The South End Of The Carretera Austral

After crossing the Andes through Paso Roballo, I join Chile’s route 7, the Carretera Austral or “southern road”, just north of the town of Cochrane and head south the 225 kilometers to Villa O’Higgins.  Villa O’Higgins is just seven kilometers short of the southern end of the road which ends at Lake O’Higgins.

The south end of the Carreterra Austral at Lake O'higgins.
The south end of the Carreterra Austral at Lake O’Higgins.

The lake and town are named after Bernardo O’Higgins, a Chilean independence leader who helped free Chile from Spanish rule.  The lake is located in one of the most inaccessible areas of the world, tucked between the Andes Mountains on the east and the Southern Ice Cap on the west.  From Lake O’Higgins it is 780 miles north to the beginning of the southern road at Puerto Montt.

The southern end of the Carretera Austral at Lake O'Higgins.
The southern end of the Carretera Austral at Lake O’Higgins.

The Carretera Austral provides access to Chile’s southern territory an area characterized by thick forests, fjords, glaciers, canals, and steep mountains.  The road is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever undertaken by Chile.  Construction began in 1976 under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and the southernmost section to Villa O’Higgins was completed in the year 2000.

The Carretera Austral or Southern Road begins in Puerto Montt in the north and ends 1247 km later at Lake O'higgins.
The Carretera Austral or Southern Road begins in Puerto Montt in the north and ends 1247 km later at Lake O’Higgins.

I arrive in Villa O’Higgins in the middle of February, which corresponds to our northern hemisphere’s middle of August.  The weather has already turned toward fall with low temperatures at night in the thirties, fierce winds and frequent heavy rain with snow on the hills.  It is reminiscent of the Dalton Highway in Alaska where snow in August is not uncommon.

Ice is never far away.
Ice is never far away.

In Villa O’Higgins I camp at the Mosco Hostel and Campground.  “El Mosco”  camp is named after the Rio Mosco Glacier, so named because from the air the glacier resembles a fly or “mosco” in Spanish.  The camp is run by a woman known worldwide for hosting bicyclists riding route 7.  The hostel is clean, efficient and well run.  Evening at the hostel is one big cook up with communal dinner being  continuously prepared and plates of food being offered from all sides.  I was glad there were a fair number of vegans cooking, but the barbecue smelled good too.

The friendly and well run Mosco Hostel in Villa O'Higgins.
The friendly and well run Mosco Hostel in Villa O’Higgins.

The camp was overflowing with backpackers and cyclist backed up and waiting to cross from Chile to Argentina.  They had already been waiting for over a week because of bad weather and the prospects for the near future were not good.  Many gave up and headed back north, the end of summer break was near and school would restart at the beginning of March.

The southernmost crossing from mainland Chile to Argentina. A combination of two boats and a footpath that connects Lake O'Higgins in Chile and El Chalten in Argentina.
The southernmost crossing from mainland Chile to Argentina. A combination of two boats and a footpath that connects Lake O’Higgins in Chile and El Chalten in Argentina.

The wind is blowing eighty kilometers per hour with gusts to one hundred and it is not safe for the boat that will take travellers across the lake on the first part of their journey.  The crossing to Argentina is only for hikers or bicyclists and involves taking a boat two and a half hours across Lake O’Higgins to Candelario Mancilla still in Chile, then walking, horseback riding, or paying a four wheel drive vehicle to go twenty one kilometers to Lago del Desierto in Argentina.  After a 30 minute boat ride across the Lago del Desierto it is then thirty seven kilometers by road to El Chalten, Argentina.  One month prior on my southward journey down Argentina’s route 40, I camped at Lago del Desierto and spent several days in El Chalten.

Villa O’Higgins is a tourist destination for access to the “Campo de Hielo Suror “Southern Patagonian Ice Field”.  The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the world’s second largest contiguous extra-polar ice field.  It is the bigger of two remnant parts of the Patagonian Ice Sheet, which covered all of southern Chile during the last glacial period.

