Exploring Chile's Wild and Rugged South

Exploring Chile's Wild and Rugged South
Off-road heaven has a name  -  Chile. Twenty-seven hundred miles long, this very narrow stretch of land between the Andes and the rugged Pacific coast is one of the most multifaceted countries we have ever seen.

In stark contrast to its arid northern reaches Chilean Patagonia offers all the dramatic landscape one might expect at land's end. The continent falls away in a dazzling profusion of islands, glaciers, icebergs, fjords and mountains. At its very tip, Campo de Hielo de Sur, the largest ice shield in South America cuts off Chile's southern end from the rest of the country. The road stops here with miles-wide ice as far as the eye can see.

Lying within the sub-arctic west wind zone, this portion of Chile is exposed to storms of hurricane intensity all year long. Clouds filled with ocean humidity routinely open up and let loose above the cordilleras, dropping up to 200 inches a year here! At higher altitudes, this precipitation falls as snow, which explains why southern Chile is the most snow-laden region on earth.

Riding a motorbike through the jaw-dropping scenery of Chilean Patagonia wasn't possible until Chile finished the 850-mile-long continuation of the Pan-American Highway, an almost perfect road that's called the Carretera Austral. Perhaps the most laborious, technically demanding road project of the twentieth century, it was started under Pinochet in 1976 to open up the region, and its construction took more than 20 years and $ 200 million to complete. Even so, with 10,000 soldiers sometimes used to overcome some of the most difficult challenges in this impracticable landscape, most of the roadway is gravel.

The Carretera Austral winds through what is certainly one of the most scenic and untouched areas in South America. Glaciers calve into the cold-temperate rainforest. The rivers are mighty, and you're free like we were to pitch your tent on a carpet of dandelions beside a rushing stream, to watch the condors circling above the striking peaks, and to act like you are the only people on the planet. It's heavenly.

Camping on a carpet of dandelions along the Carretera Austral.

Chaitén, in the northern part of the Carretera, is a sleepy town with low, colored houses lining a bay. Close by there's a natural oddity known as Pumalin Park. In the 1980s, an American named Tompkins had a good idea. The founder of the textile giants Northface and Esprit sold his shares and bought a lot of woodland in southern Chile for some $ 35 million. By doing so, he saved 325,000 hectares (over 803,000 acres) of rainforest from slash and burn logging. Chilean officials sniggered about the purchase at first, but suddenly grew concerned when it dawned on them that Tompkins' property sprawled across the entire width of the country. Some suspected he was the straw man fronting for an imperialistic logging corporation. Others thought he intended to excise this section of Chile by selling it to neighboring Argentina. All of their suppositions were nonsense. To eliminate any doubts, Tompkins offered the park as a gift to the government, under one condition - that it remains a nature preserve. His noble bequest was refused.

On our way south the scent of lupines sweeten the air. Fluffy clouds and the snowy peaks of the Andes shine in the turquoise waters of Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America, after Titicaca. So large, 125 miles from east to west, it bears two names. Over on the Argentinean side, they call it Lago Buenos Aires. Spiky bushes with blue calafate berries line the road. They say anyone who tastes them will return to Patagonia. We will see...

Past the village of Cerro Castillo, the gravel holds black volcanic ash, which makes the road as smooth as the German Autobahn. In 1991, the nearby Hudson volcano erupted in devastating fashion, and the wind blew fine black dust into the Argentinean pampas as far as Buenos Aires while lighting up a few villages on its deadly way. That day was dark as the night. Animals died of starvation and suffocation. When the rains came, the situation worsened for surviving sheep - the ashes in their wool hardened like concrete.

The sleep village of Cerro Castillo.

The remote turnoff towards Cochrane captivated us with spectacular vistas of the Andes. Here, the Carretera follows the course of the raging Rio Baker through lush green vegetation before curving upward. But our joyride ended abruptly on a pass. There before us thousands of black tree trunks stood like cemetery cenotaphs, sad and silent in a clearing.