Carretera Austral Day Two….Chaiten to Coyhaique
Early the next morning, after a great breakfast of toasted homemade bread with thick butter, bittersweet blackberry jam, scrambled eggs, ham, and coffee with rich whole milk, we departed Chaitén. The skies were clearing, and in the bright, cool morning air the still-smoking volcano, an imposing threat lurking above the town, was a spectacular sight to behold.
As we started out, our plan for the day was to get as far as Puerto Cisnes, a little less than 300 kilometers south of Chaitén. The road was paved for about an hour south of Chaitén, until we reached the southern end of Parque Pumalín, where we were treated to a most magnificent view of Volcán Michinmahuida to the north.
Further along, again on firm gravel roadway some of which was being widened, we drove along the Río Yelcho, crossed one of the attractive suspension bridges as we left Puerto Cardenas at the northern end of beautiful Lago Yelcho, crossed another where the waters from the Ventisquero Yelcho Chico run into the lake, climbed through the Moraga Pass (highest point on the road), eventually reaching Villa Santa Lucia.
At this point there is a road that turns eastward towards Argentina, to the towns of Futaleufú or Palena; both are about a two hour drive from the Carretera Austral, located just before border crossings into Argentina. This whole area is well known for excellent salmon and trout fishing, spectacular mountain hiking and camping, and white water rafting.
We passed up the opportunity to visit Futaleufú or Palena , and continued south from Villa Santa Lucia as the road begins to border Parque Nacional Corcovado, and Rio Frio, until it finally crosses into the 11th Region, Aisén. Here it borders the Rio Palena that flows westward from Argentina eventually into the Pacific Ocean’s Golfo Corcovado.
About 140 kilometers south of Chaitén we reached the town of La Junta, a relatively new town previously called “Medio Palena” with somewhere around 1,200 inhabitants.
La Junta is named for its location at the confluence of two beautiful rivers, the Rosselot that carries crystalline waters from Lago Rosselot to the sea, and the Palena. Before the Carretera Austral was built, towns like La Junta associated more with Argentina and Argentine culture than with the rest of Chile, in spite of the fact that the area was used to raise livestock that were taken down the line to Puyuhuapi and then by boat to Puerto Montt. From La Junta, if sport fishing is your objective, short trips east to Lago Rosselot and Lago Verde are highly recommended. La Junta offers gasoline and a couple of stores selling all sorts of food and supplies, so it is becoming an important stopping point for travelers at this point of the Carretera Austral.
We picked up a couple of bottles of Cousiño Macul Don Luís (appropriately rustic for the occasion) and ingredients for ham and cheese sandwiches, and enjoyed a light lunch on the shore of Lago Rosselot.
We were making good time, in spite of the fact that through this part of Aisén the road was becoming rougher and we were not able to drive as fast as we would have liked.
As we left La Junta, we left the beautiful Río Palena behind, and drove through an area of pastures along the
Río Risopatrón that flows north from Lago Risopatrón, near Puyuhuapi, our next destination, to join up with the Río Palena near La Junta. As we proceeded, we were driving through two other beautiful protected natural areas, the Reserva Nacional Lago Rosselot and the Parque Nacional Queulat, along the narrow Lago Risopatrón.
As we drove into the small town of Puyuhuapi, it became very clear to us that we were now entering an area of Chile very different and incredibly spectacular. This town, located in the middle of continental Aisén, less than 100 kilometers from the Argentine border, sits comfortably at the tip of the Ventisquero fjord and offers a very mixed bag of lodging, from rustic camping to very comfortable resorts, several boasting therapeutic hot springs. Of special interest also is a well-established, high quality artisan rug factory, worthy of a visit if they happen to be open when you are visiting.
We continued south, along the fjord, and stopped at a simple but pleasant hot springs spa that offered outside hot baths situated right on the water’s edge, with incredible views across the water of Isla Magdaleña and Volcán Mentolat in the distance in the center of Parque Nacional Isla Magdaleña. The temptation to stay put for a while and take advantage of this beautiful spa was almost irresistible. A discussion ensued between the four of us, as to what was best; stay here for a good soak and drive in the dark to arrive late in Puerto Cisnes, or proceed. The opinion was split down the middle; two of us wanted to stay, two wanted to proceed, but we passed up what would have been a very refreshing hiatus in our journey, because our main objective of this trip was to drive the entire length of the Carretera Austral, and if we were going to go all the way to Villa O’Higgins at the end, we could not stop for very long in any one spot, regardless of how tempting. So we pushed on. As it turns out, our non-negotiable and unwavering desire to reach the end of the Carretera Austral was responsible for passing by many spots where stopping for a day or two or more would have greatly enriched our trip; but we had time constraints.
