"We never got round to doing nothing" - Our Carretera adventure in 12 images

Chile carretera view over lake cochrane copyright john main pura traveller

We love hearing about the adventures that our travellers enjoy on the Carretera Austral. What makes them so engaging and so different are that they are always so personal. Everyone can follow a relatively similar route, even overlapping with fellow Pura travellers en route, and yet they all have different experiences. That's Patagonia. Embracing its spirit and switching yourself on will be well rewarded. "We never got round to doing nothing" is the newest addition to my list of favourite quotes about the Carretera.

Enjoy reading about the adventures of John and Marian. I hope you find inspiration from the words, but also the images, which are spectacular. You might have even seen his condor image taking centre stage in The Guardian recently.

Our Carretera Adventure in 12 images

By John Main

How to summarise a three week holiday where every day brought a pile of new adventures and interesting stories? It was going to be ten images that we thought highlighted the essence of Patagonia for us. But that was too difficult, here are 12. Which is still like a one minute trailer for your favourite ten-part box set.

1. The road

The last thing we were after was a driving holiday. But Patagonia isn’t like Europe and village to village walking holidays in this vast empty landscape isn’t an option, so we flew into the loneliest airport in the world (Balmaceda) and picked up our huge 4x4. Even for reluctant drivers, the Carretera Austral, Chile’s Route 7, has an unavoidable romantic appeal.

The first road to join up the isolated communities of spectacular Northern Patagonia, only started in the 1970s, still largely unpaved and ending now and forever at Villa O’Higgins, where the Southern Ice Field blocks all land access beyond. And in real life, it was just unbelievably, endlessly, gloriously scenic.

We expected mountains and glaciers, and there were too many to count, but had no idea that the landscape would be so immensely variable. In one morning we would go from enclosed fjords swathed in rainforest to endless dry steppe (albeit invariably ending in a distant snow tinged serrated edge), winding along the very edge of vast oddly coloured lakes one moment then looking down on them from on high the next, all dotted with unfamiliar wildlife in the air, on the water, on the ground.

Picking up heavily laden hitch-hikers was a completely unexpected joy of the trip. Young, adventurous people from all over the world, interesting conversations in English or minimal Spanish, often augmented by Google translate, all of us enthralled by the wonders of Patagonia. But spare a thought for the cyclists. Heavily laden on horrible surfaces for cycling, battered by the wind, choked by the dust or soaked by the rain, did they know it would be like this when they plotted their path to Villa O’Higgins over a beer or a coffee in urban comfort? And how on earth did they get back from there?

2. The Pacific

If your local pond has always been the North Sea, the Pacific Ocean can’t help but seem exotic and remote. Being ignorant of the geography of Patagonia, our experience of the Pacific was unlike anything we’d imagined but no less exciting for all that. The west coast of Patagonia disintegrates into a complicated jigsaw of uninhabited inlets, fjords, peninsulas and islands so the open ocean is a long way away.

But the tide comes in and out around the cabins of the lovely Posada Queulat and nearby Puyuhuapi has signposted tsunami evacuation routes. The weather might have been a bit North Sea but the scenery (glaciers), the rainforest, the birdlife and the sea shells certainly weren’t.

3. The cave painters

Surely one of the attractions of Patagonia is raw nature, protected through time from human depredation by a combination of unfriendly geography and inhospitable climate. But early humans lived here and left their marks, hand prints or primitive paintings, in caves.

The marks themselves are moving enough, but it was something else to sit outside the cave full of their efforts in the Jeinimeni Reserve and wonder about who must have sat on this same boulder, taking in the same view, and eating a very different lunch 9,000 years ago. And on the slopes high above Coyhaique is an ancient weapon factory, where hard stone was chipped into arrow heads, the evidence still widely visible today.

4. The high mountains

Patagonia for me was always synonymous with the mountains of the far south, rendered virtually unclimbable by the size and verticality of their faces combined with the near Antarctic wind and cold. But Pura Aventura insisted the Torres del Paine were too busy to be truly enjoyable, and reluctantly we settled for the greater peace (and likely better weather) of Cerro Castillo. And the walk up to Laguna Duff was a beautiful high mountain day, up close to towering cliffs, shining glaciers, improbable rock towers and one spectacular rockfall. And once we’d left the woods and the last of the official campsites behind, we had the mountains to ourselves.

In truth, for mountain lovers, Patagonia can be slightly frustrating. There are a virtually infinite number of peaks, almost all of them unclimbed. Many would be ideal for UK-style hill-climbing, with unimaginably great views from the tops, but they are either too far from any road or their lower slopes are clad in utterly impenetrable jungle. Or usually both. But what would be the point of coming all this way to do what you always do?

5. Sky and space

We had expected the mountains and glaciers, we hadn’t expected the huge open spaces. Getting off the plane in Balmaceda is a good introduction to the vastness of the Patagonian landscape. At some point almost every day a view opened up of immense distances ending in unknowable peaks, usually against a backdrop of blue skies dotted with fabulous clouds. The “cave walk” in Jeinimeni, surely a candidate for the most beautifully varied and interesting walk you could ever cram into 5 miles, is just one example. The Patagonian clouds are so wonderful, a cloudless day is almost a disappointment - but fortunately rare!

