A road constructed under the autocratic reign of General Augusto Pinochet conjures up images far removed from the unspoilt wilderness and solitude that characterises Chile's Carretera Austral. Its dense forests, Andean mountain ranges, channels, fjords and glaciers kept Chilean Patagonia and its inhabitant's cut-off from the remainder of the country until the artery's construction began in the 1970s.
The combination of picturesque yet difficult terrain attracts two-wheeled enthusiasts to the region like ourselves, travelling by motorcycle. Although 'Carretera Austral' literally translates as Southern Highway, in reality it is a two-lane, mostly unpaved road, in constant need of repair. Those willing to endure a jolting and sinuous ride will find remote settlements set amongst lush forests and pristine waters, snow-capped peaks and crystal-cut glaciers.
The highway officially begins in Puerto Montt and now measures approximately 1200 kilometres since the extension to its southern-most point, Villa O'Higgins, opened in 2000. Our own journey began somewhere in the middle. We crossed the border from Argentina, entering the carretera in the town of Santa Lucia where we spent our first of many nights sleeping in a hospedaje. These accommodations are typically run by women whom open up a spare room or two in their home to paying guests as a way to make ends meet. We woke to the smell of fresh bread, another way of paying the bills, and deterring weather.
As the rain intensified, so did the lustre of the rich emerald forest that engulfed us, causing waterfalls to spout from the rock faces.
Even with clothing three layers deep constant exposure to the elements took its toll. We called it a night not too far south in the town of Puyuhuapi, located on an appealing bay framed by snowy ranges. Before the Austral highway reached Puyuhuapi in 1982 the German settlement was accessible only by boat.
We stayed with a life-long resident of the town, which has fewer inhabitants than I attended high school with. She explained how her world was opened up the day the road broke through in her late teens, the same age of her own children today. Their own connection to the outside world is via Wi-Fi and cable television. We were given a first-hand view of technology's significance to this remote community when the satellite broke down the night of our stay, escalating family tensions. Our English finally came in handy as we were called on to translate the instruction manual in an effort to repair it.
Just out of Puyuhuapi we took a jerky side road to reach a hike to a hanging glacier. Ditching our restrictive motorcycle pants a third of the way up and continuing on in our long-johns assisted in a faster ascent to the frozen cascade. We watched as chunks of ice broke off then listened to the thunderous crackling that followed, the sound heightened by the echo bouncing off neighbouring cliff faces.
Many residents of the area make their livings from ecotourism, notably fishing Chilean Patagonia's peacock blue lakes, and rafting the torrents of its river's turquoise waters. Somewhat controversially the government intends to asphalt the road in the coming years. Inevitably this will bring a new legion of tourists to the region, though potentially at the expense of Patagonia's serenity.
Its citizens face an even greater challenge if the government's plan to dam many of its waterways is green-lighted. Over the next 10 years a largely foreign-owned enterprise has intentions to implement a hydroelectric project, which will include the installation of thousands of kilometres of high-tension wires across protected lands, to provide energy to Santiago and the mining regions to the North. In the eyes of its opponents, of which we met many, to dam Patagonia is to spoil the last untouched land on earth.
For us the end of the line was the boardwalk town of Tortel, connected to the main highway by a branch road. Tortel takes tranquillity to a new level. The abundance of cypress wood led to a decision not to pave the town. After leaving the motorcycle at the town's entrance we explored the placid settlement on foot via the connected wooden gangplanks.
For myself, more memorable than its natural wonders was the warmth and sincerity of the Patagonian people we met during our time on Chile's Carretera Austral. Generations of isolation has forged a spirit of resilience and independence in people which ought to help in facing the challenges ahead.
Getting there: LAN Airlines flies direct from Auckland, New Zealand to Santiago, Chile and on to Puerto Montt. We travelled overland via Argentina, through Futaleufu. If you do not have your own vehicle, there is a reasonable network of buses and ferries between the major towns, though schedules can be infrequent.
When to go: It is recommended to travel during the summer months, from November to March, as winter can bring sub-zero temperatures.
Where to stay: Accommodation is available at various hospedajes, cabins, fishing lodges and some hotels. Camping sites are also common.