One last glimpse at Chile's Carretera Austral, the southern Patagonian highway.

The Patagonia Saga – Part One: Carretera Austral

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Austral means “southern”, although the term seems to be applied rather sparingly around here. You could say that “Carretera Austral”, carretera meaning highway, indicates any part of Chile’s southern highway that exists as dirt or gravel. Stretching itself over 1,000 kilometers from just outside of Puerto Montt to far Villa O’Higgins, the Camino Longitudinal Austral is a veritable beast of a road, a predominantly gravel one. This is the story of hitching it.

 


 

A sign marking the beginning of Chile's Carretera Austral.

A sign marking the beginning of Chile’s Carretera Austral.

 

Gloria and I had followed signs for “Carretera Austral” through Puerto Montt, past the gigantic sculpture of the lovers holding each other at the seaside, my own mind wandering back northward at the sight, and finally a tearful goodbye when she drove off and I continued on foot.

The lovers statue in Puerto Montt, Chile.

The lovers statue in Puerto Montt, Chile.

 

The sound of rubber grinding over pavement has become a welcome one, except this time I was leaving behind a family which had become important to me. I had spent Christmas in their home, and they had treated me as one of their own. But now, all of a sudden, I was once again wandering alone down that opportune medium of a way.

Sounds of rippling plastic drifted to my ears as I walked for several hours, cookies and cheese sandwiches filling the bag dangling from my chest strap. I would daydream already of the food that I’d eaten at the Solis house. Chapaleles, those moist tortillas of flour, water and salt set to boiling and then drizzled in fresh country honey. Or the onions soaked for three days in red or white vinegar depending on one’s taste.

The sky was overcast.

Gloria had said the southern wind meant that I should expect a sunny day. At least the overhead was darkened for the walk.

Eventually I managed several rides down the way, past names like Bahia Quillaipe, Puerto Metri and finally arriving to Caleta Arenas with a trucker. The sun had decided to peak its pencil sharp beams through the thick of cloud cover, and came down over the land like some magician revealing his secret. The sight was beautiful. My heart had already begun to race when the road had turned to dirt several kilometers back up the coastal hugging route; the Carretera Austral had begun.

Caleta Arenas (caleta usually refers to a small coastal town whose business it is to hunt fish). At the caleta I wished the trucker well once we’d joined the line of trucks and cars awaiting the next ferry, since he’d told me he was not headed to Hornopiren once across. I found another trucker who was.

The Carretera Austral was begun in 1976 by Pinochet’s military order, and soldiers soon went to work. I would later learn that Pinochet is popular in Chilean Patagonia for this very reason. However, the road was never completed, and in several parts ferries fill in the gaps. Here was the first.

During the time waiting for the ferry’s arrival I skipped rocks into the lapping surf. By now all the clouds had dissipated, and the bright blue of the sky complemented the dark textured surface of the sea. Were it not for already knowing, I might think that the sea made a better sky than the latter, as the former sparkled bright the reflection of light like stars.

On the beach faded yellow fishing boats of aged wood rested on their keels, anchored to the shore rocks or trees of a forested mountain that brought its mass right up to beside the water. A few houses dotted the surrounds, and a restaurant advertised “3 empanadas for only 1 luca”, the luca meaning 1,000 pesos or roughly 2 dollars. I thought to myself how unfortunate that the lowest common amount that seems to be popularly termed is 2 whole dollars. I thought that it must have a malign effect on the psyche of a nation when “just a luca” is actually quite a lot; an effect that results in “expensive” becoming the country’s status quo and norm. Just when I thought I’d made a relevant insight, I learned that the 100 pesos coins are called gambas. So it goes.

The ferry arrived and I boarded it with the trucker, effectively avoiding the 500 peso payment. Once pushed off from Caleta Arenas’ concrete ramp, the ferry steamed toward the opposite shore. Round fenced farms of salmon fisheries dotted the coastline as we made our way. We came to pass the other ferry, and its orange paint looked almost fluorescent, and direly foreign against the natural backdrop of towering green mountains and raspy blue. Naviera Puelche.

Around several points and turns until realizing that space is absolute and here water is king and lord, filling cave and crevice or well carving them, and the sea cliffs white and us in the sea gulls’ domain that perhaps the cliffs are white because gulls have to eat. And there are few scars of landslides; the earth must be strong here.

Through channels and skirting mounds of rock islets, the sparse vegetation on those almost lime green, we arrive after 40 minutes to Caleta Puelche and its customary concrete loading ramp. The metal of the ferry off-loader scrapes over the ramp and I with my new trucker friend debark.

I took off my hat and rubbed my hand through my hair; strands each thick from the pelting by sea spray wind. We were underway along the first peninsula toward southern oblivion, as far as anyone is concerned. Hornopiren was the town at the end of this particular peninsula’s road, where I was already aware that I’d missed the day’s ferry onward to the next stretch. I’d have to wait until 9:30 the next morning.

Alas, after driving through the peninsula behind another truck, whose wake of dust and rock flickered in the piercing rays of sunlight that bested the foliage, I parted ways with the trucker and went to purchase my ticket at the dock, or, ramp.

A Patagonian road on the Carretera Austral.

A Patagonian road on the Carretera Austral.

 

The beauty that Hornopiren enjoys cannot be understated; however, in retrospect, I had little idea what the rest of the Carretera Austral had in store. Surrounding the town rose mountains and hills, the snow mountains doused in dusk pink. I found the office and purchased the next ferry ticket. 5,000 pesos.

“How long is the ride?” I asked.

“4 hours,” she told me, “to a dock where you’ll have to drive 10 kilometers to another dock to load another ferry that goes 45 minutes to Caleta Gonzalo.”

“And that’s the last of the ferries?” I asked.

“Yes, unless you’re going all the way to O’Higgins,” she said.

“I see.”

In town a pink wooden plank church stood like adornment next to the main plaza. I found Wi-Fi and managed a Skyping session back home; it was, after all, the day after Christmas.

That night I found a mosquito-filled wood to make camp, careful to wash my hands with the new bottle of sanitizer that Gloria had gifted me. “If you go into any dark and humid forest areas, wash your hands, there’s a rat plague that can kill you!” she had said. “It’ll kill you in a day,” Teresa had added. “It’ll definitely kill you,” Gloria had reiterated. Although I’m not one to believe it easy to contract such a plague, I cleansed my hands anyway.

The quick current of a nearby river woke me to morning. It was 8, and the ferry would leave at 9:30. I packed up camp and hauled my pack to my shoulder, the fabric by now well-worn to a patch I’d stitched on back in Lima.

A traveler's shirt, destroyed almost.

A traveler’s shirt, destroyed almost.

 

Gray skies it was; though, the gray was accented differently depending on the closeness of each cloud. It made for a pleasing myriad of neutrality. The morning’s endeavors would begin, simply, with a 4 hour ferry ride.

