The Carretera Austral part 5 – from bad ripio to worse…

Two days in Cochrane was enough to make sure we saw all of its sights even though we barely left our cabaña during our pyjama day. We read, watched a movie and caught up on happenings at home as the wifi was the best we had had access to since Coyhaique. The weather continued to be warm and sunny but the occaisional rain shower was welcomed by all, not least by the locals who were fighting the wild fires.

With our panniers restocked we were able to start the journey south towards the most remote part of the Carratera Austral and it’s ‘dead end’. To say dead end is a little bit misleading but more on this in a later post. For now our plan was simply to ride onwards towards Villa O’Higgins but with a diversion to Caletta Tortel, a town we had heard so much about from other travellers that we felt a visit was almost obligatory.

Before reading more it is worth my pointing out that the southern section of the road was not built until the late 1990s with Villa O’Higgins gaining its road connection to the rest of Chile in 1999. This part of the country is remote, has little infrastructure and it can be cut off very quickly by land slides, fires or ferry breakdowns. Between Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins lies 200 kms of road with the only shops being in the village of Caleta Tortel, itself located at the end of a 20 km branch off the main road.

With only one main road in and out of Cohrane it was easy to find our way onwards but at this point we could probably have found our way blindfolded by following the smell of burning trees. The fires burning south of Cochrane gave off smoke that hung in the air giving every view a faint blue tinge. There were no road closures in place so we we able to make good progress along what was, on the Charly March-Shawcross gravel road gravel scale, good gravel.

Izzy and Will spent the morning perfecting their bandit look by placing their buffs over their faces to try to lessen the effects of both the dust thrown up by passing vehicles and the smoke. The fires turned out to be only 20 or so kms south of town and with great relief we noticed the smoke thinning and the blue sky ahead of us. A look back across the valley we had come from made it easy to see where the fire burned the most but it was still too far away to see the flame.

Spot the forest fire…

After clearing most of the smoke we took an earlyish lunch stop at a great spot next to the Rio Salto precipitated by Izzy’s hunger pangs brought on by her claim that the air smelled of smoked bacon. This section of the road though remote carries a lot of tourist traffic and we were being passed by a few vehicles an hour which was not much fun. Just when we were beginning to think that the narrowness of the road and the traffic might be too much we stumbled on our camp spot. Not initially a planned stop we saw another family of cycle tourists cooking a few metres off the gravel in a well used camp spot. Cycle touring with kids is not a usual thing to do and we are concious that it can be isolating for Izzy and Will; an opportunity to play with other kids who are both English speaking and taking a similar trip meant an immediate stop. Sam, Krista, Banjo and Daisy are riding the Carretera in the opposite direction to us. We had heard about them and they us before our meeting and it was satisfying to finally meet them. The campsite they had chosen was pleasent and had plenty of room for us as well. Charly and I chatted to Sam and Krista for a long time while the kids splashed in the shallows of the river and played together. It was a exercise in anthropology to watch how the children played and how easily they made friends based on their shared experiances of cycling and the hardships they faced (mainly the lack of peanut butter it would seem). I realise the term hardships is relative but to oits of kids in the western world the discomfort and uncertainty that extended cycle touring can being at times is one of the most difficult things they have to deal with. Meeting another English speaking family had an additional, unexpected, benefit; an exchange of books. We have been reading together as a family at bed time; tackling classics like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and, ‘Black Beauty’. We had just finished the books given to Izzy and Will at Christmas and were trying to decide what to do qith them. Banjo and Daisy were as keen as us to get some new reading material so a quick swap was done. Everyone was happy with no extra mass being gained!

Lord of the Flies?…

Reading each night has been an important part of a routine for us and happens regardless of weather and what has happened that day. Food too helps to make uncertain situations seem better. Bread is really important to us on the road. Its significance is beyond calorific as buying fresh bread shows we are near a town or village. Bread for lunch – near a settlement, biscuits for lunch – the middle of nowhere. Beyond Cochrane can seem like the middle of nowhere but passing a tiny homestead the next morning we stopped for breakfast. Run by an old couple who had eked out a living here since before the road was built we drank instant coffee and ate homemade bread with home made jam. I was frustrated by my basic Spanish language skills; I would have loved to talk to them about life before the road and how they survived the long winters. I did manage to ask how long the old man had lived here and he gave the simple answer “Siempre” – always.

With Will and Izzy’s inner savages civilised by the bread and jam (or perhaps just entering a hyperglycemic coma due to the amount of sugar and white bread) we made our way further south. Passed by a few trucks and cars we didn’t see anyone to speak to until the next day. Our camp site that night was another wild one next to the Rio Baker. We cooked with water drawn from the river and on descending to it the next morning to fetch more water for porridge saw the hood prints of the endangered huemal deer. We were all excited by this as it showed that a few of the 2000 or so deer left in the world had been within a few metres of our tent. The wildlife of Patagonia is fascinating and it has been a privalidge to have glimpses of many species but we still hope that we might see a huemal deer in the flesh and not just it scat and prints.

