Motoring the Carretera Austral // Chilean Patagonia
The Carratera Austral may well be one of the most scenic highways on planet earth. It is also a road with a tumultuous past.
Construction began in 1976 under the dictator Augusto Pinochet to show his power and link Chile’s rural southern communities, that were previously only accessible through neighboring Argentina or by temperamental ocean passage, to the rest of the country. We visited mass graves of people killed by Pinochet’s military regime in the tiny coastal village of Pisagua (which literally means piss water) in Northern Chile around 2 years ago, which was appalling. Pinochet is commonly accredited as the mastermind behind the Carretera Austral, but plans were already in the works when his junta overthrew the government. Running 1,240 kilometers through remote regions of Patagonia in Southern Chile, the incredible and mostly unpaved road brings access to this magnificent part of the our planet. The Carretera Austral is not one continuous road, but a series of roads linked by ferry. Chile is a little bit uptight (compared to super-chill Argentina, or wild-child Peru), but that trait comes in quite handy in application to running a functional system of boats to cross the fjords and channels that mark the crumbled earth at the bottom half of the long nation. The Carretera Austral, 700 miles of dreamy landscapes, far from the world as we know it. Come drive it, you won’t regret it. Waiting for the ferry south in Hornopirén, we were forced to chill for a few days in the area because the boat was fully booked with no room for the van. Since we have slowed down, we are not stressed about hiccups such as this, instead viewing it as an opportunity to explore a region that we would have otherwise passed right through.We free camped on the river, Adam threw out his line & scored! Trout for breakfast? Why not! Adam grilled up his previous nights’ catch with some eggs. He doesn’t cook often, but when he does, it is with much gusto and pride.Our dashboard is the one space in the van that is purely for aesthetics. The collection of rocks, shells, bones, and feathers is constantly evolving as we search for ‘treasures’ on our hikes. We haul off half this collection and tuck it away at any border crossings just to avoid any headaches with bones or the like. We headed over to the Parque National Hornopirén, which had a muddy road that ended at a river. Bundled up in rainjackets, we started on a hike, but then decided it was just too muddy, rainy, & slippery. Some days we feel brave and determined, but some days you just don’t want to get all soggy with the babies, ya know?
The aptly named Rio Blanco outside of Hornopirén was a fast moving swath of foamy, glacial run-off. This part of the world is rich in clean water, hosting the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. The sign speaks for itself.This is why we are here. This is why we drove so far. This is us & our van nearing the ends of the earth, rolling free, seduced by the gently rolling of clouds overhead, the dappled light breaking through the blinding white in pockets of turquoise sky that falls heavy to the ocean, illuminating the water with so many watts it glows and dazzles before our eyes. And in this splendor we are small.
Chile is the world’s second largest producer of farmed salmon (behind Norway) & most of the salmon consumed in the U.S comes from here in Southern Chile. In 2007, a virus killed millions of fish and almost wiped out the industry. A comeback is happening because the industry is changing their practices by spreading out the fish over enormous tracks of ocean. Many of the small artisanal fishermen that once fished these waters, now work in factories, wearing white plastic suits, cleaning fish on conveyor belts. The salmon are fed pellets with astaxanthin to give the meat a pink color, the same natural pigment that makes carrots orange. Antibiotics are fed in the early stages of the fish’s life to prevent disease and contaminate the seawater. A farmed salmon spends over a year in one of the nets before being brought into a factory, killed and packaged for shipment. Here in Patagonia next to protected lands, are these floating ocean pens, which is quite a contradiction. Forest is thick, rivers and streams flow everywhere and this is a stretch of thinly populated earth, an area where it feels safe camping anywhere, just find a slice of dirt and pop the top. We are often asked about safety on the road, and we can share that southern Patagonia in Chile and Argentina are the safest feeling places we have been, anywhere. There is no sketchy looks, no jostling, no violent energy, no guns- just friendly if uninterested waves at most. If you are considering an adventure into the America’s and are not well versed in life on the road- perhaps ship south first then head north, building your road smarts as you go. Beneath the smear of clouds, the sun emerged to gift a last dose of vitamin D before it sank into the dramatic curves of the glacially carved landscape. Yep, we feel pretty blessed to spend all day with this small smiling human.