Onboard I made my way into the “cafeteria,” stepping over a high stoop of and taking a seat at a small table beside a porthole. I spent my time peering out of the window while my computer sat charging. The vessel thundered into motion, and from my tabled elbow to my cupped hand under my chin, I could feel the roar of the machine in my teeth.

During the four hours, I took to writing more articles for that 300 dollar project that paid for this ferry trip, and walked around on the deck just beside the cargo bay of cars and trucks. A few tourists lent me their camera and took my photo. My ego wanted so greatly to explain my trip to them, to offer a different story to the norm, but I stole my tongue for more humble conversation of oh, how beautiful.

The clouds sank and mingled with fog and ocean mist come wrapping around hills. Soon enough, though, the sun retook its accustomed dominance over the earth, and splattered the scenery with gold. Waterfalls here and there, glinting in the gold and yellow, their cold waters falling to join the fjord’s through which our nave navigated.

The cloudy mist in Southern Chile.

The cloudy mist in Southern Chile.

 

I also asked around for rides onward to the next ferry, as everyone present was going to the same place. Most cars were full. I asked one man who said, “but I’m walking, with my wife.” In the photo below you can see the two walkers, each holding a contraption meant, apparently, for walkers. Later I would come across bicyclists who, after I’d told them I met walkers, they exclaimed, “oh, they must be the Dutch couple walking from Arica! How magnificent!” I would not disagree vocally, but privately I wondered why when mid-life crises hit some people, they decide to walk or bike through someone’s country. Then again… to each his own.

In the photo you can also see my backpack in the bed of the white pick-up. The truck belongs to a pair of oceanographers who agreed to take me along to the next ferry once we landed.

You had to take many ferries to navigate Chile's Patagonia.

You had to take many ferries to navigate Chile’s Patagonia.

 

“So, what is it that you guys do?” I asked the oceanographers once the ferry had landed and we began the 10 kilometer hop to the next fjord.

“Scuba dive below salmon fisheries to take readings, clean up the place, all that kind of stuff,” they told me.

The salmon fisheries are known to be heavy polluters. Or, at least they had been known to pollute. A couple years back the lax standards of sanitation at the fisheries resulted in a disease propagating, which wreaked havoc on the industry, almost collapsing it completely. The fisheries still pollute, but less-so.

“That there is Tomkin’s place,” one of them said as we drove past the entrance to Parque Pumalin. “He owns a lot of land here.”

“Who is he?” I asked.

“You never heard of him? He’s that gringo who came up with… what’s it called?” he turned to his companion.

“Not face,” the latter replied.

“Yea, Not Face.”

“Not face?” I was puzzled.

“Yea, the clothing.”

“Oh, North Face! Oh yeah I know that brand. Every In-girl had a North Face sweater I think,” I said. The North Face, not the Not.

“Well, he bought up a lot of land and turned it into a national park, done a lot of good around here. He’s from your country.”

“Oh, well, right on,” I offered.

The 10 kilometers flew dustily by and we loaded onto yet another ferry from yet another concrete ramp. I left my pack in the car and went to take photos with the camera my oceanographer buddies had lent me.

There was plenty of green to patch the surrounds. The ferry pushed off and we started up this new fjord. In the distance snow-capped granite stood skyward like aspiring spires, scraping at the heavens in coldness and uncanny of natural splendor.

A dirt road on the Patagonian Carretera Austral.

A dirt road on the Patagonian Carretera Austral.

A panoramic from the Patagonian ferry crossing.

A panoramic from the Patagonian ferry crossing.

The 45 minutes came to, and once more I loaded into the oceanographers’ pick-up, they who had agreed to take me all the way to Chaiten from our debarking at Caleta Gonzalo.

“Look there, ‘coffee and biscuits 7,000 pesos,’” they pointed out of the one sign that accompanied the three or four lodges at the caleta.

“Jesus, who would ever spend that kind of money on coffee and biscuits?” I exclaimed.

“Well, some people got an appetite for deluxe!” one said happily.

The road to Chaiten began in earnest, climbing from the caleta through the jungle and up a hill. The colors shook with my vision as we drove hard over the gravel pack, our dust cloud blurring whoever was behind us. Those colors were awfully pure, like a child’s choice for his finger-painting; blue, green and white.

Eventually we were held up while a plane landed on the makeshift runway that had been constructed of the Carretera Austral itself.

“Hey, guys, why is this runway in the middle of the road?” I asked.

“Chaiten’s aerodrome got destroyed by the volcano,” one replied.

The other joined in, “Yea, the volcano Chaiten blew up 3 years back now I believe it is. Yea?”

“Yea,” said the other.

“Town’s half abandoned,” he continued, “they’re still cleaning up the mess.”

Before we were once more underway, they snapped a photo of me with a nalca plant, since I had commented that they looked Jurassic.

“You can eat those you know.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yup, just cut out the stem, peel it, and yummmm.”

Once the gate was lifted we drove around the airport and continued onwards. It wasn’t long before we came to a bridge that crossed through an area of devastation. Dead trees stuck up from the ground, their color like bleached skeleton bones rising from the dead. I thought how eerie it was, and I revisited my memory of Mount Saint Helen’s surrounds, its hill trees likewise blown over like snapped twigs by pyroclastic furor.

After 2 hours we came around a bend to a large bay, the waters cast far out and a distant hood volcano climbing into sky. On the shore of the bay sat Chaiten, the largest town at the north end of the Carretera Austral.

A lake as we get nearer to Chaiten, Chile.

A lake as we get nearer to Chaiten, Chile.

The volcanic destruction wrought by the Chaiten volcano.

The volcanic destruction wrought by the Chaiten volcano.

 

The pick-up drove off and I wandered into the center. Despite clear skies and brightness of the time of day, the town had a peculiar quality, one of strain and surrender. After navigating the simple streets of this relatively small town, half of the structures indeed abandoned and filled to waist height with hardening ash including not surprisingly the Church of the Later Day Saints, I found a market. There I bought bread, ham and butter to complement the cookies that remained, my sandwiches all bellied.

Passing through the scantly-populated town, I reached a bridge over a river that must have once been marvelous but which now struggled through downed trunks and awkward banks of sand, the rocks and banks discolored copper by sulfuric currents. Debris littered the water which itself ran gray with pumice. The destroyed remains of a house sat on a slant in the middle of it all, a hollowed ghost of a family home, and thus began the continental leg of the Carretera Austral; in a town clinging to life.

On the walk out of town, being passed by a grand total of one car in an hour, I asked a man about the etiquette in nalca harvesting. He told me how to spot an edible nalca; the young plants whose leafs are still cupped and whose stem is good and thick. We found one, since they’re simply everywhere, and he yanked it from its mooring and sliced off the leaf. Although it appears thorny, they are rather rubbery and weak. He then carved back the ruby red layers of skin that had a bitter taste, and handed me the green core to munch on. It was fibrous like celery but had a much tangier, tropical taste.

