A long slow stunning meander into the belly of Patagonia: The Coronavirus Chronicles

After our most recent PCR test in beautiful Hornopiren, Chile, we settled into a few days of waking while camped near the beautiful blue, fjord-like waters of our “wild-camp”. It’s something we tended to do on average 4-5 days a week. Getting an air BNB or cabin the other two days to clean up, wash clothes and re-supply. We also like to time it for bad weather.

Volcán Hornopiren, the town of the same name and normally dolphins greeted us on the first super clear mornings here; our rhythms becoming in sync with the growing tide changes.

One last night in the Air BNB To stock up on smoothies and veggies and stuffing ourselves with mostly farmed salmon they produce down here. Tough to find the wild caught.

We thought we had our information correct. Boarding the ferry in the morning, the angst set in. What if they turn us away?

As I mentioned before, there is one road from northern Patagonia to the south that runs about 1000 miles. The only way in is by ferry, or in non-pandemic times, crossing the Andes through a series of passes from Argentina that crisscross the worlds longest mountain range. Since we are in a pandemic, it’s one way in and one way out.

I know this sounds strange, but Camila said it feels like a police state. Our documents are checked, our temperature taken, our details noted, and off we go on our 5 hour water journey to the south. But if we make one mistake …

There are two ferry rides split by a 20 minute van ride that drops us into Caleta, Gonzalo at the top of beautiful Parque Pumalin.

Another checkpoint for some reason and a drive thru volcanoes had us settle into our free beach campsite in Santa Cruz near beautiful Chaitén; a city destroyed by its volcano in 2008.

We caught some sunsets with locals, climbed near one of the volcanos and spent time coordinating to get another PCR to move farther south. Huh?

On a weekly basis, the Chilean government publishes the state of the pandemic in each “communa”via their “paso por paso” program. Or “step by step.” By rating communas 1-5 (1 being quarantine and 5 being open), they control movement. 1 is basically lockdown and you can’t move on weekends. 2 is you can drive through but not stay. Weekend shutdown also. You can enter a 1 or 2 but you can’t leave a 1 or 2. And they change weekly. And as I mentioned, one road. Challenging ? Yes. You also must fill out a digital “sanitary passport” that shows where you stayed and where you are staying next. Scanned by the authorities. Quite the game and the dance moving south. Forget to fill it out while in cell service and back you go.

We tried getting through the checkpoint in desolate La Junta with our now five day old PCR. Result? Back you go.

We arranged another PCR in Chaitén and took in beautiful Futalafeu and the stunning river that bears it name. A breathtakingly beautiful 5 hour day paddle had us cold and exhilarated. More good food, a cool camp spot, a negative PCR and we shot through the La Junta checkpoint moving south once more.

A brilliant move of mine, driving through some standing seawater, had the van with some engine alarm lights. No worries, the next town of Coyhaique has a Ford mechanic I visited two years ago. Coyhaique was in Paso 2, it wasn’t a weekend, so we could stop but not stay. A quick checkup, a part ordered for our return north, fighting the grocery store lines before lockdown and south we went. Coyhaique went into quarantine 3 days later. Now we were in the “real” Patagonia. Small towns. Farms. Glaciers (well more of them). Wild and incredible rivers. Huge snow capped peaks. And the unique and beautiful Lago General Carrera.

This might be time to talk about water. There is a lot of it here. The Campo del Hielo in the Aysen region is the 3rd largest ice field in the world but contains the largest source of freshwater in the world. It’s also owned by Spain though Endesa, Switzerland vía a Xstrata, and the US via AES GENERA. I need not go into my 25 year-old philosophy that the farther an individual is from his/her money or investments, the more the planet suffers.

Your 401k has one of these companies via a fund? You paying attention? THE WATER IS OWNED!

I won’t go into the details of the proposed dams and protests that blocked them, but thankfully there are none right now. But water is a major issue. Even down here.

The next ten days we spent enjoying the ultra warm weather, day hikes to glaciers and lakes, and wild camping. A cabana in Puerto Rio Tranquilo allowed us to enjoy a warm night at the beach on Lago General Carrera (with no wind!), the enormous San Rafael Glacier, and a morning kayak trip on the lake.

Moving south again we enjoyed other views of the lake, a local swimming hole our kayak guide told us about and a few nights on the beautiful blue Rio Baker; which happens to hold the most water of any in Chile.

Let’s just say that fishing has not been a success for me and leave it at that.

Rolling south into Cochrane we got to experience it’s desert-like heat while finally seeing guanacos with huge glaciers in the distance. A day hike in Parque Tamango allowed to experience the rich diversity before calling an audible and heading further south to take advantage of the heat. 85-90 by day. 45 at night. We are close to sea level.

