I think my jaw hit the floor when we got to Futalefu and I didn’t really pull it up until we started north again on the road to Buenos Aires. The Austral has got to be one of the most scenic drives on earth.
George and I wanted to see it all, so we planned to power through the remainder of the gravel and sometimes corrugated road to the end of the line in Villa O’Higgins. We thankfully had some company (Patagonia or Bust and Andamos de Vagos) and some walkie-talkies to help pass the long hours on the road (Wiggly to the Condor! Wiggle out!).
We lucked out with Reserva Nacional Rio Simpson campground for our first night. There was a little hut complete with fireplace and picnic tables to spare us from the onslaught of rain.
Wild berries, pancakes and bacon! Yum!
After another wet night, we made it to Puerto Rio Tranquillo. There is a short dead-end road heading west and then northwest out of Puerto Rio Tranquillo (X-728) that takes you through Valle Exploradores. The drive is spectacular with a number of places to pull off and admire your surroundings. A short and pricey hike will take you to the lookout for the Exploradores glacier.
We met a couple serendipitously at the end of the road in Valle Exploradores at Rio Exploradores who informed us of the very ripe salmon fishing opportunities across the river. I knew immediately that there would be no discussion with George, he was going fishing. The guys piled in a boat taxi that ferried them across the river to the clear water. They came back with a beautiful salmon in tow. We found a sheltered camp spot along a tributary road leading to the shore of the river that evening and feasted on salmon and grilled vegetables.
Just south of Rio Tranquilo is the marble cathedral, a cave complex that you can visit with a boat or kayak. We camped out near the boat launch that evening, letting the rough roads melt away as the sun set over Lago General Carrera. The lake and the shades of blue in the cave would force the most loquacious person into a moment of contemplation.
Lago General Carrera
George taking advantage of the fishing opportunity
Catching our ride
Making it to Cochrane, we decided to take advantage of the abundant leftover salmon and try our hands at sushi in the Tomasin Campground. Huge success!
Splitting from the pack in Cochrane, George and I decided to push on to Caleta Tortel, a logging village that sits on the mouth of the Baker River. Caleta Tortel has no streets, just wooden walkways and stilt houses. The remoteness and dense forest create an atmosphere that you might think to find in Northern Alaska or Scandinavia oddly enough.
Although we had originally planned to continue south from here, we were warn out by the rough roads and rain. From here, we decided to skip Villa O’Higgins (no path into Argentina) and head north to Paso Roballos which would take us back into Argentina.
Coming off the high of Conguillo National Park, G and I were ready for the Carretera Austral (1,240 kilometers or 770 miles of one of the best road trips in the world) and some trekking in Cochamó valley purported as the Yosemite of Chile. That’s some big shoes to fill.
Getting to the beginning of the Carretera (officially in Puerto Montt) took us a couple of days to cruise south on the very well developed highway 5. The drive is not without its highlights, providing you with ample ogling opportunities in the form of crystal clear blue lakes and snow caped peaks.
Small village of Cochamó
View from Puerto Varas
There are a few ways to make your way south on the Carretera. You can take a ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, drive west onto the peninsula and take a ferry from Quellón to Chaitén, or you can cut east toward Cochamó and take two shot ferries from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo. We chose the gorgeous eastern path that would take us past Cochamó valley and through Pumalín Park.
We got into Cochamó in the late afternoon. There was a 5 hour hike ahead of us to get from the parking lot to the first campsite, but we were working with extended summer hours and had light until 11pm. A tabano (really large horse fly) welcome committee greeted us at the trail head. These cumbersome flies buzz around waiting for their target to be distracted before landing for the kill. These suckers can bite you through clothing and will leave a giant welt in their wake. We were loosing our minds trying to get our backpacks packed. After an hour of torture, we were finally ready to set off on the trail. Soon the tabanos thinned out and we got into a rhythm.
The uneventful forest hike into the valley skirts the Cochamó river offering you distraction in the form of mud and ample donkey tracks. The end of the trail opens up to the floor of the stunning valley with peaks standing as sentinels around the wide valley floor.
There are a number of camping/sleeping options. The main campground was peppered with groups of hikers sprawled across the grass enjoying the rest and weather. A few groups were fully immersed in a guitar accompanied sing-song.
We opted for the main paid campsite not knowing you could camp for free across the river. I didn’t mind paying so much though, it was late and I wanted to get the tent up and crawl in.
