Carretera Austral ~ What We Have Learned

24 March – 28 March, 2018

Ruta (Route) 7, aka the Carretera Austral, is the only highway that runs through the northern section of Chilean Patagonia. Part of the Aisén region, starting in the Lakes District in Puerto Montt and ending 770 miles south at Villa O’Higgins, it is the least populated region of Chile, with only about 100,000 inhabitants scattered throughout its towns and villages. We had read that it is a natural wonderland of islands, mountains, fjords, lakes, and forests, crossing many protected natural areas, so of course we wanted to visit. We envisioned renting a car or “Wicked Van” in Puerto Montt and traveling leisurely at our own pace, stopping when Mother Nature’s wonders called to us.

After reading some less than flattering reviews of the condition of the Wicked Vans and calculating the cost of renting a car for 6 weeks, we scratched both of those options. Since we were traveling in the shoulder season, if we had van problems, who knew how long before another vehicle came along to assist us. Also, the drop-off fee for a rental car, if not returning it to the place you rented it, was at least as much as the total rental fee…wow! Our next option was to take buses through some stretches and rent a car for shorter periods in others.

Balmy day along Lago General Carrera

Our two-day stop in Chile Chico was relaxing and the apartment we rented right next to the ferry, which we would be taking into the interior of Chile and part of the Carretera Austral. Walking the quaint little town and enjoying happy hour from our living room, looking out onto Lago General Carrera, was a nice little respite.

Departure day to Puerto Ibanez was sunny but chilly, and very windy, not surprising for Patagonia. It was so windy that whenever I stood on deck for photos I had to wrap my arm around the rail to stay upright. The wind never ceases to amaze me here.

After a 2.5-hour lake ride, we hopped into a van and were whisked away to Coyhaique, a city where we had hoped to rent a car and spend a few days exploring. The weather forecast was nothing but rain for the next several days, so time to go to Plan C or D, as we didn’t want to be traversing mud-slick roads in a remote part of Chile, particularly because this is what we had read about the Carretera Austral:

“While this may be one of the continent’s loveliest roads – there’s no bad scenery – it’s still one of the most hazardous. Paved segments are steadily increasing, but blind curves in dense forests and sheer mountains, narrow segments with steeply sloping shoulders, and frequent loose gravel all require drivers to pay the closest attention to avoid head-on collisions, rollovers, and other accidents.”

 Coyhaique is a city of roughly 50,000, nothing remarkable and felt a bit gritty and run-down, so we were glad we were only doing an overnight here. The next morning, bright and early, we hopped a bus to Chaiten, and some of the rainiest weather we had experienced yet. We agreed that letting someone else maneuver these winding, mud-slick roads was best.

Queulat National Park

For someone who loves to be out in nature taking photos, this was a lesson in patience for me, as we traveled through Queulat National Park, known for its waterfalls and hanging glaciers, and I had to be content with watching the scenery move by through rain-splattered windows. The vegetation was changing from windswept steppe to something resembling a Costa Rican cloud forest, with elephant-ear foliage, broad-leaf ferns, and lichen clinging to everything.

The bus dropped us in Chaiten, a sleepy little town, where we had two days to decompress. We enjoyed getting to know Frederico, the proprietor at our hotel. He had spent time with the World Gymnastics Organization in Moscow in 1972 and 1973 and had lived and worked with Olympic hopeful gymnasts for 6 years in California, in Temecula of all places, very near where we now live. Frederico generously offered us a lift to the bus station the day of our departure.

Some sights we missed due to weather:

What we have learned…

  • Patience is an absolute must when traveling in Patagonia.
  • Weather is consistently unpredictable. Expect rain and high winds.
  • Transportation is also unpredictable, probably more so when you leave the busy season behind. Buses that ran several times per week may only run once a week, or no longer run for the season. If you don’t want to be stranded in a small village for a week, you may have to go to Plan B.
  • Always have a Plan B, C, and D.
  • If the weather forecast is promising, having your own vehicle is probably the best approach, although not the least expensive. If we did this trip again we would probably rent a car and focus on the Carretera Austral for 6-8 weeks, bringing a tent along when we couldn’t find accommodations in some of the smaller villages.

Even with all the twists and turns, Patagonia is magical.  Lots of adventures to come, so please check back. 🙂

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No Man’s Land ~ Argentina or Chile

24 March, 2018

This post could have just as easily been entitled “Are We Nuts?” 