Thanks to our friends at Goal Zero we can keep our electronics charged while staying off the grid. Check out the Yeti400 solar generator. Showers in these remote zones are hard to come by, so sometimes a pot of hot water from the stovetop makes a world of difference. We have a Swiss solar shower too, but find stovetop water is just easier in most cases. The thing about living as we do, is there is no wrong way to do anything. We wash dishes in the shallow bucket and use it to wash our baby, we also use it to wash our dishes, wash laundry and store wet wetsuits. This small plastic bucket is an indispensable item to life on the road. This converted school bus caught our eye, but it seems they won’t be hitting the road again any time soon. After 3 days of waiting, our turn to get on the ferry had come, so we loaded up and headed for Caleta Gonzalo for a stunning 6 hour ride among the fjords. We saw dolphins, too! Arriving near Leptepu in the northern sector of Parque Pumalin, the scale of things are lost in 2 dimensions. It is just SO grand, so powerful, awe-inspiring, magnificent, monumental and splendid. Floating on a quite large barge filled with buses and vehicles, it seemed we were just a speck of sand beneath the massive peaks, which towered above the twinkling turquoise waters. Rings of farmed salmon float just in front of protected land, but the oceans are not, not even in National Parks! Totally astounding is the lack of regulation for protecting the oceanic waters of Chile. This ferry was a two-part ride: we disembarked at Leptepu, had a short drive to Fiordo Largo, then the second ferry departed to Caleta Gonzalo 20 minutes later. We met Patsy & Richard on the ferry, who were traveling on their collapsible bikes and were concerned about making the second ferry- so we packed them and their bikes in the back of the van. As they said, they are ‘getting up there’ in years, and are on the circuit to do all the physical things they want to while their bodies are still cooperating. They are active climbers and bikers and this ride is a 2 months circuit around the Lakes District & northern Patagonia. We are totally inspired Richard & Patsy and hope to be adventuring as hard as you are when we are you age!Parque Pumalin was created by the Tompkins Conservation, founded by Doug & Kris Tompkins, who have dedicated their lives to conservation efforts in South America. Doug started The North Face in the 60’s, then later Esprit. In the late 80’s he lost interest in promoting a “consumerist culture”, changed his gears from businessman to environmentalist, sold his shares and started the Foundation for Deep Ecology & The Conservation Land Trust, that now mainly focuses on educational publishing projects. Kris worked with climber Yvon Chouinard as CEO of the outdoor apparel “anti-corporation” Patagonia for 20 years. The two married and have spent the past 20 years together purchasing large blocks of wilderness and turning them into protected parks. Pumalín Park, Corcovado NP, The Iberá Project, Monte Leon NP and the Future Patagonia Park are a few of them. Disembarking in Caleta Gonzalo, we were itching to enjoy the lovely day after the 6 hour cruise, so we set out in the late afternoon for a longer than we expected (and totally worth it) hike on the Senderos Cascadas.
The trail was beautifully maintained with raised low impact boardwalks through the deep, dense greenery. Moss clung to every corner, and it was apparent how much rain the region receives. Although the trail said 3 hours there & return at a normal rate, we now figure nearly 2x longer when hiking with Colette- so the estimated 3 hours quickly turned into 5½ hours for our family. But that is fine. We go slow, we stop for snacks, we are happy to be on the trail, together, living the vision we dreamed for so many years. It turned into a more technical hike than originally expected, with chutes and ladders in countless locations. Roots over the trail and mud to skirt made it a constant watch below, while absorbing what is above. The rhythm that develops while hiking a meditation, an exercise not only of the body, but of the mind. Surrounded in green, we search farther than the first surface, not like being in the city, we look for new discoveries, animals, following the sounds to locate the hidden lark, a grove of the tiniest moss flanking a fallen log. This macro shot illustrates how dense the forest is! A tiny cosmos on nearly every surface.
