A perfect day

We’d been riding two days in cold pouring rain, followed by one with sidewinds and gusts of up to 80 km/h. At least our clothes were finally dry and it was a relief to get out on the road in fair weather again.

What made this day seem perfect: the previous three days

The Carretera Austral is a picturesque and special road, with mountains, fjords and glaciers all around. It is connected by ferries to the regular Chilean road system and in this region, it is the only north/south road. They say if you are trying to go fast, you won’t get far. You have to take it easy and go with the flow here. The conditions of the road seem to have changed a lot according to accounts I’ve read. It’s in pretty good condition and improvements are continuously underway.

We left the Carretera Austral briefly on a little jaunt out to see Futaleufu and back, but as we returned and continued south, we were warned by oncoming travellers of a roadblock ahead. It’s normal to expect construction and even regular daily closing times in some sections. This one, however was different. There was a rockslide and no one knew how long the closure would last. It would only be possible to open again if the rain would let up and that didn’t look likely for a few more days. We decided to track back again, covering the road off to Futaleufu a third time in order to cross over to Argentina and continue south a bit. We would cross back over to the Carretera Austral at the next chance.

Our detour took us through the unremarkable Argentine towns of Tecka and Rio Mayo. The ride between these two places was paved but quite often difficult. Westerly winds swept us into a slanted position all day. It was a bit unreal. We had experienced strong winds in the desert and on the coast of Peru, but in this vast open flatness, the wind seemed even more brutal. Whoever rode second got the best view of how crazy the wind was and that’s how Andy saw me leaning just a little bit to the right in order to make the left curve. Luckily there were few curves and even less passing to do. The gusts just made it very tiring. Rio Mayo was our first chance to cut back over to the Carretera Austral and we took it. I was eager to get back to that beautiful, enjoyable, legendary road.

A perfect start

The route from Rio Mayo, Argentina over to Coyhaique, Chile isn’t paved and it promised to be a long afternoon of dust and gravel. Despite sleeping in what might has well have been a jail cell (seriously, we had view of a bricked in-window). I was in a great mood, happy to return to one of our trip’s highlights. We didn’t know yet where we’d be for the holidays and with all this warmth and sunshine, it wasn’t feeling much like Christmas, but for some reason I was giddy, singing carols anyway.

The road required a lot of concentration, because it changed quite quickly and unexpectedly. Some parts were just normal gravel, some a bit deeper with big grooves to navigate, but some areas were very surprising layers of large rocks piled up on one another. I found the best way to deal with these surprise patches was similar to how I managed the slipperiness of sand: roll on the throttle a bit, lean back and get it steady. The bike might swerve a little right and left, but we mostly had the road to ourselves, so there was nothing to fear really. It was working out well and this day seemed perfect.

It was about halfway to Coyhaique that my bike became unstable, I couldn’t make the save and I fell. It happened really quickly, a right-left-right-left over big smooth rocks and I about had it, but then it seems hit the one rock in the road which wasn’t moving, my steering turned and I was sliding sideways on the right side with my foot pinned under the bike. My leg was turned back, my foot was being dragged under the foot peg and I had a pain in my foot which I knew wasn’t good. I remember thinking that this would have to change soon, I couldn’t take this position much longer. About then, the bike popped up for a split second, my foot was freed, a 180 degree turn was completed and the bike bounced from the right pannier, then landed on the left and that was it.

I got off the bike and just wanted to remove my boot. I poured some water on my foot and laid some of the cold rocks around it for a few minutes. It hurt badly and it was swelling, but I could still wiggle my toes, so I assumed it wasn’t broken. I had never broken any bones. The leather on the front top of boot around the big toe was badly scuffed, so I thought maybe it was just a bad sprain from the twisting.

We had about another 100 km to go in either direction. Return to Rio Mayo? I couldn’t even think of going back over that horrible stretch of road again. Coyhaique is sort of isolated over on the Carretera Austral, but it should be a town big enough to have whatever we need, so I wanted to continue on.

