Thursday, May 10, 2018

Going deeper into Patagonia - but not far enough.

A scene fit for Valentine's Day as we approached the ferry landing at Caleta Gonzalo, a tiny but hyper-busy-twice-a-day ferry port with one overnight tourist accommodation.  
Ferry rides are not optional if one intends to go south into Chilean Patagonia. Especially recently, as the major road, Carretera Austral (AKA southern route), intended to connect a chain of 17 national parks, had a massive blowout during heavy rains earlier this year necessitating a significant watery detour. 

The Carretera Austral concept of connecting parks from Pumalin Park, that begins just north of where we disembarked from the ferry, into the far reaches of southern Chile, began taking shape in the 1970s, according to this must-read National Geographic article.

In the 1970s, the  road was planned to be under 800 miles. Now the goal is 1,500 miles from Pumalin Park, where this post begins, to the far reaches of the continent near Cape Horn.

Read the article. You will want to go there. We're determined to return before we get too old, which could be coming soon.  Maybe we'll go this winter, which happens to be "summer" in Patagonia.

As a one-time-so-far traveler in Chilean Patagonia, I see the region as an adventure traveler's paradise.  It's wild, dramatic, lightly populated, rugged, gorgeous, and unique in the world. It's not luxury travel at all, unless you consider experiencing pretty much unadulterated places luxury. Which, I do. We do. 

As I write this, nearing the end of my posts about our Patagonian experiences, my longing to return grows stronger. I'm only 73. I can tackle more muddy, steep, treacherous hikes in some of the most stunning landscapes on earth. I know I can. And PK? He's not even 70 yet. No problem.

Bicyclists were everywhere in Patagonia (outside of cities). I marveled at fully loaded bicycles being leg-powered up steep roads, most dusty, graveled, and/or under construction. The light colored bike above was handmade from bamboo by its owner, a remarkable woman who was nearing the end of her solo adventure from northern South America (Colombia) to the end of the road at Cape Horn. Kate Rawles has a great story. Worth your time. 

The six-hour ferry ride through Chilean fiords was non stop gorgeous. It began in Hornoporin and ended at Caleta Gonzalo,not a town but a jumping off point to more southerly destinations,including ours, Chaiten, about 35 miles away. 
I was fascinated watching the wind press and swirl this seemingly endless cloud around a behemoth rock next to the ferry landing. Dolphins were spotted close by.
 The yellow line traces our route from Puerto Varas (a bit north of Puerto Montt) to Caleta Gonzalo to Chaiten,where we spent a night in a hostel before retracing our steps.

The yellow line on the green (Chile) on the map below represents the same area as the map above - traveling south from Puerto Montt. 

The red line traces most of our cruise. That little yellow thingie is our road trip. Obviously, we saw much more of Patagonia from the cruise ship.

Overall, we spent roughly equal time on land and sea. If I was forced at gunpoint to pick one over the other, it would be the road trip.

We could book that cruise any time. But the opportunity to travel with our son, Chris, and GF, Chelsea, may never come again.

Benefits to the pleasure of their company:
  • More randomness and surprises
  • Greater physical challenges
  • More feel for the place as we explored roads, trails and accommodations 
  • It didn't hurt that Chris speaks passable Spanish and acted as our guide.
  • It didn't hurt that they are such fun to be with.
The ferry dropped us into the Pumalin National Park, the largest private park (but open to all) in the world. It was formed by an American, Richard Tompkins, founder of North Face and Esprit brands, who purchased vast tracts of land to preserve and protect them from resource exploitation. Chile boasts numerous privately owned parks (open to the public) but Pumalin is the most recent and the largest.

Another wow moment along the road in Pumalin Park as we made our way from Caleta Gonzalo about 35 miles south to Chaiten, the closest town.

Just a few steps from the ferry landing at Caleta Gonzalo, we saw a sign we were compelled to follow: Trail to the Waterfalls is what it says. Plus a note that it takes three hours to walk to the falls and back. Three hours can be a very long time.
We got right on it. I don't know which was my worst mistake:
  • Expecting the trail to be easy. It started that way, got harder.
  • Carrying a water bottle, thus having one useless hand that could  have been clutching branches and rocks as the going got rough.
  • Not bringing a hiking pole. I should have known from previous Patagonian trails that they are never easy.
I also brought my "real" camera (not just my iPhone) The trouble with my compact Lumix Panasonic, which I love, is that it doesn't fit in my pocket. Thus another thing to carry, this one around my neck. Good thing it had a protective leather case as it banged into rocks and trees climbing short but steep trail segments.
Numerous wooden bridges eased passage over bogs and streams on Cascadas Sendero..
 This is a pleasing freeway section of the early trail 
that allows gawking without constant attention to whether 
one's next step will lead to one's injury or demise. Ok.
That's an exaggeration. This trail was hard for me because
I was carrying stuff in my hands. And because, well, it was hard.

I'd been warned that we'd encounter a stream that was high water and dangerous to cross. We reached that stream. PK and I evaluated and decided not.

Chris? He just leapt across, 50 pounds of never-left-behind camera gear on his back. He never considered not taking the leap.

Chelsea? She had issues. She's several inches shorter than Chris, not quite the leg span required. I used my Lumix Panasonic telephoto magic to capture this series.
Ummm. I don't think so.

Wait! I'll come get you!
Not a drop of blood spilled, a foot dipped in glacial melt, nor a temporal artery popped.
Nothing to it, right?

The final trail destination, a spectacular waterfall.
Chris Korbulic photo credit. I sure didn't get far enough to see it.
Maybe with a hiking pole or a bridge time.
I hope to write at least one more post about what happened between where this post ends and the completion of our Patagonian exploration. The day chronicled above ended in Chetain. After we'd rescued two bicyclists from being stranded in the dark 10 miles from town, we checked into our hostel, then ventured into the small village at 11:30 p.m. to find dinner. We couldn't believe that the recommended restaurant was packed, and that as we left close to 1 a.m., other diners were still coming in. 

Maybe it's the long daylight hours during summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Maybe it's cultural. But I gotta say, where I live, not many restaurants are open past 10 p.m. I think there's something very good about staying up late socializing. With children On week nights. How do they do it?

Experiencing and observing cultural differences are among the many marvels of international travel. 

I could write another post about time spent with Chris in more northern regions of Chile, after Chelsea left to honor work contracts. I want to do this, because it was such a great time having him show us places and introduce us to people who were important to him as he formed his plan to be a pro kayaker when he left Oregon almost 13 years ago.

But what happens with blogging-as-fun is that life gets in the way. Our Patagonia experience has been over since late January. Other remarkable, to me, anyway, stuff has gone down and I'm about to begin a series of river trips and other adventures. Not to mention a return to gardening, which I'm feeling pretty sweet about these days. After much ambivalence. 

I'm grateful to be alive.

Thanks  for reading.

Earlier posts about our South American travels


  1. I'm grateful to have you alive, too! The jumping series of photos is priceless. How does it feel to be the mother of a Super Hero? I hope you get back to Patagonia this winter.

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