The water is pristine in this region, and Colette was thrilled to lean down and sip directly from the rivers and streams to rehydrate. I think she stopped at every water source for another sip. “Mmmm, this is so nice and refreshing!” she would exclaim. With fresh water running low in many developed places like California & Sao Paulo, we relish this gift that flows so freely here. And looking at statistics from the World Health Organization, this train of thought is put in a mighty perspective: 1.1 BILLION people worldwide have NO access to any type of improved drinking source of water. The people at Waves for Water know this and are actively working to help improve access for those across the globe. Arriving at the top of the Sendero Cascadas, we could hear the waterfall roaring around the bend and feel the wind carry moisture of the fine mist filling the air with cool droplets of fresh waterfall dew. Emily climbed the slippery moss covered ladder with the most sincere focus, as Sierra calmly sat bundled in the Ergo, oblivious to the undertaking. The backside of the rock slab had a thick rope hanging down from it that required scaling down carefully, then hopping over a portion of the river. It was a climb that solo would be a challenge, and with a babe on front required supreme coordination and concentration. Adam & Emily worked together to get Coco over the section, then Adam threw Coco under his arm & hopped over a few sections of river that had to be crossed. I, Emily, slipped and ended up knee-deep in the cold water. I tried to maneuver some other way, but it just wasn’t working. I had made it the whole hike, and couldn’t see the damn waterfall, but it just wasn’t worth it to probably get another wet foot or endanger Sierra. Then, tired and with a wet foot, I cried. And so it goes sometimes. We set back, chasing light through the dim forest. When we emerged back at the van at 9pm, the light was still clinging to the farthest corner of the sky.New days bring new light. Amongst giants! The Alerce tree reaches more than 150 feet in height and 13 feet in diameter, living longer than the redwoods or giant sequoias of California- over 3,600 years! Mans hunger for nice shingles and decks have brought this tree close to extinction and now only 15% of the original Alerce forrest remain. This small grove is right off the Carretera in Parque Pumalin.Heading south on the Carretera through the park you will encounter Lago Negro, which is flanked with totora reeds. At a bathroom break, Emily discovered this hummingbird that had been caught in a massive spiderweb and perished. We pulled it down, and inspected this tiny bird that weighed so little. Colette sighed “I am sad that this hummingbird died, but I am glad I got to see it up close.” Did you know hummingbirds are the only birds that can fly backwards?The infrastructure of Parque Pumalin is amazing, and this hand carved map of the region, highlighting the wildlife is a dramatic example of form meeting function.Traveling southward, we exited the park, crossing a river that was visibly devastated from the eruption of Volcan Chaiten on May 2, 2008 and erupted off and on until November 2008. This seems like Mother Nature doing her very best, as during this time, the hydroelectric megadam project HidroAysén were canceled due to the interference among other reasons. Score one for Pachamama. You can read more about PatagoniaSinRepresas on their site, but the key notes are:
1. Chile has better options than HidroAysén to satisfy growing energy demand and be energy independent.
2. The “efficient design” of dams does not justify significant and irreversible impacts.
3. HidroAysén is a costly project designed to make a profit – not raise Chileans out of poverty.
4. Opposition to HidroAysén is the majority view in Chile, and unites conservatives, liberals, Santiago residents and Patagonians alike. Giant rhubarb (Gunnera tinctoria), called nalca in Chile, making its way back at the base of the forest that was singed by noxious volcanic gasses. The leaves can grow up to 2.5 meters across! Chileans use the leaf to cover curanto, a seafood feast cooked in the ground & like rhubarb, the stalk is edible, peeled & eaten raw with salt or used to make jam. We call Sierra “little fuzza” because she has just the softest fuzzy head, we lovingly jostle for her drolly kisses and melt when she lets out a sweet sigh, gently laying her head on your shoulder for a hug. We all really, totally and completely adore this little road warrior. As Coco says “Oooh, I just love her too, too much!”South of the town of El Chaiten, is Fundo Las Rosas, one of Parque Pumalín’s initiatives supporting sustainable agriculture in the region. Julia, the bilingual manager, is as much of a gem as the organic farm; do not pass by if you’re in the area! Borage flowers, also known as starflowers, are planted as a companion plant for tomato as it confuses the hornworm. The flowers have a delicate cucumber taste, and delight the eye as much as the palate. The only ripe cabbage was perhaps the biggest cabbage we have ever seen! I mean, we like cabbage, but not that much. As we live in a small space, we opted to not torture each other by consuming like 15 pounds of this cruciferous vegetable. (Toooooooot!) We headed over to the blueberry bushes for some PYO (pick your own) fun. Colette did exactly what Adam & I wanted to do (but restrained ourselves from doing)… 5 in the mouth, one in the punnet. Raspberries were eaten with the same glee as the blueberries. There is something super gratifying about harvesting food; when you see the land the food is grown on, the care the farmers put into making a product that fuels you, there is a deeper connection to the food. We value this work immensely and try at every opportunity to teach Colette about the food chain and how important responsible consumption is. We do not waste food and give thanks for all we have, knowing there are so many not able to enjoy such beautiful abundance. Our haul. It was quite a spread indeed, and we consumed everything with the utmost pleasure.
A real, great salad has a rainbow of colors represented. A favorite trick is to dry toast sesame seeds and sprinkle them on for a fragrant crunch. This salad was beet tops, lettuce, borage flowers, shredded carrot, snap peas, fresh basil, lemon juice, evoo and salt n’ pepper with warm sesame seeds.
