To the Fu (Futaleufu – are we cool enough?)

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.

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.

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.

We took in the falls near the campsite on our last day before packing up and heading 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Leaving Earth – Bolvia’s Salar de Uyuni and Sur Lipez Province

With so much build-up and planning, could Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni (salt flats) and the wild area south of the flats (Sur Lipez Province) deliver? F$#K YEAH it did.

Because of limited fuel options, many independent travelers visit the salt flats for a few nights and then make a pit stop back in Uyuni (town on the east side of the flats) to fill up before heading south to the Sur Lipez province (the southwest circuit). George wasn’t having it – no pit stops. Instead we added 3 jerry cans for a total of 6 jerrys.

The extra gasoline and practical tips from a helpful Swiss gentlemen (Marco) at the tourist office in Sucre, Bolivia inflated our confidence. With 48 gallons of gasoline, 30 gallons of water plus 20 days worth of food and extra rice, garlic and cocoa leaves to trade with locals in case of trouble, we were ready to tackle what was to come. And no, in our day-to-day lives we are not preppers.

Day 1: Uyuni’s train cemetery to Isla Pescado

First camping spot - Isla Pescado.

Night #1 – Isla Pescado.

In our typical fashion, we were running late and didn’t head out on to the salt flats until the afternoon after a obligatory visit to Uyuni’s train cemetery.

First stop was a salt extraction operation where George quickly broke the first of Marco’s rules, “stay away from areas where there is water on the salt”. We drove right through the slushy middle of the operation to snag some photos.

Driving on the Salar is like being on another planet, drive fast or slow, turn left or right, it doesn’t matter. We had some of our best fuel mileage on the ultra flat Salar.

Getting to our selected camp spot, Isla Pescado, we broke the second of Marco’s rules, “the flats are the thinnest around the islands and at the entrances/exits – do not drive there”. We promtly drove right onto the island to set camp for the night, and would be all alone for our first night.

Day 2 – 3: Coqueza to Isla Incahuasi

Second camping spot - Isla Incahuasi

Nights #2 & #3 – Isla Incahuasi

The next morning, we visited nearby Coqueza. Each step up to the the mirador to get a better look at Volcan Tunupa was a struggle because of the altitude. After the hike, we made it to Isla Incahuasi, another obligatory stop because of the dense cacti growing on the island. This island is overrun with tourist groups during the day, but it calms down in the evening and was serendipitous stop for us.

George was able to scratch his sports itch playing football with some locals the first night.

After befriending the fellow players, we were able to purchase 5 more gallons of gasoline the next day. That evening, the wind picked up enough for G to mountain board. Finally, we were gifted with a surprise encounter when Southern Tip Trip and Patagonia or Bust rolled in.

Day 4: Salar de Uyuni to Sur Lipez

Night #4 – south of the Salar near a condor reserve

Tearing ourselves away from our friends and the warmth of our bed the next morning, we bombed away from Incahuasi in the depth of pre-dawn darkness to catch a sunrise in the middle of the flats.

It was then time for our ‘funny pictures’ and my opportunity to finally tower of George. I will clutch on to the memory for the rest of my life.

The Salar exit point that we took was a little slushy, but Vida piled on through the muck and delivered us to Gruta de last Galaxias to see a grotto filled with petrified algae. We then managed to purchase another 5 gallons of gas in San Juan from a local business woman who had the dried goods and gasoline markets corned. Although we paid her a little more than we should have, it was nice to see how excited she was to make the sale. We celebrated the gasoline purchase with a cold beer, a real luxury at that point.

Heading further into Sur Lipez province, we camped out near a condor reserve in our ground tent and worked on perfecting our tent cooking technique.

Day 5: To Copa del Mundo

Copa del Mundo

Night #5 – Copa del Mundo (World Cup)

In the morning, we unsuccessfully tried to spot a condor. George went exploring, and believing he heard a nest of baby condors, misguidedly left his flip flops behind to approach unnoticed. The nest was no nest, but some other lone baby bird crying. He promptly very uncomfortably hot footed it back to his shoes.

That evening we found a choice camping spot behind a big rock for some wind shadow. We had unknowingly parked ourselves under ‘Copa del Mundo’ or the ‘World Cup’, a stop from many of the tour operators. We would be in their photos the following morning cooking eggs for breakfast.

Day 6:


Night #6 – Volcan Caquella

After ruining a few tourist photos and finishing our eggs, we headed north to meet up with the road that would take us through Valle de Rocas and to the lakes district. The road started to degrade here requiring high clearance which meant creeping along at a snails pace for the next day and a half.

We camped in our ground tent that evening on an open plane under the impressive 5947 meter Volcan Caquella. It was our second night cooking in the tent. To someone who hasn’t had a roof over her head in the last year and a half, cooking inside the tent turned out to be nice and toasty.

Day 7:

Camping spot #7 - Arbol de Piedra

Night #7 – Arbol de Piedra

Our first stop on day seven was Laguna Canany. You may call it the stinky lake. We followed the route of other travellers off the main road forcing us to navigate through a handful of ravines. We realized that the road we were on was no more when George jumped in the ravine we were facing and I could barely see the top of his head. We agreed that finding another way was our only choice. My vote was to turn around, but George used his driver privileges to navigate us down a steep hill to the Laguna. He was smiling ear to ear on the way down reveling in the adventure while I was containing the game-ending scenarios my mind was concocting.

