Savannah Grace

Northern Patagonia

In Puerto Montt we met up with Monse again to travel together through northern Patagonia for 10 days. She flew in in the morning and we immediately hopped on a 7-hour bus to Bariloche, Argentina. Bariloche is home to the largest ski resort in the southern hemisphere and as the largest city in the Lakes District of Argentina, is well geared for tourism year round. Although it claims to have been built in a European alpine style I didn’t find the centre of town to be particularly attractive compared to smaller and more pedestrianized ski towns in other countries. Of course skiing isn’t the theme in the summer but rather hiking, boating and swimming top the to-do lists for visitors though it is possible to hike or take some chairlifts up to the top of a few nearby mountains. We had great sunny weather and went on a couple of smaller local hikes and found some excellent views. Bariloche’s location on the southeastern shore of Nahuel Huapi and with the Andes for a backdrop makes sure of that.

Hiking time with Monse!
At the top of Cerro Campanario just outside Bariloche

“They won’t let me on the bus with you” – Monse
“What? Why?” I replied. After a couple days in Bariloche we were loading our bags on a bus back to Chile when Monse broke the news to us.
“I don’t have the entry paper that I was supposed to get at the border coming in, so they won’t risk me having an issue leaving, which I won’t have.”  – Monse
“Um…” My go-to response these days. It was 7am and the bus was about to leave. We had a long ride ahead of us and back in Puerto Montt we were supposed to pick up a rental car under her name and start driving south.
“Don’t worry, I’ll get there and find you. Just take my pillow.” Monse was ever the optimist. To her this was the most excitement and fun she had had in a while. She was going to hitchhike a few hundred km to Puerto Montt, catch up to us and all would work out.  Ammon = stress.  Sasha = disbelief. Monse = excitement. And that was our group in a nutshell for the next few days together….
As it turns out Monse knew what she was talking about and is either very good or very lucky or both. We saw her briefly at the border when we were stamping out of Argentina and got a message from her as we were waiting in a very slow line to enter Chile. I’d never seen a more thorough job by customs with the sniffer dogs but the delays allowed Monse to catch up to us once again (the two border posts are separated by a mountain pass and about a 40 minute drive). It was quite amusing to see the shock on our bus driver’s face when Monse walked up to him and said “I made it through the border. Now can I get on the bus?”
Back in Puerto Montt we picked up our little rental car and I took over driving duties for the next 7 days. Heading south from Puerto Montt is hwy 7, the Carretera Austral, a single windy beautiful road leading another 1000km to it’s end at O’higgins, still less than halfway from Puerto Montt to the bottom of Chile. Our plan was to only travel the first half of this length, as far as Coyhaique before turning back, taking our time along the way to enjoy the parks and a bit of hiking. If hiking and national parks is your thing, then Chilean Patagonia might be the way to go. Only in the last year or so, the country created new national parks in the region and opened up a 2800 km trans-patagonian hiking trail linking 17 of them between Puerto Montt and the far south. Exciting stuff, but not what we were there for.
We only covered about 2 hours the first evening. At the beginning of the Carretera Austral there are a couple of ferries that must be taken and we were on the first 45 minute one that evening. I can’t emphasize enough how familiar the landscape felt. We were on the BC coast in my mind. The mountains and sea and forests (ok, the trees looked different, but hey, it was somewhere different actually) and clouds. All so familiar. We stayed at an airbnb in the little village of Contao.
The 2nd ferry is about 5 hrs long with only 2 daily sailings and because it is usually sold out in the high season we had made reservations for a departure the following morning. Google maps said it was 45 km or an hour away from where we staying so we gave ourselves an hour and a half the next morning to make the drive. What google maps failed to tell us was that the road was actually under construction and mostly in rough shape with multiple points to stop for alternating traffic patterns. This time everyone was more than a little stressed as we had to finish with an aggressive driving style a Chilean could be proud of to make it in time. The ferry company actually called us as we were driving into town and we quickly drove down the ramp, they closed up and took off immediately after. Phew! Talk about cutting it close.

The little ferry at La Arena
Reminds me of home

The stress continued a little longer as we got off the ferry and realized that the gravel road was going to be work for our little car. Traditionally this was 4×4 country and 90% of people are still renting SUV’s or trucks for the drive. We talked to one local and apparently less than 10 years ago almost all of the road to Coyhaique was unpaved, but progress is swift and now most is paved and the rest seems to be under construction. This was actually a major source of shock for the next week too as it turns out Chilean TCPs (traffic control people aka flaggers) can’t be trusted at all. 6 times in as many days we were given the green light/flag/sign only to come face to face with an opposite direction truck or other vehicle and either forced off the road or to reverse for quite a distance. We are still shaking our heads in amusement and horror at how this kept happening.
Our general pattern became that of driving for up to 5 hours in a day and hiking for a couple as well. We stopped for some of the more well known hikes and views but Monse quickly came down with a cold that would eventually spread to us by the end. Energy levels low, we were a little less ambitious than we otherwise could have been. Speaking of ambitious we were impressed by but not envious of the throng of cyclists tackling the road. Added to that were the hordes of hitchhikers standing at every intersection and little village. We passed at least 2 dozen a day and picked up the odd one here and there. Hitchhiking is a very popular activity in Chile and Argentina, especially around Patagonia, but the difficulty lies in the competition. I worry that there isn’t enough traffic for the number of people looking for rides. It loses its appeal to me at that point.

Hiking makes us happy!
Big leaf
Pumalin National Park

The closer we got to Coyhaique, the more the landscape changed from wet, misty forests to a more open and mixed grassy landscape. Glaciers were abundant but wildlife was not. The craziest thing we saw was a huge scar across the landscape and road that we later found out was the result of a huge glacial mudslide a year before. It travelled 8km downhill and through a valley and gorge and wiped out most of a little village that we passed through. No photo could ever do justice to the scale of destruction it caused.

A nice stretch of road
Looking familiar again.
The mudslide started up in the mountains
Not much left of the village 😦
Queulat National Park
Waiting our turn to cross
Heading south

Sometimes we booked an airbnb last minute, other times we just asked around at a random guesthouse in a random town for a little cottage. Wood stoves kept us warm and cozy at night and we cooked all our own meals, mostly with staples brought from Puerto Montt to save money. We enjoyed ourselves though and by the end we were all itching to drive farther and I’m looking forward to some proper camping road trips when we get home. We made hikes in Pumalin, Queulat, and Cerro Castillo National Parks, had a bit of rain and got a bit cold but generally avoided that and had a great time.

Our cabin for the night outside Chaiten.
Cerro Castillo National Park
Cerro Castillo NP
Near Coyhaique
So many great views all day long.

Finally back in Puerto Montt again we had lunch down at the fish market before making our sad goodbyes as Monse flew home to Santiago and we jumped on another cheap flight, this time to Punta Arenas.


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