One of the biggest challenges when doing your own planning for a trip to Patagonia is connecting all the transportation dots. Given its remoteness, this is not a task to take on lightly. Even during peak season, bus and ferry schedules can be a bit sketchy in the interior of Chile, but move into the shoulder season and it is anyone’s guess if the bus or ferry lines run on time, if there is a bus or boat running more than once a week, or if there will be one available at all when you arrive at your destination. Since we both wanted to venture into the interior and travel some of the infamous Carretera Austral, it was particularly important to connect the dots so as not to get stranded. Complicating this matter is that you can literally read through countless websites and forums and get conflicting information.

Planes, trains, automobiles, and boats is Terry’s specialty when planning our trips. He will tell you I don’t know which way is up most days so he just refuses to relinquish this part of the duty. I am relegated to accommodations and activities, which frankly I think is a lot more fun to plan anyway.

While doing some research during a very windy, rainy day in El Calafate (have I said how wild the Patagonian weather can be?), Terry got a somewhat panicked look on his face. Upon reading yet another website, it appeared there was no public transportation available from Los Antiguos, Argentina to Chile Chico, Chile.  Los Antiguos is a remote border crossing so it seems the only way to move from one country to another is on foot or putting out your thumb. We had often read that hitchhiking is commonplace in Patagonia, but I had said this wasn’t something I wanted to do. Seems I was about to reconsider that decision.

But I digress for a moment…

While planning our trip, we packed no less than three separate times, using various bags, whenever our route changed. Since we weren’t able to book the refugios we wanted in Torres del Paine National Park, I set aside my backpack, opting for a roomier bag that still allowed for shoulder straps, although not near as comfortable as one’s own fitted backpack. One of our travel rules has been that if one of us wants to bring something that the other might find unnecessary, that person bears the burden of carrying said item(s). For me it was our vitamins and some creams and lotions I couldn’t leave behind. For Terry it was the electric toothbrush. My choices necessitated a roomier bag. When I discovered I might be carrying all my bags across a remote border crossing, I thought I might live to regret the decision to displace my backpack.

So, during one of our rest days in El Chalten, we laid out our belongings, and with the mind of a backpacker looking to shave ounces from her pack, I proceeded to set aside items I thought I could do without. Jackets, earmuffs, and gloves were set aside, and bottles of this and that discarded, with the hopes of replacing them. My full-size deodorant mineral stone soon became a mere shell of itself as I broke away the plastic container and cut it in half. I was not budging on the supplements however. 😉

At 9:30 the next night we hopped on our overnight bus to Los Antiguos, not knowing what to expect in the morning. It’s a wonder we got any sleep but the bus tires on the pavement seemed to do the trick. I awoke to watch the dark golds and oranges of dawn diffuse across the Patagonian steppe, softening to rose and violet, with a promise of a beautiful day unfolding.

We pulled into the bus station and were able to catch a taxi to the border, 2 km (1.2 miles) away. And that is where we knew things could get interesting. We moved through Argentine immigration, then stepped outside with all our bags. A long, lonely road stretched before us, 7 km (4.2 miles) from the Argentina border to the Chile border, a section of road dubbed “No Man’s Land”. Well, at least it was flat, paved, and the sun was shining. We looked at each other and said “let’s do this”.  About 15 minutes into our walk, Terry turned to me and said “you are a good sport”. I smiled and turned back to the road with the thought of  “remember this when you find my personality less than pleasing.”

In another 15 minutes we saw a car on the horizon and Terry stuck out his thumb. A smiling young couple in a beat-up jalopy opened the door and welcomed us. Our last hitchhiking experience had been decades ago and our only hope was that their backfiring car would make it to Chile. It did and they could not have been nicer.

Another trip through Chilean customs and immigration and we headed down the road the 5 km (2.5 miles) into Chile Chico. A collectivo (van) picked us up within 20 minutes and delivered us to our lodge. Life is good, particularly when in the presence of kind strangers.

Note to self: When given a choice, always go with the backpack. 🙂

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A Tale of Towers, Horns, & Wailing Winds ~ Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

08 March – 11 March, 2018

 The one national park we refused to strike from our “can’t do it all” list was Torres del Paine, Chile’s premier park, located about 70 miles northwest of Puerto Natales. I’d seen photos of her iconic towers bathed in golden sunlight and had vowed to see them for myself one day.