Riding was tough. Singing helped. Standing was difficult, only possible if I put most of my weight on the left foot and only had my heel on the right peg. When sitting, I could kind of brace myself and hold my right leg out away from the bike to avoid feeling the big bumps. Stopping at the boarder crossings and trying to walk was the incredibly painful part. Walking was not working. Soon though, there was paved road into Coyhaique, at least it was a smooth ride for a little while.

Andy did the checking in at a hostel. Our room was upstairs. I was moving slowly, not knowing how exactly to get up there. The receptionist looked at me strangely and asked if I was sick as I hobbled sideways up the steps. “Si, un poco.” I didn’t have words to explain in any language, I just wanted to finally lay down and call it a day.

 

3P-Info Part: Carretera Austral

General Information

The Carretera Austral is a fantastic ride. It will bring you to one of the most beautiful places in South America. You have to bring a little bit of time with you though and be ready for some delay on the road. Another thing not to forget is proper rain gear. You will most likely see a lot of rain and heavy winds here.

There is lots of construction going on to turn this road from a dirt road into a good tarmac road. In many parts this has already been achieved, most of the road is still gravel. The majority of the gravel parts are in very good condition though. There are many people on regular bikes (e.g. choppers) on the road so it is not as bad as some people say. The construction sites are pretty bumpy though, so you have to take your time.

The Carretera Austral is a pretty young road. It was only in the seventies when the southern part of Chile was connected with a road. Chiles dictator Pinochet ordered to build the road to get easier access to it. Originally the roads name therefore was Carretera General Pinochet and was only changed later into the actual name Carretera Austral.

There is no lack of fuel here. You do not need more than 200km range on the Aarretera Austral.

There are plenty of gas stations on the Carretera Austral, here is an overview of the Copec ones.

There are plenty of gas stations on the Carretera Austral, here is an overview of the Copec ones. There is a gas station between Coyhaique and Cochrane, it is just not a COPEC one.

But you need extra cash, since ATM are only available in a few towns (mainly in Coyhaique).

In the whole area there are lots of salmon farms. So if you like fish: this is where you probably get the best salmon.

 

Background:

We only rode the part from Hornopiren to LaJunta on motorbikes.

The part from LaJunta to Puyuhuapi and the most southern part from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins I only know from describtion of other motorbikers which I interviewed in detail.

The part from Puyuhuapi to Cochrane we did on a 4×4 which we rented in Coyhaique.

Christy had an accident and broke her foot when we wanted to bypass Puyuhuapi since there was a larger landslide that completely blocked the road in December.

 

Getting there; the ferries:

The Carretera Austral is not connected to the rest of the Chilean road system. It is reached by the use of ferries.

There is a ferry going from the island of Chiloa. I have not found an actual timetable for it though. As far as I know they run once a week.

The main connection is by use of a total of three ferries.

You start the ferry connection in La Arena, 45km south of Puerto Montt. The ferries go every day every 45 minutes from 7:15am till 8:45pm. The duration is approx. 45minutes.

Motorbikes usually do not need a reservation, but of course you can do that if you want to be sure.

The three ferries

The three ferries

This ferry will bring you to a peninsula from which you continue on a partly paved road to Hornopiren.

In Hornopiren there are a couple of hostels, hotels and cabanas. The town has a nice flair and is nicely located at the end of a fjord.

From here Ferry two brings you from Hornopiren to Leptepu where you take a 10km dirt road to the next ferry. The loads of the two ferries are always connected so do not make a longer stop in between (thats not advisable anyway, since the road is terrible dusty). You will arrive at the third ferry after ten kilometers and you will be loaded on the third ferry which will bring you from fjord largo to Caleta Gonzalo.

The second ferry from Hornopiren leaves during highseason at 10am and at 12am. It takes approx. 3,5 hours.

After the short ride to ferry 3 you will immediatly boarded there.

The prices for ferry 2 and ferry 3 are connected, so you only pay on one of the two ferries. Ferry 3 is a 45 minutes crossing of a fjord.

