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.

Where the Carretera Austral ends in the water.

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.

Creek with a view adjacent to the Coyhaique campground
Along the Carretera Austral
Lupines, still in magnificent bloom
That long and dusty road…has so much beauty to offer.

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!

Just one of the trees along the road.
The trail head to the waterfall.
This is where the trail ends….

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.

The road was getting from bad to worse. Unbelievable, but we preferred the washboard road to this.
Looking over the fjord of Puyuhuapi. On the mountainside on the left is one of the first (German style) houses built here.
Clapboard houses are the most common here.
Big trees are cut lenghtwise with a chainsaw. But the chainsaw was too short, so the last bit was split apart with wedges, which were made on the spot.
In this town they either loved – or received an good deal on yellow paint
View from our campsite
A quiet day on the fjord

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…

Finally a smooth road!
Villa Santa Lucia, still covered in mud (now dry)
In the distant mountain one can see the collapsed glacier that caused the mudflow
One Saturday morning, we were all surprised
by a strange and extended rumble,
an overwhelmingly cruel silence.
Twenty two lives ended on that sad day”.

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.

Playa Santa Barbara, just north of Chaiten, allowed us a few days of camping.

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.

Trail to the upper waterfall
The upper waterfall
To get us through the the mud, over creeks, and rocks, these kind of steps and walkways were constructed
Often the bare roots kept us from slipping
A short review of the birth of this park
At the end of the road, one can still continue the Carretera Austral by taking a few ferries, to bring you into the developed world. For us, this is where we leave it for now.

Marble Caves, and why I dislike tours

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 Route 40 to the Carretera Austral: The Patagonia National Parks

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…

Stickers along the southern highways are the traveler’s grafiti. Tags everywhere, like on fuel pumps. (Note: This was not the Caracoles station)

The road stop at Baja Caracoles: not much in descent food to get here
Ruta #40: the famous Argentinian North-South highway is not always a smooth road.

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.

Route#41, the road that connects Argentina’s #40 to Chili’s #7, the Carretera Austral. It’s a rough road but it leads through the increasingly beautiful Patagonia National Parks via Paso Roballos

The first signs of (bright) green in the Rio Blanco river bed in the Argentinian Patagonia National park.

Near Paso Roballo the land gets wetter

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.

Just across the border to Chile, the desert turned colorful.

Historic Lucas Bridges’ house on what formerly was an overgrazed sheep farm in the Chacabuco valley. Now lush grass moves with the winds.

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.

The stages of this strange bloom on the patagonian beech tree. First we thought we were looking at a miniature type of mistletoe, but the yellow bunches are the budding stage of the whitish bloom fluff.

View over lake Cochrane

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.

Sunset view from our campsite.
Our campsite in the park.
Is this a sign of clean air?

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.

Carretera Austral

Baker river valley, driving towards Cochrane
The main building of the campground in Cochrane. Maybe you wouldn’t think so, but it was clean and had excellent internet. That’s what counts.
Along the Cochrane Plaza de Armas, cherries were sold off the truck. Most people bought four whole kilos!
Flowers along the road made us stop several times. This time we discovered we had a flat tire, which we wouldn’t have noticed if we had not stopped. (One of the rear dual wheel tires) Fortunately it was just the valve that must have unscrewed by the rattling road.
Big tall bushes of wild hardy fuchsias grew everywhere along the road, like I’ve never seen them before!
Carretera Austral, on our way to Lago Carrera and the marble caves.
Lago Bertrand along the Carretera Central seemed to be a popular place to spend a vacation.

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.

Waiting for sunny weather at the beach of Lago General Carrero, so we can visit the marble caves under the best light. (We thought we were big, but look at our neighbors!)
Cloudy skies give beautiful sunsets

I will tell you everything about the marble caves in the next blog, coming soon.

Cute little houses in the area
Cute little houses in the area