The stunning centerpiece in this UNESCO Biosphere Reserve national park is the Paine (PIE-nay) Massif, an eastern spur of the Andes, which consist of several main mountain groups: the dramatic Torres (3 Towers), incisor-shaped spires of smooth grey granite; the Cuernos (Horns), often mistaken for the Towers, ragged peaks capped in dark sedimentary rock, contrasting with a pale igneous base; and the tallest mountain in the park, the Cerro Paine Grande, towering ~ 9200 feet above the park floor. It is these iconic spires, along with glaciers and glacial-fed lakes of varying hues of blue that attract 250,000 visitors annually, half of them international travelers.

Pudeto, our drop-off point on day 1.

Torres del Paine has an extensive network of hiking trails, day hikes and backpacking trips as well. Many come to trek the 4-10 day ‘W’ or ‘O’ circuit, named for the shape of the routes.

Our initial thought was to do the ‘W’ circuit, the 4-5 day trek, staying at refugios in the park along the way. Even months before our arrival I wasn’t able to get all the lodging we needed, so if you are going and don’t plan to tent camp, get on those reservations early (dependent upon time of year you are going, of course).

Day 1 of our park adventure was a rainy one, so we opted for a shorter hiking day, particularly because we were staying in Puerto Natales and looking at a 2-hour bus ride to the park, standing in a long line to fill out paperwork to pay our entrance fee, and watching a safety video. Since I really wanted to photograph the Salto Grande waterfall, we opted to be dropped at Pudeto and hike to the falls and on to the Mirador Cuernos to see the horns, if the weather gods were kind, but they were looking rather grumpy.

As Terry and I were preparing for our hike, a young German woman approached, asking if we were hiking to Salto Grande. We said yes and invited her along. Even though the rains never subsided, we enjoyed getting to know Johanna, who was on holiday from her studies as a medical engineering student.

Me and Johanna on a soggy day in Torres del Paine.

The horns were ever-elusive during our hike and only peeked out after we were finished and ready to board the bus back to Natales. Temperamental weather is what Patagonia is all about!

A glimpse of the Paine Massif through the clouds, with the Cuernos (Horns) on the left.

Torres del Paine is probably one of the more expensive parks to visit, particularly if you are staying in Puerto Natales. You’ll pay for a bus to get there, a shuttle to many of the trailheads, and a pricey park entrance fee. The entrance fee does allow for three consecutive day visits, however.

If we had only one memorable hike in the park, we were hoping for Mirador Las Torres, a demanding hike up to the base of the towers. Since it is estimated as a 7-8 hour hike, there would be no dawdling, in order to catch the last bus of the day out of the park. We chose a day that looked promising weather-wise and went for it.

Breathtaking scenery unfolded before us as we traipsed up the mountain.

Unfortunately, as is often true of Patagonia, clouds moved in and before we reached the last half-mile boulder hop up to the towers, the rains came. Terry had a bit of a knee problem so after much maneuvering over large boulders he decided to turn around, to preserve his knees for another day, and I continued my push up to the top.

As I got above tree-line I soon discovered the unrelenting winds for which Patagonia is famous. I was blown away, literally, by a gust of wind as I stepped on a boulder. Luckily, I landed forward as backwards could have been disastrous for my camera or my head. As I stood I felt pain in my hand and a strange orientation to my digits. Gingerly removing my glove, I was shocked to see a finger at a 90-degree angle, turning blue at the second joint. Without any more thought I snapped it back into place, the pain immediately subsiding. I then realized Terry had the first-aid kit with him (oops).

It seems duct tape works for everything. 🙂

Tegan and Dale appeared and generously provided supplies so I could tape my fingers together. I was ten minutes from the top; it was raining; and the wind was howling but the towers were calling to me. Just then hikers descending from the top said the window had closed and the towers were hidden. My decision was made…down I headed. 😦

Two guardian angels in the form of Pauline and Anton from Holland arrived and would not leave my side the 5 miles back down the mountain. My protests of “you can go on; I am fine” were soon answered with a smiling “oh shut up” from Pauline. Their generosity knew no limits. My faith in humanity is never more restored than by those we have met during life’s travels.

NOTE: Credit goes to Anton Vinck for the next three photos. I would have had no photos of the Towers if not for him. Thanks so much Anton!

