Hitchhiking the Carretera Austral

People often ask you what your plans are when you travel. Where you’ve been and where you’re going next are often the first topics of conversation (coming in right after country of origin, and well before formal introductions). And while Aidan and I have a general idea of what places we want to visit, we have definitely not been travelling according to any set itinerary. ” No tenemos planes! ” might be one of the first complete Spanish sentences Aidan has learned.

But now we had a plan! We were both cold (re. the rain, snow, and hail from my previous post), and wanted to see a bit of sun. As my ever-tactful brothers pointed out when I last Skyped home, I was still extremely white despite being in the southern continent for over a month. Who knew that UV rays didn’t penetrate layers upon layers of thermal clothing?! So we sharpied in big block letters “AL NORTE” onto a scrap of cardboard, and headed to the highway. That was the extent of our plans. North.
Highway might be a generous term for the Carretera Austral. It winds it way through the entirety of southern Chile, home to waterfalls, glaciers, rainforests, volcanoes, valleys, and mountains. This can all be seen from the roadside, which happens to be gravel for almost all of it’s entirety*. Seriously, this place of the world is extremely remote. Busses are infrequent and unreliable; cars are rare. We viewed this as the perfect opportunity to generate a blog worthy story, featuring two intrepid Canadians who dared to go where few had ever gone before…
For those of you reading this as a sort of travel guide (rather than as a means to ascertain that Aidan and I are still alive), here are some words of advice. Only embark upon this adventure if you have packed a significant amount of food, and have a tent (to be set up on the side of the road if you get caught in the dark without shelter). I’ve come to view all other gear** as luxury items, to be lumped into the same category as warm showers and functioning stoves.
Our Route***

A complete lack of information about travelling in this part of the world made me think that documenting this adventure might actually be useful to future backpackers. Unfortunately the nature of hitchhiking means that you have to fly by the seat of your pants, rendering any set itinerary worthless. None of our stops were planned, so a trip that began as a way to get Chaitén then switched to going to Futaleufú, back to Chaitén, at which point we decided to turn back and go to Futa! In any case, here’s a list of the places we pitched our tent on the journey, along with pictures and reviews of each location. I tried to make the reviews professional, then quickly abandoned that in favour of using lots of lots of parentheses and dashes (my apologies to my high school English teacher). This journey was a long one – it took us a full week to get to our final destination. I’ve compiled some of the most notable events into mini stories below.

Coyhaique

Quick description: absolutely breathtaking, quite touristy

Recommendations: go horseback riding (especially if you can befriend a local and ride for free), spend a chill afternoon on the cliff by the river (but know that if you camp there that things can get rowdy), eat a steak at Chelenko (I broke my vegetarianism to have one and was consequently ill for the next week, but Aidan claims it was the best she’s ever had)

Thoughts while there: “Damn this place is pretty” “Is that a matte statue?!”

We stayed on a farm for a few days. Aidan spent most of her time there chasing horses!

Guy Gavriel Kay + Sun + Precarious Cliff = A Perfect Day

Queulat National Park – 2 nights camping just off the side of the Carretera Austral

Quick description: Gorgeous national park – mountains, rivers, glaciers, and waterfalls

Recommendations: There’s a great flat spot right on the side of the road after you enter the park, with enough space for your tent, a clothes line, and a fire pit (do not light a fire, this is illegal. We learned this after the rangers told us to put out our fire…)

Thoughts while there: “Ok, we’re river people now” “What a great place to set up for few days. We could even wash our clothes!” “We really should have remembered we were camped in a rainforest. Rain is in the damn name!”

Our illegal fire


Puyuhuapi – 1 night camping

Quick description: Blink and you’ll miss this town. Unless you happen to visit it when the Carretera is under construction, in which case you’ll be stuck there for hours! While there, take in the ocean view, and… Yup that’s about it!

Recommendations: If there happens to be a tsunami, do not follow the evacuation signs. They point along the beach for some reason. Better luck trying to scale up the mountains behind the town.

Thoughts while there: “Does it count as camping if we’ve pitched our tent in a shed?”

Puyuhuapi roadside – time to check the bruises while waiting for the Carretera Austral to open again

La Junta – 1 night roadside camp, partially hidden by a tree
Quick description: Charming town nestled in innumerable mountains. The towns beauty begins to fade after spending 9 hours in the rain, but that’s true for anywhere!

