Ten minutes into my drive down the dirt highway that transects Chile’s Parque Pumalín in northern Patagonia, I had to pull over. Not for any mechanical reason, just to stand and stare in awe. Dense forest had suddenly given way to a lake flanked by mountains — a Chia pet landscape of undulating greenery beneath a vivid blue sky streaked with cirrus clouds.
Minutes later, I came to another screeching stop. This time at a rocky stream overrun with gunnera plants, otherwise known as Chilean rhubarb or dinosaur food, for having leaves so enormous they could wrap my 5-foot-6 frame like a burrito. I’d seen one or two gunnera earlier in my Chile stay, in the rain forest of Alerce Andino, the northernmost entry on the Route of Parks (named after the towering, ancient alerce, or larch, trees that are like Chile’s redwoods). But to walk among the gunnera in abundance, amid mountains untouched by human hands, felt like stepping into a time machine. “This is just like Jurassic Park,” I whispered, to no one.
My 50-mile trip south through Pumalín should have clocked in at around an hour. It took me four. That meandering was spiked with so much joy. But it was also the first time, in 2 1/2 months of solo travel, that I have felt truly lonely. There’s nothing like shouting out, “This is so beautiful!” to an empty car to make you wish for company.
— The Southern Highway
Ever since I saw the list of destinations for my yearlong 52 Places trip, the Route of Parks had been emblazoned in my mind: “Road trip!” Technically, the “route” is a rebranding of a portion of Chile’s epic Southern Highway, or Carretera Austral, which stretches from the industrial city of Puerto Montt in the north to the skinny tip of the country in the south. As part of that, this January, the Chilean government signed an accord with the nonprofit Tompkins Conservation to place an additional 10 million acres of combined public and private parkland under its protection. The goal is to create a 1,500-mile adventure-tourism trail that would be unmatched in the world.
Right now, though, it’s a road with a hodgepodge of opportunities to fend for oneself in all kinds of wilderness. And that, of course, is the appeal. Large swaths of it were unpaved and under construction and full of potholes from intense, constant dumps of rain. Gas, cell signal and fellow humans are sparse as it snakes between beaches and the Andes, across fjords and through rain forests.
Most international backpackers I met had started in the far south at the Route’s famed, glacier-filled Torres del Paine. With the help of travel writer Stephanie Dyson, I chose to head the opposite way (as do many Chileans traveling from Santiago) and maximize my time in Pumalín — a former private park that the government recently took over as part of the Tompkins accord. It’s also relatively accessible from Puerto Montt via the Carretera Austral. Which is to say it took me nine hours just to get to the entrance, four driving along stunning coastline and five more on three fjord-crossing ferries. I’d do it all again, except for the part where the dirt highway disappeared and all that was left was a ditch filled with mud and boulders that made horrifying sounds as they scraped the bottom of my rental car.
— Dealing With the Deluge
Chaitén, the quaint seaside town that served as my base in the park, is a backpacker’s depot for Pumalín and destinations south, hosting arrivals by bus and infrequent ferry. Hostels abound, but my lodging, Hotel Mi Casa, seemed like an outlier, a Germanic chalet up a forest road I only found through quizzing children playing soccer on unmarked streets. If there is a single stoplight, I don’t remember seeing it.
Ten years ago, the entire settlement had to be evacuated when the adjacent Volcán Chaitén erupted unexpectedly for the first time in over 9,000 years. Stalwarts moved back and rebuilt, but there’s still a ghostly row of collapsed houses on the street closest to the mountains.
It wasn’t lava that caused the destruction, though, but a mudslide of volcanic ash triggered by rain, which I experienced as a biblical deluge four of my five days in Pumalín. The name of Chaitén means “basket of water” in the native language of Huilliche.
“What do you do when it rains like this?” I asked Federico Lynam, the owner of Hotel Mi Casa.
“The same thing we always do,” he said. “We work hard, we eat our meals. If we stopped doing anything because it rained, nothing would ever get done.”
One day, exploring Chaitén’s cemetery of houses during a rare moment of sunshine, I found myself in a field, where a brown horse munched on grass next to a brown leather La-Z-Boy. Just beyond them was a building that looked exactly like where I’d go if I wanted to get killed in the post-apocalypse. The gunnera plants in the front lawn were so overgrown that they reached the roof, a colony of Audrey II’s from “Little Shop of Horrors.” Graffiti covered every wall, and the blue bars on the doors and broken windows, plus many tiny rooms with many tiny toilets, seem to confirm that I’d wandered into an abandoned prison.
Then the rain returned, flowing through holes in the roof as if from a sprinkler. I wasn’t scared, yet, just cold. I posted a tweet, mainly to create a record of where I was. Half an hour passed, then an hour. The rain wouldn’t let up and now my phone was dead and the day’s light was beginning to fade.
I could see my car in the far distance. The wind was gusting with such force that the rainfall rose off the pavement in waves. I took a deep breath and ran. Water flew up my nose and soaked my socks, which wouldn’t dry for days — and I was laughing. Laughing and running. And there was my car but I didn’t open the door. I wanted to stand there, getting wet, taking it in.
