Chile Update VI

Trip Start Jan 19, 2011
Trip End Apr 15, 2011

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Hello again,

Yes, we are alive and well, despite being out of touch for nearly 2 weeks. Life has been a whirlwind of activity since I last updated you… I'm sure you've been sitting on the edge of your chair, palms sweaty in anticipation for my next update – so here it goes.

I left off at a rainy day in Torres del Paine National Park (NW of Puerto Natales, Chile). After that rainy day – as is typical of all mountain parks it seems – the following day was beautiful. It was a cool crisp morning and having spent the previous night at the Lago Grey Hotel on the west side of the park we were poised to take the boat cruise (Navagacion in Spanish). Maria was feeling slightly better and we made good on the hotel’s continental breakfast by stuffing our pockets with enough food for two subsequent meals and then awaited the cruise departure. While I was sitting out on one of the hotel’s observation decks reading, a red fox approached me and sat down on his haunches within 2 feet of me. He tilted his head quizzically and then continued on his business. To get to the boat, we first boarded a shuttle bus for a quick trip 2 mi up the road, walked 10 minutes to the beach, then boarded a 20-passenger zodiac and tendered out The Grey II. Our guide, Lucas, introduced the boat (18m. LOA, 2 Detroit diesels, 4 crew), cruise itinerary and provided some info about the glaciers. Being a tour guide myself, Lucas and I got into some heavy conversation about various topics that were of mutual interest (glaciers, climate change, sustainable visitor practices, Park management styles, etc – I could talk forever about the things we discussed during our 2+hrs of on-and-off chit chat). Anyways, back to the boat ride itself, we approached the north end of Lago Grey and pulled a couple loops through the bays to take some impressive pictures of Glacier Grey – a most impressive looking glacier (especially compared to the ol’ Herbst "Glacier" on Waterton Lake… After the cruise (~3.5 hrs duration) we organized our packs and hiked 3km into the nearby Pingo back country Campground for the night.

The next day, was also nice, but Maria was feeling ill again (in hindsight, we figure she may have had minor salmonella poisoning from making eggs a few days before) so we put our plans for the day on hold so that she could take it easy and spend the day sleeping. I hiked back out to the car park, checked in and re-registered with the Rangers for another nights’ stay, stocked up on food and then decided to go for a short hike. I was in major need of a good grunt, so hiked the Mirador Ferrier Trail (unknown length, 700m. elevation gain, 2 hrs 1-way hike time – according to the park information signs). I was traveling light and there weren't many views on the way up, so I simply put my head down and sweated through the hike in 50 minutes (imagine Waterton’s “Bear’s Hump” times 2.5). Holy shit! Let me tell you, I am so out of shape. I was sweating like a stuck-pig bleeds and huffing and puffing like an ol’ man. But it was a good workout and I blew past 2 other groups on the way up who had taken the full 2+ hrs. After the hike, I went back and hiked into the campground, made dinner and took it easy.

We awoke the next morning as it began to sprinkle. Maria was feeling better, so we quickly broke camp and hiked out as it began to rain steady. Our plans had to be altered again (due to the rain), so we simply drove across the entire park to the Miradore Las Torres – in hopes of seeing the Torres – but it was socked in. No luck. Shit! I guess I’m going to have to return to hike in and see it properly someday… Anyways, as we left the park (headed east) we saw some Flamingos, Gauanacos, Nandu (Rhea), and Condors flying overhead, as we headed towards the Argentine border again. At the beginning of our adventure we’d planned to return to Santiago via the same route (back through Argentina’s Ruta 40), however, because of how challenging the drive had been the first time, we decided once was enough and we’d take a different route back. Despite this, we still had car insurance to get into Argentina for a few days yet, so we returned to El Calafate.