Making our way across the river to the refugio
On day 2, we committed to Cerro Arco Iris. Allegedly, the Arco Iris mirador had the best valley views. The trail is not like the well graded trails you’ll find in the US (the unsafe trail conditions would never be permitted in the US). It is a simple task to describe the Arco Iris trail in a few words: roots, rock faces and up. We had to climb up a few really exposed faces with only a knotted rope. It was absolutely the most technical hike I’ve ever done. Finally at the mirador, we were rewarded with never ending views of the valley below. George was not appeased though. It took us another hour to scramble up just below the snow line for some more spectacular views.
The hike down was even more of a struggle with the steep grade. At one point, I found myself tumbling feet over ahead, stopped by a protruding log as my head smashed into it. No damage done though besides shaky legs and crushed confidence.
It took us an hour to scramble up just below the snow line
A long way down
We took in the falls near the campsite on our last day before packing up and heading back to Vida.
Waterfall on Cochamó River
Ready to make our way back to Vida
We found a choice rough camping spot along the river in Hornopirén while we waited for our ferry ride. George got some fishing and grilling in. He even sacrificed some grilling space to throw on a veggie kabob for me.
Ferry loading went predictably quickly (this was Chile) and we were off through Reñihué Fjord to Caleta Gonzalo.
Note: You can buy tickets at the dock in Hornopirén, but it’s more efficient to pick them up in Puerto Montt (weekdays only) before setting off…especially during high season.
Yums on the fire … You see the odd one out of the bunch?
Crazy eyes …
Dolphins in the bay right before getting off the ferry.
The ferry delivers you into the lush Pumalín Park. Pumalin is endowed by Douglas Tompkins who cofounded Northface. We spent our first night at Camping Cascadas Escondidas. I took advantage of the campground shelters to have a piping hot shower courtesy of Vida’s water tank. The following day we took in the very slippery Cascadas Escondidas (hidden waterfalls) trail that winds through an alerce forest (the sequoias of the south hemisphere). I managed to fall again, this time landing on my back. The confidence tank was nearing zero by this point.
We spent our next night at the breathtaking Camping El Volcán which is in striking distance to the hike taking you to the foot of Chaiten Volcano. The El Volcán campground was inudated with Tabanos as well. Breaking down in the morning, I threw my mesh sleeping bag sack over my head. Worked like a charm. George mocked me until realizing the brilliance of the maneuver. He quickly followed suit.
The hike up Chaiten was hot, steep and accompanied by a constant sworn of Tabanos. The views from the top more than made up for the tabanos though.
Camping Cascadas Escondidas
Hot shower in the open! Thanks Vida!
This is an alerce tree similar to the sequoia trees in the Norther hemisphere in such they are the giants of the forests both by hight and width and by age. The alerces trees are considered endangered right now. The widest living alerce at the moment has 4.6m trunk and just 150 years ago Charles Darwin reported an alerce with 12.4m diameter trunk.
The house before sun down.
George’s turn for a hot shower.
Yet another steam-fried potatoes dinner.
Some of the devastation Chaiten left after it’s eruption in 2008. You can see the large river like trail of devastation left by a massive lahar.
Vulcan Chaiten. The crater is still smoldering.
Leaving Pumalín Park, we made our way to Futaleufú. We couldn’t resist the urge to celebrate being on the Carretera with some beer of the same name.
The drive to the Fu was stunning. It seemed to me that the water was getting bluer and clearer and the peaks crisper as we approached the Fu. Once on the banks of the river, it’s jaw-dropping how crystal clear the water is. We spent the first couple of nights at a campground just west of town along the river.
We met up again with Patagonia or Bust and Andamos de Vagos in the Fu. Since Aron and Linda had already tackled the Fu, Joe, Kylee, George and I were next. This was my first time white water rafting. I never did shake that feeling that the boat could flip over at any minute, but we had a fleet of rescue boats along with us, so the risk was minimal. I did relax enough to enjoy the rapids after the second one. Thanks to the folks at Patagonia Elements for an amazing day.
We had a fantastic experience rafting with Patagonia Elements (www.patagoniaelements.com). We did the bridge to bridge section which includes the Mundaca class V and a few class IV rapids.
Smiling but both somewhat actions to hit the bridge to bridge section of ‘the Fu’ – the Futaleufu river. We are both first time whitewater rafters about to do over Mundaca – a class V rapid.
