It looked like we returned too early: for the whole month of April and deep into May the weather in Holland remained frigid. Springtime seemed an impossible wish. In addition to the disappointing weather, we were told that our boat, our summer home, which had been in winter storage with a work order to have the hull treated for rust, and repainted, had not been worked on because of lousy winter weather conditions. We will be homeless until the boat is back in the water. To make things worse, our old Volvo needed to get some bodywork done to pass inspection, and the garage could only do that job three weeks later.
The good news was that we could make ourselves useful watching our three-year-old grandson at his house, and we could use the family car when needed. It is good to be with our family again. We celebrated King’s Day, Easter and Mother’s day together. Our grandson now thinks I am Wonder Woman, who can do anything. I wish I was, but it is a great compliment to get.
With continuous rain and cold, it did not look like progress could be made on the boat, so Thijs decided we’ll lower her back in the water and live with the primer spots decorating our hull for a while. Maybe in June, when we will be away for a family reunion, the work can be done (…fingers crossed…) We moved into the boat, but remained docked at the wharf, waiting for good weather. When, finally, there were a few beautiful days in a row, we set off towards our marina closer to Amsterdam…but within 10 minutes the engine alarm started screaming: it overheated with a failing cooling system…so back to the wharf we went. Now Sander, the main man was out sick. A long holiday weekend followed, delaying the arrival of necessary parts. And we still wait for the repair to be done.
But we did not sit still: we scoured the World Wide Web and joined some African Overlanding groups to get some better ideas about travel conditions, searched and found a (somewhat) appropriate vehicle (not comparable -and longingly looking back to- what we had in the Americas). Soon we will take possession of a Nissan Navara with Bimobil camper… We know, we’d rather have found a Toyota Hilux, but they don’t come up for sale with a decent camper in this neck of the woods, so we will make improvements on this one to turn it a trustworthy overland travel home.
So you wonder why we didn’t just ship our MB Sprinter?
Our Sprinter was registered in the USA. As Dutch nationals/residents we are not allowed to drive in Europe with a foreign registration – we’d have to import it, even when we plan to take it to Africa after the summer. To import the truck, a lot of the specs are different and would have to be altered – which may not make the vehicle better. We found the high cost of shipping, in addition to the needed alterations and importation prohibitively expensive.
Our Sprinter was also a heavy weight 7T truck (which in Europe requires the driver to have a truck license). Even when staying on the main drag, the road conditions in Africa are different and a bit more difficult than in the Americas, where, unless you chose to drive the Amazonas or Central American jungle roads during the rainy season, the average road may be rough, but not impassable. Africa has more soft roads where, when stuck, you have to dig and push your car through. We’ve done that on our first Trans- African trip. This time we know that weight can hold you back, especially with increasing age and the chance of traveling alone (in 1978 the few people that traversed the continent stuck together to help each other along the trickier sections). This is the first time we’ll drive a 3.5T, 4X4. We’ll see if it makes a difference.
Why is it that things fail in waves; that it is never just one thing that stops working? The engine sputtered, especially after a good day’s drive. Since it started near Bariloche, we’d been in garages in Bariloche, Puerto Varas and Osorno to check it out. On top of that, all of a sudden, our Webasto diesel stove started acting up, and the Webasto heater must have thought it would be fun to join in the malfunctioning. The newly installed air conditioning decided to blow warm air, just at the time we needed some cool. To top it off, we got a flat tire. Why? Was it because we found people who were ready to come and take our camper and (slowly) drive it back to the US? It certainly felt like our truck was upset about us deserting it and decided to throw a fit. Thankfully Thijs kept his cool, so he took the diesel stove apart and started tinkering around. After a day of cleaning and exchanging a few parts, we concluded that the kerosine – which Thijs thought it would make the stove burn better – was the culprit. As soon as the fuel supply was changed to good old diesel, both the stovetop and the heater were back to working. The flat tire just had a leaking valve that must have been either badly installed or had twisted on one of the rough roads. This problem was also easily solved, and while we were at it, we had the tires rotated and balanced, so that was back to perfect!
From Chiloe, we toured once more over the green hills of the lake district, hoping for a clearer view of the volcanoes across the clear water lakes. Then we turned towards the coast, where we meandered along a wide river until Valdivia, where a bridge allowed us to cross. Deep fjords and river arms broke up the coastline, making it impossible to remain within constant sight of the ocean. We cut through cool, green farmlands until the next opportunity to head north along the coast. We spent a night along the beach of Mehuin, a small resort town that was now, at the end of the summer, deserted except for another camper traveler, who told us they parked along that beach for days already. We, however, had an appointment in Santiago, coming up too soon….
The fuel supply to the engine remained a problem so, as recommended by the Mercedes garage in Osorno, we made an appointment at the official Mercedes dealer in the larger town of Temuco, a place where many MB Sprinter vans were serviced. Since we arrived there on a Friday afternoon, we had to wait and hang around town throughout the weekend, to show up for service on Monday morning.
There is really very little to do and to see in this town! While our laundry was done, we walked around downtown. The Museo Regional de la Araucania may be the only interesting place to visit, but despite the sign outside announcing the opening times, it remained closed. We walked the trails of the mountain that rose over the town: the Monumento Natural Cerro Nielol – and finally hung around on the generous parking lot of the supermercado Lider, which really is Walmart under a Latin name.
We spent the nights along the shores of a small river south of the city; an area that was clearly Mapuche indigenous territory. Although it came recommended as a good place to camp (it certainly felt safe) and we saw no postings about it being out of bounds for campers like us, we were not really comfortable staying so close to villages where no-one was eager to have us as neighbors.
When Monday came around, and the garage made annoyingly slow progress, we spent the following night within the boundaries of Kaufman Mercedes (something that is rarely possible at an official dealership) On Tuesday, work seemed to have come to a halt. After two days in the workshop, they concluded we needed a new O ring for the turbo resonator, which apparently was difficult to find around town, but that would solve our problem. Upon arrival the previous Friday, this was already brought up by Thijs as a possible culprit… if the dealership would have ordered that tiny part back then, it could have been flown in from the US or Germany already (!) Instead, an employee was sent on a local hunt from one parts-store to the other.
