Today marks three months on the road.
I wake up late on account of having been kept awake by dogs much of the night, but catch a quick breakfast of ham, cheese and instant coffee before the staff cleans up the spread. On my way out the door an older lady who works at the hotel tells me something quickly about the police. I apologize for sucking at Spanish and ask her to repeat herself. I have to do so once more because I don’t quite believe what she’s saying – she knows I’m going to the park and she says I should try to hitchhike with the police. Most of them drive trucks here, just get in the back and they’ll drive you. It’s not really that far-fetched, I suppose; I once hitchhiked about 10 km in the back of a South Korean police car, and they radioed ahead for another car to pick me up at the “county line” and take me another 20 km beyond that. Count me in for this plan.
Out the door to a supermarket for the standard compact emergency food (nuts and granola bars) and a couple litres of water. I’m not really sure where I’m walking but I know I need to find the Carretera Austral again and go south. Despite the town’s small size it’s actually kind of confusing and I can’t seem to find it. Cutting through a sidestreet I see a police truck pull over to a house, two rozzers get out with serious expressions on their face and approach the front door. Maybe not the best time to ask for a lift but the driver’s still sitting in the truck, I could ask for directions at least. He gives me a convoluted spiel that I can make no sense of, but I thank him and walk in the direction of the first thing he said. Two minutes later I ask some kid on his deck and he points to a dirt road two blocks over – that’s the highway. Walk up it and it’ll turn left, just follow it. The park’s about 8 kilometres. 8 km? Nothing to it.
I do so, exiting town over a bridge after perhaps twenty minutes. Sheep are curious as to my intentions and follow along.
The surface of the road gets worse and there’s no real shoulder to walk on. At first cars and pickups seem to slow down for me so I’m only hit with a moderate amount of dust but larger trucks appear and they’re bombing down the road, throwing rocks the size of my fist in every direction. The best I can do is jump in the bushes (some of which have thorns) and try to shield myself using my backpack. It sounds like this might suck but actually it’s kind of fun. As soon as I crossed the bridge out of town I immediately started smiling and can’t seem to stop.
After a little over an hour’s walk I come to an intersection with a sign indicating the park is 12 kilometres away. Hmm. I cross a couple of bridges over a small, clear river and keep trucking. There are a couple of rustic-looking spots here with signs indicating they have rooms or cabins for rent, restaurants as well, and most importantly: camp sites. Still a long way from the park though, so I keep walking but the road quickly turns uphill. It’s going to be cold no matter where I camp but the lower I can do it the better, so I turn around.
A guy working in a field yells to me, “Amigo! Amigo!” “Lo siento, no hablo espanol” “That’s cool, I speak English.” Oh, sweet. “What are you looking for?” I tell him I’m trying to find a campsite and he says there are three – the one that’s right here, one that’s a few kilometres more uphill, and one that’s in the park. I ask him about how cold it is up higher – not too bad at the next site but it’ll be really cold in the park. He tells me I *have* to get there though, it’s the best, and encourages me to keep hiking to the next campsite at least. Will do.
One flaw in my preparation for this is becoming apparent. Before leaving Rancagua I noticed that the soles of my boots were really worn down… Not bald, but actually showing a different color. I’ve been hoping I could just stretch them out for this trip but some of the sharper rocks I’ve stepped on are convincing me otherwise.
I turn down a long driveway to a small sheep farm with an adjacent restaurant. A woman comes out and greets me and shows me the campsite… About $3.50 a night. They don’t really have any food at the restaurant though, as they weren’t expecting people. Bread and wine is about it. I tell her wine is more important than food anyways and she agrees.
The place is completely empty so I walk down into the fields a few hundred metres from the restaurant and find a spot. About twenty feet behind my spot is this:
I follow it down to this pool, the greens and blues of which my camera does not do justice:
Not sure what to do at this point. It’s 1 pm. Still early but not so early that I have all day to try to get to the park and back. I start to set up camp, at least I can throw my stuff into my tent and then hoof around without lugging 30 pounds around on my back.
My tranquility is shattered mid-setup. A tour bus rolls up. Actually this might be fun, drink wine with a bunch of tourists? A load of old people shuffle off the bus – it looks like they’re walking down to take a look at the falls, that’s it. There’s apparently a path that stretches past the vicinity of my campsite, that’s what they’re doing. As I finish setting up camp I strike up a conversation with the only woman on the bus that’s close to my age. Her name’s Claudia, from a small town just outside of Puerto Montt. The group’s a three-day trip for locals to see some of the nooks and crannies of the area they might not otherwise get to. Strangely, while they were stopping here for the falls and the farm, they weren’t going further up to the national park. (I had been hoping I could weasel my way into being a stowaway on their bus for the ride up the rest of the hill.) I tell Claudia I’m going to try to walk out to the main road and hitchhike the rest of the way up to the park – she thinks it’ll be difficult, but if I roll up my pant legs to show some skin it might help.
