Puerto Montt and the start of the Carretera Austral

The bus journey to Chile went incredibly smoothly, once through the Argentine border we drove through 40km of cloud to get us to the Chilean border where we disembarked with all of our belongings and stood in a line watching the absolutely gorgeous sniffer dog wag his way around our bags. Three hours later we arrived in Puerto Montt, a soulless hole on the Chilean coast. We’d come to Puerto Montt because that’s where we had found the cheapest rental car for our road trip along the Carretera Austral.

There is not a huge amount to see in Puerto Montt so we limited ourselves to the Angelmo fish and artesan market and dinner at a local fish restaurant. There were a remarkable number of tourists for what to us was a particularly unappealing place.

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Chile and Argentina have a lot of free roaming dogs and the sight of a pack of them barking at an unwell looking sea lion on the beach below the harbour wall summed up the overall feel of the Puerto Montt.

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Our hotel room was also a classic. It was next to the shared bathroom which made for a delightful auditory experience and it was once mistaken for the bathroom when we forgot to lock the door, which was uncomfortable for everyone involved. The beds were comfortable though and we slept well. After a surprisingly good breakfast our rental car appeared and with Caro’s limited Spanish, google translate and lots of pointing we had our slightly dishevelled looking wheels for the next two weeks. We christened him Emilio.

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The road trip kicked off in true Dragon and Chicken fashion with our achieving a parking ticket before we’d even sat in the vehicle. We flapped around the parking man trying to explain that we were leaving right that minute and didn’t know that we weren’t allowed to park there. He was having none of it and handed us a ticket for 20 pesos, the equivalent of about 38p. At this point we figured out that it wasn’t a fine and simply a parking charge, which would explain why the man couldn’t understand why we were getting so wound up.

Once out of town the Carretera Austral hugs the coast of the Pacific and we pulled over on the gravel shore for a spot of lunch with a pretty good view. We were slowly getting the feel for Emilio and his many ever so annoying vibrations, something rattled around ceaselessly in the steering column and was bound to be even more fun once we hit gravel road the next day.

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We continued southward to catch the car ferry across to Caleta La Arena, a quick and smooth 30 minute journey. On advice from a blog, we had downloaded the excellent iOverlander app, which gives loads of info about hiking trails, campsites, free wifi etc. Using the App, we found a well reviewed, cheap campsite just outside of Hornopiren, where we would have to catch another ferry early the next morning. The chap who ran the place couldn’t have been more helpful as he erected a couple of shelters for us to camp and cook under.

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As the rain poured down he smiled at us and said with a shrug “Patagnoia!” It wasn’t the slickest campsite in the world, James ended up doing the washing up in the shower, but at 6,000 pesos for two of us it was a bit of a bargain. The rain continued to lash down the entire time we were there and we worried that the shelter above us would eventually give way and deluge the tent in water but we managed a short night’s sleep, despite the constant ominous drumming directly above our heads.

The ferry from Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo leaves at 9am but you are advised to get there for 7am to get in line. We dutifully got up at 5:45, in the rain, had breakfast and broke camp, in the rain, drove the 5 minutes to the ferry terminal and got in line, in the rain. We arrived just after 7am and were fourth in the queue. People continued to arrive for the next two hours and we still have absolutely no idea why it was necessary for us to get there so early. We honestly think that you could arrive at 8:50 and have no issues whatsoever but there you have it. It was pretty to watch the sunrise over the port.

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We were a bit of a motley crew on the ferry: some travellers like us, some families, a couple of truck drivers and a gaucho complete with puffy sleeves, waistcoat and beret who was transporting two lorry loads of disgruntled looking horses.

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We hadn’t realised that James had managed to catch the gaucho in the back of this photo until we were picking photos for the blog. #hatenvy

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The ferry took about 5 hours and we passed the time with TV and admin. It’s not the most luxurious mode of travel in the world but it was comfortable once they’d turned the heating on and there was food and electrical sockets so we were well fixed. For us, the most picturesque part of the journey was right at the beginning as we pulled out of port and the mountains emerged from the cloud.

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The weather closed in after that and all we could see were some vague shapes on our left as we swayed through choppier water. The approach into Castela Gonzalo is also impressive.

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They started moving the lorries up the ferry before we had even docked, which was mildly terrifying. Once docked we all proceeded in caravan fashion through the rain along Ruta 7; here the Carretera Austral becomes a gravel track through Parque Pumalín.

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The drizzle continued as we searched for a campsite. Parque Pumalín has absolutely excellent facilities for camping: flat pitches with covered cooking areas, some raised platforms, so you can even camp off the mud, and pristine bathrooms. We were very impressed. The first campsite we came to was busy with people fresh off the ferry keen for a soggy walk so we pushed on to Lago Blanco where we scored an absolutely idyllic spot, a sheltered platform overlooking the lake.

