Chile is such a long country that it’s almost inevitable that there are bits of it which get a bit overlooked. Take northern Patagonia, the 500km or so running south from Puerto Montt as far as Coyhaique.
There is only one road through this region, the Carretera Austral. In reality it’s a bumpy dirt road wedged in between the high peaks of the Andes and the icy waters of the fjords.
At this point Chile is incredibly skinny, some 10s of kilometres wide. It is not an easy area to live in, not least because there is a certain lack of flat land to farm. However, it is strategically very important as the Argentinians would give their eye-teeth to have access to the Pacific.
The frontier between Argentina and Chile is simply defined by the direction the water flows. If the water is flowing towards the Atlantic, it’s Argentina. If it flows towards the Pacific then that’s Chile. Of course this means that the border effectively runs along the very peaks of the Andes.
In northern Patagonia the landmass of Chile is tantalisingly slight which dangles the prospect of Argentina being able to create a land bridge between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
Currently shipping can either go round Cape Horn and its famously fierce waters, or it can go through the Panama Canal. The commercial value of creating an alternative to the Panama Canal are almost incalculable.
As a result there has traditionally been a certain, shall we say, tension between the southerly neighbours Chile & Argentina. These tensions have been greatest where Chile was at its narrowest – Patagonia.
Where there is a large open area in the border, the Chileans placed a significant town and military base called Coyhaique. To the north was almost nothing until you got to Puerto Montt.
As recently as the 1980s, there was really not much to stop the Argentines simply pushing through one of the passes along the stretch between Coyhaique and Puerto Montt to establish a foothold on the Pacific coast.
That is until the inauguration of the Carretera Austral in 1992. This is a terribly grand sounding opening for what in the UK would pass in large part as a farm track though admittedly it’s one hell of an engineering project to even fit a road onto the available land.
The Chilean government then incentivised people with the offer of free land. If you could live in the region and make the land productive within a period of, I believe 5 years, you could keep it.
Of course small communities started to appear along the length of the road to create a far greater diplomatic barrier to Argentine incursions.
Things nowadays are much calmer between the neighbours and the area is one of the most precious places you could hope to visit. As long as you are prepared for some serious rainfall, the landscapes and the people are unforgettable.
One of the best ways to experience this part of Chile is on board Skorpios.