Exiting the car, the air wafting towards us was ripe with the smell of sulfur. We made quick stops at Laguna Chiar Khota and Laguna Honda before deciding to do a little more exploring on a slanted auxiliary road flanked by dirt banks. Turning around proved difficult, so we were forced to use the rear diff lock for the first time.

The road to the Arbol de Piedra (a stone tree sculpted by the elements) was an absolute sand pit. We balked at some bikers we saw in the distance struggling through the thick sand. Half of me can respect anyone who has enough gumption to cycle through Bolivia while the other half of me thinks they must be off their rocker.


Day 8:

Camping spot #8 - near Laguna Colorado

Night #8 – near Laguna Colorado

Day eight promised to be a good day since we would be crossing into Reserva Eduardo Avaroa (Lagunas Park). The ranger station at the park entrance sits on the west side of Laguna Colorado that was impressively jammed with what I can only guess was hundreds of thousands of flamingos.

That evening we snagged another beautiful camp spot in the belly of a canyon hoping to hide from the unrelenting wind and celebrating with another toasty fire.

Day 9:

Dali's Rocks

Night #9 – Dali’s Rocks

By the morning of day nine, I was reaching the breaking point on number of consecutive days without a shower. Adding in the beating sun, sand blasting wind and cold nights, George decided we needed a distraction in the form of a mountain of crepes. While he cooked, I practiced some knots.

After a brief visit to the Bolivian Aduana at 5020 meters situated next to a borax mine, we stopped by Geiser Sol de Mañana and then headed to the thermal baths situated near Salar de Chalviri to wash away some of the nine day dirt build up. Thankfully, we managed to arrive at a time when there were not tour groups. The family who runs the hot springs took advantage as well of the down time. No sooner had we jumped into the pool then a four year old was passed to us to look after until her older siblings got into the pool. George and I quickly bonded with the five children.

We found a choice camping spot in the midst of Dali’s Rocks for the night. Truthfully, it took us over five attempts to make it up the steep sand hill but George persevered.

Day 10:

Our last day in Bolivia began in epic style with a 360-degree view along with coffee and crepes on top of Dali’s rocks. The decent down from the rock we were perched upon was equally as memorable because of a close call (we’ll leave it at that).  We had the truck packed and ready to go when two park rangers drove up and let us know that we were not supposed to drive anywhere near Dali’s rocks and hadn’t we received and information packet? Well, no we didn’t. The park still has some administration kinks to work out, but from George’s observations they had already made many positive changes since his last visit in 2010.

We rounded out the southwest circuit with a visit to another set of breathtaking lakes (Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca). Enduring a few more miles of dirt road, we finally made it to the beautiful paved highway that would deliver us down nearly 2500 meters into San Pedro de Atacama Chile.

Volcán Cotopaxi – eat your hearts out Seattleites

After dragging ourselves away from Quito and new friends, we headed to Cotopaxi National Park. The highlight of the park is 5897 meter Volcán Cotopaxi.


We set camp at Tambopoxi for the night and braved the strong winds and rain to prepare dinner. Some less battle-tested campers joined us for the evening. Now, I don’t think I’d be stretching the truth if I use the phrase ‘clown tent’ to describe their sleeping situation. George asked them how their sleep was in the morning, which they quickly claimed was great. I call bullshit because that’s a one-season tent at best. Getting off my veteran camper pedestal and on with the day’s business, we set our sights on Cotopaxi. First, we fortified ourselves with another meal of potatoes, which we still had an overabundance of (welcome to traveling with George).

We took the well-graded dirt road up the volcano to a parking lot a few hundred feet shy of Refugio José Ribas (Jose Ribas Refuge) at 4864 meters (15,953 feet). If you’re paying attention, that puts us and Vida over 4400 meters without breaking a sweat which means we drove higher than Mount Rainier at 4392 meters.  It is then a short but heart pounding climb to the refuge and about a half hour more to the glacier. Although the climb is a relatively short one, it was definitely not easy going because of the altitude and steep incline. The highest point we hit on the hike was just over 5000 meters with George in a full stretch. For the mountaineer set, the refuge is also a base for summiting Cotopaxi. We’re told the groups leave around midnight and take approximately 6 to 8 hours to reach the summit.

That evening, we rewarded ourselves with a movie in the tent with a diy movie screen. Not too shabby. That thing was secure. George wouldn’t risk his mac ‘baby’ without a safety self-tightening knot just in case.


All told, we loved the park and the climb. I’ve been dreaming about the Andes for several months, and Cotopaxi was surely a great welcome.


Reunited and heading north

After George reunited in Cartagena with our little shipping party, we decided to head north (momentarily breaking our south-only driving rule).  We stopped by Volcán de Lodo El Totumo on the way.  Technically it’s a volcano, but the only thing it’s spewing is mud.  A minute climb up a muddy staircase will have you at the top of this behemoth.  We decided not to partake because of the sizzling temperature and long drive ahead of us (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).