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Carretera Austral Day Six….Cochrane to Chile Chico and Argentine Border

Breakfast on Day six again at the Military Hotel, and we were off on the last stretch of our trip in Chile, for today we were to drive along the south side of Lago General Carrera, and cross over into Argentina at the border town of Chile Chico to begin our long drive north through the Argentine Patagonia. Lago General Carrera is a bi-national lake, 60% in Chile and 40% in Argentina where it is called Lago Buenos Aires.

Lago General Carrera

Lago General Carrera

It eventually empties into the Pacific Ocean at Caleta Tortel via RÍo Baker. The road we wanted to take turned off the Carretera Austral just north of Puerto Bertrand.

Near Beltrand

Near Beltrand

The trip along the lake to Chile Chico is an easy, but a bit dangerous, drive. Loose gravel with steep drop-offs can be treacherous, but as long as everyone drives with caution it is one of the loveliest drives in Chile. And Chile Chico is a nice border town, with restaurants and stores for the traveler.

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Ferries travel across the lake regularly to and from Puerto Ibañez, connecting Chile Chico and travelers with a more expeditious route to Coyhaique. We had our last meal in Chile at the Restaurant Turismo de Chile Chico : crispy but moist broiled salmon, and lukewarm beer.

Ferry from Chile Chico to Pto. Ibañez

Ferry from Chile Chico to Pto. Ibañez

For the next three days we drove north through Argentina, stopping for the night in Perito Moreno, San Carlos de Bariloche and San MartÍn de Los Andes, before crossing back into Chile through the Mamuil Malal pass at the foot of magnificent Volcan LanÍn, then through Pucón, Villarrica, and eventually back onto the Pan-American highway and home in Santiago. An account of this part of our trip trough Argentina deserves a separate literary effort, left to another day.

We had accomplished our objective of driving from one end of the Carretera Austral to the other; five thousand kilometers through the most beautiful natural areas in the world. Along the way each bend in the road revealed a place, a side road, a trail, a river, a lake, and wonderfully happy people that beg you to stay for days if not weeks, and they especially expect you to enjoy their wonderful land. Our trip was one focused on the pure satisfaction of driving this road as few people have done; certainly most have not traveled the entire length from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Instead of what we did, most visitors choose just a section of the Carretera and spend more time exploring the surroundings. And frankly, that is the way to really appreciate this part of Chile, so now that we have satisfied our crude macro-desire, we are already planning longer but more precise visits to more limited areas on the Carretera.

One interesting route is Puerto Montt, Chaitén, Futaleufú, and back through Argentina to Chile at Puyehue, then Osorno. This route is great as long as you traverse the Puerto Montt to Chaitén route by land, including the three barcaza crossings. Another is what most people do; fly to Balmaceda to visit Coyhaique and surroundings, Puerto Aysén, and Laguna San Rafael. But the trip I want to make, and suggest to others, before it becomes too popular, is an extension of this by adding on a visit to Villa O’Higgins for a few days to enjoy that very special place nestled in the Andes right next to Campos de Hielo Sur and Lago O’Higgins.

As I am finishing up this rambling account, the Santiago newspapers are filled with news and opinions on the World

Court’s recent determination regarding the Peru-Chile border almost five thousand kilometers north of Villa O’Higgins. Chileans seem distraught over the possibility that Peru, with their legal challenge, might have accomplished wresting some of Chile’s maritime economic exclusive control over a portion of the Pacific Ocean 80 kilometers off the coast of Arica. Probably there are important geopolitical issues at stake, so I am not suggesting Chileans should not be concerned; maybe they should even be more upset at the outcome. What I am wondering, though, is how attentive the Chilean authorities are to the vast terrestrial and maritime riches along the entire length of the Carretera Austral we just visited, as well as further south to and beyond Punta Arenas. Is there serious strategic thinking being forged to guide development of the areas along the entire Argentine-Chilean border that runs the length of the country, but especially in the southern Patagonia region we just visited? Is the next “surprise” of challenged or even lost patrimony going to be in the south due to a lack of serious national presence, protection, and development in the border area?

On one of our last nights on the Carretera Austral, we happened to be staying in the same hotel as the mayor of Villa O’Higgins. We had seen the new housing developments in Villa O’Higgins, and other effects of the opening up of the Carretera, and I, for one, thought that the mayor would be excited about the prospects for his town and the area now that the Carretera is finally being finished. However, to my surprise he divulged very deep-felt anxiety, and disappointment, with the Santiago-centric Chilean national authorities, who, to paraphrase, “…have never paid nearly enough attention to the challenges of developing and defending the incredible natural resources held in trust in the south of Chile, not the present ones, not the prior ones, nor any before them ”.

