Chileans long believed that the southern border of civilization in their string bean-shaped land was the port city of Puerto Montt, even though one-third of the nation lies farther south.
The relative handful of settlers in this neglected region, however, viewed their desolate, majestic territory as South America's last frontier. A land that naturalist Charles Darwin called the "sad solitudes" was a potential source of wealth and prosperity, ready to be conquered, developed and colonized.
If only there were a road.
For decades, successive civilian governments toyed with the idea. All were daunted by the staggering cost and technical challenge of a road that would traverse the Andes Mountains, the world's deepest fiords, icy lakes, dense rain forests and vast glaciers. There weren't many votes in it. A region of about 54,000 square miles contained fewer than 70,000 of Chile's 12.5 million people.
Soon after he came to power after a bloody coup in 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet resolved to build that road. His government embarked on a project, now in its 14th year, to build not only a north-south highway, the spinal column, but also 800 miles of east-west branch roads from the highway to Argentina and the sea--a 1,545-mile transport skeleton ready to take life in Chile's future.
When Pinochet hands over the presidential sash to his elected successor March 11, he will have overseen the construction of all but the southernmost 120 miles of the north-south road linking Puerto Montt to the western Patagonian village of Villa O'Higgins. Most of the side roads have also been completed.
Despite its unwieldy and grandiose name, the President Pinochet Longitudinal Southern Highway is a gravel, one-lane path for virtually all of its 745 grueling miles.
But in many ways, the utilitarian highway accurately reflects the achievements, style and philosophy of Pinochet's 16 years of military rule. It is the acknowledged public-works magnum opus of a government that likes to boast that it built rather than talked.
Already, the project is beginning to yield dividends, bringing new settlers who are harvesting fish, timber and minerals, in keeping with Pinochet's emphasis on exports to foster growth. Chilean backpackers and bicyclists, and a growing number of foreign tourists, also are making pilgrimages through a newly accessible landscape of extraordinary beauty as well as future bounty.
In the heart of Southern Highway country, the 74-year-old general was defeated in a 1988 plebiscite in which he sought another eight years in office, and his candidate was beaten there in last December's presidential election. Even here, Chileans chastised Pinochet for years of repression and the sacrifices his policies demanded of working people, while the well-to-do flourished.
But even his foes acknowledge that the highway is a technical marvel and a visionary venture, certain to justify its $102-million cost in decades to come.
"Too many people say Pinochet was all good or all bad," said Alan Vasquez Chavez, a resident of Las Juntas, one of the thriving new communities that have grown up along the highway.
He counts himself a Pinochet opponent "for what happened up north," but "in my judgment, one of the greatest achievements of Pinochet was to open up this whole new country. He granted it the importance it deserved; others didn't see it. These people had quite a futuristic vision."
Vasquez represents one of the vanguard groups in southern Chile. He left his finance job in Santiago, the capital, four years ago, brought all his savings south to the village at the junction of three rivers and last year opened an attractive complex of chalets for travelers. The town has doubled in population, from 1,000 to more than 2,000, since the highway reached La Junta in 1983.
"Building the road was like hitting a newborn on the back, allowing him to cry and begin to live and grow," said Vasquez, who is president of the town's neighbor association.
Like a number of young professionals who have arrived in recent years, he said he came because "here one is more creative, not a machine to earn and spend money and be dead inside. . . . This is a new land, with a different mentality from the rest of the country."
Asked if he considered himself a colonist, he replied, "No, a pioneer. A colonist is someone who is given land. We are doing this ourselves."
The benefits reach beyond the upscale newcomers to some of the original, poorer pioneers of past decades who struggled to subsist with a few cattle.
Sergio Andres Jara, 34, had spent his years clearing fields around the few houses that make up Santa Lucia. His father came to the area 40 years ago from the north. When the road arrived, the path opened for forestry. With his in-laws he built an ingenious water-powered sawmill that cuts the tall, native trees into lumber.
"One earns a few pesos more now," he said. And in the past few months, Jara added, Japanese buyers have come twice to negotiate deals for exporting his hardwood boards.
Japanese investors and businesses are everywhere in Chile's far south and are especially interested in fishing which, along with forestry, is a case study in Chile's macro-economic success story: six straight years of economic growth, low inflation, falling unemployment and a declining foreign debt, an exception to the continent's hyperinflation and decline.
