Castro & Cucao
Having learnt from our last night, we try to find a place to stay before we get there, and find out that is not so easy… on top of this, the one way that crosses the island – Ruta 5 – goes through the town of Castro and with that creates a massive traffic jam that pulls through it, doubling our driving time. In Castro we need to do laundry, especially our sheetliners and in the meantime try to book accommodation. We take a decision to splurge for a night and book a room into the Palafito Hostel in Cucao. Key drivers: Wifi, hot shower, breakfast included, warm and dry room, no wind :-). While the ladies take a stroll through Castro waiting for the laundry to be ready, the men drive on to the accommodation and get set up there while enjoying the beautiful scenery.
The next morning we enjoy a fantastic breakfast with everything we can wish for; yoghurt and muesli, scrambled eggs and freshly baked bread, fruit, coffee and tea. After breakfast the water is tested (and deemed too cold by some) and then of course the hot shower enjoyed before we check out. On the program today is the ‘Muelle de las Almas’, and after that making our way further south on the island.
The Muelle is a touristy spot where you can take an epic picture of a dock reaching out over the cliffs. As we get there it is clear that it is a popular place, with parking paid and organized and ticket sold as entry. The 2+km hike there is lovely across the cliffs, but when we arrive at the highlight the line is already quite long… YES you read it; there is a line! And a sign that says ‘2 minutes per family’ which everybody blatantly ignores while doing a full on photoshoot. With nobody there to manage traffic / the line (they just collect the money at the entrance 2kms away) we do the math after 30 minutes of waiting and realize this could easily take 1,5 hours more (confirmed by those at the start of the line)! So we take a picture from the side and call it quits – see below the result – and decide this is the least enjoyable tourist trap we have found so far.
We drive down south, with only little delay this time as roadworks are limited, and find a fantastic camping spot around Santa Rosa. It is small but well set up, and the grounds are filled with apple and plum trees, and bushes filled with blackberries. Needless to say we are happy to pay the camping fee as the owner invites us to take as much fruit as we like. Pans filled with blackberries, apple compote made out of the many apples and a strainer filled with plums, we nicely stocked up on our fruit intake.
The coast here is on the inside of the island and thus on a secluded bay, and as we drive down the tip for a beach picnic, we get to enjoy dolphins and sea lions passing by the beach. The snow-capped volcanoes across the bay on Chile’s mainland make it a beautiful site, and the locals are clearly proud of their slice of heaven. We can not imagine how harsh the winters must be, but those living here say it gets even nicer though tough to ride out. We get a Scandinavian feel here with all the wooden houses – and beautiful wooden churches dotted across the island! – and the climate that seems to be alike. Beyond the windy first night we enjoy the island in full sunny weather, so we are really lucky to not be caught out with rain and wind as many have (even in summer).
At the southern tip of the island Chiloe is the ‘Hito Cero’ site, the place where the ruta 5 ends and respectively the Pan-American highway begins to make its way all the way up to Alaska. This point is debated versus the most southern point of the continent in Ushuaia, but of course this does not stop us from taking a picture at this historic point. We drive back to the campsite for a last night on the island before a long drive up north again.
Back to the mainland, getting ready to head south
With a long drive ahead of us – not in kilometers but potentially in challenges – we take an early rise and start driving north. We stop at a Unesco World Heritage site church in Villupulli, get through Castro without massive traffic jams this time, have lunch at the beautiful chapel island of Aucar and then get pleasantly surprised by a previously graveled road that is now brand new pavement which lands us right at the start of the line for the ferry. So far so good, the ferry runs quickly and smooth, and before we know it we are on our final leg on the mainland towards Ensenada.
We have a big stockup stop at a mall, where we also find winter gear on sale, so we make our last purchases before we go on a journey towards the cold of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. While we were making good on time, this stop took longer than expected so we arrive in our destination around 7pm. For the first time we get hit by high season as we try to find a place to stay for the night. We spend the next 2,5 hours (!!) driving around asking everywhere for a spot to sleep, all being fully booked. Growing desperate and hungry but persisting in the plan of not wanting to set up the tent, we throw a final search in Airbnb and run into a location available. Another half hour of searching, then finding out it is another 30km away, we finally get to the place around 22:25 at night… Turns out the lady started Airbnb that day and did not expect us nor does she even want to rent for short stays! But we made it work and finally could get to sleep… slightly hungry but ok.
