I am currently reporting from California, sitting here disbelieving that just four days ago I was in Patagonia. Never before have I seen anything so wild and untouched, yet in imminent threat of destruction. If you are planning a visit to Patagonia, go here instead of Torres del Paine. Hopefully the increased tourism will help the government realize the value of this amazing place.
My Northern Patagonia adventure began with meeting my friends Demet and Mutlu, who have detailed many of our adventures in their own blog, at the Puerto Montt airport. Demet was one of the first people I met at Harvard. We work on the same floor and met at a materials science seminar there during our first week. I remember her giving me a huge smile, after which we instantly became friends. Then later that year, Demet and I met Mutlu while salsa dancing at Havana Club in Cambridge. If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I witnessed it that night when they met.
Anyways, they were such troopers! After traveling for 24 hours and not having a place to shower until late that evening, they still had smiles on their faces:
After walking around Puerto Montt and scoping out our ferry from afar:
We shared a parillada (mixed grill) for lunch:
I was prepared for a lot of meat, but I didn't realize that it would include all parts of the cow! Along with blood sausage and regular sausages, pork chops, steak, and chicken, there were cow intestines, stomach, liver, and heart. I tried everything, although I didn't particularly enjoy it all. Here's my plate:
After lunch, we walked to the Navimag ferry office to wait to board. Originally, we were told we would board at 10 pm but the ferry couldn't dock because the waves were too big and the tide was going down. After killing time in the waiting area for a few hours, we finally boarded the ferry at 1 am.
Boarding was an adventure in itself! Because Navimag is a commercial liner, we had to dodge semi-trucks that were boarding at the same time to carry supplies to Northern Patagonia. But the most fun part was the 'elevator', which was just a huge platform that carried us up to the next level.
When we got to our rooms, they told us that the ferry would leave at 5 am. So we all went to sleep, although I kept waking up every hour imagining that the ship had finally begun moving. But when I actually got up at 8 am, we were still in Puerto Montt!!! Apparently, it took longer than expected to load all the trucks and by the time they were ready it was low tide again. Finally, though, we departed Puerto Montt at 11 am.
Finally, 'on the road'!
The ferry ride lasted 20 hours. It actually worked out well because we were going to spend another night on the ferry. Otherwise, we would have had to pay for a hotel in Puerto Chacabuco.
All we had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. We had a lot of time to kill, so we spent it:
My favorite picture of them all:
We were tired from all of our ferry adventures and bonked out around 11 pm. The next morning, I woke up to this:
We finally debarked the ship in Puerto Chacabuco around 9 am that morning, again dodging forklifts and trucks:
If you can, I highly recommend taking the Navimag ferry down from Puerto Montt instead of just flying to Coyhaique. It is quite an adventure! We were among only 3 groups of tourists on ship. The majority on board were Chilean ferry workers and truck drivers, whom we shared all our meals with. Then, on our second night we sailed into the worst wind I have ever experienced in my life. The winds were stronger and louder than even Nor'easter blizzards, strong enough to tilt the huge ferry carrying semi-trucks sideways to about a 25º angle! All of the tourists woke up and, freaked out, ran up to ask the Captain what was going on. It turned out that we had just entered a sound that funnels wind, which is why they were so strong and loud. But we weren't in danger because the waves weren't big, unlike what would happen with winds that strong in open ocean.
While waiting for the bus to Puerto Aysén and Coyhaique, where we would rent a car, we met an Italian couple, Federico and Alessandra, that were heading in the same direction as us. So we offered them a ride. We had heard that hitchhiking was really common along the Carretera Austral, but we didn't realize we'd be doing it so soon!
We spent a couple of hours in Coyhaique, eating and securing a rental car. It was enough time for Demet to make a new friend:
The town is really beautiful:
After fueling up ourselves and the car, we were off! Just in the first hour of driving, we were greeted with impressive vistas:
Around Villa Cerro Castillo, though, the paved road gave way to dirt road and the real adventure began:
And the views got even better:
That evening we arrived at our first stop in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, which is a teeny tiny town on General Lago Carrera. We stayed at Hostal Puesto, which I highly recommend because it's beautiful and the staff are super nice. It was to be our base camp as we explored a couple of natural wonders in the area.
The next day we took a guided hike to Glaciar Exploradores.