I return to the main road and walk while looking for cars. The road’s very narrow at this point and it has a poor surface – not quite a logging road, but this doesn’t seem to be the sort of national park where families stop in for a few hours to scope interpretive displays in welcome centers, either. I walk for half an hour without seeing a single car in either direction… not encouraging. Then the sky opens up and it’s raining. Fortunately I brought my raincoat but my intentions of walking into the park are fading fast – according to the guy who told me about this campsite earlier, the park entrance is several hours of walking past the campsite and to actually get to anything in the park is more than that. Without a lift it’ll be dark by the time I get to anything. I turn around and head back to the campground in the rain.
Back at the campground it looks like the hosts have gone out and hurriedly acquired food, and are now preparing it for the tour bus guests. Several women have appeared in the restaurant to help cook and serve who weren’t around when I left. I wonder if I can get in on this food… It doesn’t seem so, but they tell me to come back in a little bit.
I lie down in my tent and I’ve got a bad feeling about tonight. It feels cold here NOW. I break out the sleeping bag for a bit of extra warmth and without a chorus of barking dogs around (the first time since Rancagua, maybe?) I accidentally nod off.
When I wake up the tour bus is gone (sweet). At the restaurant they’re cleaning up but they offer me a bottle of vino (yes please) and shortly after, ask if I want some food. They bring out a plate of “Chilean salad” (tomatoes and lettuce drizzled with oil), some terrible bread and finally the meat and potatoes. One piece of pork and one piece of beef, both of which taste like they’ve been marinaded in red wine vinegar for weeks – fantastic. They’re closing so I take the bottle of wine to go and square up and it’s less than twenty bucks for one of the best meals I’ve eaten on this trip, a bottle of wine and my campsite for the night.
I hang out in the woods and listen to podcasts while I kill this bottle of wine. The fog is rolling in and it’s getting colder. Snap Judgment! One of the best podcasts going these days. Take a walk further down the falls and chill with the wine.
Alright, the wine’s gone and it’s still light out. Time to walk. Worst case scenario, I get some exercise. Best case scenario, one of the other places I saw down the hill is going off and I find a party. I walk down the hill a mile and a half and hit the alternative accommodations around this joint. Two dogs run out at me on the street. An aggressive German Shepherd growls and follows me for 50 feet but his buddy, a white mutt, follows me further and without malice. I stop and do a “ku-ku-ku” thing that seems to be how people talk to animals in these parts, and he strolls toward me. He walks up to me and leans his whole body into my right side. I rub his ears and keep walking and he follows.
Whitedog and I walk past a fancy-looking lodge after about a mile. Maybe my last resort, looks pricey. The next place, a quarter-mile after, is a small house that (judging by their signs) sells honey and rents cabins. I have no idea whether they have a stocked bar or a restaurant, but I knock on the door with Whitedog leaning on my knee. No answer. I turn around but Whitedog stays… guessing this is his home.
I walk back over the same river I went over this morning. I look down the remainder of the Carretera Austral and it looks gnarly. Seriously, that one-lane dirt road is the main highway to southern Chile?
I turn around. It’s foggy but it’s still very light out, it might be 8 pm. I could use a drink but it looks like I’m out of luck for this evening as I hike back up the hill.
I see the sign for the lodge. Fuck it, maybe they have a restaurant. The sun’s almost gone now so lights are on. There are several cabins and a lodge. I walk up to the lodge and knock on the door, there’s no answer. A Hilux rolls into the yard, parks by the cabins and a man and a woman immediately step out to question me. I immediately apologize for sucking at Spanish and then ask if they have a restaurant or a taverna. Nope. Wine? Yup. La chica asks me if I like boxed wine. Does the Pope shit in his hat? She pulls out three one-litre boxes of the sweet tinto shit. How many do I want? Oh man, I think one is plenty, seeing’s how I already downed a bottle for dinner.
I ask about the lodge and it turns out it’s owned by a couple of Texans. We joke about how Texan English can be hard to understand, but so can Chileno Spanish.
The chick goes back to the main building while me and the dude converse about what the fuck I’m doing here, and where to go next. I admit I have no real plan but I intend to get to Tierra del Fuego. I talk about backtracking to Puerto Montt to grab a boat, maybe gear up, but he shakes his head. Here’s what you want to do – get to Chaiten and get a boat to TDF from there. I looked into that in the last place I had Internet but I couldn’t find any solid info on a boat from Chaitan to down there. Definitely none of the super-touristy companies with websites do that, but he insists it’s no problem. Huh. This guy seems to know his shit, I’m in.