“You can eat these,” he said, “but the season ended in October, so they’re not as good. Also, they just make you more hungry, and thirsty.”

I thanked him and went on my way after chopping a few more stems and adding them to my pack for the road. The traffic was sparse. I knew that the road would be paved from Chaiten to about 40 kilometers further south, at which it degenerates once more into its apparent natural state of packed gravel.

I was surprised at the rapidity of Rodrigo’s arrival. He pulled over the pick-up and I jumped in the backseat.

“Where are you from?” he asked me straight away. The woman in the passenger’s seat was from Germany, and the girl next to me from Osorno and on her way to work at Rodrigo’s hotel for the summer.

“I’m from Chicago,” I said.

We went down the road and Rodrigo spoke mostly to me, excited to meet a gringo, since he had insisted that we gringos never travel alone, and we never thumb it. His eyes were light and slightly bulgy, and I could see once we stopped for gas that he wore flowered shorts and flip flops. He must have been in his mid-40s.

“Well, I studied in Oregon, and that state is very similar to here, the south of Chile,” I had said in response to one of his inquiries.

“Oregon!” he exclaimed. “I would love to go there. I’ve met people from Oregon, and I really like them.”

“Yeah, I agreed. And they travel a lot. Man, Oregon would be great for you if you dig nature. Do you ski or kayak or something?” I asked. I struck a common chord with the question, and from there we entered into a long conversation about kayaking, about that back north of Chaiten there was a river that you could kayak down and swim in thermal hot springs along the way, that I know of a river just like that in Oregon, that Rodrigo hadn’t been kayaking for a long time and that neither had I. Then we spoke of skiing and how I was a ski guide and that he loves it and his son Max too. He told me he had been denied the US visa once, and then the second time his family was denied the visa so he never went stateside, and I sympathized with his frustration.

By the time we had finished our conversation we had arrived at the hotel, which was not his but he was the headman. It sat along Lake Yelcho just beyond a small town called Puerto Cardenas, the Carretera Austral running along the whole of the water’s periphery. Green masses crowded around, and the glacial peaks of granite earth dripped their snowmelt into the lake in a dazzling fashion of long thin falls.

Lago Yelcho, Chile Patagonia.

Lago Yelcho, Chile Patagonia. Source.

 

Rodrigo took me to the shore once the others in the pick-up went into the hotel. I met his young son Max, who smiled below a matted head of black hair and who also was excited to show off their river kayaks on the water.

Later, we drove a few kilometers back over a suspension bridge to his house.

“It’s not our house, we rent,” he’d said.

“If you live here, it’s very much your house,” I’d insisted, and he agreed.

There, he treated me to three strawberry tarts and a beer, and I cut up some of the nalca. Rodrigo was surprised that it was so good, as he was privy to the knowledge that it was well out of season. “You lucked out,” he had said.

He added a whole loaf of pan de Pascua bread to my bag, and with a wink gave me a beer for the road. “No, take it,” he had said when I insisted I couldn’t take their Christmas pan de Pascua, “I’m just happy to meet a person like you, traveling like you are.” A boost for my ego, and a smile for humanity. And by thus grew my debt to the road.

He and Max dropped me on the south side of the suspension bridge and then drove off north to meet his wife and daughter somewhere. An encounter for our memories.

The sun was still high when we departed, but it soon sank behind the behemoth mountains. When the light had almost completely faded a passing car finally stopped. It was an old brown and rusting RV van with kayaks tied to the roof racks. The dudes inside were headed to Futalefeu to ride rapids, and agreed to take me to the crossroads at Villa Santa Lucia.

I sat, holding back their dog from my nalca. The driver had the ripped arms of a kayaker, sported that flat-brim cap style and had a dream catcher hung from the rearview mirror, and spare tires were stacked next to where I sat. The light was gone and we went screaming down the Austral in near dark (for it never seems to get truly dark here so far to the south). We went, beeping at hills and curves until finally arriving to Villa Santa Lucia several hours later.

A quick goodbye and I found the river flowing beside the town. There, alongside a broken wood fence I made camp among cow dung and the sounds of evening; chirping, vaca lowing and the buzz. I drank my Royal Beer, ate a few cookies and fell to the depths of sleep.

In the breeze my tent’s rainfly flaps lightly. It was to its small sound that I woke. Where was I? Villa Santa Lucia, just a few hours south of Lago Yelcho, that emerald body of a water that sat beautiful in its bowl. Now I woke, and began the one routine I have; packing and unpacking my tent.

Villa Santa Lucia, like most towns along the Carretera Austral, was a small collection of a few hundred houses, if that. It sat in a flat river bed, and the road went straight along its full length. I began walking.

There on the road, I found two other travelers hitching. I went to greet them. They seemed friendly, albeit somewhat cold in their openness. I asked and learned they were from Israel, hitching from Futalefeu to Chile Chico. I learned they were only hitching this route, and were otherwise bussing around. I thought, good for them, and began on my way, as hitching etiquette calls for my continuing onward, they having been in that spot first.

I walked for many hours. The sky was blue, and I was lucky for that. This part of Chile spends 10 months in the rain, and I had arrived at the beginning of summer, which lasts from January to February.

The sun hot, the breeze cool. Water abounding and I drinking freely, how often can you? The water crystalline, like a window that does little more than to distort lines. Horse flies were large and meddlesome, and I must have swatted dead 20 with my hat, my hat falling apart from the abuse. Cars passed perhaps twice in a half hour, many of them filled with camping gear. Tourists are obvious, and they never stop. A pair of Australian bicyclists stopped, and cried Hallelujah for the Dutch walkers.

My traveler hat, long since deprived of color, but full of memory.

My traveler hat, long since deprived of color, but full of memory.

 

A few hours later and many kilometers onward, a truck finally pulled up. A local gaucho with that typical wide flat felt brim hat and flat-topped crown told me to hop in the back. A high-walled open back of the truck offered me a chance to stand up and watch the scenes fly past. We were underway, and the dust kicked up and came in to coat me through and through. I donned my sunglasses and tied my handkerchief over my face. Down the road just a bit we found the Israelis, who must have been in one of the cars that passed me. The gaucho picks them up and they join me in the back, but we couldn’t talk what with the wind and noise of going!

Eventually, another hour down the road, we arrived to another flat town surrounded by mountainous green. The town was called La Junta. A small Copec gas station stood along the road, but it would have been fruitless to ask the one or two cars that would show, and were probably staying in town anyway. The Israeli couple was quick to begin hitching once our benefactor had driven off, and we barely talked. I said farewell to them, and they gave me a few passive gestures in well-wishes.

Walking once more, I was soon far from town. Above me the sun, behind me the ascending hill to La Junta, which didn’t look as bright as the way before me leading to an elsewhere nowhere somewhere.

