Friday, 27 December 2013

A hitchhiker's guide to being a cowboy

This period of the travels has been one of firsts for us and particularly me as we have ventured into the world of hitchhiking and horse riding. Whereas I have scrounged lifts before, such as in Australia when I was stranded on the Great Ocean Walk (and ended up with a mention in Australian Geographic magazine), this was the first time that either of us have stood there literally with our thumbs out.
It all sounds rather risky and brave but the truth is that in this part of the world it is the common means of travel, even for the locals. What choice do you have when at best there is one bus per day, oversubscribed and impossible to reserve, and in some places there was only 2 buses per week!!
It has been fun though, if not a little inconvenient and if you want to learn Spanish then you probably can’t get a better opportunity to practice than this.

Flying from Santiago to Puerto Montt we pretty much missed out on the entire Lakes District but at least we were now on the fringes of northern Patagonia.
We couldn’t let the Lakes pass us completely by so from Puerto Montt we headed north by a mere 30 kilometres to the lakeside town of Puerto Varas, a German settlement founded in 1854 and famous for its Alpine style church and gigantic Volcano Osorno luming ominously over the lake in the background. Once familiar with the town we discovered that this alluring tourist photo of church / volcano was a completely doctored Photoshop image and couldn’t be replicated, but it really didn’t matter, the place was gorgeous.
I have recently been re-reading a friend’s blog from when her, Arancha’s sister and another mate were here back in June meaning that it was winter in Chile, and it is interesting how the weather can completely alter an experience, so due to the rain and low-lying cloud they only got to see the lake and not this view.
The gift of time comes massively in to play here as well because some of the things we got to see and do in this region were some of the best yet but it was only by having a lot of spare days (which are closing in on us) that we could make the effort to venture along the roads less travelled.

We didn’t really have a plan as such for Puerto Varas but we soon fell into one by chance and it turned out to be great.
We checked into a German owned hotel in the town and I only mention this because it was the oldest hospedaje in the town, built in 1914 and it was so old that the entire thing slanted to the side. Honestly, as you walked up or down and around the horseshoe shaped stairwell you fell into the wall and slid along it as you went; that is how slanted it was!
We were the only people staying here so it was a little spooky at night when the house would creak and groan as it moved and you walked by the empty bedrooms populated only by old metal hospital beds like some abandoned mental asylum.
The lake itself was a hive of water sporting activity, full of kayakers and windsurfers and of course the pink and purple sunsets that illuminated the Volcano’s Osorno and Tronador were tip-top.

So without any real ideas we decided to enquire about hiring bicycles and came out of the shop with a car rental!  
The opportunity to circumnavigate the entire lake and visit the natural sights on offer along the way was a must so off we set on a very miniature road trip – 150 kilometres and 1 night to be exact.

Our first mission in the car was a bit of a f*ck up and ended 30 minutes later with us sat on a public bus!! We needed to get back to Puerto Montt to book our bus tickets down into Patagonia and with only 1 bus per day it was imperative that we did book our seats when it was possible to do so.
We thought we knew the way to town but I missed the turning for the highway and then had to pay at the toll booth for the pleasure of getting back to where we had just come from. So we parked the car and made a quick return bus trip to Puerto Montt that was a lot less stressful and easier.
Back on the road trip we first stopped in the Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Rosales – a place where you could admire the beauty of the lakes first hand as well as see the original 2 volcanos and a new one, Puntiagudo, shaped like a witches hat, all a little closer.
The lakes themselves were deep, deep blue and surrounded by high forested cliffs and you could understand why the area was popular with picnicking families and schools.
We walked around the edge of lake for a few kilometres and had a stone skimming competition with lava rocks. AJ won this round with a skim total of 7, which was very good considering the rocks we had to work with. This is how we roll and making your own entertainment is important.

 The national park’s main draw is Saltos Del Petrohue, an area of vicious white water rapids and waterfalls. The sheer force of the water was scary but there was one tube like rapid that would be awesome for a little canyoning adventure if it wasn’t completely off limits for being too damn dangerous.
After wandering around all of this it was now already late in the afternoon but the bonus of being so far south on the planet during summer means that it doesn’t get dark here until about 11pm, so there is plenty of time in the day. I think we currently have 18 hours of light per day.
Our plan for the late afternoon and evening was to spend it 1,200 metres up on the side of Volcan Osorno which is actually used as a ski mountain during the winter. We were the only guests staying at the TeSki Lodge and if you wanted to waste $30 you could ride the ski lifts up to 2,000 metres but I don’t see how the views would’ve have gotten that much better than from where we sat with a panorama that stretched out for miles upon miles.
For once we had planned ahead so after sneaking our own food and bottle of wine into the lodge we sat upstairs in comfy leather armchairs and watched the world and the day go by out of the floor to ceiling windows. It was a good day!

