Chile 10: Torres del Paine, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, Shipwrecks and Replicas

 

 

We woke up early – weather clear and calm, an ideal day to reach Base de Torres.

The trail started at the Los Torres Hotel where parking was available. From the parking it is approx. 1-1/2km to the start of the actual trail, as yet we did not knew what was lying ahead. The trail led upwards along a river with scenic views and passed the Chileno Lodge and camping site – pretty full this time of year as this is a popular overnighting spot to do the W-trail.

We carried on, after another 7km the hectic steep section started leading to the foot of the Torres pinnacles. By the time we had reached this section the weather had completely closed up. Nevertheless we proceeded and reached the lago at the foot  – unfortunately the Torres covered by clouds.

Seeing the condors soaring around these peaks was wonderful.

As it grew colder we made our way down again, knees suffering. By the time we reached the vehicle again we had done a 21km round trip in 12 hours and could feel the pain – age setting in?

The park offers a variety of interesting fauna and flora.

On the way down we rested at the Chileno Lodge and had a decadent hot chocolate and muffin – very worthwhile stopping here and resting a bit.

Although the weather was not as it had promised in the morning, we enjoyed this trail.

 

The evening rained out, after a stormy night we woke up to more rain, but enjoyed some cake and cappuchino in the comfortable rented camper of our Austrian neighbors Rudi and Gisa before we drove down to the Paine waterfall and on to Lago Azul.

While enjoying the trip leisurely observing the many Guanacos with young, the Torres cleared up for a while offering us a photo opportunity from this perspective.

From here we drove back to the entrance near which the camping site Serrano is situated – a privately run site with wooden shelters, good ablutions and hot water -a pleasure to stay at. Since the angling season had closed a week earlier, we had no problem finding space – we believe it is better to book here when entering the park to ensure a spot.

On our way to the Grey Glaciar ranger station we hoped to see the elusive Huemul -not lucky, only see Patagonian scrub hares. Due to the rain it was not worth proceeding further to the glaciar and we turned back -on the way the mountain massif opened up long enough to do a panorama photo or two.

Still on our list were to Salto Grande and do the trail to the Cuernos lookout. Rain did not make it a pleasant walk and we are forced back- the raindrops felt like icicles when they hit the face – the wind was strong and visitors with children had to guard them not to be blown over.

Another night on Serrano camping compensated and a hot spaghetti went down very well.

Next day we proceeded back towards Puerto Natales with the caves en-route that we had skipped coming up.

We stopped at the immense 200m deep Cueva de Milodón – the cave so named after the finds of the extinct Milodón, a giant sloth that used to roam Patagonia with other extinct species.

In 1895 Hermann Eberhard found the remnants of this 10000 year old sloth.

From here we reached Puerto Natales again.

Before darkness we did some essential shopping and then found refuge at Camping Güino for P6000pP – all structures made from galvanized sheeting in true Patagonia style like so many old houses. They had a kitchen where all campers could prepare food and spend time inside this heated room and also offered a laundry service.

We took some time out to enjoy the colourful wall paintings depicting the life of the original inhabitants of this area, the Aoniken and Kaweskar Indians.

The mural is by artist Angelino Soto Cea and is restored every ten years since it was first painted in 1996 on the walls of the municipal stadium.

Buildings in Puerto Natales are generally colourful and many are still constructed from corrugated sheets.

While we proceeded down the Ruta 9 towards Punto Arenas we had a good sighting along the road of two birds of prey devouring a skunk – the whole area was smelly of the typical garlicky odour of a skunk.

Spring was in the air and very evident near Rio Tranquilo. En route the wind was picking up and the clouds remained spectacular.

Just short of Punta Arenas we visited the well-known open-air marine museum, the Museo Nao Victoria, that displays a replica of the Não Victoria, the ship with which Fernando Magellan had circumnavigated the globe and who had discovered the Magellanic Straight at the time.

Also a replica of the HMS Beagle can be entered, the ship with which Darwin and Captain FitzRoy had travelled to this remote region.

For the night we found a room in the Hospedaje Aventura Austral as camping in town is virtually non-existent. However, we could only stay for one night and could not stay the next for Xmas. What a luxury for us – central heating, a hot shower, breakfast included, all while the wind howled outside. For supper we walked to the Café Sarmiento at the outlook Mirador Cerro de la Cruz.

The good Wifi at the hostal allowed us to call family to exchange Xmas wishes and greetings before we looked around town and admired more art and painted buildings, all well done.

Then we headed south to drive towards the southernmost lighthouse, all along the Straights of Magellan and in the hope to find a sheltered wild camping spot somewhere along the way. We saw Sea Lion, Cormorants and Canquen Colorado, a type of duck we had not seen before.

When we reached Cabo San Isidro, chatted to Martha in her southernmost kiosk in Chile, the weather started clearing.