Pine plantations, for example, promise to cover 4 million acres by 1995, up from 725,000 acres in 1973, according to government figures, and worth annual export revenues of $1.2 billion by the year 2000. Fisheries offer similar statistics, with export shipments rising more than eightfold from 1973 to 1986 and employment more than quadrupling.
"Our vision is pointed to the future, far beyond the year 2000, and not to an election," said army Gen. Hernan Abad, Pinochet's public works minister, whose Army Corps of Engineers helped build the Southern Highway. "This road is part of the whole transition to modernity that we have undertaken."
An elected government, he said, would have found it difficult to justify such a long-term project "without the expected return in votes."
"Ten years ago, nobody could have imagined we'd have such explosive growth in this entire region. In this case and others, the government is tremendously content with what we have achieved," Abad said.
One of the boom industries throughout the region is Pacific salmon, bred in fresh-water tanks and then transferred to netted enclosures in the crystalline waters of the fiords for two more years before being harvested.
Omar Astudillo, 30, administers the Chisal salmon fishery in Rio Negro, just 70 miles south of Puerto Montt but accessible only by a once-a-week boat before the highway opened here four years ago. His operation, a gleaming complex of modern Norwegian technology now owned by Chileans, is one of four in the Hornopiren estuary. He produced 400 tons of salmon last year and hopes for 1,800 tons next year, all for export to the United States and Japan.
Rio Negro, at the head of a pretty bay and beneath the perfect cone of the Hornopiren volcano, is among the best examples of the growth spawned by the highway.
"Before the road, if you got sick, you died here," Astudillo said. The road made the salmon plants feasible, and that gave work to several hundred people in the district.
Astudillo, an agricultural engineer from Osorno, north of Puerto Montt, added: "When I was studying, I didn't know if I could get work in my field. When this got going, it absorbed all the graduates. Now, there's a shortage of agricultural engineers and salmon experts.
"Chileans had an attitude of wanting to receive things as gifts," he said. "This government has been very tough in some respects, but it also has changed the mentality to one of making an effort. That didn't exist before. There are more arguments in favor of Pinochet than against him. This doesn't mean we should forget the past--but we should forget the old ways of thinking."
As in other towns along the highway, Rio Negro got more than a road. Telephone service arrived last October, thanks to a modern microwave tower. Generator-supplied electricity gives light from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. The town also got a drinking water system and a resident school for rural children.
Across the bay at his family-owned Dona Carmen salmon plant, Adolfo Alamos noted that the town, which once had a single paramedic, now has two nurses and four paramedics. People who used to fish on a subsistence scale now are receiving a steady paycheck, building solid houses and planning for the future, he said.
Alamos' office is heated by a wood stove. On the desk across the room sits a new IBM personal computer.
Kermitt Soto Valenzuela, another salmon grower who was visiting the Alamos family, recalled that when Pinochet seized power in 1973 from the elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende, "the country was broke. I was begging for a liter of milk. The next government has the advantage of receiving an economy that has never been healthier. To escape from the hole we were in, there had to be enormous sacrifices. That has caused resentment in some areas."
For many Chileans, that is an understatement. Alejandro Hales, a veteran Santiago politician who helped engineer Pinochet's defeat, said any government that served for 16 years would have some public works to crow about "without a single torture, exile or 'disappeared' person. Yes, we recognize the macro-economic advances. But at what social cost?"
Pinochet has driven the entire highway and visits the region frequently. He has chatted four times with Walther Hopperdietzel, who at age 79 is considered the grand old man of the whole region.
Hopperdietzel and three other Germans were the first settlers in what became the town of Puerto Puyuhuapi at the top of Glacier Fiord, 120 miles south of the town of Chaiten. He now presides over the town's general store, and his son is a cattle rancher in the area. Everybody calls him Don Walther, using the Spanish title of respect and affection.
He is a devotee of Pinochet and says the picture on his office wall won't come down when the general is succeeded by Christian Democratic leader Patricio Aylwin. But Hopperdietzel himself is as much a symbol as Pinochet of the effort to build the road. He and a local committee actually built a section of the road themselves, using equipment donated by the West German government during Allende's term from 1970 to 1973. That was a factor in the decision that the road was possible.
"With the confidence and stability that Pinochet brought, industries were willing to invest," Hopperdietzel said. "We hope there will now be a moderate center-left policy. We all have seen the failure of socialism in Eastern Europe, so that should help encourage moderation. All pure socialist governments have failed. They are even more authoritarian than Pinochet. He at least allowed private initiative."
