Almost four weeks ago, we changed our plans and instead of going over to the coast of the Chubut region of Argentina in Patagonia, we crossed the boarder in to Chile earlier and further south than we had expected to. The Carretera Austral was why.
The Carretera Austral (unpoetically named Route 7 in English) is a mostly unpaved road roughly connecting Villa O'Higgins in the Aisén region in the south to Puerto Montt in Los Lagos region further north. I say roughly connecting because there are parts missing where there's water in the way, but it's just that glacial landscape that makes a trip along the Carretera Austral so memorable, but you do need the towingless contact just in case.
We did not travel the whole length of the road, but just the part from Puerto Ibáñez on the north side of Lago General Carrera to Chaitén on the coast opposite Chiloé island, making stops in Coyhaique, Puyuhuapi and Villa Santa Lucia along the way.
Coyhaique is the biggest city along the Carretera Austral, and we found it to be a welcome reprieve from the wilderness of Argentinian Patagonia that we had experienced so far, with cozy cafés, comfortable accommodation and fast internet.
When it came time to leave Coyhaique for Puyuhuapi 224km north, we thought “this journey can't really take 5 hours like the ticket seller told us”. That was before we came to the gravel roads and hairpin bends.
The scenery was definitely worth it, though. Lush, jungle-like forest against a backdrop of still-snowy mountains, interspersed with waterfalls that jumped out at us as we rounded each (and there were many) bend.
Unfortunately, half our time in Puyuhuapi, it rained quite heavily which prevented us from doing many of the outdoor activities on offer (yeah, we're wusses) like hiking, cycling, fishing and kayaking.
We did enjoy walks along the coast of the fjord, to the old and new ports and a few culinary delights.
When we were finally able to leave Puyuhuapi (finding a bus that would take us far enough was really hard – see below), we were both pleased and disappointed that the road was free of hairpin bends, though it was still unpaved. After a while, I found the consonant vibrations and occasional gyres and gimbles due to the uneven road surface of the vehicle somewhat comforting, in a being-rocked-to-sleep-as-a-baby kind of way.
The landscape wasn't quite as dramatic as on the stretch from Coyhaique to Puyuhuapi, but the low clouds gave it a moody, apocalyptic feel that made it seem like we were the only people left in the world.
Just over half way to our destination, we broke down. The driver didn't seem phased at all, and sent his son running back the way we had come to pick up the piece of the suspension that had fallen off. (I later heard the son comment that the exact same thing had happened the day before). The driver then spent the next hour and a half mostly underneath the bus, emerging blackened but triumphant to applause and even a Mexican wave from some of the rowdier passengers.
We arrived in Villa Santa Lucia, a town of a handful of streets at the last northbound junction along the Carretera Austral. We had been told that it would be easy to hitchhike from here to Chaitén, our ultimate destination, exactly because there would be two roads worth of traffic coming along there. It was around 8pm when we started and several cars passed us to no avail. We gave up before 9pm and looked for a place to sleep. (We know: we're the worst hitchhiker's ever.)
The next day, we were lucky to get the last two seats on the bus to Chaitén. The landscape became flatter, we crossed rivers on miniature replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and eventually we were driving fast on alien paved road. It felt out of place. But then this whole road had felt slightly out of place, snaking slyly through the wilderness linking mountains and sea, so it was a fitting end.
In summer (December-February), demand exceeds supply for both accommodation and transport, so make sure you book ahead.
Puerto Ibáñez – Coyhaique: For this leg, buses await the arrival of the ferry from Chile Chico, and tickets for them are sold along with the ferry tickets at the port office in Chile Chico and cost CP$4,000 (£5) with a journey time of approximately 2 hours.
Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi: Terrasur Austral runs modern buses daily departing at 3pm from Coyhaique central bus station. The journey really does take 5 hours and costs CP$8,000 (£10) at the bus station. Buses Becker run a bus directly from Coyhaique to Chaitén, but they only have 2 services a week (apparently Tuesdays and Saturdays, though this is unconfirmed).
Puyuhuapi – Chaitén: This is definitely the trickiest part to organise. Buses Daniela runs a small bus/large minivan on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays originating in Coyhaique and going to Futaleufú on the Argentinian boarder. We bought tickets to Villa Santa Lucia at the crossroad of the Carretera Austral and the turning for Argentina which cost CP$8,000 (£10) from the Chile Express office in Puyuhuapi. If the bus hadn't broken down, it would have taken about 4 hours.
Buses Becker's service from Coyhaique to Chaitén (mention above) does stop in Puyuhuapi, but they have no office there and it is not possible to buy tickets online, so the only thing to do is wait for the bus to arrive and hope they have space. They probably won't, though. From Villa Santa Lucia, there is a daily service to Chaitén (originating in Futaleufú) leaving sometime between 7 and 8am, takes roughly 2 hours and costs CP$1,000 (£1.25).
Coyhaique: We stayed at the Patagonia Hostel, a 10 bed capacity hostel run by friendly Germans with a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere where no one minded that we spent more than one morning holed up in front of our iDevices to alternately work and procrastinate. Beds in the 6-bed dorm are CP$12,000 (£16) a night per person, and double rooms are CP$30,000 (£40). All share one bathroom.
Puyuhuapi: Here, we stayed in a simple but always full hostel/hotel with a mixture of private cabins and rooms; Hostal Aonikenk. We stayed in a small a private double room with our own bathroom and paid CP$25,000 (£34) per night.
Villa Santa Lucia: Don't stay here if you don't have to. But if you do, there are several houses advertising alojamiento, though the first one we tried was full. The place we stayed was very basic, though clean enough, and for CP$10,000 (£14) for two people, we couldn't complain.
Eating and Drinking
Coyhaique: Zab's cafe of choice was Café Holzer with excellent coffee (so I'm told) and a tantalizing selection of cakes (I can confirm).
Puyuhuapi: Our favourite place for cake (and in Zab's case, coffee) was Los Mañios del Queulat, a tiny hut with just four tables, attended to by a jovial woman who served simple but delicious food and generous slices of cake. We also enjoyed my birthday dinner of freshly caught hake at El Muelle with lovely views out over the water.