To reach Cabo Froward Cruz de los Mares, the southernmost point, is a 32km hike – not what we wanted to do on this Xmas day. On our drive back we found a wonderful spot, sheltered and quiet, in a little forest along the way – only one other family camping about 300m away. The wind died down completely – so unusual for Patagonia and a true gift on the day – we could lit candles for Xmas supper!

During the night a drizzle set in, we erected our tent and awning, the wind stayed down and allowed us to enjoy the moment in this remote part of the earth. During the 25th December  there was some more family activity, some music and quadbikes, but towards evening everybody left and we were the only ones remaining in the area.

Along the channel we counted about 40 delapidated Chinese fishing vessels, many wrecks and rudimentary shelters.

From Punta Arenas we followed the Ruta 9 north and off onto the 255 at Governador Phillip.The road remained spectacular in its flatness and clouds.

At Terminal San Gregorio with its desolated buildings and rusty shipwrecks, we took some time out.

To cross the Magellan Straights a short ½ hr ferry trip is required from Punta Delgada to reach Punta Espora – the ferry ran regularly and the cost was P15000 for 2 persons and the vehicle. Finally we had reached Tierra del Fuego ( Fireland).

The day was drawing to a close and there was no camping site or hospedaje to be seen, the wind intensified and the temperature plummeted.

 

There were no trees, no little forests, no hills, no nothing to shelter here. Flat countryside.

What now?

 

 

This post covers 19th to 26th December 2017

Chile 9: Marble Cathedral Caves, Parque Patagonia, Ferry Trip Yungay to Puerto Natales

We started early, keen to get better photos of Cerro Castillo –but the mist and rain foiled our attempt.

We continued further down Ruta 7, past Volcano Hudson (2500m), a lot of damage to the trees from the last eruption was evident.

Rio Murta was beautiful, Lago General Carrera further on presented itself in a turquoise colour enhanced by the grey clouds and rain.

We crossed at Puerto Murta and ended at Puerto Sanchez – one place from which tours to the marble caves can be done by boat.

However, Pto Sanchez was quiet and deserted, the route scenic, but we drove back to see what tours and camping we could find at Tranquilo, a little village making its living from the marble caves.

For the night we camped at Camping Pudu on Lago Gen.Carrera for P8000 pP and we booked a boat tour for the next morning for P10000 pP and hoped for acceptable weather.

At the campsite there were decent shelters from the incessant winds and intermittent rain as well as good ablutions – we opened the awning and enjoyed a good glass of wine with our camping neighbor –Eric from Utah – the cold evening persuaded us to creep in early.

At 9:00am the next morning we left by boat with guide Daniel and captain Ignatius and two other tourists towards the Catedrales de Marmol and the Cavernas, an hour round trip. It was overcast, not sunny and we knew that photographing on this excursion would be a real challenge.

Lago Carrera nevertheless was a lovely turquoise colour, in sunshine it must be extraordinary. Despite the wind we found the caverns to be quite sheltered and the boat could enter some of them.

Even though the weather was a challenge we found this excursion very worthwhile doing – only afterwards we found out that a 2 hour trip was also possible giving more time to photographers (we also learned that to photograph the caves is better in winter when the lago’s level is lower).

Next stop was the Valle Exploradores with a glacier that used to come right down to the road. By now it has receded a few km inland and we trailed up to the viewpoint to have a look, getting a good idea of the rocks, gravel and grit that a glacier pushes up.

With guided tours it is possible to walk into the glacier. About 8km before Glaciar Exploradores we had lunch at the Hostal Campo Alacaluf established by the German couple Thomas and Katrin with their little daughter Daniela some 20 years ago – this was unexpected in such a remote place.

According to Katrin it is possible to drive further on to the town Bahia Exploradores and to catch a smaller boat from there to visit Glacier San Rafael – these must have been the boats we had seen on our trip to the glaciar a few days before. Booking can only be done 24hrs ahead from Puerto Tranquilo and not at the Bahia (costs do not seem to be that much lower than the expensive catamaran we had taken, but we could not confirm actual rates). We spend the night again at camping Pudu.

Our route took us along Lago Bertrand to Puerto Bertrand, the origin of Rio Baker.

This must be the bluest river in the world.

Flowing out of Lago Bertrand, the Rio Baker carries 900m3/sec of clear, turquoise-blue water until it drops down a small waterfall ( 1km to walk to the mirador) where it joins up with the glaciar-milky Rio Nef, whereafter the colour is no longer that dramatic, but the landscape is.

Along the way we enjoyed the edible Calafate berries that were ripe and sweet this time of the year.

In Cochrane we ended up having a very good lunch at Doña Ada together with Reinhard Schneider and a colleague from the German embassy in Santiago, whom we already had met the previous day. The fillet steak was outstanding and it was one of the rare occasions where we were asked how we would like the steak – normally it is served well-done and that is it in South America.