Just a bit further south of Puyuhuapi there is a large aquaculture center producing Atlantic salmon you find in the US at Costco and other large supermarkets, and a pier from which, if you are fortunate enough to have reservations, a boat will take you to the Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa located on the Magdaleña Island. This lodge is located in the middle of the lush native forest that contains not just trees but also those big, Jurassic ferns. Clearly, a stay at this lodge would be a wonderful experience, so as we sped by on our journey to the end of the road we all felt slightly guilty that the four of us were having such a wonderful time seeing for the first time such a beautiful part of Chile, without our respective wives, so we vowed we would return to spend more time here, next time with them.
This idea was further cemented in our minds a little later when we entered the Queulat National Park and took a short hike to a lookout with an amazing view of the Ventisquero Colgante, a huge glacier that seems to hang precariously over the lush valley below. We spent quite a bit of time just taking in this sight, such an imposing mass of ice, thrusting itself out of the Andes Mountains, feeding impressive waterfalls with fresh water from the melting ice.
As we drove through Parque Nacional Queulat, we were greeted with remnants of an earlier snowfall, making the road a little dangerous but the surrounding forest a wonderland. On the downside of the pass we went through Piedra Del Gato, where a road to Puerto Cisnes branches west from the Carretera. This road, paved earlier but being repaved and therefore mostly firm gravel for the moment, follows the winding Río Cisnes through the Andes Mountains which at this point are very close to the Ocean, ending in Puerto Cisnes.
I have always wanted to visit Puerto Cisnes, because way back during the years I worked in Chile with the Peace Corps, there was a woman mayor (something of an anomaly at the time) of this extremely isolated town in Aisén, Eugenia Pirzio Biroli, who made herself famous by forcefully taking her town’s and her people’s needs directly to the national government in Santiago, at times sitting in the anterooms of powerful officials including Presidents until her persistence paid off with an audience. Her objective, to appeal face-to-face with authorities for more services and infrastructure for her town and her people, was usually successful.
Puerto Cisnes is the main population center of a vast area of islands with small fishing villages and totally untouched natural areas some of which are included in huge national parks. It is a welcoming town; as we enjoyed a walk through the lovely central park, a car with a couple of matronly citizens stopped to encourage us to visit their port-side restaurant for some of “the best seafood empanadas you have ever eaten”. We passed up the invitation, not knowing what all might be involved in those empanadas, but we did enjoy how civilized Puerto Cisnes seems to be, with a prominent municipality building, colorful and obviously active cultural center and library, surely public works attributable to the persistence of Eugenia Pirzio Biroli.
But, in spite of finding the town quite interesting and pleasant, we did not see any obvious places to spend the night, so again we decided to continue our travels, this time all the way to Coyhaique, the capital of the 11th Region.
Tired of travelling, hungry but mostly thirsty, we checked into a classic hotel, Los Ñirres, just off the plaza, ordered double pisco sours all around, had a nice dinner of Aysén beef matched with a very good 2009 Cabernet sauvignon, Ventisquero Grey. We were joined for dinner by a young lawyer, relative of ours, who has lived in Coyhaique for several years. During our very lively conversation he mentioned more than once that the beef cattle sector in the Aysén region of the Chilean Patagonia had been “ruined” by Tompkins, the American behind the Parque Pumalín we had driven through the past two days. I had a hard time understanding this, and still am not sure if this argument holds together, but it seems that prior to the establishment of control over the huge national parks and establishment of private preserves like PumalÍn, livestock owners were free to let their cattle roam almost anywhere, even far afield from the owners lands and into public lands. As more attention was given to protecting public and private reserves (Tompkins was and still is an active force in this movement) livestock were kept out of these lands, and the entire regime of raising cattle in this region was changed. It represents another case of changing public preference for natural area protection over extensive farming, with the collateral damage to traditional practices, causing sometimes divisive public policy struggles. This explains in part the proliferation of signs we saw all along the Carretera Austral stating “PATAGONIA SIN TOMPKIN$”, Patagonia without Tompkin$, in pretty bold terms.
Coyhaique is not only the capital of the 11th Region of Chile; it is the kick off point for most people who visit the Carretera Austral. For years tourists have been flying to Balmaceda airport, about 50 kilometers southeast of Coyhaique, joining tours or renting cars to visit Puerto Aysén and Puerto Chacabuco, and from there to go by boat to Laguna San Rafael where, by water, one can get close up to a monumental glacier, even have a glass of scotch cooled with millennial ice from the glacier. Or, from Coyhaique you can continue south on the Carretera Austral, which is what we planned to do, so we left visits to Puerto Aysén, Puerto Chacabuco, and Laguna San Rafael to a later date; “with our wives”, we promised again.