Deer prints (top) and deer (bottom – obviously not our photo).

Continually looking out for birds and the enormous wealth of insect life we headed onwards and at the first major road junction broke from the Ruta 7 and headed towards Caletta Tortel. The road was truely awful. It was fairly flat and ran along the Rio Baker valley but the worst washboard we have yet encountered alternaging with sections of deep potholes. Its flatness was physcologically tortuous as we could see on and on and the headwind just added to the ‘fun’. On this road though we met Rob, a native of San Francisco on a Salsa Fargo, he was quick to smile and stop to chat. Our reputation had preceded us and, having heard of us had lots of tips and advice. We wouldn’t see him again for a fortnight but when we did it was nice to see his ready smile.

The energy expended to reach Caletta Tortel was worth it. The town has no roads and is built on boardwalks and stilts on the steep sided valleys at the outflow of the Rio Baker. Originally supported by wood export it now relies heavily on tourism with bus loads arriving from Coygaique and Cochrane. Our advantage was that after the buses had gone in the evenings we were left in the village with its inhabitants and a few backpackers. The views were fascinating and the next day gave Izzy, Will and I time explore while Charly had a well earned couple of extra hours in her sleeping bag.

As we strolled we spotted several delapidated boats. The name of one caught my eye as ironic – Invinceble 2. Was it really? It did not look so in it’s rotting state and the burning question – what happened to Invincible 1?

Both Izzy and Will enjoyed running along the boardwalks; the lack of cars was refreshing and gave a break from being constantly wary of them and the smell of diesel fumes. We stopped to play on the swings and slide which amounted to the play park and I enjoyed having not to hurry them, the only time limit being empty tummies. Eventually we continued to the ‘supermarket’ to buy food only to discover that it was not very well stocked. Fresh food arrives in the town once a month and given its lack of roads it is not easy to get the deliveries to the shops. We managed to buy pasta, tinned vegetables, a few very sorry looking carrots and an onion that had seen better days – not what we had hoped for but as Izzy optimisticly pointed out more than some people would get to eat that day. We were also breadless – something rectified when we spotted a sign in the window of a small house. In remote regions it seems that somebody in each village makes a few pesos from selling bread and we were able to buy 12 breadrolls and 4 sopapilla (bread dough that has been fried) from the living room of the house. Like with most of these ‘panadarias’ the wood stove was on and the temperature in the house was about 30 degrees – no mean feat given the wood and corrugated iron nature of most buildings that we had seen in Patagonia. With our bread in hand we returned to the tent and a slightly more rested Charly.

We were also lucky to be here for a local fair celebrating the role of wood in the community here. To be honest it was just an excuse for a gossip, food and drink – we loved it! There were stalls selling local foods and lots of beer but also mulled wine. Being as Charly and I missed out on this at Christmas in the in the UK we felt we had to try it to compare them. It was delicous and a pleasent warming drink given the wind that blew in from the coast and the cool summer temperatures here. We mooched around the stalls, listened to the local musicians and (to Charly’s ‘delight’) their accordians, enjoyed a collection of photos of the town in the days before the road (from the cut of the clothes these were taken in the 1970’s) and, watched the local men gamble as they played a game involving threwing a weight and getting it to land in a certain way. We felt a little out of place but not unwelcome however it was not really a place to take photographs. After a couple of hours we strolled back along the boardwalks and attempted to find a reknowned micro-brewery and pub. After quite some time walking up and down wooden steps and weaving in and out of houses we had to give up. We later found out it had closed for good, much to Will’s dissappointment as he had been promised fruit juice if we went there.

Mobile band saw and beer – a perfect combination?

With not much food available and the boardwalks walked we decided to return to the main road and keep heading south. Our ride out from Caletta Tortel was no where near as bad as we had thought it would be due to a strong tail wind, fresh legs and encouragement given from another Chilean family befriended by Will and Izzy in the campsite. They stopped and took some great photos of all of us and we enjoyed a quick roadside chat At the junction with the ruta 7 we turned right and began our very steep ascent and subsequent descent to Puerto Yungay and the ferry to the last leg of the road to Villa O’Higgins. The road was steep but both of us kept riding to the first switch back only stopping out of breath and with lactic acid burning in our thighs when we were out of sight of the group of bikepackers who had gathered at the junction on their way north.

A single track road with steep drop offs – we were very careful riding this section.

With no road beyond Villa O’Higgins some 120 kms to the south the traffic thinned alot and we were passed by only a slack handful of vehicles. We were on the final stretch of the Carretera…

If you like what I have written about our trip then consider clicking the following link to ‘buy me a coffee’ – essentially this means more cake for the kids……

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Biologist who teaches. In 2018 I took time away from work to travel and world school my children. We travel by bike and try to treat life as the adventure that it is.

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