After 7 hours of hiking, we were rewarded with this view at the end:
The next day we visited the Capillas de Marmol (Marble Caves), which are natural formations that were formed by wind and water on Lago General Carrera.
The boat drive back was amazingly windy and bumpy, which I guess is normal for General Lago Carrera. By the time we got back, we were pooped. It might have also been leftover fatigue from the hike the day before. So, we treated ourselves to a delicious meal and wine at Hostal Puesto:
The next day we continued our journey further south, with the ultimate destination of Caleta Tortel, a tiny fishing village on a glacially fed sound that Lonely Planet called 'fabled' because of it's network of creaky boardwalks instead of sidewalks. In Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we met two Belgian hitchikers that were also heading to Caleta. After fueling up, we headed off on the next leg of our adventure. Once again, we were greeted by gorgeous vistas along the way:
As we got further south, we also started seeing more signs protesting the Hidroaysén project and the dams:
We took a little detour to the east to visit the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a natural reserve in the making by the Tompkins couple, the founders of Patagonia outdoor wear, and Conservacion Patagonica that will connect the northern Jeimeni and southern Tamango natural reserves to make one large Patagonia reserve.
The park was full of guanacos, a camel-like animal related to llamas:
We drove further into the park in a search for:
Flamingos! I was super excited because I had never seen flamingos outside of a zoo. In fact, I had no idea that they were found in South America.
We mostly just stood around, enjoying the beauty and serenity of the park. I'll never forget one moment when we were all standing there, totally quiet, just taking it all in:
Enjoying the view.
I could have stayed there forever, but it was getting late and we still had a while to drive. So we continued our journey further south.
We arrived in Caleta Tortel at 10:30 pm, when it was just starting to get dark. We asked a couple of locals where our hostel, Brisas del Sur, was and were shocked to find out that it was a half hour walk on the boardwalk and boat ride away from the parking! We were so tired, it was so dark, and the boardwalk was so slippery that I fell twice on the stairs on the way to meet the boat. Then, when we were on the boat on the way to the hostel, we noticed that there were NO lights in any of the buildings. It turned out that there was a blackout because there had been no rain and it had been so warm in the previous two weeks that there wasn't enough water to drive the turbines. In fact, our hostel had to use a generator for hot water and lights that night, which she turned off at 12 am to conserve the fuel because she didn't know when they'd get electricity back. We also found out that most people didn't have fruits or vegetables because the trucks bringing them hadn't come for two weeks. At that point, we were seriously wondering where we had come to! 'Fabled' (a word used by Lonely Planet) wasn't quite the word I would have used to describe it at that point.
The next morning, though, we got to see how beautiful Caleta was:
On our walk, we also heard accordion music coming from one of the houses. They met dancing, so of course they never pass up an opportunity to cut a rug when there's music playing:
That afternoon Demet and Mutlu took a boat ride to visit Glacier Montt, which is part of the Southern Ice Field. I didn't join them because I just wanted to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the village. If you want to see pictures from their side adventure, visit their blog here.
We met up again that night and had dinner in town. Night in Caleta Tortel definitely feels fabled. This scene made me feel like I was in the Pirates of the Caribbean:
The next morning I took took a walk along the beach near our hostel, where I took some more photos because the weather had finally cleared:
Then, we gathered our things, took a boat ride, and hiked the last set of boardwalk stairs to the parking:
We tried to drive as far north as we could that day so we could spend a little time shopping in Coyhaique the next day before catching our flights north that afternoon. We had to take the same way back, so we didn't really take any pictures along the way.
But when we got to our destination for that night, Villa Cerro Castillo, we were rewarded with this beautiful view:
If you're ever in Villa Cerro Castillo, stay at Cabañas Tropero:
The owner, Eliana, was one of the sweetest Chilean women I had met. She even had us eat a breakfast of homemade breads and cakes (yes, I ate it. Not only were there no other options, but fresh bread out of a wood-burning stove made by a cute little Patagonia woman was kinda hard to pass up. I just dealt with the aftermath.) in her home next door:
After breakfast, we drove the last 90 km to Coyhaique where we did a little shopping before catching our flight to Santiago that evening. Even the flight felt like part of a tour:
Like I said, I can't believe that I was at the end of the world just four days ago! It was a once in a lifetime experience. If you can, see it while it lasts.