The message that Chile was years ahead of the rest of the world in freeing itself of socialism has been Pinochet's principal message during his monthlong "Mission Accomplished" farewell tour around the country.
But another man with an equal claim to a role in the region's lore, Baldo Araya, is no fan of Pinochet. Araya is a historian on the district of Coihaique, the only city of any consequence between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas at the tip of the continent. Many residents give him credit for pushing the notion of the road.
"Yes, I was the first madman who said a road was possible," he recalled. "And they all laughed at me.
"There is no dictator who doesn't like to undertake public works of great challenge so he finds a place in history. (But) the development of Chile hasn't reached the neediest. Pinochet took advantage of them, paid them a starvation wage. And anyway, this road is not Pinochet's, it is Antonio Horvath's."
Horvath is a 40-year-old road engineer from Santiago who settled in Coihaique in 1974 and single-mindedly seized on the idea. He tramped the region on foot and horseback, carried out studies and persuaded the government to go ahead, and then oversaw much of the construction. In December, he was elected to Congress for the Aisen region as an independent allied to the conservative bloc.
Bearded, trim and energetic, Horvath cites figures justifying his faith in the project: mining production in Aisen has soared from 700 tons a year to 40,000 tons; a hectare (2.5 acres) of land was worth $1.75 before the road, but about $166 now, and a cow that brought 200 pounds of flour before brings 2,000 pounds now because beef is more easily brought to market.
Horvath helped conceive the road's Spartan design that kept it relatively cheap, at $102 million, and dependent more on ingenuity than high technology. For example, tree trunks felled for the roadbed were used as supports under the gravel in unstable areas. The road was built in phases, with much help from the Chilean army Corps of Engineers, and designed for an average speed of 25 m.p.h.
But this is more than a trail through the woods. The builders often had to gouge tons of rock from steep slopes along the edges of fiords, and they built scores of bridges. The maximum gradient was kept to 10 degrees so as not to be too steep, and curves allow a visibility of at least 100 feet. With an eye toward improving and even paving the road someday, the builders cut through hillsides and sometimes vast walls of rock.
At three points on the 400-mile stretch from Puerto Montt to Coihaique, the geography defeated the Pinochet Highway. With traffic as low as 50 vehicles a day on some stretches even in summer, engineers could not justify the extreme costs of a road. So the highway includes car ferries to circumvent impossibly steep mountain areas. For tourists, those make for delightful sea journeys, two of one-half hour each and the third a 2 1/2-hour trip the length of a 25-mile fiord. For businesses and residents, the water means annoying delays.
Farther south, rafts still ferry vehicles across three rivers, but bridges are being built to span them. The sometimes tortuous and often rutted road remains impassable for the largest trucks, which rely on seagoing ferries to get from Puerto Montt to Coihaique.
After hundreds of miles of virgin forest and unspoiled landscape, a wrenching vista confronts the traveler nearing Coihaique, which lies in a valley to the east of an Andean ridge. For scores of miles, the road winds through fields of millions of charred tree stumps, a legacy of immense forest fires in the 1940s--intentionally set to clear fields for cattle.
The damage covers an estimated 1.2 million square miles, or nearly one-third of the Aisen region. The cold climate here has slowed regrowth, and the lack of ground cover has engendered erosion so bad that Puerto Aisen, once the main port west of Coihaique, now is silted up and unusable, forcing ship traffic to dock downstream at Puerto Chacabuco.
Chile's beloved huemul deer, which has pride of place on the national crest, is in danger of extinction for lack of natural habitat and survives only in reserves in Aisen.
Horvath was determined to make sure the road did not worsen the environmental problems; for example, laws prevent clearing any trees within 110 yards of the roadbed and prohibit mass burning. He hopes the new road will, in fact, help repair the damage, because the area is now accessible for reforestation. Further, he says, the road makes the forest itself valuable for selective cutting, which should serve as an incentive to protect the natural resources.
Horvath is still restless, however. He envisions a new project: more than doubling the length of the Southern Highway, from its current final destination of Villa O'Higgins all the way to Punta Arenas. That would be an immensely more difficult engineering project, skirting the world's largest glacier--an ice field of 5,200 square miles--and hopping across some of southern Chile's 5,500 islands.
"It would take 15 to 20 years," Horvath said. "But the future arrives much faster than you'd think."