Far Southern Chile
We have arrived in the most southern part of Chile and while the Map refers to it as Tierra Del Fuego the locals tell me it is the province of Magallanes and the capital city is Punta Arenas. Our first stop Lake Blanco followed by the Parque Penguino Rey. According to the ranger this is the only place in South America where you can see King Penguins. The other 2 areas are Antarctica and South Georgia. (Falkland Islands) From Porvenir we boarded a ferry to Punta Arenas crossing the strait of Magellan. We have stated before that we have great respect for bike riders do the round the world trip on bikes. Here in Patagonia we added the cyclist to this list. Amazing how they conquer the fierce wind and cold nights in a small tent. Having said this also credit to all those in land cruisers and either pop-tops or roof top tents. We must be getting old as we enjoy the comforts of our truck and park where we like without having to worry about wind breaks, toilets and high cost of camping’s.
Once we left the Ferry we did some shopping and moved south to the end of the road on Mainland America. En route we visited Fuerte Bulnes, Puerto Julian and Centro Geografico de Chile Monument. This marks the geographic centre of Chile and from here to Peru is the same distance as to the Chile most southern part of Antarctica. During the night the weather changed and a gale force wind and rain made the return trip to the main road a challenging trip. The rain never stopped until we arrived in Puerto Natales. For us a disappointing town hence we decided to continue and look for a nice camp spot half way to the National Park. We parked at a great spot right on Lago the Sarmiento De Gamboa. Arriving at 6PM the views where not the best but we could see Torres Del Payne. Another night with gale force winds but we woke up with a mix of sunshine, sleet, snow and rain. During the morning it became sunny allowing us some great views while driving around The National park Torres Del Payne. 3 days we spend in this nice park, the area shows a variety of landscapes such as the Pampas, Magellanic Forest, lakes and lagoons with icebergs in them and nice glaciers. It also has lots of wildlife, but we are still looking for the elusive, Puma But we were lucky to see 2 Condors at Lake Grey. At 300 USD for 2 people to cruise the lake we decided to walk instead. While we walked we did see the icebergs and the glacier in the distance, we even spotted Flamingo’s.
Cost of entering the park for a foreigner is very high at 21000 Peso’s vs 6000 for a local? (45 AUD dollars per person) The highlights of the park included Cuernos and Torres massifs, Laguna Azul, Laguna Amarga and Lake Grey. The last night we camped again at lake Sarmiento and had the company of a herd of guanacos. From here we backtracked to the very small border town Cerro Castillo from where we crossed back into Argentina for our next destination El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier.
CARRETERA AUSTRAL to CHAITEN
Once we cleared customs on the Chile side, it was a 10-minute drive to the supermercado to stock up on much needed groceries for the next 2 weeks. Leaving Chile Chico, we followed the lake to the junction of the Carretera Austral and beyond, around 350km of sharp curves, steep inclines, steep declines, blind corners, narrow tracks and deep ravines. This road is one of the highlights of this region. Absolute stunning scenery and postcard picture perfect. Unfortunately, the weather turned nasty, low clouds, cold, sleet, wet snow and the visibility went from poor to no visibility. After a day in Tortel the weather cleared a little hence time to visit the village. With 7.5 kilometres of stairs, platforms and bridges it is no wonder it is called the town of bridges. Due to poor weather we decided against the boat trip on the Baker river. (largest by volume in Chile) In all the town is very touristy, commercial and very expensive in an already expensive country. After Puerto Yungay we decided to turn back as the weather forecast for the following week was poor and a road closure due to landslide was another reason. With the rain pelting down again we back tracked to Cochrane in a mix of sleet and wet snow. By now Clary was thinking of home, palm trees, a nice beach, blue water, warm days and nights and sunshine.
During our second visit to Cochrane we followed up on the info we saw on Facebook about an interesting supermarket hence a visit was required. Yes, it was correct: buy your milk and honey, a gun and some ammunition all at the same counter. That night we bush camped just outside Cochrane right on the Baker river, and fast she flows.
General Carrera lake is an absolute beauty. Picture this, turquoise waters even when windy and choppy. This is the largest lake in Chile sharing this with Argentina. In Rio Tranguilo a short boat trip gets you to the Marble Chapel Nature reserve to visit a network of caves. Make sure it is not windy. The new road to the San Rafael Lagoon National park was closed due to flooding so next we headed further north, and bush camped on the way. Great spots along the river. In Coyhaique we finished up getting our leaking diesel tank repaired (2 days for parts to arrive from Santiago), but great to meet the locals.
