Down the Carretera Austral, Chapter II

A carol at the end of the world

Down the Carretera Austral, II

At that moment I still had doubts, whether it would be better to make this 80km back and forth detour or just continue on the Carretera Austral for another 25 km until the Rio Bravo where I could probably find a shelter at the military base and take the ferry before midday the next morning. The weather had changed and a misty continuous rain was falling. I am cold.

Soon I realised not to regret the decision to take the hard way. The vegetation changes rapidly and I find myself surrounded by incredibly dense forest that seems to come straight out of a Lord of the Rings book. Water is omnipresent, waterfalls everywhere, mist, rain. I feel like humidity is reaching my bones. It’s stunningly beautiful to ride through rugged and desolate landscapes, the feeling is a mix of fascination, loneliness, discomfort, happiness. One thing was for sure, at that time, more than ever, I felt alive. Again.

  • I took this picture on a lonely Christmas Eve: surrounded by, rainy weather and a desolate yet spectacular landscape. I knew perfectly that after a few days I would only remember the good side of all this.

But Caleta Tortel, the Patagonian Venice, is a very unique place. The village founded by timbers to exploit the cypress trees is built along the coast for several kilometres with no conventional walkways. There are no streets here, even the police cars and fire engines are boats. All the houses are wooden shacks built on stilts. All the furniture is made of local cypress wood. I have to go.

  • The typical Chilotan stilt houses forming Caleta Tortel
  • Caleta Tortel’s wooden walkways give the village its distinctive look and its unique culture.
  • Not really a Dickensian Christmas Eve dinner, there in Caleta Tortel.

No Jingle Bells on that Christmas eve. Surprisingly all I could hear was the sound of reggaeton and the voices of people buying massive quantities of alcohol in the local grocery store: the night promised to be long, but not for me. I had to be at Rio Bravo before midday the next day, so it didn’t take long for me to reach my bed. But despite my exhaustion it took me awhile to get to sleep. My mind was still processing all the emotions and images from the day.

Villa O’Higgins, the official end of the Carretera Austral, is actually a dead end. The only way you can continue is by taking a boat to Candelario Mansilla where there is a path that leads to the Argentinian border. The boat crosses the namesake lake, the deepest in the Americas, and passes in front of the majestuous O’Higgins glacier, more than 80 meters high. When the boat stopped its engine a few hundred meters from the glacier we could only hear the the lapping of the waves and the cracking of the ice. The experience became almost mystic.

Fortunately we were lucky enough to watch a giant block of ice, the size of a school bus, detach from the wall and splash into the water, like in like in slow motion, generating a big wave that slowly spread out over the surface of the lake.

  • The characteristic milky light-blue colour from the O'Higgins lake comes from the rock flour suspended in its waters.

In Candelario Mancilla, on the other side of the lake, Mancilla lives with her son, in the only house you will find on that side of the shore, apart from the migration office. The house was built by her grandparents, she was born there and had never travelled anywhere else. To get food and supplies she relies on the boat that makes the connection to Villa O’Higgins only once a week in low season. With no mobile phone signal, she uses a radio to communicate with the town and order what she needs.

  • Grey skies reflected in the waters of Lago del Desierto, nestled in the wilderness. The lake has been under territorial dispute between Argentina and Chile.
  • Mount Fitz Roy’s otherworldly shape rises high above the border between Argentina and Chile.
  • A path connects Candelario Mancilla to the Lago del desierto in Argentina.
  • Nature seems to have formed a sanctuary for this dead cow.
  • Melissa now owns the bike that was my travel companion during the whole journey.

We managed to reach the Argentinian immigration office on time to get the boat that crosses the lago del Desierto after an epic race against time. On the boat, where we are the only passengers, I talk to Melissa, the ticket girl. I ask if she knows about a bicycle store in El Chalten, our end destination, where I want to try to sell my bike. “I might be interested” she replied. The next day, on New year’s eve, we met in town and she bought my bicycle. Again reflecting on this experience, we worry for nothing and our brains tend to think of the worst possible scenario’s instead of being positive. I must admit that my motto for the trip, “The plan is that there is no plan”, definitely worked out very well.

Photography. Jean-Marc Joseph
Words. Jean-Marc Joseph
Artwork. Ángela Palacios

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Jean-Marc Joseph

Jean-Marc Joseph

Biker, Photographer and Filmmaker
Actual base camp; Barcelona, Spain. Born and raised in Brussels, Belgium where he graduated in Visual Communication. Buys second hand National Geographic magazines. Travels to Canada for a year of experience and starts a winding career at the international agency 'Basedesign' upon return. After 14 years at the agency, he is head of Audiovisuals and a shareholder, he becomes freelance and leaves on a solo trip through South America. Speaking 5 languages, he combines his passion for travel and adventure with image making and storytelling through film and photography.
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