When we first arrived in Puerto Montt in southern Chile, we were ready to jump straight on a ferry to Torres del Paine, for the world famous O Trek and the incredible nature, mountains and glaciers we had heard so much about. We quickly discovered though that this wasn’t to be, as everything was fully booked by Chileans in the peak holiday season. We couldn’t enter Argentina as one of us needed a visa and flights were far too expensive – our lack of planning had let us down!
The Navimag ferry office suggested another option, take a different ferry part of the way south into the Aysen region of central Patagonia, then travel the rest of the journey along the Carretera Austral to a town called Villa O’Higgins. We wouldn’t be able to make it to Torres del Paine, but they assured us that we would have the adventure of a lifetime. Not willing to give up and turn around, we put aside our disappointment and jumped at the promise of an unknown adventure!
Our new ferry took us on a two night and three day journey through the fjords and islets of Chilean Patagonia, yet for the most part we only saw grey outlines of islands and headlands. We passed the time practicing our broken Spanish with the other passengers, one of whom was called Juan Pablo, a farmer traveling from Santiago to Coyhaique with his son and two dogs. When Juan Pablo heard about our journey, he gave us his contact details and offered us a place to stay for a few days when we arrived in Aysen region. We didn’t know it yet, but this would turn into one of the greatest experiences of our lives!
When we docked in the tiny port of Chacabuco, we found our way to Puerto Aysen and from there to Coyhaique, the small capital city of Aysen Region, Patagonia. The first thing we did was to call Juan Pablo to accept his offer, he picked us up from a café soon after and took us to his family farmhouse just outside of town. As well as exploring the farm, we witnessed the incredible process of hundreds of cattle being rounded up by Patagonian horsemen – tall, broad men with spurred boots and weathered faces, spinning their horses like a finely choreographed dance to herd the giant beef cattle from field to pen, sorting and weighing them as they went. It was a truly incredible process to watch and in some small way, to be a part of.
The next stage of our journey was the beginning of the real adventure. We decided to hitchhike the rest of the Carretera Austral, all the way from Coyhaique to Villa O’Higgins, some 564 kilometres of dirt road, wilderness and epic nature! We had hitchhiked before over short distances, but never anything like this. We headed for the edge of town, scrawled ‘Puerto Rio Tranquilo’ on a piece of old cardboard and stuck our thumbs out! Amazingly, we had a ride within minutes and we found ourselves cruising down the Carretera Austral in the back of a pickup truck, feeling the wind on our faces and watching the rolling farmland and lush green forests rush by. We passed the whole day like this in four pickups, one after another, amazed at just how easily we could travel this way.
We arrived in Puerto Rio Tranquilo as the sun was setting and the rain was starting to fall, so we chose the nearest family-run guesthouse we could find and slept until morning when we could finally see where we had arrived. What we awoke to was a small lakeside town on the edge of Lago General Carrera, a huge body of glistening turquoise water. In the middle of the lake are monolithic marble structures, carved by the wind and waves into caverns, some large enough to pass a boat through. But the highlight of Rio Tranquilo is the Exploradores Glacier nearby, which we took a trek across on our final day. The glacier itself is like a vast desert of ice, seemingly completely still, but with a haunting sense of motion as it gradually retreats back up into the valley, destined to disappear completely.What I will call the final section of our journey was several days further south, with fewer locals, tourists and vehicles with each mile we travelled. The final 350 kilometres of the journey was where Patagonia unleashed its best; towering mountains with jagged, snow-capped peaks, crystal blue lakes and rivers flowing through deep, green valleys. We hiked and hitchhiked for 4 more days in pickups, flat-bed trucks, giant freight liners and even empty buses through some of the most incredible terrain we have ever seen, even spotting a rare Guanaco. We met inspiring travellers from all over the world tackling the route on foot, bicycle and motorbike, but the most amazing of all was a German whose bicycle had broken, so rather than give up, he strapped his gear on small trailer and pulled it along the road himself!
When we finally reached Villa O’Higgins and rented bikes for the final seven kilometres to the end the road, there was no big event, no fireworks or grand finale. The dusty road simply slid into the murky lake – a peaceful ending to an incredible adventure.
Jonathan Howe is one half of the travelling entrepreneur couple behind Two Monkeys Travel Group. Together, this adventurous couple travels the world, finding new and exciting ways to live a sustainable travel lifestyle. Follow their exciting journey on Facebook.