Leaving Coyhaique the weather cleared a little and the landscape showed off its green forest and magic views all the way to Puyuhuapi. We found an amazing camp spot around 18km before Puyuhuapi overlooking the fjord. We gave the Termas del Ventisquero hot pools a miss based on comments from other travellers as the $40.00 p.p. charged to foreigners was by far too much. (The hot pools are next to the Carreterra Austral a few kilometres south of Puyuhuapi.) However, Queulat National Park is a complete different story. This park has 600 sq miles of glaciers and unbelievable thick green lush forest. Some of the glaciers are over 10km long with the parks masterpiece the hanging glacier. The lush green forest is due to the more than 4000mm of rain this area receives per year. The Carretera Austral winds his way through the park and once you pass the Puerto Cisnes turnoff be ready for some serious hairpin turns specially if you drive a big rig or are on a pushbike. Just outside Puyuhuapi you also find Chile’s leading hot spring resort Termas de Puyuhuapi Hotel and Spa, designed for the fly in fly out tourist (Holiday packages). You will be charged $120.00 for a day visit (if you do not stay at the resort). The town itself reminded me a little of Germany with the wooden buildings. In fact, the whole area driving towards this town felt a little of a mix between the fjords in Norway and the Swiss Alps. Via La Junta we arrive in the village of Santa Lucia. In December 2017 this town was engulfed by a huge amount of mud from surrounding mountains after 24 hours of heavy rain. At least 25 people died after the landslide swept through the remote village and wiped the town of the map completely covering it in mud. The surviving towns people were airlifted to a nearby village. As we drove through the village on the newly build road the devastation 4 months after the event was still visible and shocking.
We pushed on to El Amarillo where we arrived early afternoon for a long soak in the Hot Pools. Our plan was to visit nearby Pumalin Parc however the 45-degree pools made us stay longer in El Amarillo, because we were allowed to camp in the carpark opposite the hot pools. Our last stop in the southern part of Chile was Futaleufu a very scenic drive even while the weather was poor the first 25 km after we turned off the main road at Santa Lucia.
Futaleufu is worldwide known by the rafting fraternity. For us it was a scenic drive and a way to get back to Argentina.
This was for us the end of the Carretera Austral. It was a mix off untamed beauty, towering glaciers, sweeping landscapes and dramatic fjords. It was a journey through spectacular scenery, and turquoise glacier lakes, not to mention the enormous South American Icefields surrounding the Carretera Austral. We have also possibly driven in some of the freshest air in the world. Due to poor weather we missed the San Rafael Glacier and the Capilla de Marbols Marble Caves in Rio Tranquilo. As for the road: Carretera Austral was an easy and comfortable drive, with most services available enroute. Besides stretches of pot holes (in the clay capped roads) it was easy going and possible to drive in any type of car. Ensure good tyres and let your pressure down to ensure a smooth ride. (It was April when we travelled the road)
The Carreterra Austral, (Route 7) In a nutshell it is not a challenging road anymore (this applies to vehicles, not bicycles or motorbikes) but it is a very scenic road not to be missed. We covered the Carretera Austral from Yungai to Chaiten. At a guess around 1000km of the total length of 1250km. The road provides stunning views subject to the weather. The road offers, thick forest, deep valleys, icy blue rivers, glaciers, and fjords. Yes, the area is remote, but it has plenty of traffic and nothing like a remote track in Australia where the next car is a week or more away and where you a need long range HF radio in the event of trouble.
Camping, like everywhere else in Brazil-Argentina and Chile campings are overpriced, mostly neglected and have little or nothing to offer. The Carretera Austral is no different, nothing beats a nice bush camp on the river or a nice view. There are thousands of great spots along this track to be found or check on I overlander.