After two days without progress, when we were close to losing our temper, a new O ring was suddenly found. At the end of that day, after a quick install, we could continue our trip north with a smoothly purring engine. We’d lost almost a week, so instead of continuing along the scenic roads, we had to take the toll road in order to arrive in Santiago in time to do the heavy cleaning, sorting and packing before the people who would take over our vehicle were due to arrive.
Santiago is a beautiful, modern city with many high-rise towers and green parks. Heavy traffic is led across town through a toll highway that often tunnels underground. Thijs chose for us to stay at Hostal Casa de Perros, in Vitacura, a quiet and comfortable neighborhood, in walking distance to good stores and a choice of restaurants. Claudia and Patricio were great hosts and very accommodating, letting us stay in and work on our camper, on the street outside their place. At times, Patricio would stick his head over the fence, inviting us to join him for a Pisco Sour, and Claudia regularly organized some kind of get together, which made the stay there unforgettable.
In between scrubbing and sorting, we still found a shop to resolve the air conditioning problem. Finally, when the whole camper was scrubbed clean, we moved out of our tiny home and into the hostal, just in time for Sam and Khalilah, our American replacement, to move in. Now it was time to introduce them to all the details of our camper: they needed to know the what, where, how and when of everything.
When all was done, we made some time to re-unite with some Chilean friends that we met during our Covid quarantine in Cuzco: Isabel and Martin treated us with a delicious BBQ dinner laden with choice Chilean wines, while Lucy and her little sister showed us their favorite toys. The evening went by too quickly, so we invited them to our good-bye pizza dinner at Claudia’s, and a visit in Amsterdam, a few months down the road.
When all was done, we did not stay much longer: though it was sad to close this American chapter, we also look forward to what comes next: we will see our family during the summer in the Netherlands and make plans for our next adventure, traveling around Africa.
We joined a long line of cars waiting at the border, kilometers before where we thought the border would be. The summer was nearing its end: vacationers were returning home, to go back to work or school. With about nine out of ten license plates being Chilean, I expected the flow to be fast, however it took us over five hours to cross the border: the volume was just too large for the otherwise efficiently working officers. Of course all the necessary procedures had to be followed on both sides; going from immigration to customs, followed by Senasa – the agriculture department that controls the flow of plant and animal products between the two countries. The Chilean side is the most strict concerning the latter: everyone has to submit a declaration form stating which restricted products are in one’s possession. You must declare it all, after which you get checked by either displaying all your baggage on a table and/or opening your car for a search – sometimes with the aid of a dog. That takes time! Now you can imagine how much time it may take to inspect a camper loaded with years worth of necessities. I think even the officials realized this impossible task and instead asked to enter the vehicle, where they opened the fridge and a few cabinets – that was it. Just in case you’re interested, everything must be declared, but declared cheese and dairy like yoghurt or sterilized milk is allowed through, as are cooked or processed products like for instance boiled eggs or liverwurst. But no honey or raisins, fresh fruits and veggies, seeds and raw animal products. Dried beans or lentils could be confiscated. When they find something unacceptable while your declaration form said “nothing”, you will both lose that product and a chunk of money as a fine. Having crossed the Argentina- Chile border several times by now, we boiled our eggs, lentils and potatoes, and processed our raisins by preserving them in pisco (delicious!) Our inspection was done in ten minutes: very fast after five hours waiting!
Once in Chile we had to find some cash and get our Chilean Sim phone cards working again. In the quiet little town of Entre Lagos they couldn’t help; they sent us to Osorno – a mid-sized town where some charming old wooden buildings stood out among the concrete drab. Traffic was hectic and parking hard to find, but we found one accesible parking lot with some space. After some hours of walking from one place to the other, we had what we needed. Then we enjoyed a nice lunch and left town.
We have been reading several books by Isabel Allende. When I read her books “House of Spirits” and “Violetta”, I envisioned some of the tales to play in the area that we remembered from our first visit in 1978 – the lake district around the Osorno Volcano. We headed to Lago Llanquilhue, a lake where many German settlers live, and it shows. Especially the towns of Frutillar and Puerto Varas flaunt chalet-like houses, at times complete with red geraniums in window boxes. We visited the open-air museum Museo Colonial Aleman de Frutillar to get some insight in the life of these settlers. Along with busloads of American Cruise ship tourists we strolled through the gardens and climbed the wooded hillside, we entered some of the furnished houses, the blacksmith’s shop and farm equipment barn, where old agricultural contraptions like an amazing wooden harvest machine were parked, as well as laundry tools that I remember from my youth – from before my mother had her first washing machine.
Thijs found it necessary to get our camper serviced in Puerto Varas, the next town over. One garage there had good reviews, so for the next couple of days we camped out on the grounds of that garage. In the end, not everything could be done, so we moved on. We’d heard many people rave about the Island of Chiloé, and even though it meant traveling south again, Thijs really wanted to see it. When we received a message from Mike and Geneva (slowcarfasthouse.com) saying they were in Chiloé, we made plans to meet.
We took the ferry and drove to Quemchi, where we found Mike and Geneva and their two dogs Nica and Pacha along the waterfront of this intriguingly cute little town. They just came back from stocking up on supplies to take to a remote little island, where we all were invited to stay with Thomas – an American who had a sheep farm there, and his girlfriend Teresa. Before nightfall we drove to Quicavi where we should board the ferry the next day.
Thomas came to meet us on the boat, and immediately Thijs and Thomas clicked – we never met him: Mike and Geneva did in Puerto Natales, but Thomas used to work for the Peace Corps, and as such spent several years in the Congo, where we also lost part of our heart…We could talk about the same places we’ve passed through, the condition of the roads, the people…
The small passenger ferry first stopped by a few other places before reaching our destination: Añihue, a small island where a hundred-some people lived. There was one general store stocked with basic provisions, one restaurant – mainly to feed summer tourists, a wooden church building, and a schoolhouse that would now hold only one elementary student. The older kids would be sent to a boarding school on the main island as soon as the summer holidays were over.