We had passed the Ventisquero Yelcho when on our trek north to get the motor worked on, spying a smugly smiling mountaineer on the side of the road. We promised ourselves to come back and explore the massive hanging glacier that clung to the hillside. Pulling into the parking lot just below the Puente Ventisquero (Glacier Bridge), we piled on some warm layers and headed out for the day-hike.
Following the riverbanks, the mostly flat trail led west to the spine of the mountains through boggy undergrowth rich in every shade of green and nalca leaves that dwarved us in jurassic splendor.An inflorescence (part of the shoot of seed plants) of the nalca plant can reach 3 feet long. After 2 or so hours, we reached the end of the trail. As Colette was tuckered out, Emily & the girls hung back to enjoy the lowlands, while Adam set off to explore the higher regions of Ventisquero Yelcho.You’ll notice this happens often. Adam ventures higher, while Emily hangs back with the kids. This is not because Adam won’t watch the girls- it is simply a matter of logistics. Sierra is nursing and I, Emily, make & dispense the milk. We don’t have a breast-pump in the van. Yes, she can (and does) eat other food, but sometimes there is nothing that will console her but a little Mama time. The higher, longer hikes are just not always appropriate when carrying a baby on you. And Coco, for all her strength, is still just a little girl. It is a short period of time that Sierra so directly needs me. This time will pass and I will be free to do more, but for now, I do not feel stifled by this dependence, I feel honored by it, I honor this bond, this sweet time with the babe, who cohabited my body for the better part of a year. Glaciers are made when snow remains in one location long enough to transform into ice and is compressed into thickened ice masses. What makes glaciers unique is their ability to move. Due to the sheer weight of their mass, glaciers flow like very slow rivers. Currently, glaciers occupy about 10 percent of the world’s total land area. Yelcho Glacier is a ‘hanging glacier’ which means the valley below used to be a glacier, but has already disappeared.
Adam climbed until he needed crampons and an ice ax to go further. Like a blue raspberry slurpee, the colors seem surreal.Right from the source, free rivers create the most dazzling patterns.
After we returned from the hike, Emily stuffed up some squash blossoms with fresh sage & local cheese, dredged them in wholewheat flour and polenta, then fried them to crispy, oozy goodness. Can I have this meal on repeat please? There was other food made too, but really, who cares.
Scenes of rural life on the Carretera Austral.Using our CONAF family pass, we entered Queulat National Park, and took a short walk to the overlook of the Queulat Hanging Glacier. Set amongst Valdivian temperate rain forests, parts of this region receive an astounding 157 INCHES of rain per year. The swiftly moving river coursed among the thick coihue and endemic tepa trees. Air was thick, moist, and vibrant, the temperature surprisingly tepid with a cool breeze that bit. A ranger told us Colette was the only kid he had ever seen wearing a dress in the park, ha.
Parking lots at National Parks are a great place to spot other overlanders & view the variety of adventure mobiles out here in the world. We look at these big vehicles in a very different manner than we did when we were a duo, then a threesome. These girls are small now, but four is more and the Westy will eventually be too small for us to live in permanently.
We had met some kind folks who shared that this zone was closed and impassable for about 5 hours. Tompkins Conservation is advocating the designation of this rugged 700 mile Carretera Austral as a “scenic highway” establishing legal standards for signage, road maintenance & responsible roadside development. After days on this route, we have seen a wide variety of road- from well maintained sections in Parque Pumalín to ugly parts roughly clawed into the rainforest.
Throwing out his line for a few is as easy as that.When we departed California in 2012, we felt we would be reexamining “The American Dream.” Now 2.5 years into a trip that is longer than we ever imagined, we see this reexamination is like an onion, we keep peeling back layers. Modern culture pushes for an unattainable dream that focuses on commodities, not experiences. That is not what the American Dream started as- it started as a search for freedom; ironically this search for freedom was at the expense of the Native Americans, so from the start it was a flawed story. How can one person’s freedom be more important than another? One must look at the cost of our freedom. We reject the carrot dangled before our eyes, a model of unsustainable consumption and reckless growth. It seems there is a shift in collective focus: one that is growing, one that is spreading by sharing the power of simple living, that by having less, we find the pleasures in more. We continue to invest the time into sharing our experiences with a global audience, and in return continue to learn from those who share this common goal of stripping away false ideals and of putting dreams into action.
On the road, we do not meet many folks from the USA, especially American women that have traveled solo by motorcycle headed for the end of the earth. Meet Erin, she’s awesome, you can read more about her adventures on her blog GlobeStomp.
Descending this beautiful (and smoothly paved) section of the Carretera Austral, yet another inspired part of the Andes mountain range made our jaws drop. It just doesn’t get old. We do not tire of the ever-changing scenery, instead grow deeper in love with the majesty and surprises that await us.
