La Carretera Austral or “Pekin Express”

For those who know the TV show “Pekin Express”, this is a little bit what it felt like travelling from Puerto Natales to Puerto Varas, through the fiords of Chile and la Carretera Austral.

We had booked a 4 days ferry trip with Navimag to travel from Natales to Puerto Montt. However due to bad sea conditions, the departure was postponed 3 days, with possibilities of being postponed more days. Looking for alternatives, we found another company, TABSA, which offers since 1 year a 2 day navigation through the fiords with destination Tortel and is not passing though open sea, therefore departure dates were on track. We did not know much about Tortel, just that it was the last village on the Carretera Austral, so there would certainly be buses to reach Puerto Varas.

We boarded the ferry on the 18th of May at 11PM for a departure at 5AM the next day and woke up by sunrise in the fiords of Chile. The 2 days on the boat went pretty smoothly however, due to bad weather conditions, our arrival to Tortel was delayed from 8PM to 4AM. We hadn’t made any accommodation reservation and had no access to internet on the boat. There was not much we could do but wait until we arrived to figure out where to go.

The 4AM wake up was a little bit brutal… even more so when we realized it was pouring rain outside. We gathered our backpacks and made our way on the deck. We asked around for accommodation together with Lucy, a girl travelling alone from Czech Republic who was in the same panicky situation as us. That’s when an older man approached and told us to follow him for accommodation.

Tortel is a singular coastal village with no conventional streets but wooden walkways instead. So we walked for 15 minutes following Delphin (that was the man’s name) in the dark, on the slippery walkways. He led us to his home, in which he had several rooms available for tourists, it was good enough to have a shower and a few hours of sleep. Later in the morning, while Delphin had prepared breakfast for us (with his home-made marmalade he was so proud of, what a sweet man!), he told us there was a bus going to Cochrane at 3PM. It gave us enough time to visit the village under the rain, then the 3 of us with Lucy took a taxi boat to the bus terminal. We wanted to stop in Rio Tranquilo (famous for natural marvel caves on the lake), however Cochrane was the only destination available, we would have to take another bus once there.

We arrived in Cochrane at 8PM under the same pouring rain we had left Tortel. There was no other bus going out that same day, only the next morning. Lucy decided to stay sometime in Cochrane but we made a reservation on the 7AM bus. We would have seats 44 and 45. We found a nice and warm accommodation for the night and the next day we were sharp on time for the bus. When we saw a mini van arriving, we wondered about our seats 44 and 45, and sure enough the driver told us that the bus was already full and that these seats did not exist. We could either travel standing, or wait for the next bus (which would probably be full too). We decided to travel standing, as few more people did so too, including 2 guys from Chile we had met on the ferry, Diego and Pablo. 3 hours later, we arrived we Rio Tranquilo. The rain had finally stopped so we decided to go straight to the lake and look for boat excursion to visit the Capilla de Marmol (marvel cave). The strong wind and waves made the trip quite interesting… Fun for Adrien, pretty scary for me. Let’s just say that we did not speak much as I was mostly concentrated of thinking about what to do in case we’d all fall in the freezing 4 degrees water…

Back to shore, we walked through the entire village before finding a hostal that was open and had a decent price. One hour later, we saw the Diego and Pablo joining the same hostal. They had also gone to the lake and were leaving the next day, just like us.

A bus was leaving the next day at 9AM to Coyhaque, again only destination possible from Rio Tranquilo and no reservation possible. We joked for a moment that we would have to race in the morning to get seats on the bus.

The 4 of us waited at the station the next day, and luckily we all got a seat! Coyhaque is the biggest city in the area of the Carretera Austral, but with not much touristic interest. Upon arrival, we raced to a bus office selling tickets to Puerto Montt where we wanted to go. In the office, Diego and Daniela (a Chilean girl on holiday who travelled with us from Rio Tranquilo) were also there! The bus was not direct with a one night stop over in Chaiten, but it was the only option available so we all booked that.

It was a little challenging to find a hostal in Coyhaque, be eventually we found accommodation at an elder women’s place, very sweet and talkative women, but no heating in her house. We spent very cold night dressed in all the clothes we had. We met Diego and Daniela the next morning to take the bus and arrived in Chaiten after a 9 hours ride, passing through amazing landscapes, a lot of snow and looking forward to sleep in a heated room (if we’d find one). But before going on a hunt for an open hostal, we had to buy the next bus ticket to Puerto Montt. The 4 of us arrived in an office, Diego and Daniela ahead, Adrien an I behind. Unfortunately, there were only 2 seats left on the bus, but we were told to come anyway early the next day at departure time as there might be some cancelled reservations. We still had a chance to make it!

Few hostals were open in Chaiten due to low season. Diego went to get some cash out, Daniela and us went to the closest hostal; there were only 2 single beds left. Daniela took one bed, and Adrien and I decided to share the other, not wanting to miss on this opportunity. Diego arrived to late… but he found the last bed in another accommodation.

The next morning, we headed early to the bus station hoping our chance had turned and we would get a seat. We could have stayed longer in Chaiten, there are a few things to see around, however the rain had followed us all the way from Tortel, and we were looking forward to arrive in Puerto Varas.

First ones arrived, first ones served! 2 reservations had been cancelled and the last 2 seats on the bus were for us! We would make it after all! We did feel a tiny little bit bad for the couple who arrived after us… but oh well…

Diego and Daniela where happy to see us on the bus. 7 hours later, when we arrived in Puerto Montt our paths separated, Diego stayed to catch a flight, Daniela was taking a connection to Santiago, and we took a connection to Puerto Varas. The race was finally over!

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