We’ve been at the seaside! Which sounds very old-fashioned and quaint, but Pichilemu is kinda old-fashioned and quaint. Founded in the 19th Century and modelled on European seaside resorts, the town is looking a bit tired and past its prime, but it’s a still very popular destination for both Chileans and international visitors because of its surf beach, Punta de Lobos, and other beaches in the area. It was affected by earthquakes in 2010, but has recovered, and there are Tsunami evacuation signs everywhere, advising safe routes to higher ground.
Pichilemu is almost straight across the Pacific Ocean from Sydney, and several surf championships are held at Punta de Lobos, the long beach just south of the town. We saw signs claiming that it’s the ‘surf capital of the world’, but a few places claim that, so ….. hmmm. It is regarded as having the best surf in South America all year round. The beach has grey sand, which is a bit disconcerting to look at, but you realise it’s not dirty when you actually stand on it. In the usual Chilean way, access to the beach is not easy – most of it is blocked by private properties, but there is an access road at the far south of the beach, with some parking, but on a busy day it would be total chaos, I think.
We booked an Airbnb ‘beach condo’ for the last 3 nights of our trip, with just an overnight stop in Santiago before we fly home. It gave us a chance to stop in one place for a while and not do much, which was a very good thing as we both got gastro, thankfully not at the same time. And thankfully we’ve both recovered, in time to face 3 days of plane travel to get home.
The morning we left to drive to Santiago, we stopped at the main street to try and find the stainless steel bowls and cup we lost in the Great Rio Bravo flood. Most of the shops were not open at 10.30am, but we found a cup in a bazar (we’d call it a $2 shop), and the bowls in an open-air market a couple of streets from the main drag. Along with the best quality fruit and vegetables we’ve seen the whole trip. And we didn’t buy any of them. However on the way back to Santiago, there were a lot of roadside stalls selling strawberries, other berries, whole watermelons and tomatoes, so we stopped to get some fruitillas strawberries for Greg. I picked the smallest container (which was not very small at all!), it cost 2,000 pesos AUD$4, and the woman then opened the container and crammed a couple more handfuls in it! There must have been at least 1.5kg of strawbs, and they were delicious! I’m not keen on fruit apart from pomegranates, and even I ate quite a few!
We finished driving Carretera Australia the Southern Highway last night.
It’s been a week of rain, roadworks, long delays, rain, pot-holes, ferrys, rain, a walk through an enchanted forest to a lake and the truly beautiful Parque Pumalin. Ruta 7 is 1240kms long, but we did the first/last few hundred kms twice, down to Villa O’Higgins and back. It’s taken us 9 days to do it, including a couple of really long driving days.
On Wednesday it took us nearly 10 hours to drive 250kms – a combination of long delays at roadworks, road in really terrible condition in places and rain. Yesterday we spent the day waiting for ferries and catching ferries, then driving the last stretch of Ruta 7 towards Puerto Montt, and finally (FINALLY!) stopped at a Copec Service Station on Highway 5 well after midnight. We ate burgers in their fast food restaurant, then parked the van in a corner near the truck parking and slept there for the rest of the night. Amazingly, we did both sleep, in spite of the lights, traffic noise from the highway and the comings and goings of the 24 hour fuel stop.
Highlights of the week were the Enchanted Forest walk we did in Queulat National Park on Wednesday, and our 2-day stay in Parque Pumalin Pumalin Park. The walk is 3kms and goes through the closest thing to Fairyland I’ve ever seen – dense rainforest full of tiny ferns, mosses, fuchsias, lichens – ending up at a glacial lake fed by several hanging glaciers and a few waterfalls. We had to cross a river and a couple of creeks by stepping on stones, and I was very impressed that we both got across and back without falling in! Parts of the trail were very muddy and a ‘path’ had been made out of sliced logs and bits of timber – it was like that game kids play, going from one place to the other without touching the ground. It rained lightly for most of the time and we were a bit wet by the time we finished the walk, 3 hours later, but we were back in the car when it really started raining, around the same time as the busload of tourists were starting off. Many of them were wearing $2 ponchos, and a few women had strappy sandals and leggings on. Negotiating their way across those river stones would be …. challenging.
Parque Pumalin is a large wilderness area that was set up by Douglas Tompkins, the US businessman who started North Face adventure gear in the 1960s, and who co-founded Esprit with his wife and one of her friends. Mr Tompkins sold his interest in the clothing company in the late 1980s and devoted his life and fortune to conserving large tracts of wilderness in Chile and Argentina, and lots more projects, which you can read about here. He died in a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera south of Coyhaique a couple of months ago.