Cerro Castillo National Reserve surrounds this appropriately named “castle hill” range 75km outside of Coyhaique, the capital of the region.
We stopped at the ranger station where they informed us of our options: a short 30 minute walk (which they described as quite un-noteworthy) or a 5 day hike through the peaks. Colette is not quite ready for that kind of venture (which would take 9 or so days at our rate), so we decided to keep heading south & put this on the top of our to-do list for a later date. Even on this type of adventure, you just can’t do it all, you have to choose, plan and prioritize. But dang, even a drive near these fantastical peaks is an experience.
We stumbled across the cutest restaurant in two converted buses, but we had just eaten and had no hunger in our bellies. Only if we had known… but that too is part of how we travel. There are many travelers who spend a good amount of their time meticulously detailing every popular hashtag and pinterest pin along their route. Perhaps for a 2 week vacation. Not for every town you pass, not for life on the open road.
And 1 minute beyond the cutest cafe, back to open expanse.Mant people ask how we can afford our ‘endless vacation’ but the truth is this is our life now and we don’t live it like a vacation. We do not pay for lodging nightly, we don’t eat out daily- we mostly free camp & cook our own simple meals. A cold pressed organic juice costs what we spend on two meals for our foursome.
The Black-faced Ibis (bandurria) are social birds that grow to 30″ and have a trumpeting squalk . They like to wade in open grasslands, cultivated fields and damp ground near fresh water probing for insects, worms and other small creatures. Don’t they have such a great paint-job?Part of the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign is to illustrate the damaging effects the high tension power lines would have if draped across Patagonia all the way to Santiago.
Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile, and the deepest in South America, draining west to the Rio Baker.In Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a rodeo was in town and the horsewomen were leading the horses to drink on the massive Lago General Carrera (called Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina portion).
We arrived early to attend the big event in town that weekend- a jineteada– which is a gaucho show of horsemanship. People came from near and far for the cultural affair, wearing their best. It was great fun to happen upon this small town gathering and have an authentic cultural experience (not to mention taking notes on all the awesome gaucho style!). Locals set up and threw down for a game of tejo, which is similar to horseshoes.This style developed from what is called a ‘stampede string.’ The black string is tied in the back when hanging out, but the hat is taken off & the string tucked under the chin when on a horse at working speeds. The silver adornment is inspired by the Mapuche jewelry; similar hats are worn by Amish & Mennonite communities, which makes one wonder if this influence is from the many German immigrants in Chile. Certainly their attire is a conglomeration of cultures near and far, blended into a look all their own.
As the flag was raised, the huaso (Chilean cowboy) and china (Chilean cowgirl) sang along, then performed the traditional cueca dance, where it holds the status as “national dance.” It was a Sunday, and looked as if these old-timers had been going strong all weekend long.
Before the real huasos started out on the wild horses, a comic show was put on to loosen up the crowd, which was already quite loose with the guzzling of wine poured into bulls horn cups and copious amounts of cerveza in aluminum, thrown thoughtlessly on the ground, or perhaps in the general direction of the scarce and overflowing trashcans.The objective of a jineteada is for a rider to stay on an untamed horse for a period of time (from 6-15 seconds) and are judged on 4 points: the rider’s riding (the most important), the foal, use of spurs, and elegance in the ride.
The action started off & the process of elimination began. As the riders got passed onto the next round, wilder horses were brought out. The wide sash is inspired by the Spanish bullfighters and is said to have been to offer support to the kidneys and lower back.Horses were introduced to Chile in the mid 1500’s. By the turn of the 16th century, the native Mapuche were excellent horsemen. During the last 500 years, horses have remained an integral part of Chilean culture, and the Chilean horse is officially recognized as the oldest horse breed in South America.The chamanto (a poncho, but Chile likes to have special names for all sorts of things!) is folded and worn over the shoulder when not in use.We met up with Erin again (the girl riding solo on her motorcycle from the US) and had a great day watching the wild festivities.Surely we were the only vegetarians at the rodeo. There were however, freshly fried cheese empanadas with pebre (think salsa fresca, just called something else), popcorn and a variety of cakes. This mama horse was the toughest of the lot and the announcers made a big deal about her, nobody had been able to ride her for more than 12 seconds.
Well, it was a good day for this rider, who stayed on until the buzzer rang at 15 seconds. He was quickly rescued from the mare and rode around in triumph on this other horse, as his friends and family came rushing from the sidelines to hug and cheers for their valiant rider.The “couples ride” was sandwiched between heats of the competitors.Baqueanos are Patagonian ranch hands who herd cattle and sheep. Their boinas, beret, are a trademark look.