My butter had melted to liquid, and I dipped bread into it. The taste reminded me of lobster. The road seemed endless. My legs would feel the strain, then I’d sit for a time and listen to the wild silence of this Chilean Patagonia.

A ride sitting on a mattress in the back of a pick-up brought me to a place empty of civilization except for the road. Indeed, the majority of the Carretera Austral passes through land empty of civilization except for an occasional homestead or abandoned shack, but rare. Here, I began once more to walk. And when my feet could stand it no more, I laid back and read or threw rocks. A semi roared by and I wondered how the road could handle it. Then I walked again.

Finally a man picked me up. I said hello and he seemed stiff.

He looked at me with a sideways glance. “Where are you from?”

“Chicago,” I replied.

“Ah. United States? Well.”

“Yea.”

“I’m glad you’re not from Israel.”

My ear perked at the remark, for I had only just parted ways with the Israelis. “Why’s that?” I asked.

“Damn Israelis come here and cause trouble. We Patagonians don’t like Israelis.”

I ventured a bit further, “what is it that they do?”

“They come here and bring their filth. They’re dirty. They come to hotels and pay for two, but really they’re 10! Then they use the hot water and wash all their clothes in the showers,” he said in a hardened tone of voice that seemed to echo in the small space between us.

“I see,” I said, without much else to add.

“They don’t want to pay anything. Damn it! Don’t get me wrong, this is my experience, I own a hotel down the road. Israelis.” He looked at me, and might have spotted my reservation. “Being anti-Israeli is not being anti-Semitic,” he concluded.

Down the road it was, and he pulled off at his hotel, and I continued walking down the gravel way. By now, the sky had darkened some and the matte murk of the mountain’s shadow accompanied me as I strode. The darkness had scared off the horse flies, but it was becoming clear that I would not make it much further south.

But just then the semi rig which had passed me earlier passed me again, and I threw my thumb. He stopped.

“Oye, we thought you were more than one person back there po,” said the driver. “Thought maybe you had buddies hidden in the bush.”

“Nope, just me,” I said.

They made room for me in the cab and I hopped in. It was nearly night when we arrived two hours later to Puyuhuapi. I was glad for the lingering light, and purchased a few pieces of bread and a seafood empanada. The lady gave me a discount after I answered her question of what I was up to.

Whoever decided to found Puyuhuapi had chosen well its location. At the licking end of a fjord, the hillside walls of which stretching to the southwest, Puyuhuapi sat tranquil and serene. Not half a kilometer from one end to the other constituted the place, which meant I was surprised to find Wi-Fi in the main plaza. I played on the internet as the last of the blue was sucked into the horizon, leaving us only the twinkle of night.

 


 

Puyuhuapi, in Patagonia.

Puyuhuapi, in Patagonia. Source.

 

In the morning I packed camp, having made it right along the tideline a short walk from the plaza. The water was still as ice, and a thin layer of fog slipped swiftly out to sea in a ghostly procession, the whole display giving the impression that air might be pressed for time.

After an incredibly precarious squatting session, I walked to the edge of town, finding a favorable shady spot under the arms of a tree and just beside a speed bump. Time dwindled and passed. A large bus and equally sized trailer rolled by. It was filled with German tourists who debarked and began snapping photos of everything, even me. Das Rollende Hotel was a hotel on wheels. The industriousness of Germans. So it goes. Das Rollende Hotel.

A travel sketch of Puyehuapi, Patagonia

A quick sketch of the Chilean Patagonian town Puyehuapi.

 

A while later, the Israeli couple showed up.

“No walking today?” the girl asked as they approached and threw their bags down beside me.

“Nope, just thumbing, waiting for the bakery to open” I replied.

“When did you get here?” she asked. Her boyfriend was quiet.

“Last night, around 9.”

“Oh really? We did too.”

“Where did you guys set up camp?” I asked.

“No we stayed in a hotel. After that ride yesterday with the dirt we needed a hot shower and clean our clothes,” she said.

I was looking at a wooden frame of a nearby house and shaking my head as some kind of reflex to the conversation. I became preoccupied with their presence and apparent decision to start hitching from my spot. They had ignored the hitching etiquette, which pissed me off. They knew hitching in 2 was hard, and three even harder, perhaps impossible on the Carretera Austral, and yet here they sat and thumbed in front of me, an obvious tactic to get me to move.

As is the case with me, I let it go, and simply said goodbye to go wait for the bakery to open. The pretty town buildings gathered themselves around the one main road, which was a paved section of the Austral. I shrugged off my frustration and threw my thumb out at the first car to drive through. I lucked out and hopped in the front seat. I heard myself asking if we could pick up the two Israelis as well, but the driver denied it.

He changed his mind at the speed bump, and after hearing the girl yell complaints when I’d told her from the window that the driver wasn’t going to take them along too, the couple hopped in the back seat.

Our southerly road followed curving along the fjord and under the auspices of green beauty. We passed the Ventisquero Colgante glacier through the Quelat national park, and soon found ourselves on an ascent.

Irony has a way of making itself ridiculous; our ride introduced himself as Aldof. The rough sounds of Hebrew occupied the back seat, and I found myself translating questions Aldof had from Spanish to English for the Israelis. “Why do the Iranians stone women adulterers?” “Why do all you Israelis come here to Chile all the time?” etc.

Chilean Patagonia is apparently filled with Israelis and Germans, and Patagonian pride is a determined thing. The other thing that is everywhere is travelers. There are many, many bicyclists. Sweat and toil.

Up, up into the cloud forests and roof of the region. It was a pass over green hills steep and beckoning, and the road coiling so close to the granite peaks you could almost lick them like lollipops. Icy blue glaciers sat wavy over rock ridges, and Aldof stopped several times for us to get out and appreciate the majesty of it all.

At a crossroads a carload full of more Israelis stopped Aldof to ask for directions, and our Israeli couple got out and apparently they all knew each other. Although my road was toward the city of Coyaique about 4 or 5 hours south, as was the couple’s, I decided to go with Aldof to a seaside town called Puerto Cisnes. 40 minutes of wide dirt road brought us to the quaint little place, and I spent an hour eating a new concoction that suited my cheapness here in Patagonia; bread, carrot, onion and Italian tomato sauce sandwiches. I ate on the rocky beach under a tree, fishing boats’ long ropes anchoring them to shore. The view over the bay was blue and descending. The horizon was mountains.

Puerto Cisnes, in Chile's Patagonia at an offshoot of the Carretera Austral.

Puerto Cisnes, in Chile’s Patagonia at an offshoot of the Carretera Austral. Source.

 

At one of two exits from town that both lead to the same place (an unfortunate decision to make for a hitcher), I sat and waited. And waited. As will happen when we’re left bored with our own minds, I thought of strange things. Aldof had told me also that Patagons don’t like Israelis. “We love Germans,” he had said. I thought idly: What if there’s some kind of passive-aggressive neo-World War II happening here, wherein Israel pays for citizens to travel here in order to irk out the historic tendency of this part of the world as being a refuge for Nazis. My mind didn’t stop there, and I went on a semi pedro-esque trip after I slapped a fly and began thinking of all the millions of possibilities I’d destroyed in the million-year future.