You find the detailed ferry schedule, high- and lowseason prices more information here: http://www.taustral.cl

The homepage is in most parts spanish only.

The ferry rides are really nice. Since the bays are pretty protected there are no high waves. The ferries are all ex-marine landing boats, so they only have one ramp (meaning first-in last-out, and that means you have to turn your motorbike around for disembarking).

From disembarking of ferry 3 to Chaiten it is about 60km.

Take your time for this part. It leads through a fantastic national park with lots of green, nice views and ground zero of a desaster (the volcano Chaiten blew off with little warning in 2008).

There are a couple of campsites along the way and they are really nice, so if you own a tent, this is great camping here.

Chaiten has a couple of hostels and restaurants.

 

Chaiten to Puyuhuapi (187km)

Chaiten - Pyuhuapi

Chaiten – Pyuhuapi

 

The road from Chaiten to Puyuhuapi is again very nice. It starts as a well paved road and turns into a good gravel road after some 30km.

Between LaJunta and Puyuhuapi there is some construction going on. The road is closed between 1pm and 5pm, so make sure you are there before or after or take a book to read.

(Of course this construction is only temporarily, but from what we understood it will take some time, so check HU or ADV for update info on this).

In Puyuhuapi you will find many nice hostels, hotels and restaurants.

See our trip of this part here.

Puyuhuapi – Coyhaique (233km)

Puyuhuapi - Coyhaique

Puyuhuapi – Coyhaique

 

After Puyuhuapi make sure you take your time to go the Colgante glacier lookout. It is easily accesable and a great view. A few kilomters after the glacier there is a construction site again. The road is blocked from 1pm to 5pm (again check this for updates, search HU or ADV or ask the police, they know).

After an impressive and bumpy construction of approx. 5km the road gets better even though it is pretty bumpy with lots of potholes. You leave the fjord now. Enjoy the nature around you, it is beautiful.

12km after leaving the fjord you will hit a steep mountain pass. The road up is a bit bumpy in the curves. On the way down you will find the last 3 kilometers to be a construction site. This is probably the worst part of the whole Carretera Austral. Take it easy here.

You will find deep gravel with large rocks, all pretty steep and partly slippery. Go slow (unless you really know what you are doing in these conditions). It is only for a short distance.

Soon after the mountain pass the gravel road turns into a perfect tarmac road.

The road leads all the way to Puerto Aysen and from there to Coyhaique. There is a direct road shortcutting the road to Puerto Aysen. This shortcut is a very good gravel road.

Coyhaique is the biggest town on the Carretera Austral. It has lots of accomodation and a couple of good restaurants. Here is the only place where you can get securely cash on the Carretera Austral.

There is a surprisingly good hospital. They have good doctors and a very good x-ray machine (that’s what a swiss doctor said when he looked at Christy’s x-rays a few days later).

See our travel of this part here.

Coyhaique – Puerto Rio Tranquillo (220km)

Coyhaique - Puerto Rio Tranquillo

Coyhaique – Puerto Rio Tranquillo

 

The road is paved all the way to Cerro Castillo (100km). Cerro Castillo is a little town with some a restaurant and some simple hostels. You have a great view on the fantastic mountain that gives the name to the little town. The road till here is stunning and it is even getting better.

After Cerro Castillo the road turns into a gravel road. It is pretty good. Most difficult part in terms of riding is to keep the eyes on the road: the surrounding is one of the best areas I have seen in South America. The rivers and lakes have incredible colors, the nature is changing from really rich to some really brown parts.

The winds can be really strong here, so be ready to swerve over the road a little bit. If you feel exhausted think of the daredevils who ride this on bicycles. That will cheer you up!

In Rio Tranquillo there are a couple of restaurants and accommodation and a gas station. There are boat tours to the marble caves. In the morning the sun is shining into the caves, but you have to be lucky to have sun at all. The boat ride is pretty bumpy and you can get pretty wet (especially at the back of the boat).

One of the highlights on my entire SA trip was the boat trip to Laguna San Rafael. It is very pricy (around 200$ per person).