Stroll back to the ranch in the rain, flip the lid on my raincoat, all good. First time I’ve owned something truly rainproof in a while and it’s pretty nice – plus it’s got an inside pocket that fits a one-litre box of wine almost perfectly.
Back at the campsite I crack the box of wine open and keep the Snap going. The fog is rolling in hard off the cliffsides and condensation is all over me. I’m wearing three layers but man, I’m cold. Really cold. I’m halfway through this new box of wine and I’m still cold. Now the rain starts coming on heavy. I can see my breath through the fog – and when I’m not breathing it’s a solid wall of rain – either way, visibility is about ten feet with my head-mounted light. I’m not getting wet directly but everything is indirectly damp. I might be in some trouble here.
After finishing the box I climb into my tent and start layering up as much as I can, which isn’t much. I’ve got a high-viz hoodie that I’ve been wrapping around my tent and sleeping bag in transit to protect them; as a result it’s got the grease and grime of countless bus luggage compartments and taxi trunks smeared over it. Fuck it, I throw it on. My sleeping bag has a hood on it as well so I throw that up. After some initial shivering it’s not that bad… It’s not good by any stretch of the imagination – everything still feels crazy damp and cold – and I might not get the best sleep of my life tonight, but I’m pretty sure I’ll sleep. Thanks wine.
The sun’s starting to come up. I’m cold and damp, and sheets of rain slapping against the outer shell of the tent are what woke me up.
I don’t understand how, but one corner of my tent has allowed a pool of water to seep in, soaking the bottom of my backpack and the lower end of my sleeping bag. I look for holes in the fabric and can’t find any – is it possible that fabric that was once waterproof has lost that property from overuse? (I’ve probably only used this tent fifty or sixty times at most, and maybe fifteen times in the rain, neither of which counts seem like many.) At the other end of the tent my passport and wallet are both in an elevated pocket, presumably intended to prevent against this very thing… but the force of the rain has clung the outer shell to the inner part of the tent and moisture has gotten through. The wallet doesn’t matter and to be honest neither does the passport, it’s been hopelessly dogeared and watermarked for a couple of years now. At some point the authorities are going to stop accepting it, I suppose…
I step out to see if there’s a break in the rain on its way. Sure doesn’t look like it. I can’t even see the hillsides that are directly across the farm from my campsite, it’s just a grey haze in all directions.
I think I have to face the facts – it’s too cold and wet and my gear isn’t good enough to be doing this sort of thing. Not to mention it’s a major pain in the ass getting around these parts on foot, and with the distances between habitations I definitely need to have gear that gives me the option of sleeping outdoors. I’m just spinning my tires out here really, and while the towns and the surrounding scenery are great, I haven’t yet managed to get out to any of the highlights of the parks. Someday I’ll have to come back to Patagonia with a vehicle and proper equipment, but I don’t have the time or the funds for that right now. It’s still pissing down rain but there’s a break in the sky to the north; if it heads in this direction I’ll take the opportunity to pack up and hike back into town, where I’ll try to find a bus to the southern port of Chaiten.
I get tired of the rain delay – it’s almost 10 am – and just start packing up. My tent’s a soggy, filthy mess. Hiking past the restaurant I see the owner and she waves me down, asks if I’m going to town. When I tell her I am she says to wait a few minutes, she’s going as well and was just about to call someone to come pick her up. I’m in, not that keen on the hike – the rain seems to be getting worse and my feet are completely soaked, my boots squishing with every step I take. I chill on the veranda and take off my kicks… They’re in really bad shape, several holes in both of them, I definitely should’ve bought a new pair in Puerto Montt. Too late now though, I’ll have to wait for Ushuaia probably.
As we get into town the rain briefly stops and the sun appears. That lasts about twenty minutes and it’s pissing down again. I get my previous room back at the Hotel Hornopiren and start unpacking all of my stuff that needs to dry out, especially my sleeping bag and my tent. I hang the sleeping bag and the outer shell of the tent on a coat rack, throw the rest of the tent over a curtain rod. Leaves and dirt are shaking off everywhere, sorry folks who own this place… (They’re really nice too, I feel like a dick but I don’t want my tent to mold up either…)
During a break in the rain I notice the harbor is full of some kind of geese with white bodies and black necks & heads… Maybe swans?
The rain isn’t quitting, it’s getting worse. Thunderclaps echo across the harbor and the lights are flickering. I won’t be going anywhere tonight, if another break in the rain comes I’m going to grab some boxed wine.
I take the next day to get serious about this finding-a-job thing, sending out a few more inquiries, writing a couple cover letters and polishing things up. The sun’s out so I break things up by strolling around town and enjoying being dry again.