All things Nacho, an engagement, and a brutal slog north to more heart-stopping beauty: The Coronavirus Chronicles

Nacho (nickname for Ignacio) greeted me with a fire, a mate and a guitar two years ago on a cold night when we pulled up to camp.

A late 40s Spaniard that migrated here around 2000, Nacho bought some property and created a little eco groovy spot to grow food and host camping tourists on their journeys north and south through Patagonia.

My “Spanish Derek Duffy”, for those of you who know him, has decided to import his entertainment while he tends to his garden in the summer.

He met his wife Sandra and her children when he arrived and visits Spain and other parts of Chile in the off season of winter.

After two solid months moving we needed a break, some social interaction, and to deal with various issues (van, Chilean visa extension, and plans for the US)

Enter Nacho. Or re-enter Nacho I should say.

In addition to camping groups, Nacho has a really cool French fishing guide, Jean, staying there who is normally super busy. With the pandemic? Not so much.

The music began shortly after we started dinner that first night and didn’t let up. This kind hearted man uses his space to connect with travelers and bring positive energy to their trips.

Our daily interaction began with a coffee and some breakfast while Nacho enters the “quincho”, a gaucho cooking area that doubles as a campfire music jam site.

“Buenos días Bob. Como durmiste?” with a smile and (sometimes) a hug.

We quickly became family. Our connection two years ago solidified this time with Camila’s ability to connect, her Spanish (Nacho speaks English but not his wife) and her desire (and success) at improving her guitar.

Our nightly jam sessions became group decisions and dinners and, because of a delayed car part, one week quickly turned into 15 days.

Jean, the French fishing guru, would hit the rivers and arrive after dinner to partake.

After three cold, rainy days, the weather broke for nearly two weeks of warm, gorgeous weather. Strangely, Camila and i seemed to have a daily agenda between visa, van, groceries and ferry tickets for our next leg. But we did get our outside time in.

We all went swimming one day in the cold glacier waters of a nearby river. Swimming a bit but just enjoying the jumping trout and salmon. We laughed while Nacho snorkeled and detailed the depth of the murky grey blue glacial waters.

The highlight of the day was watching Jean, after everyone had tried, masterfully drop his lure in front of a salmon Nacho’s wife Sandra had seen jump 70 feet off shore. She described his size and hue. He wanted that one. A teenage one. Not a female. Perfect.

With a quick tug and a short fight, Jean landed a beautiful 15 or so pound salmon. Yeah it’s introduced. But it was wild and Camila got her first taste of fresh caught salmon. Coupled with Sandra’s mussel garlic sauce, we all had an out of body experience of ceviche and grilled salmon, wine, perhaps some whiskey, and a night of music in our getaway.

After two weeks of this we were like old boxers waving at each other. Not enough energy to throw more punches (or learn new songs). I had gone thru my 30 or so songs that I know and even with new travelers each night or two, the three songs Camila and I play together got boring I’m sure. And my liver was wrecked.

Saying goodbye to the team there had us sad but we needed to head north and we wanted to visit Chiloe island; a place I’ve never been and was locked down on our trip south.

Through a series of machinations, we secured a space for the van on the 12 hour ferry journey that left a bit after midnight. We squeezed some glacier hiking in and survived an engine breakdown because a young Chilean mechanic had overheard our angst in the cafe of some roadside hotsprings. We thought we were stranded.

Because of Covid testing and check-in, the 12 hour journey took 16 and with bad weather we just hunkered down in the van and missed the glaciated peaks you normally see on this journey. Let’s just say I’ve watched 50 episodes of “Pablo” and now have a keen understanding of the history of narco trafficking and the horror it brought upon Colombia while I was a lily-white suburban Ohio boy in high school and college during the 80s. That’s a mouthful!

Chiloe has a rich tradition of fishing and churches. With them recently coming out of quarantine, we were again the only foreign tourists there. Timed with an incredible break in the weather that gave us several weeks of clear skies, we settled into our rhythm of exploring, camping and air BNBs.

Not gonna get too detailed about our personal lives, but a few days after we arrived, I asked this amazing woman to marry me and she said yes. And off we go!

We spent time in the National Parks, ate lots of mussels and found the most incredible campsite I’ve ever stayed.

We rented a small cabin on the north part of this huge archipelago for a week to take a break. Wood stove, kitchen, walks on the beach. And a simply heart stopping full moonrise over the Patagonian Andes.

A few days camping by the beach outside of Ancud (I could live there) had us sadly taking the 30 minute ferry back north to the mainland. More van repairs (I don’t want to get into it), a night in Puerto Varas, and off we went north.

Much like two years ago, the weather was breaking and turning to fall. Which means rain and cold. Also, Chile (although they tout an exceptional vaccine program) was going into lockdown for 98% of its population. Due to these new regulations, you couldn’t enter or leave communities is Phase 1 or Phase 2. You could essentially only move between communities in Phase 3 or 4 (nearly non-existent). But you could drive THROUGH a 1 or 2 with permission; achieved through an automated government system. How hard can that be right? Well, if there is a 1700 mile barrier of mostly quarantined communities between where you are and where you are going, it’s challenging. Not knowing if a checkpoint will turn you around, we opted to play it safe and leapfrog over phase 1 or 2 communities during the 4 day journey. It’s basically like driving from Ashland, OR to the tip of Baja dodging the pandemia. I’ve done that trip. Solo. In good times. It’s painful. And Camila can’t legally drive my van down here.

