Adventure Will Find You
edited: Thursday, March 21, 2002
By R Roche
Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2002
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Where can you go to recieve total adventure?
By Roxann Roche
Winding through the rain-forested region of northern Chilean Patagonia, the Carretera Austral, a lone dirt road from Puerto Montt to Puerto Yungay, carries weary backpackers, bicyclists, hitchhikers and anyone crazy enough to brave the rain. The weather there is harsh. The blistering heat of a sunny day will, without warning, become unbearably cold as soon as the yellow sun sinks below the Coigue trees on the horizon. You feel as if you are at the end of the world, clinging to the edge, before plummeting into the mouths of the hungry dragons below. Sailors of old who ventured here came home with tales of giants and monsters. Patagonia: the land of extremes.
The area know as Chilean Patagonia, home of the Carretera Austral, has been tamed somewhat. However, it is still a magnet for the same daredevils, adventurers, extremists and the occasional fisherman who, by some chance, came across an obscure magazine with an article featuring tales of amazing fish and breathtaking scenery.
Four feet diameter Coigue trees line either side of the Carretera Austral like quiet sentries preventing curious wanderers from venturing into the unknown jungle of bamboo, spider’s webs and 5 ft Nalca leaves, large rhubarb type plants. There are areas that do not have the protection of these tranquil Coigue giants and where the road is completely exposed on one side. Cliffs plunge down vertically hundreds of feet into valleys of every shade of green and then reach up again to blue, glacier-capped mountain peaks.
The Carretera Austral is mainly a 20-ft wide gravel road, but within the last 5 years the area surrounding Coyhaique has been paved. In the early 1950s through the 1970’s, many unsuccessful attempts were made to find a penetrable route through the tangle of thick trees, jungle vines and bamboo. In 1976, by mandate of president General Augusto Pinochet the road was officially started. It was finished 20 years and 200 million dollars later in 1996. Ten thousand soldiers of the Chilean military, the builders of the road, transformed the rugged, thick jungle into 2,000 km of the loneliest, most dangerous road in the world.
Many times, when I have driven with my parents on the Carretera, our lives would flash before our eyes as we rounded a corner. Eight-ton Copec trucks carrying 2,000 gallons of fuel or Mercedes freight trucks, traveling at full speed coming the other direction on the 15 ft wide road would greet us as we rounded a bend. The problem would be quickly solved by pulling off into the overgrown shoulder at full brake, but not without the heart rate of the occupants of the car raising to several beats per second.
During the construction of the Carretera Austral a total of 3,086 meters of bridges were built. Using 500,000 kilos of explosives, a total of 4,082,344 meters of rainforests and 7,955,618 meters of rock were cleared. Twenty-five workers died while making the road. Although there are no statistics concerning the number of drivers killed, you can be certain, by the look of the road, many have died in car accidents or have simply driven over the edge of a cliff where there are no guardrails.
The area from Coyhaique to Chaiten is the rainforest region of the Carretera Austral. Three hours south of Chaiten and six hours north of Coyhaique there is a very small village named La Junta. Driving or walking through on the Carretera, the village doesn’t look like much more than a bunch of houses and a Copec gas station. It is in fact the Adventure crossroads of the Carretera Austral. Four roads come together in La Junta. From the North comes the road from Chaiten where the ferry drops people off from Puerto Montt. Winding up through the south, the road from Coyhaique meets the one from Chaiten. Then from the east comes the road from the ocean town Puerto Raul Balmaceda, and lastly, one of the most beautiful roads and ironically the least traveled is the road to Argentina. On all these roads tourists and adventurers come from all directions and areas of the world such as Germany, Holland, United States, parts of Chile, and pretty much any place the news of the jungles of Patagonia has reached.
There certainly are some strange sites seen from the front windows of my house facing the Carretera Austral where I can observe the bustling of energetic tourists. Some things that pass on a regular basis are lanky bicyclists in fluorescent riding suits, and miserable looking hitchhikers with dusty hair and grimy faces. There is also a tour bus from Germany that passes about once every two weeks, first heading south then heading back north. It isn’t your every day tour bus; it’s one and a half the size of a school bus and attached behind is a trailer of the same height and size. I couldn’t imagine how it could make the trip on the Carretera time after time and live to tell about it. Once when my family was driving from Coyhaique to La Junta, we encountered the vehicle as it was straddling a particularly steep curve on the side of a hill. The tour bus had been making its way up the steep incline when the driver miscalculated the turn rate and landed the back tires in the ditch on one side of the road and the front tires in the shoulder on the other side of the road.
The tour bus is like life here in the forgotten backwaters of Chile. Its impossible to imagine how we keep alive living back here in the Heart of Adventure.