We spent a week exploring the Carretera Austral in the Aysen Region of Chile (Central Patagonia). The Carretera Austral, or route 7, is an unpaved route that runs 1200 km from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia.
Our favorite spots along the way were the Marble Caves, Parque Patagonia, and Valle de Exploradores. We had an interesting experience with our rental car, but managed to make it through in one piece!
The Marble Caves are natural rock formations located on General Carrera Lake, the second largest lake in South America. This system features numerous caverns, columns, and tunnels all made out of, you guessed it, marble! There are two distinct groups of caves, both of which are accessed by boat from Puerto Rio Tranquilo, Chile.
We journeyed out on two separate occasions to catch a glimpse of both marble formations. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the caves, followed by ~1.5 hours exploring each expansive system. The more well-known formation features the Capilla de Marmol (Marble Chapel) and Catedral de Marmol (Marble Cathedral), with fewer caverns surrounding. Near Puerto Sanchez, there is another formation which is less popular, but with a much more expansive cavern system. Both are beautiful, but we enjoyed Puerto Sanchez more due to the sheer rock faces and more intricate marble designs. Our favorite part was going inside the caverns and being surrounded by incredible marble! We were also able to explore an abandoned mining ship on the way back from Puerto Sanchez. This is a truly amazing natural wonder of the world.
Parque Patagonia was recently established by Conservacion Patagonica, a group founded by Doug & Kris Tompkins (co-founder of North Face and former CEO of Patagonia, respectively). The park is situated in Valle Chacabuco on former farmlands that had been significantly overgrazed and degraded. The conservation group acquired close to 200,000 acres from local farmers. After removing 50+ miles of metal fences, a beautiful landscape now exists along Paso Roballo (a road leading across the border into Argentina). There are too many guanacos to count and beautiful views of the Northern Ice Field.
This park has incredibly nice infrastructure, which is still being constructed as we visited just after the “soft opening” of the park. Even the campground bathrooms have wood trim, copper sinks, and cast iron hardware! We spent 2 nights camping at “Camping Los West Winds”, where walk-in campsites give access to stunning mountain views. We ventured along the Aviles Trail, a 10-mile hike that became 12 miles after being unable to cross a “stream” (actually a rushing river). We enjoyed lovely views of Cerro Pintura and carried on through several drenching rains. We had planned to do a backpacking loop, however after 2 days of near-constant rain (snow at the level where we planned to camp), we bailed to carry on along the Carretera.
Valle Exploradores takes off West from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We found this on a whim while researching local activities and certainly were not disappointed! We drove 52 kilometers on a rough dirt road past huge granite cliffs and hundreds of waterfalls, arriving to the base of Glacier Exploradores. After paying a hefty 3,500 pesos, we took a steep hike up to the viewpoint of the glacier. Unfortunately, Monte San Valentin (highest peak in Chilean Patagonia) was hidden by a thick cloud layer, but the remainder of the view was amazing!
As we were flying by the seat of our pants, we were thrilled to find the only lodging in the valley to have availability. We enjoyed good conversation with the German hosts, a delicious meal, and accessibility to amazing views!
Pepe the Truck (and other misadventures)
While those were the highlights of the trip, here is the nitty gritty. We rented a 4WD pick-up truck from a guy named Sergio with the group Rental Cert. While there were better-known groups available, his was the only company that could start the rental on a Sunday. He met us at the Balmaceda airport with his 2004 Chevy Colorado truck. After going through the necessary paperwork and payments, he took us through the details of the truck. We should have known better after our orientation began with “don’t worry about the check engine light” and ended with “and the pressure light is on because the tires are a different size.” Being naïve, over-trusting tourists, we rented the car anyways.
It only took about 25 km until we knew something was really wrong with the truck. On our first real hill, the truck was unable to go beyond 40 km/h (~25mph) and the RPMs could not exceed 2,100 rev/min. This earned the truck the nickname of “Pepless Pepe”, or Pepe for short. After several phone calls to Sergio, trying out his recommended tactics (“mas suave”), and being told there just was not another option, we decided to press on with Pepe. And by press on, I mean go uphill very s-l-o-w-l-y.