The reason we had come to Puerto Rio Tranquilo was to visit the Marble Caves on Lago Carrera, but being on the slow boat, we were happy to have our plans derailed for the passing rodeo and a slice of Patagonian culture. The following day, we motored out on the first boat of the day for a ride on the magnificent lake which spans two countries.We set off early so we could catch the sunlight in the caves and to hopefully avoid the afternoon onslaught of wind which whips up the waves from the west (say that 5x fast).
The unusual geological formations of Cavernas de Marmol have been formed from 6,200 years of waves crashing into the shores of Lago General Carrera, washing the limestone away, revealing the incredible marble within. This is not the result of an overzealous retoucher, bumping the colors to create an image that gains likes or ends up on a social media page with a name like “BeautifulDreamPlaces”, “ColorfulEarth” or “BestSunsetsGlobal_AndMore.” These otherworldly contrasts are just as they appear, the turquoise water dancing upon the grey marble, worn down by the frigid liquid which so slowly wields its chisel. Good one nature, good one.
This scene reminded us of Krabi, Thailand, where Adam & I kayaked among overhanging islands in turquoise waters in 2003, the main difference being about 30 degrees for both water and air temperature (fahrenheit that is). You can take a kayak out here, but the wind was supposed to be strong later in the day, so was unadvisable. It is the element that created these natural marble sculptures after all, so we listened. As we had heard you could jump in the water (swim is not the right word as it’s too darn cold) at one point of the boat ride, Adam came prepared with snorkel, wetsuit, underwater camera and an extra set of cajones (cause he was about to freeze his balls off.)
The bathography (underwater topography) revealed mirror like reflections of the exposed portions, except through the fantastical turquoise waters.
It may look all nice, but this was on the way back to shore, on a wild and bumpy ride, as the wind had set a rough chop on the water. It was also raining, while intermittently sunny, then a giant rainbow appeared. It was such a perfect end to a magical morning that Emily was like “yay!”
Further down the (mostly unpaved) Carretera Austral we rumbled, watching the turquoise waters of Lago Carrera appear and disappear into the twists and curves of the landscape.
Climbing with frenzy to the roadside bushes, these dust covered daisies added more dynamic pop to the green and turquoise vistas that made our drive so radiant.
The Carretera Austral, in our humble opinion, rivals any scenic highway we have driven in the world, different than the dreamy Highway 1 in California through Big Sur, but just as glorious. The resonating sound of wheels on dirt track can serve as a meditative focus, or you can blast some tunes and fly.
At a stop in the road for construction, we spotted the badass rider who came in second at the jineteada. We had left towards the end of the day as the rain fell and the babies were hungry, before he took a tossing from a wild horse. We gave him our info, so we could send him photos of the day, but we haven’t received an email and sadly don’t know his name.
After so many hours just sitting on your bum, a good stretch is the best medicine.
The Rio Baker exits Bertrand Lake, which is fed by Carrera Lake, flowing along the east side of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field and is Chile’s most voluminous river. This is one area that the HidroAysén, was hoping to dam up, but for now the waters are safe (in part due to 30,000+ people that marched against it is Santiago). Can you imagine this pristine area with towering power lines scarring this beauty? Many presume that the energy company will try again in a few years to advance their project, but for now, this area is as it has been for millennia.
Yep, we are a long way from almost everything. That is just fine with us, we are right where we want to be, and practice being present right where we are. When we think about the road ahead too far, it becomes an overwhelming, ongoing journal of the next thing. On a journey such as this, enjoying the here and now keeps us grounded.
Whenever we see bicyclists roadside we stop, offer water and have a chat. These folks were just fine and enjoying a roadside picnic. The Swiss couple had ridden from Alaska, one guy had been on the road 6 months, the other just 6 weeks.In 2004 Conservación Patagónica purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a 178,000 acre sheep ranch in the Chacabuco Valley, which lies between two existing Chilean National Reserves, Jeinimeni and Tamango. Coupled with other smaller purchases, they have dedicated the past decade on creating what is now dubbed “The Future Patagonia Park.”
As we entered the valley, we were welcomed by a herd of guanaco and their young, who eyed us with curious suspicion, but not enough so to get up and leave.
Los West Winds campground is the first free campground we have found with hot showers. We rolled in, with an almost flat tire and a busted spring on the sliding door, so unfurled our stuff to attend to the necessary maintenance in the empty lot.
Coco was literally, climbing the walls.
