Thumbs-Up on the Carretera


Kilometers 0 - 160: Villa Cerro Castillo to Coyhaique

I wasn’t first to arrive at the bus stop shelter. Following etiquette, I had to move downstream until the group ahead found a ride. Being new to the game, I didn’t quite have my system in order yet as I walked down the road. My spot was difficult for cars to see, and the limited pull off space and short decision making zone all set me up for failure. Ignorance is bliss though and I gleefully tossed my thumb up into the wind as the first car zipped by. It was day one on the Caraterra, and my first  time actively hitchhiking as a primary means of transportation. It’s worth noting that in Chile hitchhiking does not bear the same reputation as in the U.S. and generally speaking, it is a completely normal and acceptable way to get around. On the Carretera this is amplified and has taken on a life of its own. Luckily it was shoulder season so the main hoards of travelers had disbanded, but at times competition for rides can be fierce on this legendary stretch of tarmac and dirt. Maybe it was my positioning, or simply a lack of seasoned aura, but I think my experience level on the road was obvious to the other group; they caught a ride and brokered a deal for Abi and I to hop in the trunk. My first pick up was out of the way and with limited effort I found myself in Villa Cerro Castillo.

Cerro Castillo

There are roughly a dozen national parks along the Carretera making up the bulk of Patagonia and the protected land in Chile. Because of where I crossed the border I had to leave the southernmost few unexplored but there were still many options on the table; I began with Cerro Castillo. Defined by its namesake castle like tower, the small park is home to a four day hiking circuit and from what I’m told world class climbing. It was the four day trek that caught my eye when planning the stop, but a stretch of bad weather was making the trip look unreasonable. Day two included crossing a highly exposed pass and a high likelihood of high winds, heavy snow, and no visibility made it a risky endeavor as planned. A quick audible was made to hike the circuit backwards, use the last campsite as a base of operations, and take day hikes from there. This was a more flexible plan, and weather permitting, the major sites would still be visited, just now without the need to lug heavy packs in bad conditions. The campground was quite, well sheltered, and best of all free. Only a handful of others spent more than a day in the park and at night the brave few hunkered down in a small shelter to wait out rain and wind as small storm systems passed. It was wet but cozy, and became home for now. On a clear day I hiked to the pass. For 500m I stayed low, scrambling up lose rocks as to not get thrown back down to camp by the swirling wind. A group in front of me turned around half way, their large backpacks were to much to manage in the gusts. At the top a sheltered landing allowed me to take in the endless valley view and across the far side, a glacier baked in the sunlight feeding the lake below with runoff from last evenings snow. Back at camp a fire raged into the night as wild tales of ultra long term travel were shared by new friends. A couple, now over four years into their adventures, were an endless well of knowledge and tips. They probably don’t know it, but some of the information they shared will change my life profoundly; only time will tell to what extent.

Embracing a break in the wind attop the pass

First on the road, thumb up! I was glad to beat the rush to the bus stop shelter after getting off to a later start then desired. Luckily, Chileans aren’t early risers. With prime position I was quickly scooped up, and I landed a winner. A direct trip, 96km,  was going to get me all the way to the city of Coyhaique. My ride, a young local Chilean who owned and operated a high-end accommodation and climbing outfit in Villa Cerro Castillo, was headed there and happy to have others along to pass the time. At some point the topic of conversation turned towards coffee, and my passion for the liquid of life sent us on an amazing detour. His favorite cafe was in Coyhaique and he said making a pitstop to fuel up for the day was a must. Incredible isn’t a strong enough word. Good cheap coffee was served up, breaking me free from the hell of instant mud water I had been consuming. But I met a higher being when I took my first bite into the Deli Break Gourmet ham and cheese panini. On the surface, this is a run of the mill, bland sandwich. However, after watching customer after customer order it, and in large quantity, I needed to see what the hype was all about. Going into the panini press as a thick, lifeless roll each morsel comes out one finger thin, golden, and crisped to perfection. What cheese is in there? I do not know; but it melts and oozes with lava like viscosity. A heavy coating of oregano, generously sliced ham, and butter...lots of butter, all combine to create an item that must be ordered in twos because the first only leaves you yearning for more. I went back religiously, and will not feel complete in the future until I can successfully recreate this culinary masterpiece.

