As welcome signs go they don’t come much bigger or more impressive than the Andes Mountains, appearing out of nowhere, rugged and gnarly as though they have been squeezed out of the flat Pampas surrounding them.
Although I have been lucky enough to visit Chile before, the sight of the Andes never fails to excite. Exploring new places is always inspiring; this trip was to bring a mix of the well-known Torres del Paine, to the remote wilderness of the Carretera Austral in the Aysen region.
The Carretera Austral is Chile’s 770 mile Route 7 in northern Patagonia, running from the Chilean Lake district of Puerto Montt, to the small village of Villa O’Higgins at the foot of the southern Patagonian ice fields. From the small town of Balmaceda, which houses the region’s main airport, I travelled south to the stilted coastal village of Tortel, only accessible by air or boat until 2003 when the road was built. The Carretera Austral itself is a gravel road which winds through stunning scenery, small villages and remote settlements. With every turn the scenery changes, from tree shrouded valleys to rocky, snow-capped mountains; from emerald rivers to turquoise glacial fed braided streams. Crystal clear lakes reflect the surrounding mountains, amplifying the magnificence of the scenery. It’s a true adventure driving down the seemingly endless Carretera without a car in sight, just the tell-tale sign of dust in the distance to let you know
that humanity is still out there. The area receives few tourists each year so you will enjoy the stunning scenery pretty much to yourself. Travelling in this area is easy with a hire car, and with one road, the only thing to get lost are your thoughts.
Whilst the scenery is raw and untouched the level of accommodation is far from this. With wonderful lodges all within their own beautiful setting, they offer a dusty and happy traveller a welcome place to stay each night. Not only is the accommodation of a high standard offering great local food and wine, the owners are incredibly friendly and are proud to share their knowledge of the area.
After the remote beauty of northern Patagonia, I was unsure whether the much lauded Torres del Paine would live up to my expectations. Setting off from Punta Arenas on a smoother, straighter and extremely windy road to Torres del Paine National Park, the excitement and anticipation started to build. The scenery changed from the flat open expanse of the Patagonia Steppe, with hills and mountains appearing and then as we rounded the corner and looked to the distance, there was the iconic Torres del Paine Massif, standing alone, mighty and proud.
Not only does the National Park contain the granite massif but also meandering rivers, lakes and glaciers with endless hiking opportunities. There are vantage points from which to photograph and view the varied scenery the park has to offer all linked by a good road network. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park, your eye is always drawn back to the incredible Torres del Paine mountain sculpture, you find yourself staring at them, yet again, in wonderment as your camera shoots off another dozen photos.
If you want to see some of the last true wilderness areas without having to rough it, travelling through Chile on the Carretera has much to offer. Despite being a renowned tourist site, Torres del Paine has maintained its sense of majesty and remoteness and should be on everyone’s ‘places to visit’ list.