Riding the Patagonian Wave
The wide open landscapes of Chilean Patagonia beckoned us from Argentina. In the wild but within city limits we looked forward to quieter nights with fewer street lights. Our friend Tony claimed since last July that he planned to meet up in Patagonia; despite his commitment and persistence, his appearance in the flesh at the Bariloche airport still surprised us. The airline losing his bags and not ours came as no surprise: an indoctrination into the chaos and unpredictability rampant south of the border. We thought Murphy, already exhausted with us, had moved onto Tony. That hypothesis proved very wrong. If only the Universe was so logical, life could be more predictable; but alas, it is not; and, instead, we get excitement, confusion, pain, and the promise of discovery. We certainly got more than we bargained for in Patagonia and became increasingly aware of our infinitely small part in it. At some point, coming to this realization, you begin to roll with the punches. I’m always surprised how short term this knowledge proves to be and how quickly you go back to controlling.
The airport found Tony’s bags just in time for us to carry them to the bus at dawn the next morning. The bus ride from Bariloche to Puerto Montt, Chile traversed the Andes Mountains and took about six hours. I reserved three seats in the front row on the second level of the bus providing an elevated panoramic of the high alpine country. Unfortunately, it was cloudy, and consequently, our front row seats into hopelessly sharp switchback turns competed against nothing, resulting in sweaty palms and high blood pressure. Also, crossing a border is never a fun experience, adding to the tension already present in our claustrophobic, cloudy, roller coaster ride. Crossing into Chile proved exceptionally thorough. Normally, at a border, I expect scrutiny with drugs and alcohol; but here, the Chileans focused more on dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Chile is an isolated place: down at the corner of the globe, wedged between the Pacific and the Andes west and east and the driest desert on Earth and wild waters north and south. It’s a place that has never seen much interaction with the outside world, and as a result, the local plants and animals don’t have the resilience of those found in more penetrable terrain. We happened to have some miscellaneous fruits and cheese with us, and when the dogs arrived to all our luggage arranged in ranks I became a little nervous. Additionally, Chileans speak an almost indecipherable form of Spanish (speed and slang), so I knew if trouble found us - which seemed to be the case since arriving to Patagonia - we’d be sitting, staring, and hopelessly optimistic in the way an innocent man on death row is all the way to the chair. While our fate wouldn’t be fatal, I wasn’t looking for an opportunity to test it. The dogs ran wildly sniffing all the bags, jumping over them and barking, and I started to wonder if they actually knew what they were doing. It seemed pretty erratic and they never did catch a whiff of my fresh Parmesan-Reggiano, which was sitting conspicuously in a cooler. Maybe all the commotion intended to incite self prosecution; but we held out, received stamps in our passports, drove down the big Andean hills and unloaded our ourselves and our luggage in Puerto Montt - an incredibly underwhelming city in a beautiful place.
We departed Puerto Montt as quickly as we arrived, rolling out in a sweet midsize Peugeot. To summarize our plans, we had about 10 days with Tony driving south on the Carrera Astral along Chile’s western shore, among the Andes. The iconic and rustic route remains one of the great drives on Earth: long stretches of graveled solitude, frequent ferry exchanges across wind chopped inlets, construction bi-passes following harsh winters; quiet nights, long days, static radios. Our plan was to drive south to Coyhaique and hike the Cerro Castillo trek. Off the grid in an already remote area, the four day trek guaranteed an epic time. Along the way Sara planned a few stops; the first of which, Chester Beer, stood in an open green pasture on the shores of Lago Llanquihue at the end of a country road. Two volcanoes - Osborno and Calbuco - stood omnipresent on the eastern horizon, dwarfing the brewery housed within a modest farmhouse. The parking lot was full and cars stacked on the road. I could see a large crowd of people congregated outside on the grass. Smoke was rising from a grill and horse shoes alternated back and forth in several lines of games, which turned out to be a tournament. We passed through a gate in the parking lot and into the courtyard. Music was certainly playing but I can’t seem to remember what kind. Along the side of the farmhouse an outdoor bar with three taps served Chester’s beers. To the left of the bar, a man in a denim apron stood elevated behind a wooden table with an oyster knife upon the table. To his right, a large metal tub full of ice held bags of oysters. On the opposite side of the bar, a group of people grilled beef, sausage, and vegetables over hardwood charcoal glowing sunrise orange. We started with beer and reluctantly passed on the oysters due to budget constraints - Patagonia was the most expensive part of our trip so far. I drank the stout. Tony tried all the beer: he was on vacation. The stout was dry and flavorful, resembling Irish Stout in body and character. Ironically, the toasty and burnt bitterness of this beer complements oysters perfectly and always brings me back to a dimly lit Irish pub named the Blind Piper along the Kerry Way in a small town named Caherdaniel - a place you can't help but pronounce with a terribly thick Irish accent.