Just when my mind was going to some other strange place, a dump truck pulled up and the two nice gentlemen inside brought me further on and dropped me at a place in the road where the road of the second exit from town joins the main way. There I waited for all of 5 minutes.

It was a white pick-up truck and inside was a young Gaucho and an old one.

“Oye gringo! Que tal amigo? Adonde andas?” they cried in high-pitched cheer.

“I’m heading to Coyaique,” I responded.

“Right-O friend, hop in the back! We’ll get you as far as Mañihuales!”

I hopped in and prepared myself for the smattering of dust and sun I’d get on the three-hour bed-of-pick-up ride. Alas, it was a swift return to the crossroads where I saw the Israeli couple still waiting after some 4 hours had passed. Our 3-hour ride became a 1 hour ride, and if I had had a camera I could have captured the fear in my face to prove it. The land changed before my eyes—that is, when the power-blaster wasn’t punishing my face with dust and whatever it was that was floating around me. From the high glacial peaks and tall conifer forests we descended into land carved and scraped for grazing, the mountains retaining a side seat and perpetual dominance nonetheless.

The pick-up raced down the road. After a time it became paved, as the Austral becomes from Mañihuales to Coyaique’s small airport strip at Balmaceda. Before I knew it, I was wishing the gauchos well and picking at dust and grub from my eyes. My shirt and pants were dirtied beyond respectful, which meant I was surprised when after just 5 minutes of thumbing a ride invited me in.

In the front seat two men jabbered back and forth.

“Underwater welding can be dangerous. I’d say 90% fatality,” one said.

“You’re full of shit,” said the other.

“People die all the time,” the first replied.

“Yea, do you know anyone who has been killed welding underwater?” the second challenged.

“Guillermo Diaz.”

“Who the hell is Guillermo Diaz?”

“An old friend who knew the occupational hazards of his job, and he bit the bullet.”

It went on like this for the hour or so I was with them. A smooth, paved way brought us up over green and coffee-colored hills whose forests were ever thinning. 3 days to get this far and they had passed with the blink of forgetting frustrations and capturing dreams.

At a crossroads the men turned right toward the port of Aysen, Coyaique to the left. It had been too long since last I bathed, so I found a hill path leading down to a wide clear river that snaked through the expansive valley that allowed for welcome chest shrills.

Jump a fence, frightening bulls and cows from their tearing at the blades of grass who scream in unison like in a full stadium, and to the riverside where I stripped down alone and swam in the rapid current. With soap I quit my skin, and brushed my teeth with the freezing water.

Back across the wooden bridge I’d walked, and back at the crossroads a ride was short in coming. The family picked me up and the father spoke of my city as though he were describing it from my own mind. The road winded east around what became canyon land and alongside the Rio Simpson river gorge, through the national park of the same name where the golden grasslands that tapered at the hills’ noggins reflected the last light of day, until an hour later I closed the door with a thank you and was finally in Coyaique.

In the main plaza, an octagonal one, a dog made me his master for an hour, and eventually I left and bought soda and meat and walked out of town toward direction south, further south always further south for two years now running, as though time for me is on an austral course anyway.

A view over Coyaique, Chile.

A view over Coyaique, Chile. Source.

 

The blue in the sky was stubborn. Touches of yellow. In the heavens glowed a lunar fingernail, whose dark side was awfully gray in the blue night. I walked passed a medium-sized Copec gas station, suitable for a city of 50,000 people. Behind a concrete wall I came upon that tall golden grass, this up to my chest. There I camped and crashed.

In the morning I found a swift ride at the Copec to 12 kilometers south. From the canyon there it was another quick ride in a sedan to the crossroads, one leading to the airport and the other to Villa Cerro Castillo. In the distance long sinking flats and hills dotted with dark forests, their shadows like spilled stains stenciled onto the earth. The wind was fierce, as if the earth were spinning too fast. Cars before me seldom passed.

Hours gone, a trucker finally pulled over in a half rig. I climbed in. The man’s face was hard, and I couldn’t see his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Chicago,” I said.

“Ah,” he seemed to hesitate on a decision, but went ahead and asked: “you know whyI picked you up?”

“Because I smiled?”

“No. Because I thought you were Israeli. I wanted to tell you that we don’t take kindly to your folk,” he said. He introduced himself as Eduardo. Eventually he warmed up to me, after having what has become, in many instances, a precursory conversation of us Patagons don’t like Israelis. “The English are horrible too,” he had added.

“One time I picked up some Israelis from Cerro Castillo, brought ‘em to Coyaique,” he said. “There was four of ‘em, two guys two girls. I said to ‘em ‘I’ll take the two girls.’ They talked with themselves for a minute and then said ok, but when they jumped in it was a guy and a girl. I said so be it and we were underway. When then, I started telling them that we don’t like their kind. The girl was aggressive sayin’ ‘all Israelis aren’t the same’, and I said, ‘hell yes they’re all the same, look what just happened, I was testing you, you agreed to come just the two girls, and you went back on your deal!’ I said to ‘em,” he slammed his hand on the wheel and leaned back in his seat in a sort of triumphant sigh.

“Well, at least I can say that I think some people haven’t picked me up because they thought I was Israeli,” I said.

“You’re damn right. You know, you should have a little American flag to wave around while you travel,” Eduardo suggested.

I tried to think where else in the world a little American flag would help me travel. How perfectly absurd, I thought.

Meanwhile, we had entered Cerro Castillo National Park, a bouncing landscape of close, round velvety trees and shrubs, with space enough between them that a deer might have trouble hiding itself. The tree line was close by and higher up bands of rock and mineral painted the hillsides, a light turquoise marking the copper. There was a stream as clear as glass that flowed gentle beside the winding paved road, until it ended where we summited a hill and an inexplicable vastness opened before us; the valley from here to beyond the Villa and the mountain pass in the distance whose road switchbacks hid somewhere, and to the north and west were granite peaks caked in snow and cloud hugging around them such that the whiteness became confused and magnificently convoluted. The Cerro Castillo mountain was aptly-named, as its peaks resembled closely a donjon keep and towers not unlike how I’ve imagined Dracula’s black Transylvanian castle.

Cerro Castillo, like Dracula's castle.

Cerro Castillo, like Dracula’s castle.

 

After crossing the valley floor and passing through the Villa and picking up an old country man to drop off shortly up the road, we began climbing the mountain pass where woods had returned in full. The switchbacks were tight, but the rig managed. The valley sank beneath us. Everything looked so beautiful.