VillaOhigginsAndSPIceField

The Southern Patagonia Ice Field extends for approximately 220 miles, and has an area of 4,773 square miles, of which roughly 3,700 square miles fall within Chile and 970 square miles within Argentina.

The ice mass feeds dozens of glaciers in the area, among which are the Upsala , Viedma and Perito Moreno in the Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. The Pío XI Glacier, the largest in area and longest in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica, the O’Higgins, Grey and Tyndall glaciers are located in Chile. The glacier runoff going to the west flows into the Pacific Ocean; those going to the East flow into the Patagonian lakes Viedma and Argentino, and eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean.  The fact that most of the ice lies within Chile but the useful runoff mostly benefits Argentina is a point of friction between the two countries.

An important part of the ice field is protected under different national parks, such as the Bernardo O’Higgins and Torres del Paine in Chile, and the Los Glaciares in Argentina.

There are two known volcanoes under the ice field; Lautaro and Viedma. Due to their inaccessibility they are among the least researched volcanoes in Chile and Argentina.

Aerial photo of part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
Aerial photo of part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.

The vessel, the L/M Quetru, takes travellers across lake O’Higgins on the first leg of the pedestrian journey to Argentina and also takes tourists further up-lake to visit and view the Great O’Higgins Glacier.  Glacier O’Higgins is one of the four largest glaciers in Patagonia.  Its surface area is 820 square kilometers and it is 45 kilometers long.  It terminates in Lake O’Higgins where it is 3.5 kilometers wide and its front wall towers 80 meters above the mirrored lake.  The visit is akin to visiting the Perito Moreno glacier on the Argentine side in Glaciers National Park.

Popular trip with adventure tourists is visiting the tip of the O'Higgins Glacier.
Popular trip with adventure tourists is visiting the tip of the O’Higgins Glacier.

I depart Villa O’Higgins early to make the 62 mile three hour drive north to Rio Bravo where I will catch the first of two daily ferries crossing to Puerto Yungay.  The ferry service is free and is part of the Carretera Austral.  You back onto the Ferry and drive off forward at the destination.

On the way north I come upon a car stopped on the road with all of its doors open.  When the occupants pile back in I chat with them and learn that they had spotted a family of Huemules and they show me their great photos.  The Huemule is a south Andean deer species and is endangered.  There were only about 1500 known to exist in 2010.  Both Argentina and Chile have joined in their conservation efforts and there are a lot of signs urging the public to watch out for them.

Endangered Huemule
The Huemule a type of south Andean deer species is considered to be endangered and is protected.

The drive through the unspoiled landscape surrounded by ice capped peaks and too many waterfalls to count is spectacular.  The road is primitive but well maintained, the major concern is meeting oncoming traffic and hoping there is a place to pull over so two vehicles can pass.  Traffic is not a major problem, except when the ferry arrives and discharges a dozen vehicles at once onto the road.

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The narrow but well maintained Carretera Austral near its south end.

I arrive at the ferry terminal and friends from Villa O’Higgins make me a vegan breakfast burrito, so I reciprocate and brew coffee and enjoy the wait.  The ferry will discharge its load and then everyone will back onto the ferry in the order they arrived at the landing.  The crossing will take about 45 minutes to Puerto Yungay.

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Cars coming off the Ferry at Rio Bravo 62 miles north of Lake O’Higgins.

Argentina Into Chile

Now that I have reached the southernmost end of the road and as far south as you can drive in Argentinean Patagonia, I must reverse direction and retrace my steps in order to cross the Andes into Chile.  The closest pass for vehicles, Paso Roballo, is 1600 kilometers northwest of Ushuaia.

I will backtrack 1700 km to cross over the Andes to the Carretera Austral, Chile Route 7.
I will backtrack 1600 km to cross over the Andes to the Carretera Austral, Chile Route 7.

Wednesday morning I depart Ushuaia headed north.  First back to Rio Grande to fill my propane tanks and then across the Great Island of Tierra del Fuego and then back up route 40.

