Carretera Austral (Chile)

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carretera austral

The construction of the Carretera Austral started at 1976 during Pinochet’s dictatorship, to connect the South of Chile with the rest of the country via land. Up until today, there are maintenance and construction works and some parts of the road are tarmac while others remain unpaved. The truth is that we preferred the more discreet intervention of a narrow dirt road in the landscape from this of a tarmac road. However, the paved parts gave us the opportunity to ride a bit more comfortable and blow the dust off from our faces. We soon got to Hornopiren from where we had to take another boat to Caleta Gonzalo. The small village was so beautiful that it didn’t take as long to decide to stay there for more than one day. We found a campsite, pitched our tents and it was in Hornopiren where we saw for ourselves what people mean when they say that it rains a lot in the South. That’s the price for the infinite green: when the rain starts, there’s no OFF-switch. Wearing our raincoats, we managed to walk in Hornopiren’s streets and take a lot of pictures at the port. We gazed at the seagulls eating mussels by taking them high enough to throw and break their shells on the rocks. We even saw some vultures we had only seen on documentaries. Nature here seems invincible and this co-existence of man and nature is something we rarely enjoy.

The day we’d take the boat to continue arrived and when we got on the ship we noticed that its name was “Kleio” (Clio is the Greek muse of history). Everything seemed very familiar on board, even the sign “ΠΥΡΟΣΒΕΣΤΙΚΗ ΦΩΛΕΑ” (“Fire Extinguisher” in Greek). It was written in Greek. Wait! In Greek? Every sign on the boat was in Greek, which led us directly to the captain to fulfill our curiosity. The ship was indeed Greek, bought from there some years ago. The navy tradition says that removing the original objects from a ship when it changes hands, brings bad luck, so everything was intact. The captain took the opportunity to ask us about the Greek orthodox religious icons hung on the wall of the captain’s cabin and we were happy to answer.

We took one more lesson on the solidarity among people and enjoyed a great night by the fire.

The almost 6-hour journey ended sooner than we thought as we had so many things to do on the ship. We talked with two Argentinian motorcyclists, a couple of other travelers and the sweetest man we ever met in Chile. A guy, member of the crew who had traveled to Greece when the boat was bought and remembered some Greek phrases. He loved Greece and it was one of the few times we didn’t hear simplistic opinions about the economic meltdown of our country, but words of solidarity with its people. Before we got off the boat, the Vespa managed to become the attraction of the day, when a TV crew spotted us and the journalist asked us to give a short interview for her show which was about travel in Chile. We left waving goodbye to the camera and to our new friends and headed to Chaiten, our next destination. The scenery changed again. The road now was unpaved and narrow and it cut an ancient forest in the middle. Around us, the vegetation was so dense that it was difficult for the sunbeams to penetrate. Plants with huge leaves grew on both sides of the road and at some point I was sure I’d hear a dinosaur roaring. After some kilometers the road drove along the coast and the clouds made the scenery a bit gloomy.

carretera austral

We spent hours strolling at the fishing port of Hornopiren

carretera austral

It’s all Greek to me… Wait, Greek?! Where am I? (Signs in Greek on the ferry “Clio” from Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo)

carretera austral

Talking with the captain of “Clio” about the symbols of Greek Orthodox tradition

carretera austral

Villages along the Carretera Austral are this beautiful (La Junta)

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Chaiten were we’d spend the night. While we were doing our shopping for dinner, we met three cyclists (2 Belgians and 1 British) and we decided to camp together at the municipal campsite just outside the village. In many cases, “municipal campsite” means “space where one can pitch a tent” with no other facilities than maybe a bench. This was the case, but we didn’t care much. When we started cooking dinner, a man from a group of locals who were having a little barbeque not far from us, came with a big plate full of meat and offered it to us, saying that they had enough and they didn’t want it. We were pleasantly surprised by his generosity because it was obvious that they could eat the meat or take it with them as they lived somewhere near. We took one more lesson on the solidarity among people and enjoyed a great night by the fire.

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The next campsite we stayed was just before a village named La Junta. We took the opportunity to hang our stuff to dry and spend some time getting to know how a typical house of the region is. The owners of the campsite – a couple above 70 – invited us to their home and we all had dinner together. We learned so many things about life in such an isolated place of the world. We heard stories about the harsh winters when people have nowhere to go but stay in (that’s probably why homes in the area tend to be so cozy). Listening all these stories about pumas, huge river fish and ancient forests made us feel so close to these people and when we realized that they reminisced about Pinochet’s junta, we looked at each other without knowing what to say. It is a fact that it was Pinochet’s plan to build the Carretera Austral, but it seems a bit simplistic to feel nostalgia about a cruel regime only because of its ability to make roads. They spoke with the darkest colors about the Argentinian government (during the presidency of Cristina Kirchner) but at the same time, they informed us that they cross the border to Argentina every time they need a medical check and that their children also studied at the neighboring country because there, education and health are free. Soon as we started a more sociopolitical conversation, we spotted so many more inconsistencies in their words that the cozy atmosphere cracked. When they started a hate speech concerning the refugee crisis in Syria, the immigrants from Africa and last but not least, the Jewish people, we couldn’t see the time to go. It was a pity to receive all this hospitality only because it occurred that we weren’t members of a group they randomly hated without knowing why.

It was a pity to receive all this hospitality only because it occurred that we weren’t members of a group they randomly hated without knowing why.