Recommendations: Camp by the bridge, you do not have to do as we did and camp two feet from the bustling highway. If you do follow in our footsteps, make sure to make friends with the dogs – there’s a great gang of 3 mutts that wander the streets.

Thoughts while there: “What beautiful misty mountains!” “Oh no, the mist is rain!”

A street dog invasion! Aidan was not helping the situation…

Chaitén – 2 nights in a secret campsite at the top of the town

Quick description: Their volcano exploded some years ago, and is thus a much less bustling town than before

Recommendations: Time your food shopping times wisely. This is actually a fair recommendation for anywhere in southern Chile; Aidan and I have been caught many a time absolutely starving at 2 pm while every store in town is closed

Thoughts while there: “Is all this dust from the Volcano?” “Wait, are we actually going to take refuge in a church? Nope – the Padre’s not home.”

Sunset in Chaitén

Futaleufú – final destination, most nights spent camping behind a tourism office, could happily stay there forever

Quick description: An amazing little town named after it’s absolutely awe-inspiring river.

Recommendations: Rafting/kayaking obviously, but a great chill activity is walking to the Futaleufú river to take a swim (beware of the currents and waterfalls)

Thoughts while there: “How is the water this colour?!?” “I’m never leaving”

Futa Madre!


Washing clothes in a rainforest. Because we are super intelligent. 

Clean clothing has come to mean that you don’t whip your head back in disgust after performing the sniff test. Nothing was passing that test anymore, and the smells inside the tent were becoming intolerable. Aidan’s shoes and socks were especially foul. Clearly, it was time to do a clothes wash.

Aidan found a great spot by the river we were camped beside, and set to work. After cleaning the clothes, she hopped in herself, figuring that everything might as well get clean. We then hung it all up out on our makeshift clothesline, and waited for the sun to dry them.

The river wench

So picturesque. So dumb.

Unfortunately, the whole “drying” part of the laundry process never happened, since we had set up camp in a rainforest. After lulling us into a false sense of security, the weather took a turn, and rain fell steadily for the rest of the day. We left the clothes out overnight, hoping that the winds would dry them (while also praying that they wouldn’t be so strong that they blew our clothes off the line).

We finally realized the error of our ways after another downpour the following morning, and accepted that our clothes would remain wet. We stuffed all our clothing into a dry bag (irony not lost me), and went to hitch on the side of the road again. Aidan did this in flip flops – her hiking boots were also soaked!

Hitchhiking on a Sunday

The other day neither Aidan or I could remember what month it was – remembering the day of the week is almost impossible. Our days centre much more around the weather and our degree of hunger. An arbitrary 7 day schedule just doesn’t matter right now. There are many upsides to this vagabond lifestyle. For example, my horror at what’s happening in the states right now is limited to the days when Aidan and I find wifi strong enough to load John Oliver and Sam B episodes. This is a long winded way of saying that neither Aidan or I were aware that the day we started hitchhiking again was a Sunday. A day where respectable people don’t typically drive through national parks.

Taking turns thumbing by the road didn’t make much sense since seeing other travellers was such a rarity. Instead we both hopped up every time a car passed, hoping that our soaking wet (we were in a rainforest remember?) and disheveled appearance would engender some sympathy in the drivers.

Who wouldn’t pick up this mess?!

We were getting tired and hungry, and had begun contemplating walking back to the paved road and abandoning our Carretera Austral adventure. First we pulled out a snack, and low and behold, a truck rolled by and stopped! Clearly we were just looking to desperate – playing “hard-to-get” is the way to go. We made it all the way to Puyuhuapi that day, and ended up camping again, this time in a shed…

The cattle car – Aidan got to sit up front with the driver

Positive interjection

So I’ve just reread what I wrote for this post, and I realized that my writing has become very Bill Brysony (ie. depressive and fear-mongering). I need to clarify that Aidan and I are having the time of our lives in South America. We’re getting to see amazing places, meet incredible people, and live through adventures many travellers would never get the chance to experience. Much of this is due to our willingness to put our trust in the strangers we meet along the way, who turn out to be some of the most “simpático” and “agradable” people I’ve ever met. Aidan and I just spent an incredible week in Futaleufú, which was largely made possible by the friendships we formed on this hitchhiking adventure. We are safe, alive, and happy (no dad, that’s not code for “come save us!”). Now back to the doom and gloom!