On the other side, we descended along the shore of the Laguna Verde, another apt title for which the water holds true to an emerald reputation. Down, down to a new valley floor, not too wide but long and flat. A river called Ibañez, brown with distance, collided with the green waters of the lagoon in a delectable demonstration of natural mint chocolate. The valley road curved around hills, and now different mountain ranges also topped with white popped up here and there, perfectly framed in the V’s of alternating green slopes. Vertical ice sheets and steep gullies cut into the slopes.

“Volcano exploded here in ’91,” said Eduardo. “That’s why this road is so good.”

Indeed it was smooth, as we were rolling down on the packed sand that had once been ash and pumice thrown forth by a furious force.

“This place is really beautiful,” I said. “The only place I can think to compare it with is parts of Alaska or Canada.”

“Yea, but here you don’t have to worry about bears!” He laughed a full, good laugh. I decided to like him in spite of his aggression, but then he turned down a dirt track that lead through flood waters toward hills and beyond to the snowy mountains, which themselves didn’t look so far off.

“I’ll pick ya up and take ya a bit further down if you’re still here when I get back,” he said.

“Thanks a lot Eduardo,” and he drove off, his cargo bouncing around merrily.

I sat and prepared a carrot tomato sauce and ham sandwich. Around me green dominated, and tall trees whose branches stretched to a significant breadth as though they lived and wanted to gather others to their trunks paralleled the gravel road. It was a full hour before a car came down the road and that in the wrong direction. When finally one came going south, my way, he did not stop.

Eventually Eduardo came bobbling down the road, empty of cargo this time, and waved me to climb back in.

We went down the road, a flat road still and the mountains persisting.

“You eaten?” he asked.

“Just had a carrot and onion sandwich,” I replied.

“A what? Come on and eat something better, on my invite,” he said.

He pulled off down a road at the end of which peaked the down logs that he’d have to later load. We climbed out of the truck and he with a cooler. In a grassy patch we made a picnic. I shared cookies, and he had the same. We munched on the soft character of hard boiled eggs sprinkled in salt, and homemade bread aji sandwiches.

“This is the life,” he said. “I work pretty much all the time, and I always carry my own food. Water?”

“Thanks I have a bottle.”

“Nonsense this is frozen, take it!” he insisted.

When our bellies had been rightly filled, and he had added more cookies and sandwiches to my bag, we shook hands and parted ways, he to the logs and I returning to the road, where for lack of something better to occupy my time I began, once more, to walk. Sounds of birds calling in the forest or from fence pegs pierced the serenity or rather added to it. The trees spoke of wind, an air brittle and teaming with wild qualities.

But the sun was high and all the land was out, there before me and beside me, behind me and everywhere else that I couldn’t see; as my road is the road and all there is about it, but difficult the beyond, indeed difficult for anyone else, the beyond.

Carretera Austral, Chile, Patagonia travel drawings

Hitchhiking on the Carretera austral in the south of Chile, Patagonia mountains make for superb subjects of travel drawings. I only wish I’d drawn more…

 

I walked, and the cars that came one every thirty minutes or so shrieked by in clouds of dirt. Hours came and went, but I was not faded. I braided white flowers together as a necklace and became a flower child hitcher, but left my creation at a fence post. Water sources were everywhere, and by now I was used to drinking of the fresh stuff… fresher than any water I’d tasted.

When the third hour came, there was only one car that stopped to ask if I needed anything as they couldn’t take me since they were packed full but they were the only ones who seemed to realize that here’s this man walking and there’s nothing human for 50 miles all around. It just so happened that it was the Israelis that the couple had known at the crossroads. So it goes.

A fourth hour came and went, during which I decided that I’ve become more and more attracted to the idea of people vibrating on frequencies. One can’t deny that our cells are in perpetual motion even after we’re dead. Those of compatible frequencies get along with each other better, I suppose. Indeed, the phrase “he’s on a different wavelength” did not appear out of thin air!

In the next hour of passing cars I started to curse myself for having left Coyaique. What was I doing here anyway? It was the 30th of December, and I’d just left the biggest city for hundreds of miles around. Shouldn’t that have been my spot for New Years? Well, I’d decided that I wanted to go to the next large village south, one called Cochrane. They had told me it was 3 hours from Coyaique, but they were wrong.

I know this because after the next bend a Chinese-made truck finally pulled up for me. Serendipitous. There was a redheaded woman and a red bearded guy.

“Hey, where are you headed?” she asked me.

I came up to the window and in a shy way I told her I was headed far.

“We are too, to Cochrane.”

And so it was that after 5 hours of no luck since my picnic with Eduardo, I’d finally met a ride headed to Cochrane, which was not 3 hours from Coyaique, but 7.

Cows on the road in the very south of Chile's Patagonian Carretera Austral.

Cows on the road in the very south of Chile’s Patagonian Carretera Austral.

 

“I’m Tati and this is Carlos,” Tati said. Carlos smiled from behind his aviators. He spoke with a scratchy voice, but something about him told me he was young.

“Nice to meet ya,” he said.

“Yea you guys too. I’m Chael.”

“That’s a weird name,” Tati said.

“I blame my father for all the explanations of its origin and pronunciation and spelling that I’ve ever had to give,” I said.

We laughed and went down the road at a moderate speed. A few bicyclists passed.

“Man, they’re everywhere,” I said.

“Yea, there are a lot of travelers in these parts. Motorcyclists, bikers, hitchhikers. Lots of Israelis too,” said Tati. I winced briefly at the subject.

“I’ve met several Israelis so far.”

“They’re like a plague!” she said, but then: “though, if they didn’t come we might be in the dumps for tourism!” she laughed at this and then Carlos asked me where I was from. I told him, and we spoke of my travels.

“I could never do it, man,” he said, shaking his head side to side. “Too far from family.”

“Didn’t you just tell me you’re a guard for the mines in Calama and you’ve been away for 9 months?” I jostled.

“Oh well, yea, but you know I have a place and living,” he replied.

From the forest and valley floor we rose to meet a land of few trees but equal glory. Lago General Carrera spread its blueness from near to far, rocky islands shooting up from the surface in many places, and the surrounding mountains like watering beasts whose slopes dipped deeply into the continent’s second largest lake after Titicaca. We rounded he winding road along the shore heights and watched a rainbow form.

The largest lake on the continent, Lago General Carrera, in Chilean Patagonia.

The largest lake on the continent, Lago General Carrera, in Chilean Patagonia.

 

“Let’s go get the gold!” I exclaimed.

The car started to vibrate violently as we passed over rumps that had been created by too much weight on the pack.

“Grrr I hate these things!” Tati exclaimed.

“You would prefer paved roads?” I inquired.

“Of course!” they said almost in unison.

“Well at least the dirt road offers some level of romanticism to the place,” I offered.

“Tourists always think that,” said Tati. “But if you lived here you wouldn’t agree. These roads are horrible. The politicians don’t know it because they go around in helicopters or supped-up four wheelers.”

“Don’t you think a paved road would change Patagonia?” I asked.

