Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Little Slice Of Awesomeness on the Carretera Austral, Chile

If you had asked me a year ago what the "Carretera Austral" was, I would've only been able to tell you that it is a rough road that many-a-overlander have written about. I didn't know that it was in Chile (vs. Argentina) nor that it means "South Road", providing access to the southwestern-most reaches of Chilean Patagonia (the really southern parts of Chile can only be accessed by boat or going through Argentina). Building the Carretera Austral must have been pretty complicated given the many ocean inlets, lakes, mountains, rivers, and the seemingly impenetrable rain forest.

These Nalca plants (giant rhubarb) contribute to the impenetrable nature of the area

Old road on the right, new road on the left

Sections of the Carretera Austral have only recently opened (2003), and today, it is in the process of being paved. We scored by being able to drive on some fresh pavement (aaaand some really crappy, rough road) through some of the most beautiful and unspoiled areas in southwest Chile. Truth be told, we stopped when the road got really rough, never making it down the last 280 miles. We were so wowed by the glaciers and hikes that we're going to do this route again when we head north.

Exploration comes at a cost

We crossed into Chile from Argentina to pick up the Carretera Austral near Futuleufu (try saying that with a mouth full of cookies). On our way, we passed a huge lake, Lago Yelcho, that had no easy public access.  It was so blue, calm, and clear, that we stopped on the side of the narrow dirt road to have a look. While we were enjoying the view, Scott spotted a giant brown trout swimming near the surface. Before I knew it, he had scrambled down the precarious hillside, fishing pole in hand.
Lago Yelcho and an unsuccessful fisherman

Our stop for the night was near the Ventisquero Yelcho (Yelcho Glacier), which is the source of water for this giant lake. The next morning we hiked to the glacier.

Our hike to Ventisquero Yelcho. Scott's words, "I wouldn't like this trail even if I was 4 feet tall". We eventually just walked up the stream.

We didn't anticipate that we'd be able to scramble over the rocks right up to the edge of the glacier. Glacial ice has a distinctive blue tint that, at certain angles, seems unnatural.

Excited to get right to the edge, I climbed up and up, later realizing that the way down would be quite scary and treacherous. Scott stood below, safely taking pictures.

We did not realize how dangerous it was for us to eat lunch on the rocks, right next to the glacier, until we heard and felt a thunderous rumble and realized we could be pounded by falling rocks and ice at any moment. Duh.

Ventisquero Yelcho runs down the mountain for miles. This picture only captures the very edge where we ate lunch.

As we would later learn, climbing right up to the face of a glacier is not the norm. At our next stop, Colgante glacier, in Quelat National Park, access is limited to a boat ride or distant lookouts. Both of the lookouts were packed with 20-something boys, drinking beer, and chatting like it was a nightclub (I guess we had bad timing on our visit). You will notice, in the picture below, how the access to the famous Colgante glacier pales in comparison with the lesser known Yelcho glacier.

Despite the far away viewpoint, the waterfall coming off Ventisquero Colgante was quite impressive.
The boat ride (that we didn't take) may have been worth it.

Hidden right off the highway, is a short, steep hike to yet another glacier called Bosque Encantado (Enchanted Forest). The star of the show was the warm day and the icy, glacier-fed lake that we swam in (briefly!). Pictures below.

Bosque Encantado

Scott winding up for a jump - eeeee it's going to be cold!

Evidence that even I took the plunge

Scott bravely jumped into the icy waters twice - good man!

The last bit of adventuring we did along the Carretera Austral was without a doubt our favorite. A hike contained within the Cerro Castillo (Castle Peak) National Reserve took us up to a stunning, turquoise, almost toxic-looking lake, fed by a very impressive glacier. The best part is that we had NO IDEA that the lake would be so overwhelmingly cool. The mountain range itself would've been enough to make the hike our favorite. We smiled from ear-to-ear when we crested the ridge to see the lake below. Pictures below.

This is a diagonal panorama as we were trying to capture the mountain and the lake all in one

The lake changed colors when we climbed down closer to the shore

We are nearing the end of our journey south and things just couldn't be better. Stayed tuned for the star attractions of Patagonia!

The area that this post covers

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