Thomas had an ATV -his mule- waiting for us. We just fit: three persons in the front, two and the luggage on the bed in the back. We rattled over the dirt road, up and down hills, along loaded blackberry bushes, past the simple country restaurant, and by a quiet cove from where we could spot the sheep grazing on the hillside of the farm where we would spend a few more days than we originally thought.
Thomas dropped us off at the old farmhouse, where a small addition was converted into guest’s quarters. The rest of the house was left empty- a home for mice and wood-chewing critters.
In the living room there was a large dining table and chairs, and a sleeper sofa where Mike and Geneva chose to sleep with their two dogs. In the middle of the room a cast iron wood stove kept us warm during the chilly nights. A basic kitchen with propane stove and a sink unit sat against the back wall. We could store most of our food supplies in the small pantry, while we used one of the empty unheated farmhouse rooms as cold storage: in a box on top of a slippery smooth suitcase which hopefully the mice could not get to. Thijs and I slept in the bedroom which, like the bathroom, was part of the house where the old and new merged.
Thomas himself had built a small cottage closer to the cove, where the views were fantastic. He and Teresa stayed there. Between these two residences were some barns and sheds, where at that time a few sheep had been separated to bond with a Pyrenees mountain dog puppy, destined to live with and guard the sheep in the winter time. At that moment though, the poor puppy did not understand his destiny and just wanted to be with us… it broke my heart not to be allowed to socialize with that fluffy bundle of sweetness.
We took walks through the pastures and the wild woods. We picked loads of blackberries as well as apples to bake delicious pies, making use of the two Omnia stovetop ovens that were there. An Omnia oven is a fantastic camp-kitchen addition! Last year, I also bought one, and after a lot of bread making experiments, I finally discovered a working recipe that I could now share when our bread supply ran out.
During low tide, when the cove was running dry, Thomas and Teresa wanted to show us the bounties of the sea: there were mussels and scallops to harvest! Though the scallops were a bit hard to get to, hidden as they were in the mud (the tide was already rising by the time we were ready) huge mussels were abundantly hanging on some ropes in the center of the cove – to be reached by Thomas’ boat. We’d never seen mussels as big as the palm of our hand, and never feasted on such an amount that we could not eat anymore! While most were busy harvesting shellfish, I found a load of samphire along the flood line, that salty, snappy parsley related green that goes so well with seafood, and became so popular in the Netherlands that you pay a small fortune to acquire a bunch of it….no need to say we feasted on local food!
Initially we expected to stay on the island for two days, but apparently the plans had to be changed without our knowledge: The ferry back would not run for another two days, and even though Mike and Geneva had heard some more beforehand and brought an overload of groceries to share, our contribution was running low. We decided to return to our camper by the first ferry out, leaving the four friends some more time among themselves. We left at the crack of dawn of a cool foggy morning. A tender boat picked us up from the dock and brought us to the ferry waiting off shore on the open-water-side of the island. After an hour we reached the Quicavi shore where our truck was waiting for us. It had been the first time since Brazil that we slept away from our camper – and even though we had a wonderful time, it felt good to be home again.
To buy fresh supplies, we drove to Chiloé’s capital town Castro, where we found a supermarket but had a hard time finding a parking spot. We finally found a place along the waterside at the bottom of town. From there we climbed the steps up to the main street, where we walked around a bit, looking for a place to get some cash, and admire the quaint old colorful clapboard buildings – some of them on stalks, reaching all the way into the tidal inlets.
The charm of Chiloe, with rolling hills across golden fields, where charming clapboard farmhouses where the laundry is hung to dry over the fence, and villages along tranquil shores leave a special memory. We did not stay long enough, because an important appointment was calling us to Santiago. What and why? That is another story.
Disappointed about Bariloche, we decided to drive north, along the route of the Seven Lakes – an area we had not visited before. First we skirted around Lago Nahuel Huapi, crossed some more dry Patagonian pampas, and reached Villa la Angostura – a bustling tourist town that looked more like what we remembered Bariloche to be way back when… Yet, we did not stop to look around: we would be coming back within a week to get our truck serviced by a well recommended mechanic in Bariloche, who just happened to start his vacation when we arrived at his place. “Come back next week Wednesday, and I can help you then” he told us, and so we will.
Ruta de Siete Lagos, (which also happens to overlap the well known #40 – that Argentinian north to south artery we traveled on before) meandered through thick forested mountains – part of the enormous Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Along the roadside, one could see an abundance of lupine plants, now bursting with seed pods. Behind the lupines, the taller greens of scotch broom (gorse) closed the gap between the road and the forest: what a colorful sight that must have been in the springtime, all that purple and yellow along the road!
Not far outside of Villa la Angostura, the road splits off to one that leads west to the Chilean border, and Ruta #40 going north. On all sides, clear blue lakes drew our eyes down the steep wooded mountain sides. Despite the heavy vacation traffic, we enjoyed the drive north in perfect weather. When, by mid afternoon, we found a sign advertising a free National Park campground, we drove down to check it out – and decided to stay. We were not the only ones there. Many campers were tucked away in the bushes, while we picked a spot with a full view over the shallow river. From here, we could see fish jumping after a hovering insect, and a kingfisher on a tree branch, eyeing that fish small enough to spear. We took a hike following a narrow path along the river, until a few fallen trees blocked our way. Heavy winds and forest fires take a heavy toll on the trees here. There will be enough firewood for all the campers, and then some!
The nice thing about Argentinian campers is that they are peacefully quiet: they make a campfire, maybe try to catch a fish, prepare their barbeque, cook, eat, and drink. We heard no loud voices or music, except for a few campfire songs …not bothersome at all. However: a few environmental lessons would not be out of place, like, if nature calls you to go in nature, do it at least a good distance away from a natural water source, and please bury your stuff, and/or wrap up your dirty toilet paper and dispose of it properly, because it looks gross to come across those dumping grounds during an otherwise enjoyable walk. Someone else’s toilet paper is the one thing I refuse to pick up. And please don’t rinse your porta-potty holding tank in the river, close to where your neighbor is filling his water kettle or doing the dishes a minute later. We would not even take soap to these essentially pristine waters.
