|Long segments of the Carretera Austral still pass through wild areas with few or no services.|
Imagine a highway through the wildest parts of Alaska’s Panhandle—where the terrain allows no continuous roads—and, if you look south, you’ll find the rough equivalent in Chile’s Carretera Austral. It passes through a thinly peopled region of sprawling steppes and craggy volcanic uplands, dense rainforests surrounding soaring summits, powerful whitewater rivers, and deep fjords and navigable channels with countless islands, marine mammals, and even glaciers that reach the sea. It makes a matchless road trip, with world-class adventure options for cycling, trekking, climbing, rafting, and kayaking, along a track that, relatively speaking, is still barely marked—much less beaten.
|The Piedra del Gato viaduct bridges a section of the narrow Río Cisnes canyon.|
In the early 1990s, the late environmental philanthropist Douglas Tompkins and his widow Kristine McDivitt envisioned a project to preserve Patagonia’s thinly populated Aisén region in an interconnected system of national parks. On a continent where skeptics have traditionally viewed large landholdings, especially those controlled by foreigners, with suspicion, they created the 1,117-square mile Parque Pumalín and the 1,015 square-mile Parque Patagonia—formerly a sheep ranch—with the intention of donating them to the Chilean state.
|Kristine McDivitt (center) speaks to a group of potential donors at Parque Patagonia.|
In some parts of the region, wire fences still keep sheep from becoming roadkill but, in others, the removal of sheep and fences has allowed native wildlife like guanacos to thrive, restoring a wildness that ranching had diminished but could not destroy. Now, after adding stylish infrastructure to mimic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, the Tompkins vision has finally gained approval from the Chilean government, which just announced creation of a Ruta de los Parques—“Route of the Parks”—that will promote a string of wildlands in the country’s southernmost region. Several existing reserves will be upgraded to national park status.
|In the new Ruta del los Parques, access should improve to little-visited units like Parque Nacional Corcovado.|
Chile’s national parks will soon occupy a percentage of its territory comparable to that of Costa Rica, a much smaller country. In a Santiago memorial service, Socialist President Michelle Bachelet described Tompkins as a “world-class philanthropist.”
|Highway improvements should reduce incidents like my encounter with a bus on a blind curve.|
As pavement and other improvements proceed on a highway that’s still mainly gravel (and where I myself have wrecked two 4WD vehicles, with extenuating circumstances), 2018 will be a key year—the coming austral summer will be the first full season for the Ruta de los Parques. Even as the region’s appeal becomes better known and the infrastructure improves—long segments of the highway still have few or no services—the surrounding area should become an ever wilder attraction.
|Parque Pumalín from the new trail to the crater of Volcán Chaitén|