The Tide is High- Completing the Carretera Austral

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Fitz Roy

March 3, 2017 – Chalten, Argentina –

I finally pulled myself out of the abyss that for me was the city Coyhaique. I had a plan – head back north four hours by bus to visit Queulat National Park. I had missed it on the way down, and the pictures online of the glaciers looked too good to miss. It started to rain soon after I arrived and didn´t stop until the next afternoon. I camped at the campsite along the road. When the rain let up and the sun peaked out in the late afternoon I made the dash for the park and got in about two hours of walking. I was able to see the glacier but not up close.

The next morning I waited along the road with a group of Chileans for a bus that I heard through the grapevine was supposed to arrive around 8am (but you can never be quite sure of such rumors.) Around 8:15 a bus did arrive, and it was not full. Soaking wet and near shivering, we were all giddy to board the bus.

After we stopped for lunch, I reboarded the bus and put my earplugs in and closed my eyes. But I was still able to hear a crowd of people reboard the bus. About ten minutes later I started to wonder why we were not moving yet again. I arose from my lying down position across the back two seats of the bus and found that there was no one left in the bus. I reentered the restuarant and was told that everyone had gotten off the bus to reboard a different one. It had just departed. So I waited another couple of hours for a small microbus to make the rest of the way back to Coyhaique.

After another three days in Coyhaique, my debit card had still not arrived and I gave up on it. It had been three weeks since my brother Tom had sent it. But I had spent 15 days in Coyhaique in more or less a depression bubble reading too much American news and eating too many doritos and cookies that I bought at a grocery store with check out lines as long as 45 minutes some days.

It felt good to be on the road again. The plan was to head about an hour south and hike 3-4 days in the Cerro Castillo region. The bus driver was to drop me off at one end at a place called Las Horquetas. But it became apparent after some time that he had forgotten to do so, and I hadn´t really known what I was looking for. I didnt mind so much because it had started to rain. I figured I would just take the bus to the town of Cerro Castillo and hike in the opposite direction and then try to hitchhike back.

On day one of the Cerro Castill hike,  I ran into a nice group of six Americans, a father daughter trip, three daughters and three fathers. They were on horseback and continued on foot up to a glacier lake below a glacier. Talking to Americans for the first time in weeks gave me a boost. And even after they parted to return down the hill and I continued on to the first campground, I felt that my spirit had lifted.

The first day had been cloudy but the second day was sunny, and a good thing because I crossed over a high mountain pass that was exposed that would not have been fun on a cloudy or rainy day. The views were spectacular.

Day three was the easiest, mostly a stroll through woods and wet grassy areas with a number of river crossings, including one that required me to take off my boots. I got a couple of rides back to the town of Cerro Castillo and spent the night in the same family hotel and ate dinner with a nice young Chilean couple.

The next day I was able to hop a bus south to Lago Rio Tranquillo where I got a boat out to Capillas de Marmol, a strange set of caverns along the coast of the lake caused by an oxidation process over millions of years. The boat was able to go into the caverns. It turned windy that evening.

The following day I got a bus to south once again. The bus driver had some personality, much like a New York cab driver. He made the passengers laugh with jokes that I couldn´t understand and yelled at oncoming cars who would not slow down where there were precarious parts of the highway. He stopped twice for us to get out and take pictures, the first time at a bridge that we all crossed on foot. I thought at first that the bridge just couldn´t support the weight of a bus full of passengers.

We stopped for a while at a lake where I took a dip and grabbed some snacks before we made the final push to Cochrane.

I made camp near the plaza in the backyard of Cochrane resident along with a number of other travelers. The next day I rented a mountain bike and spent four hours in the nearby Tamango Reserve. I returned in time to get a six o´clock bus to Carleta Tortel.

About 15 minutes before the bus departure I bought some snacks and then headed back towards the plaza where the bus would depart. But I realized as I put my change into my wallet that I did not have my credit card. I looked frantically for it but could not find it. I had to cancel my bus trip and stay another night in Cochrane. I looked thoroughly through all my stuff that night. The only explanation was that I must have left it in the ATM the day before. I went to the bank the next day and they said that a card gets destroyed if it is left in the ATM. So I now had no debit card and no bank card, and no way of getting more money out. A real bummer. My dear mother helped send another card to Puerto Natales. Hopefully it will arrive by the time I am there.

I waited all day in the plaza for the bus to Carleta Tortel. That morning there was a solar eclipse – as we entered midday it felt and looked like dusk.

It started to rain as we arrived in Tortel. A young Italian traveler asked a local where the campground was and we were pointed in a certain direction – down a set of stairs and along an amazing boardwalk that rose above the sea for a number of kilometers. The rain became steady and our urgency increased as we arrived at a campsite perhaps a half hour later, all the while along this boardwalk built above the sea – not a single road in this town. We arrived at dark. A small refugio was full of Chilean travelers and I set up my tent behind it in a soft grassy spot. The rain continued, but I was warm and dry inside my tent.

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Boardwalk System in Carleta Tortel

The Chileans continued to party well into the night, but it was a happy sound of music and camraderie. I wasnt tired anyway, and spent time looking at photos and keeping up with my daily log.

Around 2 am I left my legs begin to lift, as if some of my clothes had been accidently shoved underneath my mattress pad. But soon I recognized the sensation – the bottom end of my mattress was floating. Then ubruptly the top end as well. Water! The rain! My tent site was flooding, and fast. Within a moment, the water was a foot deep! And I panicked for a quick moment. I had to get the tent unzipped and get out. How fast and how deep would the water rise? And why? And where was all this water coming from?

