Barney’s Blog First let me introduce Barney, he’s a racing green American Astrovan with a four litre engine, a penchant for speed and a horn that can rival the rudest of South American sirens.
Here he is taking a break by the sea. A beautiful wild camping spot on the Isle of Chiloe just outside Ancud. He’s been our home for more than two months now and he’s at his happiest when tearing along the Panamerican Highway at 120kph. He’s had his fair share of tricky roads however, rattling along at 20kph avoiding huge potholes and ditches while trying to keep us safe from the giant lorries speeding past showering us in Patagonian dust.
Fighting our way along the Carretera Austral in Patagonia, it’s a case of foot down and hope for the best! Travelling overland through South America is as hard work as it is rewarding for the three of us - that’s me, Jonny and the intrepid Barney.
We stopped at the side of the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) in Patagonia and ventured into this field of endless purple flowers
We hope this blog will just help make a few of the challenges you might meet on your adventure less of an annoying 300km road diversion and more of a wee speed bump on your epic journey across the wilds of this beautiful continent. Tip 1 Download the app iOverlander. It’s an app designed and updated by travellers for travellers and it has a whole myriad of info - from campsites to best wild camping spots, recommended mechanics, gas stations, where to buy camping gas and even where the best hot showers are.
Tip 2 Don’t always believe iOverlander! Use it as a good source of info but also find your own way when it comes to wild camping spots for example! Plenty of beautiful places that aren’t listed on the app!
A beautiful camping spot a few 100km south of Santiago. It’s called Camping International, next to a lake surrounded by the Andes.
Santiago to Patagonia The beginning of our road trip. After finally escaping the chaos of the city we made it out on the open highway - the Panamerican Sur (or ruta 5) and Barney zipped along to the sound of us screaming, “We’re on the road, the world is our oyster...!” Patagonia bound and full of gasolina we felt unstoppable!
A few days and camping spots later that joy ground to a halt as we went from Ruta 5 to Ruta 7 (otherwise known as the Carretera Austral). It’s a 1,200km engineering feat that slices through Patagonia from the north at Puerto Montt to the south at Villa O’Higgins. It’s the only road in and out of the wilderness that makes up much of southern Chile. Tip Do not underestimate how long this road will take to drive. Barney is an automatic 4wd, he’s strong with a huge engine but surface conditions meant it was impossible to go faster than 20kph at times.
It can get hairy, extensive roadworks mean diversions along mud tracks, finding the best pothole to drive through is probably the best advice for some parts of the route and huge hard welts in the surface meant wearing a sports bra was a very good idea!
Fortunately the road is surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery you might ever encounter which keeps you going.
Tip Whenever you get the chance to fill up on fuel do so. Gas stations are few and far between in south Chile. We also carried a 20 litre gerry can for peace of mind. Ferries
One of the many ferries we had to catch as we skirted the Chilean coastline down through Patagonia, some only fit a couple of cars on.
These were a bit of a novelty at first but after having to catch our 8th at midnight the whole water travel idea started to wear a bit thin! The ferries make up part of route 7 because there are so many little islands and waterways along the coastline. Tip On the first few ferries get out of your car and go onto the deck. Deep blue skies, snow topped rocky mountains and the piercing sun dancing on the water shouldn’t be missed.
Tip Don’t feel guilty if you can’t be bothered and just want to have a cup of tea in your van.
On a five hour ferry between Hornopiren and Caleta Gonzalo we took this from the top deck. The ferry workers are really relaxed and you can explore most of the boat.
Tip Invest in good quality speakers to drown out the Chilean loved up trance music that often blares from neighbouring cars. Last tip when it comes to ferries Just because you’ve booked your ticket online via the main ferry company (Naviera Austral) also get a paper ticket from the office by the harbour. We made that mistake at Hornopiren, after being first in the queue because we stayed overnight, we found ourselves frantically trying to get a print out from the office just before it set sail. I recommend doing both - buy ticket online then collect paper one first thing.
The harbour at Hornopiren where we spent the night. It was free, felt completely safe and had views like this at sunset.
Cerro Castillo trek Patagonia is a land of unerring beauty and harsh wilderness. There’s too much to see and and do to do it any justice in this blog but I just want to detail one highlight for us.
The jagged rocks that make up the peak of the mountain. Jonny fancied scaling them, I preferred to stare at them from a distance.
It’s called the “new Torres del Paine” and it seemed like it had all the sights but not the crowds. The photos say it all, it had rivers, mountain passes, forests, glaciers, the bluest laguna, you name it.
A lake under huge glaciers and the towering rocks of the Cerro Castillo mountain - I didn’t take a dip because I didn’t fancy hypothermia but some do.
Be prepared for tricky river crossings and pack sandals to help get across. The rivers were deep when we did the hike and a bridge or two had been washed away.
It was freezing! The rivers were shallow in some places but always had strong currents. The pole definitely came in handy.
Tip If you’ve not done tricky river crossings before practice jumping from rock to rock on dry land, there’s a lot of that. Camp at a CONAF site called Laguna Chiguay, where they’ll let you leave your van for free for a few nights while you do the trek. We hitch hiked the 7km to the start of the trek. Tip If a lovely woman in a minibus picks you up and offers you two cans of lemonade as you leave politely decline. We gladly took them and then ended up carting the cans around with us for the duration of the three/four day hike because there are no bins. Tip Be prepared to hitch hike back to your car from Villa Cerro Castillo which is the end of the trek and a good 40km away from the campsite. Tip Pick up the odd hitchhiker if you can, they’re often full of info and failing that at least might have some WiFi/4G you can hijack. We picked up a very helpful Spanish chap near the town of Puyhuapi (probably has the most expensive petrol in Chile, be warned) who told us there had been a mudslide which had wiped out part of a village 100km north of us. It had killed dozens and blocked the only road out of the region. It led to us spending three days on a ferry pier in the worst weather imaginable.
Tip Don’t set time limits/deadlines - we found (reluctantly at times) the easiest way to travel overland is to just let time manage itself.
And don’t be too alarmed if a huge hand stops you in your tracks. Just ambling along the Panamerican Highway when we practically drove into the Mano del Desierto.
Part 2 - Tricky border crossings and altiplanos to come!