I have seen calving glaciers before (Iceland) and after (Perito Moreno). But this trip was fantastic and I highly recommend it to everybody. You need to ride yourself to the valley of Exploradores where the tour operator picks you up. The ride there itself is fantastic, so if you do not want to do the boat trip, at least have a little tour into the valley. It is really nice.

See our trip of this part here (1st part) and here (2nd part).

Puerto Rio Tranquillo – Cochrane (115km)

 

Rio Tranquillo - Cochrane

Rio Tranquillo – Cochrane

The road goes along the fantastic lake of General Carrera for some time. The color of the lake is fantastic and the road offers some nice views on it before it follows the Rio Baker south. The river cut a deep canyon into the mountains and so the road goes up and down following the river. Again the road is pretty good and only very few areas with a little bit deeper gravel are on the road. I general the road is in really good condition. It is getting narrower though.

Don’t miss the little hike to the junction of Rio Baker and Rio Nef (approx. here : S47° 06.902′ W72° 46.406′). There is a really nice waterfall there. A great place to do a little walk (it is only 15 minutes) and rest at the waterfall. The color of the Rio Baker is really strange and combines with the grey color of Rio Nef.

In Cochrane again you find nice accomodation, restaurants and a bank (even though I was not able to get money out of the ATM there).

See our trip experience of this part here (San Rafael) and here (road to Cochrane)

Cochrane – Villa o’Higgins

We did not do this part of the road, but I was told the road condition are even getting better. You have to ride this part of the track back though, since there is no way for motorbikers to continue to Argentina.

Cyclists can take a ferry and do a hike (pushing the bike) on a small, narrow trail. They take another ferry and end up close to Fitz Roy in Argentina. For motorbikers this does not seem to be an option.

 

Getting out:

There are multiple passes to or from Argentina:

From north to south:

  1. Futaleufu to Esquel (Ruta40): we did the road till Futaleufu (and from there we went back to the Carretera Austral). It is very nice and you end up in Esquel in Argentina, where you will also find multiple gas stations. Futaleufu is mainly known for massive class 5 whitewater rafting.
  1. Alton Palena – Carrenleufu – Tecka (Ruta40): (just south of Futaleufu) we did this after the Carretera Austral was blocked. The bordercrossing was simple and fast, the landscape on the Argentinian side is stunning. The road was mainly in good condition. There is a simple campsite in Tecka and the gasstation there has accomodation (4 appartments) which are nice and clean. In Tecka it gets pretty windy.
  1. La Junta – Lago Verde – Jose San Martin: we heard it is possible to cross there. We met one motorbiker who tried, but the rode was destroyed there because of a landslide (you may want to check with locals about the up-to-date road conditions.
  1. Coyhaique – Rio Mayo (Ruta40): we entered here from Argentina to Chile. On the way Christy had her accident. The road is quite difficult: deep gravel of large rocks. You either have to go very slow or go very fast. We both had a couple of “saves” before Christy couldn’t save it at one point. (see here). Rather difficult and not recommended.There are a few hotels in Rio Mayo, a gas station (only takes cash), a bank (we did not get any money though, thats an issue in Argentina and small towns in general).
  1. Puerto Ibanez – Chile Chico – Perito Moreno (Ruta 40): we only heared about this possibilty: many people use it, it is all paved, you can take a ferry to Chile Chico. Coming from north you miss nice parts of the Carretera Austral though
  1. Cochrane – Paso Roballos – Bajo Caracoles (Ruta40): this is a road leading through the property of the Tompkins. The “future National Park Patagonia”. A great landscape, many Guanacos, a nice visitor center of the NP already in place (worth a stop for a coffee). The road is stunning, but a bit bumpy at times, never difficult though. So just take your time. You can also go from a junction up north to Perito Moreno (must be nice, we didn’t see it). Anyway, a great ride. Bajo Caracoles has accomodation in the gasstation there. North of there there is the Cueva de los manos (see some pix here), a great site to visit. On the Ruta 40 you will have heavy winds. Read about our trip of this part here.