Road Conditions, Southern Part in April 2018 (based on driving a vehicle)
- Chile Chico to Cochrane is unpaved but of good quality 2. Cochrane to Villa O Higgins is unpaved but of good quality. 3. Cochrane to Rio Tranquilio is unpaved but of good quality. 4. Rio Tranquilio to Villa Cerra Castillo poor quality but roadworks should improve this part. 5. Villa Cerra Castillo to Coyhaique brand new bitumen. 6. Coyhaique to Puyuhuapi all brand new bitumen except the pass 20km before Puyuhuapi. 7. Puyuhuapi to Santa Lucia 90 % good bitumen 10% roadworks and some delays. 8. Santa Lucia*1 to Chaiten perfect bitumen delays due to roadworks from Santa Lucia for 10km.
*1 signs still state Santa Lucia open 8-9AM 12.00 -1.30PM and 6 to 8PM but it looks those hours are now extended as we got through before 11AM.
Our fifth visit to Chile started off with an argument at the border. The police would not allow us to enter Chile with a righthand drive vehicle WHAT!!!! 30 minutes of discussions and the fact we showed our previous entry stamps and TIP confirming we have been entering Chile over the last 5 weeks, made him think. With the help of the friendly immigration and Aduana officers 30 minutes later we were allowed to proceed. PFFFFFFFFF, however we are still not clear if you are allowed or are not allowed to drive a right hand drive in Chile. The police officer was adamant we were not. We were now looking forward to the warm waters of a hot pool near Pucon. But we picked the wrong one. (Los Pozones) Yes it was the cheapest. It started with the fact that our truck was not able to drive down to the carpark, hence a 1.5km walk downhill to the carpark. Followed by another 450 steps (STEEP) to the pools. The location was nice but the idea of soaking in hot pools is to relax, not to go bush walking. Next were the 450 steps back up again followed by the walk up the road for 1.5km. Then another disappointment: we were not allowed to stay in the carpark overnight but told to drive 2km to the camping. Why pay $25.00 a night for a gravel spot while bush camping is free? So in all not a good day. We were lucky we did find another real nice bush camp near San Pedro just before Pucon. The area around Pucon is stunning and the views of the snow-capped mountains and the Vulcano Villarrica are fantastic. But due to all this it has become very touristy and expensive.
The Villarrica Volcano (2847 Meters ) is the main attraction and the most infamous as the most active volcano in South America. You are able to drive right up to the base of the volcano and while doing this you cross old lava flows. In the area are many vulcanoes. Lanín (3.776 mts), Quinquilil (2.000 mts), Quetrupillán (2.360 mts), Villarrica (2.850 mts) and other high peaks like Las Peinetas, Purue, Los Nevados, El Cerdudo, and Milemile. We were very lucky with the weather and enjoyed another day on the lake in Villarrica before heading to Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas and Parc Nacional Conguillio. As the short cut was closed we finished up for the first time on the Pan Americana.
The drive through Huerguehue National Park, Conguillio National Park and Malalcahuello National Reserve along crystal clear lakes, deep gorges and vulcanoes as a backdrop was perfect. Lots of vulcanic material, much of it ancient. The drive up to the volcano Longquimay and our overnight stay witnessing the sunset and sunrise was amazing.
Crossing the Andes and exploring Central Chile
On our way to Chile we camped along the road. Unknown to us overnight the road was closed due to snowfall and black ice!! We thought it was strange driving on the main road but no traffic going up or down. Anyway, as we arrived at the tunnel (Also closed) we received the news and police-customs and immigration people wanted to know how we made it up the mountain? Well it was easy we explained 4×4 steady and easy on the pedal. Hours later we were allowed to continue. Descending the Chile side, we had amazing views and despite snowfall the road was perfect and dry. We are ready to explore the central part and look forward to some warmer weather after 3 months of windy, rainy and cold weather. Santiago is the usual big city with lots of traffic, smog and freeways. Once we arrived at the nominated carpark we were told Motorhomes no longer allowed to stay overnight?!?!?! Not a good start, it became late and we became desperate for a camp spot. It became a Shell service station in the middle of town but with the message that we had to leave before 8.30AM. While driving around Santiago we did see some very contrasting neighbourhoods. Santiago is located between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; our 5 days stay in Santiago became subject to where are we going to park our truck? The weather forecast was poor and our plan to head for the hills around Santiago with all the smog, poor visibility and weather forecast would indicate no views to see the panoramic views of Santiago with the snow-capped Andes as a backdrop. DECISION MADE, Santiago and Easter Island must wait for another time. Next morning, we decided Santiago is not for us this time, it was cold, and we wanted Sunshine, hence we pointed North hoping for some warmer weather. First stop the hilly port of Valparaiso. It not being beach weather (COLD) we enjoyed the narrow cobblestone streets, loved the many colourful buildings. But we are looking for the sun as it must have been 3 months ago last time we sat outside and with the heater going daily we decided to drive North as fast as possible to find a spot on the beach in the sun for a week or 2. The scenery enroute following the Pan American Highway (Ruta 5) in Chile was superb, valleys full of grapes. The cities of La Serena and Coquimbo boast long wide beaches and a great promenade called Avenida Del Mar. Just past La Serena unfortunately we missed the Observatory in the Elqui Valley but by all accounts, this is a must.
