Background

The original inhabitants of northern Patagonia were Alacalufes (Kaweshkar or
canoeros
), who were coast dwellers living off the sea , and Tehuelches (Tzónecas, or Patagones), who lived on the pampa hunting guanacos,
ñandúes
(rheas) and
huemules
(an indigenous deer, now almost extinct). There are some fine cave paintings in the vicinity of Lago General Carrera, for example at the Manos de Cerro Castillo, and Cueva de las Manos, on the Argentine side of the border near Chile Chico.

The Spanish called the region Trapalanda, but initially explored little more than the coast. This was the last territory to be occupied by the Chilean state after Independence from Spain. In the late 19th century, expeditions up the rivers led by George Charles Musters (1869) and Enrique Simpson Baeza (1870-1872) were followed by a failed attempt to found a settlement at the mouth of the Río Palena in 1884. Fearing that Argentina might seize the territory, the Chilean government appointed Hans Steffen to explore the area. His seven expeditions (1892-1902) were followed by an agreement with Argentina to submit the question of the frontier to arbitration by the British crown.

The Chilean government granted concessions to three large cattle companies in an attempt to occupy the area. One of these ranches, on the Río Baker, was managed by E Lucas Bridges, of the Bridges family from Tierra del Fuego and author of
Uttermost Part of the Earth
. Until the 1920s, there were few settlers; early pioneers settled along the coast and brought supplies from Chiloé. The estimated population of northern Patagonia in 1907 was just 197 people. By 1920, this had risen to 1660 and, by 1930, 8886 inhabitants were in the region. Although the first town, Baquedano (modern-day Coyhaique), was founded in 1917, followed by Puerto Aisén in 1924, the first road, between Puerto Aisén and Coyhaique, was not built until 1936. It was not until the 1960s, when new roads were built and airstrips were opened, that this region began to be integrated with the rest of the country.

Although the road has helped transform the lives of many people in this part of Chile, the motivation behind its construction was mainly geopolitical. Ever since Independence, Chilean military and political leaders have stressed the importance of occupying the southern regions of the Pacific coast and preventing any incursion by Argentina. Building the Carretera Austral was seen by General Pinochet as a means of achieving this aim: a way of occupying and securing territory, just as colonization had been in the early 20th century.

Begun in 1976, the central section of the Carretera Austral, from Chaitén to Coyhaique, was opened in 1983. Five years later, the northern section, linking Chaitén with Puerto Montt, and the southern section, between Coyhaique and Cochrane, were officially inaugurated. Since then, the Carretera has been extended south of Cochrane to Puerto Yungay and Villa O'Higgins. Work is continuing, building branch roads (which currently amount to around 1300 km) and widening and paving the most important sections. The road is the work of the army corps of engineers and dotted along the route are memorials to the dozens of young recruits who died during its construction.

Despite recent growth, this remains one of the most sparsely populated areas of Chile, with barely 100,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in Coyhaique or in nearby Puerto Aisén. Agriculture is limited by the climate and poverty of the soil, but fishing remains important as a source of employment in the inland channels, with salmon farming providing most income. Forestry plays a growing role in the economy: wood is used for construction and winter fuel. Zinc, lead and copper are mined, but only zinc is extracted in large quantities. A project for a huge aluminium plant, which would have had both economic and ecological repercussions, was recently abandoned after continued protests. Disturbingly, the Chilean government seems to view hydroelectric power as a solution to the petrol and natural gas crises and studies are underway as to the feasibility of damming some of Chile's most spectacular rivers, including the Baker and Futaleufú.

Geography and climate

South of Puerto Montt the sea has broken through the coastal cordillera and drowned the central valley. The higher parts of the coastal cordillera form a maze of islands, stretching for over 1000 km and separated from the coast by tortuous fjords and
senos
(inlets). There is no real dry season near the coast, with annual rainfall of over 2000 mm on the offshore islands. Westerly winds are strong, especially in summer, and temperatures vary little day to night.

The Andes are much lower in this region than they are further north, and eroded by glacial action: towards the coast they rise in peaks such as San Valentín (4058 m), the highest mountain south of Talca; inland they form a high steppe around 1000 m, where the climate is drier, warm in summer and cold during the winter months. The shores of Lago General Carrera enjoy a warm microclimate that allows the production of fruit.

To the south of Coyhaique are two areas of highland covered by ice, known as
campos de hielo
(icefields). The Campo de Hielo Norte, over 100 km from north to south and some 50 km from east to west, includes the
ventisqueros
(glaciers) San Rafael, Montt and Steffens. The Campo de Hielo Sur covers a larger area, stretching south from the mouth of the Río Baker towards Puerto Natales.

Five main rivers flow westwards: from north to south these are the Futaleufú or Yelcho, the Palena, the Cisnes, the Simpson or Aisén and the Baker. This last, at 370 km, is the third longest river in Chile and carries more water than any other. The three largest lakes in this region, lagos General Carrera, Cochrane and O'Higgins, are shared with Argentina.

Travelling along the Carretera Austral

The road can be divided into three sections:
Puerto Montt to Chaitén
(143 km), plus two ferry crossings;
Chaitén to Coyhaique
(445 km); and
Coyhaique to Villa O'Higgins
(559 km), plus one ferry crossing. There is also a main branch that runs along the southern shore of
Lago General Carrera
from Puerto Guadal
to Chile Chico, as well as important branches to Futaleufú, Palena, Raúl Marín Balmaceda, Lago Verde, Puerto Cisnes, Puerto Aisén, Bahía Exploradores and Tortel. The Puerto Montt-Chaitén section can only be travelled in summer, when the ferries are operating, but three alternative routes exist year round, either direct by ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, through Chiloé and then by boat to Chaitén, or overland through Argentina via Osorno, Bariloche, Esquel and Futaleufú. The road is paved just south of Chaitén and around Coyhaique, from just north of Villa Amengual to Villa Cerro Castillo and Puerto Ibáñez.

The condition of the road can vary dramatically depending on the time of year and amount of traffic. Some sections can be difficult or even impossible after heavy rain or snowfall, and widening/paving/repair work is constantly being undertaken. Although tourist infrastructure is growing rapidly and unleaded fuel is available all the way to Villa O'Higgins, drivers should carry adequate fuel and spares, especially if intending to detour from the main route, and should protect their windscreens and headlamps.

Hitching
is popular in summer, but extremely difficult out of season, particularly south of Cochrane. Watching the cloak of dust thrown up by the wheels from the back of a pickup, while taking in the lakes, forests, mountains and waterfalls, is an unforgettable experience, but be prepared for long delays, carry a tent and plenty of food and allow at least three days from Chaitén to Coyhaique.

The Carretera Austral is highly recommended for
cycling
as long as you have enough time and are reasonably fit. A good mountain bike is essential and a tent is an advantage. Most buses will take bicycles for a small charge.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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