The summit of Garibaldi Pass. This is the only pass across the Andes in Tierra del Fuego.
The summit of Garibaldi Pass. This is the only pass across the Andes in Tierra del Fuego.

Shortly after departing Ushuaia I cross 1476 ft. high Garibaldi Pass with its spectacular view of beautiful Lake Escondido and the 98 km wide Lake Fagnano.

LagoEscondidoLagoFagnanoGaribaldi
The view from Garibaldi Pass of Lago Escondido or Hidden Lake foreground and Lago Fagnano in the background.

At the eastern end of Lake Fagnano is the picturesque town of Tolhuin, the only town on the 225 km between Ushuaia and Rio Grande.

flowersInTohluin
The colorful front yard of a home in Tolhuin.

I arrive in Rio Grande and the “Gas Austral” propane company.  You may recall I was told to come back after the long weekend and they would fill my tanks.  A bureaucratic management type from the office came out and told me that it was not legal for them to fill foreign tanks.  Ioverlander had reports that they have done it in the past and there is little or no difference with Argentinian tanks.  I was not happy having waited 3 days to return, so I am back on the road.

The Island of Tierra del Fuego is divided between Argentina and Chile by treaty.  In order to access Argentine Tierra del Fuego you must go by sea or drive through Chile.  Eighty kilometers north of Rio Grande at San Sebastian I arrive at the border. I clear customs out of Argentina and into Chile where I am on the worst road imaginable for approximately 80 km.  It seems there is no love lost between the governments of Argentina and Chile, and when a road in Chile services only a destination in Argentina very little is expended in maintenance, much less paving.  I did this road by motorcycle 8 years earlier and it is a character builder.

Patagonian Fox on the beach near the ferry ramp on Tierra del Fuego Island.
Patagonian Fox on the beach near the ferry ramp on Tierra del Fuego Island.

One hundred and fifty seven kilometers after crossing into Chile I arrive at the ferry ramp and after a short wait depart the Island of Tierra del Fuego for the 30 minute crossing to Punta Delgada on the mainland.

The ferry from Tierra del Fuego Isand to Punta Delgada on the mainland.
The ferry from Tierra del Fuego Isand to Punta Delgada on the mainland.

Approximately an hour drive later I process outbound customs for Chile and inbound back into Argentina.  It is nearly dark so I begin looking for an overnight campsite, having accomplished a lot today.  Using the fabulous application on my phone Ioverlander, I find a great campsite just after dark.

After a very long day, I spend an incredible night under the stars at Laguna Azul.  It is beautiful, very quiet and free.  Not another soul around except for a few guanaco.  Laguna Azul is a lake in a volcanic crater and an Argentine geological reserve.  Legend has it that it is inhabited by strange beings in its depths and others believe it is a source of great powers.  I did sleep pretty well.

Laguna Azul, a geological reserve in Argentina. A lake in the crater of an extinct volcano.
Laguna Azul, a geological reserve in Argentina. A lake in the crater of an extinct volcano.

In the morning I drive the short distance into Rio Gallegos, a large town and the capital of the province.  I air my tires back up to highway pressure, fill up on gasoline and get my propane tank filled.  The fine folks at Surgas Rio Gallegos filled my propane tank, quick and hassle free.  It cost forty four Argentine pesos ($3.00 USD) for 4 kilos, which I thought was very reasonable.

I departed Rio Gallegos on route 5 headed 180 km back west toward the Andes to route 40, then north 550 km to the turnoff to Roballo Pass.  I pass El Calafate and El Chalten without stopping having spent time there on the southbound journey.  Most of this part of route 40 is paved except the 74 km between Tres Lagos and Gobernador Gregores.  I drive through the day and only get lost once around Tres Lagos.  In the late afternoon I arrive at the unpaved part of the road, so I stop and air down my tires again and press on.

It is nearly dark and I pass the signs for “Estancia La Siberia” on the unpaved portion of Route 40.  The sign says food, drink and accommodation so with visions of a cold beer I decide to stop for the night.  The place is appropriately named being located completely in the middle of nowhere, along the unpaved route 40 and perched above Lake Cardiel.