Before finishing up this briefest of road trips we completed our full circle of the lake the following day by visiting a couple more German style settlements and the view from the village of Frutillar Bajo was probably the best in the area because the volcanos appeared to be hovering above the lake on a line of clouds. 
Once we dropped the car off, we then headed back over to Puerto Montt in anticipation of our 7am bus journey the next day.

Puerto Montt is a funny old place. You would think that as this is the home of the airport for this region as well as being the departure point of the luxury liner to the bottom of Chile (which takes 3 days) the place would be tourist friendly and at least a little spruced up, but it was nothing of the sorts. It was a rough and ready sort of place in definite need of a good scrub and some development, but saying that it still did have some charm to it, probably in part to do with the yummy meat cooking on the street side BBQ’s!
Puerto Montt is the start point of the Carretera Austral, a 1,200km highway that winds down through Northern Patagonia and comes to an abrupt end at the ocean in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. From here you can either wait for a few days to catch a ferry or backtrack before taking a right turn into Argentina – there no other options.
Apparently doing the Carretera Austral is a sort of ‘thing’, a bit like saying you want to do Route 66 across the States. We had no idea about this at all until we were there but during the next couple of weeks we saw numerous parties ‘doing’ the Austral in their own way, whether it was via campervan, hitchhiking or by bicycle, which was a lot more common than you may think.

Completing our first leg of the Carretera Austral by getting from Puerto Montt to Chaiten was a sweet deal because it included an impromptu sightseeing trip. This part of the world is a web of rivers, peaks and sprawling glaciers so nothing is straightforward. It would take approx 10 hours to reach Chaiten but it was no hardship as our day was bus, ferry, bus, ferry, bus, ferry and then finally the bus again. It sounds like a pain but it was nothing of the sort. The ferries are vehicle transporters so we took the same bus all the way and one of the ferry legs lasted for 4 hours and took us down through a spectacular panorama of mountains and fjords across the bluest of oceans.
For those who don’t know, a fjord is a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by glacial erosion; so they are very nice to look at.
Add to this the spotting wild dolphins close to the boat and I would happily take more long bus journeys if they were like this.

Chaiten is located in the Pumalin National Park and the landscape is dominated by the Chaiten Volcano. This volcano last erupted in 2008 and to this day still sends up masses of sulphuric smoke into the sky.
We were amazed to see that evidence of that eruption still very much prevalent in the park and the town.
There were huge swathes of forest land that had literally been reduced to dead wasteland; a complete contrast between the grey and lifeless and the green and living land. Massive tracts of trees were lying in the dirt all facing the same direction from where the blast had left them and those that were still standing were bare hunks of wood.
As for the town itself you could still walk around and into the wrecks of the house that were now abandoned and left to ruin, buried half way up in volcanic ash!
Apparently at the time of the eruption Chaiten had a population of approx. 4,000 people but less than 1,000 returned, leaving it very much a town in decline.

We had envisioned staying in Chaiten for 2 days to explore the park and volcano before carrying on south but upon arrival a very friendly local known as Gringo Nick informed us that there were only 2 buses per week – Sunday and Wednesday. Today was Saturday so we had to make a choice; either we leave ourselves stranded for 4 days or we scrap the park and move on.
When I tell you that it was Saturday night, this pic below shows how lively the main street in town was at 9pm. Literally 1 man and his wheelbarrow!
Also there was nowhere to eat apart from the ingenious cafĂ© in a broken down bus. It was proper cool but you couldn’t eat hotdog and chips there for 4 days in a row. Well you could but it wouldn’t be good for the gut!
It was a shame to miss the park and for some reason we still haven’t learnt to do our research but it was a good and stern introduction to the fact that we were now in those harder to reach places of the world.
With our now little time we checked out the buried houses and walked along the beachfront in complete isolation because we just couldn’t face the thought of spending 4 days here.