— The Friends You Meet on Volcanoes
Determined to get in one hike in the window of what looked like a rain-free day, I set off on the three-hour round trip trail up Volcán Chaitén. I hadn’t counted on quite how remote and steep it would be. A sea of burned sticks that were trees before the 2008 eruption towered above an undergrowth of ferns. My pace was so slow that people who’d passed me on their way up were lapping me on their way down. I realized I hadn’t told anyone where I was, and hadn’t had a cell signal for days. All I had in my backpack was photo equipment, two liters of water and a packet of salami.
Then the rain began again, coming down so hard it flowed off every plant in mini-waterfalls. I wondered who would notice I was missing (probably my mom) and how long it would take to find my body.
By the time I crested the top of the volcano, a moonscape of ash and the charred remains of what must have once been grand alerces, three hours had passed. All of my photographic equipment failed at once. Chilly cloud cover had made my fingers numb. And I still had to hike down.
A lone figure in a black hoodie emerged from the clouds, and we circled each other silently before I finally asked him if he spoke Spanish or English. He broke into a huge grin: English. His name was Manuel Knoche, a 33-year-old Berliner who had been traveling for six months. He, too, was a little lonely and ill-prepared: he had hitchhiked to the wrong volcano, had walked two hours on the highway to get to this one, and had no idea how he was going to get back. I had a car, I told him. If he was willing to walk at my slow pace, I’d be happy to give him a lift. He said sure.
The clouds cleared for a minute, revealing a barren red-dirt mountaintop. Then they came back, bringing hail.
On the way down, Knoche and I had plenty of time to talk. He had spent his 20s playing drums in and managing punk rock bands. He was on a yearlong sabbatical from his job as a social worker. By the time we’d gotten down the mountain, we had plans for dinner (at Chaitén’s surprisingly good Pizzeria Reconquista) and to keep traveling together for the rest of the time I had in Chile. I’ll spoil the ending now: nothing romantic happened, and we still WhatsApp across separate continents.
“I was a journalist, he was a German punk rock drummer. We met in a hailstorm on a volcano in Chile,” is a pretty good start to a rom com, though.
— The Way Station That Became a Home
My jaunts through the rain-soaked parks were stunning but wore me down. Puerto Varas, a small city north of Puerto Montt, was the antidote.
Located on Lago Llanquihue, Chile’s second largest lake, and filled with charming Germanic architecture, it reminded me of an Alpine ski village magically transported waterside. Shops for outdoor gear (I bought hiking boots) and delicious restaurants abound. (Try Casavaldés, La Marca, Casa Mawen and Mesa Tropera.)
Some find the city bougie, and it is. It’s also pleasant and cosmopolitan and easy in a way that made me feel like I could relax. And I’m not alone. I met a woman from San Francisco who’d gone there for a year and stayed for several more. Her father liked being there so much that he bought a dairy farm he’s converting to a nut farm. I had taken a full-day guided hike to Alerce Andino from there before Pumalín and convinced Knoche to come back with me so we could check out the rest of the Los Lagos Region.
Our travel styles were certainly different, but I admired his ability to wake up every morning with a sunny attitude, and an openness to what the day might bring him. One day, he went for a walk and brought back a friend, Lukas Lencak from Slovakia, whom Knoche had met earlier when they were both backpacking in Argentina. Lencak was a 31-year-old service engineer who’d quit his job to travel.
Like us, he had arrived at Puerto Varas on a whim and couldn’t bring himself to leave. Two days had turned into six. “It’s just so nice here,” he said, echoing what all of us seemed to feel. Long-term travel is an amazing privilege with exhilarating returns, and exhausting side effects. Hold onto the places and people that let you breathe.
— Practical Tips
You don’t need a four-by-four to drive the Carretera Austral, but be prepared for your rental car to take a beating — which is why most companies require a $1,500 credit card deposit. (Or take a one-way rental with Wicked Campers, like a Colorado family I met.) Ask for directions once on the ground and carry written maps; Google Maps and cell signal are both unreliable. Ferries are often the only way to drive to a given park. Book well in advance and pay particular attention to schedules.
Alternatively, buses are affordable and plentiful. Just watch your stuff. Lencak told me he’d met 10 to 12 people who’d traveled through Puerto Montt and three of them had been robbed.
You have heard about Chilean wine, but Patagonia is beer (and pisco sour) country. Start with Cervecería Austral and try everything else. The best thing I ate was at the dive restaurant Cocineria El Comedor in Chaitén, a hearty stew of beef, carrots and potatoes called carbonada, perfect for those (seemingly always) rainy days.
Short on time? Base yourself in Puerto Varas and take day trips to the Los Lagos region. Start with a full-day guided hike through Alerce Andino. Another day, tackle the trifecta of Lago Todos los Santos (a cheap half-hour boat ride), Petrohué Waterfalls and a sunset drive up Volcán Osorno. (Set off early and you can hit all three.) All of the walks are easy enough for children and grandparents alike.
Not a hiker? Sendero de Alerce in Parque Pumalín is a short, flat walk through an amazing alerce grove. Afterward, head to Termas de Amarillo, a set of swimming-pool-like hot springs set in the rain forest south of Chaitén. The road is, of course, impossible to find. Going while it’s raining is double the fun.
Jada Yuan is visiting every place on The New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2018 list. Her next dispatch will be from Denver, Colorado.