Puerto Montt to Chaitén

This 242-km section of the Carretera Austral is perhaps the most inaccessible and secluded stretch along the entire route, passing through two national parks and the private Parque Pumalín. Beautiful old trees close in on all sides, the rivers and streams sparkle and, on (admittedly rare) clear days, there are beautiful views across the Golfo de Ancud to Chiloé

Ins and outs

This section of the route includes two ferry crossings at La Arena and Hornopirén. Before setting out, it is imperative to check when the ferries are running (generally only in January and February) and, if driving, to make a reservation for your vehicle: do this at the
Transmarchilay
and
Naviera Austral
offices in Puerto Montt, rather than in Santiago. Hitching to Chaitén takes several days, and there is a lot of competition for lifts: you must be prepared for a day's wait if you find yourself out of luck. The experience of riding in the back of a pickup, however, will make the hanging around worthwhile. An alternative route to Chaitén is by ferry from Puerto Montt or Castro/Quellón .

South of Puerto Montt

The Carretera Austral heads east out of Puerto Montt through
Pelluco
, where there is a polluted bathing beach with black sand and some good seafood restaurants, and then follows the shore of the beautiful Seno de Reloncaví (Reloncaví Estuary). Between the sound to the south and west and Lago Chapo to the northeast is
Parque Nacional Alerce Andino
. The park covers 39,255 ha of steep forested valleys rising to 1500 m and containing ancient alerce trees, some over 1000 years old (the oldest are estimated to be 4200 years old). There are also some 50 small lakes and many waterfalls in the park. Wildlife includes pudú, pumas,
vizcachas
, condors and black woodpeckers.
Lago Chapo
(5500 ha) feeds a hydroelectric power station at Canutillar, east of the park. There are ranger posts at Río Chaicas, Lago Chapo, Laguna Sargazo and at the north entrance.

Some 45 km south of Puerto Montt (allow one hour),
La Arena
is the site of the first ferry, across the Reloncaví Estuary to
Puelche
. From Puelche there is an unpaved road east to Puelo, from where transport can be found north to Cochamó and Ralún.

Hornopirén and around

Also called Río Negro, Hornopirén lies 54 km south of Puelche at the northern end of a fjord. Although a branch of the Carretera Austral runs round the edge of the fjord to Pichanco, 35 km further south, that route is a dead-end. There is excellent fishing in the area and Hornopirén is a base for excursions to the
Hornopirén Volcano
(1572 m) and to
Lago Cabrera
, which lies further north. It is also the departure point for the second ferry, to Caleta Gonzalo (or direct to Chaitén when Caleta Gonzalo is not accessible). At the mouth of the fjord is
Isla Llancahué
, a small island with a hotel and thermal springs. The island is reached by
boat
, look out for dolphins and fur seals on the crossing.

Some 16 km by
ripio
road east of Hornopirén and covering 48,232 ha,
Parque Nacional Hornopirén
includes the
Yates Volcano
(2187 m) as well as the basins of two rivers, the Blanco and the Negro. The park protects some 9000 ha of alerce forest as well as areas of mixed native forest including lenga and coigue. From the entrance a path leads 8 km east up along the Río Blanco to a basic
refugio
.

Parque Pumalín and around

See www.pumalinpark.org. Created by the US billionaire Douglas Tompkins and seen by many as one of the most important conservation projects in the world, this private reserve extends over 700,000 ha and is in two sectors: one just south of the Parque Nacional Hornopirén and the other stretching south and east of Caleta Gonzalo to the Argentine border. Its purchase aroused controversy, especially in the Chilean armed forces, who saw it as a threat to national sovereignty. Initially Tompkins was frustrated by stonewalling from the Chilean government, but progress has been made and the park now has nature sanctuary status.

Covering large areas of the western Andes, most of the park is occupied by temperate rainforest. The park is intended to protect the lifestyles of its inhabitants as well as the physical environment. Tompkins has established a native tree nursery, producing 100,000 saplings of native endangered species, and developed apiculture; in 2002 the Pumalín bee stations produced 30,000 kg of honey. There are treks ranging from short trails into the temperate rainforest to hikes lasting for several days (these are very arduous). The trail heads are all on the main road. Three marked trails lead to a waterfall,
Cascadas Escondidas
; to an area of very old alerce trees; and to
Laguna Tronador
. The road through these forests was only built in the 1980s, meaning that, unlike areas to the north and south, endangered trees have been protected from logging (laws protecting alerces, araucaria and other native species were passed in the 1970s). As a result, Parque Pumalín is home to perhaps the most diverse temperate rainforest in the world, and is the only place where alerce forests remain intact just a few metres from the main road. It is a truly humbling experience looking up from the base of a 3000-year-old, 3-m-wide alerce, and this, in itself, is a reason to visit the park. There are only three buses a week, but hitching is not difficult in season.

Much of the this section of the park was covered in ash after the recent eruptions of Volcán Chaitén and at the time of writing, the southern half of the park between Caleta Gonzalo and Chaitén is closed. Repair work is underway and the hope is that the park will open again at some point in the not too distant future. However, this is dependent on the volcano calming down.

The Carretera Austral runs through the park, climbing steeply before reaching two lakes,
Lago Río Negro
and
Lago Río Blanco
. The coast is reached at
Santa Bárbara
, 48 km south, where there is a black sand beach. Towards sunset dolphins often swim right up to the beach. You can join them, although the water is very cold.

Chaitén

Chaitén lies in a beautiful spot, with a forest-covered hill rising behind it, and a quiet inlet leading out into the Patagonian channels. In many ways Chaitén is a cultural crossroads. Until relatively recently, the town had more contact with Argentina than the central Chilean mainland, while a Chilote influence is clear in the town's architecture. Indeed until the construction of the Carretera this area was known as Chiloé Continental and was governed as part of the island opposite.

In May 2008, Volcán Chaitén, previously thought to be extinct, erupted, spewing a 20-cm layer of ash over the surrounding countryside and causing the Río Blanco to shift its banks and flood most of the town of Chaitén, destroying many buildings and covering much of the town with a thick layer of volcanic mud. A further eruption followed in February 2009. The government decided to abandon the town, making plans to rebuild Chaitén 10 km to the north, at Santa Barbara. The population was evacuated to Puerto Montt and Chiloé, and most have stayed away either because they fear a future eruption may entirely destroy the town, or because they have no work to return to. The seat of provincial government has been moved to Futaleufú taking with it the bank, and an important source of local employment.

Out of an original population of over 4000, about 80 diehard locals remain in the remnants of the town, mostly in the northwestern sector that survived relatively unscathed. At the time of writing the ferry terminal is still in use, with connecting bus services to Futaleufú and the south. Despite having to use generators for electricity, there are basic amenities such as food and lodging. Whether Chaitén has a future on its present site is ultimately dependent on the future activity of its eponymous volcano. In the meantime construction work on the new town is well underway at Santa Barbara.

Chaitén remains important as a port for ferries to Puerto Montt and to Chiloé , and when the new town is rebuilt will once again be a growing centre for adventure tourism, and trips to the Parque Pumalín as well as nearby thermal springs and glaciers. There is excellent fishing nearby, especially to the south in the ríos Yelcho and Futaleufú and in lagos Espolón and Yelcho.

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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