We travel 1000 kms of the Southern Highway through Chilean Patagonia, perfectly equipped with rain jackets, a Subaru and Google Translate. The scenery is breathtaking, changing at every turn.
Day 1: Santiago to Coyhaique (via Balmaceda)
We fly in from Santiago, pick up a neat little Subaru XV and drIve from Balmaceda airport to Coyhaique, some 60 kms away. My luggage is still somewhere LATAM can’t quite remember, so we opt for some Saturday afternoon shopping, to find some essentials for the coming days. Our first night in Patagonia is at the lovely Raices Bed and Breakfast.
In a fitting welcome to Patagonia, we’re initiated with some local craft beer, and a sizzling tower of meat.
We then fall asleep to the soothing sounds of Patagonian rains.
Day 2: Coyhaique to Puyuhuapi (via Villa Ortega)
After stocking up, we make our way north on Ruta 7, to be met with a whole lot of roadworks. It took us several hours to travel the first 32 kms through to Villa Ortega. and then onto Villa Maniguales for a fairly appropriate lunch of empanadas.
By this point, we are running long behind schedule, so we continue on our way to Puyuhuapi. The road is incredibly rough in parts as we make our way over mountain passes, to be met by countless postcard views for which we wish we could stop for more than a glance. Our hope on this day is to see the jewel of this road, the famous queulat hanging glacier (Ventisquero Colgante). The weather was clear, however as we drive in, we discover it is closed due to bridge repairs, so we need to settle for a glimpse from the highway. Onwards we drive to our destination at the head of the fjord,, the German settlement of Puyuhuapi. We stay at Hosteria Alemana, the family being descendants of the original settlers of this village.
Day 3: Puyuhuapi to Chaiten
We make our way towards our next destination - Chaiten. It’s only around 4 hours of driving today, and much of it is now paved, a great deal more than is shown on our COPEC map. There are still several sections of roadworks, including tho the north of Villa Santa Lucia. The road and part of the town had been destroyed by a massive mudslide in January 2018, caused by the collapse of a mountain 8 kilometres away. For months, this section had been cut, but the evident highway reconstruction which had taken place in the 10 months following the disaster was nearing completion.
We continue onward past Lago Yelcho and its glacier namesake, and arrive at Chaiten in time for a late lunch. But first, we find some much-needed clean underwear, for this is the only item we had been unable to replace in Coyhaique. We also spend the afternoon exploring the part of the town destroyed by the 2008 volcano eruption, and some of the coastline here on the other side of the Pacific.
In Chaiten, we are the guests of the lovely Doria at Tranqueras Del Monte. She bakes us a hearty chicken dinner, and we awake the next day to a breakfast of champions.
Day 4: Chaiten to Caleta Gonzalo
This is my most anticipated day, leaving Chaiten to descend into Douglas Tompkin’s conservation project - Parque Pumalin. Realising that we may need cash, we first stop at the only ATM between Coyhaique and Puerto Montt, to find it is being repaired. It looks to require a part to be flown in, and the teller cannot process a withdrawal. We realise they can exchange USD, and so we are soon on our way to explore some of the amazing hiking trails.
Each camp-site in the park seems to have its own little hike, each one more interesting as we move through the National Park. The sunny skies we had for the preceding days had begun to make way for a developing low off the Pacific Coast, and the Jurassic Park-inspired peaks disappeared into the mist.
We do several of the short hikes through ancient forests of Alerces, across streams and marshlands, and up valleys of waterfalls. At day’s end, we reach the park-owned cabanas, nestled beside the ferry ramp at Caleta Gonzalo.
A little touch of luxury tucked away in this fjord, we are staying in the Puma cabana, with all sorts of wild cat photos lining the walls.
We take a short stroll over the turquoise river to the very picturesque campgrounds, and begin to wish we had brought a tent. Behind this little paradise is a small organic farm which supplies ingredients for the cafe where we eat dinner.