The sign advertising Estancia La Siberia along the unpaved route 40.
The sign advertising Estancia La Siberia along the unpaved route 40.

I enter the access road and drive down to the Estancia.  I knock on the door but no one answers.  Only a shy dog, that does not bark but won’t come near, greet me.  I finally give up the hope of a cold beer and plate of fries.  With no electric lights the night is beautiful and I camp and have a very peaceful night.

The seemingly deserted Estancia La Siberia.
The seemingly deserted Estancia La Siberia.

In the morning all I see is a horse, the dog and I hear a rooster.  Looking at my tires I see the dog has visited and left his mark in the night.  I never see another soul.

This morning I finish the last 30 or so miles of unpaved road and a short drive later come to the town of Gobernador Gregores.  When I had come south I had difficulty finding my way out of town to route 40 south.  With the help of a policewoman, and some trial and error I finally figured it out.  I see tourists that look lost and am flagged over by a group of motorcyclists asking for directions.

I happen to know the secret, because I myself was lost for an hour on the way south.  You must pull off of route 40 near a a pile of gravel (no signs), drive through a road under construction for a couple of hundred feet and then down a steep winding gravel road that descends a bluff to the river valley below.  At the bottom you cross a rickety one lane bridge, enter a paved country lane, pass two schools and then come to the a junction with the main road into town.  Eventually, route 40 will pass through the town but that part is still incomplete and not yet connected.  You would think they would put up signs?

The hidden access road to Gobernador Gregores.
The hidden access road to Gobernador Gregores.

I enter Gobernador Gregores on an almost empty gas tank, needing gas and groceries.  Since I have the long drive off road to cross Roballo Pass I want a full tank, water and supplies.  I go shopping at “La Anonima”, the Argentine supermarket chain and load up.  I then go to the YPF gas station to fill up on premium.  I am told that due to a gas shortage I can only buy 20 liters, around 5 gallons.  I plead with the attendant, telling him I plan to cross Paso Roballo and it is impossible without more.  The attendant finally relents and agrees to pump 50 liters, around 13 gallons, but no more.  Not what I wanted but better than 5 gallons, I will drive to the pass access cutoff and then calculate my range.  If insufficient I must drive another 125 km out of my way to Perito Moreno which hopefully will have available gas.

I still have a 240 km drive up Route 40 to the turnoff to Roballo Pass, just north of Bajo Caracoles.   Bajo Caracoles, has an independent gas pump located at a hostel/café that was out of gas on my way south.  I luck out this time and fill up the rest of the way with regular at a hefty price, which I was happy to pay.  I am now only a few kilometers south of the turnoff to Roballo Pass and will enter it with a full tank of gas.

It is 162 kilometers on a little travelled dirt road from Argentine Route 40 to Chilean Route 7.
It is 162 kilometers on a little traveled dirt road across Roballo Pass from Argentine Route 40 to Chilean Route 7.

I have almost arrived at the turnoff to the southernmost vehicle crossing into mainland Chile.  It will be 162 kilometers from leaving route 40 in Argentina to the junction with Chilean Route 7, the Carretera Austral.  Driving the Carretera Austral is one of my major goals for this trip.   I begin the crossing in late afternoon.

Coming along a lake while crossing Paso Roballo.
Coming along a lake while crossing Paso Roballo.

I read a report on the internet and spoke to a pair of women in a Land Rover who had used this route and neither had any problem.  The internet report raved about all of the wildlife and the women reported it as a little bumpy but passable.  An hour into the crossing a car came in the opposite direction.  I stopped and rolled down my window and they stopped and we exchanged information about the road we had just travelled.  It was a couple from Chile in a newer SUV.  They reported that other than being bumpy there was no problem.  They had come over from the Carretera Austral in Chile and reported that it was smoother than this.

Guanaco are very common in Patagonia.
Guanaco are very common in Patagonia.