We turned back northwards to enter Parque Patagonia – another park by the Douglas Tomkins Foundation and this was where their headquarters is.

Again this park is beautifully appointed, everything in top condition and full of trails laid out and well sign-posted. This mountainous region must be one of the most scenic Chile has to offer. We camped on the parking area of the camping site West Winds (for tents only not vehicles), not far from the Admin buildings and hotel. We saw plenty of guanacos, hares, parrots and Magellanic woodpeckers.

Driving further down the Carretera Austral we took a detour to the village Caleta Tortel – a town without vehicles and only wooden walkways.

From here we drove to Puerto Yungay, approx. 100km north of Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral. We arrived in Pto Yungay, a town of around 11 inhabitants, on time to catch the ferry to Puerto Natales that we had booked. The ferry, Crux Australis, was waiting and we left around 20:00 for its 42 hour journey.

We were not too happy since the cost was double for the vehicle compared to what we had been told before – Peso 117000.

Although this ferry trip through the fjords should have been a highlight, it was spoiled by the inclement weather we had – almost continuous rain, sleet, wind and mist – we could see almost no mountains or glaciars along the route. The food left much to be desired and so did the comfort of the seats which reclined for sleeping.

Midday we reached Puerto Eden, a fishing village with mainly indigenous inhabitants of Indian descent, inside the massive 3.525mill ha national park Bernardo O’Higgins. The town has virtually no vehicles or roads, mainly walkways.

To our surprise many people boarded here to go to Puerto Natales. The channels from here were narrow, many islands inbetween, tricky to navigate in such horrible weather conditions.

Whenever the weather gave us a few minutes respite we went on deck, saw dolphins, Skuas, Albatross and even an otter.

 

Next day around 12:30 we arrived in Puerto Natales, the weather had cleared a little and we proceeded speedily to the park Torres del Paine, as the weather predictions forecast rain for the coming weekend.

 

Entry was P21000pP for a 3-day period. In the park are some places where overlanding vehicles can park, however without ablutions. We drove through the park to the Laguna Amarga entrance and ranger station, where at least there were some toilets in walking distance. Next to us camped Rudi and Gisa from Austria, who also wanted to attempt to trail up to Base de Torres next morning if the weather would permit. This would be in total a 20km trip with a 1km very steep section to get to the crater lake at the foot of the Torres peaks.

We were expecting some interesting cloud formations in Patagonia, but did not expect such crazy formations so early into our trip down to the south tip.

This post covers 13th to 18th December 2017

 

Chile 8: Volcano Chaitén,Parque Quelat and glacier San Rafael

The morning at Parque Pumalin was cool and misty and we took our time to get ready.

By 13:00 the fog had lifted and we drove to the foot of Volcan Chaitén which we intended to ascent. Although only about a 2km to reach the point, from where it is possibly to look into the caldera, we underestimated the trail – first 984 steps while ascending and the last few 100m gravel on the steep section. We found it really tough – probably because of the tummy bug we had battled with on our return from Chiloé.

The vistas were absolutely stunning and it was a good example where one could observe the devastion which an errupting volcano created – thousands of trees that died in the pyroclastic wave. The caldera has two little lakes of different colouring and there is still a lot of smoke emanating from the mountain. Some advice: start early ( we did not), take sufficient water, the walk is tough on the knees –especially coming down. By 18:30 we were back at our vehicle.

Since this took up our day we decided to spend another night inside Parque Pumalin.

As we were about to leave next morning, we discovered a small 40-50cm antelope – the Pudu, which we had not yet been able to observe before. Going south we again passed the village Amarillo, along Lago Yelcho and enjoyed the views of the Andes, mountains still covered in snow, the melt running in clear streams everywhere.

The Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) passed through Villa Santa Lucia (where 2 weeks later on 18th Dec, 12 people were killed here through a landslide, burying part of the town under mud), Villa Vanguardia, we traversed many sections being a rough gravel road, then passed many enthusiastic cyclists (including  family of 5 where the dad towed a kid on his bike – must be extremely exhausting!) and got overtaken by many a motorbiker – this route is extremely popular due to its beauty.

In La Junta we indulged in an ice cream for lunch and decided to buy some Christmas decoration for Tembo Hakahana (our vehicle – meaning fast Elephant). As we continued towards Puyahuapi we could not drive further due to a massive landslide being cleared and had to drive to the waters edge to load the vehicle on a temporary ferry to circumnavigate the section. Landslides seem common on this stretch of road with its sheer cliffs.

We arrived at Parque Quelat at 18:00 – the park closed at 17:00. Nevertheless, we were allowed in (entrance P10000 for two) and we were lucky to find the last open camping spot.