Coyhaique is a must make stop when traveling on the Carretera as it’s the last city one meets until the end. It’s critical to stock up on grocery store essentials, use an ATM, and get some WiFi to tie up loose ends because further up the road one finds nothing of the sort. Though a critical stop, it’s not a tourism city and thus accommodation options are pretty bleak. The few traditional hostels are obscenely expensive, and even most hospedajes (shared or private rooms in a home) were pushing the upper budgetary limits. After a while of knocking on less and less obviously legitimate establishments I found a perfect match. Cheap, comfortable, and it included a grandma to offer tea, bread, and other treats. I’m not even sure if this was an actual room for rent or if she simply decided to take us in for fun, but after a difficult to translate conversation and an offer to pick the price it was settled that I would stay. There was no internet, let alone WiFi so a few visits to the public library were necessary to plot the course for the next few weeks, sign off from the world a bit, and dreadfully file taxes. I stocked up on all the necessities that would be hard to come by along the way and with a full backpack and two good nights of sleep in a bed, I headed for the edge of town.

Still a long way to go

Kilometers 160 - 372: Villa Mañihuales to Queulat National Park

There are a lot of upsides to hitchhiking the Carretera. For starters it’s free, but it also is a great way to practice Spanish and meet a huge cross section of people. There are also cons, the biggest of which is that you don’t always get picked up; and that is precisely what happened in Villa Mañihuales. 77km north of Coyhaique a kind older man let Abi, an Argentinian traveler, and myself off at the edge of town, however he was going no further. I was still 125km away from my destination, Queulat National Park, but it was still early in the day so there was no need to begin looking for accommodation. More importantly there were not going to be many options in this single street town. Twenty minutes later the drizzle began, and an hour in the rain showed no signs of breaking. Soaked but determined I kept my thumb up, but no takers materialized. Two hours passed and my situation was not improving. I grabbed lunch, slowly nibbling on a lackluster empanada to buy more time indoors, but cringed at each missed opportunity as it passed by the window. I gave up on my position at the edge of town and opted for a less ideal but sheltered bus stop. Two more hours, not a bite. As each car passed I dragged my waterlogged shoes out towards the road, the right sleeve of my jacket had soaked through as it lost the cover of shelter on each failed attempt. The sun was beginning to dim, as were my hopes of finding a ride. After six unsuccessful, rather miserable hours in the rain I called it a day. A campground down the road took me in, and I set up the tent on a soggy plot of land. The small campground population spent the night huddled around a wood stove, slowly drying soaking gear. Though I was still a stranger to this new norm, one of my companions around the stove was nearing the end of a two year cycle blitz from Alaska; he was unphased. The morning was grey but dry and an early start was had to ensure a quick pickup. The clock struck noon, moral was low, and each passing car felt like a personal attack as a dismissing wave or shrug was sent from the driver to indicate they couldn’t, or wouldn’t stop. As a full 24 hours came near a big rig truck began to slow, slower, stop. The hazard lights flashed, 7–7-7, Jackpot! Pack on lap I squeezed onto the bench seat of my first ever truck cab. Onward. 