The scenery was pristine.  The usual guanaco and  Rhea along with livestock as the road passed through a couple of large ranches.  There were lots of birds.  At one point I traversed a wetland prolific with strange ducks, geese and waterfowl.

The Patagonian Hare also known as a Patagonian Mara proliferate and are very hard to photograph.
The Patagonian Hare also known as a Patagonian Mara proliferate and are very hard to photograph.

I saw Patagonian foxes and hundreds of patagonian hares.  These appear very large, especially when they hop, and it is very difficult to take their photo.  They made me think of the mythic jackelope.  I had to stop many times because they would flee but run straight down the center of the road and I was afraid I would run them to death or run over them.  There were lakes, rivers and painted hills, and landscape that appeared extraterrestrial.

The scenery appears extraterrestrial.
The scenery appears extraterrestrial.

I passed through an area signed as Patagonia Park, which I believe is one of Douglas Tompkins preservation foundations.  There is nothing around but the sign.

The Argentine side of Patagonia Park.
The Argentine side of Patagonia Park.

When I reached the border with Chile it was 5 minutes to clear Argentina and 5 minutes to clear Chile.  Argentina used a green ledger book to record the departure, Chile had a computer.

Argentine Customs and Immigration office in Paso Roballo.
Argentine Customs and Immigration office in Paso Roballo.

It was almost dark so I consulted my Ioverlander app and found a place to camp.  I made camp at an unfinished Patagonia Park facility.  This was a Chilean park separate from the Argentine Patagonia Park that I had passed earlier, both are Douglas Tompkins foundation creations.

This is my campsite in the landscaped parking area for this campground in Chilean Patagonian Park.
This is my campsite in the landscaped parking area for this campground in Chilean Patagonian Park.

My camp was a flat landscaped parking area next to a very fancy footbridge over the Chacabuco River.  On the far side of the bridge was a grass area for tent camping.  There was a fancy stone building for restrooms on the other side of the bridge, but it was still unfinished on the inside.  It was a quiet and very peaceful night.

A footbridge crossed the Chacabuco River from my parking area to a tent camping area. There were unfinished rest rooms under construction on the far side.
A footbridge crossed the Chacabuco River from my parking area to a tent camping area. There were unfinished rest rooms under construction on the far side.

In the morning I was greeted by a very nice dog, who talked me out of a helping of leftover pasta, and who I considered adopting.  I also met three Brazilian backpackers on foot who had spent the night across the bridge and were hiking in the park.  I still had 37 km to go to reach the carretera austral.

Here is the Google satellite image of my campsite.
Here is the Google satellite image of my campsite.

I departed and continued west.  The road was narrow but good.  I saw lots of wildlife.  A short distance later I came upon a very fancy lodge, restaurant, airstrip and park administration building for Patagonia Park.  This seemed very out of place in the middle of the wilderness.

patagoniaParkAdminRestaurantantBar

I entered the administration building looking for information.  A very well dressed receptionist advised me that to come indoors I must remove my shoes.  She told me that the park was part of a private foundation.  When I asked about its connection to the park of the same name in Argentina she told me that that park was part of a separate foundation.

parkSign

I asked about rest rooms and was advised to use the ones located at the nearby restaurant.  Having spent some time using South American restrooms it was a bit shocking to see this level of luxury.  They even had a pile of linen towels to use after you wash your hands.

A small aircraft on a grass landing strip in the park.
A small aircraft on a grass landing strip in the park near the park headquarters.

I again head west toward the Carretera Austral finally arriving 4 days after departing Ushuaia.  I am 17 km north of Cochrane.

I arrive at Chilean Route 7 also known as the carretera austral or southern road just north of Cochrane.
I arrive at Chilean Route 7 also known as the carretera austral or southern road just north of Cochrane.

I turn south toward Villa O’higgins, the last town at the south end of Chile’s southern road and about 250 km from here.  I plan to drive the entire 1247 km from the south end at Lake O’Higgins to Puerto Montt at the north end.

The view from where the road over Paso Roballo intersects the carretera austral.
The view from where the road over Paso Roballo intersects the carretera austral.