The Truth about the Carretera Austral Part 1

It started out seemingly innocuous. I was going to travel North on the Carretera Austral. Bus tickets, hiking in National Parks and Reserves, camping. Sounds easy right? I mean, it’s no different than what I have been doing for four months now. Little did I know crossing the border from Los Antiguos, Argentina into Chile Chico I was in fact entering (cue ominous music and lower the lights) the twilight zone. Now add a pinch of Bill Murray in Groundhogs Day and you will start to develop a picture of what it is to travel the Carretera Austral. Don’t blink too much; you don’t want to miss this one.

From Chile Chico I expected to immediately take a boat to Puerto Ibanez and head north to Coihaique. Upon arrival I found out that the boat had already left for that day. Tourist information had given me the address of a budget hostel. I was tired and hungry; I had hardly eaten at all for two days as is often the case when busing around from place to place. This is a bad way to decide on accommodations as I would soon learn.

I went to the hostel, looked at the room that resembled a jail cell (or how I imagine one would be) with the bed that was sinking in the middle, and said ok.

I was surprised when I heard the word come out of my mouth, but the owner was at least nice. I left to have a meal, and thought about going back for my bags and leaving once blood sugar had been returned to normal. I am odd in that respect though. I already told him I would stay and as such did not want to rescind. Something about politeness skewed way out of proportion. I repeated to myself like a mantra “there are others staying there, it must be ok” until I almost believed it. It didn’t make me want to go back though, so I headed up to a mirador where I sat reading until the sun went down. I considered sleeping on the stone bench but thought it might be frowned upon.

I returned to the room eventually, and having no intention of cooking in that place decided to just go to bed and eat some crackers for dinner. I stripped the dirty (yes dirty) cover off the bed and actually sniffed the sheets. They seemed like they had been washed at some point in the recent past, so I took out my sleeping bag and laid it down on top of the bottom sheet, chucking the pillow to the floor. I got in and scooted as far to the edge of the bed as I could to avoid falling into the sinkhole in the center. I considered moving the sheets to the floor and putting my sleeping bag down there, but that seemed like a bad idea. I didn’t really want to find out what might be under the bed. I willed myself to sleep as soon as possible; knowing that the sooner I did the sooner this would be over. I vowed as I drifted off to always look for camping first, then a room, and to take my time. In the morning I needed a shower, so I did my best to not touch anything while cleaning myself. I left as quickly as I could, but of course had to snap a picture of the bathroom for your viewing pleasure!

Chile Chico housing:

The boat to Puerto Ibanez was uneventful. It was a pretty ride, windy with no rain. The horse being transported across was a highlight for me at this point! So far it seemed all was going as planned.

On the other side of the lake I found my “bus” without incident. Really they are transfer vans, as buses would be too big and hard to manage on the roads we were about to embark upon. We made it to Coihaique and remembering the lesson from the night before I walked all around town knocking on doors to find a good room. The only camping was located a few kilometers outside of town, since it was 9pm and I needed food that would have to wait. Each door I knocked on was answered by a nice person telling me they were full. After about a half hour of this I gave up any idea of finding a decent place and just started hoping to be inside at some point. Finally I found a room in a clean enough house with an uncomfortable mattress for too much money. I was very happy.

The reason I fled Chile Chico rather quickly and headed north was that from what I had read, trekking in the far south of Patagonia required a car or hitchhiking. Anxious to start hiking, I headed straight for tourist information on my first day in Coihaique with my mind set on getting to Reserva Nacional Coihaique. The lady was very nice, she told me just to take the bus to Chaitan and ask the driver to drop me off at the reserve. Great I said, and how do I get back? She held her hands up in a gesture I was soon to be too familiar with and said, as a question, hitch? Right, fantastic, because traveling solo with everything I own on my back, and front, hitching is exactly what I want to do. ‘Is there any other way’, I inquired. ‘No.’ said the nice tourist office lady.
Coihaique central plaza:

Okay, so I then asked about buses to the North and stopping in Puyuhuapi on the way to either Chaitan or Futaleufu. No problem, she said, you can buy a ticket at the bus station to Puyuhuapi and then get a ticket in Puyuhuapi for further north once you reach there. She also said it would be easy to get to National Park Queualt from there for some hiking and views of a glacier. I went to the bus station and was told the same information, bolstering my belief that this was all true. I confirmed with the woman there that once I arrived in Puyuhuapi I could buy a ticket further north. No problem, said she, it will be easy.

Giving up on the idea of the reserve in Coihaique, I booked a ticket north for that evening. The bus ride was beautiful. I kept wishing we could stop and get out for pictures. There seemed to be water everywhere, pouring off mountains in such quantity that I wondered how the mountain was still standing. On the road we passed more hitchhikers than I could count and very few cars.

