Crossing the Andes to Bolivia – Day three

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The sun about to rise over the salt flats…… 

This day for me was both wonderful and horrible. The salt flats were incredible, but I felt awful. I’d been up every 20 minutes overnight with diarrhoea, plus vomiting, and was shaking, cold and miserable. If Lauren hadn’t been so excited about the salt flats – and if she hadn’t spent the last 2 days making plans for various pictures she wanted to take with her new-found Irish friends – I might have insisted on staying in bed/the bathroom. As it was, I gritted my teeth, and did my best. This unfortunately included sullying the salt flats at times. There aren’t exactly a multitude of bathrooms out there. Hopefully pachamama  (mother earth) will understand.

The Irish guys and Katerina were wonderful – most importantly taking Lauren to each of the sites when I couldn’t get out of the car and keeping her entertained and happy, but also feeding me Imodium, carrying my bag, bringing me coke when I couldn’t make lunch, and just generally making it as easy as possible for me. Some of the photos in this post were taken by them and shared, so thanks guys 😊.

Anyway, we started off heading to an area of the salt flats that was still wet from the recently ended-rainy season. This created a spectacular mirror effect, and we watched the sun rise here. Even in my state, I could enjoy the majesty of this view.

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The sun finally rises over the salt flats……
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Keeping her feet dry while watching the sunrise. 
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The whole team enjoying the sunrise….. well worth the early start.
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One of the nearby hills reflected in the flats. 

After that we headed to an ‘island’ (the salt flats are simply a vast dried up sea) that was covered in cactuses (I know, I know, but ‘cacti’ is so old fashioned). Lauren and the others went for a hike around the island, while I made regular use of their facilities, and sipped on coca tea. Coca tea is made from the leaves of the coca plant, better known for its purified state, cocaine, but in leaf form is a mild painkiller and locals swear by it for all sorts of aches and pains, and for altitude sickness.

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Cactuses/Cacti…. whatever you call them, they are spectacular. 

Everyone else had breakfast, then it was the moment we’d all been waiting for. Finding a stretch of the salt flats so flat that you could take ‘perspective photos’ when the lack of any differentiation in the background means you can take photos of people/objects at different distances that look like they are close together. The guys had been planning this for ages, and Lauren had some pretty specific requests. Paul was clearly an expert, having brought his dinosaurs along and knowing just how to do it. I participated in a couple (Lauren particularly wanted to be a giant stepping on my head…..) then left them to it. As you can see, some were more successful than others, but they all had a lot of fun.

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A tiny Lauren on my hand…….
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No ‘perspective’ here, just full of energy and having fun……
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Lauren about to stomp on my head……. 
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Seb eating a tiny Lauren….. 
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Escaping some fearsome beasts….
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The whole team……

Next we headed off across the salt flats to a place where flags from all around the world have been placed. Katerina had brought a Czech Republic flag (so organized!).

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Think the Irish lads might have found the Irish flag….. 

After this, my memory is a bit vague – the Imodium was slowly taking effect but I spent much of the time dozing in the car, worrying about when the next bathroom stop would be, clutching a plastic bag in case I threw up. I think we headed for lunch then, where I stayed outside in the car and sipped on coca cola, supposed to be good for stomach upsets, but I promptly lost it again, inelegantly out the car door ☹.

The final stop of the day (by this point I was simply counting the minutes until I could find a hotel, our pre-booked overnight bus to La Paz out of the question) was a train ‘graveyard’. It was quite a melancholy place in a way, rusting hulks of engines that used to take minerals from Bolivia through the Andes to the Pacific. The guys and Lauren had great fun clambering about on the trains and I was once again grateful to them for including her in everything.

Eventually we were dropped off at the office of the agency, where I sat inside shivering while everyone else dealt with my stuff. We checked into a hotel directly opposite, on the basis it had rooms with private bathrooms and was staggering distance – Sebastian, Connor, Guy and Katerina all came over to reception, carrying various bits of our luggage, to make sure we were checked in and I was settled. What a nice bunch of people. Katerina, who was staying in Uyuni too, even came round the following day and took Lauren for lunch and played games with her while I led in bed trying to recover.