The morning was misty and we started the trail to Ventisquero Colgante (hanging glacier), a trail of just over 3km through rain forest with different ferns and moss, fuchsia magellanes abound as well as a variety of other flowers.

The view of the glacier was most rewarding – a real treat for the eyes and the soul when finally reaching the end of the trail. We spent almost 2 hours at this mirador not wanting to leave this magic spot with its view on the glacier high up and its milky waters flowing into Lago Tempano below.

Arriving back at camp via the hanging bridge we paid our P20000 for two nights camping to Juan Carlos, the friendly caretaker.

 

Next morning we passed another family on bikes negotiating the loose gravel road, this time 2 kids cycled, the third was drawn in a cart by father Tom.

When we arrived in Mañiuales we felt peckish and while looking around we saw two jogger prams for kids parked in front of a café, each decorated with a South African flag. This we had to investigate and on entering, met Mike Sewell and his friend Roger Cameron from SA.

They were busy jogging down the entire Carretera Austral, some 1300km, at a rate of around 30km per day, except Sundays. They started in Puerto Montt and wanted to finish in Villa O’Higgins as part of their Project Patagonia. We had lunch together and then viewed their three-wheelers with all their belongings (and we thought we had little space!). We would probably meet again along the road.

Lupines everywhere – pity that people spoil nature with illegal dumping.

We managed to get to Coihaique in time to book a catamaran to travel from Puerto Chacabuco to Laguna San Rafael, where we hoped to get close to the glacier of the same name. We booked at Patagonia Blue with Morena Morales (a whacking P 380000 for two!) Since there is only one operator from here, booking is essential – it is also possible to stay in their hotel Loberias del Sur in Chacabuco, however, the US$ 280 was too expensive so we took a cabaña in Puerto Aisén at Ayelèn Cabañas the night before.

 

Before we left Coihaique we also booked the ferry trip with Marcel (good English) at Austral Broom to travel from Puerto Yungay to Puerto Natales. The ferry runs only once a week on Saturdays taking about 42 hours.

In Coihaique we stayed at El Camping where we met Rob Rowley and Valerie Lobe,who were also exploring the area. Rob is a merchant sailor, mussel farmer and boat builder in New Zealand and Valerie an Ocean Biologist who has visited Antarctica many times.

We explored the Valle Simpson and Lago Elizalde, the road ending at Lago Caro, saw Cerro Castillo from a different side.

 

En route we met our South African runners again, negotiating the somewhat uneven roads.

Next day we moved to Puerto Aysén, enjoyed a walk through the little village and felt cosy in the heated cabaña before driving to Chacabuco next day for the San Rafael glacier trip. In the fjord fish farms for Salmon were passed at regular intervals.

San Rafael Glacier was stunning, although it was a very overcast and partially rainy day. The glacier is 2.5km wide, 35km long and Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael is 1,742million hectares in size and the glacier is part of the Northern Ice Field in Patagonia. The water temperature is around 2-4 degrees and we made sure not fall overboard during the trip to the glacier face by zodiac.

Floating black ice was tricky to photograph and fascinated us like previously in the Antarctic.

The catamaran travelled at 22-30 knots and covered the 222km in 5-6 hours one way.

We were happy to return to our heated cabaña in Puerto Aysén for the evening, but not before enjoying a free glass of whiskey on glaciar ice.

We had heard that visiting the hand paintings was worthwhile so we drove to Villa Cerro Castillo to explore this historical sight. Along the way we had hoped to see the rare Huemul deer – we were not lucky to find one.

The drive to the town was a scenic one, passing the prominent mountain silhouette. The manos paintings were just outside the town and can only be visited with a local guide.

Not as spectacular as we had imagined and the visit to the first school in the area (Museo Escuela Antigua) near the site rounded off the trip (built 1930, closed 1975) and gave us insight into how late education came to this remote area of Chile and Patagonia in general.

In Villa Cerro Castillo we camped at Camping Araucaria after we found Camping Sanderos Patagonia being closed (due to renovations). A communal kitchen made the supper in the cold wind bearable before we crept into our roof tent and warmed ourselves under the double set of duvets. This camping site also offers extensive trails on horseback ( cabalgatas).

This post covers 4th to 12th December 2017

Chile 7: Carretera Austral, Parque Pumalin and Chiloé Island

Travel with us along the Carretera Austral,  Parque Pumalin and marvel at the old wooden churches of Chiloé Island.

From the scenic pass and road along the Rio Futalefú we changed from the 231CH on to the 235CH towards Chaiten. The road passed along the east side of the Andes mountains, Lago Yelcho next to us.

At the small town of Amarillo we turned off into Parque Purmalin, one of the most beautiful private parks established by Douglas Tomkins, past owner of the companies Northface and Esprit and his wife, a director at the clothing company Patagonia. The establishment of these parks, of which there are three, went through a very controversial phase as never before have foreigners bought such vast tracts of land in Chile and initially the motive was unclear. Today, these parks are the most beautiful and well appointed parks in Chile and we can strongly recommend a visit there.

