Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
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The bus from Coyhaique is a little blue Mercedes minbus that costs us 15,000 pesos (about GBP15.00) per person. Its a cold wet day and the windows soon steam up when everyone is on board. Its a good job that we booked our seats because there are no spaces left.
Pieter from South Africa decides that he is going to get off half way to Chaiten to visit another park called Quelat, and Gaelle from Belgium has bought a ticket as far as Santa Lucia, wanting to connect with the town of Futelafu for rafting
The bus leaves on a short section of surfaced road and then soon slows down to a pace we are more acustommed to as we get back on to the gravel. Outside the rain gets harder and I am glad that I have an unread book to keep me occupied.
At our first stop, we find out that we have a Lonely Planet researcher on board. Its the first time we have met one of these mythical creatures who put all the facts into the guidebooks that we rely on so heavily during our travels. She is a diminutive but fiesty looking American girl and she warns us to book our ferry to Chiloe as soon as we get to Chaiten.
As we head north we pass a few isolated farms, where the rain pours down hard on the few green fields that appear to have been cleared from the forest just a few years ago. In the fields lie vast piles of treetrunks from the ancient primary forest that was felled to make way for the cows. Never far from view are the towering green forests though, and as soon as the land starts to become steep or hilly, they reassert their dominance of this cold and wet landscape.
We stop at a the little town of Puyuhuapi where we say goodbyes to Pieter and the Lonely Planet researcher. Their places are filled by a family of four which makes conditions on the bus somewhat cramped
After about 12 hours and 400km, we roll into Chaiten. A relieved Gaelle is still with us, having managed to remain on board by agreeing to stand if necessary.
Rachel stops at Hospidaje Don Carlos (6,000 Pesos or GBP6.00 per night), while I walk into town to find out about ferries to Isla Chiloe and trips to Parque Pumalin. The ferry office is absolutely packed out with customers milling around on the pavement desperate to get on to the next ferry to Puerto Montt, so I head round the corner to Chaitur Travel to see what the options are for visiting the park.
I meet Nicholas, the friendly and somewhat absent minded owner of Chaitur, who introduces himself amicably with gusto twice within about two minutes. He tells me that they have tours running to Parque Pumalin at a cost of 10,000 Pesos (about GBP10.00) each but the minimum needed to run the tour is 35,000 Pesos (about GBP 35.00). I tell him that I think Rachel and Gaelle want to go so we have three people available. After a few minutes a Swiss couple, Roland and Chantal arrive who also indicate that they would like to visit the park
Nicholas drives me back to the hostel, explaining that its not worth booking the ferry until the next morning when the melee of customers for Puerto Montt has subsided. At the hostel I introduce him to Rachel and Gaelle, who fortunately seem enthusiastic about the 8,000 Peso tour.
Don Carlos hostel seems clean and tidy, and I say Buenos Tardes to the somewhat unfriendly-looking Don Carlos who`s face reluctantly cracks into a smile.
In the evening, Rachel and I decide to go out to find a place to eat. The first restaurant is closed, the next one is open but doesn´t have any food. I ask the owner where we can eat and we are given confusing instructions that require us to go in two different directions at the same time
In the morning we wander out of the hostel at 9.30am, giving us plenty of time, we hope, to buy ferry tickets for Chiloe before the tour to Pumalin. In the ferry office the queue is nearly, but not quite out the door. After 15 minutes we are at the front of the queue, but it still takes a further 15 minutes to buy the ferry tickets. Being a little impatient by nature I am often frustrated by the amount of paperwork, slow computers, and inefficient staff invoved in transportation in South America. However, we are booked on a ferry to Quellon in the south of Chiloe, which leaves on a Wednesday for 15,000 Pesos (about GBP15.00 each). Apparently, since its now March we are in low season and there are only 2 ferries a week to Quellon, and none to Castro where we want to go. Lets hope there´s a connecting bus when we get to Chiloe.
Back at Chaitur, theres no sign of Nicholas and I am informed by three other people who are joining the tour that he has gone to make some sandwiches. Rachel takes the opportunity to head off and buy some more lunch supplies for us, and I say hello to Andi (a girl) and her husband Ian who are professional aid workers travelling after an assignment in Darfour in Sudan. There´s also a Danish guy called Lars, and a German lady called Heidi touring with us. I briefly consider the possibility of renegotiating the price of the tour now that there are 9 people, but decide that its too much effort and 8,000 Pesos seems reasonable
After kicking our heels in the rain for a bit, Nicholas soon returns, wisely bedecked in Wellies and a Mac, and we jump into the minibus heading north out of Chaiten towards Park Pumalin. The Park is so named because it is the home of the puma, but Nicholas warns us that we are unlikely to see the illusive cats in the dense forest. After an hour or so, we stop at the entrance to the free park and Nicholas (who was brough up in USA, Chile, and Canada) explains a little about how the park came to be.