Anyway, we continued the next morning and soon entered San Martin de los Andes, another popular mountain town with characteristic wooden buildings and multilayered roofs, and an abundance of flowers. Especially roses! Roses do so well in this part of Argentina; they seem to grow effortlessly without any signs of diseases, and bloom abundantly. It is the most popular plant here – both in the gardens and along the sidewalks. Maybe roses are so healthy because they also grow wild here. This time of the year the wild rosebushes were starting to color their leaves yellow, their fruit red. I wish the rosehips would be easier for us to consume – not having to go through the process of removing all the seed, to be left with just a thin skin that cooks into a delicious syrup or jelly. So, most of that fruit will be left for the sheep and other animals to devour.
Even with all the people crowding the streets, and even though the town discouraged camping vehicles to hang around, we stayed for a couple of days. The terraces were inviting, as were the shady parks, so we had lunch at one place, drinks at another. We found a spot to sleep at the edge of town between an Argentinian family in an old patched-up bus, and a Brazilian couple in a sleek Sprinter campervan. Both being Sprinter owners, we connected with the Brazilians. It was the weekend of Carnaval: they, hailing from Rio de Janeiro, missed the annual celebration, just like Thijs does, who is from the south of the Netherlands, where Carnaval is also celebrated. They heard that there would be a carnaval kick-off in San Martin, starting at 5PM at Plaza San Martin, so we all went there. 5PM, no action yet, but a gathering of beer trucks encircled a stage…after about an hour, a young woman started singing ballads…nice voice, but it did not feel like carnaval. People, drinks in hand, stood around and talked, sat and observed…kids climbed the statue of San Martin…after another hour we went back to our camper.
Before turning around at what we considered the end of our route along the seven lakes, we had to satisfy our curiosity about Junin de los Andes, a small town north of San Martin which, in comparison to the latter, would be more laid back and simple; not as expensive as San Martin, and automatically a town that attracts a more alternative crowd…but we made the mistake of going there on a Sunday. It definitely was laid back: everything was closed and hardly a soul was out on the streets. We hung around for a couple of hours, trying to decide what to do, and in the end we just gave up and drove away. We backtracked on the road to San Martin, and continued on until we reached the big open lakeside campground that we’d spotted before on the way up.
Again, this was a free National Park campsite without any amenities. Everyone just drives in and find themselves a satisfactory spot, for one night or a whole vacation. I was amazed at how easy the system worked, how clean the place looked without a garbage disposal system, and how peacefully everyone co-inhabited the space. So, even though we were camping here with a hundred-something other campers, I found it a very positive experience that we had not encountered in many other places so far. Before we left the next day we walked the trail along the lake’s edge across from the campsite, to discover wild cows that fled for us like deer spotting humans, and horses crossing the water to get to greener pastures. We passed calafate bushes rich with berries, and multitudes of long dead fallen trees. We walked along pebbled beaches and reed filled lakeshores, through grassy fields in the middle of the woods, and admired the wide vistas across the clear waters. And then it was time to continue our drive back towards Bariloche.
We made one last stop in Villa la Angostura, the town that looked interesting and popular, enough to make us halt. We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Tinto, the bistro that is said to be owned by the brother of our (Argentinian born) Dutch Queen Maxima. I had a grave lax dish, and Thijs had a well cooked trout with an orange sauce. It was pricey but delicious. With the robbery reputation of Bariloche (“don’t leave your camper unattended at the parking lot, you will get it broken into…”) we decided to do our necessary grocery shopping in Villa la Angostura before our last leg back, heading for the mechanic, for a service job.
However, when we arrived at the mechanic, he was not available yet; too tired from his vacation. We should come back tomorrow… The next day, at the moment we were at his door, we received a message that he was held up by other commitments, we should come back next day. Tired of the busy, expensive, and this time noisy nearby campgrounds, this time we drove out of town to a beachfront to spend another night. It was a beautiful location that coincided with clear skies and quiet winds: perfect weather, perfect place! Here we made up our minds, if we should go back to the mechanic one more time, or cross the border to Chile and find someone there: the trip back to the mechanic would take an hour one way, and even if we would be helped that day, the service would need longer than one day…would he continue his work on the weekend? When Thijs asked through WhatsApp message, he didn’t receive an answer. So we decided to go to Chile instead. But that is another story.
We left the Carretera Austral at Villa Santa Lucia, (remember from the previous post, the town that had been covered by mud) and headed up the dirt road towards the Argentinian border, following the Futaleufu river after passing Lago Yelcho. At the start it looked like we were going to climb high up through the mountains, but in reality the pass over the Andes ridge was an easy one. The blue Futaleufu river was a popular destination for those who like whitewater rafting and canoeing: everywhere along the way we passed launching spots. At the few peek-a-boo spots through the trees, we could see rafts speeding downstream. In the town of Futaleufu – filled with adventure seeking backpackers – it was easy to find a restaurant to have lunch before we’d cross the border. Despite being surrounded by snow peaks, it was getting hot: a short siesta time in our camper parked along the central plaza felt more like sauna time: we soon continued towards the border.
Once back in Argentina, we looked for an overnight spot and ended up at “The southernmost vineyard” which also offered camping. It was truly a beautiful, well built and maintained place that promised designated RV spots with electric and water hookups and Wifi throughout the premises. The camping fees were the highest we’d encountered so far in Argentina so we were a bit disappointed when, after we were informed of the price and some shady RV spaces were unoccupied, we were directed to a tent camping spot where all the amenities were out of reach and shade trees too low to keep us somewhat cool during the 30⁰ C heat. Using the Wifi from outside the bathroom block was not what I expected either – for that price and promise. We decided to look for a better, cooler spot further down the road.
We found our place in the shade after Kristopher and Verena, a German couple we’d met before, on the pretty beach in Chile and again on the road, adviced us to go up to Laguna la Zeta, the lake nearby the town of Esquel – they had enjoyed quite some time there when the COVID-19 quarantine started and they were not allowed to enter the town. They knew the area well and showed us a few beautiful spots along the shores… we elected to stay in the shade of a pine forest overlooking the lake and its beach guests enjoying the cool clear waters below us.