In Calafate, we stayed at the same campground as before and had a good plan of what we wanted to do for our brief days here. The first day was spent resting/recovering from the days in Torres del Paine, as well as gift shopping and enjoying a couple good meals. Our second day in town we woke early and drove west to our second UNESCO World Heritage Site: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. While a large park with multiple access points, we were headed to the Perito Moreno Glacier part of the park. We took a short 1-hr boat cruise to the southern face of the Perito Moreno Glacier on an impressive, new catamaran-style, 260-passenger vessel. Unfortunately, the poor PA system, lack of speakers and diesel fumes that entered the cabin detracted from the experience slightly. However, I did manage to chat briefly with the tour guide about things such as vessel requirements, inspections, dealing with the National Park, etc. The passenger makeup was primarily bus charter groups (Spanish, German, and rude, unfriendly French). After the cruise, we drove up the road to the actual glacier viewpoint and walked around, took some photos and simply drank in the experience of watching the Perito Moreno Glacier in action. While it was not technically advancing or retreating at the moment, it was very exciting to watch the face of the glacier continually calve off into the lake. I tell you, watching nothing happen and simply waiting in anticipation has never been this exciting! Hahaha. But it truly was amazing to hear pieces of blue ice crack and break off, falling into the lake, accompanied by gun-shot-like sounds. While the clouds rolled in over the valley, it began a steady drizzle and the air temperature cooled off significantly, watching the 60m high tongue of the Perito Moreno continually crash down (with the body of the glacier extending for miles up and back into the mountain valley was, without a doubt, the best experience on this trip so far! After minor hypothermia set it (just kidding) we drove back to Calafate, took a nice long, afternoon walk around a nearby lagoon/bird sanctuary on the shores of Lago Argentina and then finished off the day with an interesting trip through the local museum with rather impressive displays on dinosaurs that once inhabited the area, as well as more-recent megafauna (20,000 yrs to present), and local native tribes.

The next day we woke early, finished running around town for supplies and then began the long drive back to Puerto Natales, Chile. We were supposed to arrive and then board the 3-day Ferry that was to take us back north, later this evening… Well, boy were we in for another fricken adventure… We had not received any email confirmation about our being on the ferry and the company’s website confused and scared us by saying that our trip had been cancelled and postponed. Unable to call and get hold of anyone in the head office, we simply began to drive quickly back to Chile. As luck would have it (we've had great luck, as you know…) we blew out another tire – this time on the paved highway about halfway to Puerto Natales. By now, we’d developed a rhythm for changing tires, so we quickly swapped out the dead tire for the doughnut and turned around back up the way we’d come to a nearby town in search of a replacement. Well, this butt-hole town had 1 hill-billy tire place where the guy didn't take VISA, and us having only enough Argentinean pesos to buy gas to make the Chilean border, we decided to make another marathon limp to the Chilean Border… Cruising on the spare tire (and the last of the original tires that we now feared would blow at any moment) we slowly crawled along for 2.5 hours and covered 150km. The nearest large town was closed down for the night and we feared missing the ferry, so we crossed the border and continued straight to Puerto Natales – only to discover that the Ferry was delayed 24 hours! Damn! We found a campsite and called an end to that exhausting, stress-filled day.

The next day was spent confirming our passage aboard the Navimag Ferry, Puerto Eden, a different ship that originally planned. Rumor had it that the other ship we were scheduled for ran aground the rocks in one of the fjords while the Captain was liquored up. While waiting to board the ferry, we went for Pizza dinner (the location of the last place I sent out an email, I think…) where they were playing Old Crow Medicine Show’s Wagon Wheel. Ha! Who’da thunk it! Anyways, we boarded the ferry at 21:00 and then waited up (03:00) to drive our car on ourselves (I didn't trust the guys to safely put the Chevy Spark on board (with its spare tire situation). The ship then departed the following morning at 08:00. Life on-board the Navimag Ferry was another memorable experience of this whole Chile adventure. We were essentially trapped on board this old ship build in the early 1970’s with a bunch of trucks full of cattle, drunken truck drivers, and ~150 other passengers for a little over 3 days. Our cabin was in the bowels of the ship, shared with another couple – two dutch folks who were pretty cool. It was rather funny in that the shortest couple on board was bunked with arguably the tallest couple on-board (both pushing 6’5”). The first couple days saw less than desirable weather, but we still passed by incredible, narrow, scenic fjords, saw a couple different, large, brilliant blue glaciers spilling into the waters, and various wildlife (dolphins, penguins, seals, and numerous other bird species. The food was surprisingly tasty, and the crew endeavored to keep the passengers entertained with music, movies, informational presentations, and games; the atmosphere was decidedly camraderous. The second night on board was rather rough, as we crossed the Golfo de Penas, and rounded the coast out onto the open Pacific for about 12 hours. It was a rocking and rolling trip with 20-25 ft swells and the majority of passengers falling into bouts of seasickness (at one point, Maria threw up on some guy’s bald head, who was standing on the deck below us). It was all worth it, because we awoke the next morning to a beautiful, calm, sunny, warm and most enjoyable day spent lounging on the sundeck.

