canters ahead to scout the path, toothpick between teeth, the very epitome of the strong, silent cowboy. I unspool his story from the others. He used to be a bucking bronco rider, they tell me, breaking horses the old-fashioned way, but grew tired of forcing animals to bow to his will. Instead, he learned a more natural method, one that focuses on fostering trust between man and beast. Today, he's the horse whisperer of choice for miles around, famed for bringing the wildest of steeds to heel.

That evening, while the lamb is roasting at Rodrigo's cypress-wood lodge, Cristian takes centre stage at last. "I understand the way a horse communicates," he says, "its movements, the position of its ears and lips." And as he approaches a feisty white stallion called Napoleon in the paddock, he clicks and shushes and utters hushed reassurances; this quiet man talking and talking in the language he loves best.

Trust established, Cristian takes Napoleon through a series of exercises, each designed to prepare him for a real-life scenario. He wraps a rope around his forelegs (to mimic a stray lead rein) and the stallion stands steady. He shakes some pebbles in a bottle (like the sharp rattle of a rock slide), and Napoleon remains unspooked. "Cristian doesn't break horses — he trains them," observes Mary, admiringly. "I just enter the horse's world," says Cristian, simply, and is silent for the rest of the night.

On the road

Next day, I'm in my hire car heading south on the only road connecting Aysén with civilisation — a fragile lifeline threading its way over 800 miles between the Andes to the east and rainforest, ice fields and coastal fjords to the west. The Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) was once called Pinochet's Highway because it was mainly constructed in the 1970s and 1980s under the rule of the infamous dictator. Journeys that took days by boat could now be made in hours; despite his brutal record, Pinochet is revered by many in these parts.

But the road can be a wild, rolling-eyed beast. Paved smooth from Coyhaique, it advances on Villa Cerro Castillo with the sweeping undulations of an angry snake before emerging from the village and shedding its tarmac entirely. From there onwards — for hundreds of miles — it thrums and thunders beneath your tyres, spitting stones that make tinny music on the chassis. My car jounces over the bumps and shudders through the potholes, and when I overtake a cyclist, I watch guiltily in the mirror as he's engulfed by the dust that gushes in my wake.

Alongside me, the vastness of the Patagonian landscape clamours for attention. Grassed hills are topped with tonsures of green forest, before the scenery takes on a haunted quality; mountainsides littered with burnished tree stumps where pioneers' fires once burnt out of control. A movement catches the corner of my eye, and I reverse to watch two deer stepping along a stream — pretty deer like I've never seen before, with dark muzzles and oversized elasticky ears. Then, a few miles on, I pass the orange carcass of an upturned car, a rusting reminder that if I lose respect for the Carretera Austral it will buck me in a flash.

At Puerto Río Tranquilo, I take a gravel road 50 miles west along the Exploradores Valley. Here, the rainforest is close and dense and prehistoric, looming above and around as though nature has dislocated its jaw and is slowly swallowing the road. There are no other cars, just the ghostly shape of a cow deep in the foliage, a caracara falcon perched motionless on a dead tree, and a flattened hare that must have put some effort into getting run over on such a lonely track.

Waiting at the end of the road is Jorge, the man who will take me to the San Rafael Glacier. I'm joined in his motorboat by four tourists from Florida, and as we set off from Bahia Exploradores down the Elefantes Canal, one of them launches into an exhaustive commentary on the birds at the shoreline. "Richard is very into wildlife," his wife says apologetically. "He has a species of ant named after him," she adds, by way of emphasis.

Patagonia contains a greater swathe of ice than anywhere but Greenland and Antarctica, and we're thwacking over the lumpy water towards a sheet that covers over 1,620sq miles. Two hours later, the canal flattens as we approach the neck of Laguna San Rafael, and a dog-sized chunk of ice floats gently by. Another follows, the length of a car (and the shape of a swan, Richard points out), and when we finally swing into the lagoon we're met by blocks as big as yachts, a sleek flotilla escorting us to the mother ship.

