Patagonia's Road Less Traveled

Jorge León Cabello / Getty Images

The Southern Highway provides a window into unpopulated Chilean Patagonia.

Guide Olaf Wündrich met me at the Balmaceda airport, 310 miles south of Puerto Montt, to drive me 190 miles south on Route 7, also known as the Carretera Austral, to Patagonia Park. The road, snaking about 770 miles past snowcapped mountains, jewel-tone blue lakes and rivers, and thick forest, is the northern region’s only north–south highway. Its construction began in 1976 under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and continued for 20 years. It is still almost entirely unpaved.

There are two must-stops. The first, 90 minutes in, is the restaurant run out of the home of Mary Sandoval Muñoz (Cruce Bajada Ibañez, km. 11⁄2; 56-9/71063591-91389084). An advance reservation is needed. Muñoz served me salmon, potatoes, and bread rolls from her wood-burning stove. Three and a half hours farther south (and two hours and 15 minutes north of Patagonia Park) are the Marble Caves. On General Carrera Lake, they are accessed by boat, and the captain to hire is Pedro Contreras (Carretera Austral, km. 220; 56-67/225-8168). The caves are made entirely of marble that’s been carved by the water over 6,000 years.