Tragically Douglas Tomkins died two years ago while on a kayaking expedition – luckily his wife is continuing the sterling conservation efforts in the region.

We drove into the park – no fees were collected until 15th December, when the holiday season starts. We camped at camping site Ventisquero, with its neat shelters and ablutions (just ducha natural – no hot water provided) and beautiful views of active volcanoes Michimahuida (2404m) and Chaiten (962m), the latter which last erupted in 2008. Trails to the glacier (20km round trip) and to a viewpoint (40 minutes) can be taken from the camping site.

Christos, a greek cyclist in his orange tent next to us, was very happy to share a scrumptious pasta dinner with us, the 1300km long Carretera Austral was taking its toll and he still had far to go as he wished to travel right down to Ushuaia. He was working in Germany and was fluent in German and English.

In the morning we trailed to the viewpoint from where we enjoyed the wonderful sight of Volcan Michimahuida and its glacier.

Afterwards we retraced the 9km out of the park (a narrow route through forest –not suitable for large rigs) and found the offices of the ferry company Naviera Austral in Chaitén to book a place to ship across to Quellón on the island Chiloé. The ferry only departed on Saturdays and Tuesdays at 10am, however tomorrow it would only depart at 18:30 so that we would arrive very late in Quellón. Cost was Peso 97000 or around R2300 for vehicle and 2 pax. So we decided to travel northwards on the Carretera Austral to the other Park Pumalin, the Volcanoes section. As before, entrance was still free and we found a spot with a good view of the active Chaiten volcano – our intention was to climb it the next morning.

The night got cold, tea with Rum helped to keep us warm, but it rained next morning and we had to skip the ascent to the crater. You can imagine our disappointment.

Waiting for the ferry we spent a short while on the seaside promenade – or what is left of it today after the ash of the volcano pushed out the sea and now it is a desert.

We took some time to look around Chaitén and enjoyed the wooden and sheet metal houses and buildings.

Late afternoon we finally embarked and after 5 hours arrived in Quellón, close to midnight.

Then we drove along the last bit of the Panamericana and found camping at Cabańas Millaguen – to our surprise Tobias Bähler and Gubi, the Swiss bikers we had camped with at the wine estate Viu Manent, also had taken a cabańa here.

Next morning greeted us with drizzle, the lapa allowed us shelter to prepare a hearty breakfast under roof .

Afterwards we decided to drive the few km to the official end of the Panamericana, the famous trucker route from Alaska to this southern point in Chile. The monument is unspectacular yet it was a milestone on our travels.

The day was passed with driving to Yardad, we saw the first wooden churches that Chiloé island is so well-known for. In the fjords and bays were many mussel farms, we continued along the Costanera Pedro Montt and were amazed how high the difference between low and high tide was (at low tide many boats lie on dry land).

 

We passed San Antonio, where many salmon factories reside, the farms themselves must be further out. After turning off Ruta 5 we aimed for Colonia Yungay and then on a small gravel road to Parque Tantauco, a large private area with good facilities and 2 spots at Camping Chaignata, from where hikes up to 8 days are possible. The road to the park was in a dismal condition and took us a good 3 hours, best be driven with a 4×4 or a vehicle with high clearance. Since the holiday season only started on 15th December we paid a lesser tariff of P3500 per person and P10000 for a camping vehicle. We only stayed one night and took a walk down to the lake with its gulls and ducks.

On the return journey we stopped to see the 800yrs old Futa Mañu tree called Manio Abuelo (grandfather) and to follow a walk through the forest. Beforehand it was required to disinfect the shoes to prevent contamination that could interfere with the sensitive frog habitat.

 

From here we drove toward Chonchi, in the background the Andes visible and volcanoes near Chaiten from where we had started on the mainland. Along the route we came across the first wooden churches that make Chiloé worth a visit.

Chonchi had a beautiful specimen as well as other colourful wooden houses. In its modest supermarket we found a “Christollen mit Marzipan” and could not resist buying two to make our forthcoming Xmas a special one (last year we could not find any familiar cake or cookies for Xmas in the northern countries – so this time round it was a special treat).

 

Pretty chuffed we aimed to get to Cucao along the W80 and, although there were a number of camping sites along the way, we opted to camp wild on the beach next to a small body of water, it was a windless afternoon and a stunning sunset as we were facing westerly.

As we had heard of the “bridge that ends nowhere” that was worth visiting, we drove down the W-654P until we got to Rahue, bought two tickets for P3000 to visit the bridge Muelle de las Almas. Everybody here earns something from the visitors and after paying a further P2000 for parking at Quilan, we walked the 3km to the bridge – a scenic point, nice views but possibly a little overrated.