Day 5: Caleta Gonzalo to Villa Cerro Castillo
This is the northernmost point of our road-trip, and so we now turn around. For the most part. we return the way we came. Due to a slight miscalculation of booking dates, our next day of travel goes against the unwritten Patagonian rule of not biting off more than you can chew. Asking the info centre if this distance of 570 km is possible in a day, we are told “I do not think it is. There will be road-blocks and huemuls”.
Our day, according to Apple maps, is 9 hours and 34 minutes long, which requires a very early start, and the Ministry of Public Works Gods to be on our side. We also have another mission - to pick up my bags, which LATAM informs us “have probably arrived at Raices B&B now.”
The Patagonian rains have now begun, which surprisingly makes the unpaved stone roads much easier to drive - less dusty, and more forgiving when there’s no way around the maze of deep potholes. I first take a quick walk out to Lago Negro before we leave this special Park.
Travelling through the rain, we make good progress, and are amazed at the differing scenery we missed through our rear-view mirror on the way up. The only deviation we make to the initial route is via X-50 through Las Turbinas, which is the longer, but faster sealed road, bypassing the dirt section through Villa Ortega. We arrive back in Coyhaique to civilisation, and a very welcomed sight.
Thanking Raices for bag-sitting, we make our way through the relative peak hour traffic of Coyhaique, and across the mountains of Cerro Castillo National Park, to experience some Patagonian Spring showers.
Day 6: Villa Cerro Castillo
In what becomes our most charming, authentic and unexpected stay, we are the guests of Mary at Hospedaje La Casona for 2 nights.
Mary does her best to understand our terrible attempts at Spanish, but we end up mostly communicating through pictures and gestures, and translations courtesy of a tour-guide who has brought through a group of non-English nor Spanish-speaking Germans.
At the foot of the switchback and National Park, we awoke to a mountain of snow, and a shaggy brown llama outside our window which had presumably come down to escape it.
We had hoped to climb Cerro Castillo, however we needed to chase cash again, so went back to the bank in Coyhaique. In the cold, we opted for some more protected hikes instead, and the scenery didn’t disappoint.
Day 7: Villa Cerro Castillo to Parador Austral Lodge
The roadworks in this section started sooner than expected, with an hour-long wait greeting us before we even left town.
The loose stones south of Cerro Castillo make the road incredibly dusty, and easy to slip and slide off the steep edges. Whilst it will be sealed in the near future, this is currently the most challenging part of the highway. There are a few safe mirador locations though - this being a favourite for many.
Winding through valleys and over passes, Ruta 7 makes its way to the northern shores of the impressive Lago General Carrera.
A stark contrast to the forests we have just passed through, the landscape opens right up, showing off condors at play in the up-drafts above us.
Next stop is Puerto Rio Tranquilo, where we visit a diner for lunch, and take one of the roughest speedboat rides I’ve ever experienced to Capilla de Marmol - the Marble Caves.
And finally, we continue for another 45 minutes beside the lake to our destination - Parador Austral Lodge.
Day 8: Tres Lagos region
Today, we make our way to the other side of Puerto Guadal, where our jet-boat departs for Glacier Leones. We discover Lago General Carrera is too rough to cross, so we need to drive back around to Rio Leones, where our boat awaits.
Our tour group jumps in, our driver taking us up-stream for 45 minutes, until we learn that due to some recent cool weather, the reduced glacial melt has meant the river levels are too low for the boat to safely go any further. We scramble through some brambles to get a photo in front of a small glacier anyway.
Defeated, we head back, and are offered a couple of alternate tours to fill the rest of our day.
We take up the offer of a short guided hike to the Cascadas Río Los Maquis. We are dropped in the hills above Puerto Guadal, which offer spectacular views of the lake and Northern Patagonian Ice Field.