A few class IV and one class V rapids made for an exciting day 🙂
Kyle cliff jumping in the river.
There are ample rough camping opportunities around the Fu. We snagged this spot by the river and feasted on dutch oven mac & cheese.
We couldn’t resist the draw of the blue water and sunny skies on our way out of town, taking the opportunity for some sunbathing and fishing. Aron needed to up the stakes by taking a leap of the rock wall above the river.
Camp west coast – Washington, Oregon and California …
Surrounded by class IV and V rapids Aron demonstrated perfect diving form and balls of steal. We concluded a mark of 9.5. Just half a point shy of perfect score for his hair being a little off while flying.
Little fishy in my belly!
On our way further south along the Carretera, we had a chance encounter with Micki and Eric (Southern Tip Trip) making their way north. It’s a very small world.
I want to clarify something. What George and I have been up to is not a vacation, it’s a lifestyle choice. We thank our lucky stars most days for the opportunity to explore, but we’re not lounging around every day either. Whatever you are up to, it seems to be human nature to keep busy and find new things to stress about. For us there is the daily routine of packing/unpacking, making meals on the tailgate and hours/days spent working through the laundry list of things to fix on the truck, planning what the heck we’re going to do next, and more recently shipping the truck home.
So, sometimes it is nice to have a tiny break from the ever present feeling to move on to the next thing. When George and I got settled in Pucón Chile, I think we both took a big sigh of relief. There was water, sun, sushi, many barbecued dinners and most of all great time hanging with los Juntos!
Happy New 2014!
George gives my sweater a go
Big boy food
After the holidays, we backtracked a little to visit Conguillo National Park in Chile known for the very active Volcan Llaima which erupted in 2008 and the Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria Araucana). I didn’t really think about the curious name of the tree until arriving in Conguillo. One look at the tree and it is clear that any monkey that attempted to climb one would be puzzled by the spiky branches.
Monkey Puzzle Tree
The park was simply outstanding though with lakes, great camping and wonderful hikes.
George wanted me to walk out further onto the snow. Hmm.
Continually driving with someone means that you quickly exhaust your preferred available music and start to explore the underbelly of each other’s tastes. We made it to deep into the bowels of George’s musical tastes on our second night in Conguillo. As I prepared dinner, he selected some Megadeath which made me want to scratch my eyeballs out. I vetoed metal in the car after that night.
I think this is the point that we started to rely heavily on podcasts to get us through the long drives. Podcasts were a very welcome change because we were heading to the beginning of the Carreera Austral and 770 miles of mostly gravel road.
Our days were numbered. George and I enjoy one another’s company, but the idea of spending Christmas alone was depressing. Enter Southern Tip Trip – the three sprinters were parked in Pucon at the heart of Chile’s Lakes District, so we accepted the few days we had to explore Valparaiso and Santiago before Christmas.
Taking Ruta 7 from Mendoza toward Chile took us pass the impressive 6,962 meter Aconcagua (highest mountain in the americas) and the “Inca Bridge”.
The “Inca Bridge”
Valparaiso sits on the coast of Chile and is known for it’s vibrant neighborhoods rising up on the hilltops of the city. The plan was simple – take in the neighborhood scene and eat some sushi. I had a hankering for sushi that needed to be tended to. As you work your way up hill into the neighborhoods, I was once again reminded why I let George do all the driving. Negotiating the narrow steep streets takes finesse in an overloaded pickup with a tricky gas pedal. Once on foot, we began a food and drink crawl, sustained by artisan beer and local wines.
A look up into the hills
The aftermath of our first sushi meal in a year
We balanced the extravagance with yet another night spent in the parking lot of a gas station, a surprisingly typical thing to do in Argentina and Chile.
In the morning, we braved the Christmas crowds on the streets of Santiago to experience the very large and well-stocked fish market. I’ve noticed that it is usually a small detail or moment that really sticks with me after visiting some place. For George, one of the memories of Santiago from a visit in 2010 was of steak size mussels at the fish market. I generally eat mussels and think they are delicious, but the idea of taking fork and steak knife to one rather turned my stomach.
At the fish market in Santiago, the mussels turned out to be a little smaller than George recalled (maybe off season?), and I was able to enjoy our wonderful fish lunch in the depths of the market without being disturbed by visions of giant mussels chasing me pac man style.
Fortified with a seafood lunch, we started heading south again towards a Christmas celebration with new friends.