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Carretera Austral

Sunday, November 27th 2005

I spent a couple of relaxed days in Coyhaique, always intending to go walking in the surrounding hills but somehow never quite getting there. The town was laid back and seemed quite bourgeois, with a well-to-do atmosphere and nice cafes on pedestrianised shopping streets. It also had the biggest supermarket I had seen in South America, with all sorts of produce that you wouldn't expect to find in a small rainy town in Patagonia.

I had wanted to get a ferry up the coast from Puerto Chacabuco, not far from Coyhaique, but it appeared that boats only go from there at random irregular intervals. A company which used to do the run had gone bust due to rising fuel prices, and it seemed I would have to go north by bus. This was no disaster though, because the road north is no ordinary road, but the legendary Carretera Austral, which runs through the wild temperate rainforests of seldom-visited central Patagonia. Early on a Sunday morning I walked through the rain-soaked streets to the bus station and caught a minibus to Chaitén, a few hundred miles further up the country.

There were about 12 of us on the bus, all locals apart from me and two Italians. We drove out of Coyhaique under heavy skies, and before long rain was falling. Gloomy mountains covered in dense forest rose all around. I hadn't been able to get a coffee before leaving Coyhaique so I was relieved when we stopped after a couple of hours at Villa Mañihuales, a tiny village with a warm cafe where I got my coffee and a nasty empanada containing some kind of gritty meat.

A bit further north we stopped for a while in a deep valley with a wild river rushing through it. I wasn't sure why we'd stopped but it turned out that a new bridge was being built here and they were about to dynamite the rock face. I took photos in the drizzle, and stretched my legs. A colossal explosion rocked the valley, followed quickly by two smaller ones, and with that we all got back into the minibus and drove on.

In the afternoon the road took us through Parque Nacional Queulat, which was stunning. Impossibly steep mountainsides were covered in lush forest, with mist draped over everything and snatches of cloud hanging on the mountaintops like candyfloss. Wild rivers and towering waterfalls plunged into the valleys. North of Queulat we reached the town of La Junta, which had a giant statue of General Pinochet on its main street. Some locals got on, others got off, and the journey continued. The road, previously potholed and bumpy, became smooth, and we soon reached Chaitén, 12 hours after we'd left Coyhaique. For the first time on the journey it wasn't raining.

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