A kind electrician made a quick detour to show off a local waterfall

A translation mishap left me at a fork, still 35km away from the park entrance and upon arrival I was not alone. Two other groups had priority and there is nothing good about being triple deck in the middle of nowhere. In a situation like this the war game of hitchhiking needs to be played tactically. Step one is appearances, looking clean(ish) and non-threatening is a must; a group of three large guys is almost certainly not going to get picked up, nor is tattered clothing and dreads helping find a quick ride. Next, it is important to play up the foreigner card, people tend to be much more interested in picking up and helping out international travelers than nationals on vacation, so be sure to stick out a little bit. Lastly, and this is simply the way things work, either be a girl or travel with one. The vast majority of cars that stop are driven by men and there is no question that they are more likely to pick up a female or group that has females. Using this last point to the max Abi accidentally developed a hitchhiking secret weapon: the bait and switch. The key to a successful bait and switch is to separate the female and male travelers of a group, in this case Abi and I. When in a predicament like the one mentioned above it is acceptable to move further down the road (downstream) of those who arrived first if you believe you are a more eligible pick-up; Abi walks away while I just linger around in the background. When a car inevitably stops to pick up Abi, skipping over the other groups, she says "Oh yeah, and him too" at that point the car is committed and it would be too awkward to back out. Baited and switched, the other groups were circumvented fair and square and finally I arrived to Queulat National Park.

The accessible area of this park is pretty small, but having traveled over 350km it was my first run in with a completely different type of Patagonian wilderness. Instead of the tundra scrub of Torres del Paine and sparse forest of Cerro Castillo, ferns began popping out of every nook and cranny and fluorescent moss climbed up the impressive trunks of old growth trees. Suddenly I had been transported onto the set of Jurassic Park and was immersed in thick, dense jungle. If it hadn't been for the frigid nights and glaciers one could be convinced this was deep amazon territory. I climbed a muddy rain-forest trail in almost total darkness even though it was mid-day; even the sun was no match for the vegetation density. At the top I gazed out in amazement at Queulat's main attraction, Ventisquero Colgante. This mighty hanging glacier sits precariously atop the mountain pass it has been forming for millenia. I struggled to understand this combination of tropical-esc flora alongside glaciated ice, it felt as though a mistake had been made millions of years ago. But that's the beauty of this region, at every turn there is something beautiful, magnificent, and wholy unexpected. 

View from the Mirador in Queulat National Park

Kilometers 372 - 657: Futaleufu to Chaiten

Weather was becoming my enemy as time ticked along. High season in Patagonia is the short two month window of January and February, and as mid March rolled around it was becoming more and more obvious why. The occasional rain from earlier on the journey was becoming two to three day stretches of downpour. Suddenly the weather report, once an afterthought was becoming gospel and all movements had to be based on some unknown sorcerer predicting the chaos from a far. Moving North I battled rain, and after arriving in my next destination I waited another two days indoors before the sky cleared.

Peering into Futaleufu Valley

Futaleufu isn't on the main carretera drag, but any trip through Patagonia without a visit into this majestic valley would be incomplete. Known as one of the world's premier kayaking and rafting destinations the deep valley floor, nestled thousands of meters below its massive walls, is a maze of winding, pristine turquoise rivers. The vibrant scenery, low key town, and of course delicious empanadas all combine to make it an easy place to settle in for a while. With the climate finally complying with my wishes it was time to trek. A few kilometers down a dirt road out of town is a well maintained trial up to a stunning mirador. the threesixty views and lack of crowds made for a nearly perfect situation; but with little warning this hike was cranked up to eleven when a new friend joined along. Inroute to the trail, a roaring meow came from thick bush on the side of the road and out emerged Peanut: The Trail Kitten! Hesitant at first but quick to embrace new friendship Peanut began to follow along. On and on and on up a steep 400m+ climb to the top of a mountain and cliff's edge Peanut charged. Though the kitten was unphased the few others that passed were understandably confused and humored. 

Traveling back down it became clear Peanut was unaware of where home was, if home existed. Unsure what to do I began knocking on the few doors we had passed along the way. After numerous attempts with no answer confidence was dwindling that Peanut would be reunited with family. Standing in front of the last house a young girl was dropped off from school by the bus and headed towards me. She was Peanut's owner and joyfully the tale of this kittens adventure was relayed. Hardly phased by the feats of the small creature she continued on with her post school activities and I headed back to town happy to know Peanut was safe and sound even if not in particularly concerned care. 