Thanks for everything guys, and safe travels 🙂

P.s. photos just don’t do justice to the scenery around here, so I put together a 6 minute video with some of my favourite video clips from the few days ….   apologies for all the heavy breathing, I was usually out of breath!!!

watch here if interested: 

 

Day Two – Crossing from Chile to Bolivia

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One of the strange rock formations we saw on day 2.

Day two of our crossing from Chile to Bolivia was just as spectacular as day one, with strange desert rock formations, more beautiful lakes, some weird rabbit-type creatures with long tails, a beautiful green valley as we emerged into inhabited areas, and the start of the famous salt flats that day three would be all about.

The day started off bright and early, with pancakes and tea. I was feeling fine, despite the altitude, although had woken in the middle of the night convinced I couldn’t breathe and on the verge of a panic attack. Only knowing Lauren was in the bed beside me got me to focus enough to breathe deeply and calmly, working every bit of oxygen I could out of the air. By morning, I was coping well enough, although still pathetically breathless after any exertion. Lauren of course was coping fabulously, generally running around outside with the llamas. Some people had headaches but paracetamol seemed to do the trick.

We set off driving along what passed for tracks, sometimes across broad empty plains, other times through deep canyons, and even at one point along a riverbed. First stop was at a huge collection of rocks, thrown from a volcano at some point in the past and eroded by the wind into weird shapes.

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Next we found ourselves driving through a canyon with steep sides, and some rather unstable-looking boulders we could just imagine falling at any moment, as some obviously had in the past as the track wound round big chunks of rock. It was worth it though to see the weird rabbit-like creatures who live on the rocks….

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Strange creatures, look like rabbits with really long curly tails… can’t remember their name… 
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Despite the sun, that’s ice on the ground! 

We reached another beautiful lake, filled with flamingos, with an ‘ecolodge’ that had pay toilets. Its the first time I’ve been to a toilet where half of the bowl is restricted to ‘number ones’ and the other half to ‘number twos’. Not only that, but the ladies had a window, and the (male) attendant came and peered through it while I was on the loo, presumably checking I was aiming accurately enough….. it was a bit odd, but hey, you take any chance for a wee out here, there aren’t many bushes!

Lunch was by another beautiful lake…..

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One of the many mineral-filled lakes…. 
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Loving the mirror effect….
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Flamingos…..
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Lauren with her new best friends….they were so brilliant with her. 

Eventually we reached ‘civilization’ with a few scattered dusty villages, and enjoyed about ten minutes of an actual road before another diversion, this time to clamber on yet more rock formations. Lauren and Connor found a ‘fortress’ and were quite happy up there until it was raided by the others…. cue lots of shrieking and squealing (and that was just the boys!).

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Lauren and Connor in their fortress.

After that, Paul promised us beer, although it seemed an awfully long time coming – first we drove up a valley that was actually green due to a river running through it, and we went for a walk through the waterlogged fields amidst a herd of llama.

20180423_151748.jpgWe drove through a lovely green valley full of llamas, and went for a walk among them….

Once back in the car we came across one of the other vehicles, that had broken down. Apparently, the drive shaft had ‘popped out’ and was ‘popped back in’ using a stake one of the drivers wrenched out of a villager’s field and a rock.

The day ended with beers (coca beer, cactus beer…) at a local shack before heading to the salt hotel where we would have dinner and spend the night in the relative luxury of private rooms (and bathrooms!).

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Sun setting as we head for the Salt hotel for the night….. 
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Our trusty steed….
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The beds, part of the walls and the bedside table are all made of salt…..

By 9pm we were both in bed, having had warm showers, as we would be up at 5am for a 5.30am departure to the salt flats. However, I needn’t have worried about getting up in time, as I got about one hours sleep all night, due to an explosive reaction to what I can only imagine was some bacteria on some of the food at dinner, or possibly something I picked up on my hands, despite regular applications of antibacterial gel.