A bit about Puerto Natales…

We liked the vibe of this bustling tourist town, formerly a sleepy little wool and fishing port. It caters to the backpacker set, with hostels tucked away on many  streets and several outdoor gear stores lining the walkways. Although the sun was elusive for much of our stay, the old pier, Muelle Historico, is still a good place to visit, even if I wasn’t able to get that acclaimed sunset shot. Hard to capture without the sun.

Mesita Grande is the place to go for gourmet pizza and Café Kaiken is a wonderful little café if you are looking for a more sophisticated meal. It is where we had our first pisco sour, popular in this region of the world. And the Dried Fruit Guy is the only place in town to go for hiking snacks.

Next Up: Early bus to El Calafate where a glacier awaits!

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Penguins, Parks, & Ports ~ Punta Arenas, Chile

04 March – 07 March, 2018

Patagonia’s largest city and the regional capital, Punta Arenas, can be approached by air, a long bus ride, or sea. We opted for the 3.5 hour flight from Santiago on Sky Airline. From the air we got a peek into what was in our future – glaciers and brilliant turquoise lakes.

Although the magnificent granite needles of the Torres del Paine put Chile’s most southerly region on the international map, today many tourists come to this city on the Strait of Magellan to see penguins in all shapes and sizes, or continue to Ushuaia and Antarctica. Our original intent was to head to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America, but our plans changed as we continued to fill in the empty spaces on our travel calendar. “Can’t see it all” became our mantra as we narrowed the scope of our trip, so instead we settled for the southerly most city in Chile, Punta Arenas. This industrial city relies on fishing, shipping, petroleum, duty-free retail, and tourism for its continued economic health. Our intent was to take a tour to Isla Magdalena to see the delightful burrowing Magellanic penguins and visit the Chilean sector of Tierra del Fuego National Park, to see the majestic King penguins.

After a short taxi ride to our hostel, we tossed our bags into our room and took to the streets for a short walk along the water.

Bronze and stone statue along the waterfront

Day 1 Punta Arenas

The next day before dawn we set off for the office of Solo Expediciones, where we began our tour that took us to Isla Magdalena and Isla Marta. We chose this tour company because of the size of their fleet and their ability to get closer to the sea lions that live on Isla Marta.

Jonathan was our wonderful guide as we boarded the Isla Isabel speedboat and traveled across the choppy channel to Isla MagdalenaHe gave us some history on the burrowing Magellanic penguins that we would spend the next hour with, explaining that 80% of them had begun their migration north about 30 days ago and almost all of the chicks had left. There were still plenty to see and a welcoming committee to greet us as we docked. This year they had ~ 44,000 pairs of penguins on the island and we were able to find one fluffy chick that remained behind with mom and dad.

The welcoming committee!

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Our time had ended and we were back on the boat to hopefully get close to Isla Marta, in search of sea lions. Weather allowed our approach and we climbed to the outside bow of the boat for some photo ops.

Day 2 Punta Arenas

Rainy day in Punta Arenas allowed us time to explore, book our tour for the next day, and enjoy some of the local fare. La Marmita Restaurante was highly recommended and was so wonderful that we dined there twice. Braised lamb in red wine, guanaco, sweet corn pie, local greens, and figs stuffed with nuts and a spun-sugar crown dazzled our palates.

Day 3 Punta Arenas

A recommendation from Alison of Adventures in Wonderland led us to Turismo Laguna Azulwhere we booked our much-anticipated King penguin tour. Another early morning for us and what would prove to be a late night brought us to our first national park in the country, Tierra del Fuego National ParkA large island off the southern coast of South America houses what is one of only three King penguin colonies outside of Antarctica, or so we were told by our colorful guide Diego. As a side note, when I asked our guide Diego where he would visit in the United States if he could, his response was “Burning Man”, which is an annual gathering in northwest Nevada. It is described as an “annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and self-reliance”. 🙂

Terry & Diego

You really have to want to see King penguins to do this tour, unless you love crazy-long days (7:30 am – 10:30 pm) traveling across wind-swept steppes, on gravel roads strewn with potholes, in close quarters with 12-15 of your newest best friends, and on crowded ferries. Yes, we wanted to see them that much, even though our time with the penguins was for only an hour of this day. Would we do it again? Heck yes!

The colony of King penguins we saw had established themselves at Estancia San Clemente on Bahía Inúit (Useless Bay) and have made their annual pilgrimage for the past 11 years. This colony consists of ~ 150 penguins, although we weren’t sure just how many we were viewing from our secure platform across the inlet. Besides the majesty of these wild creatures, the sound they exhale as they throw back their heads to sing is eerie and beautiful all at once, an odd-pitched whirring clamor. We were in awe.

