Chaos On The Carretera

After more than a week using the area’s only city as a base to explore the rural surroundings, Stefje and I shipped out of Coyahqiue last Monday. We were picked up while still walking towards the outside of town with the intention to hitchhike, a good sign for our upcoming journey. In the flat bed of a pickup truck (this mode of transportation will become a theme), we took in the drop dead gorgeous Carretera Austral with a warm summer breeze licking us across the face. 

Coming out of Coyhaique, the landscape was predominantly rolling green farm pastures, but as the road veered East we entered Rio Simpson National Reserve. Here a wide lazy river snaked alongside the road while towering cliffs on both sides threw long shadows across the narrow valley floor. The most incredible facet of the landscape here was the dominance of the forest, which seemed to grow out of every possible square inch of land; trees popped straight out of steep inhospitable mountainsides. 

Less than an hour of careening back and forth in the back of the trunk brought us to the turn-off point for our desired campsite, which had been recommended to us over a month ago in Ushuaia. A kilometer and a half off the main road lay Los Torres del Simpson, an idyllic sanctuary of green grass staffed by the charming Nacho and Sandra, two of the most welcoming hosts I’ve encountered in my journey. 

Nacho immediately made us feel right at home, switching back and forth between English and Spanish through a series of afternoon soliloquies. First up was an introductory round of mate, where he obsessed over the rules and customs of the drink that seems to run thicker than blood in Chile and Argentina. Next he showed us around his property, where his primary business is the cultivation of organic lettuce. He taught and demonstrated his farming techniques while expounding the virtues of avoiding chemically altered vegetables.

Finally in the evening he tuned up his guitar and serenaded the crowd at the campsite with a mix of Chilean ballads and classic sing-alongs, getting everyone involved and producing a joyous, memorable atmosphere. 

The following morning the sun dawned bright and early over the farms and forests of the area and I set off to explore, walking through fresh dew as the morning steam rose up out of the fields and the inhabitants began to stir. It’s one of the quest scenes I’ve ever seen out here in the Southern Chilean countryside: the nearest grocery store is a half hour away and the internet speeds are laughable, but that’s definitely part of the appeal. 

Sheeps and cows roam freely across the roads, every portion of cultivatable land seems to be teething with growth, and the people live a quiet, simple, and undoubtedly rewarding life. Upon returning for breakfast, Stefje and I agreed to stay another night in the dream-like paradise, but we were in dire need of some marmalade to taste up our otherwise boring oatmeal. Nacho offered me a bike and I set off for the store, but everything seems to operate without schedules here and of course it was closed. The next shop, two kilometers down the road, was also shuttered. 

Flabbergasted, I stood waiting by the side of the highway for a few minutes until a woman popped out of the nearest house and asked the sweaty gringo if he needed some water. 

“No thank you,” I responded in Spanish. “I just want to buy some food."

With an almost imperceptible little flick of her wrist, she beckoned me into her humble home, offering some bread. Apologizing for the hassle, I declined and told her all I was after was some marmalade. She escaped out the back door and reappeared a minute later, a huge jar of fresh plum marmalade in her hand. 

“Es de mi campo.” It’s from my farm. Miraculously, she happened to stock the one thing on my shopping list and I was so grateful for the luck I was willing to fork over whatever she asked. “How much?” I said. 

“Nada.” Nothing, she responded, indicating that I should get on my way. I slapped 1,000 pesos down onto the table and rushed out the door before she could try and return the money, thanking her profusely for the generosity. 

After an immensely appreciated breakfast featuring heaps of fresh plum marmalade, I spent the rest of the day enjoying the lush lawn at the campsite by devouring a good back, playing cards, and then passing out in the sun for a long afternoon nap. Basically, it was the perfect day. 

Thursday it was time to leave the Torres del Simpson campground behind us and the affable Nacho obliged with his trademark hospitality yet again, offering us a lift 10 kilometers down the road to an intersection where it would be easier to hitchhike. 

But of course hitchhiking during peak season on the Carretera Austral has proven to never been so easy, but it was only 100 kilometers to our destination in Queulat National Park. Scorching rays of sunlight burned through our shirts as we waited in perspiration and exasperation on the sparsely trafficked junction. Yet the surroundings were undeniably jaw-dropping: the pure blue sky contrasted sharply against the verdant mountains and wide farming fields laid out before us. 

Eventually someone dropping off goods at the nearby port picked us up on his way back, taking us to the dusty little pit stop known as Villa Manihuales. He entertained us along the way by blasting a rolodex of top 50 American jams at full volume, straight through the untouched forests. In Manihuales the temperature reached its unbearable peak of 92 degrees, but for the first time in three days we had access to shops with fruits and vegetables, so we picked up some provisions before continuing the hitchhiking odyssey. 

