Back to Chile the Adventurous Way

 

20180325_143838.jpg

We had two options for returning to Chile – keep on trekking north on the ruta 40 – boring but tarmacked and well trodden – then enter through the major border post of Chile Chico, or attempt to cross on local roads (marked as the lowest category of road in both Argentina and Chile on the map, and not even recognised by maps.me or google maps) through the mountains, with a turn off just 20km north of where we spent the night.

Guess which I fancied.

There was very little information about the second route – I found a blog post from a cyclist in 2016 saying it was passable in dry weather, and it was marked on the tourist information map we’d been given previously. I decided to ask the local policeman his opinion, and as we were ambling over to the police post, he was heading our way, so much to his surprise I accosted him and showed him the map. He said he hadn’t been to the border (?!), but ‘they should let us through’ and that the road should be passable in our vehicle.

Not a ringing endorsement, but we agreed we’d check it out, and could always return and go the ‘normal’ route if necessary.

It turned out to be one of the best drives of my life.

In the whole day, we saw 2 other vehicles. They looked as surprised to see us as we were to see them, and we all waved manically as we passed.

We spent the day surrounded by incredible views, as we rounded mountain after mountain, plunged into deep valleys and climbed seemingly impossible, twisty inclines. We passed beautiful azure lakes, bubbling streams, bizarre rock formations, herds of wild (?) horses, condors circling above ….

It was certainly challenging driving, bumpy single track with the edges often steeply inclined and no concept of camber, but it was good fun – we had the music on, the sun was out, the surroundings were incredible. I wish my photos could do justice to just how huge this place is, and how ‘big’ the scenery. It just goes on and on and on. Mountain after mountain, mile after mile.

20180325_13362820180325_13595520180325_16333920180325_14191720180325_17055320180325_114551

The track was fine – mainly gravel or dried mud. I was grateful for the good suspension though as we rattled and bumped our way towards Chile. On the ‘ups’ I just had to trust no one was coming, as I could barely see over the bonnet. On the ‘downs’ I’ve learned not to brake, or we just swivelled about.

We saw a lot of guanacos, weird llamas related to camels, and many rheas, who are the most ridiculous-looking creatures, especially when running – they can move very fast on their long legs, with a tottering kind of run that makes me think of indignant secretaries in too-tight skirts and too-high heels. Sorry, not very PC, but there you go.  I still haven’t managed to get a photo of one, as they run as soon as they see us. We also saw a herd of horses… just roaming free, and some cows, also just roaming, some of which were stood in the middle of a pond eating the grass growing in it.

20180325_132239.jpg

For lunch we stopped by a river and sat on the rocks.

The air was so incredibly pure, as was the water, and with the sun out and sheltered from the wind, it was almost warm….

20180325_121154
Lauren insisting she’s not cold…. 

20180325_130238.jpg

We went for a bit of a walk, and Lauren attempted to climb some rocks, but I was anxious to get the border crossing out of the way, so we jumped back in the vehicle and headed off up the final pass before the border.

Its such a remote region, and so uninhabited, that one feels genuinely away from it all. I’ve been to plenty of remote places in Mozambique, but they have always been inhabited by someone – in fact, often you will think you are miles out in the bush totally alone, but if you stop long enough, someone will be along, if only to check you out. Here, if you got into trouble a few metres from the road, I reckon you’d stay there!  There must be a few estancias in the area, but I imagine they are fairly self-sufficient and inward looking. There are certainly no villages or communities. The border was literally the first sign of human activity apart from the cows and the 2 cars we’d passed.

As we finally approached the border, a tiny wooden cabin at the bottom of a valley, with ducks and geese wandering about outside, a border guard came out of his hut to greet us. He ushered us inside, where there was a desk and 2 chairs (no computer), a radio, and a kitchen.  He asked for all the documents, and this was the first border crossing where I’ve been asked to produce Lauren’s birth certificate and authorization from the ‘other parent’.  I explained it was just the two of us, the birth certificate confirmd this, and we were soon on our way. He told us we were the first car through that day (it was by now mid-afternoon) and some days there are no cars at all. He spends a month on duty at a time, along with 4 other border guards. It’s a pretty lonely place, but he seemed happy enough.

We then had about 11km of ‘no man’s land’ before reaching the Chilean border. Here we met a German overlanding family who had parked up there the day before and were staying until they had consumed all their fruits and vegetables as Chile is very strict on not importing these. Knowing this, I had made a rather odd concoction the night before of all our vegetables, so we thought we’d only lose a few onions.

