To the end of the road (or nearly...)

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November 23rd 2015
Published: November 25th 2015
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So, it's been a little while - H had all the gadgets and I was either in places not even large enough to have food (!), never mind an internet cafe, or constantly on the go so didn't have time to write. Means there's a lot to catch up on and H will have to tell his own stories.

As H went off to start his cycling trip, I met the group of 5 others, and the trip leader for my trip, in Buenos Aires where we stayed for another couple of nights, the highlight being a fantastic tango show. From there we flew down to Esquel, a small town in the centre of Argentina, in the Welsh region, so full of lots of Welsh tourist tat, including that well known speciality Welsh chocolate? The original intention had been to travel for a day on the Trochita, better known as the Patagonian Express, made famous by Paul Theroux, but they change their schedules every month with not much notice and it was not running the day we were there. Instead we had a beautiful day in the Alerces National Park, created to protect the alerce trees which are some of the longest lived in the world, some over 3000 years old. The grow incredibly slowly, approx 1mm a year round the trunk.

The high point of Esquel though was the discovery of a planetarium (though only with stars, no planets!) that happened to have its once a week public night the second night we were there. So, we had a full lecture on the stars of the southern hemisphere from a professor at the local university - fascinating for the stories behind the names of the stars as well as trying to identify them. We left planning to spend nights stargazing....

From Esquel we headed across the border into Chile - I think that we were the only people they'd seen for a while at the small border crossing as they got quite excited with lots of forms to fill out and bags pulled out of the bus though the searches were rather perfunctory. From the border we headed towards the Carretera Austral - a little used (and mostly unpaved) road through one of the least known areas of Chile that eventually runs out at one of the watery bits in the south from where the only option is to head into Argentina or catch a boat - we didn't get quite to the end, but near enough! There is still a plan to take the road further across the country but who knows when that might happen.

So, the rest of the trip was spent in smaller and smaller towns/villages with the exception of the capital of the region, Coyhaique which only has a population of around 50,000. The weather deteriorated into Chile (the Andes work a bit like the Pennines when it comes to clouds and rain) and we went from around 27 degs and sunshine to the mid teens and drizzly rain in a few hours. Our first stop was Futaleufu (means large river in Mapuche) which had one bank (v important when it's the first town you come to), a couple of restaurants and a couple of tiny supermarkets. Our accommodation was quite basic but comfortable once the gas fire had been on for a while but we had the best dinner of the trip in a restaurant run by a chef who had returned to the area after spending time in Santiago and further afield. She now grows a lot of her own food and produced a fantastic 3 course menu (private dining as it was still low season and the restaurant wasn't properly open) for approx £15! We also went out in the drizzle to the Futaleufu NP to climb to a view point - beautiful but hard work and we were all slightly nervous when we took the wrong route back down and nearly ended up in a field with bulls.

From there we moved on to Puyuhuapi, originally a German settlement at the mouth of a fjord, which was even tinier than Futaleufu. Beautiful accommodation in a house near the water with a very English looking garden. We checked out the local carpet factory - not in action when we were there as they only work when they have orders but they showed us how they are all made by hand - hugely labour intensive. We never quite worked out why they were also selling German beer in the factory...

Late afternoon we had a trip to the nearby hot springs which looked out directly over the fjord across to the hills on the other side so lovely views despite the low clouds and drizzle. This was the point at which we realised that the water was ultimately open to the sea rather than being a lake, when the ducks we thought we were watching turned into Chilean dolphins! We had a fantastic display of groups of them moving up into the fjord, apparently something they do quite often when it rains (why?!), for about half an hour and even caught some more on the drive back to the guesthouse.

Long day from Puyuhuapi starting with a tough climb over tree trunks and through boggy ground in the forest in the Queulat NP to see a glacier. Luckily we managed to catch a glimpse of it before the cloud really came down and it disappeared and we were all filthy and tired by the time we got down to the bottom. Gonzalo, our amazing Argentinian driver, had prepared one of our many picnic lunches, though unusually based around crackers as nobody had managed to make bread in Puyuhuapi that morning! So began a theme of lunches involving cheese, ham, tomatoes and avocado in varying forms.

Further drive to the Enchanted Forest and a short walk through an area that was just dripping with water and consequently stunningly green with every stone/branch/trunk covered in different mosses and ferns. It really was like something out of a fairy tale with trees morphing into furry creatures that let your imagination run riot.

A long drive into Coyhaique meant we didn't arrive till 8.30ish so didn't go out for dinner till late. Then we had to visit the local casino for one of our group to try to change some dollars as it was the weekend and the banks were going to be shut. The casino is clearly the place to be on a Saturday night but I don't think they were happy with the rest of us cluttering up their foyer! By this stage I was truly full of the cold that my room mate had unfortunately brought with her on the trip so desperately wanted my bed in the very comfortable business type hotel that we had.

The following day was spent around the local area which was rather spoilt by miserable weather. One beach resort area would have been spectacular could we have seen the surrounding mountains and having our picnic lunch in a covered barbecue spot after sweeping out the rain just summed up the day. Typically the sun came out as we returned to the hotel so views of the mountains across the valley were lovely but I had almost completely lost my voice and just wanted an early night so didn't get the benefit.

