Carretera Austral Day Four….Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins
We were awakened early on Day four, 4:30 to be precise, by a trio of frustrated roosters who, sitting right below our windows but out of reach of the rocks we threw at them, incessantly begged us to rise and shine, so we got another early start. MarÍa provided us with a wonderful breakfast at the military hotel, and we departed on the southernmost leg of our trip which would be capped off by a triumphant entry later in the afternoon, into Villa O’Higgins, our ultimate destination at the end of the Carretera Austral.
The drive from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins is a relatively easy one, mostly on a new hard packed gravel road, the most recent section of the Carretera Austral to be opened. It passes small deep-green lagoons, a series of waterfalls, newly constructed bridges over the Barrancoso River, and spectacular views of RÍo Baker.
We passed the turnoff to Caleta Tortel, and continued on to Puerto Yungay where we took the barcaza Padre Antonio Ronchi across the Mitchell Fjord to RÍo Bravo Landing. We would visit Caleta Tortel on our way back north the next day after visiting Villa O’Higgins.
Forests of the native hardwoods Lenga and Ñirre line long sections of this road, along which, now that the area is opened up to vehicular traffic, homesteaders are staking out their properties and building cabins and more substantial homes and lodges, including some fantastic places for visitors who want to fish the cold waters of the Bravo and Mayer rivers.
At one point in our travel down this last section of the Carretera, we were entertained by several majestic condors, two of which were sunning themselves on the branches of a dead tree right beside the road. A bit further down the road you must pass through a forested area where the huemul is apt to be seen. After seeing the condors, we hoped to also view a huemul, the pair being the iconic figures on the Chilean coat-of-arms, but they were not around the day we went by, one of a very few disappointments on this trip.
After following the beautiful RÍo Bravo for about 50 kilometers, we crossed the Coronel Van Schouwen suspension bridge over the Mayer River and drove into Villa O’Higgins, a new town of about 500 inhabitants, and our destination. Villa O’Higgins sits at the tip of Lago O’Higgins, about a kilometer from the Argentine border. The lake extends to the east into Argentina, where it is named Lago San MartÍn; it is fed by melting glaciers of Campo de Hielo Sur, a huge permanent ice field surrounded by Bernardo O’Higgins national park to the west and Los Glaciares national park to the east. Villa O’Higgins is an exciting place, not only because it is at the end of the carretera, but also because from here you can explore into the fjords, lakes, and glaciers of this so far wild and untouched area where only a fortunate few have visited.
There is clearly some official interest in settling more people and commercial activities in Villa O’Higgins, several new housing developments have been established with subsidies from the national government, there are at least two churches, several small hotels, lodges, and cafes and restaurants; a new high-end hotel named Robinson Crusoe – Deep Patagonia provides very comfortable, and pricey, lodging.
We decided to stay here, to get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the long journey back to Santiago starting the next day. Before dinner we walked along the river bed outside of town to the Paso RÍo Mosco at the Chile/Argentine border, and then drove down the road a bit beyond town to a boat launching site on the lake from which we could get a closer, clearer look at the imposing Mosco glacier.
Given the geopolitical sensitivity of this border town, and the absolute raw beauty of the surroundings, Villa O’Higgins is a destination worth the effort it takes to arrive, and worthy of a stay of several days to enjoy one of the most beautiful, naturally striking areas in Chile.
Dinner at the Lodge was preceded by a round of super double pisco sours, cooled with glacier ice (we were told) enjoyed by the fireplace in the second floor sitting room of the main Lodge. A fine but modestly sized plate of tender strips of filet of beef, oven roasted potatoes, and green salad was facilitated by a good amount of Gran Tarapacá Cabernet sauvignon, capped off with the last whimper from our pal Jack Daniels, who abandoned us at this point.
We sat around the fireplace the rest of the evening, entertained by the lodge manager Daniel who described how his share of the very successful Robinson Crusoe seafood processing company was turned into this “Deep Patagonia” hotel and extreme tourism enterprise, which over the next couple of years will establish a world class set of activities for visiting by boat, foot, and horse the lakes, rivers, fjords, glaciers, and forests of this still wild paradise.
We had reached our destination…and we were content, but very tired, so we slept well.