Within a couple of hours I was vomiting profusely, and had terrible diarrhoea, and I spent most of the night in the absolutely freezing bathroom. Lauren, thankfully, slept on regardless.

Crossing the Andes to Bolivia – Day One

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I am happy to admit I was somewhat nervous about this trip. Those of you who know me personally will be well aware I like to be in control, and this time I was putting my and my daughter’s well-being into the hands of a travel agency to get us across some very remote territory with extreme conditions. I had done as much research as I could and thought I’d chosen a decent agency, but still, given my dodgy lungs and previous problems with altitude (and we would be going far higher) and given I had Lauren along, I was anxious it go well.

The agency assured me that the driver was experienced, the jeep had proper seatbelts (I was still carting Lauren’s booster seat around), and they would carry oxygen in case of altitude sickness.

We were picked up at 0630 by a minibus that took us and a number of other people to the border with Bolivia, where we would transfer to the 4 by 4’s required for Bolivia. We climbed and climbed for around 45 minutes, in the pre-dawn darkness, everyone a bit quiet until we reached the small building that housed Chilean immigration.

The contrast between two countries can hardly be greater than when crossing from Chile to Bolivia. On the Chilean side, decent tarmacked road, polite immigration officials, clean toilets, even a ping pong table that some of the members of our group made use of, challenging the immigration officers to a game.

Then, a few Km later on, a dirt track and a stone hut with brusque Bolivian border guards.

We had breakfast in the searing cold wind – we were high, the sun was hiding behind a cloud, someone said it was below freezing. As far as the eye could see was just flat brown earth and snow-capped mountains. It couldn’t have looked less appealing. What had we signed up for?

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Not much out there……. 

It turned out that there were three vehicles that would be travelling roughly together, which was reassuring. We had all heard horror stories of breakdowns on the rough terrain. We were fortunately assigned to a jeep driven by Paul, an experienced and careful driver who seemed to be the most responsible of the three.

We were also lucky in our fellow travelers – after all, we would spend three whole days with these people, at close quarters, sharing the car, a bedroom and all meals. We were joined by a trio of mid 20s Dublin lads, Sebastian, Connor and Guy, much to Lauren’s delight, as half the time she thinks she’s Irish, and a Czech woman, Katerina.  I was by far the oldest of the group, and Lauren by far the youngest.

The day passed in a blur of mountains, stunning lakes, thermal springs and geysers. Nature at its harshest. Arsenic in the ground, sulphur from the geysers, salt in the water, intense heat and cold at different times, and of course the ever present reminder of the altitude. Tracks varied from rough to non-existent, we saw the odd fox and vicuna (a wild deer related to the guanaco we’d seen in Argentina), a few birds and not much else in terms of wildlife.

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The real secret behind Blackburn Rovers’ promotion – this is a site where people make cairns to worship pachamama or mother earth….. the guys and Lauren made one, with Roar as an offering (he didn’t stay behind though). 

 

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Then, in the middle of nowhere, some volcanic hot springs, with filthy changing rooms and zero health and safety. Felt so good though, although ten  minutes was enough given the altitude. 

 

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Bubbling, sulphic mud ponds, truly evil. 
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We were told the mud comes out at 200 degrees C. No health and safety, you could just wander around at will. 
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Evil smelling place but fascinating. 

We ended with a wonderful (if rather breathless), walk around laguna colorada, possibly my favourite of the whole day, as it was pink, full of flamingos, and just beautiful.

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Lauren was by now in full hero-worship mode and firm friends with the Irish lads. When I tried to intervene (not all mid-20’s lads want a 9 year old girl tagging along) I was firmly told that she was now ‘one of their crew’ so left well alone.

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Three Irish musketeers and an eager D’Artagnan… deep in conversation as I breathlessly bring up the rear. 

The evening saw us arriving at a very basic lodge – electricity for a couple of hours in the evening, no heating (we were at 4,600 metres), no showers, and 2 shared toilets without paper or soap. For Lauren, at least, none of this mattered, as she made firm friends with this filthy orphaned Llama, which at least twice had to be ushered from the kitchen…. where our dinner was being prepared…

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Orphaned baby llama at our lodge in the mountains. 