A long and sweltering wait finally yielded a comfortable ride in a huge van and I quickly passed out while we pulled through winding curves flanked by steep mountains. When our drive turned away to head towards the coast, we hopped out to find three other hitchhikers already waiting for a ride. Up ahead the dirt road was closed for construction until 5pm, so we were ensconced in clouds of dust while waiting for the traffic to start up again. Finally a pick-up truck stopped and everyone waiting, now 6 people, rejoiced as he told us to pile into the back. We rumbled further North, the sight of bodies tumbled on top of luggage in the truck bed reminiscent of Jack Keroac’s On The Road.  

Bolstered by the knowledge that we would reach our destination before darkness, we basked in the afternoon sunlight tapering through the canopy and enjoyed the feeling of the fresh mountain air whipping at our faces. It’s in this section of the Carretera where the dry forests of Patagonia transition to wild temperate rainforests; as the road wound through viciously bumpy tight switchbacks we stared in wonder at the changes taking place right in front of our eyes. 

Just before sundown, we arrived at the entrance to the national park, deeply grateful we weren’t still on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and amazed that yet again we had arrived at our destination due to the pure generosity of others. 

In an effort to not get stuck in a logjam of hitchhikers, we laced up our hiking boots and were on the hiking trail before 8AM the next morning. In search of the legendary hanging glacier Ventisquero Colgante, the path led from a river at the base of the valley up along one of the steep side ridges towards the glacier’s resting point, stretching back and forth along switchbacks through the overgrown rainforest. This trek was notable for its incredible difference from every other one we’ve covered so far in Patagonia; moss-draped rocks and overhanging ferns combined with a thick undergrowth and clumped trees to make us wonder if we had somehow been transported to a completely different climate.

By going fast we thought we could tackle the trail’s 3.3KM upward leg in less than an hour, but we ended up just getting winded during the first half, making the last stretch a slog. Out of nowhere we reached the final viewpoint, where we could see a waterfall of epic strength spewing fresh water over a straight cliff, with the Ventisquero Colgante resting snugly in a V-shaped rock formation above.

Although the front wall of ice remained far away and didn’t appear too menacing, by zooming in we could really appreciate the size and power of the deeply compressed ice that feeds the endless waterfall. The sight doubles in impressiveness immediately upon remembering that it exists within the confines of a rainforest. 

On the way back we hustled through the downhill and were back to our campsite within an hour, mentally prepared for some hitchhiking. But once outside of the shady protection of the forest, the temperature reached a frenzied pitch and we sweltered in the profuse heat while waiting. 

Two rides (including one from the same pick-up truck) and a few hours later, we hopped off in the town of La Junta, finding a relaxed campsite in the immensely quiet town. From here it was another 170 kilometers to reach our destination - the town of Futaleufu - so we grabbed one ride a little farther north and then hailed down a bus to reach our remote destination in the early afternoon. 

Flanked on all sides by luscious green mountains heavily dominated by tree cover, the beautiful setting of Futaleufu was instantly a refreshing sight to our worn bodies after four full days of hitchhiking. The fresh mountain air was crisp, cool, and inviting, welcoming us to a gorgeous place. Juxtaposed against the chilled out vibe of the town is the true reason why most people find themselves here, where normal civilization feels so far away: the roaring Futaleufu river. The river rolls through the surrounding valley and is one of the best in the world for adventure sports like rafting and white-water kayaking, drawing tourists and professional adventure seekers from all over the globe. 

We were blessed with some unusually gorgeous weather upon arrival, so Stefje and I found a campsite and were sure to soak up some intense afternoon sunshine before exploring the town. The next day I booked a rafting tour and by 10AM I was suited and booted in a full wetsuit, equipped with a paddle, a boat, and ready to take on some class V rapids. 

Our drop in point was a placid stretch that could have qualified as a swimming hole, but just around the bend were roaring sets of rapids with massive foaming whirlpools and deadly rocks protruding from the water threatening to capsize our boat. 

Quickly the boat sped along at an unwieldy pace, exposing impossibly smooth rocks on the river bed below. From my vantage point in the front seat of the raft, I got a first-hand feeling for the power of this daunting river as we tumbled up and down through the peaks and valleys of mini tidal waves. 

But it wasn’t until later in the trip when we were allowed to hop out of the boat and swim alongside in the water that I got a true sense for the power of the Futaleufu. Immediately the current took over and tossed us any which way it wanted, leaving us gasping on rocks where it knocked us on shore. 

Eventually we were deposited back in town safe and sound, capping my last adventure in Chile during this trip after a chaotic week stretching the Northern portion of the Carretera Austral. 


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  • Recommended campgrounds with the best rates and facilities

  • Instructions and safety advice for hitchhiking

  • The only packing list you'll ever need for camping

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  • A special bonus guide on packing and cooking during long hikes through national parks