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In far Patagonia

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

(Read caption)  ‘THE MARBLE CATHEDRAL’ Natural rock formation reflects water’s hues near Puerto Tranquilo, a small village near Lake General Carrera.

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Locals say the water in Patagonia is so pure that you can drink from any stream, pond, or lake. Chilean Patagonia is one of the world’s few remaining wildernesses.

The Andes run the length of the region, all the way down to the southern tip of South America. They split Patagonia into its more populous Argentinian side and this remote Chilean land, sparsely populated by independent, self-sufficient folks who still manage to be friendly to strangers.

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Although mostly wilderness, grasslands are fenced for vast estancias (ranches). Here the gauchos, or cowboys, with their berets and teams of working dogs herd cattle for distant landholders, earning little pay.

For an overland traveler, the rewards are great. From a distance, waterfalls snaking down all sides of the peaks appear as thin as spider webs.

But if you intend to take the treacherous, 1-1/2-lane, dirt Austral “highway” – the only way to get to the Aisén region pictured here – stay alert. You’ll drive for miles without seeing another vehicle. But around the next bend, a huge oil-tanker coming the other way could be cheating the curve on the inside.

And don’t forget to fill up your tank in the biggest towns – there is no gas for hundreds of miles.