From Coyhaique another grey day on the route to Rio Tranquilo. Part of the Carretera Austral is being widened and paved beyond a small town called Cerro Castillo so the road was to be closed between 2-6pm for them to use explosives. Half way through this area is an archaeological site where they have found paintings on the rocks dating back thousands of years, believed to be local hunter gatherers. The views from up by the rocks were spectacular and Andy, our guide, was hugely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the site. The mystery is why they painted only pictures of hands, both positive (ie. a filled in painting of a hand) and negative (ie. spray painted around a hand). Below the site is an impressive 2 storey building that was originally built in the 1930s by the local people as a school for children from miles around as they had no school to go to. This was last used as a school in 1975 but is now a museum. Unfortunately we didn't have time to visit as we had to get through before they started blowing up the road!

The lodge at Rio Tranquilo was very attractive and warm with slippers provided for while inside. We had planned a boat trip to see the Capilla y Catedral de Marmol - the marble chapel and cathedral. The weather was so bad that the boats were not running from Rio Tranquilo but Daniele managed to find a boat closer to where we were going which was safe to take out. So, off in the driving rain in our waterproofs, then enhanced by life jackets and rain ponchos over the top - we looked like Michelin men! The chapel and cathedral are islands on the lake which have been shaped by thousands of years into amazing shapes and colours. Miraculously, as we arrived the rain stopped and everything brightened making the islands and the surrounding area look spectacular - I hope to get pictures on to here eventually!

This was where we first realised that we were travelling out of season in an area where nothing much happens outside December to February. Dinner was limited to 2 main course choices and desert was said to be papaya jelly but it definitely wasn't papaya!

My cold had now added a hacking cough so not a great night's sleep and I had already decided I was not going to do the planned walk the following day. However, a forecast of 99% chance of rain most of the day led to it being postponed completely and we all spent the day making the most of the warm and cosy lodge. The rain was actually unseasonal snow for a couple of hours and though it didn't lie where we were it caused havoc on the main road and covered a lot of the surrounding mountains. After lunch we did go out for a walk to fend off cabin fever and discovered an interesting family cemetery containing all wooden tombs perched on a hill. Returning from the walk I realised that I had a few bites and suddenly a few things fell into place and I realised that I must have had a familiar visitor in the night - bed bugs! I did speak to the guy on reception who said they had no other rooms. I tried to explain how serious this was for them but I'm not sure he understood.

Dinner was a bit of a disaster with a combination of Chile playing Uruguay at football meaning that none of the restaurant staff were interested in us, my cough getting worse and anxiety about the bed bugs. I went back to the hotel before the others and tried to reconcile myself to one more night. Fiona, my room mate could see I was anxious about another night there and insisted on swapping beds - that's really going out of your way for somebody! She didn't have any bites the next day (and I won't go into the life and habits of bed bugs but that doesn't necessarily mean that there weren't any) but I have to say that I was relieved to get away the next day.

First we did the walk up to the glacier view point postponed from the previous day and had fabulous views. From there we set off for our final out of the way stop in Puerto Betrand. The sun was now coming out and we planned to stop for a picnic lunch on the way but found that places that had been open last time Gonzalo was there were now marked as private so we ended up balanced on a floating pontoon on the lake precariously making our sandwiches - it was certainly a lunch stop with a view. Our accommodation was outside the tiny hamlet of Puerto Bertrand (pop 100, made up of 3 families!) in a lodge on the Rio Baker, mostly used by fishermen (and it is almost always men - there was a whole bus load of them caught our flight a couple of days later). The place is named after a British topographer who got stuck in the area waiting for a boat and ended up surveying it and naming lots of places after himself!

We drove from the lodge out to the confluence of the Rio Baker and Rio Nef where you could see the colour difference as one had come from the lake and one from the glacier. We spent some time watching the birds including our first condors - magnificent birds (if a bit ugly close up!). Nowhere in town was open as it was low season so we were forced to eat the expensive and not very good menu in the lodge which involved pasta - something Daniele, our Italian trip leader, generally refused to eat in South America!

The following morning we spent floating down the river on a raft surveying the surrounding mountains and watching a range of birds. Still feeling a bit ropey I retired to the room for the afternoon while some of the others went zip wiring across the river - I could hear the shouts from my room!

Gonzalo and Daniele came up trumps in the evening having found some meat and fish (from the father of the guy that ran the rafting!) and cooked up a true Argentinian asado - like a mega barbecue! This came after whiling away some time in the hot tub overlooking the river - not a bad way to spend my final night of the group trip!

6 hour drive back to the nearest airport (about 70km from Coyhaique) with a great lunch stop (3 course meal for £6) and finally onto the flight that would drop me in Puerto Montt and take the others onto Santiago. I was sad to say goodbye but looking forward to seeing H and setting off on our own adventures....

Sorry, the above is very long but I just wanted to get it all down before I forgot.

Hope everyone well at home and not too much more snow.

Sarah x

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27th November 2015

Hi Sarah Everything sounds so exciting pity about the cough, at least it frightened off the bed bugs! Getting more envious by the minute. Take care. Janet

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