By David Phillips
Chile is a country of spectacular landscape with an abundance of beautiful lakes, volcanos and the dramatic mountains and fiords of Patagonia. Driving the famous Carretera Austral which weaves through alpine terrain into the depths of Patagonia is a hugely rewarding journey that any nature lover would enjoy. As we learnt, it is also achievable with young children!
Shortly after the birth of our first child, Conrad in London UK, my wife and I decided to relocate to my home country of New Zealand. Quickly after this decision, came the realization that this would be the ideal opportunity to combine the flight home with some extended travel. In the past my wife and I had travelled to various places together and separately without too much consideration for our safety or comfort. As new parents however, planning a trip with responsibility for a 9 month old baby suddenly makes one highly aware of these concerns. With this in mind, Chile seemed like a relatively safe destination. With all the gear that you seem to need when travelling with a baby, we thought a campervan would be a good way to cart it all round the country and a great way to travel the Carretera Austral.
We decided to drive from Santiago in the north of Chile to Punta Arenas in the south, which was roughly 3000km . We would travel through Colchagua Valley wine region south of Santiago, through to The Lakes District. We would then take the ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén in Northern Patagonia and travel famous Carretera Austral highland road to Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez. Here we would catch a ferry across Lago Gral Carrera to Chile Chico then follow Route 40 through the pre alpine desert plains in southern Argentina. From there we would drive through the dramatic Patagonia region to Torres del Paine. We would complete our journey in Punta Arenas.
We had allowed 5 weeks only to complete the trip, mainly in order not to exceed Conrad’s tolerance of living out of a campervan. However, due to the quality of the roads and forced changes to the route, this was not enough time and led to us driving for excessive amounts of time each day. The time frame therefore had the opposite effect of that desired, subjecting Conrad to far too many long drives (and plenty of guilt as a parent!).
SANTIAGO TO PUERTO MONTT
We arrived in Chile when the worst wild fires in their modern history were raging south of Santiago down to Biobío, Our first planned stop was Santa Cruz in the wine region of Colchagua Valley which was ablaze. It looked a possibility that our trip would finish before it began. But the fires seemed to become slightly more under control over the next couple of days. With the main highway south remaining open, in order to bypass the fires we drove 6 hours on our first day. We then rather unglamorously spent our first night in a service station carpark.
Things improved dramatically entering the Lakes District as we worked our way south past numerous giant volcanos and camping on the banks of gorgeous sparkling lakes such as Lago Villarrica, Lago Calafquean, Lago Rancho, Lago Puyehue, Lago Llanquihue. After 12 days we eventually arrived at Puerto Montt to catch the ferry to Chaiten.
CHAITEN TO PUERTO INGENIERO IBÁÑEZ
With much excitement and a little anxiety, we boarded the overnight ferry to Chaiten After a night in our campervan in the hull, we emerged up to the deck, now surrounded by the dramatic Patagonian alpine landscape.
From here were drove the famous Carretera Austral through magnificent highland scenery with huge mountains bearing down on all sides. We camped at a number of idyllic sites including Lago Yelcho and Laguna dellas Torres,. We picked up supplies in the town of Coyhaique and continued down to reach Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez
PUERTO INGENIERO IBÁÑEZ TO TORRES DEL PAINE
We discovered in Coyhaique that the ferry from Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez to Chile Chico was not currently running. We hadn’t allowed enough time to drive west around the lake which would have been a beautiful (and which I now regret) so instead we traveled east into Argentina. The road passes through the vast Argentinian desert plains, and is extremely slow to drive due to the rough gravel and dirt surface. Although the endless barren scenery looked impressive, with a baby on board we felt a bit uncomfortable travelling in such an isolated place. Further south, flooding had hit the desert leaving us driving through a muddy bog. One part of the road was closed which led to a major detour to the eastern coast of Argentina adding 500 km onto our journey!
TORRES DEL PAINE TO PUERTO ARENAS
As we were approaching Torres del Paine National Park from the desert plains, the distant peaks grew and grew until we were surrounded by the spectacular jagged mountains. It is a truly breathtaking place with plenty of beautiful small walks easily achievable with a baby in a backpack carrier. We also went on a 3 hour boat trip to see Grey Glacier. It was absolutely stunning, although there were some icy winds at the lake edge. After a few days in Torres del Paine National Park we then drove down to Puerto Natales and concluded our trip in Puerto Arenas. It had been an amazing journey and although there were some trying moments, it was an overwhelmingly positive family experience.