Nevertheless it was a pleasant outing, forced us to have some exercise and enjoy the local flora and fauna as well as see some gauchos shearing sheep along the way.

Once we reached Castro, the capital of Chiloé, we inquired about the ferry from Castro to Chaitén, but were informed that it no longer operated – whether permanently or temporarily nobody could tell us for certain. Castro also had a large wooden church we visited and then enjoyed the view of the Palafitos – the colourful houses on stilts.

From Castro we proceeded on Ruta 5 to Ancud,skirted around the town and took the westerly W-20 and W220 exit Pumillahue to reach Ballena Azul Camping late afternoon.

The wind blew forcefully and the temperature plummeted so we decided to spoil ourselves in the restaurant with delicious Corvina (fish) and Mariscos y Queso empanadas (seafood pies with cheese). Fortunately the camping is a few meters below the restaurant and reasonably protected from the worst winds and the 11degC temperature that felt more like 4 degrees.

Early in the morning we took the short trail down to the beach Ballena Azul and explored the coastal habitat. At this time of year there are unfortunately no blue whales to be seen as they return to the Antarctic regions.

Ancud welcomed us with fair weather next day, we found a laundry and Unimarc supermarket.A stroll through some of the streets brought us into interesting alleys.

A trip to Chiloé can hardly be complete without a visit to the museum in Ancud on the Ruta de Iglesias -it is here where we appreciated the craftsmanship behind the art of building these intricate wooden structures and the many techniques involved combined with careful selection of the right wood for the purpose.

Then we proceeded towards Faro Corona, an old lighthouse that can be visited, then on to Fuerte Ahui, the fort built by the Spanish in 1779, unfortunately damaged by an earlier Tsunami, which we hoped would not repeat itself while we were relaxing on the adjacent beach.

Passing through Ancud again we booked the ferry from Quellón back to Chaiten for coming Sunday and were lucky that they could take us, this is not guaranteed once the holiday season starts. Rather than looking for a different campsite we decided to return to Ballena Azul.

 

For lunch next day we had arranged to participate in a Curanto, a speciality prepared in a hole in the ground lined with Nalca leaves, then mussels, chicken, sausage and smoked pork are added and covered with leaves, coals on top cooked the meal over a 3-4 hour period.

As starters we ordered fresh oysters – they only served them by platter of 20. Since Karin does not eat them fresh, I ate all 20 and the half the Curanto.

Neither the oysters nor the Curanto tasted fresh, all a little muddy, a sign that the local farms do not seem to get sufficient fresh ocean currents. It turned out to become my worst nightmare – for the next 24hours my tummy and intestines disagreed strongly with this meal.

 

For the night we reached the coastal town of Quemchí, where we camped at Camping Tenaún, owned by friendly Gelmán who ran a neat and clean site behind his house. The historical wooden church “Iglesia de Tenaún”, with its 3 spires is part of the World Heritage collection on Chiloé and is kept in good condition.

From here we travelled via Colegual to San Juan with the smaller church San Juan Bautista, not painted – yet the wood lasted till today.

A further church was visited in Dalcahue (Iglesia Nuestra Seńora de Dolores), a town offering a variety of woolen and other souvenirs on its market place.

 

On our return via Castro we again visited the colourful houses on stilts, this time during high tide – much nicer.

Then back on Ruta 5 we returned to Quellón and had to rebook our ferry with the operator Naviera Austral with offices on the Costañera Pedro Montt, before returning to Millaguen Cabañas y Camping for the night enjoying the beautiful views of volcanoes Corcovado and Nevado in the east on the mainland.

Since the ferry would only leave on Sunday, we spent the day in camp resting and blogging.

Before boarding the ferry in the afternoon the car was refueled as diesel in Quellón is cheaper than in Chaitén on the mainland. As luck would have it, while waiting in the queue for the ferry, we found a top fruiterer and indulge in fresh cherries, apricots, nectarines and grapefruit. Strange where some of the best shops on our trip were located – so when you leave or arrive by ferry in Quellón, look for the inconspicuous shop close to the quay.

Our transit back to the mainland was a quiet one and we arrived on the mainland late at 23:00 ( only departed 19:30 in place of 16:00) and we once again arrived at Parque Pumalin Volcan section towards 01:00 am, pretty exhausted, but happy that it was not fully occupied (drive in, find a spot).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post covers 24thNovember to 3rd December 2017

Argentina 9: Ruta 40 to Bariloche and then to Paso Futaleufú

 

Before we proceeded from San Martin, a number of housekeeping issues had to be performed including a vehicle service. On a stroll in Caro’s suburb, we witnessed the damage the 3m snow had inflicted on houses and trees in the area during the past winter season – we were quite happy to not have arrived too early in the season. Caro’s friend Valeria, a freelance guide, provided us with some extra tips what to see where in Patagonia.