Next up was Puyuhuapi. In comparison to most rides this was a short one, only about 4 hours and we sat there looking out of the windows, transfixed at the outside world. Kerela in southern India describes itself as ‘Gods own Country’ but I think they have it wrong, it is here.
No houses, no development, only nature at its most vivid of colours. Topaz blue lakes, aquamarine rivers, emerald green mountains topped off with diamond white glaciers (see what I did there?) – beaut as they say in Aus.
Puyuhuapi was a quaint little village on the banks of an ocean inlet and the hostel we stayed in was almost a private little holiday cottage. We shared it only with one other, an adventurous French guy who gave us some invaluable tips and advice for the rest of our journey down and we returned the favour for his trip north.
You can keep the Lonely Planet, nothing can compete with an honest backpacker exchange when it comes to travel info.
Talking of travel info, Puyuhuapi had a Tourist Information Office and I couldn’t believe that out here in the middle of nowhere the tourist officer was a fully-fledged ladyboy. Honestly, she could have easily fitted in to the Thailand scene; she was very convincing apart from the fact that she was well over 6 foot.

We had chosen to visit to Puyu’ to see the Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier! The only problem was how to get there?
It was located 20km from town and there was only 1 bus per day – at 6am. The weather here follows a very particular pattern ie. it is cloudy and cool until about 11am and then it clears up and is roasting hot.
Apart from a potential glacial no show because it would be hidden behind the cloud, getting up at 5:30 to catch the bus sounded like a bullsh*t plan, so we decided to do it the local way – hitchhike.
Having now done this a few times it seems silly but we entered that day with trepidation, after all English lorry drivers murder prostitutes (we might have to rent ourselves out for a ride) and Arancha is from the land of Wolf Creek; the infamous true story of Ivan Milat who murdered 7 hitchhiking backpackers by axing them to death!!!!
But we needn’t have worried, we rubbed the belly of AJ’s traveling Buddha for luck and with our very first thumb up we had a lift! We had been waiting for precisely 90 seconds!!
Also, I never would’ve have thought that we would be successful so quickly and that I would have 2 new FB friends from it. We just happened to signal to 2 fellow backpackers, a Mexican / Israeli couple with a rental car on their honeymoon who were also headed to the glacier.

Getting there wasn’t completely straightforward as we got a flat tyre which needed to be changed right outside of the ranger office. The Israeli told us how he had been a mechanic during his National Service so we were confident that this minor hiccup was going to be resolved in very short time – but it wasn’t, it took about an hour.
I am absolutely useless with ‘man’ stuff, so I am not saying anything, but it doesn’t say a lot about the Israeli army when we are trying to jack the car up with the jack upside down and it was shifting under the weight of the car!! Danger, danger.
It took a teenage ranger to sort us out. My ego wasn’t damaged one bit, I am an office boy, but I think there was a dent in the pride of the 'army mechanic'. Ha ha.
He can rest easy in his manhood for the fact he did manage to change the tyre with a builder’s bum! It was pale, hairy and gross.

We envisioned making the 3km climb up to the lookout with our roadside saviours but they were too slow. In fact we spent 40 minutes at the lookout and didn’t see them again until we were on our way down.
Ventisquero Colgante was a sight to behold – the glacier crept over the edge between 2 mountains and made its way down to the lip of the precipice from where it hung waiting to meet its end from where it inevitably would break away from the main body and career down into the valley below. Numerous waterfalls spurted out from under the glacier itself creating a deafening sound of pure power and we stood for a long time just watching and waiting for something dramatic to happen.
Unfortunately for us we would not get to witness a carving event (when part of the glacier breaks away) but we heard it. It is typical that 10 minutes after we left whilst trying to get a good pic of a woodpecker we heard an almighty crack and crash as what must’ve been a large part of the glacier broke off – oh to have been the slow guys at this time, they had timed it perfectly!

After picnicking at a separate lookout we set about trying to now get back home knowing that if we really had to there was enough light left in the day to walk the 20kms but obviously not really wanting to because that would mean about 4 hours hard work and it was really hot.
Once again the Buddha sorted us out. We covered the first 5kms with a holidaying Chilean couple from Santiago whom we had met at the lookout and had had a little chat with, so I guess they were familiar enough with us to help us out and once they dropped us off it then only took 15 minutes and a few cars more to flag down a minibus heading back to town. Easy as peas.
This minibus belonged to the local fire brigade but fortunately for me and not so fortunate for Arancha these firemen were about 30 years and 40 kilograms past their prime. Result!
Our successful day ended with a mother dolphin and her calf swimming by as we watched the sunset over the lake.