We then return to our quiet lodge and soak up some afternoon sun from our balcony overlooking the lake. The resort is linked to the slightly more up-market Hacienda Tres Lagos, so we are able to use the facilities, including the restaurant, lounge and games room. It is sadly a little run down, with only a few guests staying here in the shoulder season. We don’t mind this at all.
Day 9: Parador Austral Lodge to Caleta Tortel
Today, we make our way south along the Rio Baker. Our first stop is the Confluencia of Rio Baker, and the Glacier-fed Rio Neff.
Winding our way alongside Tompkins Conservation’s newer project, Parque Patagonia. We make our way to Cochrane for some lunch, before continuing through some truly unspoilt country.
We leave Ruta 7 at the turn-off to Caleta Tortel. Many will continue to Villa O’Higgins, around 130 kilometres further south, however our tight schedule doesn’t allow this. We’re not disappointed by the option we choose. Caleta Tortel is a timber village, connected not with roads, but by kilometres of elevated walkways made from the locally-sourced guaytecas cypress timber.
The village has only been connected to the outside world by road since 2003, and was previously only accessible by sea and air. Fishermen frequently come and go from the port, many using their vessels now for the lucrative tourist trade, to see the Jorge Montt Glacier.
Our accommodation is quite a distance from the car, but one of the top choices in town, Entre Hielos Lodge. We miss out on a room with a view, but it is a lovely stay nonetheless, with an excellent chef working with local produce to create some intricate dishes, the quality of which we’d struggled to find on our drive until now.
Day 10: Caleta Tortel to Chile Chico
After breakfast catching up with one of the couples we met on our failed Leone Glacier tour, we embark on the many stairs between our accommodation and our car. It is the complete thighs, calves and quads workout, which completely negates the need for a gym in the village.
It’s another rainy Patagonian day, and we drive North again, back the way we came, stopping in Cochrane to warm up. We’re very excited to find a cafe which serves what is advertised as a proper cappuccino.
We get back on the road, and the weather continues to deteriorate, with some spectacular rain bands moving across the landscape. We leave Ruta 7 near the Parador Austral Lodge, and turn towards Chile Chico. On X-899, we’re met with typical Patagonian peak-hour traffic issues. Cattle-droving, and rock-blasting.
This is an extreme and spectacular stretch of road, with many amazing view-points. In many places, the road is precariously perched between the Southern side of Lago General Carrera and the towering peaks of the Andes. After another long day of driving, we arrive in Chile Chico, right beside the Argentinian border. The town and landscape is vastly different to that which we’ve covered until now. It’s like we’ve arrived in the Wild West - it’s very desert-like, with evidence of incredible winds. The pine trees In the plaza were all leaning in a westerly direction.
Day 11: Chile Chico to Coyhaique
Staying in an apartment next to the car ferry terminal, we arrive early to board the daily ferry to Puerto Ibanez. A man checking tickets, tries his best to communicate with me that the ticket we purchased online needs to be redeemed for a boarding pass. The only thing I could understand was his pointing towards town. Panicked, I drive into town, and try the bus station. At 7am, nothing is stirring, but I find an office with a light on. I show her my ticket, and she prints some boarding passes. Success! We make it with 20 minutes to spare. A rough ride across Lago General Carrera, and we make our way back to Ruta 7 at the foot of the switchback, and return to Coyhaique. Our final night in Patagonia is at the stylish Pampa del Corral. With some time up our sleeve, we return the car, and cross the river to visit the craft brewery Casa Tropera. That evening, we also try out their restaurant in town (as recommended by our host) - Mamma Gaucha.
Day 12: Coyhaique to Santiago (via Balmaceda)
Our final day is a damp one, and we enjoy sitting on the lounge listening to French music and watching the rain on the deck while we wait for our shuttle to arrive. Our driver is late, and appears to be attempting a land-speed record on the wet roads to make up time. LATAM check us in without any of the drama on our arrival. And so we reluctantly leave Patagonia with a camera and memory full of moments that have made us fall in love with this road, the people, and the utterly mesmerising scenery.