Beers in hand, we drifted towards the assembly line of food coming off the grill, asking where to buy food. A man behind the grill reflexively responded in excited and natural English that everything was free for the horseshoe event. Double win: easy, English conversation and free food. The atmosphere was exceptionally international: Asador from Atlanta, bartender from British Colombia, and a few friends we made from the Czech Republic. The new friends had just returned from a jaunt down in Torres del Paines. We exchanged contact information as Sara and I would likely be passing through Prague and Pilsen later in the year during the European leg of our trip. Leaving Chester's, we drove to our first sleep, the Cochamo Valley, with no plans at all. We arrived at last light to a terrific campsite with hot showers and started a fire for dinner.
Breaking the drive up was necessary for both us and the Peugeot. The roads to our first ferry crossing at Hualaihue made the car sing and our spines tweak in strange keys. Initially we planned to camp on the beach before the ferry, but windswept and sunburnt beaches pushed us onwards. The mid afternoon was sunny and hot, but I could see the clouds building to the West. Hualaique was the first settlement with facilities since departing Puerto Varas. "Facilities" is a stretch: markets, hotels, and campsites occupied unused or vacant space within people's homes. Walking into the ferry terminal is when shit started to hit the fan. The next ferry to Chaitan was the following day at noon - which definitely tampered progress for the day, but was still tolerable. The girl at the counter inquired our final destination, and replying, “Coyhaique,” elicited a come to Jesus: she informed us that just south of Chaiten there had been a landslide, leaving us a couple options. First, and the fastest, we could cross back over the Chilean-Argentine border and drive south on the other side of the Andes to Coyhaique - a 48 hour trek with two border crossings and insufficient paperwork for those crossings. Our other option was equally disheartening: wait for a ferry from Chaitan to Coyhaique around the landslide, the earliest of which departed on February 7th; on February 10th Tony was flying back and we were returning the rental car. The night ended in Hualaihue in a hotel with rain pattering outside, blowing on Tony through an open window: when it strikes it strikes in thick waves.
While the rain probably made Tony sick, he did wake up with a good idea: return to Cochamo. We had a contact there who hooked us up with a campsite up in the valley, and after resupplying in Puerto Varas we continued back, completing a lap of Deja Vu. The comedy of returning lightened the mood as we prepared our gear the following morning. The trail cut into the earth with vertical banks of clay soil rising up, and upon their wet walls moss grew in sheets of thick, damp, shag carpet - like in a friend’s basement after a large, unsanctioned party. The sun barely broke the verdant canopy above, amplifying the abysmal darkness in the moss lined trenches. After walking six miles we stood in an open, grassy meadow and looked upon granite domes shining silver grey in late afternoon sun. Smoke rose from the chimney of a wooden barn and carried the smell of baking bread and burning wood. The young, sun-bathing crowd dotted the green grass blanketing the ground and both absorbed the precious summer rays. We set-up camp and went to the river for some water. The cobbled looking stones smoothed by prehistoric runnings of the river, slid below and grunted like tiny tectonics in a miniature world. The mosquitoes occasionally touched down and a trout would rise: the idyllic mountain scene. That evening I made red beans and rice and we shared red wine from a 1 liter Platypus wine flask. Raising our glasses to improvisation, we finished dinner between the failing pink of sunset and gaining white light of the three-quarter moon. I will never forget how the light ceased momentarily before rising again with the moon, reflecting hours of twilight off the granite mirrors above. As the moon drifted across the night sky, a line between light and dark shone upon the domes and marked time like a mechanical watch. When the moon set beneath the mountain ridge to the northwest everything became dark until sunrise.
