Jan 30 - Feb 3 - Austral Hwy

Some days we feel like we get an early start but by the time we are actually on the road, several hours might pass, like today.  After stopping off at an internet cafe, going through two border formalities - this one included a thorough food inspection - and buying more supplies, it was already noon.  

We've been driving along the shoreline of Lago Buenos Aires and will have it on our right for the next few days.  It is a huge lake and as we cross into Chile the name changes to Lago General Carrera.  Like most border roads we have crossed in this region, maintenance seems to be an unknown word.  Once the road is built, and but for an occasional repair, there doesn't seem to be any grading or other attempt to smooth the washboard and fill the potholes.  Our driving slows down to about 20 miles per hour, although the views of the snow covered Andes rising above the turquoise water of the lake are awesome.  At several spots the road has been blasted right out of the cliff face and is only one lane wide.  It is a bit nerve wracking, but traffic is very light.

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We had been told of an nice camping spot on the lake shore that used to be one of the ferry ports before the road was completed.  This spot is beautiful, we find it just we are are growing tired of the day's drive.  We park across from the lighthouse right above the old ferry ramp.

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In the morning we finally connect with the Carretera Austral - the Southern Highway - the main and only north/south road in this part of Patagonia.  The government is still adding to its length hoping to eventually connect all the rural settlements in Patagonia to the road.  Our hopes that the road will improve turn out to be a joke as now we are blazing across the countryside at 15 mph!

We make camp at another great spot, this one on the banks of the Rio Baker.  The river is the outlet of Lago General Carrera so the flow is high and fast.  It looks like a fun river to raft on, but we are told that the owner/guide of the only rafting company is leading a trek and won't be back for a couple of days.  We consider taking out our inflatable kayak, but we know it would be a bad decision to kayak blindly down a river.  As it turns out, the next day we find that a few miles down, the river drops 24 feet over a cascade.

Many travelers like to drive the remaining 275 kms to the end of the road at the small town of Villa O'Higgins.  Considering the state of repair on the road, and the fact that we'd have to return via the same route, we opt to turn north and enjoy our leisurely drive. 

We stop at the little town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo, another of the old ferry ports along the lake.  Much of the town's economy is based on taking people out to a series of grottos reachable only by boat.  These grottos are worn into a marble outcropping and the wave action of the lake has eroded and polished their insides.  Our boat driver takes us into several, through a tunnel and around several features with names like the cathedral, the chapel and the tunnel.  The water is so clear that we can also see the swirling lines of the marble beneath the surface.  On the boat ride back to town, the wind increases and we get a wild ride, slapping over the waves and pounding our butts on the hard boat seats.  Briefly we think that if we are ever on a boat that capsizes, we would prefer it to be in the tropics, not on a glacier fed lake.

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Back on the road the next day, we slowly count down the kilometers as we know that we will be getting a break from the slow, rough roadway as we get closer to our final destination of Coyhaique.  Along the way we see thousands of downed trees covering the hillsides, clogging the waterways and even a drowned forest along the Rio Ibanez.  All this destruction was caused by the eruption of  Volcano Hudson in 1991 - the same one that deposited the ash in Argentina and across the region.

In Coyhaique we are surprised and really pleased to find a Mitsubishi Truck dealer who can perform some much needed service after our long drive, 7,000 miles on this portion of the WOW Project.


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