Here we stayed for the hottest days, waiting for the weather to cool. During the cool early mornings we walked around the lake: about half of its perimeter was accessible for camping with many lovely spots on soft green grass or between low hanging trees; the other half was pasture for horses and cattle, the lake’s edges were bordered by reeds. The far and shallow end of the lake was a bird sanctuary: the soft, marshy ground along this side kept us, intruders, at a safe distance for them not to feel threatened. By late afternoon our shady pine forest filled up with day guests, who parked their cars around us and emptied their trunks of beach chairs and blankets, and walked down to the waterside loaded with food, their thermos bottles and mate cups. By evening all would be quiet again when everyone, except for a few campers, left. We made friends with our Brazilian neighbors Mattias and Clarissa,who arrived one day in a tiny overloaded Suzuki Jimmy, heavy with a roof tent with side extension, complete camping gear, bicycles and their dog. Befitting the norm of many Brazilians, they automatically included us in their dinner plans, so sweet! We contributed wine, appetisers and salad, and enjoyed some rich meals together at -for us- odd dinner times.
When the weather cooled down some, we hit the road again. Unfortunately the Parque Nacional de los Alerces, which came highly recommended, was on fire. We heard from our German friends, who went ahead, that they were forced to leave the park when the fire encroached around them. We took the main road instead and approached El Bolsón when the next heatwave hit. Just in time we reached a pebble beach along the Rio Azul, where immediately we found a friend in Mario and Maria, who practically lived there already for a few weeks in their camper and trailer. He went out of his way to show us the best spots. Here, again (it is mid-summer here) the beach filled with day guests by late afternoon, leaving us by ourselves for the rest of the time to enjoy the sun in the shade, the clear, cool water of the river, and nature beyond…Until all of a sudden the location seemed to have been discovered: on our last evening we got inundated with campers who settled all around us! Good thing we already were planning to leave the next morning, with the next cool spell.
El Bolsón is a small town on Ruta #40. (With a surprising amount of traffic!) The main square and several buildings around the center are charming, while along the main through fare, an abundance of bakeries, deli and cheese stores tempt one to buy too much. We should not stay too long here! Already a while ago, our South American insurance agent had invited us to visit their farm/campground not far north of El Bolson, so we made that our next stop. We reached it over an extremely bumpy road, when – fate has it- I forgot to lock one upper cabinet door and a heavy glass bowl fell out, shattered on, and broke our sink cover: during our seven- some years of travel this was only the second time this happened. !Always check the locks of your cabinets before driving!
The farm, embraced by mountains on both sides, stretched along a stream lined with green trees and bushes. Most of the land was naturalized, somewhat controlled by the grazing of a small flock of sheep and a family of rabbits. From an elevated viewpoint you could see a multitude of green circles in their dry grassland, created by a sprinkling system. Three years ago a forest fire nearly destroyed all the work done to the land, the life stock, and the buildings. Since that time they try to keep the worst of the drought out by diverting a water source into the sprinklers. We enjoyed a couple of quiet days by ourselves, and evenings in good company of our hosts Klaus and Claudia.
It was time to revisit Bariloche; the town that used to be the pearl of Argentina back in 1978. Back then, every Argentinian we met asked us what we thought of their country, and asked if we’d been to Bariloche yet – we should defenitly visit – which we did, just before crossing into Chile. From that time, I remember the beautiful mountain scenery with poplars in their golden autumn glory, with bushes full of rosehip and clearwater creeks. Of Bariloche I remembered the German/Swiss Alpine building style, with lots of natural wood and balconies, and their chocolate – you could not leave without buying some. How it had changed: the chocolate was still popular, but Bariloche had become a rather ugly city with hectic traffic and a terrible reputation of petty crime. We heard so many warnings, never to leave your vehicle unattended. We heard from fellow travellers that had their window shattered and camera equipment stolen when shopping for groceries, or of some, even when in the car, that had their door locks broken… We decided this time for an expensive campground, and not to stay longer than necessary. By then the temperature had dipped to 13⁰C (30⁰ Fahrenheit dip from the week before) with freezing winds throwing up white caps on the otherwise beautiful blue lake bordering Bariloche. We were ready for the last leg of our Argentinian trip, along the 7 lakes (actually 13) in the Andean mountain range north of Bariloche. And hopefully some more summer weather.
Giant chilean Gunneras, with leaves averaging over one meter across, rule the open spaces between the road and the woods. At times it tends to compete for airspace with equally giant bright green tree ferns, or hugged by the neighborly fine leaved bushes of fuchsias, sparkling with tiny red flowers. Here and there, tall stalks of pink foxgloves triumphantly poke through the oversized foliage. Then a bouquet of flaming orange crocusmias steals the show, while bright yellow parasols of flowers – I don’t know the name of – try hard by sheer volume. The gunneras however, not to be outdone, are raising their own rust- brown blooming stalks, growing solidly from the bottom crown upwards.
After our visit to the marble caves, we rattled northwards to the largest town along the Carretera Austral: Coyhaique. Here we could stock up on groceries and check in at a campground to clean up ourselves, the camper, and our clothes. It was a busy campground where we even met some fellow travelers that we last saw in Uruguay. They came from the north, where we were planning to go, so they pointed out some interesting must- see locations. Soon we were off to see for ourselves.
The road brought us through the damp mountain side forests of Queulat National park, where lichen, mosses, and flowering vines decorated the tree trunks. We stopped at a short trail to a waterfall – where for a moment I lost my balance on an uneven slippery rock above a cliff, after Thijs urged me to come up just that much further than the official end of the trail – to where the water splashed into a deep pool. It gave me a scare, but I survived the challenge without a scratch!
Before we knew it, we arrived in the quaint fjord side village of Puyuhuapi. Many Germans had settled here, which was especially visible by the street names and one or two houses with distinct building style. Most other houses drew their charm from wooden clapboard and tin roofing, pretty typical for this region. We found a grassy camping spot overlooking the mirror flat water of the fjord (no wind!!) where a few seals and dolphins played within sight. Occasionally a weathered looking man with his dogs walked by, handling a crooked wheelbarrow, which he proceeded to fill with grass sods selected from the waterside. He greeted us and didn’t seem to mind us as temporary neighbors.
