After leaving the Coyhaique National Reserve my plan was to go to bed early, wake up early and jump on a bus to Cochrane. Ticket already bought, stuff already packed, ready to rock… until I get an email indicating my job search might not be as close to finished as I’d hoped. Coincidentally I was researching Cochrane and the villages south of it when the email arrived, and the place looks remote. Hard to say whether there are any real hotels there where I could access a phone if need be, and south of there it’s a definite no until I’m across the Argentinian border, at least. I want to get moving again but my lack of a job is eating at me to the point of getting in the way of enjoying what’s around me, so I need to lick this thing. Scratch the bus plan.
Over the next couple of days I write up several more cover letters, fire off my resume to some more joints and get a phone call lined up for early next week. It’s Thursday now but I expect I’ll be here until at least Tuesday now, since I’ll need to use a phone Monday afternoon or evening.
In fact, it takes me until Tuesday night before I’m where I want to be on the job front, with two solid offers to choose from. I spend the “long weekend” mostly just walking around town outskirts in every direction. I talk to a few folks who do one-day horseback trips up to the mountains but they don’t do runs for just a single person and it’s still too early in the season for the big gringo rush.
By Tuesday I’ve explored just about every nook and cranny, discovering this interesting roundabout monument dedicated to having a drink…
… and since it’s hard to trump that I’m more than ready to hit the road on Wednesday. No go though – the bus is full. I didn’t think South American buses could be “full” – every other bus just made me stand in the aisle for 6+ hours – but they’re insistent. Fortunately there’s another bus the following day, which is unusual. With another day to kill I head back to the reserve outside of town and do another ~20 km hike. Nicer weather this time, no rain.
I do notice something I didn’t see last time though, especially relevant after seeing the signs warning of pumas in the area – what looks like a big cat turd with fur in it. Hmm.
Speaking of cats, that night I find a Chinese restaurant and I’m stoked, I’ve been craving Chinese food for a month. I should’ve been wary of it not being run by Chinese people and it turns out to be a disappointment. Who puts shrimp in Mongolian beef?? I doubt there’s even a word for “shrimp” in the Mongolian language.
Thursday I’m up at the breakabreaka-dawn, coffee up, get on a bus and I’m finally back on the road. All tallied up that was more than 10 days in and around Coyhaique. Not long after hitting the road the terrain changes considerably, with vegetation becoming sparser, rocks jutting out randomly here and there, trees getting smaller and the tops of hills becoming barren or close to barren:
It then turns spectacular as the bus crests a ridge and begins descending into a huge valley via switchbacks. I pull out my camera and try to get shots … Dammit! The windows are dirty, the bus is packed so I can’t move around, and my camera’s a piece of shit. Half the time I’m facing the wrong way and when we swing around the corners the guy next to me is giving me the elbow in the ribs. Auto mode keeps focusing on the window-dirt for some reason too. I take about twenty pics and not one of them turns out. Signs indicate that the most prominent peak is Cerro Castillo and a couple minutes later we pull into Villa Cerro Castillo where I jump off the bus while people are loading/unloading and get a shot of the eponymous hill:
On the way out of town the road surface turns to gravel and on the way out of the valley I manage to get this one that sort-of turns out, albeit it with a reflected knuckle visible:
I fall asleep for a while but when I wake up we’re driving alongside an absolutely gorgeous lake. It’s on the other side of the bus from where I’m sitting but we pull into the aptly-named Puerto Tranquil and I jump out to grab a few pics, a coffee and the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten from a gas station:
It takes several tries to get these, as my camera’s auto mode seems to think that “macro” is the best setting. I consider throwing my camera in the lake but decide not to – it’s waterproof so that wouldn’t solve anything.
Puerto Tranquil seems really cool despite being tiny – there are tour operators offering bikes, kayaks, boat trips, all kinds of adventurey stuff. The signs include large images of lake-caves that you can kayak into… holy shit, it looks incredible. I can see several places to stay just from the gas station as well. Jumping out here would be tempting but I fear a repeat of Puyuhuapi. I’m much more prepared this time – lots of cash on hand – but I’m going to need it for what’s ahead, I honestly have no idea where the next bank machine is, but I suspect it’ll be in Argentina. The upcoming border crossing could be expensive as well; I haven’t described it yet, it’s still further south than Cochrane so I’ll get there eventually, but all indications are that she’s a doozy – possibly giving El Salvador / Honduras a run for the wildest crossing on this entire trip.
As we continue south the lake opens up more and with far fewer people on the bus I can get on the right side of the bus:
It’s hard to explain how phenomenal this scenery really is, the camera simply doesn’t do it justice. The water is glacial blue, the snowcaps are popping out against the clear sky and as we wrap around the lake the trees are mostly replaced with small, gnarled shrubs and wildflowers in yellow, purple, red and pink. It moved me, man. Seriously, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, if not the most beautiful.
After we drop a handful of people off on the other side of the lake we turn inland and while the terrain remains wild, it’s harder to see as there are steep banks next to the road, so I go back to sleep for a while.
I wake up to the bus stopping, look out the window and see a dog in the driver’s seat of a parked truck.
Not long after we pull into Cochrane. At the edge of town is a sign saying “Cochrane: La Última Frontera”. It’s bigger and nicer than it looked on Google Earth, but not exactly a metropolis – Wiki says 2,000 people and that sounds about right.
I jump off the bus and immediately try to find out when the next bus to Villa O’Higgins is – it’s three days away. Next step, find a place to stay. I look around the plaza and don’t see any sign of guesthouses – plenty of cabins for rent but I just want a room. After about twenty minutes I’ve only found a single place that’s asking almost $40 a night but with nothing else in sight I spring for it.
It’s well past 7 pm by now so I go find some dinner and inadvertently find two hostels I’d missed – one offering beds for $20 a night. Crap. I score a steak sandwich for dinner in a bus that’s been converted to a diner – it’s alright but the owner makes her own hot sauce from scratch and it’s unreal.
Being stuck here for two full days isn’t ideal but a quick bit of research shows a national park just a few miles outside of town, plus the forecast looks good, so there will be plenty to do. Hell, I might even try camping again.
Also, I wasn’t really sure if I’d even be able to get online this far south, and I think I’ve come to a decision on which job I’m going to take and where I’ll be moving after hitting Ushuaia, so I can email the appropriate parties and let everyone know what’s up.