 

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Another Llama….. 
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And another….. we liked the llamas. 

All 6 of us shared the same room. The food was basic – boiled chicken, salad, and smash (reconstituted dehydrated potato). Lauren taught everyone how to play Uno, and an Irish guy from another group brought out a guitar and entertained us with songs.

By just after 9 everyone headed off to bed, many feeling some effect of the altitude and the grueling but amazing day.

 

The Atacama Desert

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This area is called Valle de Marte, or Mars Valley, being so similar to the surface of Mars that NASA test their rovers here. 

There is no doubt that Chile is a country of extremes. Having started off in the freezing, wet and windy deep south, passed through wild Patagonia and the lush lake region and sultry wine valleys, we were now headed to the Atacama Desert in the North, the driest non-polar desert in the world. Its 50 times drier than Death Valley in the US. Some weather stations in this desert have never recorded a single drop of rain. Soil samples are remarkably similar to Mars, and NASA tests its Mars rover vehicles here.

 

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After a few unremarkable days in the capital Santiago, catching up on schoolwork, we continued our journey North. The altitude of San Pedro de Atacama, a small town on the border with Bolivia where we based ourselves, is around 2400m (1000m higher than the highest point in the UK!), so I felt it would be a good place to start the acclimatization process required for the next leg – up and over the Andes into Bolivia, reaching nearly 5000 metres at times.

I know from past experience that Altitude sickness is no joke.

We stayed in a very rustic but perfectly acceptable hostel, about 15 minutes’ walk from the centre (one street full of tour operators, a bank, a pharmacy, handicrafts and some cafes/restaurants). It was strange to suddenly be on the ‘Gringo trail’ – the place was full of backpackers and hippy types and old ladies in traditional Andean clothes selling crafts.

One day we ventured out into the desert with a guide – while not a fan of tours, the extremes of this place – heat, dryness, altitude – made it seem like a good idea to go accompanied, especially as a lot of walking was involved. We stopped at various points and walked for a good while through the desert, all the while drinking as much water as possible. The air was intensely dry and dusty, the sun was fierce, and every step was an effort given the altitude. Lauren was not so affected by the altitude, racing around and doing twice as much as any of the adults, seemingly not minding the heat in her tight jeans.  She even rolled down the massive sand dune, then climbed it again and again to do it some more. She is so adaptable.

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Showing off as mummy is too out of breath after the climb up here to nag her about being close to the edge. 
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Enjoying the sand dunes. 

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Tasting the salt found in the desert – only under expert guidance though as elsewhere there is arsenic mixed in! 

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It was a hell of a hike up here to watch the sunset over the desert, but worth it. 

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As soon as the sun set we had to really move to get off the mountain before darkness fell. 

 

It was a full day, with lots of climbing and scrambling in difficult conditions, and I was utterly exhausted by the end, so we spent the next day resting up, and getting in provisions for what was to be the most physically demanding bit of our whole trip so far – crossing the Andes with four other people and a driver in a Jeep, and travelling through the Bolivian Altiplano in a very remote region with very basic facilities.

The Chilean Lake District, and Goodbye to the Van.

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Pucon with the Villarica Volcano behind. Not climbing that one…. 

We were on such a high after finishing the Carretera Austral, we agreed we would take it easy for a few days in the beautiful Chilean Lake District. While not as rugged and remote as Patagonia, which we were already missing, it does have its charms, including lots of beautiful lakes and volcanoes. And an abundance of vegetables.

The first couple of days were awful weather, and we huddled down in the van doing schoolwork at a campsite that had internet. Well, Lauren did the schoolwork. I supervised and wrote parts of this blog and tried to work out our next move after Santiago.

When the sun came out, the lakes were huge, surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, including the permanently – active villarica volcano.

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Lauren ‘wearing’ the volcano…. 
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I know its not a great picture, but there are lots of parrots in the Lake District… this in the main square in Pucon. 
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A Lake….
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Another Lake…. 
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And yet another…. .
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A lake and a volcano, hiding in the clouds…. 

