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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ”.
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!