El Calafate, Argentina
It was more than a year since we’d last been in Chile, and what a year it had been.
The country is ridiculously long and skinny. But not only did the northern Atacama desert seem like a million miles away in physical terms, mentally it was a whole world away – back in a time when we’d left our broken home in Ecuador and travelled there van-less, not knowing if we would ever get it back.
Despite those problems, we’d loved the country then and were keen to get another taste.
Shortly after my mum and dad returned home from their trip to Argentina, we stayed in the country for a few more days, doing a short dog-leg to El Bolson. As we went down in elevation, the spring flowers became even more riotous.
We camped at Lago Puelo and from a breezy mirador overlooking the lake, we could see Chile in the distance.
Soon after, we crossed the border at Pajaritos, taking us into the heart of the Chilean Lakes District and taking the van into the country for the first time.
Not surprisingly, the area is choc-a-bloc with pristine lakes, rivers and volcanoes to be admired. But first we headed due west to the Pacific coast, to visit a series of Huilliche villages, which are among Chile’s few remaining indigenous communities.
Our previous experience of Chile’s coast had been quite bleak, so we were blown away to find places like this, and this, and this.
Not for the first time we found an obviously blossoming – albeit small scale – tourism infrastructure that seemed inexplicably dormant. Perhaps it was still too early in the season, but all the campgrounds, and facilities like brand new toilets and tourism offices, were closed. Luckily they weren’t very security-conscious either so – after checking with a local – we pulled into the closed campground at the foot of the sand dunes in the village of Maicolpué and used it as a base for a couple of days of exploration.
From our peaceful spot we got our first proper sight of the cute colourful wood-tiled homes so typical of this part of the country, and couldn’t stop snapping photos of them.
Trying our best to understand the accents, we chatted to the ladies on the beach who make a living from collecting and selling seaweed for use in cooking or sushi.
We drove down the almost vertical road to Tril Tril and walked on a deserted beach, wondering if it ever got busy.
En route to Manzano, juice dripped down our chins as we sampled one of the very best things about the Chilean coast – fried seafood and cheese empanadas that are so good they make you want to apply for residency.
In contrast to the desiccated north, this region of Chile receives a very regular dumping of rain, with the summer months only enjoying ‘less wet’ weather than the winter. So we were braced for some tricky days, but they hardly ever arrived.
“You’re lucky, make the most of this weather!” people kept telling us – and we did.
We headed south again, along Lago Llanquihue, one of several areas that’s been visibly influenced by German immigrants who came in their thousands in the late 19th century. We kept doing double-takes at the Bavarian style architecture and signs advertising ‘kuchen’ and strudel for sale. It may have turned out to be the most expensive coffee and cake stop of the whole trip, but we did indulge just once.
A major highlight of this leg was a stay in delightful Cochamó and a two-night trip from there to the ‘Chilean Yosemite’ at La Junta.
Only accessible by horse or on foot, it truly was a gem. It had been ages since we’d been riding, so we opted to go up the valley by horse and then hike back down. We’re pretty inexperienced, so the rocky, muddy climb – involving several river crossings – was quite a thrill and a challenge for us. My misbehaving horse had a penchant for taking shortcuts that avoided the trail and went straight through dense bushes instead. Arriving with a wild look and a few more scratches – and twigs attached – than I’d set out with, I decided to put my application for Horsewoman of the Year on the back-burner for a while.
The scenery in the valley was quite something – giant granite peaks that looked just like, you guessed it, a scaled down version of Yosemite national park in the USA.
We spent our free day there choosing one of the hikes to do in the area.
When choosing a hike we usually tend to do two things:-
1. Where possible, we’ll almost always pick the hike that goes up high and gives a great view.
2. We’ll do totally inadequate research so that, every now and again, the above hike unexpectedly scares the living crap out of Jeremy (regular readers will remember his crippling vertigo).
From the off the hike was very steep but was in a forest, so no frightening edges to worry about. Even the parts that involved pulling ourselves up using ropes didn’t faze Jeremy too much. Once we reached sections of exposed sheer rock, he started to feel a bit wobbly.
As we so often have to do, I went ahead to check out the next section for scary bits.
“I think you’ll be okay with that,” I said when I returned.
Ten minutes later he was on his hands and knees, shaking, sweating and shouting “where the hell have you brought me? … ah! ah! argh!” and I realised I might have slightly misjudged it.
We were still in forest, but the knowledge that the trees were basically clinging to a rock face and the view of the sheer cliffs across the valley had sent him into a spin of dry-retching and panic. The exact same thing had happened to us on a hike in Yosemite! Damn.
After a short stand-off, we got him to a place where he felt safer. “Leave me here and go on a bit,” he said. “I really really want you to see the view, I don’t want you to do all this for nothing.”
I walked on, and within a few minutes was thanking my lucky stars I hadn’t dragged Jeremy any further. I have virtually no fear of heights, but even my legs were jelly when I reached the first viewpoint from a ledge that had a worryingly spongy feel underfoot. It was worth it though!
I carried on a little, marvelling at how close we seemed to have got to the tops of the granite peaks. The refugio’s buildings were a series of little dots below.
Round the next corner I peered ahead to see where the path was. There was no path – just some ropes that disappeared under a hanging rock. I took that as my cue to quit while I was ahead, and go back to check on whether Jeremy’s fingers were still clamped around a tree root.
My legs were shaking with excitement and tension when I got back. We slip-slod back down the hill and found a hot rock by a waterfall to rest and reflect. Phew.
We’d arrived by horse, but to get back out of the area on foot we had to use an old-fashioned-looking – but very effective – pulley system to get across the river. No matter how old one gets, there are some things that just never stop being fun. Weeeeee!
After the five-hour hike back down to Cochamó we drove south to Puelo and luxuriated in the steaming shower at a lovely campground in the village.
For Jeremy’s birthday we asked at the only local restaurant if it would be open the following night. Consistent with the kind of ‘half shut’ feel of everything at this time of year, they said they’d be open if we told them what we wanted to eat beforehand and promised to come. We ordered Patagonian lamb and took off for a night of bush camping at nearby Lago Tagua Tagua, and a ferry ride to the other end of the lake. After a hot dusty hike we hitched back to the port and shivered on the chilly boat journey back.
It was a very tasty, if rather solitary, birthday dinner, and we reflected on how all of Jeremy’s on-the-road birthdays had been odd in one way or another! I promised to at least hire him some friends for his 50th in 2016…
We set off down the coast again the next day, and took a little ferry north towards Puerto Montt. The black skies were more characteristic of the Lakes District we’d read about. Besides, perhaps it was good preparation for the next stage. After a few days we’d be heading towards the island of Chiloé, which has an almost year-round climate described as ‘misting or raining’ when it’s not ‘sprinkling or drizzling’.
Would our luck hold? We’d been pretty spoiled up until now, but it was time to man up, dig out the raincoats again and head into the mist.
Things we now know to be true: Seafood and cheese, together in an empanada. So wrong, yet so right.
MORE PHOTOS IN THE GALLERY BELOW:-