The lake district was odd. We were there out of season and it is clear that during high season the place is packed – huge car parks on the outskirts of some towns, and many restaurants and cafes and big campsites. Almost all were closed, and we struggled to find somewhere to park the van – I didn’t fancy wild camping or just sleeping on the street as it’s a much more built up region.

One night we followed a tip from the user-populated app ioverlander and ended up in a guys garden. There were no other campers at this time of year, it was a long way off the road, and the whole set up was kind of freaky. Set in a dense thicket in the forest, his wooden house was beautiful in a slightly sinister, Hansel and Gretel kind of way, and he insisted on inviting us in to sample his homemade jam, drink tea made with herbs he picked from the garden, and admire his art. I guess he was a bit lonely, but when he started telling me how he read runes, I made my excuses.

One highlight was the lovely little town of Pucon – the first place in the lake district that, despite being pretty touristy, did feel lived in. We found a campsite open and had a brilliant meal at an all-organic place. The next day we spent the morning with someone I had connected with through a facebook group for families who believe travel is a key part of education.

Too soon it was time to start the long trek north to Santiago. It was nearly two full days of fairly dull highway, but we stuck on an audiobook and just kept on moving. When we left the lake district it was 8 degrees during the day, maximum. In Santiago when we arrived it was 30 and I still had my thermal socks on!!!!

The last night was spent cleaning up a month’s worth of mud and grit and bug splats ….

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Lauren really putting her all into beating the mats….

Finally, 4 and a half weeks after picking the van up in Punta Arenas, after an astonishing 4834km, we were truly sad to say goodbye and drop the monster (as we christened her) off on the outskirts of Santiago.

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Goodbye monster, you served us well. 

We Made It!!!!

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Well, we made it. Two thousand, four hundred and something KM up the Carretera Austral, without a puncture or an accident. Through National Parks, across fjords, up volcanoes, past mudslides, in beautiful sunshine and horrible storms, past sparkling blue rivers and over high mountain passes. Five ferries, many litres of diesel, a few hitchikers, a number of shared meals, the odd panic, an even the occasional shower.

As is to be expected from such a capricious road, the end to our epic journey up the Carretera Austral was not simple. The route officially ends on the coast road in the centre of the unlovely city of Puerto Montt (or, as the locals apparently call it, Puerto Muerte). Turns out, the coast road is a three-lane monstrosity with no parking for miles.

We boarded the last ferry this morning, enjoying watching seals frolicking in the sea below, hyped up knowing there were only 40-odd Km to go to ‘Kilometre Zero’ – or the start of the CA. Obviously, we were doing things in reverse, and ‘Km zero’ for us was actually ‘KM 2460’.

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Last ferry, and not long to go!!!!!

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Once we were off the ferry, we both counted down the KM marker signs at the side of the road – from 20 KM we shouted them out, over my ‘happy tunes playlist’. While the CA was only a section of this epic Argentina-and-Chile adventure, it was the most challenging, the most remote, and had the most bragging rights attached. Most people we met had not travelled the full length, and we were rightly proud of ourselves for ‘making it’ all the way from deepest, darkest, Villa O’ Higgins.

About 4km out of town, the traffic got a bit intense, and the marker signs disappeared. There were roadworks on the coast road, and total chaos getting into town. The CA was not going to make this easy, and we almost fell at this last challenge. We drove straight through town without even a peek of somewhere possible to park. Eventually finding somewhere to haul our monster of a van round, we headed back the other way, spotting the ‘Km zero’ sign at a busy junction outside a shopping mall, but I wanted photographic evidence. Lauren begged me to just give up and keep going, we knew we’d done it, why did we need a photo (she’s a mature child),  but no, I wasn’t going to be beaten at this stage. We would get to KM zero, and we’d pay proper homage to the road. People died making that road, and I’d put my all into finishing it – I was damned well going to celebrate the fact.

I may have got a bit grandiose….. she buried her head in her book…..