Walls of ice and rock

Perito Moreno – Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales

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Perito Moreno is one of the main attractions in Patagonia and so there are loads of people visiting it. We had Christys foot re-checked with a doctor in the morning and so we arrived at the glacier in the late afternoon. That turned out to be great because most visitors and all the organized bus tours had already left. So it was a very nice afternoon.

You get very close to the glacier on solid ground here, since it does calve into a lake, but its tip hits a little peninsula where a walkway brings you as close as 100m to the glacier.

We continued to follow the Ruta 40 down to the National Park Torres del Paine. The road is nice but very repetitive and we has lots of wind. We were truly happy not to be on a motorbike. You really have to say, that even though we see more motorbikes than ever on this trip, this area is not a great place for motor biking. Too boring, too windy and therefore too dangerous.

It got dark and so we started looking for accommodation for the night, still outside the national park Torres del Paine. We saw a sign of a hotel and followed a gravel road to get to it.

The road looked real nice and the hotel was nicely integrated into the natural contours of the area. It looked pricy. But we didn’t care. We were tired, we knew the Torres del Paine is expensive so we didn’t care for the costs, it is only one night!

Well, I changed my mind when they actually told me the price: 487US$. That really is out of our budget. They were very friendly though and called different other places and finally found something just a little bit outside our budget: 175$, but that would be in a dorm with shared bathroom. WHAT???? That is CRAZY!

We thanked, continued and finally found a simple room for 50$ just before the entrance to the park.

That’s where we met John. He is a retired UK soldier and travels already since 6 years on his motorbike. He is a great guy. We had a beer in the evening, had a great and fun talk and went off to bed quite late.

The next day we drove through the national park. There are tons of people at every bus stop and you just need to have a look at the amount of backpacks here to know the trails are packed. No need to do this….

Instead we stayed on the road that offers great views on the mountains.

Again I am experiencing the feeling that “supersights” like the Torres del Paine almost always disappoint me a little bit.

Too many people and high expectations just lower the effect that the impression could have if it was a little bit less known and visited.

That means for me simply that the most beautiful places usually are not the most known ones.

Still, Perito Moreno and Torres del Paine are quite neat places and we did enjoy the views on these wonders of Mother Nature.

 

Towers

El Chalten, Argentina

These mountains are truly majestic. Huge granite towers.

And we are so incredible lucky to see them in all their beauty.The sky is blue, only very few clouds and we see the whole range standing right in front of us.

When we arrived here in El Chalten it was cloudy. We didn’t see any of the mountains. But we saw a lot of other travellers. The amounts of huge backpacks that are carried through the streets of the little town almost shocked us.

We haven’t seen that many foreign travellers anywhere on our 5 months of South America.

We checked into a nice hotel where Christy could at least enjoy a great view while I would go hiking for a day.

The next day I started my little hiking tour up to a nice lake. There where many people on the trail and even though the views were fantastic there were just too many people for me to fully enjoy the walk.

So I decided to take a less frequented walk that connects two valleys and turned off the main track.

It turned out to be a great decision: a great path and a lot less people. In fact I didn’t meet anybody for almost an hour. The narrow path led through thick bushes and grotesque trees. Some parts of the forest could be part of a Harry Potter movie plot.

It was quite, just some birds sang their song and the wind stirred up the leaves in the trees and bushes.

Just when I was taking some nice pictures of a beautiful red headed wood pecker two hikers came around the corner. I could tell by their accent they were from Nuremberg where I studied for a long time.

As it turned out we have friends in common and so they updated me on the news of an old friends of mine. What a coincidence and pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately there were still clouds so that I did not have a full view on the main attractions here: the Fitz Roy and the Cerro Torre. But the walk was still very beautiful.

The next day the sky was clear. We had a great view on the mountains surrounding us. The two massive granite towers said farewell to us presenting themselves in a picture book panorama.

Hands

Cueva de los manos; Bajo Caracoles; Argentina

I was here!

