2.5 Days in 3rd Gear: Our Journey Down La Carretera Austral

Marty Schnure and Ross Donihue are cartographers in the field producing maps for the Future Patagonia National Park in the Aysén Region of Chile. For more information about the Future Patagonia National Park, visit Conservacion Patagonica.


La Carretera Austral, Chile’s southern highway, is long, remote, mostly unpaved, and requires some planning to prevent running out of gas. Its corners can be sharp, blind, and atop steep cliffs. When a sign warns of falling rock, there will almost certainly be large rocks in the road around the next bend. It is the best route for making the 190 kilometer (119 mile) journey from the Balmaceda airport in Coyhaique, Chile, to the Future Patagonia National Park. 190 kilometers is not such a long distance, but on la Carretera it takes a long time.

We landed at the Balmaceda airport late Saturday afternoon, completing a tumultuous 24 hour journey by air from Boston. We breathed a big sigh of relief when all of our bags made it and our rental car was still waiting for us despite our being seven hours late to pick it up. The austral summer’s warm evening sun and the fierce Patagonian winds told us that our adventure had begun.

We spent our first night camping in La Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, where we met a couple who had driven there from Washington State over the past 16 months (!) and a friendly park ranger named Julio. The pavement ended at about noon the next day in the tiny Villa Cerro Castillo. There we picked up three young Israeli backpackers and continued south on what had just become a rather slow, bumpy ride in a very full car.

A view of Cerro Castillo from la Carretera Austral. Photo by Ross Donihue.

We found a campsite on a welcoming family’s land in Puerto Río Tranquilo, where we rested for the night and enjoyed our first wood-fired hot showers. The next afternoon we reached Cochrane, a large town by Patagonian standards, where we bought food and fuel for the next two weeks. From Cochrane, it was just 18 kilometers to the park.

We have had nothing but clear, warm days since arriving at the Future Patagonia National Park in the Chacabuco Valley  (or ValChac, as they call it here). We’ve set up our base camp, which includes a small tent for sleeping, a large “office” tent, and a cooking shelter. The sun rises just after 6:00 am and sets around 10:00 pm, so we haven’t run down our headlamp batteries yet. We’ve become well acquainted with the guanacos that hang out around camp and the Southern Lapwings that signal our arrival nearly everywhere we go.

Look for the little orange tent -- that's our base camp! Photo by Marty Schnure.

We’re about to go out into the field on a 3-4 day backpacking trip to map the park’s newest trail up the Aviles Valley into the Jeinimeni mountain range. The trail team has just completed a crucial footbridge that makes the trail possible. We’ll head out after dinner tonight to camp at Casa Piedra, an old stone house at the base of the valley, so that we can start at sunrise tomorrow morning. We’d like to do the necessary river crossings early in the day before the snowmelt begins and the rivers swell. Only a few people have done this hike so far this season, and they have all had problems with river crossings. We are taking all the necessary precautions to ensure our safety during the hike and river crossings. We’re going out hoping to make it all the way up to Lago Jeinimeni, but are fully prepared to turn back if the river crossings are dangerous.

You can track our progress on our live map here.

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A National Geographic Young Explorer, cartographer, and visual storyteller. Co-founder and designer at Maps for Good.