Tools were scattered, Colette had kicked over the camp chair, the sliding door was off and opened up while Adam attempted to locate why it suddenly would not close at all. Thankfully, before our departure, he had welded tabs on the outside of the van which we can secure with a padlock. If not, a bungee or some other sketchy solution would’a been the temporary solution. He located a busted spring, which would have to be imported from our friends at GoWesty.
Aaaand then, in the midst of our chaos sprawled all over, and crying Sierra, and the whistling pressure cooker, appeared a guy walking towards us. Upon seeing the insanity of our camp, he slowly made an arc to the other corner of the lot just 20 feet from us, and stood gazing out onto the valley. We said hello and hola, and were met with a polite response, but nothing more. Adam and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, it was a bit strange as there was nobody else around, but then went back to trying to finish up our various jobs and manage the girls at the end of a long day. Three minutes later, a lady hiked up, and then, Adam and I knew…
“Hi, I’m Kris” she said, extending her hand with a genuine smile. “And this is…” gesturing over to her husband.
“Doug!” we chimed in, quickly scrambling to gain our composure in the face of meeting such legendary conservationists.
We introduced ourselves and called Coco to us, who picked up some rocks and began to throw them AT them. Oh, lord. We asked Coco to not throw rocks at people (like 3 times, as she was in a particularly feisty mood and kept doing it), and spent a few minutes talking to them, us mostly gushing about their various good works in South America. Adam asked if he could snap a picture, between what we later deemed Doug’s code word “We are late for dinner.” Adam grabbed his camera and they gave us a good smile, proudly standing in front of their sign for Parque Patagonia.
As they strolled away hand-in-hand, in the rolling hills that they have purchased and have opened up to the world and will give back to the people of Chile, we shook our heads and laughed and wished we had met in better circumstances. You know, perhaps not looking like total dirtbags. But, Doug is an original dirtbag, having driven from California with Yvon Chouinard to climb Fitz Roy in 1968, when there was no pavement south of Mexico City. So we don’t feel that bad.
Emily had to let off a little steam after the embarrassing encounter.
We were awoken in the morning to the sound of… not a bird, not a plane, but a weed whacker. Surely didn’t expect that suburban sound, but I guess that’s how you keep all that grass so nice and lush for campers to camp on. We loaded up for a 2 day excursion on the Lagunas Altas trail, which most fit hikers handle in 1 day.
Colette celebrated her 4th birthday! Her 1st birthday was celebrated in the front yard of our Los Angeles house with friends and family, her second in Cartagena, Colombia in a plaza filled with a few road friends and local kiddos, her third at a traveling Mexican circus in La Serena, Chile and now, here in Patagonia, with us and the trees and the guanacos and the crisp clean air.
The trail led from the grassy lowlands up into the windswept forest, and in the last push up the steeps, into the open rocky peaks. This special region is a unique environment- a transition zone between the arid steppe of Argentine Patagonia and the temperate southern beech forests of Chilean Patagonia and one of the only east-west valleys in the region.
We promised the birthday girl that she could open another present once we got to the top of the trail (yes, bribery, but hey, it is her birthday!). It was a new bag for her art supplies, and she was stoked as rainbow is now her new favorite color (replacing red).
Sometimes you are at the right place at the right time, and the universe sends you a beautiful confirmation of that.
From the top of the trail, Adam set off to climb to the top of Mt. Tamanguito. Up, up, up he scaled the rocks towards the peak, which offered higher views looking over Valle Chacabuco.
Puma territory up in these parts, with the skeletons to prove it.At the summit.
Looking north into the Jenimeni Reserve, which will hopefully join the 200,000 acres of Valle Chacabuco, and Tamango reserve to the south. This trio will become the 640,000-acre Patagonia National Park, a park nearly equal in size to Yosemite National Park in California.Overgrazing on the former estancia led to grasslands being barren and susceptible to erosion. Ecosystem restoration, recovering protected species and protecting biodiversity are top priorities for Patagonia Park, which hopes to serve as an anchor in the region for eco-tourism and sustainable travel. An Andean condor fly’s high and free.Initially we wanted to camp on a beautiful spot next to one of the dozen high alpine lakes, but it was chilly at night, so we found a spot to camp on the edge of the forest that was protected from the icy winds.Inside the tent, at the top of the mountain with nobody around, we celebrated Colette’s 4th birthday on her first overnight backpacking trip. She has, on our previous hikes, asked to stay out longer and wants to sleep in the tent, so we made her request a reality in one of the finest places we could find. The four magical years we have had with our loving, vibrant, inquisitive, determined, creative Colette Nova (indeed she is a victorious, bright and fast moving star) have been a remarkable journey that we are ever grateful to share as her parents.