Maybe that is what the basic message of these hands is. And if so, the message has been delivered. Some 10.000 years later.

Nobody really knows the real reason for these paintings, but it is quite impressing to see those old drawings, knowing their age.

Getting here was quite a hazzle. The wind is incredibly strong and so Christy is fighting here way down some steep stairs and along a narrow path to get to the caves. I stayed behind her, holding her on her jacket in case the wind would blew her over. The drawings are not really in a cave it is more underneath huge overhangs. They are at the side of a canyon with a river, which enables trees and bushes to grow at the bottom of the canyon. The place is located in the middle of the desert.

Most drawings here are hands, but there are also Guanocos, abstract geometrical figures and other animals.

At one point there is a hunting scene, using the 3 dimensions of the rock to create a description of how they were hunting animals.

Knowing that somebody drew these things so long ago is stunning and magic.

The beauty of the canyon is making it even more enjoyable. We were glad we fought our way through the wind to this place…

 

Guanacos

Guanacos

Cochrane (Carretera Austral, Chile) – Bajo Caracoles (Argentina)

We left the wonderful colored lake and continued on the Carretera Austral down south. A mighty river has carved a deep valley into the mountains. Again we are stroke by the colors. This time I was reminded of cooling liquid for my motorbike engine.

Cochrane is the most southern part of the Carretera Austral we reach. From here we go straight east, through the “future National Park Patagonia”as the Tompkins advertise it. Douglas Tompkins (founder of The North Face) built up a couple of National Parks here in Patagonia, not without resistance from locals. The resistance seems to be pretty odd at first, but imagine a Russian oligarch would buy large areas in the US. That certainly would not go unnoticed and strange rumors would spread.

The Tompkins had the conservation of a great landscape and wilderness in mind (see their own vision here http://www.tompkinsconservation.org/about_kris_and_doug_tompkins.htm) but of course there are other people affected as well. People have real issues with them, such as the fishing industry and everybody who wants to use the Carretera Austral since the unfinished (and from the locals wanted-to-be-build) part in the north would go through private property and a national park founded by the Tompkins.

So here, east of Cochrane the Tompkins bought large areas of land again and they are eager to turn this into a National Park as well. They build up a nice building as the entrance of the park. A little plane is standing upfront. Seems they are at home here. In fact James who is passing thorugh here a day after us is meeting both Tompkins and has a great talk to them (see more about that here: http://advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1020523).

We soon understand why this area has caught the attention of the Tompkins. It is beautiful. We see hundreds of Guanacos in large herds.

The scenery contains steep snowy mountains, lakes, swamps, rivers with crystal clear water and lots of grasslands which glows golden in the intense sun.

The sky is in dark blue and the bright white clouds create a hard contrast.

We pass through the road with our truck and are happy to have such a rugged vehicle. The road is quite bumpy and rocky at times.There are large herds of guanacos to be found here. These large llamas are adorable animals, sometimes almost elegant, mostly looking a little bit dazzled into the world. Or with other words: they are cute and pretty stupid animals. You just have to love them. And so we stopped the car many times to take pictures and enjoyed their view.

The bordercrossing is a small building. The 3 officers are very casual. It seems their bosses don’t show up very often. The papers are done very quickly and so we are back on the road.

As soon as we get to Argentina the landscape changes again. The hills get smoother and the landscape is more vast. We make it safely to a small town. It is the only town on the Ruta 40 for 200km. And so it is no wonder the few houses here are worth an entry even on the large scale map of ours.

 

People we met: The captain and his pilot

The battleship was heavily damaged. The engine has been damaged due to the long high speed chase through the pacific. It was chased by a whole fleet, the British fleet. The battleship is the Dresden, a German ship that had been in battle with the British fleet for some time and now it was trying to escape it’s doom.