After a few relaxing days we continued on our way north through landscape that increasingly looked more developed, with green meadows, more homesteads and a perfectly paved road – you don’t know how much to appreciate smooth pavement until you’ve gone a while without. So here we could focus our attention on the beauty around us: the turquoise rivers and lakes, the ancient forests and roadside blooms, the views of the snow topped mountains… It all looked so idyllic, until we reached Villa Santa Lucia, where in the morning of December 16, 2017, after torrential rains followed an extended period of drought, a large chunk of a nearby glacier collapsed, causing ice, rocks, mud, trees and debris to race down the mountain and bury half of the village. At 72 km/hour, it took the mudslide only five minutes to run eight kilometers from the top of the mountain down to the village, surprising people in their houses. Four years later the evidence of this disaster still makes an impact. We stopped to visit the small museum established by the inhabitants of the only house that withstood the inundation (though they had to remove meter-high mud in- and around their house, and restore a collapsed side) The one room museum showed photos of the disaster and the rescue that followed, samples of items found in the mud, and pictures naming the 22 victims that did not survive. Seeing this record in the actual disaster area made a deep impact on us and proved how fragile the beauty of this part of the earth is…
The carretera remained smoothly paved, so it did not take long to reach Chaiten, the last town before the end of the road – although one can actually continue some more when you take a couple of ferries across the water that separates the developed northern mainland from the laid- back patagonian land frays. We did not want to leave Patagonia yet, so we turned around at the ferry landing. But before returning to Villa Santa Lucia, for the turnoff back to the Argentinian side of the Andes mountains, we found a pretty beach outside of Chaiten. The weather was quiet, sunny and pleasant, the people we met here were friendly and approachable, and the sunsets just gorgeous. Again, we could not resist staying for a few days. Life is good when living on the beach.
At the land’s end of the Carretera Austral, there was one more great National Park to visit: Parque Nacional Pumalin happened to be the first land purchased by Douglas Tompkins (and the start of land purchases under his name that would turn the Carretera Austral into the Ruta de Parques); this time to protect the primordial forests with trees of up to 3000 years old. We went to take a few hikes here and felt like we were walking through a fairy land, lush with ferns, babbling brooks and waterfalls, and tall trees covered with soft, dripping mosses. It reminded me of a cross between the Sequoia forests and Olympic National park in the Western United States. The park also contains a few volcanos. In 2008 the volcano Chaiten suddenly and violently erupted after 9000 years of dormancy. The sediment flow, activated by rain, covered half of the nearby town of Chaiten with one and a half meters of mud. Fortunately people had been able to evacuate in time. Pumalin park however, was seriously damaged, and needed to rebuild it’s infrastructure as a National Park. That setback took several years. But the volcano – still letting off steam- added one more element to the feeling of walking through ancient history.
When on Saturday it was clear that Sunday remained the best day to visit the marble caves, we walked over to one of the waterfront kiosks and reserved a spot for a ride. We knew what we wanted and made that clear: 1. for the best light, when the low sun would shine deep into the caves, we wanted the earliest as possible ride, 2. A boat with at the most 10 people, so you wouldn’t have other people (faces) in your photos when looking over the other side, and 3. We wanted to see just the caves… We were assured that would be no problem and we signed up for the earliest at 8AM ride (still, in our opinion, on the late side). Sunday morning at 7:30AM we walked over to report our presence. No-one was there yet, but other kiosks were opening up. At 7:45AM the organizers were there, but no other customers. At 8:00AM, while at some other kiosks customers were all ready in life vests walking to the boat landing, a volume of customers showed up – way too many for a 10 people boat. Only then were we told we’d have to wait until there would be enough people to fill a smaller boat for the “caves only” ride – maybe by 10:00AM… Annoyed, we cancelled our ride with this company and I ran over to another one that seemed to be ready to depart, and yes, they could add us on their ten person boat, but it would be the full tour (whatever that meant, we’d find out) We signed up and left right away. So, the full tour meant that first we went to the other side of the lake to admire a boat wreck, followed by a stop in a village that used to have a marble mine (not interested in either one- been there, done that similar stuff before) So I sat and waited along the beach, which I must admit, was peaceful and pretty.
At around 9:30AM, when the sun was already high in the sky, we reached the caves. The first ones turned out to be around the corner from the village, and had multiple entries to reach by boat. The marble was grey with white stripes and yellowish growth coming out of cracks. The boat and its people both shaded the caves as well as bounced off its colors on the marble surfaces. There were many caves we floated into, enough for many other boats to join in the fun without being in each other’s way. Only at the very end we reached the marble cathedral and marble chapel (which resembled a big rock on marble stilts) Here, one had to accept a large gathering of boats and canoes crowding the site and I wondered if maybe only these last two places would make up to be the “caves only” destination we initially had in mind.
Once we reached the caves, it was selfie time! There and then it dawned on me why the magic light of the morning didn’t seem important to the majority of the visitors: most were not even admiring the caves, but only themselves through their phone cameras. Selfie sticks poked out from every side for faces grimaced in posed smiles, and fingers held up with peace signs. The tour leader volunteered to shoot pictures of groups that crowded out the views we came to see. I was glad to be in the front row seat, with Thijs a way back on the other side. The other front row seat was occupied by a young guy who must have made at least a hundred pictures of his same overly happy face, only looking over his shoulder to make sure he would not get hit by a protruding marble point.
Despite the crazy tour experience we didn’t regret waiting for that one sunny day or taking the tour…unless you have your own boat, there is no other way to see this natural phenomena. We enjoyed the beauty of the lake and got to see and touch the natural marble sculptures from up close. It is a unique sight to see. After the tour, I spoke to the woman who registered us. She informed us that we could have taken a sunrise canoe tour, or hire a whole boat for a private tour, which would cost a small fortune…a little late, and yes, we can only blame ourselves for not shopping around.