We did find a place for the next day, which we can also check into early thankfully, so we drive there and spend the day getting our cars ready to split up and go our separate ways. Groceries, clothes, blankets and such are swapped and new hiding places in the car found to stash everything away. We round up the day with a fantastic farewell Valentine’s dinner, toasting to another incredible journey together. Taking the cake for dessert home with us as we are pooped, the joint traveling has now really come to an end.
On to the Carretera Austral
And so we start our journey southbound, on to the road that is known as the Carretera Austral. We will take this road not fully to the end, as we have to cross into Argentina at some point, but the part we do drive down is for the biggest part gravel. We get a first taste of this on the route today, 3 parts of 20+kms gravel road, differing greatly in quality but so much fun to drive! We get to really test the car and get used to the non-paved road driving again like we have done in the past. The conclusion is the same as always – better to drive fast over washboard roads than slow, basically flying and thus avoiding the bumps. Only risk is a flat tire, so fingers crossed we don’t get one and running out of gas so we filled up our back up jerrycan with 20l extra just in case.
We decided to take the road along the fjord and coast to Hornopiren, which is a gorgeous drive with beautiful weather. We have a leftover cake break at the river with beautiful mountains rising around us, and further on we have lunch at the beach around the coastal road. As we have a sandwich, we are greeted by playing sea lions, pods of dolphins and pelicans flying by… a promise of what we can expect further down the road? The drive to Hornopiren, despite the gravel parts, is much faster than anticipated by the maps.me-app, so we get to the town with ample time to find an overnight accommodation. We fill up the tank first as the general rule is to fill up wherever you can (your next station might be out of gas!). After checking with the ferry company if all is still on schedule for the next day (you never know!) it is marked that there are no car tickets available for 2 more weeks! Thankfully we have booked weeks in advance and are thus all set to go.
In town we drive around some cabanas and stumble upon an ‘alojamiento’-sign that leads us to an old bus. There is nobody there so we call the number on the sign and the kind lady tells us that ‘yes, tengo disponibilidad’! What we end up in is a converted bus with 5 beds, a tiny table and woodstove (which we happily burn a fire in in the evening) and even a toilet and hot water shower. Needless to say this goes high into the list of coolest places we stayed in on our journey :-). As we go to bed it starts raining, for the first time here in Chile, which we hope is not an omen for the rest of the journey south.
The next morning we get up before 7, load everybody in the car and get in line at the dock for the ferry. The clouds are still hanging in the valley but it has stopped raining, so we have good hope the weather will clear up today. We have breakfast in the car, take a last look at Hornopiren and then fill up the relatively small ferry to the brim. Not a surprise there is no room for cars anytime soon as the capacity is so limited. Setting off, it becomes clear we are not taking the direct route around the peninsula, but the inland route to Leptepu where you drive off for some 10km and then get on the final leg of ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. The sun peeks through the clouds, the water is flat and shimmery, time to enjoy travel without having to drive ourselves!
Once on land we drive into the Pumalin Park, a national park donated by Douglas Tompkins in 2017 after having fully established it, back to the Chilean government and its Conaf organisation. We immediately see the quality of the infrastructure, the signs, the facilities, and moreover when we hike the ‘Cascadas Escondidos’ hike – which is a continuous trail of ladders and steps – we are incredibly impressed with the effort put in to set up this park and its trails. It is like scrambling through a fairytale forest, and it is a fantastic experience, the boys dubbing it their best hike so far (which is quite an achievement!).
We then head further south to the town of Chaiten, again on the hunt for a one night stay. After several options we end up in a very old house of a lovely lady and her Venezuelan help, who let’s us stay in a double with the kids on an airbed. The shower is hot, the living room comfortable and there is WIFI! That has been a while so time to update some of our apps and plans accordingly. In the evening we are joined by a Chilean family with three fantastic kids sharing their adventures and dreams with us… what a treat!
The next morning we have a lazy start as we have a short drive ahead of us. Lots of paved road and beautiful views to bring us to our next destination. Biggest challenge seems the fuel, passing a big line already in one station and another with no fuel at all! Let’s see how that goes next week!
Next week: Further south & border crossing