The Germans were lucky, a local guide knew of an unmapped bay where it could hide. And so they navigated through the narrow fjords of Chile and carefully maneuvered the 180m ship through this small gap into an opening fjord. It was able to hide here for more than 3 months and getting most damaged repaired. It went back into to the pacific and was sunk eventually by the own crew since the British were preparing to take it under fire even though it was in a neutral Chilean harbor with no coals, unable to escape or battle back.

It is one of these famous stories of the first world war, when battles have been fought all over the planet and stories of death, suffocation, hope and destruction appeared on a daily bases. I have heard the story of the Dresden before. And now Claudio is telling it to me again. “There, through this small gap the Dresden was maneuvered through”. I look at a gap in the mountains, a mere 160m wide, with vertical walls on both sides. The small gap makes a sharp turn, so that it looks like a small opening in the mountains that would end soon. But the map on the table shows the fjord is opening on the other side of the small gap and is actually a huge bay. “A difficult and brilliant maneuver, but the only chance the Dresden had” Claudio adds.

Claudio is the captain of the small ferry that connects with the northern end of the Carretera Austral in southern Chile. I talked to him when he was getting his coffee and so he invited us on the bridge of the ferry.

He showed us all the equipment of the bridge, the different radar systems, radios, GPS, the classic sea maps, the steering, the log entries. It is very interesting and Claudio is a very nice person. Very calm, relaxed. He used to be in the salmon business. The whole southern part of Chile is very big in breeding salmon. Everywhere are huge farms with hundred thousands of salmon. He explained to us the procedure of how the salmon get breed in huge sweet water tanks, before they are transported alive in boats with water tanks to the salt-water plants. These are basically huge fishnets, set up in the water. You can see these stations everywhere here in the fjords.

“It is a hard business, hard work” he says. So after many years in this business he became captain of the ferry and brings cars, busses, motorbikes and some few tourist bicyclists to the Carretera Austral. He does this trip every day, 4 hours south, 4 hours north. 7 days a week, all around the year. He gets long vacation though, and so when he is at home with his little kids and his wife he has real quality time.

He knows the fjords around here by heart. “172,5” he says, giving a slight course correction to the pilot.

Ricardo uses the two levers to bring the ship to the new course. He is piloting the ferry now. He used to be a fisherman. On different boats he hired all over the world. He travelled along the South African coast, all along North and South America, crossed the Atlantic a couple of times. He describes the rough sea in the southern pacific and how the waves hit the boat from below when he passed Cap Hoorn. “Very big waves, like hammer” he says, moving his fist from below against his left hand, demonstrating how the waves hit the boat from underneath.

When he talked about the big waves in the antartican sea I asked him if he was ever scared. “No. The sea, it’s my life”. Looking at his face with the leather like skin I believe him.

So why did he end up here, on a small ferry going back and forth the same route every day. That must be boring. But the fishing business is hard. Very hard. He obviously enjoys the more quite days he has in his new job.

Given the beauty of the surrounding area it is easy to understand how this is a great job for a seaman.

Falling ice

San Rafael Bay

I watch the glacier through my camera lenses, fascinated by the different shapes and shades of blue of the ice. It is quite, water is calmly splashing against our small boat. Nobody speaks. Everybody is fascinated by the view.

We heard of the Laguna San Rafael a couple of times. A huge protected lagoon in which a glacier calves into.

The glacier is one of the few exits where the ice of the northern patagonian icefield escapes. The northern and southern patagonian icefields are gigantic icefields, the largest outside the polar areas. And so they feed a couple of glaciers of impressive size.

We organized a boat trip and found a tour organizer who would bring us and James, the motorbiker we met the day before, to the glacier.

It is a long trip. We had to drive down a valley for 1,5 hours ourselves before we had a transfer over a river on a small boat. Then another 30minutes in a small bus and finally 2,5 hours on a boat to the glacier.

We were lucky: we were the only ones on the trip, together with a guide, the skipper and his pilot.

We made a little break for lunch before we approached the glacier. It was beautiful but I had expected to see a large wall of ice, so I was a little bit disappointed, since the glacier seemed to end pretty flat in the water. But this place is playing tricks on you. As we approached the glacier more and more the dimensions became visible. The snout of glacier is between 50m and 80 meters high. It is impressive. You can feel the cold air from the glacier, even though we stay more than 500m away from it.

