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Thursday, March 17, 2011

THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL (OR RTA7)

We have returned to Chile to drive this famous route. We cannot start at the sourthern most part at Villa O'Higgins as the border crossing is only for walkers and cyclists (as a boat trip is required), so we have crossed into Chile further north and then have headed south to Cochrane where we are relieved to find a supermarket to restock our food. The same shop can also supply us with shotguns, saddles and outboard motoras.
As we head south the weather  deteriorates to drizzle & then to rain. We are surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and forests. There is water everywhere. All the surfaces drip with water. It runs down mountainsides and sloshes down the sides of the road. In fact a lot of the road consists of causeways through thr water. The road gets narrower and even more potholed.
We finally reach the very quaint town of Tortel, right at the mouth of Canal Baker, that leads to the Pacific Ocean. Donning fill wet weather gear and umbellas we head out to explore (no driveby here as cars are excluded) the maze of wooden walkways down the cliff and around the village. After some great wild salmon & chips we head to the landing strip (the only flat area near town) to camp in the hope that the rain clears. No joy here, it rains all night. We even develop an unfortunate leak in the night right over my side of the bed.
We do not plan to go any further south as it involves ferry crossings and even worse road. So we return north, hoping for sunshine, or at least no rain. It does finally improve before we reach Cochrane and we do have a few gorgeous days. On one of these magical days we walk to the conflugence of the Rio Baker & the Rio Nef. The sheer volume of gorgeous jade water from the Baker meeting the milky white water from the Nef is amazing. Another side trip is out on Lago General Carrera to see the Capilla de Marmol (marble chapel) - an amazing geological formation.
After miles of dirt road we meet pavement at the little town of Cerro Castilla and this continues all the way to the biggest joint down here - Coyhaique, where we shop, fuel, water & find free Wifi (giving us a chance to see Sammy again)
As we leave town our spell of fine weather leaves us. After all summer is over (they only have 2 months here) and tourists are vanishing fast. Only a few hardy cyclists remain. This is one of their epic journeys. We continue through rugged gorges with ranges covered in mist, and follow rivers to Puerto Aisen (this route being the one that is sealed) - a rather scruffy town that is notable for producing fish meal for salmon farming. It is a bit dull, wet & depressing, so we continued on along lovely smooth roads through volcanic valleys and then more river gorges to little Puerto Cisnes. John had been hanging out for another salmon meal here at El Guainao recommended by Lonely Planet & a friend. Sadly it was closed, so he had to have take away salmon (actually delivered to GR2's side door) instead.
Then back to Rta 7, and what a shock. It is back to the original narrow, potholed, corrugated dirt road, but with gorgeous lush rainforest and amazing glaciers in the mountains above us. It was a pretty awesome drive for me and a busy one for John as he "manages" the drive. After a lot of hairpins we reach the sound and the Parcque Nacional Queulat to see the Colgante Glacier. We decide to do the 2.5 hr trek as soon as we arrive because the sun is shining and who knows what tomorrow holds. So there we are (well John with a sore leg and me just plodding fast) at 6pm at night doing our trek. The glacier was fantastic - we had 10mins to stare at it , before rushing back down through thick, mossy (and by now rather dark) forest. What a crazy thing to do!. Thank goodness the next morning was cloudy and the day turned to drizzle and rain.
We continued alongside the sound until we were stopped by roadworks. They were blasting, so we had to detour on a FREE ferry!
We   have had to speed up our trip a bit because we have discovered that as we are "off peak" there is now only one ferry per week from Chaiten to Quellon (there is no road). Anyway the drizzle/.rain continues as we head through scenic farmland, mountains, valleys & rivers. Our next stop was to walk to another glacier, but we only did the 20min walk (3hrs in the rain wasn't too exciting, especially when the glacier was covered in mist)
We didn't stop again until we reached Chaiten. This town was engulfed in ash in the 2008 volcanic eruption and still looks desolate. At the ferry office we wait while it pours with rain. John gets bored and heads to the info centre where he discovers that the ferry sitting at the port goes in 1 hour to Puerto Montt and costs the same as the shorter one to Quellon tomorrow. Fed up with the rain we impulsively decide to go tonight and sleep in GR2. It was really only a barge with 2 trucks and trailers and us. It rocked and rolled rather like driving through potholes. John popped a pill and slept. I was finally lulled to sleep after listening to him snoring and the cows mooing. Yes that truck was full of cows. Fortunately it was only a 12hr trip.

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