But the weather got warmer as we travelled North and at one point it was 27 degrees. Time to set up camp and enjoy the sun. The following day we moved further north to Bahia Inglesa. It was here where we did meet with Cloud9 Patricia & Neil Hay. Great people and great company. The town is like the pictures we had seen white sand, turquoise water, just coastal magic that was after the sun came out. One of the great benefits of travelling out of season means very few people around.
I am told Jan/Feb this place is packed with holiday homes, hotels, restaurant and campgrounds overflowing hence we were glad to be here in the low season. Next stop was Caldera and the Unimarc supermarket stocking up for the next few days in Pan De Azucar National Park (translated in English would be Sugarloaf National Park) and the coastal road to Antofagasta. The coastal road north of Caldera was very pretty and showed us what was to come driving through the surrounding desert. Our first camp spot was just 8km north of Chanaral. From here we explored the park working our way North. We did not visit the island Pan de Azucar with its Humboldt penguins, as it is only reachable by boat and being off season no boats available. Looking at the ocean swell probably glad we did not go plus locals told us you are not allowed to leave the boat at the island.
Enroute to Caleta Pan de Azucar a small fishing settlement the scenery and the mountain slopes are spectacular. To summarize this forgotten park with beautiful headlands, desert landscape, ravines and white beaches is a great place to relax and enjoy while overlanding Chile. The park is part of the southern Atacama Desert and is extremely dry and arid. If it wasn’t for the service we had booked in Antofagasta we could have spend another week exploring the remote beaches in this area. On our way back from the coast we camped in the bush next to Mano Del Desierto before arriving in Antofagasta Chile’s second largest city.
CENTRAL CHILE to ATACAMA DESERT & EL TATIO GEYSER
We have arrived in the Atacama Desert an area that covers 1600km from north to south and over 400 km east to west. This is the driest desert in the world. The average rainfall per year is 15mm, however many areas receive no rainfall up to 4 years in a row. Some weather stations have never received rain. The coastal towns of Arica and Iquique receive around 1 to 3 mm of rain per year. The desert is so dry that the mountains over 6000 meters are glacier free. Only the highest peaks have a permanent snow cover. However, during our time on the coast, it was cold and the Camanchaca (Ocean Fog) was a daily occurrence, hence cold temperatures and no sun. The area is much drier than Dead Valley in the USA. In many places the soil has been compared to that of Mars. How they would know got me lost but that is what we are told. One thing is for sure the landscape is very dusty, rocky and desolate. After an oil/grease and general check up at the Mercedes dealer in Antofagasta we spent the afternoon and night at Mano del Desierto (or the hand of the desert), an impressive 36 feet high hand on a desolate desert plateau. From here we started our loop of the Atacama Desert, north along the coast and inland back to the largest copper mine in the world. Our last stop on the coast was Iquique, where we needed to stock up for 2 weeks before going inland. The city is right by the ocean, complete with palm trees and tall buildings. We spent some time on the esplanade but mid-afternoon the cold air moved in and it was time for us to move. Time to explore the abandoned mining towns and that night we camped in Humberstone, one of more than 170 abandoned nitrate (saltpeter) mining towns in the Atacama Desert. All were closed in the 20th century. From here we made a detour to the Gigante de Atacama, a large geoglyph with a height of 86 meters.
The site was disappointing for us however the campsite we had was superb. Locals told us this is the largest anthropomorphic figure in the world. Driving back south towards Calama we saw lots of ghost towns like Humberstone and petroglyphs. Next was the world’s biggest producer of Copper, the Codelco mine in Chuquicamata just North of Calama. During the tour we were given many facts and here are a few.