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Maybe now a new government, helped along by the impact of the Peru-Chile border issue, will figure out how to provide the incentives necessary for serious investments in the distant regions of Chile, especially the “deep Patagonian south”. The Carretera Austral, a mammoth undertaking to be sure, is just the first step in a process whereby Chileans begin to take full advantage of their rich natural endowment. My hope is that they follow through with careful development of the entire area through which we traveled on the Carretera Austral, by committing to a model of development that encourages increased economic activity while preserving the vast protected areas of the national parks, reserves, wild rivers and lakes which can attract lucrative tourism and sustain in the long run any human settlements.

In the meantime, good readers, my suggestion is that if you ever wanted to travel the Carretera Austral in Chile, you should do it NOW!

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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10 thoughts on “Carretera Austral Day Six….Cochrane to Chile Chico and Argentine Border”

  1. Gary says:

    Interesting adventure and set of commentaries. Thanks for sharing.
    Gary W.

  2. Roger says:

    Excellent fotos and story. But Patagonia is not so pristine as we want to believe. The massive forest clearing by fire in the early 20th century removed native species in order to provide grassland for sheep brought in by the English. And today there are grand plans for hydroelectric installations, with high tension towers cutting through the most beautiful areas of Chile. Greetings from another Peace Corps Volunteer.

  3. Ned Strong says:

    Thanks, Dave. Trips like this are especially rewarding because of the people you meet. Add in some wine and Pisco sours and you have a recipe for a true adventure. Ned

    1. Geraldine says:

      This intoudrces a pleasingly rational point of view.

  4. Dave says:

    Today, Feb. 16, the mayor of Villa O’Higgins authored an article in El Mercurio, essentially stating the same I proposed at the end of this posting. I guess I got out a bit in front of him. Or, maybe he read this blog? Anyway, his appeal for attention to Chile’s southern border and natural areas is right on target.

  5. Matt says:

    Just finished reading your epic!! Great job and the pictures added a lot to the narrative. You could have shown me any of those pictures without telling where they come from in the world and I would have known it was Chile – it is a unique place.
    It was a nostalgic read especially seeing all those old Mapuche place names – again very unique. Also nostalgic because I did part of that trip in the early eighties. They didn’t have a road then in Chiloe Continental, so we took the ferry from Chiloe to Chaiten and got down as far as Aysen. We spent a few days around Puyuhuapi where we lodged in the home of the “inolvidable” Dona Ursula – a German woman who colonized the area with her husband in 1946. She had a picture of her husband in full German military regalia from WWII in the dining room looking over our meals. I must have a rug from the factory down in my basement. We also spent a few days around Chaiten which of course was “entero” at that stage.
    From your description I would say that there are some changes – there seems to be more “pueblos” along the way, COPEC seems to have a better infrastructure which was a problem when we did it. I remember there was little or no traffic on the road and this was in high summer (early February) which was good but also scary if you had a breakdown.

  6. R. Recabal says:

    Estimado David, un saludo cordial y cariñoso desde el Sur de nuestra Patria, gracias por tus conceptos y espero verle proximamente en nuestra Comuna para conversar sobre este hermoso territorio.-
    Atte
    Roberto Recabal, Alcalde de Villa O’Higgins

  7. Clapper says:

    David: Your blogs are a geography, history, and political science class rolled in to one interesting session. No professor could present a more fact filled and interesting picture of Chile than is found in your blogs. I love your geographic and social commentary but my eye light up when the subject turns to wine and food. We will get together when you return to Virginia. Hi to Ximena from Cathy and from me. See you soon. Clapper

  8. Elgin Fulton says:

    Hi David,

    I hope this finds you well. My name is Elgin Fulton, and I am a Producer with the CNN Original Series “The Wonder List with Bill Weir”. We go around the world studying change, and just this past July we went to Patagonia to do an episode about the life of Douglas Tompkins and the change and impact that he had on Patagonia Chile and Argentina.

    I am reaching out to you today because we found the photo in “Patagonia Sin Tompkins” in this blog post and we are wondering if we could have your permission to use your photo in our show. If you would like to see a promo of our show you can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULCJH11XB0o

    We are currently in post-production now with this episode so if you can let me know as soon as possible that would be great! Fantastic blog by the way, I’ve done many trips to South America and your entries are spot on.

    Thanks and all the best,

    Elgin

    1. Rosalinda says:

      Never would have thunk I would find this so insdepsniable.

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