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It was a new one for us to pitch the tent on a platform but with some jiggery-pokery and clambering around underneath the platform, we were set for the night. The tent was still wet from the night before and our hopes that it would dry once pitched were unlikely to come to fruition so we pulled the liner out and with some more imaginative fiddling we hung it out to dry, turning it every so often so that it got an even bake.

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With no hiking options and being unable to set up camp, we took the only reasonable course of action and opened a bottle of wine. We passed the evening looking out over the lake, the mist covered mountains and never ending rain. But we were dry and we had wine, though we had to warm it in a water bath as it was definitely not at its suggested serving temperature. We felt that this was an excellent use of our limited gas resources.

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The tent eventually dried enough for us to sleep in, which was definitely preferable to cramming ourselves into Emilio for the night. Despite the rain, it had been a fairly pleasant evening and it was topped off perfectly as an otter swam past to see what we were up to.

We stayed dry all night, but were woken by the sound of large amounts of flowing water. Overnight, the small stream next to our platform had turned from a trickle to a torrent and the rain was now driving in under the shelter. We found that the lake, the edge of which had been several metres away the previous day, now extended under our platform. (Don’t worry parents we were still at least a metre above the water level). We had thought about staying another day but our level of dampness just did not allow for this. We ferried all our stuff back to Emilio, trying to keep it dry, though James looked like a drowned rat by the time we were all packed up.

As we were leaving, the rangers came and told us that we should go and seek shelter in the nearest town. Not really sure what to do with ourselves we drove to the town of Chaitén to discover that the storm had taken out all of the power. Somehow we still found wifi, someone had a generator and had decided to use it to power their wifi, for some reason. Using said wifi we learned that the weather in our next stop, Futaleufu (which we called fluffy-wuffy because we weren’t sure how to pronounce it), was supposed to be bad for the next two days and we saw little point in powering on, just to face the same problem a little bit further away. So, we trawled through our new favourite app and found Casa Indomita, 10 odd kilometres outside of town and with just one glowing review. We decided to give it a shot on the basis that maybe its electric came from another source and therefore might have power and wifi. It did not. Fun fact: there is only one power line which runs down the entirety of Chilean Patagonia, if it goes down, it goes down in style. Or at least that’s what our host, Freddy, told us. What it did have was everything else you could possibly want on a miserably rainy day: a wood burning stove, hot showers, comfy sofas, a DIY picture window where we could watch the rain and an impressive array of birdlife, an incredibly kind and friendly host, equally friendly guests and an Airedale Terrier called Pulgoso, which means flea-bag in Spanish and is a name that we will definitely be pilfering.

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Somehow, we had landed in exactly the right place. We spent the day warming up and drying off, reading, blog writing (until the battery ran out), staring out of the window, chatting to the other guests, talking in decidedly fractured Spanglish to Freddy and, later on, drinking wine. We sincerely hoped that the rain would pass, and soon, so that we could visit the park that we had come to Chile to see, but in the meantime life was pretty good.

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We’d finished our wine and were midway through preparing our evening meal by torchlight when Freddy arrived in wellies and a poncho and declared that he was going to the beach. “Now?!” was the chorus from us and the two Czech girls who were staying there also, “Si!” came the hearty reply and we all scrambled around for boots and coats in order to join him. Pulgoso, who is not allowed in the hostel when there are guests, was absolutely delighted as we all trooped off in the fading light. Freddy’s beach is practically private, the next house is 4km away, at the far end. It was absolutely beautiful.

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We could just see the odd fin and head of sea lions fishing offshore. It was wonderful. And not raining, which was a bonus.

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The next morning the electricity was back on and we could see patches of blue sky in amongst the cloud. We plugged everything in to charge and set off with Freddy as our guide to see some caves that he had told us about the previous evening. The beach was just as beautiful in daylight.

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We had expected an easy stroll around the headland but ended up instead in a slippery scramble across the rocks which was far more than we had bargained for, even the dog was pretty unimpressed.

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We made it to the caves and Freddy pointed out red paintings and carvings on the walls. He told us that they are 800 years old, we don’t know if that is accurate or proven but it was interesting nonetheless. He also showed us some really gross cave crickets.

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We pushed out of the forest in to an area of manmade rock pools which the local fishermen use to collect shellfish.

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Freddy took us along a much saner route back to the hostel which didn’t involve climbing gear. Why didn’t he take us that way on the way out? Shits and giggles we suppose. We packed up the last of our stuff and said goodbye, it had been an excellent, if unplanned, stop on our journey.

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