Documenting (and advocating for) the Carretera Austral, a window into Chilean Patagonia

The Carretera Austral, Chile’s spectacular Southern Highway

You might think that advocates for wild places would oppose all road construction or improvement.  Certainly, most road construction is a curse to natural systems: disrupting habitat, permitting exploitative development, and promoting fossil fuel consumption.  Yet here in south Chile, our team has started a campaign for the Carretera Austral, the “Southern Highway.”  The goal: the designation of this rugged 700-mile road as a Scenic Highway, establishing legal standards for signage, road maintenance, and roadside development.  Blessed with endless glorious vistas, the Carretera Austral should become one of the world’s great road trips, jumpstarting the growth of ecotourism along its length.

For decades, The Conservation Land Trust has pushed for more ecological, aesthetic road development through conservation areas: the road through Pumalin became Chile’s first Scenic Route in 1997, and the road through the future Patagonia National Park (Paso Roballos) is under consideration for that status.  But the Carretera Austral campaign represents the largest and most community-oriented project to date.

Left: Poster for the Scenic Highway project at the future Patagonia National Park
Right: Scenic Highway through Pumalin Park

During November 2012, we published a new photo-format book, La Carretera Austral: El Camino Más Espectacular de Sudamérica (“The Southern Highway: the Most Spectacular Road in South America”).  With help from other team members, Ingrid Espinoza and Jose Suarez are leading the charge in organizing community book launches in towns along the road, to raise awareness for the initiative, discuss its implications for local economies, and give supporters a tool for sharing the Scenic Highway concept.  During the summer months, we plan to hold nine launch events and distribute over 1,000 copies of the book to government officials, business owners, civic leaders, journalists, and other stakeholders.

The book showcases the landscape photography of Linde Waidhofer, who spent months exploring the length of the route along with her partner Lito Tejada-Flores, who wrote the accompanying descriptions of the landscapes.  Accompanying essays explore the history of the Carretera Austral and of the Scenic Highway concept globally, as well as the significance, current and potential, of the road for the region at large.

The Carretera Austral serves as the sole north-south highway through the Palena Province and the Aysen Region of south Chile. Running from the bustling city of Puerto Montt in the north to the remote town of Villa O’Higgins in the far south, the Carretera Austral represents one of the major accomplishments of Pinochet’s dictatorship.  Before the 1980s, these remote and sparsely populated remained disconnected, by road at least, from the rest of the country.

Yet as Rolando Toloza, the engineer overseeing the road, asserts, the Carretera Austral accomplishes more than connecting this region to central Chile.  This spectacular route is:

the main window through which the traveler experiences a territory of pristine and geomorphologically diverse ecosystems, replete with lakes, mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, ice fields, and volcanoes.

For better or worse, most tourists gain their first impressions of a place while driving.  Dramatic vistas in the background may serve as the chief inspiration for sightseeing, but the conditions of roadsides in the foreground shape an image of the cultural landscape.  Whether dotted with wildflowers or trash, roads signal a community’s care for place and occupy a prime position in travelers’ perception of landscape.

The Carretera Austral passing through the town of La Junta, in the north of the Aysen Region

As Toloza points out, landscapes are a cultural and economic product, which Chilean Patagonia has ample opportunities to develop.  Relatively small investments in signage, lookout areas, and landscaping should more than repay themself, as the Carretera Austral becomes an internationally recognized wild adventure.  We hope that the publication and launching of La Carretera Austral will advance the project of transforming this unusual route into a vehicle for ecologically sound local development throughout Chilean Patagonia.

The lush northern stretches of the Carretera Austral, bordering the sea.

Mighty Alerce trees, millennia old, along the route

The distinctive Cerro Castillo (with wildflowers in the foreground)

Wild geography at its most extreme!

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