Ruta 7 goes through Parque Pumalin, and there are several campgrounds within the park. We decided to stay at Volcan Campground, which is close to Chalten Volcano. On rare clear days you can see the volcano from the campgound. It rained the whole time we were there, and most of the time the surrounding mountains were completely covered in mist, but I think I might have caught a glimpse of the volcano once. Maybe.
So we rolled into the campground at 10.30pm and couldn’t find any empty sites in the dark, so we sort of ‘stealth-camped’ in plain sight outside one of the toilet blocks. We found an unoccupied site the next morning and settled in. Each of the 10 or so sites has its own shelter, and there are also a couple of walk-in group sites for backpackers. The whole campground is beautifully set out, definitely the nicest place we have stayed at on this trip. Cold water showers, but we had Greg’s wonderful water heater, so we were able to have warm showers in a tarpaulin cubicle in one corner of our shelter. We did some washing, which is still drying, strung up in the van, days later!
After the events of the weekend, we’re now enjoying ordinary days with good weather. We are still a couple of thousand kms south of Santiago, with just over a week to get back there. We got stuck at roadworks for 3 hours yesterday – they were blasting rock on a section of narrow unsealed road that is being widened and sealed. It will be great when it’s finished, but in the meantime …. lots of delays, and parts of the road are only single-lane, so even when they’re not blasting, the traffic has to stop for a while to let oncoming cars through in sections.
We stayed in a campground El Camping at Coyhaique last night. This is the largest town we’ve been in in weeks! Population of 60,000. We found the Austral Ferry office last night and will go there today to book places on the 2 ferries that take vehicles across 2 stretches of water. There is no other way to get north or south, apart from a very long detour through Argentina, and the 3-times-a-day ferries get booked out quickly at this time of the year. The earliest we can get on one is Friday morning (it’s Tuesday morning now).
‘To almost lose the van once may be regarded as misfortune, but to almost lose the van twice looks like carelessness’ – with thanks to Oscar Wilde, I couldn’t have said it better myself. We’re both fine, and feeling very, very lucky!
We have just been to Villa O’Higgins, which is as far south as it is possible to get in Chile, without crossing over into Argentina. A couple of hundred kms south of Cochrane on a narrow, windy unsealed road, with a 7km ferry trip across a fjord about halfway down. There’s an interesting village, Tortel, on the northern side of Routa 7 which is vehicle-free – it’s accessible only by steps and boardwalks. We went there today as we headed north.
So it was all going without a hitch until we met a bus on a narrow bit of the road, plus there was also a rock on either side of that particular bit, making it impossible for the 2 vehicles to pass without some manoeuvering. We backed the van down the road and to the side to let the bus pass, and couldn’t get out of the very soft edge of the road. In fact, the rear wheel was pretty much spinning in the air, and the front wheel had fortunately got wedged on a rock that held it in place and stopped the van from tumbling over the edge. This was the downside of the slope, which just went down the mountain into a river. So we stayed put and hoped that someone with a hefty 4WD and a rope might come along and help us out. We grabbed our passposts, some cash and a couple of credit cards out of the van ( and afterwards we remembered all the other things we should have grabbed, like the van’s original registration papers and the extensive record of all the border crossings it had done with us). One car stopped and the driver spoke English, so he was able to organise other people who also stopped to help. One guy got out his brand new snatch strap (I hope it’s the only time he ever has to use it), a guy with a 4WD Nissan ute offered to help pull the van out, and 3 guys got behind the van and pushed. Success! I hooted and hollered like a mad woman, someone praised God en espanol, we were profuse in our thanks to everyone, told them how much we loved their country, and we were all good to go our separate ways. I guess it’s some kind of measure of how serious it all was that we didn’t even think to take a photo until we were some way down the road. We stopped on the way back today and got some.
We headed straight for the free army-run ferry across to O’Higgins. It runs 3 times a day at this time of the year, with the last one for the day going south at 6pm. We joined a long line of cars, more than one ferry-load, but we found out that if there is more than one ferry-load, the guys will take another trip. So we got across to the other side with the second load just before 9pm. The possible camping spots near the ferry dock were taken, and we headed further south. Found one possibility, but after our recent near-disaster, Greg was reluctant to drive on soft ground, so we went another couple of kms and found a great spot in a dry creek bed. We would never, ever, ever have even considered such a place in Australia, but what can I say? We were tired, it was getting late and anyway, what were the chances that it would flood?