The day after that (Mar 5) saw us pull into Puerto Montt and resume our road trip, which began with a search for new tires. After running around the city for half a day, we were fixed up, supplied and ready to roll. We drove south again, taking a short 30 minute ferry to Chiloe, the largest island just off the coast of mainland Chile. Unfortunately, after a few days cooped up with many people, and one-too-many nights spent up late drinking rum… we both got a little rundown. As such, our time on Chiloe was pretty mellow: early to bed and late starts. We spent a night in Ancud, then a night in Castro, and after driving all the way south as far as we could, we reached Quellon, the southern end of the Pan-American Highway! Heading north, we began the task of visiting the next UNESCO World Heritage Site on my list: the Churches of Chiloe (14 total; 5 of which were relatively easy access that we saw). That night we drove out towards the west coast of the island near Parque Nacional Chiloe and camped. Once again, luck was on our side and the damn car battery died on us! FML!

So, the next morning, we stood alongside the highway trying to wave someone down to give us a boost. Well, I don’t think anyone in the country has heard of jumper cables, especially considering all of the weird looks we received, but we finally told a random passerbyer that we were Canadian and he helped out by towing the car at ~30km/h for a short distance while I pumped the clutch and gas to jump start the car. Woah! Well, with that, we were ready to get back to the mainland and head north, so we drove back to Pucon/Villarrica (the nice touristy area we stayed at on the way south).

Here we took a couple days to just hang out, explore the area further, get some supplies, do laundry and hangout at the beach-side campground. With the summer season now over the area was rather quiet; the shoulder season here does not even appear to exist, as many businesses (e.g. campgrounds) had already called it quits for the season.

I know this has really turned into a long email – and I hope I haven’t put you to sleep yet, but I’ll wrap things up quick-like.

On March 10, we began to have yet more trouble with the car… we could no longer get it to engage in 2nd or 4th… and Reverse was touchy… So we figured we would start making our way north again. Well, we woke up on the 11th to a torrential downpour that had rolled into the area. Soaking wet, we broke camp, checked emails, and learned of the earthquake that rocked Japan and sent tsunami warnings across the Pacific. While we were nowhere near the coast, we decided it was time to go back to Santiago and try to figure out what was wrong with the car… Shit! So we left Pucon in the rain, and drove for 5 hours without any let-up, or lift in the rain and clouds. Finally, nearly 600km north, we hit our first sucker-hole (for those of you not familiar with mountain-lingo, a tiny patch of blue sky in an otherwise cloudy, nasty sky – which only a sucker would look at and think it was going to clear up). By the time we’d drove nearly 900km and reached Santiago, it had cleared decently and we rolled (in only 1st, 3rd, and 5th) back into Maria’s relatives’ place in San Bernardo (just south of Santiago).

The last couple days have been just laying around and we hope to get the car looked at tomorrow, so that we can continue our adventure to the northern part of the country in the coming week.

Phew! That was a lot. I’ll give you some time to digest this email, because I don’t think there will be much excitement worth reporting for a few days now… Ciao for now,

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