Our final days in South America

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….

We woke up with this beautiful view along the Llanquihue lakefront.
Early evening along the beach of Mehuin.
View over Quele, just north of Mehuin

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.

Chemamüll (‘wooden person: from Mapuche che ‘people’,  and mamüll ‘wood’) are Mapuche statues made of wood used to signal the grave of a deceased person. We stumbled upon this site walking the trails of the Cerro Nielol.
Outside the Lider supermarket, Mapuches offered an oxcart load of seaweed for sale

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.

We spent a night each at these two sites along a small river. I think we were on Mapuche territory.

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.

Kaufmann Mercedes garage is huge! And very well organized…but slow

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.

Along the toll road, getting close to Santiago

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.

BBQ party at Claudia’s, with hostal residents and friends hailing from Chile, Peru and Argentina. Claudia and Patricio at the far end.

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. 

The camper gets a top to bottom power wash.
Thijs explains to Sam the workings under the hood.

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.

For our final meal in South America, we had pizza.

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.

On our way back to Europe; it was a very long (31hour) trip.
The map we had on our camper: The black line on the map shows the route we travelled between December 2014 and March 2023. The silver line was the route we traveled between December 1977 and September 1979.

Finally Chile: Lake District and Chiloé.

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.

After some days of hiding in the clouds, the Osorno volcano made a tentative apprarance
We stopped to see this rather primitive (German style?) dance performance in Puerto Octay.
One of the grand old German houses in Puerto Octay
A chalet with an old German text (Alle Menschen werden Brüder…) on it adds to the German, or even Tirol feeling in Frutillar
“Blumendorf” just outside the Museo Colonial Alleman in Frutillar
View over Frutillar and Lago Llanquihue from the hillside of the  Colonial Museum.
…must have been the girls bedroom.
The colonial kitchen.
The barn for all the machines. Look at that wooden harvester!
Before my mother had a washing machine, she also used the suction stamper in our bathtub to do the laundry, and the wringer to squeeze dry the laundry before hanging it on the line to dry….memories.
A clear morning view over the volcanoes across lago Llanquihue.

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.

A beautiful example of a blooming Arrayan tree on the island of Chiloé
Still on the road: A relic from yesteryear.

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.

Quicavi waterfront. From this tiny town we would take the ferry to the island of Añihue.
I love this colorful clapboard siding!
Small house near the ferry landing, surrounded by blackberry bushes, giant gunnera foliage and whispy fuchsia bushes. Beside the trees.

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…

That boat at the end of the dock was our ferry.
Thomas and Thijs, sharing memories of the Congo.

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!

Samphire, or as we Dutch call it Zeekraal

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.

Waiting for the ferry. There are a few cars on the island. Thomas has his “mule” parked on the right.
One last look at the Island’s map before leaving.
After a rainy night, the Island’s church mirrored itself in the puddles
The entry into Thomas’ cove

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 colorful cathedral in Castro.
Castro’s stilted houses

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.