Top of the Mirador, and yes Peanut made it up here

Heading back out of the valley I once again found myself in the cab of a truck. The empty cargo hold thundered on each bump as the driver skillfully navigated the washboarded dirt road. Once I was back on the Carretera a military convoy appeared. The tiny pueblo of Villa Santa Lucia situated at the fork of the road had been devastated by a massive landslide a couple months earlier and the army had set up operations to help rebuild the region. Though the town had obviously been hit by something, as half the buildings were no longer standing, it was hard to visualize what had occurred until further down the road. For 20 minutes I drove next to a dried river of mud. Trees shredded like pulled pork added a contrast of white to the brown expanse of destruction. a 20-30km distance over a kilometer wide at the thickest point had been obliterated by the extreme force of the slide. Old growth forest had been uprooted like garden weeds. The rain had once again commenced and with little sign of ceasing it was decided to pass on a camping opportunity along the way and settle in Chaiten until the weather cleared.  

Kilometers 657 - 933: Pumalin National Park to Puerto Varas

The story behind Pumalin National Park is a rather interesting one. Now South America's largest national park, up until 2017 a good portion of this land was private. In the early 90's Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face and Esprit clothing, began buying and conserving large swaths of land in Chilean Patagonia. Over time he amassed a huge continuous section of the region on which Parque Pumalin was built. After his death in 2015 the land was gifted to the Chilean government for public use and continued conservation. The park is pristine, with beautifully constructed wooden shelters and ranger stations, manicured lawns that resemble massive putting greens, and clean highly functional facilities. In high season the price tag for camping within the park matches its presentation, but with low season fully establish the price dropped to free and other travelers were few and far between. Under a large shelter looking out onto a beautiful volcano I pitched the tent and watched the sun set light the snowy peak ablaze. For two days I delightfully lived in this private camping paradise. I climbed up to Michinmahuida Volcano on a bright, clear day; across the valley Volcan Chaiten, a still active cone, puffed smoke into the air and further along Chiloe Island could been seen across the bay. Up the road another beautifully maintained campground, Cascadas Escondidas, brought me back into thick jungle. The namesake hidden waterfalls bursting through the foliage to replenish snaking rivers that feed the insatiable thirst of the lush, green flora. Giant Alerces trees, similar in size and age to the Sequoia Redwoods hide in plain site, camouflaged by dense moss, and wooden staircases to assist hikers through the surrounding areas are slowly being reclaimed by the perpetual growth that no level of upkeep can thwart forever. When I had pictured Patagonia I imagined a lot of things, but enchanted forest was not what I was expecting. I couldn't help whistling the songs of Zelda and the Kiriku Village. 

Things get more complicated transportation wise on the northernmost leg of the carretera. A string of steep mountains contain large waterways necessitating at least two ferry rides. Unfortunately for hitchhikers, there is a roughly 30 minute drive in between the first and second boat so it's an absolute must to have a ride locked down by the time the first docks. A lucky initial meeting put me in the passenger seat of a Subaru piloted by an incredibly interesting man. A machinist by training, he had spent over eight years working in the U.S., manufacturing weapons components for the U.S. Military. After his stint up North he returned to his native Chile where he took on a role as an onsite machinist at a large observatory in the Atacama desert. The observatory is extremely remote, forcing the entire operation to be self sufficient and thus, they need someone on hand who can make just about anything when the complex equipment breaks down. Working long multi-week shifts in the desert he finds refuge from the dry, sandy landscape in trips through it's antithesis, Patagonia. Needless to say we had lots to talk about, which was good, because our total journey together crossed 212km, included two ferry rides and lasted close to 12 hours. Far later than expected I was dropped on a corner near the main square in Puerto Varas and was officially out of Patagonia. Over 18 days, taking 18 different rides from a huge range of people and in the full spectrum of vehicles I had successfully traversed 933km of the Carretera Austral by thumb. My Spanish was at an all time high, and I was ready to take a breather in the beautiful, hot water having, cozy bed town of Puerto Varas. 

Ferrying through the last stretches of Patagonia