From our departure point of el Chaltén, we drove to, and then over the legendary route #40 (stretching north to south across Argentina, from its southern tip all the way to the Bolivian border) Just like in eastern Patagonia along route #3, settlements along route #40 are spread thin: with a 400km stretch between the turn-off near Tres Lagos and the one to route #41 past Bajo Caracoles, it takes a good detour to reach the gas station about halfway along, at the town of Gobernador Gregores. In the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles, we found a large gathering of motorcyclists and a couple of cars waiting to be serviced at the sticker-plastered fuel pump. The guy first in line turned around, throwing up his hands in despair: they’d run out of fuel, and it would be a day or two before a new supply was expected. The next fuel station would be at least 200km either way… Caracoles had just a few buildings and one hotel with, from the looks of it, maybe five rooms … The (only) store/restaurant- half of the building had an overload of sodas and alcoholic beverages, as well as sweet and savory snacks, but little choice in nutritious food. We still had a comfortable amount diesel to get us to the next town, but I wonder about all these people waiting to fill up…
Ruta 40 had gradually deteriorated from perfectly smooth for the first half, to a few potholes and sinking pavement, and finally unpredictable stretches of dusty corrugated gravel. And we decided we wanted to have more of this! Route 41, which connects the #40 in Argentina with the just as (in)famous # 7- Carretera Austral in Chile is a generally rough gravel road. But what a beautiful road it was! With that I mean the scenery. The land around us turned from desert grey-green, to a sparse spring-green in the wide riverbed of the Rio Blanco and, once we crossed the Paso Roballos and the border to Chile, a jubilant range of yellows, whites and greens welcomed us. Argentina’s version of Patagonia National Park is divided in several parts: we drove the part along old sheep farms (where we spotted more guanacos and rheas than sheep) between foothills of the Andes mountains, and up along the river valley of the Rio Blanco. Here, we thought it peculiar that green and wet land sits right beside desert ground. Maybe because the road cuts through it, the park had no entry fee and, since no wild camping is allowed within the boundaries of the park, we had to spend the night at the park’s (also free) camping area -with basic but clean facilities. It was nice to have trees for wind protection, to see a puma warning sign but no puma, fruiting bushes along the trail to the river, and grass to sit among the free roaming horses.
The next morning we continued our rattling drive towards the Paso Roballos, where a tiny border post let us out of Argentina. Soon, even before the Chilean border post, we passed a signpost announcing the Patagonia National Park of Chile. Only there and then we learned that this is one of the parks that Kristina Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia brand outdoor wear) and her husband Doug Tompkins ( founder of The North Face) purchased as a Tompkins Conservation project, restored and developed it as a nature park, and donated it to the Chilean National Parks system to be enjoyed by the world. The initiative started years ago, when this couple hiked and camped there and saw the potential of this beautiful land, though at the time most of the Chacabuco valley still consisted of overgrazed sheep farms. Now most of it is rewilded, with undulating grass lands, wildflowers, fruit bearing shrubs, and stands of indigenous trees; an environment that encouraged the proliferation and comeback of guanacos, rheas, chinchillas, hares, foxes, armadillos and pumas. Although the connecting Argentina-Chile road runs straight through there, driving by car when visiting is discouraged – hiking encouraged. Only one of the pristine campgrounds is accessible to camper cars, the others are walk-in, tent camping only. Most trails are for foot-traffic, but from our camper-site there was a rare track that one can drive or walk: it leads up to the Doug Tompkins lookout. Of that 6km track, one can drive up, and walk the last 500m (a ridiculously short hike) or hike the whole way, and as a third option, drive halfway, park your car and walk up 3km. Nearing the top, there are other, longer walking trails veering off in a several directions. The bottom half cuts through flowering shrub lands, with vistas over the valley, while along the top half of the trail, trees shade the path. Once we reached the lookout, we found a well-built shelter with sturdy benches and tables inviting us to take a lunch break, while gazing at the distant snow peaks and the blue Lake Cochrane below us.
As opposed to the well-known parks we recently visited, there was no-one else on the trail. We had the whole place to ourselves. The low park attendance may be due to its difficult accessibility, which is by rough corrugated gravel and dirt roads with steep inclines and descents: beside the Paso Roballos road from where we entered, there’s also the north-south artery, the Carretera Austral, which is a mostly unpaved dirt road. Plus, this park, especially in comparison to the Argentinian parks, costs a small fortune to visit and camp. But nature is so beautiful and peaceful, and the area so well managed, that it is worth the money.
At the headquarters we stopped to pay our dues, and visited the excellent museum. There are three permanent exhibits: the world’s environmental history and state, the history of the park and its inhabitants past and present; and the Tompkins Conservation initiative.
A few things however were disappointing in this park: when crossing the Chilean border, no fresh and raw food can be kept, so with the little food we had left, we wanted to splurge on lunch at the park’s restaurant – reported to be expensive but excellent. We couldn’t. Twenty-four hour advance reservations were required, and nothing could budge them, even when the grounds looked sparsely populated (mostly staff there). We were directed to the coffee shop – which we found in the administration building (the buildings were re-assigned after the handover, but the name plaques weren’t) where we could choose a prepackaged sandwich or salad. We opted for the salad and, while the weather outside was gorgeous and inside was dark and gloomy, we looked for a table or at least a seat outside…nothing there, so we ended up eating from our laps on the steps. Sometimes stupid little things like that can sour an otherwise great experience.
Before turning north on the Carretera Austral, we detoured south to get fresh groceries and Wifi updates – except for a few slow 3G moments, we had not been linked to the world for a while. We needed to update our phones and download photos to the cloud. The town of Cochrane – adjacent to the park – was laidback and just big enough to get your necessities. The camping we chose was the size of someone’s backyard, but with clean bathrooms, excellent Wifi, and near the shops, so we stayed for an extra day to wash the dust off our bodies, and catch up with the world. On the map we spotted our next destination, north along the bone-rattling Carretera Austral: some years ago I saw pictures of grey/white marble caves, elegantly shaped by blue water. They’d be about 114 km up the road. It took us half a day to get there, driving over the dusty road along the bright blue Baker river canyon and past pine forests, so neatly planted, they looked like an army of parading soldiers.
The huge lake of General Carrera looked invitingly blue, even under overcast skies. Puerto Rio Tranquillo was bustling with visitors: it was a Friday afternoon during summer vacation, so of course… The weather forecast gave us just one windless sunny day on Sunday. We had time, and decided to wait, no problem. At the town’s beach, overlooking the lake, we were good.