The morning was cold and damp. We were on the southeastern side of the grassy clearing and the morning sun hit us last. I preferred this because it kept our tent cool and made sleeping in to nine o’clock comfortable and refreshing. The morning was clear and we watched the sun burn the morning dew clinging to the grass, bushes and leaves around us. We planned to visit the waterfall next to camp, relaxing and sliding down the rocks. The walk was short - no more than a half a mile from our tent. At the stone bank below the falls we took stock of the situation: two slides - one tame, one steep and fast - flowed upon a gently angled rock face and into a deep, cold, blue pool below. Above, we saw groups of people sunbathing; beyond that we couldn’t tell and decided to climb up the hill alongside the falling creek. We broke brush for half an hour, lost a Kindle and portable JBL speaker, and eventually emerged from the forest onto a secluded rock shore warming in the midday sun. For two hours we alternated between freezing water shooting through a narrow slot in the middle of the river and the baking sun on the granite shore. Sufficiently refreshed after the stressful walk up, we descended to the slides. We stood above the cascading water with our arms crossed, building courage. Having talked enough, Tony sat in the jetting water, slid down, and disappeared in the pool.
Now, standing alone, I had no excuse and positioned myself into the running water. Leaning back and letting go I began accelerating down towards a small pool, hit that pool, and continued sideways into the main pool at the bottom. Submerging, I opened my eyes and observed the blue all around: breaks in the color rising white with tiny spherical bubbles. The ice blue had faint tints of an aquamarine or pale green chartreuse. The sun broke through the surface into streaks and hit the bubbles, refracting the light in infinite directions and colors. I began to swim beneath the surface towards the shoreline. At the shore the rock dropped vertically downwards. I swam towards that wall underwater utilizing the breast stroke for propulsion. The rush of cold water against my skin contrasted nicely with my body warming from the exercise. My hands grazed the smooth rock and the prints on my fingertips searched for any tactile disturbance. Finding none, I pushed downwards against the water bringing my head and eventually my body above the surface. My chest and stomach slid across the bank, and my back absorbed the sun: warming up and feeling the freshness of evaporation upon my skin. We all went down the slide a few more times, the water at the bottom being the best part of the trip in my opinion: that cold refreshing burst blended with the warm, white-yellow-golden rays of the sun breaking through and the warming of a swimming body all combined into a trinity of ebullience high in the mountains of an unknown place.
The next day we did a day hike to an area called the Amphitheater. We took a break at a small creek about 20 minutes below the top. Sara and I took a dip in a pool warmed by the sun peaking through a gap in the trees. The freshness of the air just above the surface of the water along with the cool reprieve provided by its waters rejuvenated my body and cleaned the layer of sweat from my skin. I cupped the cold water and splashed my face to complete the dip and we shuffled slowly along the wet boulders back to shore. The top was beautiful and rugged, but the sun made it very hot and the horse flies were unbearable for any extended period of time. There was no water accessible at the point where the trail opened into the large alpine basin covered in giant rocks deposited by a retreating glacier. We took a couple pictures but were driven from the stoic landscape by the heat and flies. We slid quickly down the slippery path to the cable car opposite our campsite, nursing swollen knees and jelly-legs. I went fishing in the river that evening, without any significant success, and I watched the Amphitheater play a show of light for the wild, Patagonian evening.