As soon as I got my tent unzipped, I had to prioritize what I had to try to save from the rising water. I couldn´t get out of my sleeping bag without dousing it underneath the water. I had to keep it as dry as I could so I wouldn´t freeze the rest of the night. But my valuables – my wallet, my passport… I couldnt save it all. I climbed out of the water with my sleeping bag. It was pretty well soaked at this point I figured. I pulled the tent out, figuring with the weight of the water that it might just well rip, or the poles might snap. I stood shivering in the rain trying to move quickly, trying to keep some of my extra clothing dry. I pulled the tent to the refugio and just kept moving, trying to act, determined not to freeze that night.

Members of the Chilean party were soon to realize that something was not right and started to ask me what happened. It became apparent after a few moments that I was not the victim of a rain puddle or a flash flood, but instead of the tide coming in! – right into my tent!

The group of Chileans could not have been anymore helpful. They pulled me into the three-sided refugio and moved me to the direction of the fireplace. They offered to lend me dry clothing as I stood there in my underwear. A couple of young women stood by the fire and dried out my sleeping bag and insisted for some time that it was not yet dry enough. My clothes were hung, and they found a spot for me in a tent set up inside the refugio.

Five of us were cozied in the tent, and despite the suprisingly light commotion of a young couple having sex on the other side of the tent, I was able to fall asleep quite contented by the fact that I would not endure one of the more miserable nights of my life. I was dry, I was warm, and I had been taken care of by a warm Chilean crew, many of whom had just met each other travelling.

The next day brought more rain. The majority of the group planned to take a boat ride out to Isla de los Muertos – island of the dead – they asked a few times if I wanted to go and I decided last minute to join them. But the rain had really picked up, as well as the wind, and the surf had picked up as well. I wasnt certain it was all that safe. But our boat driver showed up and powered the ten of us through rough waves with a 150 horsepower engine. I sat up front in the cabin, drier and warmer, but the boat bounced even higher closer to the front and I was thrown from my seat at one point. It was not the safest ride I´ve experienced. Some of the Chileans tried to move from the front to back of the boat or vice versa and could have easily been thrown from the boat, or hurt otherwise.

Isla de Los Muertos is an unhabited island with a set of 33 crosses. Many other crosses have been washed away. A minimum of 57 people died here over a three month period in 1906. No one knows why. Either the tide or the soil may have contained contaminated minerals. Another theory is that the company that hired them and shipped them down here did not want to pay for their passage back north and simply poisened them all. The crosses remain, but they are barely visible in the overgrowth.

We passed another merry evening with music and wine well into the night. A young German who spoke fluent Chilean played a keyboard powered by his own breath through a tube that he blew into. A eukele and a harmonica accompanied him.

A young drunk man showed up to crash the party. He befriended me but then became beligerent and they kicked him back out into the rain sometime around 2am. The singing reached a crecendo around that time as the tunes turned from 1960s American classics to traditional Chilean folk songs.

In the morning the conditions were dryer, but sprinkling rain still intermixed with sun. Unfortunately after over a day of drying out, my Ipad was still not working. It had a large bubble under the glass screen, which is why there are no pictures in this blog entry. My guidebook was uselessly soaked, and I had to throw out other things such as vitamins, a deck of cards, and papers that had some things that I written on them. Most worrisome, my medication had been affected as well, the pills had turned to a powder.

I said goodbye to my Chilean family I had had for last 30 hours and headed for the apex of town where I hoped to find a ride south.

The next scheduled bus was not until the next day, but I found an unadvertised bus in the early afternoon, and even though I had to pay a little more for it, I was glad to not lose yet another day as I fell behind my set schedule.

I made friends with three young German women who were also waiting for the bus and four hours later we arrived at the end of the road where the Carretera Austral meets its terminus –Villa O´Higgins.

It was still dismal and rainy, but finding a campground with hot showers, a kitchen, and a heated common room was enough to cheer me up. A few of the Chilean travelers made it too, as they had hitched and spent the afternoon in the back of a pickup truck. Also joining them was a young American women named Margaret whom I had met the day before in the small refugio in Caleta Tortel.

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Me walking around Lago Del Desierto

The next morning we got a short bus to the official end of the highway and loaded on to a boat that would take us three hours up the lake where we would start a two day hike across the Chilean and Argentine border. The Chilean side was easy – a 15 km hike down a dirt road. But once we hit Argentina the road turned into a rugged and muddy trail for 6 km to the border patrol station on the edge of Lago Del Desierto. It was an easy border crossing, the border patrol simply took the passport into another room and stamped it.

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Lago Del Desierto

We camped there on the lake. Lots of familiar travlers were there, all of us making our way in the only direction that was possible.

Margaret and I had hiked the previous day together and did the same on the next day, opting, as most travelers do, to hike around the lake, instead of paying another 50 dollars to take another boat. But the 15km trail was also rugged, and made its way up and down. It rained periodically, as it had been doing for the past five days.

About 5 hours later we arrived at the road that led 37 km to the town of Chalten, Argentina, dubbed the trekking capital of Argentina. But the bus there was 30 dollars, so after failing a few times to wave down a ride, Margaret and I started to walk down the dirt road. The sun had come out and the walk was breathtaking. After about 5km we snagged a couple of rides the rest of the way to Chalten. We found a dumpy hostel to camp at at the edge of town.

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The next day would be a rest day, but I was poised to explore Fitz Roy and the surrounding area, hopefully in good weather.

-Thanks to Margaret for the pictures, more on the way…

One thought on “The Tide is High- Completing the Carretera Austral

  1. Tim
    Your experiences and your relating them are amazing. With limited language and lost money I doubt you’ll ever again have anxiety issues. Or is the wine making it all good?

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