There, in the distance, is the glacier, its snout poking between the valley sides. All around are the murky browns and greens of the mountains, and the ice seems too brilliantly white by comparison, a piece of artistic licence. From here its texture seems unreal too, foamy or furry, but as we draw closer the glacier's face sharpens into focus: granite-hard, pocked and scarred, scored with deep vertical lines where meltwater has dragged its fingernails.

When Darwin visited aboard HMS Beagle in 1834, the ice extended eight miles further into the lagoon, but you'd never guess this was nature in retreat. The glacier is 1.5 miles across, climbs over 260ft above the water and drops 820ft beneath, while it hauls behind a body stretching 31 miles up Monte San Valentin. Our boat is a twig below a hoary tanker; the sheer bulk of the glacier sucks sound from the air.

And then it lets out a pistol crack that splinters the quiet and echoes about the lagoon. Two puffs of powder rise like gun smoke to the right, and the world holds its breath, before a huge section of the ice drops smoothly like a guillotine, collapsing in a rubble of ice and spray as it hits the water. The boom of the impact reaches us a second later, and a second after that we watch as a colossal slab surges back to the surface with a violent, fizzing hiss.

"Gigante," laughs Jorge, as he manoeuvres the boat to ensure we're ready for the swell that's rippling towards us. Small craft can be capsized by the waves from calving glaciers. As we bob and drink a tot of whisky, Richard gives an impromptu lecture on the lifecycle of the gulls that are now circling the spot, hunting for fish stunned by the ice fall. "We've certainly carpe'd the diem today," he eventually concludes. "And the diem has carpe'd us a little bit too, dear," replies his weary wife.

A sense of proportion

Nature is in festive mood as I continue south on the Carretera Austral next morning. The clouds have been back-combed to full fluffiness, and lupins breathe gusts of honeyed perfume through my open window. On the left, Lago General Carrera is so blue it looks pink. I pass a caracara bird in deep conversation with a goat, and wait while a cascade of cows clatters down the hill ahead, a gaucho full pelt at the rear. But shortly afterwards, I lose the car for a moment, the back end slewing as though batted by an invisible paw, and I realise that — whatever nature's mood — I'm a beetle on the floor at its party.

I spend the day exploring Parque Patagonia, in the Chacabuco Valley, an area purchased in 2004 by controversial US conservationists Doug and Kristine Tompkins with the aim of rescuing it from overgrazing and restoring its original biodiversity. Not everyone took kindly to gringo millionaires buying up Chilean land, but one person's imperialists are another's pioneers, eco-friendly successors to those who were themselves outsiders less than a century ago.

And there's no disputing the beauty of the valley, now free of fences and livestock. Bronze bluffs tower either side, sunlight pooling in their hollows, while distant herds of guanacos roam the grassy plains like dinosaurs. This strange-looking animal, with bulging eyes and a stretched neck, looks as though it recently pulled its head free from some railings. I watch as the males fight for dominance, barking and biting, and charging about the slopes with necks lowered like jousting poles.

In truth, the valley is a Noah's ark of the oddly proportioned. Fat viscachas with rabbit ears and squirrel tails survey me comfortably from the rock faces, paws folded over their Buddha bellies. A dozen flamingos glide above Flamingo Lake, pink and stringy at both ends. Pygmy owls — the Tom Thumb of owls — live among the grasslands, as do skittish lesser rheas, ostrich-like birds best described as a panicky backside on legs.

Which I rather fear is how the residents of Cochrane might describe me as I stalk through town the following morning, clad in figure-hugging neoprene. You must go river snorkelling, Jorge had said, and I'd suspected a practical joke, a suspicion that lingered as I shoehorned myself into a wetsuit in a shed behind a cafe just off the main square. However, the well-proportioned Jorge is deadly serious, and with flippers under our arms, we walk out of the centre until the River Cochrane opens before us.