6. The forest fire

During our stay in Cochrane a forest fire was raging somewhere up the Baker valley. We first saw the smoke as we drove down from Chile Chico, and the whole town smelt of burning. Little planes and helicopters made frequent trips from the town carrying buckets of water beneath them, and at night it was difficult to get a seat in Ada’s for dinner because they were busy feeding the influx of fire-fighters.

Because of the smoke the Tamango Reserve was closed the day of our planned walk and we were limited to a short (but beautiful) boat trip up the river and even shorter walk to the viewpoint looking over Lago Cochrane. But it was very peaceful and the smoky blue atmosphere was an interesting contrast to the normally startingly clear Patagonian air. And we saw condors overhead.

7. The discovery

The closure of the Tamango Reserve left us with an empty half day. But encouraged by the map and Carlos at the lodge, we set off for the Callequeo glacier which drops from the 3706m high summit of San Lorenzo on the Argentine border. (We needed Carlos’ encouragement because the map has a little 4x4 only sign on the road which we thought might mean it was particularly rough, but he reassured it was just like the main road. Which it was, more or less.) He also told us you could go walking, as far as you wanted, on a trail that started where the road ended.

When we arrived at the lagoon leading to the glacier, the surrounding mountain tops were all heavily clouded over and although undoubtedly impressive the glacier and surroundings all looked a bit grey. We set off along the excellent but deserted track into the woods, filled with unfamiliar birdlife, particularly woodpeckers, eventually reaching extensive but ruined wooden fencing around what must have been an estancia, next to the river.

Carlos told us later this was the original “pioneers route” to Villa O’Higgins, on horse or foot, passable for only two months of the year. By the time we got back to the car the clouds had lifted, the peak of San Lorenzo was visible, and the glacier and lagoon were shining in the sun. Not a bad way to fill an unexpectedly empty afternoon.

8. The wind

Other than the vast empty space and the clear air, the most striking thing on arrival at Balmaceda was the strong wind. Is this normal for here, we asked the car hire man. No, normal is more windy he replied. And indeed every day in Patagonia was windy, not all day and never bad enough to interfere with our plans, although the latter is not uncommon, on the lakes or up the mountains.

The wonderful blue Lago General Carrera, for us more the heart of this holiday than the road, was marvellously variable. Sometimes almost flat calm, at others waves crashing into the shore and sending spray high into the air. The mile or so walk from our lodge into Chile Chico in the evening sun was a particularly beautiful prelude to dinner, even with the wind blowing.

9. The Light

Thank goodness for digital cameras. And large memory SD cards. Patagonia is infinitely photogenic, not just because of the awesome landscape, but because of the clear and everchanging light. Any of the images in this piece illustrate that, but it deserves a paragraph and an image all to itself.

10. The far south

Having never been south of the Canaries, heading towards the tip of South America was an excitement all on its own. Here on the beach at the southern end of Tortel is the most southerly ground we’ve ever stood on, and maybe ever will. We’re still some way from Cape Horn but there is no other non-Antarctic landmass this far south - if you set off west from here into the Pacific you wouldn’t strike land again until reaching the east coast of Argentina. Oddly enough, despite the enormous ice-fields and the glaciers falling into the sea, it isn’t as far from the equator as you might think - about the same as Brittany in the northern hemisphere. Which illustrates just how important the Gulf Stream is to our temperate UK climate. Better hope global warming doesn’t turn it off.

11. The boat trips

Boat trips aren’t really our thing any more than 4x4 touring, but everyone of our several boat trips here was special. A fabulously relaxed trip up Queulat Sound with Patricio and his little West Highland Terrier, Mackay. An increasingly turbulent car ferry crossing of Lago General Carrera on the battered old El Pilchero as the sun set. The super exciting jet boat up the rapids of the Leones river, before the race across the lagoon to watch some spectacular glacier “calving”. And the long trip by three increasingly small boats to get to lonely, melting, Steffan Glacier. Rendered especially memorable by the untypical calm sunny morning that graced our outward journey.

12. And finally...

We only visited a small part of Patagonia but it was so varied that picking an image to sum up the holiday is impossible. We haven’t included the wildlife, the fossils, the rustic frontier towns and villages, the amazing views from so many of our bedroom and bathroom windows, the locals, the food. But we’ll finish with a shot of beautiful Lago General Carrera and a rare cloudfree shot of the summit of Cerro San Valentin, 4058m, the highest peak in Patagonia. Taken before breakfast at the beach of our lodge, a place Pura assured us where we would be happy to do nothing. Well, we never got round to doing nothing, and doing nothing isn’t on our bucket list, but if it was…

If you'd like to take your own Carretera adventure, just let us know. Having a browse of our itineraries will be a good place to start planning.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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