We did the drive quickly, managing to only drive an hour or two in the dark each night in the shortening daylight hours. We camped, slept in city parks and stayed our last night in the coolest Cópec gas station in the high desert; making friends with the local attendants as they gave us tips on bathrooms, food and WIFI.

Arriving in San Pedro de Atacama is like a dream. A stunning landscape of 20,000 foot volcanos that rise from the 8000-9000 foot desert valley as you peer up into the Bolivian altiplano in the distance. I spent a few days here with friends Chris and Pascalle two years ago. This time we wanted to dive deeper into the nearly deserted tourist town and explore the nooks and crannies of this magical place. While we rest a bit.

Knowing we needed some certainty and a base camp for our last big stay of our trip before we leave, I secured a small earth home on Air BNB. With little to no tourists, prices were half of normal.

We arrived to our 200 sq foot room (and maybe 100 foot bathroom and shower), with an outdoor kitchen, built out of earth and settled into desert and dogs and volcanos and off-grid living.

By day the room and bathroom stay cool and by night they stay warm. During the day the temperature would reach mid 70s and drop into the high 30s by dawn. Except for a few nights, we were really only cold for the ten foot walk to pee at night.

If you haven’t seen my pics, please go back and look. There are just so many ridiculously beautiful places. And the pics are mostly uncolored.

Wild vicuñas, (sometimes) llamas and foxes set against the vivid and colorful volcanic background had us oohing and aahing as the light angles and colors danced to give us a different look as we drove thru the various micro climates. It’s harsh up there. But seeing the small indigenous communities living off the land at 14000 feet (and the trickle of Andean water) was a delightful sight, even though unimaginable.

Four nights of seeing the full and almost full moon appear as though an alien spacecraft over the volcanic Andes had us contemplating our departure. We started spending some social time with people we have met here to learn more about the place.

It seems I must constantly re-iterate that this trip is a Plan B. Our arcane immigration policy, even once we get married, places an enormous barrier of time and money for Camila to enter the US. We are making the most of a sometimes very stressful situation. But we feel lucky we have a little savings and our own vehicle. This pandemic has set back the clock 20 years for populations at risk around the world. And we are not forced to make the decision as to whether or not we will send our children alone for a dangerous desert border crossing as in the US.

Let’s just say the easy money in mining is winning a war against tourism up here (well down here for most). Covid is making the locals realize they might want to do without the frenzied visits for 3-4 days of the gaggles of Chileans looking for the perfect volcano Instagram photo or those foreigners rounding out the trip of a lifetime through here and Bolivia. Instead they will opt for more polluted groundwater and runoff as big companies dig and destroy the desert for the new gold; lithium.

Our skin is dry all the time, we are sometimes fatigued, but our bellies are full and we have a few choices.

We’ve fallen in love with the landscapes here and some of the people. Certainly many dogs. But really this has been time with only Camila and I. And we have to go back deep into our early history to remember a time where we weren’t, well, running a bit from or to something. Or fearful we wouldn’t see each other again. And that fear grips me as I contemplate returning to the US without her in July for a short time.

We honestly don’t know what’s next except for a short wedding in Colombia in June and me returning to the US likely in July solo for a month or two. Sadly that’s our reality. I have stuff I need to deal with and Camila can’t come yet.

We are actively pursuing places to work or volunteer while we wait, but not sure our next steps.

For Camila who just quit her job, this is a temporary dream. I continue to tell her this is, and has been for 15 years, my life. The constant need to connect with different cultures and the natural world. Then come home.

And for seemingly 3 years now, I’ve spent my time voluntarily doing just that. And reveling in my good health. But for the last 15 months, the normal free and easy appreciation for my lifestyle has been replaced with a little fear and constantly planning and assessing risk. Where? For how long? What’s next? It has unfortunately kept me out of the moment except for every morning I wake up next to Camila and appreciate that time. The worry drops away for just a moment.

That failure to “carpe diem” is my one big casualty during this pandemic. Some people have lost money, loved ones, careers or time. Me? I’ve lost momentum for a potential career change. And I have lost time I’d rather be spending with Camila meeting my family and friends. And showing her the spectacular natural world in the US.

As much as I sometimes struggle with the US culture, we still have the most amazing, safe and accessible outdoor spaces on the planet. Yet we still choose to destroy some over the interest of growth and commerce. And it sickens me.

Next week we will start heading back south to Santiago; the course and timeline being decided by potential boats for my van and Monday’s announcement as to the new pandemic phase for each community.

We contemplated leaving the van here and coming back in September. But the risk and stress is just too great. Unless we can’t find a boat. A possible scenario right now.

And I’m starting to get sad. That’s bringing me back to the moment. Finally.

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