The American Douglas Tomkins who formed Esprit and North Face is enormously rich and over a period of years he quietly bought up thousands of hectares of virgin temperate rainforest north of Chaiten in a bid to protect it from the increasing attention of large logging companies. At the time that he completed the aquisition of some of the most strategic parcels of land, the Careterra Austral was nearing completion and so many of the locals were upset that the land was not to be exploited, but conserved. In addition, the swathe of land was so enormous that it practically cut the country in two from the Pacific to the Andes raising a few eyebrows in the government. Nonetheless Tomkins´ intentions were honorable and the land was designated a National Sanctury and handed back to the Chilean government
We drive along the Careterra Austral through the southern section of the park, and pull up the van beside Lago Blanco. Its pouring with rain and water seems to tumble out of the hillsides in waterfalls all around us. The lush green vegetation by the roadside is dripping with water and Nicholas points out a few plants to us. One of the most ubiquitous is the nalca, a kind of giant rhubard, with leaves taller than me. Moss seems to cover every inch of the ground, and there are ferns which display clearly mathematical fractals in their structure. 4000mm of rain per year and a summer average high of around 15 degreesC make this a unique environment.
We drive up the road further in the van and stop beside a trail that goes through grove of Alerce trees. These trees are truly huge, like the redwoods of California, yet live even longer, up to 4000 years according to Nicholas. We stop beside one particularly big example which is apparently 3000 years old. When I look at the tree I am glad that Tomkins made the effort to prevent its destruction. Further through the woods we see all kinds of species like Canelu, whose bark tastes like cinamon and apparently contains high levels of vitamin C. When you breath in, the air is beautifully fragrant from the fusion of smells from the plethora of flowering plants.
Back in the van, there´s a short musical interlude as Nicholas demonstrates his skill on the Charango - a small instrument with 10 strings that looks like a mandolin but is tuned completely differently. He plays a Scottish song (for me apparently) and then launches into a couple of songs that feel more Andean and definitely sound better. For such a small instrument it makes a great sound. Here we are I think, sitting in a van in the middle of the Chilean temperate rainforest, with the rain lashing outside, listening to some sweet Andean music.
We eat lunch at a campsite where there are covered tent sites. I didn´t realise that such things existed, but I would certainly appreciate the value of them if I had to camp in this area. After lunch we take a longer walk deeper into the rainforest to see some waterfalls. The trail is unbelievably wet, but the use of stoutly constructed boarwalks, gravel, and elegant wooden staircases make the going easier that I expected. The contrast between this well managed park and the problems in places like Torres Del Paine (despite its greater visitor numbers and large entry fee) is fairly stark.
During the hike I enjoy the dripping green vegetation all around, and the feeling that if I walked 20 metres off the trail in any direction I would be in a spot where no one has ever been before. This harsh part of South America was never settled by significant numbers of South American Indians, and the European settlers didnt even establish Chaiten until the late 1950´s. It is truly a wilderness area.
We climb up some wooden ladders that follow the course of a rushing stream. Its a bit like canyoning because sometimes the ladders are in the stream and sometimes the stream bed is the path. Finally we get to the end of the trail where there is a viewpoint over an enormous crashing waterfall. There is so much spray from the foaming giant that we don´t dare take the camera out for a photo.
Back at the campsite, we jump back into the bus in our thoroughly sodden clothes and head back to Chaiten. Nicholas tells me as we´re driving along that his daughters are called Skye and Ocean. We stop at Santa Barbara beach where the sand is black and the grey clouds swirl around the mountains that seems to rise straight out of the sea. We are here to see if there are any dolphins, but most people are too cold and tired to get out of the van into the rain to take a look. I take a walk down the beach and Rachel runs to keep warm. As she´s dissapearing off into the distance I spot the dorsal fins of a small pod of dolphins swimming along about 50 metres out. Despite my shouting through the wind and rain, Rachel is too far away to hear my cries of excitment. No-one else, except Nicholas, believes that I saw them.
As we are driving the last couple of kilometres back to Chaiten a patch of blue in the western sky suddenly opens up. Perhaps the rain is about to stop we think. Soon we are enjoying spectacular rainbows that have the towering rainforest clad mountains as their backdrop.
After saying goodbye to our fellow tourists and the eccentric and friendly Nicholas, we walk back to the hostel for dinner. Don Carlos has prepared a huge meal (2,500 pesos or GBP 2.50 each) of beef broth followed by a local fish, potatoes and veg. He scowls at us and tells us to eat it all up or else we´ll be served it for breakfast.
Next day we get up expecting a break from the inclement weather, but to our dissapointment its pouring down with rain again. Don Carlos seems to be in a perpetual bad mood and scowls when we ask for more bread and hot water at breakfast. We are confused because the only reason we went to this hostel is because it is billed in Lonely Planet as having ´ample portions´ for breakfast and a ´friendly owner´. Maybe we should tell the girl from Lonely Planet that their description is wrong on both counts.
We decide to have a lazy day, catching up with laundry and internet. We are quite glad though, that the ferry will be leaving the next morning. All day it rains continually, and a thick mist cloaks the mountains around the town. The cold and damp make us crave cozy warm cafe´s with comforting hot drinks which are unfortunately impossible to find amongst the towns pathetic businesses.
The next morning, after a relaxed breakfast, Don Carlos reluctantly agrees to drive us down to the ferry port because its raining and blowing a gale. During the journey, which is less than a kilometre, he takes the most circuitous route imaginable and then stops for petrol, probably to annoy us as much as possible. We and a heap of other backpackers all arrive at the ferry terminal wondering the same thing: where´s the ferry?
Will we be stuck in this dead-end rainy town full of strange people for another week? Find out in the next exciting installment.