In preparation for the cold and inclement weather in Patagonia Karin and I tested our emergency sleeping arrangements inside the vehicle (sleeping without opening the roof tent). It could work –but only under extreme conditions would we make use of it.

Well prepared we left Monday 20th November along Ruta 40 – the Siete Lagunas Ruta which we had enjoyed so much previously.

The route was lined with spring flowers in red, yellow, violet, white and pink, especially the lupines impressed. The snow on the mountains completed this picture perfect route.

In the well-known ski resort Bariloche we drove up the Cerro Otto, a mountain peak with summer trails and winter ski pistas.

The lunch in the revolving restaurant with a surround view of the Andes perfected our day when a Condor passed close by.

Bariloche had a bit of European flair and we ended our day camping at Colonia Suiza with Anna, the host. Visitors here need to note that lunch is the main mealtime –we found all restaurants in walking distance closed in the evening. Next morning we made our way to Villa Cathedral – a picturesque ski resort with many lifts, however rather dead in summer.

When we left Bariloche we had to drive past the poorer communities of the town and understood, why break-ins into vehicles happen frequently (Anna had warned us never to leave our vehicle unattended in town when shopping – sad, for the town was beautiful).

Driving along Lago Nahuel Huapi, along many clear rivers and streams we passed El Bolsón ( spoiled ourselves with an ice-cream for lunch) and finally stopped at Lago Puelo and watched kite surfers enjoying the strong breeze before retiring on Camping Delta Azul which offered a very sheltered spot for the night.

Which one is the egg?

In the morning we photographed the Cerro Tres Picos(2492m) across the lake Puelo and then proceeded along the RP71 with many lakes and rivers.

We passed  leisurely through P.N.Alerces (huge trees, cypress-like that reach ages older than 3600years, Fitzroya cupressoides, height >70m,diameter 5m).

Finally we turned off at Trevelín (a Welsh community) and camped at Eco-camping Viñas Nant y Fall, where Sergio, a wine farmer, established a beautiful campsite for overlanders. He proudly gave us a tour of his immaculate cellar where he produced approx. 8000 bottles of exclusive Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. This is the southernmost farm producing wines. In the evening Sergio changed into his role of chef in the restaurant where he cooked up a storm for us.

It should be noted that Sergio allows overlanding vehicles to park if travelers need a break to fly home. Next morning we had to eat all we could as we would pass back into Chile and no fresh produce may be taken across – so we prepared a huge breakfast with fruits, honey, eggs, yoghurt etc.

The Ruta RN 259 through Paso Futaleufú to the border and Ruta 231CH along Rio Futaleufú was gravel but very scenic and one of the most beautiful. We passed both border post rather quickly, but as expected, on the Chilean side a thorough check for uncooked foodstuffs was performed.

This blog cover 17th to 23rd November 2017

Chile 6: Christo Redentor border to Santiago

 

 

After a cold and early morning we left the camping site in Uspallata, traced back in the direction of where we came from and tried to take some shots from the site of some ruins. Then we continued along Ruta 7 into the Andes mountains towards the border.

After a long tunnel, without emergency exits and ventilation, we reached the Chilean border, the traffic of trucks was heavy. Crossing took approx. 45minutes as it was a joint border station and quite effective. The Chilean customs was thorough, as we had expected, and a sniffer dog was placed into our vehicle to sniff out foodstuff (or drugs?).

The road into Chile consisted of many kilometers of winding asphalt and resembled a serpentine, hundreds of truck moving up and down. On the sides many ski lifts were visible and we passed many tunnels and bridges that used to be in use for the railway, now defunct.

As we descended the spring flowers increased spectacularly, reminding us of Namaqualand in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. When we reached San Miguel we decided to call it a day, had a buffet lunch with asado at the restaurant El Sauce and camped in their yard and got access to staff ablutions after some negotiations with the owner.

In the morning we continued along the good Ruta 57 into Santiago, the capital with 7 million inhabitants. We found our way to Los Condes, an upmarket and clean suburb close to the centre where we stayed with Gerd and Paulina Eylerts, whom we had previously met in Cusco. Gerd rents out safari vehicles and as luck had it, his larger Mercedes camper was in use at the time,which allowed us to park next to the house to camp. Find Eco South Cone Touring here.

We appreciated Gerd’s assistance greatly in getting a service done and the brakes checked while in Santiago – a huge city and not too easy to get around. Gerd also arranged the required toll payments (Peso 13000 for 2 days) for us while using the Santiago freeways- it is an automatic system without tollgates – and we were quite unaware that being stopped could be inconvenient and costly.

