Part One: A Roadtrip on the Carretera Austral, Aysén, Chile
A journey across the ‘torso’ of Patagonia leaves travel writer Gabriel O’Rorke in awe of this remote region’s marble caves and dramatic landscape.
Somewhat similar to the way many people refer to Africa as though it were one destination – “We’re off to Africa” they say, as though Morocco, Madagascar and Mozambique were all one and the same – Patagonia is often painted with a broad brush. After all, this landscape spans both Chile and Argentina and reaches from the iconic towers of Torres del Paine to the postcard-perfect lakes, volcanoes and monkey-puzzles surrounding Pucon, Puerto Varas and Bariloche.
Most visitors flock to the aforementioned parts. Yet, like every creature with a head and feet, an entire body lies between. And so we fly south from Santiago to Balmaceda Airport, planning to explore Patagonia’s ‘torso’. Our destination is the Carretera Austral, the dirt road built by Pinochet in the 1970s, traversing some of the least inhabited parts of the world, and therefore – in my opinion, at least – some of the most beautiful.
The airport is small and informal, and we collect a hire vehicle from the car park. After working out the logistics of our new super truck – you need some serious wheels for the dirt tracks of the Carretera Austral – we pulled out of the airport. Right or left were the options, we chose right and made it 100 metres before finding ourselves at the Argentine border.
Turning around, we were soon back on track and the scenery around us changed from postcard-perfect green fields and estancias to thick forest and barren mountains. Stopping to soak up the view, we unwrapped some homemade tortilla espanola for a quick snack. If there’s one essential tip for roadtripping the Carretera Austral, it’s making sure you’re always armed with food, water and a nice full fuel tank. You can easily go an hour without seeing a vehicle, house or shop.
A few hours later we passed through the small town of Cerro Castillo, the point where the paved road melts away into a dirt track. But before bidding farewell to smooth ground, we stopped at La Cocina de Sole, two conjoined buses which have ground to a halt and been converted into a colourful ‘greasy spoon’ serving super-size sandwiches, chips and milanesa to hungry road-trippers.
Setting off again, ten minutes into the drive we pulled up, unsure that we hadn’t just headed down a farm track. Luckily a truck came trundling past, so we flagged it down and asked the way to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. “Just continue straight on”, laughed the driver. And so we did, and sure enough two hours later we rolled into the lakeside town famous for its marble caves.
Boat or kayak are the two ways of visiting these caves that shimmer on the edge of Lake General Carrera, bright blue water lapping at their smooth white curves. We chose boat and floated between the chapel, cathedral and caves – the three different formations you can visit – going right under the eaves and taking photos as though there were no tomorrow.
Although a remote and untouched part of the world – you can easily drive for an hour without seeing another being – there are some wonderful high-end hotels in Aysén. One of which is El Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, located on the future Parque Patagonia and created by the famous conservationists Douglas and Kristine Tompkins.
Taking attention to detail to a new level, the Tompkins bought one of Chile’s largest estancias in 2004 and transformed it into a utopian park, which they hope the Chilean government will make into an official national park in the near future. Everything – from the campsites to the lodge, restaurant and information centre – is beautifully fitted and finished to a level of perfection rarely seen, even at the best hotels in South America.
The six rooms in El Lodge are all named after local animals, like guanaco, puma, condor and fox, and decoration is inspired by estancias and train stations with deep leather sofas, wood paneling on the walls, large sash windows and huge black-and-white photographs.
To stretch our legs we hiked up the hill to a campsite surrounded by poplar trees – the park was originally a 172,000-acre estancia and an outpost once sat in this spot. Having enjoyed the view down over the valley it was time to see things up close so we jumped in the truck and headed towards the border where there’s a lake dotted with pink flamingos.
For those interested in natural history, ecology, wildlife and hiking, El Lodge is an ideal spot. Whilst the tourists flock to Torres del Paine, Aysén is untouched Patagonia, free from crowds and well-trodden trails. Plus, the Tompkins are developing a week-long trek – pegged at the new W – which will wind through Valle Chacabuco to Cochrane.
Gabriel O’Rorke’s Aysén roadtrip will be continued with Part Two in February.