We left the place with so many thoughts and drove to Villa Mañihuales to spend the next night in a campsite. Accommodation along the Carretera Austral was beyond our budget, so wild camping or some economical campsites were the only options. We loved staying in nature, so our night in a closed campsite in Cerro Castillo was one to remember. Riding such a small vehicle has some unexpected advantages and in this case, the narrow pathway next to the campsite’s gate was wide enough only for a bicycle or a Vespa (without the saddlebags). The guard of the place gave us permission to stay although it was closed to visitors and we grabbed the chance to be alone in the woods. A hot soup for dinner and a good night sleep listening the soothing sound of the tree leaves. The disturbing noises started the next day when we left…

The road to Puerto Rio Tranquilo was so corrugated and the 10-inch wheels of the Vespa so small that we had no option but to fall in every ridge. All the metal parts of the scooter – and there are many of them on a Vespa – were producing so much noise that we couldn’t hear our own voices screaming to each other. Stergios remembered the time he was trying to keep all the parts of the Vespa together, on the corrugated roads of NamibiaWhen we arrived at Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we decided that it could be a good idea to spend some time visiting the Capillas de Marmol (Marble Chapels – caves with interesting rock formations in the lake General Carrera) and maybe do some – slow pace – trekking around the area. What really happened and what remained a plan, is so obvious. We finally visited the Capillas de Marmol by boat, which was a great experience (the light was the right one to bring out their amazing colors), but we never did much of a trekking…

Christmas was near and we had planned to be somewhere in the Argentinian Patagonia to celebrate it, but a series of events changed our schedule. One day, while we were cooking on our gas stove, we saw a leak of fuel and it was a bad idea to ignore it since our stove is one of the most important things we carry. The problem was a small o-ring that was worn out and we had to replace it urgently. We looked for a replacement but in vain. The only option we had was to go back 200kms to Coyhaique, the last city we had met on our way down and buy one from there. It was a pity to travel back all that distance only to buy something that costs less than 0.50$. We even sent messages to travel groups in the social media to ask if anyone was coming towards our way, but no luck either. Just before we pack our stuff to go, the owner of the campsite told us that he would travel to Coyhaique one of the next days and he could bring us the o-ring we needed as long as we didn’t need to leave immediately. This idea was not bad at all. The campsite was nice, we could use some time to do some laundry and while he’d be away, we had his permission to use his kitchen to cook. Furthermore, we could spend Christmas there. Why risk being on the road during a holiday, when everything is closed?

carretera austral

One of the cutest puppies we ever met!

carretera austral

Nature’s breathtaking beauty in the Chilean Patagonia

carretera austral

Dinner is ready!

carretera austral

We couldn’t get enough of the turquoise waters, the centenarian forests and the white mountain peaks!

carretera austral

 A “huaso”, a Chilean countryman on his horse

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Just before the 25th almost all travelers we had met at the campsite left and we remained with only three, two Basques and an Italian. This was even better, as we tend to have more things in common – in matters of partying – with the Southern Europeans. On Christmas Eve, we did some serious shopping and prepared ourselves for the festive eating and drinking of the next day. It’s not so christian but neither are we! The guys did the same thing but from the quantity of meat and booze they bought, it seemed that they were waiting for at least 20 more people! However, it was just the three of them and soon, the ice between us completely broke and we decided to share the table. Our supplies were the hors d’oeuvre and the main dish was a “cocido”. A traditional Basque recipe with rice, beans, hot peppers and sausages, but as they told us later, they had improvised a lot. Delicious!

carretera austral

Our Christmas party!

The Basques were the winners in booze, too. They prepared a huge quantity of sangria – always by improvising – which could knock down at least a group of 20 heavy drinkers. After one hour, everyone’s cheeks were red from the abuse of food and alcohol and our smiles couldn’t get wider! We borrowed a guitar from the owners of the campsite and started singing and playing. A couple of cyclists we had met earlier, came and joined our group and before we realized it, it was 4 o’clock in the morning and the owners of the campsite found it difficult not to remind us of it. We had such a great time and we didn’t care that we were that far away from home.

The next day, it was time to go. The two Basques and the Italian would continue hitchhiking towards the North and the two cyclists would spend some more time in the area. Before we leave, the owners of the campsite offered us some pancakes with dulce de leche (“manjar” for the Chileans), maybe to make amends for having been a bit abrupt to us the previous night. However, no hard feelings, we had a great party! With a bottle of the remaining sangria in our saddlebags, we waved goodbye and took the road to Chile Chico. It was our last day on the Carretera Austral. We decided not to continue until its ending in Villa O’Higgins, because from there, we’d have to go the same way up. The pass to Argentina from Villa O’Higgins is only for pedestrians or cyclists and we preferred to turn towards Chile Chico. Our last day was a peaceful one with some wild camping by the lake in Puerto Guadal and soon after that, we arrived at Chile Chico, our last stop before Argentina.

It was only a matter of time before we’d left Chile behind us. What we only knew about the Argentinian Patagonia was the infinite straight line, the strong wind and the arid land. As usual, we had only drawn some rough lines on the map and our only concern was to spend New Year’s Eve someplace nice…

To be continued…

carretera austral

The infinity of mountains (Lake Gral Carrera)

carretera austral

The blossoming flowers made the scenery idyllic (Pto Rio Tranquilo)

carretera austral

Right light, right time! (Capillas de Marmol, Lake Gral Carrera)

carretera austral

Colors on a bench” (Pto Rio Tranquilo)

carretera austral

All houses made of wood and color! (Pto Rio Tranquilo)

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worldvespa

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We (Stergios & Alexandra) are traveling around the world 2-up on a Vespa scooter. For 2.5 years we were in Africa & South America and very soon we'll be back on the road. Our book "Rice and Dirt" is now available.

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