However, we discovered at this border post that the prohibitions also refer to dairy and any animal products that are not sealed. When the very friendly border guard inspected our vehicle, he told us we couldn’t keep our eggs and milk, and, most critically, my Irish cheddar cheese that I had stocked up on in Punta Arenas and rationed for the last few days. After my wailing protest that it was hugely expensive, from ‘my homeland’ (well, close enough) and that after all I had bought it in Chile, just the other side of the southern ice field, and it really wasn’t my fault nature made us leave his beautiful country and come back, he opened up our fridge and replaced it without a word……. We saw him a couple of days later in the nearest town, and Lauren shouted ‘gracias por el queso!!!!’ at him across the aisles of the minimarket… I’m not sure who was more embarrassed, him or me!

We had planned to stay the night in the town about 90km from the border, but the valley we were passing through was stunningly beautiful, it had been an exhilarating but utterly exhausting drive, so when we saw a sign for camping, we agreed to stop. This turned out to be an inspired decision, as we ended up spending a couple of fantastic days in the beautiful Parque Nacional de Patagonia.

20180325_194127
Sun setting behind the mountains as we set up camp in Parque Nacional Patagonia. 

Vanlife Day One

Our home for the next month

After a full 24 hours off grid, here we are at a lovely campsite that has wifi! Weak wifi though so doing this partly on my phone so excuse typos

….

I hope everyone enjoyed Paddy’s night last night. I couldn’t find Guinness or Jameson’s so had to settle for eating an awful lot of Kerry Gold cheddar cheese with some local red wine. The cheese gave me a hangover…. Oh, and congratulations to the Irish among you on the rugby.

Yesterday we picked up this monster – its enormous, I pulled a muscle in my shoulder just getting into the driver’s seat. I still haven’t worked out an elegant way of getting in, this car was built for cowboys not dumpy English girls.

Double bed, table and benches, kitchen and bathroom on wheels.

Having already been upgraded at no cost from a single cabin basic model to a 4 x 4 deluxe double cabin, due to the rules on children in a single cabin in Argentina, when we arrived we found we had been upgraded yet again to their top model, as ‘ours’ was returned a couple of days ago with ‘something broken’. This means more space and heating, but a much larger vehicle to drive. And park.

After a very thorough explanation of all that could possibly go wrong, the lovely German guy who works at this remote outpost handed me the keys and wished us good luck. He said we were welcome to stay and organize our things, but he had to go round up his horses….. and left us to it.

We loaded all our food supplies into the cupboards and fridge and dumped everything else on the bed for later.

I wanted some easy driving to get used to the vehicle, so we headed about 30 km to the ‘end of the road’ – the furthest point its possible to drive on the mainland of South America. This part of the world thrives on being the ‘furthest south’ – whether it’s the ‘most southerly lighthouse on continental South America’ or ‘most southern estancia’ (ranch) or ‘most southern chocolate shop’. In fact, there is a murmur of angst at the moment from the residents of Ushuaia in Argentina – long marketed as the southernmost city in the world – because Puerto Williams, on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, which is further south than Ushuaia, has just been elevated to city status, rendering Ushuaia only the second most southern city in the world. People in Argentina are genuinely annoyed and claim Puerto Williams is ‘nothing but a fishing village’ and its elevation a provocation….

Whatever, we are a long way south.

Having reached the end of the road, literally………

Truly the end of the road….

we parked up and went for a walk along the beach.

It was beautiful but freezing, and we only went a couple of km, both too excited about the van and keen to get back to it. I made a cup of tea and drank it in the back, because I could :-).

Lauren kept saying “I can’t believe we’re actually doing this!”. The van, not the tea.

We then set off for a national reserve not far away where I had planned we would spend the night. It was only an hour and a half drive (basically like nipping round the corner in Patagonia) as I didn’t want any major driving on day one.

Having spent a good few hours the night before trying to get the two critical navigation programmes on my phone to talk to one another offline – ioverlander, an incredible user-populated app listing gps coordinated for places to wildcamp, repair vehicles, find fuel, groceries, or just get out of the wind for a bit and mapsme, an offline map application that works like google maps but you can download whole countries as opposed to small areas – I was keen to test them out before they were really needed. All seemed to work fine, thankfully. Although in fairness, it would be pretty hard to get lost around here, there are so few roads.

Ripio….