“It would make our lives a lot easier in any case,” she said.

Hitchhiking in Chile Patagonia, on our way to Cochrane.

Hitchhiking in Chile Patagonia, on our way to Cochrane.

 

Later we stopped at a small lakeside town called Puerto Tranquilo, us joking that perhaps it wasn’t so tranquil what with all of these travelers coming through, three of which were hitchers heading north. In a small shop Carlos threw me a bag of Lays chips and an orange Fanta.

Back on the road we zoomed, the same beauty accompanying us throughout. From the blue we arrived to black lakes, and a green one called Bertrand. White peaks fed all these bodies from their glacial pack. The edges of the Campo de Hielo Norte, a huge area of ridged peaks flooded in glaciers, hung from the crests over each lagoon on their millennial slides down the frigid rock.

 

The sun was falling behind the clouds. Light made the edges of clouds gleam brightly. Once the Carretera Austral diverted from Bertrand, the land shifted into one of rolling rocky hills and short brush plant life. Through the last of the trees I saw the beginnings of the Rio Baker, Chile’s most voluptuous river and the second most of South America after the Amazon. The color is difficult to describe. It was green—or no, it was bluish green, but like a turquoise that melded with a bit of aqua. In any case it flowed like a lot of melted plastic, turbulent and raucous.

The magnificent candy color of Rio Baker, Chile's Patagonian marvel river.

The magnificent candy color of Rio Baker, Chile’s Patagonian marvel river. Source.

 

The Austral followed this beautiful river until it sank hidden in its gorge, and only at times showing us its ferocity, like when it joined with another river.

“HydroAysen wants to dam this up,” said Carlos.

“Dam it? What for? Doesn’t seem like there are any big cities around here,” I said.

“No,” said Tati, “it would be energy for the north, and they’re mount cable towers from here to there!”

“Well, that sounds stupid. The north has plenty of energy sources. I don’t know, like wind, or Atacama’s sun,” I said.

“Right! And Chile is a coast, essentially, and we can use the tide to generate energy,” she added.

Night overtook the land, and I began to doze off. Then there was a cross on a hill, and we’d arrived to Cochrane.

“Will you be in town for a while?” they asked.

“I was thinking New Years,” I said.

“Oh, dude!” cried Carlos. “You gotta come to my sister’s disco, there’s gonna be a big party. Tomorrow, be there, it’s called Nativo.”

I agreed. I’d told them I was going to camp, so they brought me to a grassy area beside a hydroelectric plant, and there I pitched my tent, swatted mosquitoes and fell instantly to sleep.

Morning came and I ate the last cookies. Emerging from my tent, I realized that I was in a lovely spot. The River Cochrane flowed passed and I could see to the low depths tiny fish picking at the algae coat and occasionally a big fish shooting by. Across the river pine forests carpeting the hillsides, and just beyond peaked peaks white and glistening.

I spent the day writing, and when the evening approached, I decided to move to a different camping spot so as to feel comfortable leaving all of my gear alone for, well, the entire night. News Year’s Eve.

Up beyond a Hollywood-like sign, through a field of Christmas trees and burrs, I came to a gap in a fence. Once passed, I found myself walking in a calm pine forest with the kind of tall trees between which you find yourself fleeing from vampires. The pine needle is an interesting thing. So prickly and fine but when gathered with many it makes for a soft comfortable forest floor. I found a secluded gully and pitched my tent. I changed into my best clothes, pocketing a piece of bread and a 10,000 peso bill, and went in search of the Nativo discoteca.

Finally arriving to Cochrane after hitchhiking the Carretera Austral in Chile.

Finally arriving to Cochrane after hitchhiking the Carretera Austral in Chile.

 

Cochrane sits in a bowl, and I was camped above it. 3,000 residents make up this last city before the last stretch of the Carretera Austral, which leads to Caleta Tortel, and then to a free ferry, and on to Villa O’Higgins. I went to the central plaza, a generous space for this size town. I didn’t know how New Year’s Eve is celebrated in Chile, but it seemed to me rather quiet.

I went walking toward where a gaucho had told me where I’d find Nativo. On the way I met Leo.

“Oye gringo check out our visitor here!”

I approached two guys standing drinking beer on a street corner.

“Yea, I’m gringo,” I said.

“No man you aint gringo, this is gringo,” he wrapped his hands around his young friend.

This is how I met Leo, 30, and Gringo, 20. The lexicon had me lost for a moment, but it was short-lived. After the short time spent in the usual conversation of what I was doing, Leo handed me a beer. And thusly commenced the night.

We parted from Gringo and went to a house just a few down to meet Negro and his family. They had just dragged a sheep in from the hills.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, looking at the animal.

Negro said in slow English, “We’re going to kill him. Then we’re going to eat him. And then we are going to fuck him.”

I chuckled, “Like that?”

“In that order,” he assured me.

Negro was with family, so Leo and I left to walk elsewhere. The local pub was closed until 1 a.m.

“Come on let’s go get some beer,” he said.

In the minimarket I handed him some money, but he pushed it back, “no! You cannot. And I don’t like coins anyway.”

We continued down the road in this direction and that, drinking as New Year’s calls for.

“So what do you do Leo?” He had already had much more to drink than I.

“The hills! Man, I live for the hills! Climbing man, the nature.” He squinted and coiled with his words, betraying an obvious passion that he felt. “But man, I work in the mines in La Serena. Avalanche safety… I’m part of destroying hills. I love the hills man, and I’m destroying them!”

“Must be hard,” I said with a slurp of the Escudo.

“I’m here in the summer. We just went up with Gringo and Jonathan to San Lorenzo, the second highest peak in Chile,” he said.

“Jonathan?” I asked.

“He’s our gringo boss man. Takes mostly Chileans up there with us. Good spirit man, good human being.”

Eventually we arrived to another house, filled with his friends. I met many, and they were drinking, and the music was playing. I had a few shots of rum, and partook in drinking of the hollowed melon filled with white wine and sugar. I met a guy who had lived in San Francisco.

“What did you do there?”

“I mowed lawns,” he said.

“Oh,” I said.

“Well, I mowed big lawns… with 600 sheep.”

At first surprised, I then said, “yea, they’re pretty ecologically-aware out there.”

The party continued, and everyone joked that one of the girls wanted sex with me, and it was a fun laugh and if I had had a collar I might have tugged at it, and then we danced and music pounded as cumbia or reggaeton or random jazz tracks. At one point there were hugs and well-wished of “feliz año nuevo, que lo pasas muy bien, y tu tambien huevon…” I don’t know how long passed, but then everyone cried “to Nativo!” And we left.

But first, Leo and I, both of us now sufficiently altered stumbled down the street to yet another house. This one was filled with Negro and his wife and child, his brother and his family and their mother and any number of little ones screaming havoc.

