We were on a quest to drive from Punta Arenas in the far south of Chile to the capital Santiago. It would be a journey of 5,000km through some of the most beautiful terrain in the world. We had reached El Chaltén in Argentina and, unable to cross the border to Chile (for lack of a road), we planned to continue north through Argentina on Ruta 40 and then cross the border to find the famous Carrera Austral.

The Carretera Austral starts at Villa O’Higgins in the south of the Zona Austral and finishes at Chaiten alongside the Chilean island of Chiloe. We were keen to drive the whole length but, other than arriving in O’Higgins by ferry, the only way to get to the start of the road is to drive down it. So we were heading north up Argentina’s famous Ruta 40 in search of the border crossing at Los Antiguos, hoping to join the road further north.

Ruta 40 runs the length of Argentina and is often referred to as Argentina’s Route 66. This section between Tres Lagos and Perito Moreno is not all paved, and is not heavily used. Travel with two spare wheels and tyres (we used both), spare food and water, spare fuel (not all petrol stations will be open or have fuel) and patches to fix holes punctured in your fuel tank by gravel. Mobile phone coverage is patchy too, so a satellite phone or rescue beacon could be useful if you are venturing far from the main road.

Cuerva de las Manos

On the way to Los Antiguos, in the middle of the steppe, is the Cuerva de las Manos (spanish for “Cave of Hands”). A Unesco-listed archeological site, it is located in a lush valley and contains 9,500-13,000 year-old stencilled handprints and paintings made by the Tehuelche.

The valley of the Río Pinturas

The valley of the Río Pinturas

The Tehuelche are a nomadic indigenous group of hunter gathers who now number less than 6,000 people. They have a history in Patagonia going back over 14,500 years and were named by their neighbouring tribe – Tehuelche is a Mapuche language word meaning “fierce people”. Patagonia itself is probably named after the Tehuelche – the first indigenous groups discovered were called “Patagones” (or “big feet”) by the Spanish explorers after seeing the enormous footprints left by their guanaco boots on the Patagonian beaches.

Guanacos depicted in the Cuerva de las Manos

Guanacos depicted in the Cuerva de las Manos

Unfortunately, as a result of their nomadic lifestyle, the Tehuelche left very little archeological evidence of their existence. In the winters, it is believed that they lived in the lowlands, hunting whales, sea mammals and fish, migrating to the mountains and steppe during the summer to hunt Guanaco and Rhea. Much of our knowledge about their lifestyle comes from the paintings left in caves like that shown above in the Cuerva de las Manos.

La Cuerva de las Manos

La Cuerva de las Manos

The hand-print stencils were created by placing a hand against the rock and using a blow-pipe to blow ink at the rock surface. The ink included natural mineral pigments (and blood) as the dye, and has lasted for over 10,000 years due to the low humidity in the area and the stable rock surface.

The approach to the cave is a one hour 30km route via a road in worse condition than the Ruta 40, but passable in a normal car. Allow an hour each way, waiting time for a tour, and at least an hour for the tour itself. Tour times are printed on a board at the junction with Ruta 40 so you will know if you’ll make one or not before you start the drive.

The Carretera Austral, Chile

We passed into Chile at Los Antiguos and stayed the night in the Chilean border town of Chile Chico where we enjoyed a surreal dinner at the only restaurant in town serving dinner – Yamily y Beatriz. The owner refused to give us a menu, confiscated our phones to make us talk and then cooked us what he thought we wanted. He wouldn’t let us leave until we had cleared our plates (including chastising us when he realised we were moving food between us) and then charged us only what we wanted to pay. Despite a TripAdvisor comment that “even eating in the street would be better” we had a fun (if unexpected) meal.

The journey north from Chile Chico started early the following morning and would last two days. It would be slow going on gravel with severe risk of landslides and delays.

There is an option to pass directly from Chile Chico to Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez, cutting out hours of driving. But if you have time to drive around Lake General Carrera the views are worth it and it puts you in the right place to visit the Catedral de Mármol.

We drove around the edge of Lago General Carrera (called Lago Buenos Aires on the Argentine side), home of the famous Catedral de Mármol, a cave carved in solid marble rock by waves from the lake over 6,500 years. It is only accessible by boat. The lake is also the scene of the unfortunate kayaking accident that killed North Face founder Doug Tompkins.

Lago General Carrera, Chile

Lago General Carrera, Chile

The Tompkins family (his wife Kris Tompkins was the founder of the Patagonia outdoor clothing brand) are extremely active in this part of northern Chilean Patagonia, having purchased large amounts of land and converted it into both public and private parkland. The road around the lake will take you close to the Chacabuco Valley, home to Parque Patagonia, a “national park in progress” run by the family.

Further north in the Austral area lies another Tomkins project – the 715,000 acre Parque Pumalín. Named after the wild Pumas that roam between its pacific coastal fjords and the Andes Mountains, Parque Pumalín is the largest conservation project in South America.

The Carretera Austral, Chile

The Carretera Austral, Chile

After passing Puerto Guadal, the road joins the Carretera Austral proper, on its long winding journey to Chaitén from Villa O’Higgins. The Carretera was built by Augusto Pinochet in 1976 to connect remote regions and to give Chile the ability to move goods vertically through the country without having to pass into Argentina. It was built by the Chilean Army and was worked on by more than 10,000 soldiers, opening in 1988 and being finally completed 24 years after conception in 2000. It is remote, surfaced with gravel, often blocked by landslides and is an unmissable part of Patagonia.

Allow plenty of time to drive the Carretera Austral, especially if you are in a normal car. We stopped regularly to take photos and were blocked by landslides twice. On some parts of the road, engineering teams were permanently clearing rocks that were falling almost as quickly as they could clear them. It is worth checking with local people how long each section of the road will take – they will know about temporary closures and restrictions. We spent an entire afternoon waiting in the car for a regular afternoon closure to be opened.

The Carretera Austral, Chile

The Carretera Austral, Chile

The Carretera Austral, Chile

The Carretera Austral, Chile

We stayed in a log cabin at Lodge Patagonia House in Coyhaique, but the real find of the trip was Yelcho en la Patagonia, a large wooden construction on the edge of Lago Yelcho. The lodge recommends stays of a week and offers horse riding, fishing and hiking.

This part of northern Patagonia is famous for its kayaking and rafting. The stunning Futaleufú river, fed by glacial melt, is one of the premier whitewater rivers in the world. Check it out while you can – a highly controversial plan is underway to dam it in Chile for a hydroelectric power station.