Mama had some tricks up her sleeve, which delighted Colette to no end. Balloons! Holographic masks! Chocolate cake (nutella on a budin cake in a bag)! A number four candle!
Baby sister Sierra loved the candle, but is not down for the masks on us, or on herself. She was looking at us like “Who are you people and what have you done with my family?!”We packed up camp and hit the not too dusty trail.Our ambassador of love and joy is F O U R!
Day two on the trail we hiked by more small lakes, each having their own personality. It was pretty marvelous to see a dozen or so lakes packed in the 14 mile loop.
There are no fires permitted in the backcountry as winds are fierce. Ranchers used to employ fire to clear the forest to make way for grazing ground for livestock. Adam was ‘being the leader’ on the trail when he smelt a familiar smell (those of you accustomed with Franklin Hills know it is adjacent to Griffith Park, one of the largest urban park in the US and teems with wildlife) , so we stopped and looked around for a minute before we sighted this Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk. As you can see, the critter with the famous scent glands has a flat, hairless, pink nose- thus its name. They are usually hard to see, as they forage for food at night, but we happened to have a bit of luck.
Hitchhiking is hard work too, ok guys?
Working our way down the far side of the loop, we stopped frequently for the birthday hiker and even took a late afternoon power nap in the shade. “Ahh, I just wanna take a little lay in the warm, warm sunshine and close my eyes because my legs are tired but my mind is strong.” She might have been told that last part a few hundred times when she complained of being tired.
Down on the valley floor, at a lake to the east, we spotted both flamingo and guanaco! Yep, this place is magical.
We met up with some of the good folks from Parque Patagonia and Eli said there was an overabundance of kale in the garden and Emily about fell off her chair. “You have kale?!” The garden manager was out for the afternoon, but we were invited to go and harvest some for the road. The beautiful, organic gardens supply the (reservation only) restaurant (that we didn’t eat at) with a bounty of fresh, hyper-local food.
The kale was barely in the bag before I had make a kale salad! Sundried tomato, orange, shredded carrot, green onion, a bit of arugula, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper & dry toasted sesame seeds. Delish and total California comfort food. When my sister, Laura asked me what food I missed most, it was an easy call: kale and almond croissants.
After leaving the park we headed to the nearest town, Cochrane to stock up on groceries and fix our flat tire. It is the town nearest to Parque Patagonia, and a town that is divided in their feelings on the Tompkins’ work. Below is a home that supports them, but we stopped at a house that was plastered in “Patagonia sin Tompkin$” stickers to hear the other side of the story. Emily, with Sierra in arms, knocked on the open door and a fast talking, 50-something 4’10” woman in tight jeans and pointy toed kitten heeled boots came and said hello. We got into quite a lengthy discussion, Emily asking only questions and trying to hear her full story with an open mind. She was vehement in her opposition to the transformation of the estancia into a national park because who cares about the animals, the guanaco, the huemul (that she said they had purchased), the condor, the puma. They will not put food on your table. When they came in the price of lamb went from CLP 10,000 to CLP 50,000. They want to preserve the animals, but not local tradition. Tourists only come for 2 months, what about the other 10? And the tourists who come only hitchhike and sleep in their tents and do not support local economy. As we talked longer, she got more heated even saying she wished he would be killed. Whoa lady.
Doug Tompkins has been in the Chilean press as much as dictator Pinochet. What do other billionaires do with their money? Surely most of them do not purchase large swaths of land o preserve them, then give them back to the people for preservation and all to enjoy.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln
Southern Patagonia just seems to have a funnel effect- we have seen more adventure mobiles down here than anywhere else. As the continent narrows, I guess there are only so many roads.
For our Chile exit, we had to hook back through the park and drive east through Valle Chacabuco towards the southernmost border crossing by vehicle at Paso Roballos. On the road, we chanced upon a group of volunteers who were removing invasive thistle. Wearing thick gloves, they first remove the head of the flower as to ensure no seeds fall, then they pull up the plant by the roots. You can go here if you are interested in volunteering.Volunteers also spend removing old fences so wildlife can roam free. I cannot stress how truly restful it feels to have the eye gaze out and not be stopped by a fence.Using our field guide, we identified the calafate bush, which boasts small berries whose sweet juice stains lips and teeth in a witchy hue. Rumor has it once you have tasted calafate, you will love and return to Patagonia.
And like that, we were at the Paso Roballos border crossing heading into Argentina once more. For sure, we will never forget our time on the incomparable Carretera Austral.