If a pilgrimage can ever be secular, I think this particular one through the Carretera Austral in Chile would definitely be it. The Carretera Austral is a 1240km gravel road that stretches from the port city of Puerto Montt to the depths of the central Chilean Patagonia. It was built 30 years ago, and still remains mostly gravel as of today. Initially constructed to connect the scattered villages hidden amongst the mountainous Patagonia, the Carretera Austral is now Chile’s most popular road trip destination. Surprisingly, it is also now a popular “pilgrimage” destination for the adventurous.
The towns and national parks along the Carretera Austral are no doubt stunning and worth visiting. Initially, I imagined the area to be wild and deserted. After all, who would make the arduous journey through a thousand kilometres of gravel, and back? I entered the Carretera Austral midway from Argentina, and started my journey from the lakeside town of Chile Chico.
The road from the border was well paved and wide. Chile Chico was a small town, with just one main road and little alleyways to connect the various houses together. Fifteen minutes was all it took for me to walk from one end of town to the other. Little did I know that this would be the largest town I would see for the next two weeks…
The asphalted road literally ended at the entrance of the town of Chile Chico. From there, it was the beginning of a journey on the bumpy and dusty gravel goodness. At the entrance were three pairs of backpackers with their thumbs up, waiting for rides. This was the prelude of the tourist pilgrimage that many tourists take along the Carretera Austral. As there is almost no public transport along the Carretera Austral, thousands of tourists walk and hitchhike the entire stretch of the road. Indeed, at every town or pit stop along the way, you will find tourists trying to hitchhike to the next stop on the Carretera Austral.
The fun part about exploring the Carretera Austral is that every spot, every spot is a picture-perfect spot. The nature along the road is spectacular, and I could not resist the urge to stop every five minutes just to take another picture. This part of the Chilean Patagonia felt like Switzerland, sans the modernity and pretty cottage houses. The scenery was wild, and the old, scattered houses made everything look so untouched. Just being on the road was already an experience in itself.
Apart from just gazing at the scenery from the car seat, the area along the Carretera Austral offers amazing hiking opportunities. I did a multi-day hike in the Patagonia National Park, through various terrains from pampa to forests. It was amazing walking alongside beautiful lakes and across icy cold streams. The climax of the hike was a bird’s eye view of the sparkling blue Cochrane lake. It was one of the bluest lakes I have ever seen, and definitely one of the most gorgeous.
One of the most beautiful villages along the Carretera Austral is also one of the hardest to access. The village of Caleta Tortel is located almost at the southern end of the Carretera Austral. Built entirely on stilts and boardwalks, the village is an instagram-heaven. Every house is connected by boardwalk and built above the bay. This is because the area receives too much rainfall, which floods the entire village and turns the ground into a large quicksand. From the top of a hill behind the village, you can see the entire glacier-fed bay and the many fjords surrounding it. It is hard to imagine how people lived here before the road was built 30 years ago. Caleta Tortel was literally a village in isolation.
If there was something really special about the Carretera Austral, it must have been the number of tourists trying to hitchhike the entire road. Once, I saw more than thirty people lined up along a 50m stretch of road waiting to be picked up. When I got off the car, I knew I would not stand a chance to get a ride. Indeed, I sat at my spot for three hours, watching the sparse traffic pass by. People started getting desperate, with tourists begging, throwing flowers at the cars and coming up with strange signs such as “cookies for a ride”. Miraculously, a coca-cola truck stopped, opened its cargo load and beckoned me in. I asked if the other people could hop on as well. The driver nodded, and immediately, everyone who was waiting along the road ran towards the truck. It was so uncoordinated, so fast that it felt like a zombie attack! Before we knew it, thirty of us were sitting in a dark, enclosed truck with hundreds of empty soda glass bottles.
I have never seen so many hitchhikers in my life. Having hitchhiked from China to Spain and then from the south of the Americas to the US, this 1000km stretch of road was the only one with hundreds of hitchhikers. One Chilean girl told me that hitchhiking, walking or biking the Carretera Austral is now a rite-of-passage for many Chilean people. During the university holidays, many Chileans will travel to the Carretera Austral just to hitchhike the entire length of it. Every Chilean who drives know about this new-formed tradition and he will try his best to pick up as many people as possible. As such, almost every car that treads along this bumpy gravel road is packed, with tourists sitting in between huge backpacks.
The Carretera Austral is beautiful, and the cute ecosystem formed between tourists and locals is alluring too. To see the spectacular nature is one thing, but it is not what makes the Carretera Austral so memorable. I really enjoyed the fact that the locals were so nice to open their gardens for campers and that drivers were always stopping to pick someone up. People were so willing to share and create new, memorable experiences for one another. Going down the Carretera Austral should not just be a pilgrimage for the local Chilean people. If you have the chance, you should also take this pilgrimage and experience what it is like to be part of such a beautiful community.
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