Well, er, excellent, as it turned out. It rained all night and I woke just before 8am to Greg yelling ‘F@^K! Wake up! We have to get the car out of the water!’ He never swears, so this was serious! He had got up for a wee just before 6.30am and it was all fine, but later on the sound of water where it shouldn’t have been made him look out the window, to see a raging torrent of water in the previously dry river bed. It was around a foot deep when he moved the car … and The One Time we needed the car to start, it did!
Dumb, dumb, dumb, but we were so lucky that we managed to get out when we did. We lost some stuff that we’d left outside overnight .. 20L container of fuel, our Ice Box cooler with food in it, and the previous night’s washing-up – some plates, cups, cutlery and cooking pot that were on loan from Wicked Campers. Greg waded in freezing thigh-deep water to rescue our shadecloth/groundsheet thing and our folding sink, which had caught on bushes at the side of the water, but the rest would have floated a long way down.
Anyway, we drove to Villa O’Higgins. The surrounding mountains had white stripes of waterfalls rushing down to join all the other floodwater. Rivers and lakes were full and flowing fast, and the lakes had lines where their usual blue water had been joined by tannin-brown flood water. And it kept on raining. V. O’Higgins was awash, and there were some very bedraggled-looking hitchikers walking along the road, trying to get a lift anywhere! We went to the only shop that was open, walked through the cloud of tiny insects hovering around the boxes of rotting fruit and found a cooking pot to replace the one we’d lost. It’s the same brand, but a bit bigger.
Headed 8kms south to the end of the Carretera Austral Southern Highway, then turned around and drove north. Caught the last ferry of the day, at around 7pm, and pulled off the road several kms north of the dock, on a nice, solid, not-too-windy viewpoint by the side of the road. No vehicles passed us until around 9am this morning.
So, continuing with the ‘what we did last week’ theme, we headed out of Torres del Paine National Park through the northern entrance, which is the better road and the route all the buses take. The entrance was full of buses and people, many of whom were trying to hitch-hike.
Lots of people hitchhike in Argentina and Chile, I’m sure we’ve seen more hitchhikers in the last 3 weeks than we have seen in our whole lives! They would all love to travel with us in our cool Wicked campervan, but then they would probably all love to travel in anything as long as it gets them where they want to go. Some of the roads we’ve travelled on don’t have much traffic at all, and it could take a long time to be lucky and get a lift. We passed a couple yesterday afternoon at around 7pm on a quiet road and I thought … I hope you guys have a Plan B, ‘cos you’re probably not going to get much further tonight.
Another border crossing back into Argentina, another system to try and navigate. We thought border crossings in Africa were all a bit different, but comparing them with the Chilean and Argentinian ones, they were easy! We were heading to El Calafate, which is in the southern part of Glacier National Park, and west of Routa 40. We had to detour there a couple of weeks ago when we needed petrol. The southern part Glacier National Park is further west of El Calafate and features some truly spectacular glaciers which are easily accessible by road or boat.
But first, there was the small matter of refuelling … which seems to be a constant theme of this trip. El Calafate has 2 service stations, one at either end of the main street. The first one had a huge queue going up the street, over the bridge and around the corner – we couldn’t see where it ended. The second servo charges 10c/litre more, which seems to be a bit of a big deal for price-sensitive travellers (we’ve paid heaps more in outback Australia, and even prices between suburban servos can vary by up to 30c/litre), so we headed there, but …. Oh No! No fuel. The attendant told me that the next tanker would arrive manana in the morning, but it’s that’s fairly loose term which can also mean later, sometime, never. We went to the 2 supermarkets in town to get a few things, sat for a while and had lunch and drove past the more expensive servo about an hour later to find a queue of cars and one petrol bowser working. So we joined the queue, waited a while, refuelled (cash only!) and headed 80kms west to the National Park to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.
Wow, what a sight! It’s about 5kms wide and 14+kms long, and it’s probably the most easily-accessible glacier in the world. Well, I know it’s taken us a couple of days to fly here and a few weeks of driving, but it is possible to just fly to El Calafate, hire a car or hop on a bus, then just walk a few hundred metres down some well-constructed steps and platforms and see it in all its glory, just a couple of hundred metres away. It is absolutely magnificent! We walked the long way around, about 1.5kms of boardwalks and steps, so we started at the shorter end furthest away and made our way to the closer, taller end. It’s a tidewater glacier, running into Largo Argentina, and we listened and watched for pieces breaking off into the water.
