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.