All was fine until day 4, when after bailing on backpacking we drove to the nearby town of Cochrane and found Internet outside of the government building. We sat in the car researching local activities and lodging (it was still raining) for about an hour and half. Once we had everything settled, Chris turned the key only to find the battery was dead. We immediately started flagging cars down but no one had jumper cables. We next explored the town, but with it being a Sunday afternoon in Chile everything was shut down. I even asked a mechanic working in his shop if he could help, to which he replied, “I don’t have jumper cables” (I assumed this was a lie). Walking back to the truck deflated, we happened upon two police officers that came to our rescue! After a quick jumpstart we were back on the road!
Pepe actually performed better after his shock back to life, but little did we know he was in for more excitement! Chris decided to stop at a turn-off for a picture, and when pulling back out onto the road ran over a HUGE rock. A cloud of smoke came up and BAM we were stuck with the front passenger wheel suspended in air. We again took to flagging down passer-bys, and thankfully pulled over a part-time mechanic/full-time MacGyver and his friend. They spent some time trying to power over the rock and then trouble-shooting. Eventually, Pepe was lifted on a car-jack, a rock ramp was built under his floating tire, and he was able to escape!
Knowing all bad things occur in 3s, I was wondering what was next to come (Chris would even say I willed it to happen!). We soon found out when we arrived to Lago Negro, a beautiful lake along the Carretera. During our Internet break in Cochrane I had booked a hotel room at Lago Negro Lodge, assuming it was the same Lago Negro we had passed a few days before. In fact, the hotel I booked was located 300 km north of where we were, in La Junta, Chile. After an embarrassing encounter with a very nice (but incorrect) lodge, we drove around for about 2 hours before finding lodging at a campground – settling in at 9pm. While comical now, it truly was (and hopefully will remain) the worst day of our trip!
We woke up the next day laughing about our misadventures but hopeful that the rest of the trip would be better. Pepe cooperated for another day, but while driving out of Valle Exploradores a third warning light came on and Pepe started flashing “FLUIDO”. Luckily we were close to town and drove into Puerto Rio Tranquilo without issue. A quick phone call to Sergio verified that it probably was the brake fluid, but thankfully we were close to mechanics (or so we thought). As it turns out, the local mechanic was out of town in Coyhaique, but we were promised he would return the next day. We returned to his house/shop the following day, only to be greeted by his wife with news that he would, in fact, not be back for another day. Our flight was scheduled for the following day, so we had to make it to Coyhaique that day – a 4-hour drive over sketchy mountain passes. All buses had already left for the day and our truck was truly not functional. We tried to dump brake fluid in, but it quickly dripped out through the rear axle. After calling Sergio back and refusing his initial proposal to “just drive back very slowly and safely” over steep mountain passes on bad roads, he agreed to drive down and switch cars with us so we could make our flight. While we had come to appreciate Pepe and his quirks, we were ready to part ways. Oh, and Sergio did drive him back over the sketchy roads – we made sure to stay behind him should the brakes truly fail!
We always said this week would be the “wild card” of the trip, as we didn’t know what to expect. Well, it exceeded that expectation. The journey vacillated from frustrating, comical, and amazingly beautiful. Our motto throughout the week was “it could be worse.” When Pepe’s battery died, the police came to our rescue. When he got stuck on a rock, a Chilean MacGyver saved the day. When I booked a room at the wrong lodge, we found a campground with truly stunning views. And finally, when the brake fluid leaked out we had another day at the Marble Caves (and didn’t plummet over a cliff). It really could have been worse.
We are happy we spent this week exploring, but now we’re ready to head onto our next destination – Bariloche, Argentina!
Pros: visiting a new park, viewing sheer marble, flexibility in our itinerary, helpful Chileans
Cons: car troubles, rough road, mechanics being out of town
Tips: 4wd is necessary in this region, there are many rental agencies at the Balmaceda airport (avoid rentalcert.cl). Visit both sets of marble caves, both accessible from various agencies in Puerto Rio Tranquilo.
Puerto Rio Tranquilo: Explorasur (Explorasur also runs boat tours to the caves)
Valle Exploradores: Campo Alcaluf
Parque Patagonia: Camping Los Westwinds