The National Park doesn’t allow camping, so we consulted ioverlander.com and found a lovely spot just behind a small hill off the road back to El Calafate. It was windy, but Greg rigged up the shower system and a tarp and we had hot showers, then a hot meal. Perfect!
Los Antiguos – Cochrane 18.2.16
I’m going to jump ahead now before I forget too much. I’ll re-order some of the posts later.
The night before last we stayed in Los Antiguos, just across the border in Argentina. The municipal campground had been described in our Footprint guide book as ‘outstanding’, which seems a bit over the top, but it did have hot showers and most of the toilets had toilet seats. We found a site with power away from the very crowded tent camping area, and woke up to tents crammed on either side of us. I think we have a different perception of ‘personal space’ to the locals.
And so to, hopefully, our last border crossing ….. back into Chile. I’ve lost count of how many crosings we’ve done, but we’ll get a photo of the van’s customs papers before we give them back with the van. Loads of stamps, signatures, dates. And even though we’ve entered Chile … well, a few times … we had to fill in a piece of paper we’d never seen before!
There’s a huge lake here – called Lago Buenes Aires on the Argentinian side, and Lago General Carrera on the Chilean side. Deep, blue, icy clear water. The road from the border to Routa 7 Carretera Austral The Southern Highway goes along the southern edge of the lake and the scenery is stunning. A postcard around every bend. We could see glaciers on the mountains to the west, fed by the Campo de Hielo San Valentine Saint Valentine Icefield.
We stayed in a backyard campground last night in Cochrane on Routa 7. About 25 people in 3 vehicles & 14 tents sharing 2 bathrooms, huge queue for them this morning. The owner really needs to put in a separate toilet. We’re just waiting for a backpacker to ask us for a lift … I think we’ll need to check the van for stowaways before we leave. We’re heading 200kms south to Villa O’Higgins, which is as far south as we can get on Highway 7. There’s an American guy from Washington State here and he just came from there yesterday and told Greg that the road is good. There are glaciers there fed by the Campo de Hielo Norte Northern Icefield that we’ve seen from the Argentinian side, so we’ll hopefully get to see them from the Chilean side.
So last Thursday was my birthday, and we had lunch at a parilla grill in Puerto Natales. ‘Grill’ doesn’t really translate well, it’s much more involved than just slinging bits of meat on a gas or electric-fired hotplate – parillas are restaurants that cook over open fires. The one we went to had a circular open fire where they cooked whole sides of lamb, with a hearth where the chef cooked pieces of beef and fish over the coals. We both had Patagonian lamb with potatoes and a ‘Chilean salad’ – tomatoes, sliced onions, chopped chillies and coriander leaf. All delicious, the perefect Patagonian meal, and the perfect birthday lunch.
In the afternoon, we headed north-west to Torres del Paine National Park. The road was pretty ordinary, but we’re used to that, we’ve been on a lot of crappy unsealed roads by now. We paid the admission fee plus a fairly extortionate fee ($20 per person, per night!) to camp in one of the campgrounds within the park, but the view of the Torres towers was almost worth it. Greg may not have thought so, as there was no hot water in the mens’ bathroom, even though there were 4 gas hot water systems in various states of dis/repair. It rained overnight, but cleared the next morning and the view really was stunning. I think I’m going to run out of adjectives and superlatives to describe the places we’ve visited over the last week.
There’s a boat cruise to Grey Glacier, running 4 times a day. We missed out on the 2pm cruise, but got seats on the 6pm cruise and were really happy about that. The afternoon cruise had almost 100 people on it, but the later one that we did had just over a dozen people, which suited us just fine. In addition to providing sightseeing to the 3 arms of the glacier, the boat takes hikers to and from the starting/finishing point of one of the very popular hiking trails in the park. Loads of people hike in the park, we didn’t realise how many until the following day when we watched a boat taking about 100 hikers with gear from another launching post further north in the park.
The cruise to Grey Glacier was excellent, we were able to get close to all 3 arms of the glacier, and the guide spoke good English and was able to tell us a lot about the Torres and the glacier. We dollar-cost averaged the previous night’s expensive campsite by sleeping in the car park near where the boat was moored. Free camping is very common and acceptable in both Chile and Argentina, and easy to do, especially when it doesn’t involve a tent.
