Southern trekking wrapup and new crew
25 February 2012 | 44 08.8'S:73 06.2'W, northern Patagonia
Ah, land travel in Chilean Patagonia...adventurous! The rugged and wet landscape makes road building difficult, in fact the major route Carretera Austral was first hacked out of the rainforest by hand some 25 to 30 years ago, during the Pinochet era, now sometimes referred to as "the dictator's road." Despite being largely unpaved, it is served with some regularity by bus and truck services. We took one of these busses from Puyuhuapi to the Balmaceda airport. First off there are no published bus schedules, we had to ask around, buy the ticket at a small family restaurant, and be on the street corner at 6am. We bounced along the gravel road for 3 hours and another 3 on pavement to the airport, that's as good as it gets here. This road is actually popular for long-distance mountain bike touring, we saw a few hardy cyclists wearing mud caked rain gear or just toughing it out in wash and wear bare skin, riding from muddy campsite to muddy campsite with the occasional luxur ious splurge at the rare hotel along the route, such as the lovely Puyuhuapi Lodge and Hot Springs.
After a short time in Punta Arenas we took another 5 hour van ride to the Eco Camp in the Torres del Paine national park. The Eco Camp is really quite nice, a number of steel framed geodesic domes are in place for lodging, plus two very large ones for the common eating areas. These sleek domes are designed for 240 km/hr wind speed, and we were frequently rocked by winds not quite that high but that I thought fully capable of ripping a yurt off of its platform and sending it frisbeeing down valley. The Eco Camp is run with great efficiency and the food quality is excellent; highly recommended. We were part of a tour group planning to day hike all of the major trails of the park over a period of 5 days. The raging winds will be one of the more memorable experiences of the park. We watched violent katabatic winds (aka williwaws), which are masses of cold air descending from high valleys at great velocity, crash upon the sea or lake surface, raising great plumes of water an d racing across the surface. They last only a few seconds but can be real boat-busters. Zia and I looked at each other with silent gratitude that we had not chosen to sail to this region. The park is itself a wonder, massive granite spires and other geological features are a feast for the eyes. It is one of the most tourist visited places of all of Chile.
Following on the heals of the Torres del Paine tour, we took another 10-hour bus ride into Argentina, through the vast, windy and treeless pampas, to the town of Chalt´n, for some trekking on that side. Chalt´n was founded in 1985 as a civilian outpost near the Chilean border to protect the Argentine interests in the area. Today, I found it to be an incredibly beautiful and enchanting place. It has a permanent population of only 1000, 3000 in summer, and enjoys a brisk summer tourist trade. There is nothing luxury here, though plenty of nice hotels and restaurants, the people come here for the view (see photo above) and the endless hiking and mountaineering opportunities that can be accessed by foot from one's front door. I call it a mountaineering paradise; climbing at all levels from bouldering to big walls to multiday, world class high peaks, some of which have been summited only a few times ever. There are endless valleys and safe slopes for winter ski touring, and frozen waterfalls forming on the edge of the town, for those who fancy that sport. And to top it off, three breweries! Mind you, two are true homebrew systems with 40 liter brewhouses quite closely resembling that of Zak's Garage in Fort Collins, yet they have bottled and labeled product in some shops. The third is in a restaurant, where the brewer proudly showed us her 100-liter brewhouse and methods of producing Czech style pils and bock. These were very enjoyable beers.
We slowly backtracked our land route, with stops in Puerto Natales and a sheep and llama ranch in Chile, and flew to Puerto Montt to meet Kati and Zach, two of our three incoming crew for the passage north. I'll save the stories of further land travel obstacles until a different time, and close by saying we are all on the boat, cozy and warm in the heavy rain today, and enjoying the new energy aboard.