"Will it be warm?" I ask. "No," he replies, and then he's wading in and I'm tiptoeing after, the cold river inching its way up my legs. Face masks on, we fin above waterweed that sways like poplars in a wind, before the channel narrows into a tunnel of woodland, sunlight strafing through the twigs that tweak the tops of our snorkels. Jorge briefly removes his mouthpiece to warn me of "small rabbits ahead", and I'm thoroughly confused until the river hurries us through some gentle rapids.

When the water deepens, Jorge makes a graceful dive, tracing the contours of the bed and showering silver bubbles behind him. Trout as long as my arm drift unperturbed in the current; introduced by European pioneers, they're now the only fish left in the waters. But there's plenty of life above. As we rest by a meadow, Chilean swallows dog-fight for insects, and Jorge pulls his phone from a waterproof pouch to play a recording of trills and whistles. A moment later, a flycatcher appears on a bullrush, cocks its head at us, and then flits away in a rainbow blur of yellow, green and red. "The many-coloured bird," Jorge smiles. "That's my favourite."

I have to wait until dawn on my final day, though, for the bird I really want to see. Leaning precariously over a dizzying canyon near Coyhaique, I look onto a coven of hunched bodies, wings folded into low-hanging capes and beaks curving menacingly from wizened faces of grey-pink skin. The Andean condors squat on a ledge just 65ft below, waiting for a sallow sun to warm the earth; from time to time, the adult tests the thermals, plucking a downy under-feather and watching to see if it rises.

And when it does, he pitches himself into the abyss, the air catching and tugging him upwards. The juveniles follow — one, two, three — and together they form a graceful holding pattern, soaring out over the canyon and then arcing back to swoop along the edge of the cliff, so that for a split second each is eye to eye with me like a bomber pilot on a flypast.

Up to 50 of these enormous vultures roost here. "Incoming high left!" cries my guide, Tim, as another joins the parade, and soon there are nine of them — their wings as long as beds — making circles around us. After a few minutes, the circles stretch as the birds begin to move away across the tundra, travelling 250 miles to search for carrion.

"Some people believe condors kill deer and even babies — absolute rubbish, of course," says Tim, and the mention of deer reminds me of the two I'd spotted on my third day. "Huemul!" exclaims Tim, as I show him a photo on my phone. "You're so lucky — they're endangered. Most Chileans have never seen a huemul."

It's true. I'm lucky. Not just to have got close to the huemul and the condors and the glacier, but to have experienced the feral spirit of the Carretera Austral. Someday — perhaps someday soon — the road will run smooth with tarmac. It'll become safer and more practical, the humps and bumps ironed out. But it'll also seem just that little bit divorced from the landscape, just that little bit deadened, an animal forced to submit. A horse broken rather than trained. Now's the time to visit Aysén, while its wildness still judders through the seat of your pants.


Getting there & around
British Airways operates the only direct flights from the UK to Chile, flying from Heathrow to Santiago four times a week, from £680 return. Several other airlines fly to Santiago indirectly, with one stop.
The only commercial airport on the Carretera Austral is Balmaceda, near Coyhaique. Domestic carriers are LATAM Airlines and Sky Airline.
Buses run between Coyhaique and Cochrane, but the easiest way to explore is by car. Car hire is available at Balmaceda airport through companies including Europcar. One-way rentals tend to be significantly more expensive, so arrange to start and finish at the same point. The vehicle should have decent ground clearance.

When to go
The Carretera Austral can be visited from November to March. Prices are highest in the peak season of January and February.

Where to stay
Pampa del Corral, Coyhaique
El Puesto Hostel, Puerto Río Tranquilo
The Lodge at Valle Chacabuco
Hotel Ultimo Paraiso, Cochrane
Estancia Punta del Monte (homestay), Coyhaique

More info
Chile: The Carretera Austral (Bradt). RRP: £17.99

How to do it
Swoop Patagonia offers the nine-day Carretera Austral Adventure Self-Drive Tour, from £2,750 per person, including camping and hotel accommodation, 4WD car hire, boat trips to the Marble Caves and Laguna San Rafael, snorkelling in the Cochrane River, two days' horse-riding and a dawn excursion to a condor nursery. 

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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