That tendency of politeness from somewhere profound beat back the drunk and I spoke clearly and concertedly. It was a curious situation, but we were welcomed there with each a big plate of a chicken breast and salad. I ate cautiously but not overtly so. The women disappeared into the back room to deal with a screaming child and I can’t remember what I spoke with Negro about, but, as is the case between men, it might have been something important.

And then Leo and I were walking once more. We met two girls, one he introduced as his sister, and the other actively avoiding Leo’s advances. Before I knew it, we were in a taxi ( a taxi?? In such a small town??). Unloading from the car was more like spilling out onto the pavement. Nativo must be the only club in town, but it’s a log structure and inside like a longhouse. I tried to get the doorman to search for Carlos as he’d told me to do, as his sister was the owner and he assured me an entrance fee would be waved for his traveler friend, but Leo would have none of it.

“No, huevon! I’m pay. You no. I want to pay, people working, you know?” I felt a dread and shame that he paid my 4 dollar entrance fee along with his own, but Leo’s cheeriness never dissipated. He squinted again and the wrinkles beside his eyes rolled and he smiled a white smile.

I whipped out my 10,000 pesos to purchase our drinks, but Leo would still have none of it. It became frustrating trying to pay for things, but Leo was insistent. “You’re a visitor and you’re my buddy! And you know, I say, you really know that my life is the hills! What you told me about Oregon and skiing and climbing, man you’re one of mine, man our blood is like the same sweetness man! Cheers!” He handed me a beer and we chugged them down.

It was dark, and the silhouettes of dancing bodies against the strobe and laser flashed and moved like a single entity. Leo introduced me to everyone over the noise, and it seemed I was the only foreigner around. My eyes moved slower than I would have had them, but I remember girls and dancing with tight dresses but really that’s all they seemed to be. Tight dresses, something about a pharmacist and glasses and me feeling used to buy drinks for girls but to me they were just tight dresses and Camilo’s stories of girls trying to get him to buy them stuff streamed into my conscious memory and I a rebel and believer of female progressivism distracted them with stares, but those weren’t eyes to me they were glasses with a tight dress! Eyes ought be chocolaty.

Carlos showed up and there were cheers all around with new friends and someone kept poking me, and I giggled and drank some random drink handed me by Leo and it was a gin and tonic. “Huevon, what taste you have man!”

To me it seemed like the place shut down too early, and as everyone awaited taxis just outside, I lingered unsure of what to do, but then I farewelled Leo with thanks and good luck, and took to the pavement walking.

Over the hills rose colors of morning, and after shaking hands with random drunks in the streets, I finally summited hill Cochrane and beyond into the pine forest I fell fast asleep in my tent, the pine needles beneath padding like warm cushions.

A view of Cochrane, Chile Patagonia.

A view of Cochrane, Chile Patagonia.

 

Sunday was New Year’s Day. I spent part of it down at a secluded creek. The bank was of flat rocks the sizes of quarters and half dollars. I skipped them down the gentle current with a snap of my wrist. 4, 5, 6 or 7 times they bounced on the water and then trickled and faded quickly away following the flow.

I packed my tent and decided to return to the first camp site along the Cochrane River and near the hydroelectric plant. Perhaps I’d see someone.

Right as I had crossed the pine wood’s fence, a man approached. He had a long bamboo fishing pole, tattered clothing, and cloud-colored eyes that broke a brilliant stark contrast against his sun-leathered skin. His face was old, and cracked teeth and his high voice seemed to give him even more character. I shook his hand, but own dirtiness nothing with his. But he was not dirty; no, he was outside, always outside. Naked horses had followed him, and he fed them salt from his outside hands. I told him that I’d camped on his property and he smiled his cracked smile, but face lines told me it was sincere. He spoke to me of the land, using place names for every hill and ravine. He spoke of walking from the north to Villa O’Higgins, through the wildest of lands off from the road. He was a mountain man in every sense of the title, and we shook hands once more before I left.

A few more sandwiches and then sleep at the plant.

In the morning I pack and decided not to bother trying further south for Tortel, a journey which could end up trapping me for some time. Tortel, however, seemed like a lovely place of Cyprus walkways and not a road to speak of.

It was Monday. I walked out of town after stocking up on my sandwiches and Oreo wannabes. 3 kilometers on I sat under the shade of a thorn bush. Later, Negro and his wife and child came walking by and we greeted. “Goin’ fishing,” they’d said. I thanked them for the meal the other night, and they walked on, and into memory.

The day was clear blue above and hot below. Fewer cars passed here than anywhere else on the Austral. So I walked. I chucked some trash in an ancient Whirpool washing machine marked basura, and continued. And continued. Walking and sweating, and dipping my head in all the water that abound. 4 hours passed and finally a fast pick-up dropped me at a crossroads, and on I walked to Puente Chacabuco to stare at the roar of the water driving through the narrow canyon there.

I walked on for what seemed like forever, but it was only another 4 hours. All the cars are filled with familes, I thought, if they made cars with fewer seats perhaps we’d get human population under control. I tried to control my anger when a car with an empty seat drove by, me here in the middle of nowhere heat thirst. I was headed to a crossroads I’d passed with Carlos and Tati. From there it was a drive along the Lago General Carrera toward the east to a town called Chile Chico. Most cars passing, however, me were surely headed to Coyaique.

It was at this thought that a car finally pulled up, after 8 long hours of walking under the yellow star’s glare and burn, swatting horse flies and cursing my luck. However, as irony would have it, this car was not just going to the crossroads, but all the way to Chile Chico. So it goes.

We stopped once, and the man descended to the lake with a fishing rod and returned ten minutes later with a young trout. And to think that every river and lake used to be teeming like that, I thought.

The road was drastic, and in the distance we left behind us the Campo de Hielo Norte. A smooth thing like a blob, white and chilled. The lake blue. We passed many groups of hitchhikers, all possibly of the Israeli ilk. When finally we arrived to Chile Chico 4 hours later, I hopped out of the car and thanked my benefactors.

The Carretera Austral had ended. Just a kilometer beyond town I’d find the Argentine border over paved luxury. Chile Chico sat at the leeward side of descending mountains, the roughness terminating where the endless Argentina pampa grasslands would begin. That night I camped near Israelis who lent me their camera for a snapshot but didn’t speak to me like a traveler would expect a fellow traveler to do. The only thing they told me was that “all the Israelis do this route.” So it goes.

For dinner I had carrots, and cracked off the years-old glue that had held my bottom permanent tooth brace in place. The loose metal end was going to become bothersome. I slept on the beach, and watched the pink clouds turn to sapphire, turn to night and stars glimmering. Tomorrow would be the beginning of Argentina, and the continued voyage into Patagonia.

Chile Chico, near the border with Argentina.

Chile Chico, near the border with Argentina.

One last glimpse at Chile's Carretera Austral, the southern Patagonian highway.

One last glimpse at Chile’s Carretera Austral, the southern Patagonian highway. Source.

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