Part Two: A Roadtrip on the Carretera Austral, Aysén, Chile
Travel writer Gabriel O’Rorke continues on her journey through Chile’s pristine Aysén region to seek out its hidden spots.
This story is a continuation of Part One: A Roadtrip on the Carretera Austral, Aysen, Chile.
Peeling ourselves away from the utopian grasslands of Valle Chacabuco, we retraced our tracks back along the bright blue glacier-fed waters of River Baker, along the shore of Lake General Carrera with its unforgettable marble caves, and northwards to Coyhaique.
At Cerro Castillo, a little town of no consequence – that is apart from the views of the jagged peaks of its namesake mountain range, which stretch up to 2,675 metres, and are easily comparable to Torres del Paine – we stopped to pick up some hitchhikers.
Views of the jagged peaks of its namesake mountain range, which stretch up to 2,675 metres, are easily comparable to Torres del Paine.
The Carretera Austral is hitchhiked by many a backpacker. There’s an idea that this stretch of Chile should be taken on wheels, and the wheels of a bus don’t quite feel epic enough, so many of those who don’t have the budget to hire their own vehicle, resort to the old ‘thumb up’.
Throughout our week-long Aysen adventure, we picked up two lots of hitchhikers. The first set was a local family, not travellers, looking to get to a relatives house for a celebration. Picking our way through their strong accents, we got along with lots of smiles.
The second group was four Israeli backpackers who were travelling in South America for six months. After waiting eight hours in vain, they smiled and whooped when we pulled up and agreed to deliver them to Coyhaique. One jumped in the boot of our pick-up with the luggage, and the other three piled in the backseat. If it’s something you feel you would like to do, picking up a haggle of hitchhikers here definitely adds something to the adventure.
Aysen is really all about the scenery so it’s a moot point that Coyhaique isn’t the most spectacular settlement in Chile. Yet it’s not without charm – there’s a German feel to the wooden shops which fan out from the unusual hexagonal Plaza de Armas.
This is a place to stock up on knitwear and sheepskin slippers, but if there’s one famous shop in Coyhaique it’s the pizzeria, Mamma Gaucha. Booking is recommended, as it took us two attempts to actually get a pizza; the first day the queues defeated us.
Located on the edge of town, Hotel Nomades has the most enormous rooms and the most unexpected views. On arrival, it looks like the hotel sits on an ordinary street, but at the other side of the building, there’s an enormous tree-lined gorge with a river running below. Inside, there’s a gaucho feel with lots of bare wood and cowhide upholstery. All the bedrooms overlook the gorge, and the higher categories have little balconies and showers with this view.
Coyhaique to Puyuhuapi, our next stop, is a 130-mile stretch. But this is no ordinary road. Built by Pinochet in the 1970s – the Carretera Austral was originally named Carretera General Augusto Pinochet – this iconic highway passes a sheer granite rock face known as Piedra el Gato [Cat’s Rock] before traversing Queulat National Park.
A temperate rainforest with thick evergreen foliage, waterfalls and the incredible Queulat Hanging Glacier, this is a landscape that was not easily tamed.
A temperate rainforest with thick evergreen foliage, waterfalls and the incredible Queulat Hanging Glacier, this is a landscape that was not easily tamed. Constant maintenance keeps the highway running through its midst, and as we wind our way around hair-bends and up steep climbs, we pass the odd 4WD, a herd of cattle and some very soggy cyclists.
Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa can only be reached by boat. It sits across the far side of Lake Puyuhuapi – a sea lagoon – from the highway and comes straight from the pages of a storybook. Built out of wood shingle, the long building stretches along the shore, with rooms overlooking the water and a jetty at either side.
One of the main reasons people cross to this idyllic spot is to bathe in the natural hot springs, and, as well as the hotel spa which is fed with thermal waters, there are several open air pools in the woodland. Popular with families, there’s a relaxed vibe and people come here to put their feet up, take short hikes and paddle around the cove in kayaks.
If you consider that the Carretera Austral is one of the most remote attractions in Chile, then it’s worth remembering that Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa is even further flung! Don’t go expecting trimmings like at The Ritz, but this is a homely lodge where service is friendly and warm, the accommodation is extremely comfortable – the rooms along the lagoon have a ski chalet feel to them – and the food is plentiful and tasty.
Having lived in Chile for over two years, and being lucky enough to have explored the long thin country from head to toe, for me personally there is nowhere quite as breathtaking as the region of Aysen. For untouched, pure, raw nature coupled with an off-the-beaten-track sense of unpredictability, Aysen is the place for a real adventure.