The Carretera Austral is a 1,200 kilometer long, mostly gravel highway constructed during the Pinochet dictatorship of Chile in the 1980s. The highway, which is located in the south of Chile, traverses the western front of the Andes until further southerly overland travel is blocked by the two largest icefields outside of Antarctica. Reading the suggestions about traveling on the highway in our guide books makes it sound oddly similar to traveling on some of the more remote highways in Alaska â€“ namely carry spare tires, fuel, and water, always provide assistance to disabled vehicles, etc. Traveling south along the Carretera Austral to its terminus was to be the next portion of our journey through Chile.
Our first day of travel on the Carretera Austral proved to be quite an adventure. We accessed a northern portion of the highway in the town of Chaiten via a ferry from the island of Chiloe, where we spent Christmas. Upon attempting to leave Chaiten to head south, we were encountered with a bus that was broken and a bus that decided to take the day off down south somewhere. After a failed attempt at hitchhiking the following morning we found ourselves in the pouring rain awaiting the latest bus gossip. It was while standing in this rain that an Israeli man named Eti approached us and asked us if we wanted to share a car to Futaleufu. Futaleufu, the river painted by God, is a world class rafting river and he was hoping to join on a rafting trip departing that same afternoon. Eti meant business, he had to go rafting and make it back to Chaiten that same day in order to continue on a tour departing the following day. We weren’t planning on going to Futaleufu that day but we wanted to go there eventually, so we figured what the heck, let’s go there today and get the hell out of Chaiten.
There wasn’t much time to spare for Eti to make it to Futaleufu for the rafting trip. Making it to the river would require a modern day Patagonian Express. It was indeed a Patagonian Express, a local we shall call Jorge driving a borrowed Honda Accord, which delivered us to the fabled Futaleufu.
First we must try to describe the appearance and demeanor of Jorge. He was approximately 50, overweight, with some excess nose and ear hairs, and bushy hair with streaks of gray atop his head. This particular morning he was dressed in sweatshirt and sweatpants with what appeared to be matching mayonnaise stains on each. His footwear consisted of some brown slip-on sandals and white, cotton gym socks. Jorge was quite excitable and liked to talk with the assistance of his wildly gesticulating hands. We imagine that Jorge would feel that talking with such assistance from his hands would be even more helpful than normal when traveling with a bunch of people who only speak Spanish as a second (or third) language. That may be true, but not necessarily a good choice while you are driving a borrowed Honda Accord recklessly through the wilds of southern Chile.
Now for the Honda Accord. First off and most importantly, it was not Jorge’s Honda Accord. The Honda Accord was loaned to Jorge by a man in a yellow suit. Ashley and I imagine that this man was the only person wearing a suit within a 250 mile radius. As we left Chaiten with Jorge excitedly gesticulating and shouting about the former dictator Pinochet, the Honda Accord was in perfect operating condition.
So we all get in the car and Jorge starts fumbling around with the gear shift. The friend and him discuss some things and point to various parts of the car. It’s obvious Jorge is trying to figure out how everything works. So I ask, “So does this guy not know how to drive a stick?” But it wasn’t a stick, it was an automatic! That really worried us, that the guy didn’t know how to drive an automatic. But we set off, with the windows totally fogged up until we showed Jorge the defrost button. He thought that was genius. We were careening down the curvy and gravel Carretera Austral in the Honda Accord in the pouring rain. We were going over 60 mph, and almost fishtailed off the road twice and slid into a guardrail once. Miraculously we stayed on the road. We ran over several huge rocks in the middle of the road, since Jorge didn’t want to slow down or do any steering maneuvers. One of them we felt with our feet, bulging through the floor as we ripped over it.
Jorge kept forgetting he was driving an automatic, and kept randomly shifting into reverse and D2. So then the transmission would seize up and the car would either lurch to a stall or completely die. After he did that a few times the transmission started slipping. He also didn’t know to put the car in park to restart it, so when the car would completely die he would sit their turning the ignition, which obviously wasn’t going to work in drive, and saying “!Que mierda!” until one of us would remind him to put it in park.
Then we went over a bridge and caught air off the bump at the end. We landed with a thud and the car totally bottomed out. After that the suspension was shot, so we bottomed out a lot more. After we went airborne, the car wouldn’t start at all the next time he killed it by shifting into reverse while going 50 mph. Luckily it was just that the landing knocked the cables off the battery terminals. We had to figure that one out for Jorge as well. He made a wrong turn and tried to pull a three point turn, but ended up high centering the car on the berm of the road, with half the car hanging off. So we all got out and pushed the car back on the road. The exhaust pipe got knocked off the muffler from scraping the gravel, so after that you could hear the Accord’s rice-burner roar from a long ways off. Then he high centered it again on the next three point turn, but that time he just gassed it and we took off with gravel flying. We think that must have seriously dented the transmission pan, because after that he couldn’t shift from park to reverse to drive without a horrible grinding sound and a lot of arm muscle on the shifter. A little after that the driver’s side window got stuck in the up position and wouldn’t roll down. So then Jorge had to say “!Que calor!” about every 30 seconds. For some reason he didn’t want to turn off the heat which was blasting full-strength now for two hours, so he just sat there sweating and fumbling with the window knob.
When we got near to where we were supposed to be going he remembered that he didn’t really know where he was going. So he randomly shouted down driveways until finally he found someone who knew where the rafting companies were. That took awhile, especially since every time he saw someone he recognized, which was just about everybody we passed, he would slam on the brakes to jump out and hug them and say hello. We dropped off Eti and continued on towards town, and Jorge said he wanted to take us to talk to his friend who worked for one of the rafting companies to see if we could get on a trip. So we pull up to the company, which we recognized as being the company that caters to the movie stars. They have clients like Demi Moore and Sharon Stone going on $5000 trips, not folks like us. So we had our doubts about the potential success of Jorge’s attempt to help us out.
Walking down the driveway, we found a huge butcher knife that was inexplicably lying in the middle of the driveway and glistening in the first rays of sunlight that we had seen so far that day. We pointed out the knife to Jorge who picked it up. For some reason he decided to start jogging at this point. Now Jorge, in his mayonnaise stained sweats, is running down the driveway, waving a butcher knife, yelling “!HOLA! HALO! HOLA!”, heading for the outdoor dining patio and sauna of the multi-thousand dollar per trip movie star rafting company. Needless to say, the company wasn’t too happy. The employee told Jorge that his friend was out working on the river, and you can’t come down like that bothering clients, etc. Jorge looked sad and handed over the butcher knife. We just shrugged and told the employee that all we wanted was to get to Futaleufu and we ended up with this guy Jorge driving.
Finally Jorge took us to town. We were pretty happy to have survived. Hours later, we were eating dinner when we heard a really load roar. We looked out the window and it was Jorge, driving the poor Accord down the block. By this point its brake lights weren’t working anymore either. We could still hear it long after we couldn’t see it anymore. We have no idea if it made the 3 hour drive back to Chaiten or not. If it did make it, we wonder what the friend who lent it to him had to say about it. Except for the demolition derby, we have never seen such rapid annihilation of a vehicle.