A short stop in the port town of Porvenir rounded out our day. Although it looked like an interesting little borough, we had little time to visit the small museum and grab dinner before we had to leave for the ferry. One of our German travel mates almost caused us to miss the boat as he disappeared and couldn’t be found until minutes before it was time for the ferry to depart. He was not the most popular guy on the shuttle after his disappearing act. 😉

Next Up: Time to Hike in Torres de Paine National Park

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Sprawling Colonial Capital ~ Santiago, Chile

01 March – 03 March, 2018

The first stop on our way to the southern tip of Chile was to her capital city, Santiago. A large sprawling metropolis, Santiago proper is home to 6 million people (more than one-third of all Chileans) and has one of the worst smog problems in the world, with more than one million automobiles clogging her narrow colonial streets, certainly not the kind of record a city hopes to garner. We had read that the months of autumn, especially March and April, are typically the worst as they are the most wind-free. Except for a little eye irritation and the perpetual brown haze blanketing the city, which often cloaked views of the Andes, it wasn’t as bad as we expected for a city its size.

With only a couple of days to explore before heading to Patagonia, we decided to rest from our jet-lag, decompress, and see some street art above all else, as we are planning to fly back out of Santiago when we return to the states. What we didn’t see this time around we could tack onto the back-end of our trip.

I positively love street art and had read much about Valparaiso’s infamous embellished walls, which we will be seeing later on this trip. Until Nicole of Third-Eye Mom posted her wonderful photos of Santiago’s street art, I wasn’t expecting much. But after reading her post, I was on a quest through the streets of Barrio Bellavista, where some of the best Santiago street art can be found. It is also where our hotel was located. 🙂

Beyond the street art, we were anxious to taste some of the local fare and one restaurant in our neighborhood that had been recommended was Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). It is considered one of Bellavista’s “smartest” restaurants, serving creative Chilean cuisine. The food was delicious and the Chilean beer, Kunstmann Torobayo, was tasty.

As we sat outside enjoying the warm day, an interesting situation unfolded. A bedraggled, weather-worn woman approached, making eye contact with me. I immediately shook my head no, I suppose to discourage her. Before we could blink, she grabbed Terry’s glass of beer. Trying to rescue the glass, a tug-of-war was set in motion. Never get between a man and his beer. 🙂 He released his hold in order to not create a scene and she proceeded to shriek, slamming the glass into the street, without tasting a drop, then stormed off with her naked backside on display. The waiter was so apologetic, moved us farther from the street, and gave us another beer. Welcome to Santiago! We took to the streets with a story to tell.

Comprising only a few blocks, bohemian Bellavista is adorned with eye-popping street art and is a walker’s paradise. In trying to revitalize the barrios, local artists took to the streets to add some color. Many businesses pay these artists to adorn their walls, windows, and doors to draw tourists into their establishments.  The results are spectacular!

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During our search for street art we once again saw our partially clad friend, sporting a beer. She was once again shrieking and hitting herself in the head. Obviously the poor woman has some mental challenges and we wisely decided to steer clear of her.

A walk up Cerro Santa Lucía for views of the city was on our agenda, as was a walk through Plaza de Armas, the city’s historic center, and the Catedral Metropolitana, where mass was in service. The Plaza was packed with locals and tourists alike. During our wanderings in Santiago Central we saw the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace, which made international headlines in 1973 when the air force bombed it during General Pinochet’s coup against President Salvador Allende. President Allende claimed his own life before being taken prisoner.

Hazy view from atop Cerro Santa Lucia.

Our final destination in Santiago took us to Cerro San Cristóbal, where we rode the funicular to the top. What awaited us was a lovely little chapel, beautifully adorned crosses along the pathway, soothing music wafting into the air, and the statue of the Virgin Mary with open arms, standing watch over the city.

Obviously a city the size of Santiago has so much more to offer but our time was limited. We had clocked over 20 miles of walking during our short time here. Some of the other sights we hope to visit on our return are the landmark Mercado Central, known for its impressive array of fruits, vegetables, and seafood, Museo de Bellas Artes, Cementerio General, and La Chascona, author Pablo Neruda’s hillside home, which now houses the Museo Neruda.

For now, the wilds of Patagonia are calling!

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