Postcard #2

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

I left Puerto Montt on January 8, travelling south by bus on the first stretch of the Carretera Austral. The road included a 30-minute ferry crossing at the entrance to the Reloncaví Estuary, between Caleta La Arena and Caleta Puelche. The road passes through Contao, in the Huailahué region, through Caleta El Manzano, terminating at Hornorpirén, also known as Río Negro. The local volcano is called Antupirén.



Volcán Antupirén

Carretera Austral



I was in Puyuhuapi, pop. 500, for 3 days. There is absolutely nothing to do but walk around the fjord when it is dry, and read a book when it rains. Delicious. The town was first settled by Germans in the 1940s, and in 1945 they founded a rug factory. Their only access was by boat from Puerto Montt, but the area attracted farmers from Chiloé and others looking for new land to occupy and raise their livestock. The rug factory, Alfombras de Puyuhuapi, has an international reputation and clientele, and produces fine handmade rugs with 20,000 knots per square meter. Currently they employ seven local women to work the looms.


Queulat National Park

Much of the scenery reminds me of western Norway and Alaska. Rainfall can average 3-4 meters annually. The highlight among many was Queulat National Park. Imagine driving along a gravel road in bright sunlight, with snow-covered peaks all around, and surrounded by nalca and chilco (giant rhubarb and wild fuscia), an inpenetrable jungle. We ascended the cuesta with 17 switchback curves from sea level to 500 meters in just a few kilometers. Here is where the Jesuit Padre García explored in 1766, searching for the mythical City of Caesars. During this spectacular ride the music on the bus radio lamented “Aun si tienes manos frías te amaré” (Even if you have cold hands I will love you).

Pto. Cisnes is a village of 1800 inhabitants, most of whom work in the local salmon farming industry. The town was settled in 1896 and has a beautiful setting on the fjord, facing the very large Magdalena Island. On a clear and sunny summer day it is a most beautiful town.

Puerto Cisnes

I left Cisnes to come inland and further south, to Coyhaique, a bustling city of 51,000 on the eastern flank of the Andes, with pampa stretching east to Argentina. Today is hot and dry. I was here last in 1965 when it was a small village. The next bus south leaves in two days, to Puerto Tranquilo (pop. less than 500) on the General Carrera Lake, the second largest in south America.

Lago Frío, near Coyhaique

Simpson Valley, near Coyhaique

Then it's on to Cochrane (Thomas Alexander Cochrane, 1775-1860, defeated the Spanish in the Pacific, helped liberate Brazil, otherwise loved war). Fifteen or twenty years ago there were only ox cart and horse trails in this region. The roads will be paved in the next few years, and we will probably see Japanese tour buses before long.

Speaking of buses. The usual bus is a 14-passenger van. The middle seats are fine, but the rear seat takes all the stones and bumps. Only 2 people got sick today, one yesterday. Some drivers stop to let us take pictures, but when it is filled with local Chileans, they don't even make barf stops. The assistant just grabbed a kid, put his head out the window, and told him to go for it.

This new road, the Carretera Austral, has become a boom for tourism. It now stretches about
1,500 kilometers to Villa O'Higgins, latitude 48º 28', named for the great liberator of Chile, Bernardo O'Higgens (1778-1842). Most of it is unpaved, and parts of it are connected by boat.

I hope to get to Caleta Tortel, near the edge of a large ice cap. Villa O'Higgins is too much trouble, as those final 100 kms take about 7 hours, and the bus returns the next day. I'll wait for the Japanese tour buses.

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