- 2017 pre-tax profit 2.885 billion despite increased cost of 7.8 %
- 2018 production of copper will reach 1.7 million tonnes
- The mine operates 24/7 365 days of the year.
- 22 billion will be invested in new projects over the next few years.
- Enough copper reserves for the next 70 years based on today’s production rates.
- Recently BHP mine Escondida just east of Antofagasta has taken over as the world largest copper mine
- In 2019 the production will go underground saving a lot of cost, as the open pit is becoming uneconomic.
Not discussed at the tour but a major issue is the pollution and the serious amounts of arsenic in the air, resulting in the closure of the camps due to the inhabitants having high levels of arsenic in their blood. When we asked about the pollution we were told all employees must wear masks but during our tour not many did. Another real concern is the pollution of the river Loa which runs through Calama, but little was said about this. Trouble is on the horizon, as more than 1700 of the 6000 jobs will be eliminated once the mine goes underground. In all a great experience. Our next destination the El Tatio Geyser at 4350 meters they are the highest in the world, we arrived late afternoon and stayed the night. Waking up at 5.30AM the following morning the temperature had dropped to minus 18 degrees, but it was well worth braving the icy temperature and an early start.
Low morning temperatures prevent steam from the 80 geysers from evaporating, which creates a magic scene. Due to clear skies, high altitude and dry air the Atacama Desert is the ideal region and one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations. Unfortunately, we never booked, and tours were only on weekends, so we missed out on this experience, but we may try again once we arrive in San Pedro the Atacama.
Atacama Desert, San Pedro de Atacama to the Argentine Border.
Our exploring of the Atacama Desert continues driving from the El Tatio Geyser through beautifully desolate landscape and one of the driest places on earth towards San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama is known as the Valley of the Moon.
And the area around this town has been described as a landscape you see on Mars. This area has a lot to offer, drawing thousands of tourists every year. We spent a week exploring this area with huge salt-flats, blue lagoons and small villages. Just a few kilometres out of town is the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna) a very rugged area which looks like a lunar landscape with the magic Andean Mountains in the distance. Around 80 kilometres south is the Salar de Atacama which is home to Los Flamencos National reserve, Chile’s largest salt flat. This is the part where you find most of the flamingos. We spent a night on the salt-flats enjoying clear skies and a million stars. Our next stop was the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley). Unable to get in with our truck we decided to explore the other tracks bypassing the gate. Unfortunately, we never saw the 100-meter-high Dune and the spectacular view, however we did enjoy the stunning nearly alien landscape.
The locals told us that NASA tested their Martian rovers here. We also spent a night near the Cejar Lagoon where it is possible to swim and water in the lagoon has a salt concentration of 28 percent compared with the dead sea of 35%. However, the 28 percent will make it nearly impossible to swim, so you just float. Like all other nights before, once dark there is nothing better to do than look at the endless amounts of stars above the driest desert in the world. We decided to park our truck at Andes Nomads Overlander camp, a perfect spot just a few km out of San Pedro de Atacama operated by Maurice a fellow overlander himself.
It was time to explore San Pedro de Atacama, an age-old town with dirt roads and Andean homes. The town is a mix of ancient cultures, indigenous people and tourists. It has a craft village where traditions are kept alive, and a nice old church (built in 1744). Life is slow here and it seems no-one is in a hurry. Originally San Pedro was a quartz and copper mining town, today it primarily caters for tourists. Lucky for us our visit was during the Fiesta de San Pedro, a colourful event held over 2 days in June. It celebrates the martyrdom in Rome of 2 Christian saints we were told. This celebration includes typical dances, folk music, a street parade, Catholic procession and locals in traditional costumes.
After a few more days of R&R (overlanding is hard work) it was time to cross the Andes Mountains once more, this time via the spectacular Jama Pass (4850 M) which is as high as Europe’s highest mountain (Mont Blanc) and nearly twice as high as Australia’s highest mountain MT Kosciusko, returning to Argentina to explore the Far North West Region around Salta.
It was an amazing drive over the Andean plateau where small villages survive over 4000 meters and wild life roams free. Besides Llama’s we also saw herds of the Vicunas; this animal has a thick, soft coat that only can be shorn once every 3 years making it very expensive wool.
Till next time when we explore Far North Chile in 2019