When traveling in a continent like South America, no matter how much research you have done, you always get caught by surprises. Sometimes good, sometimes bad but keep in mind: these are the moments that you will most likely remember when your trip is over.
As we reached the windy shores of Lago Buenos Aires, the agricultural oasis of Los Antiguos was the first pleasant surprise. Home to chacras (small independent farms) of cherries, strawberries, apples, apricots and peaches, it makes an attractive crossing to Chile. Did we try any? As we always plan ahead, we were there on a public holiday and we were crossing the border next day, so we did not get to try any of their delicious variety of fruit (F#%K S&$@!T/Yianni cursing). Chile Chico, our next stop, is a pint-sized town that occupies the windy southern shore of Lago General Carrera (called Lago Buenos Aires on the Argentinean side). A sunny microclimate makes it a pleasant oasis on the steppe and it is linked to the rest of Chile by a roller-coaster road dotted with gold and silver mines. Traveling that road with the abrupt curves of Paso Las Llaves, west from Chile Chico, to the junction with the Carretera Austral, was for us one of the region’s highlights. Here another surprise was waiting for us, a huge mudslide that thankfully blocked only our road and delayed our crossing for a couple of hours without any further complications, except our late arrival into Río Tranquilo. Scary and stunning, for the next three and a half hours, our route constantly hit blind corners and steep inclines on loose gravel, high above the lake. My driving skills were put to the test and as there are no guardrails, drivers should proceed with caution. At least that was what Rochelle continuously reminded me every minute, obviously in a bit of panic, at least in our drive through the danger area. Worth mentioning here is that we have no footage of all this because the co-pilot “forgot” to press the record button. At this point, the infamous bad weather of Patagonia caught up with us for one more time, grounding us for an extra day in Río Tranquilo, as we wanted to pay our visit to the area’s highlight, the Marble Caves.
Puerto Río Tranquilo is a humble pit stop for many travelers, meanwhile for others just a fuel stop, but growing outdoor opportunities have put it on the map noPuerto Río Tranquilo is a humble pit stop for many travelers, meanwhile for others just a fuel stop, but growing outdoor opportunities have put it on the map wadays. As for us fanatic outdoor types, we made it all the way to the local brewery and waited for the bad weather to go by over a Pisco sour (local alcoholic beverage) or two. Except our outdoor adventures though, another very good reason to spend an extra day or two in this village are the Marble Caves, an endless line of caves and cracks in the shores of the lake, that time has been remarkably curving them through thousands of years now. The spectacular sight is completed further more as you approach the caves and their walls appear in front of your astonished eyes literally marbleized. You can reach the caves with a small boat, where the fisherman-driver will give you all the necessary info about the history behind them. Although our visit was under rain, we still consider it worth seeing. And if you are lucky to get a good day, you will be pleasantly rewarded by the beauty of the caves.
With that checked out of our to-do list and shortly after our departure from the village, our road joined up with the 1,240km barely-paved Carretera Austral, that is by far the finest way of exploring this remote region. The road brings you to a cow town that never stopped growing. Coyhaique is the regional hub and at the same time it is urbane enough to house the latest techie trends, mall fashions and Rochelle’s favorite shampoo. All this is set in the middle of an undulating range, with rocky humpback peaks and snowy mountains in the backdrop. A quick break here was mandatory before pushing forward. The next day was a long drive through a thousand waterfalls as we made our way towards Futaleufu’s wild, frosty-mint waters. At almost every turn we took during our drive, we saw a waterfall. Our cameras went on fire!!! Futaleufu is not just a Mecca for kayaking and rafting as it appears in most tourist brochures. The town is as small as a 20-block grid of pastel-painted houses but what the town misses out in size it makes up by the beauty of its surroundings. As we were lucky to visit in low season here, we had it all to ourselves.
Our last stop in Carretera Austral was the city of Chaitén, that unfortunately on May 2, 2008, an unknown volcano decided to wake up this quiet village bringing it down to a total siege. Locals were able to evacuate and nowadays they have rebuilt their shingled town with pride. Chaitén is the major transport hub for the rest of northern Chile and ferries depart from the small terminal for Puerto Mont and Chiloé. The second was our next destination. Chiloé is the continent’s fifth-largest island and is home to an independent, seafaring people. Immediately apparent are the changes in architecture and cuisine: “tejuelas”, the famous Chiloé wood shingles; “palafitos” (houses mounted on stilts along the water’s edge); the iconic wooden churches (16 of which are Unesco World Heritage sites); and the renowned meat, potato and seafood stew, “curanto”. If you add all of the above in landscapes that are wet, windswept and lush, with undulating hills, wild and remote national parks, and dense forests, there you have it, Chiloé, a distinct flavor unique in South America. Our first port of call, Quellón, was for the most part an unsophisticated town, although it’s the southern terminus for one of the world’s great highways (the Pan-American Hwy, also known as Hwy 5). Bad weather pushed us to the capital of the island, Castro, where all the idiosyncrasies and attractions of Chiloé are nicely packaged. At times loud and boisterous like some working class towns, the capital of the archipelago somehow retains its local character, with a dash of modern development, comfortable tourism infrastructure and a burgeoning trendy side.
Although we changed a couple of places on the island, almost all of our stay in Chiloé was under rain and cold. We basically drove through the whole island on a fast, wet pace but even in that rush, it still managed to reveal its spectacular coastline, native architecture, excellent seafood and cozy accommodation options. Note: Here we stayed for the first time after three months in a hotel. Yeah!!! After almost a week of rain, we decided to cross back to mainland and make our way towards the border for one more time.
After a quick pass through Puerto Vargas and another overnight stop in Rochelle’s favorite gas station (she hates them!!!) we crossed the border back to Argentina and drove to San Carlos De Bariloche. In Bariloche we spent most of our days between great walks around beautiful lakes (Argentina’s famous Lake District) and socializing with other travelers at the lovely camp spot we found. We met some great people there; overlanders that back home had great jobs and dropped them only to follow this alternative way of living on the road. With Oliver and his family from Switzerland and Rieke & Torsten from Germany (wwwrisottoumdiewelt.com) we spent four great nights with lots of wine and good talks about Life, Love & the Universe. A couple of hangover mornings and some famous “assados” completed the picture before we waved them goodbye. Except all the above we had one more good reason to hang around here for a couple of days. We were waiting for Daniel & Kristina, the TD Overland Crew. We have arranged to join forces with them for new adventures that we will talk about in our next post. The only thing I can reveal for now is that Daniel hates asphalt roads and he stated that his aim was not to set wheel on tar road…