There were actually 2 buses leaving from Puyuhuapi to the regional capital town of Coyhaique the next morning, both at 6am which seems odd really. Why not do one at 6am and one at 7am?
Anyway, we chose the wrong one.
The reason it was the wrong one was because about 2 hours in to the journey the other smashed into the back of us! We aren’t talking about a little bump either; it caved the back of our bus in and left itself with not much of a bonnet and bumper.
Nobody was hurt but the fuss some of the women made was ridiculous and it was like they were trapped in the mangled wreckage or something.
I am not sure what the process is here in Chile but we stopped at the one police station to report the incident but whereas the perpetrator (and other passengers on that bus) was away within 15 minutes we were there for about an hour.
When we did arrive in Coyhaique our day wasn’t finished. Our bags were in the twisted and firmly shut boot so we had to stay on the bus and make a detour to his ‘mate’ who was able to crowbar the thing open, before they gave us a lift back to town.
All’s well that ends well!

We were only in Coyhaique for one evening as we would be returning a few days later to fly out. Due to the difficulties of negotiating this part of the world and lack of road, we decided to explore a couple more places to the south on the Carreterra Austral before backtracking and flying further down and then backtrack on what we had missed as we head north. It seemed easier than heading into Argentina, to return to Chile before then going back into Argentina to then cross the border back in to Chile and then finally enter Argentina one final time and stay there.
By doing it our way we only do Chile – Argentina – Chile – Argentina. Much easier, yes?
The lay of the border is a little bonkers down here.

Coyhaique is the last outpost of civilisation before you enter the wild and once we left and got to Rio Tranquilo we really felt like we were at some end of the world type place.
Rio Tranquilo has a lot on offer if you have got a few hundred dollars in your pocket to spend on trips; which we do not.
This would only be a short stop and we planned to see one thing here – the Capilla de Marmol, or marble chapel.
This trip consisted of taking a boat out onto the clearest most transparent lake I have ever seen or drank from (I couldn’t help it, I had to try it) and the cost of the boat was $60 ie. the more people you had the cheaper it was per person.
Fortunately this wild outpost was flooded with backpackers, the most we have seen in weeks so after nearly agreeing to take a boat out on our own we found a group of 4 at the last minute to split the cost and that $40 saving was most welcome.
I have never seen rock formations like the ‘cathedral’ and the caves. Looking on Google Images we actually thought they were glacial tunnels, so were a little dumbstruck when we did see that they were in fact stone (really must do more research) but I think it maybe made them all the more impressive. You couldn’t help but snap away because each view or angle of the same point looked completely individual and we did our best to try to capture ‘that’ shot as we knew we would be using one of these pictures in our eventual house(s).

Woof woof

We now had 3 nights before our flight from Coyhaique, which didn’t seem like an issue until we learned that you couldn’t reserve a bus ticket for the 2 buses that pass through Rio per day. It was a case of turning up and seeing if your luck was in and there was space. Given that we already knew that the next day’s bus was sold out we gave the Buddha some extra love and rubs because we needed him.
Like the fat little hero he is, he didn’t let us down. There were a couple of private people carriers lined up next to the bus touting their services to the stranded masses and so along with a couple from England and 3 Japanese we got ourselves a lift to the next town we wanted to visit, 200kms away.
I must just mention Kammy and Tim from Guildford because when they are not back home working in the same industry as me (yawn) they go on an annual storm chasing holidays Storm chasing is something I have always wanted to do but thought that you could only do it with a specialist company. However, it turns out that with a little bit of study and some equipment, plus a decent sized set of boll*cks, you can do it yourself and witness the fury of mother-nature first hand. Seeing their eyes light up as they talked about the storms and tornados that they’ve seen in the past few years confirmed that this is definitely getting an underline on ‘the list’.
You have to live the dream people.

Villa Cerro Castillo (Castle on a hill) sits under the looming pointed granite spires of the Cerro Castillo Mountain, and is so named because it really does look like the castle of an evil lord like Skeletor (He-man) or the fortress of The Beast, from that classic 80’s film Krull.
We didn’t have the time to do the 4 day return trek to the lagoon at the base of the peak but we were determined to somehow get up there to see it.
It turns out that Kammy and Tim did it in 2 days, as did the French guy that we met in Puyuhuapi so we could’ve have done it if we’d found a tent to rent, but then I would have missed out on my cowboy adventure and a sore arse for 2 days afterwards!