Thrilled to be exploring this part of the world, rain or shine!

Stuck in the rain for 9 hours

So this day was absolutely pure hell. Yet from the sodden ashes of that dusty highway, Aidan and I emerged – better and stronger than ever. I guess that makes this experience blog worthy, even though it means reliving it!

We’re two hours in to our wait in La Junta, and my addiction to the weather network has made me aware that I should expect no respite. Keen not to let my disintegrating mood flare out in Aidan’s direction, I kept walking in laps. This was also a handy technique to keep warm – every so often I would start doing jumping jacks.

Tuning out the rain with musical soundtracks

Remembering that it was our dads birthdays, we temporarily abandoned our hitchhiking post and walked to a nearby restaurant that promised wifi (to send birthday wishes like the ever dutiful daughters we are). We were promptly told that they were closed. We realized as we walked past by their open sign that we were being turned away due to our disheveled appearance, which did nothing to improve my mood. We started walking back towards the town, knowing that we wouldn’t be getting a drive anytime soon. More and more hitchhikers were swarming upstream from us – they would be claiming any car passing by before getting to us.

However, on that walk back, a couple we’d met a few hours earlier hailed us over. They were boiling water, and offered us some hot coffee. Those of you who have read my long passage/ode to caffeine on a previous post will understand that we hadn’t the power to resist. We stayed with Angie and José for the rest of the day, exchanging travel stories and playing with the street dogs. We took turns thumbing it on the roadside, and came up with increasingly eccentric ways of capturing a drivers attention – Angie faked a heart attack on more than one occasion.

Look closely, and you’ll find the rock this pup was fetching!

A car finally pulled up, and offered to drive the four of us 9 kilometres north. Well, that was 1/13th of our journey, but better than nothing! We hopped in, shouldering past another couple who had just appeared (in a very vulture like fashion). This poco-a-poco travel worked for the next little while, and then against all odds, we were picked up by a man headed straight to Chaitén.

We got a ride!

Trying to keep the packs dry. A losing battle

No cars? That’s fine, time for pictures!

Making a U-Turn and heading to Futaleufú 

We got to Chaitén in the rain (classic), and spent 2 nights in a sort of secret camp, situated right on the ocean. The people we met there kept telling how beautiful Futaleufú was, so we decided to brace the Carretera again and head East. This time we’d be going by bus – there was a forecast for more torrential rain and we didn’t want a repeat of La Junta! The ticket turned out to be only $5 Canadian anyways – well worth the cost of a three hour bus.

We’ve been in Futaleufú for over a week now, and are only just contemplating leaving. While there is tons to do here (exploring, rafting, kayaking, riding, trekking…), I would be genuinely happy just living by the river. Aidan found some obscure Chilean law stating that if you live on a piece of land for 5 years, and somehow manage to build a home there in that time, then you are legally entitled to that land. Every exploratory run I go on has become a scouting mission. If for some reason I go radio silent for the next few years, it’ll be because I’ve managed to “acquire” some prime riverside acreage. I’ll be splitting my time between building my dream home and becoming the best kayaker there ever was.

So much available real estate!

Another “it’s so beautiful, I cry!” picture

Acknowledgments

This trip would not have been possible without the support of some amazing people (and animals) we met along the way. First and foremost we would like to thank Jose and Angie for somehow making our time spent soaking wet on the roadside memorable and enjoyable! Unfortunately I never learned the names of the many, many dogs we met along the way, but thanks to you guys as well! Even though we know most of you were just waiting for us to let our guard so you could steal our food, we still think of you fondly. And finally we extend our thanks to all the drivers past and future willing to pick up us hitchhikers. Every ride is an experience in itself, and the whole “free” thing is pretty neat.

Footnotes

*There are plans to have the whole Carretera Austral paved by 2018. I’m already planning on making a pilgrimage back on my bike!

**Both of us are also carrying first aid kits – a necessary risk management tool, especially in light of our recent adventures!

***You can follow our whole adventure on our “Find Us On The Map” page

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