As we arrived at this beautiful camp run by a family on the banks of River Baker and its confluence with River Nadis, surrounded by snow capped peaks, we were like, “um, audibles are nice.”

For $5 a night to camp we could use the place. There happened to be other travelers there including two couples from Belgium we had met on the glacier boat. They happened to have purchased half a Cordero to cook in the quincho. Would we join them? Si!!

A little music and vino and sheep by the fire and we had our first social interaction (and hangover) in a long time. But it was a beautiful night and we used the next day as a rest day!

Having leftovers and soup with the 50 yr old German/Chilean owner, we heard her story. Landed here at 25, married a gaucho, had two kids, and built this “project.” No phone. No WI-FI. No mail. Nearest neighbor miles away.

I didn’t get the whole story til later, but I felt her sadness. Her partner had died recently and the 16 and 18 year olds were in Cochrane. Alone she didn’t have the energy for this beautiful ranch and garden. She said, “the next 25 years will be? Who knows?”

No guarantees huh? Live for the day. Carpe diem. All her dreams were close. But then they were gone. It made me sad.

As we headed south again with a mere 120 miles to go (yet 5 1/2 hours the map says) I was left to wonder how and when we may start north again.

The van can stay for as long as we want as during emergency times, they suspend the rules on time limit. Normally it’s 90 days but you can renew by simply crossing the border with Peru, Bolivia or Argentina. But they are all closed.

We found we could extend our visas by email for 90 days. But you have to pay the US$1 fee at a bank. Which there are none down here. Also, in a wild stroke of bad luck, Camila received her extension via email. With the wrong person’s info on it. And you can’t call them. Geez. Cmon man.

So we slowly lurched our way to Caleta Tortel and it’s town built on stilts. Wasn’t really friendly two years ago. Wasn’t again. But the weather was ridiculous. 20 degrees above the norm.

An hour drive the next day brought us to another ferry. A free one hour ride from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo. We passed the three hours waiting by chatting with the owners. The woman knitted hats. She loved my hemp Nepalese sombrero and my sisters knitted neck gaiter.

Off we went to make the last push to the end of the Carretera Austral; Villa O’Higgins. Of course we picked up our second broken down biker; jamming him and his bike in the back. Countless Chileans ( and one policeman) had refused to help this guy over the past 24 hours. We gave him grapes, water and air conditioning. We were out of booze.

Finally, the never ending roll into O’Higgins was there. The road is way better (though still just dirt) and a series of over looks, stunning weather, and waterfalls had us oohhing and aahhing the last hour. The final jaunt around Lago Cisnes was beautiful with many local folks actually lying on the beach in the abnormally scorching hot 85 degree weather.

We spent three days hiking and exploring this desolate town (at the same latitude south as Bellingham is north) of 700 that just had the road reach them 20 years ago. The Carretera Austral ends about 10 miles south of town on beautiful Lago O’Higgins. Having been built during the Pinochet years, this remote road has had positive and negative impacts on this part of the world that could be debated over beers forever. The gaucho culture is thick there and tourism brings both good and bad things. But generally, we met kind people and I felt a bit more connected to the place than I did two years ago when I took the most incredible flight of my life from here and stayed one day.

Our last day was a full one. Our hostal owner used Camila’s kind ear to lament about some of her life’s choices over a 90 min breakfast. We did a nice two hour hike above the city. We met a gaucho on horseback that needed some Camila therapy also (I’m lost after five min). We found a lost puppy and (sadly) returned him to his (dickish) owner. Not before we considered keeping him. Then we hopped on the 100 km dirt road to catch the small 1 hour ferry again that keeps the place remote.

As we approached the dock, the Chilenos leaving the arriving ferry decided to drive a bit faster than normal. One pickup truck hit the van hard. When I saw his cheap plastic fenders flying all over the place, i feared the worst. But my front end emerged nearly unscathed. We boarded the ferry like “what a fast moving day!”

As we start our way back north, we plan on hitting places we missed and visiting some we loved again. Van repair. More Lago General Carrera. Hopefully an over night trek. A ferry to Chiloe (we hope). Then? Quien sabe?

We are still the only foreigners down this far south. We have met two other couples that are foreigners (and only one that shipped their rig).

It is incredible that we get to enjoy this place with fewer people. I reiterate this wasn’t our choice. But we are really making the best of it. You wouldn’t think I’d have to say it, but we wouldn’t be country hopping and living in a van during a pandemic if we weren’t forced to. It truly was our only option last fall.

We feel lucky being able to spend time together exploring a beautiful place that is stunning and truly unique. Breathtaking vistas and heart stopping mountains seen to await us at every turn. We have more summer still. Yet you never know.

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