I have never been on horse before but I wouldn’t say that I was nervous – if I’d had known what we would be doing on our excursion I would have been sh*tting myself and I now very much appreciate the proverb that ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Honestly, how different could it be to riding a camel, elephant or donkey on Skegness beach??

There were 2 options of horse riding trip, a) 3 hours along the river and back, or b) 4 hours of riding and 2 hours of walking up to the top of the mountain and back to see the lagoon.
Obviously we chose the most challenging.
It was only myself, Arancha, horse master Miguel and his 17 year old son on the excursion and my introduction to horse riding was as follows:
Miguel mounted the horse and said in Spanish, “Pull the reins this way to go left, this way to go right and back to stop. Let’s go!”
That was it. Now I was a little anxious.
That might sound ok to you but within my first 10 minutes on a horse we started to climb up and we are not talking about a gentle incline. This was a case of the horse trotting up to and leaping up a hill so steep that I would struggle to get up it on my own 2 legs and the ground was completely rubble and scree so the horses were slipping and sliding as they tried to get a purchase on the mountainside.
If Arancha who had been riding for 10 years and had her own horse growing up says it was the hardest and most technical ride she has done then I am taking that. You can make your Brokeback Mountain jokes but f*ck it, I raped that mother*cking mountain.
It is odd but the climb up and down this lengthy near vertical incline (serious!) where my life was in the hands of a horse that had no respect for me was the most exhilarating time I have had for ages and I loved it. Along with my own heart and swathes of adrenalin I could feel the horse’s heart pumping so strongly under me as she battled to get us up and over to easier ground that I couldn’t help but not enjoy it.
I tell you what though; I was not a fan of the horse deciding what it wanted to do and not what I wanted it to do. I did get a little bit frustrated when the guides and AJ are telling me what I was doing wrong, as if I should know what to do.
Still, it was a minor blip on what was a superb day and another thing to tick off the list – Cowboy, tick!

We haven’t even talked about the lagoon!
So the horse ride up to the plateau was about 2 hours and from there we scrambled 40 minutes up to the base of Cerro Castillo to come face to face with definitely one of the best views I will ever see.
I wish I had a panoramic function on the camera so that I could capture it all in one shot but from looking out across the land below to the row of the Andes in the distance we turned into the full face of Cerro Castillo towering tall and proud above us with 5 or 6 glaciers making their way down its sides to feed a luminous blue lagoon. This pics below show how we do lunch when we are work.
I don’t think you can ever take traveling for granted when you get to see stuff like this and I wish everybody could get to see some of these things and not just the 3 swimming pools of the all-inclusive hotel in Greece or Spain to really appreciate what we have.
I suppose it is just what you are in to isn’t it?

Leaving Villa Cerro Castillo posed the same problems as Rio Tranquilo but without the private cars option. Either we wait around until 2pm to see if the bus has space, having already passed through Rio, or hitchhike.
We just wanted to get back to Coyhaique and had given ourselves 2 nights to just in case.
It took us about 1 hour, a few cars and a couple run-throughs of Arancha’s hitchhike / pick me up dance until Jose and his logging truck stopped by the roadside and delivered us from ruin (or AJ getting her bangers out).
If you ever feel like you need some language practice then hitchhiking is the way to improve. Jose’s truck was old and slow and it took us 2.5 hours to do 95kms but we were not complaining. We would get back to Coyhaique in good time and we got to have a right old chat with him about all manner of things.
It is standard that hitchhiking is free but we felt like we needed to give Jose a tip and after refusing to take it a couple of times he finally accepted and drove off into the distance.
Feliz Navidad Jose!! (Merry Christmas).

So we had achieved this part of our mission and had explored the north of Patagonia and we also did it via 2 new modes of transport, hitchhiking and horse riding.
Our flight would now take us nearly all the way to the bottom, to Punta Arenas where we would spend Christmas before the very end of the road, literally where the road stops, at the world’s most southerly town of Ushuaia.

This part of the journey is also a pivotal moment in this adventure as it marks our final journey in southerly direction! Since leaving Canada on March 12th we have been going down and now nearly 10 months later we have reached the end. From here the only direction is north into the new year and towards home! 

No comments:

Post a Comment