I will tell you everything about the marble caves in the next blog, coming soon.
It was full summer in the Patagonian Andes. Chilean and Argentinian vacationers were up and about, many of them like us in campers, even more backpacking, and others enjoying hotel luxury. In addition, there were the international travelers. In other words, the Patagonian Andes were packed with tourists. The best way to visit these parks while avoiding the crowds, is to start as early as possible. Under blue skies and low winds, we entered Torres del Paine at opening time, after having spent the night at a pretty spot overlooking the river valley and Paine mountain range just outside the park. We decided to start by hiking the most popular trails first. The first one led us through lush woods, over a long isthmus of moraine gravel, to a rocky island covered with flowering shrubs and plants. The island was surrounded by a grey glacier lake (hence the name: Lago Grey) where the distant glacier left a few bright blue icebergs floating around. The crisp Patagonian summer air felt like spring. Patagonian barberries already showed off their blue fruit. A shrub, covered with bright pink flowers took part in the palette of greens, yellows, reds, purples and blues. Along the mountainside, the smaller beech trees had grown pointing eastwards, resigned to bend with the westerly winds.
On our return, we crossed paths with a multitude of people. To enjoy a sense of solitude, we had to strategize our route a bit. We admired the blue waterfall but waited till next morning to continue the hike. Again, we walked undisturbed through a burst of colors with mountain views over blue lakes. I have a habit of gently touching mosses and grasses, in order to feel their textures. The patches of big yellow-green cushions that looked like soft moss from a distance, turned out to be tough and sharp, with yellow flowers. Bees busily buzzed from flower to flower. An occasional tiny black butterfly fluttered by in front of us. At the end of the trail, we enjoyed a breathtaking view over snowcapped Cuernos del Paine mountains.
Torres del Paine – the tower-like monoliths that brough fame to this area, had to be reached by driving around the range, through dry grassy hills over dusty, washboard roads. We reached the crowded basecamp by noon, had lunch there, and decided against taking the four-hours track up. Instead, we continued to Lago Azul, where, in my opinion, the view over the Torres is better, albeit not as overpowering as from up close…
Having traveled the park south to north, we left the next day, and crossed the nearby border from Chile back to Argentina, to reach Calafate; the jumping-off town for Glacier National Park. Since the weather had turned windy again, we decided to stick around, wait for another sunny day, and explore the town a bit – and found a bakery with great sourdough bread!
The biggest attraction of Glacier National Park near Calafate is the very accessible Perito Moreno Glacier. Knowing how many people were there to visit that same site, we started driving the 70 kilometers on the day before, and found an unbelievably beautiful spot in the fields, about 2 kilometers before the entrance of the park. Here we enjoyed stillness of nature, a babbling creek, blooming wildflowers, a tentative visit from a rhea – the South American ostrich, and a warm sun on a windless afternoon. At quarter to eight the next morning, we drove to the park entrance, where we were the first in line. By the time the gate opened at eight, we were already part of a long line of visitors, all eager to beat the crowds. In hindsight, the anxiety was not necessary, since the access to the glacier had a multitude of (steps and) walkways to get there, so most of the time we found ourselves alone with a glacier that loudly protested the warmer than usual weather with cracks that broke off large pieces of ice, which loudly thundered into the water below…even relatively small pieces sounded like explosions when they hit the water.
After our glacier visit, we returned to last night’s campsite for another stay, where once more we enjoyed the serenity of the blooming desert. I found and tasted some calafate berries- the blue Patagonian berries that grow on a particular barberry bush- and decided they are not really tasty off the bush: tart and full of small seeds, but once you’ve tasted the calafate jam, you’re an addict. So delicious! There were not enough berries around for me to make a jam, so we settled for a store-bought version, to go with a great sourdough bread we bought, to take along on our drive through the dry Patagonian country side to the northern mountains of Glacier National park, and the peaks of El Chalten. (= Mt Fitzroy and Cerro Torre).
The village of El Chalten is really too small to accommodate the numbers of people that come to walk the trails of the mountain range in the northern end of Glacier National Park. Since free range camping in one’s vehicle is not allowed anywhere around the National Park, including El Chalten, over forty-five camping cars had to be packed on the one small, designated riverside parking lot at the entrance of town (and two small, fully booked commercial campgrounds) Just one pit toilet had to serve around ninety people: imagine the impact on the environment, when most people want to avoid that stinky hole in the ground and rather go in the bushes – on a daily basis….this place really grew too fast, and I wonder what it will look like in a couple of years.
Hiking is what you do here, and the trail to the base of Mt. Fitzroy, and the one to the base of Cerro Torre are the most popular, so again it made sense for us to start early. We walked up to Laguna Capri, where we arrived in time to see the majestic peaks mirrored in the lake water. An hour later all was shrouded in clouds. I know I huffed and puffed to reach our goal, but going back down, I felt so sorry for those people in questionable condition struggling to catch their breath working their way up, only to get to a viewpoint and see clouds… At least the winds were gentle that day. When two days later the winds picked back up, we let ourselves be blown away – north over Ruta #40, until the next pass over the Andes mountains, back to Chile.
We first noticed them in Tierra del Fuego after we had crossed the Chile to Argentina border: discarded plastic (and sometimes glass) bottles, half filled with a liquid of a color ranging from diluted Mountain Dew yellow to apple juice brown – nicely sealed with its bottle cap. Why would people throw away half finished drinks? Maybe these were offerings to some travel saint, like the water bottles we see at the shrines of la Difunta Correa (= a lactating mother, sanctified by Argentinians after (legend says) she was found dead along a road, while her live baby was still drinking the mother’s milk…)? We could not make sense of it and decided to ask about it at the Ushuaia tourist office. She could give us no answer, so it remained a mystery, until just now our guess work was over: after we crossed the border once more from Chile to Argentina, we noticed the road side bottles again, but this time, a stopped car along the road gave us the clue: a guy alongside the car was peeing in a soda bottle! Now we can imagine the embarrassment of the tourist office lady when we asked about the bottles! It still leaves us wondering why. Why put the top back on, and why even pee in a bottle and leave it along the road, while just peeing alongside the road would have been so much cleaner…and how do they think that trash will disappear?