Puyuhaupi is beautiful. It is tucked on the north end of a sound in a little green valley with forested mountains rising up on all sides. I arrived in the rain, and found camping right away. The next day I went to find out about getting to National Park Queualt. You’ll never guess…you can try to get a seat on a bus heading to Coihaique and ask the driver to drop you off, but there is no return transport. You can also book a tour which is really just a shuttle to the park and back. I went to look at this option only to find out that it takes a group of 8. Last I checked, I was still just one. My plans were scrapped once again, but I was tired of jumping from place to place so I stayed in Puyuhuapi a couple nights. I admit, it’s partly due to its name. I mean who DOESN’T want to hang out in a place called Puyuhuapi (Pronounced Poo-you-wah-pey)? I found a trail to a mirador looking out over the valley:

After the mirador I still needed some exercise, so I walked a couple hours down the Carretera Austral to some lovely though expensive hot springs. The soak was just what I needed as I watched the sun set over the sound.

The relaxation of the hot springs almost made me forget that I was traveling through the twilight zone. The next day left no doubt. Since the National Park was inaccessible to me, I thought I’d try further North, hoping for more accessibility to hiking in that direction. (Are you getting the Groundhog Day theme yet?) I went to inquire of a bus ticket, either to Futaleufu or Chaitan. The tourist information office sent me to a restaurant/hotel where I supposedly could get a seat on the bus. A couple from Australia I had seen along the road a few times came with me. They had been given a ton of misinformation from various people in town including one saying there was a bus to Futaleufu the next day and another saying there is not. Just so you have an idea, we’re talking about a “town” you can walk through in less than five minutes. There is no real grocery store. There is not really much of anything but a few hostels. You’d think the locals would have a handle on buses that run through, but you would be wrong.

The man in the restaurant, whose actual job I have yet to figure out, let us know what time the bus for Chaitan got to town (which we knew as it was the same one that dropped us off) and informed us that they did not sell tickets, it was just every man for himself. It was morning, and the bus was to arrive around 7pm, so we had some time to kill. I found out about another shuttle that runs to La Junta, a location where it is supposedly easy to get a bus to either Chaitan or Futaleufu. We went to ask about the shuttle and the guy said to come back at three and he’d have information on it. At three we were told to return at four thirty. At four thirty we were told there would be no shuttle. This was turning into a very exciting day in Puyuhuapi.

We went to the bus stop only to find there were already people waiting, so we got in line. Kind of. You see there is no “line” system in Patagonia, when I said every man for himself I meant it. It is a mob, and you must push and shove and try to get your bag on the back and your butt in a seat if there is one available. My new friends and I became a pod, a unit so to speak. We had a plan. James would take care of the bags while Fleur and I jockeyed for seats. We were poised, ready to jump, and two and a half hours ahead of the bus.

Around 6:00 I spied a van driving by that had a sign reading “La Junta”. I jumped up and ran to it, trying to beat the group of hitchhikers who had been trying all day to get a ride and were now grouped into the mob waiting for the bus. I was first, and asked the driver if he was heading to La Junta that night. He said yes, and I made “reservations” for myself, my new pod people, and a couple who were first waiting for the bus. They were super nice, and we all agreed that first come first served SHOULD be the rules. I guess we were really a pod of 5 at that point, and I guarded that van like it was gold. The group of hitchhikers came over and started asking me about the van, to which I told them that we had 5 seats waiting for us, and if there were any more it was all theirs. We did it. We were on our way to La Junta, a glorious hour further North on the Carretera Austral, a location that was a hub of transport sure to shuttle us in any direction we should choose. And if you believe that… (To be continued)

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About stephwithoutborders

I decided to sell (almost) everything I own and buy a plane ticket to South America. This is all about why and how, and what happens next.
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4 Responses to The Truth about the Carretera Austral Part 1

  1. Christa Wirtz says:

    Stephanie, I love your reports and hope you’ll stay safe and sound during your ;adventure.Can’t wait to hear what happened “down the road”.and I hope you;ll be rewarded for all your trials and tribulations, to see the Reserva Nacional Coihaique. Must be special. We are here in sunny So. Cal and enjoying all the beautiful flora and we still have a lot to do in our frontyard in our house in Oceanside CA. Wish you were here. Anyway I think you are very brave and I wish I could have done this when I was younger and footlose. Go for it and stay well, Christa

    • Hi Christa! Sadly Reserva Coihaique did not work out, I saw it from the bus window! I’m glad you are enjoying some sun, if I come back that way and you need help, I’d be happy to play in your So. Cal garden. Thank you for reading!!

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