We’re now at an average cruising speed of 100 kph, the road has four smooth concrete lanes, the sun is shining and we’re over 600 km into a 900+ km day. This is a stark contrast to our previous 8 days meandering up the narrow, dusty, rocky, screw jarring, more often than not unpaved Carretera Austral, the infamous Southern Road. We are beach bound, flying north on the Panamerican highway, the highway that not to long ago inspired this adventure.
After having our minds continuously blown for four days in and around Mount Fitzroy, we set our sights on Chile, set the GPS and sped north to the first border crossing that appeared paved on our newly purchased Chilean road map (side note: we found a much better map recently, thank you Norbert and Greti). A six hour afternoon drive, four cheeseburgers, one game of Catan, a quick overnight truck stop sleep, a last minute stock up of Argentinean grocery essentials such as cheap boxed wine and tang, and we found ourselves rumbling down a gravel road, with nearly 130 km of no pavement to an apparently not so popular border crossing. This error on the newly purchased map set the standard of roads for the following week.
After the usual confusion of showing a car title that doesn’t match my passport, the ensuing back and forth with customs, 30 minutes of Spanglish and shuffling documents later, we were on the pavement rolling along a valley that could pass as a film set for Montana. Rolling hay fields being cut for the final time before summer turned to fall, surrounding tiny cabins with cord wood stacks larger that the buildings themselves, Chile felt like home and morale was high. Our aim was a ferry leaving Monday night, going from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellon, the southernmost city on the island of Chiloè. Aim high and shoot low, we reached the ferry office on Saturday, aiming to inquire about booking the ferry that was eluding us via poor website design, poor wifi, and poor planning. Of course Chacabuco being a tiny port town, now off the map of major shipping lanes, and the weekend, not surprisingly, the office was shuttered. A little online research using the most excellent ferry office wifi, we determined that it was three days until the next ferry, the same ferry that we were not able to book online, thus we had a decision to make, head north up the infamous Ruta 7, or wait it out for a ferry that may indeed be booked solid.
After using the ferry buildings wifi for a little Instagram spam, we decided to head north in search of trout fishing and a staffed ferry office to figure out a boat ride to the island. The weather was clearing and the sun was shining, so we searched out a lake that we could enjoy for a Sunday funday, knowing that time was on our side as another ferry left from chaiten 240 km north on Tuesday at 10 am. After driving a couple of hours north following a sapphire blue Rio Simpson, we pulled down into the river bottom, leveled the van with our trusty iPhone leveler, and set about preparing for our first night of Chilean bonfire revelry, in honor of being in a non fire restricted region.
We awoke to a low fog bank cloaking the van and the river bottom, we fished for a lack luster hour, and were on the road north before the mist burned off. We spent Sunday slowly working our way up 120 kms of gravel to Lago Roseelot, arriving just before sunset, allowing just enough time to explore the lakes edge for a campsite before darkness fell. We awoke to a stunning morning, the mist rising off the mountain lake with noise of trucks backing boat trailers down the access ramp. Three men and three trucks later, it was obvious they were American fishing guides with American clients preparing to set off for a days float down the river that flowed from the mouth of the lake. As one walked to his truck parked near our van he asked where I was from, “Montana,” I replied, “no shit, Ive lived in Big Sky for 20 years.” Small world, here were were on the far south of the continent and we run into a Montanan. After figuring out I was from Billings, he pointed at another guide prepping his boat, “that’s Hayden from billings,” hah no shit sure enough Hayden Stribley, from my hometown, was at a random fishing access site in the middle of nowhere, Patagonia, we were both pretty shocked as we haven’t seen each other since college, but the stoke was high.
We spent the day fishing the lake, bathing in the river, and sunning ourselves before hitting the road. When this road is really good, it’s some of the best we’ve driven on, when it’s bad it’s some of the narrowest, steepest, rutted single lane gravel we’ve encountered. As the road peaks and troughs, from good to bad so does the comfort level, noise level and our morale. On paved sections, we praise the engineers and construction workers on a job well done, as soon as we hit a new construction zone (that generally consists of 20 km sections of ripped up road, while a crew of five works on a single culvert at a time) we curse the crews and their ability to turn gravel roads into boulder strewn single track. Through these sections we take it slow and are always in awe when passing bikers taking on the same road with hybrid road bikes. From expensive looking full saddled multi thousand dollar bike set ups, to Walmart full suspension and school backpack for gear, we’ve run the gamut of road bikers, always impressed the most with the least prepared.
When we finally reached Chaiten, we arrived to a town mid recovery from the latest eruption of its namesake volcano in 2010. The towns residents were relocated after the eruption blew ash 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, high enough to seen from as far away as Buenos Aires. Half of the buildings have fallen into disrepair while it seems the other half have been repaired and restored by their owners. It’s quite eerie walking by a half collapsed building wondering if a massive piece of ruble smashed it in or the years of neglect and harsh climate attributed to the cave in. Either way the ferry office is brand new, has the best instant coffee machine in South America, and was able to reserve a space for us on the ferry leaving for the Mystical Isle of Chiloe the following morning. Thus pardoning ourselves from the last 300 km stretch of gravel of the Carretera Austral, connecting Chaiten by a series of three smaller ferries to the mainland up North.