Yesterday we picked up our home for the next 5 weeks – a Wicked campervan which has ‘Fuerza’ written on one door, and ‘Pasion’ on the other …. Power and Passion. So of course our trip’s theme song is Midnight Oil’s ‘Power and the Passion’. Hope the link works, it’s not available in Chile. If you can’t play it, please let us know in the comments and I’ll find another version.
The van is all good – the company provided some basics in terms of kitchenware, gas stove, an esky seats and a table. We brought cooking utensils, a better icebox, bedding, lighting and a few other things we regard as ‘essential’, including a large piece of shadecloth that we use as flooring instead of sitting on bare ground. Lots of storage under the bed, a little kitchen area at the back, and we’re working out where to put things and how to get set up and packed up in less than 90 minutes. It’s always the same – takes us ages to get it all worked out at the beginning of a trip, but within a few days we get really good at unpacking and packing up … and where things should go.
Last night we camped in the Rio de Los Cipreses Nature Reserve south of Santiago. Chileans are keen campers and there were lots of people at the camp, including a couple of kids who befriended us when they were looking for el zorro (the fox) which was roaming around the camp. The kids came back a couple of times to chat, even though our Spanish is still almost non-existent. The little boy told us that it’s his cumpleano birthday in 3 days, but I wasn’t able to find out how old he is. Around 7 or 8, I think. Seems like it’s still school holidays here until the beginning of next month, so we’re going to head south , then take our time and look at things on the way back. Also, as Greg just pointed out, the weather in Patagonia is probably going to be better now rather than later.
My impression of Chilean people is that they are polite, friendly and law-abiding. When we collected the van, the woman told us that we shouldn’t have any problems with corrupt officials or police in Chile …. but it could be different in Argentina. Okay, we’ve been warned.
It seemed to be an ominous sign that there was a stack of ‘Your rights with LAN Airlines’ brochures at the check-in counter, but in the end our plane didn’t take off too long after it was meant to, and we made up the time during the flight and landed on time. For a while there though, we did wonder if the plane was ever going to board and take off.
Flying over the Andes was interesting, we had to do full-on landing procedures with seat backs and tables upright, seat belts on, crew all seated. I tried not to think too much about that movie ‘Alive’ or ‘Survive’ or whatever it was called, the one about the team of young sportsmen whose plane crashes in the Andes.
We felt a bit special going through Immigration at Santiago Airport. And not in a good way. Chile charges a reciprocity fee for Australian and Mexican travellers. Only Australians and Mexicans. There are special counters set up and thankfully they accept credit card payments. Mexicans pay USD$23, Australians pay a whopping USD$117 per person, valid for 90 days. As Greg said, we must have seriously pissed the Chileans off, with whatever hoops they have to jump through to travel in Australia. The young woman who attended to us told us that there were 4 Australians on the flight. We chatted with one of them a few times at Rio Airport, and again in Santiago and he thought the same as we did – no way will Rio be ready for the Olympics in early August.
The rest of the Immigration and Customs process was straightforward and quick … not many foreign tourists on our flight, it was mostly Chileans coming back home. All our luggage was x-rayed as we went through Customs. They have Australian levels of scrutiny, which may be a nuisance for us when we’re driving to and from Patagonia and reentering Chile via Argentina – no plant or animal products allowed, so we’ll have to plan our food purchases carefully.
Taxi to the apartment all went smoothly, but the key to the apartment wasn’t at the reception desk as our hostess had promised. We waited a while and I was just about to send an SMS when someone arrived, so it all worked out okay. Nice apartment on the 9th floor of a 25-storey block. 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, pool and gym in building AND a laundromat on the ground floor. Yay! You can see more photos here
We’re staying a few blocks away from San Sebastian university, and there are museums, parks, the zoo and lots of restaurants and bars nearby. Greg has spent some time this morning trying to get a prepaid SIM card and has just come home with one that he’s happy with. Our mental arithmetic skills are being tested – one Argentinian peso is worth about 2/10ths of a cent … ie, there are around 500 pesos to the AUD. I’m sure it will become second nature to just divide everything by 500.
We pick up the campervan tomorrow and the road trip will begin!
A belated Happy Australia Day, everyone. I hope however and whoever you spent it with was enjoyable.