We soon turned off the tarmac and onto the infamous ripio. This is hardpacked earth with a top layer of gravel and sand. Now I admit I may have been a little overconfident, given I’ve done plenty of offroad driving and covered my share of gravel roads before. The ripio decided to teach me a lesson. Given the very bright light and the undifferentiated colour of the ripio, its very difficult to judge depth of the gravel, or inclination – the sides are often steeply banked but its hard to see this. I simply edged a little too close, noticed, corrected too fast, and lost control of the back end (incredibly heavy of course, with a whole camper back there). We fishtailed three times before I regained control (here my African experience did come in handy) and breathed a sign of relief. I stopped a moment – Lauren looked up from her book and asked why I’d stopped – when I explained she said she’d assumed I was just going round potholes! I had only been going 40km/hr and the result if I’d lost control would have been an ignominious slump into the ditch rather than anything more scary, but still, a good lesson to respect the ripio!

Eventually we made our way to the Reserva National Laguna Parrilar. The warden greeted us and said if we didn’t want a fireplace we could just park without paying camping fees. Great. No way I was making a campfire. The reserve is beautiful, remote and relatively unvisited, and home to puma as well as some endangered birds and the Patagonia fox. Lauren spotted a fox while I was preparing dinner.

We went for a walk along the lake; it was beautiful in a harsh kind of way. Bizarrely, while we were out walking, a local taxi had pulled up about 4 metres from our van (there was lots of space, maybe they were trying to use us as a wind shield). A couple who looked to be in their 50’s were sat in the back drinking a bottle of wine and flirting shamelessly (it was impossible not to see). I mean, I know it was Saturday night, but still…. At one point, I swear the taxi driver received some oral gratification while I did my best to distract Lauren… maybe this is a new variation on dogging where you actively seek out helpless ‘spectators’????? Mind you, that bothered me less than the music they insisted on playing. Not ridiculously loud, but enough for the noise to ruin the peacefulness of the site. It was a bizarre situation, and not how I imagined our first night in the beauty of a Patagonia national reserve.

We decided to turn in early and played a few games of Uno before bed. I was asleep before Lauren, exhausted by the stress and nervousness of the day.

We both slept remarkably well and woke excited for ‘proper day one’ of campervan life. Yesterday had been quite anxious with all the things to learn and organize and nearly ending up in a ditch. Today, there were no rogue taxi drivers and their mistresses, the place was deserted and beautiful, the air pure and my morning tea tasted especially good as the Patagonian wind ripped through us. We packed up and headed back to the gate, where a different warden showed us (well, mainly Lauren) pictures of a puma he’d spotted, a lump of fossilized tree, a beaver skull etc. He seemed quite lonely, I guess they don’t get a lot of visitors.

Once we escaped, we stopped in Punta Arenas for (yet more) supplies, and encountered our first real challenge in finding somewhere to park the van. It clearly doesn’t fit in a normal parking space and I’m not yet super confident of just how long it is. Even the wing mirrors are of limited use as the camper body is wider than the truck base… I eventually left it in a spot that I am not sure was 100 percent legal… but its Sunday, we were quick, and I was happy to play the innocent gringo.

We then had a surprisingly grueling drive to Puerto Natales. The wind was insane – it made driving a two-hands-at-all-times strenuous job and my arms are aching tonight.

Enjoying the famous Patagonian wind…

For the second half of the drive, torrential rain plus the wind made conditions less than ideal. At lunchtime – before the rain – we stopped by a lake with a flamingo colony on it, with the romantic notion of having lunch then going for a walk round the lake. Lauren could hardly make forward progress in the wind, and while we sat in the van it genuinely felt like it could tip over. We ate quickly and got back on the road. We saw the flamingos from a distance and agreed that would have to do. At one point the wind also ripped free the spare fuel tank (thankfully empty) attached to the roof, and Lauren incredibly competently climbed up and undid the ropes so I could release it and stow it inside.

By the time we reached Puerto Natales I was exhausted, and we decided to stay at a formal campsite, where we have access to a refugio (a big room with a kitchen, picnic tables, mellow music, and lots and lots of charging stations for everyone’s devices). They are now playing planet earth so I’m writing this to the soothing soundtrack of David Attenborough talking about termites….

We made fajitas, always a favourite, and chatted with some of the other travelers – the main draw here is the Torres del Paine National park and many have just finished or are about to start multi-day treks. We plan to head there tomorrow and do some rather less ambitious hikes.

We love our van 😊.