“The reason is not the waves from falling ice parts” Russel, the guide explains “more dangerous are ice parts from underneath the water. The Glacier continues under water and when parts of that break off, they come with no warning from underneath, creating massive waves”.

It was a very active day for the glacier, a lot of parts fall off from him. They seem to fall in slow motion which gives you a feeling for the size and dimensions. Even though they only create small splashes they are as big as a car.

As I keep looking through my lenses suddenly everything in there seems to move. I zoom out and understand whats happening: a huge part of the front wall, as big as a small skyscraper clashes down into the water. In slow motion the massive ice block is seperating fro the main wall and slowly moving downward. A massive wall of splashing water appears, huge waves are formed.

What an impressive sight.

We see more ice falls. Actually it rumbles all the time, but this one fall was bigger and mightier than I would have ever imagined. We are deeply impressed.

 

Turquoise

Cerro Castillo – Rio Tranquillo

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The road to Rio Tranquillo is one of the best ones on the carretera Austral. It is a pretty good gravel road, going up and down all the time and it offers a incredible landscape.

We saw a couple of cyclists and I felt real sorry for them though: they had the wind in their face and it was strong, very strong, unforgiven… We tried to encourage them and for a solo rider we stopped and gave him some power bars. From my own bicycling days I remembered how helpful a short encouraging talk to a total stranger can be. It can get your spirits up again and keep you going. There are lots of bikers on the Austral, from all countries and all ages. It is pretty tough though, but as always, it is only a way of looking at things: we met an elderly Kiwi couple who thought is was an ok road and wind is just the way nature works, “you have to deal with it….. “. Others told us about their difficulties, especially with the deep gravel and the heavy winds and how hard it was for them… In any case: the Carretera Austral seems to be a real adventure on the bicycle. And a great road for any other traveller as well..

For us it was pure pleasure. We followed the winding road up and down and around sharp corners. Each corner offered a new surprising view. The rivers here are all fed by glaciers. Their water has an almost unnatural milky turquoise color and creates a strong contrast to the fresh green of the surrounding bushes. On the road we met James, a experianced rider from the US who is travelling on his DR650. We kept on meeting the following weeks again and again. He is a great fellow.

After a while on the road we finally hit the Lago General Carrera. So far we had to adjust our boundaries of what to call a “natural color” already a couple of times. This lake though is truly amazing. It shines in the brightest turquoise and is so big, that this strong color is taking place a large area in your field of view. It’s surface is scattered by waves which are surprisingly big. Not so surprisingly after you leave the car though, the wind is pretty strong up here and the lake very long, so the waves can pick up some momentum.

We happily arrive in Rio Tranquillo where we organize a boat trip for the next day and catch something to eat in a small place with a great view on the lake.

 

On the road again…

Puerto Aysen – Cerro Castillo

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We had a late start in the morning and got back on the Carretera Austral pretty late therefore. We took it real easy. I still had to get used to the huge car. But driving was very relaxed. This mighty car is not a sports car, the weight and the calm gurgling of the huge engine makes you accelerate very slowly. RPM rarely over 2500, usually at 1500. Cruising is the word!

I am glad we are going so slow: Christy spotted some wildlife next to the road: Huemules (the local deer) stood there calmly and crossed the road right next to us…

The landscape was incredible. Rich vegetation changed with dry and colorful mountains, red cliffs and crystal clear rivers. The road was all paved till the village of Cerro Castillo. The village gets its name from a fantastic mountain that is standing on the side of the road. It really looks like a castillo, a fortress. Dozens of thin rock needles stick up in the air in different sizes. Dark and threatening it is overlooking the broad valley where clouds create a dramatic play with the sun rays. The dark clouds opened up eventually and had the sun shining into the valley which gave everything a more friendly look.

We found a nice little hut where we stayed for the night, outside the little village of Cerro Castillo.