Eventually, we spotted a car park about 2km past the sign (on the other side of the 6 lanes of traffic, but still) and I carried out a probably-illegal manouvre to get there. We pulled in, I spotted a space…. Then the guard came and told us it was private, and no, we couldn’t just park there for ten minutes so I could take a photo….

I set off down the backstreets and found a spot eventually by some shacks, in a potholed lane full of stray dogs. It would have to do.

We yomped back to town, took the obligatory photos 

Then went for coffee and got the hell out of Puerto Muerte, thankful the van hadn’t been broken into.

We had a proper celebratory lunch in the much nicer Puerto Varas, less than an hour away, in an Irish pub named Pims, where we over-ordered Mexican food to such a degree that the leftovers were still being consumed two days later.

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Now, we have a gentle few days in the Chilean lake district – volcanoes and lakes, but with good roads – then a trek up to Santiago to return the van.

An Easy Day Sailing the Fjords

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Today was a lot less about driving, and more about enjoying the beautiful fjords as someone else did all the hard work. The Carretera Austral has four ferries along its route, three of which in its northern tip where we are now.

The first ferry was small, and lasted only 45 minutes, from Caleta Gonzalo in the Pumalin National Park (previously owned by the founder of the North Face brand of clothing, now owned by the government, and beautiful) across to the other side of the fjord. We then had to drive 10km on a track that runs between two fjords, and is only accessible by boat (I like that, driving on a road that just exists in between two bits of water, totally inaccessible from other roads), and has no habitation whatsoever – there was a nice sense of camaraderie in the 20 or so vehicles who then waited two hours for ferry number 2, the 3-hour journey all the way down another majestic fjord.

There are no roads across this part of the country, so it’s the ferry or a many-hundreds of km detour through the Andes, into Argentina and back again.  In the queue were other overlanders – including one German couple who had a van from the same company as us, and a swiss couple we had met previously – a team from National Geographic, a group of motorcyclists, some cyclists and backpackers hitching lifts, truck drivers and local families. Lauren walked up and down the queue, enjoying the sweets she was given by the Nat Geo team, and stroking the dogs. Chileans seem to love their dogs and take them everywhere with them, and don’t seem to be at all upset when Lauren interrogates them on whether their dogs have had their vaccines and are safe to stroke before approaching (I’ve trained her well…. Or to be paranoid… ).

The highly efficient staff on the ferry got all the vehicles on safely, and we raced upstairs to try to find a socket to charge our various devices. That out of the way, we turned our attention to departure – we were just pulling out when we got a great sighting of dolphins playing in our wake, and generally having fun.

The scenery through the fjords was lovely, and you can see why people pay big money for ‘chilean fjord cruises’. Ours cost about 80 USD for the two ferries, for us plus the van.

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We could see glaciers and frozen waterfalls, lots of fish, dolphins, birds etc. Although after a while, we went inside for lunch and Lauren convinced the poor German guy who we had met previously to play snap, endlessly. He has three daughters, now grown, and lots of patience! Despite his not speaking much English, Lauren nattered away to him happily for ages, seeming not to notice it was a rather one-sided conversation. 9 year old girls, eh!

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It was nearly 6pm when we disembarked, and so along with the German couple, we  agreed to cross the peninsular to the final ferry, but to camp before catching it, and carry on in the morning.

We believed it was tarmac and an easy 45 KM to where we planned to camp, but as ever the Ruta 7 had a surprise for us, and half the road was being dug up for improvements, and so we still managed to spend some quality time with the ripio. Plus three very long delays at road closures, meaning that by the time we arrived where we planned to camp, and realized it was not suitable, it was almost dark.

We backtracked to the village we’d passed a few KM up the road, and in the growing darkness, identified a spot on the cliffs that seemed not to be private property and seemed to be safe… it was so pitch black, we weren’t really sure where we were parking, or what we would find in the morning, but we had little choice, and so lined up our two rigs and we invited the Germans over for dinner (mainly on the basis that our van had heating and we’d been given an upgrade and they hadn’t and were surviving in a tiny little box on wheels). It was a pleasant evening over simple food and some good wine.

Next day – the end of the Carretera Austral!