 

Armed with additional suggestions of places worth visiting in Chile, we found our way out of the maze again to get onto Autopista  Central Sur 5, drove past San Bernado, Paine, San Francisco de Mostazal, Rancagua to San Fernando, took the Ruta 90 westerly towards Santa Cruz, turned off near Curiaco to visit the wine estate Viu Mananent in the hope that we could also camp there overnight. After lunch in the Food Studio of Pilar Rodriguez (very good!) we did a wine tour by horse cart, learned about the wine production of the estate in stainless steel, clay, cement and wooden tanks and vats.

They produced Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmeniere, Malbec and Syriah wine. We were permitted to camp free in the parking lot and met Swiss travellers (by bike) Tobias Bähler and Walter Gubi – a security guard patrolled by night, so this was a very safe overnight stay.

As we drove to Santa Cruz we were able to buy fresh asparagus,strawberries and cherries at a farm stall – a real treat and not expensive, both being in season. Our route took us then to the coast via the towns Lolol, Hualañe, Licanten, we followed the beaches with dark sands until we reached Constitucion and Chanco, where we camped in the forest reserve Frederíco Albert Faupp.

 

Next morning we continued via Pellehue along the coast till Mela on the Rio Itata. The road was lined with spring flowers.

On the way we turned off near Cobquecura to visit the Iglesia de Piedra, a huge cathedral-like rock formation on the beach with three entrances, two of which faced the sea and flooded at high tide. We were fascinated by the dark brown volcanic sand beaches, somewhat unusual.

At Mela our route took us inland via Quillon to Autopista 5 Sur, passed Cabrero and easterly until we reached the town Salto de Laja with its scenic waterfall that we visited next day on foot.

 

Olivier, the Swiss owner of Camping Don Ambrosio, allowed us to camp although normally they only have cabañas. We made use of the shower and toilet in the sauna and enjoyed a 38 degC soak in the hot tub and had an excellent lunch in the restaurant after our visit to the falls. Being Sunday this was a popular outing for many locals.

When we continued the weather was overcast and cool, agriculture made way for forest plantations as we passed Los Angeles, Mulchén, Collipulli and Victoria where we turned off onto the R71 to get to P.N. Tolhuaca – we were the only campers. The stroll to the beautiful waterfall Salto Malleco was worth the 5km round trip and so was the walk on the boardwalk at the lake to observe birds, here we also spotted a beaver.

Morning temperatures were cold 3degC at 950m when we continued, after a welcome hot shower, we drove through forest and the Araucaria trees along the ridges were lined with snow.

At Salto de la Princesa we sat on the river bank and had lunch, as we continued along the 181-CH we saw vulcanoes Tolhuace (2806m) and Lonquimay(2865m), unfortunately both in clouds, nevertheless we turned into P.N.Mallalcahuello and drove up to the snow line –beautiful black and white scenery, but the volcano remained largely hidden.

We retreated and found excellent camping and food at Hotel Camping Suizandina with its friendly Swiss owners. Fortunately we could sit inside as it started to rain, temperature dropping to 3 deg C, while inside the fireplace kept us comfy.

After a hearty breakfast we said goodbye to overlanders Hartmut & Lisa Dassel in their VW T5 combi, also on their way south, we might meet again.

The R89 took us to Lonquimay, additional snow during the night turned the landscape into a wonderland for us.

Then onwards on the R95S along Rio Ruanuco through Mapuche land, along Lago Icalma, it remained cloudy so we missed good views of vulcanoes Nevados de Sollipulli (2282m),  Llaima(3125m) but sights of Condors were rewarding. We crossed a valley with lava and where huge tree trunks were swept down from Vulcano Llaima.

After Melipenco, Cunco, along S61 to Hortensias, Los Laureles and on to Villarica. Here all camping seemed closed, so we ended at Camping Molco Beach near Lago Villarica shortly before Pucon. Isaac, fluent is English, had worked for the US Army before settling here offering camping and space for events.

From here we drove via Pucon and the Paso Mamuil Malal (1100m) to the Chile-Argentina border which we passed within 45minutes both sides and without customs search of the vehicle on the Argentinian side.

As we continued over the pass we sadly could not see Volcan Lanin in the clouds on the way to our friend Caro in San Martin de Los Andes where a hearty welcome awaited us and we exchanged stories into the small hours of the morning, Caro prepared a delicious meal of home-made Gnocci, fresh truffles and plenty of red wine.

 

Blog covers 5th to 16th November 2017

Argentina 8: Parques Talampaya and Ischigualasto

At Talampaya we hoped to see the impressive canyon and formations of red sandstone. Camping was permitted in the car park and a warm shower possible, we ate at the restaurant and we arranged to join the morning tour into the park. It was not permitted to drive in one’s own vehicle, the only way is by guided tour.

The 2 ½ hr trip was by minibus, we visited the petroglyphs, strolled through the indigenous garden and then drove deeper into the canyon to see the gothical cathedral formation.

On the way we saw Maras, belonging to the rodent family.

The tour concluded with a visit to the totem, the torres and the monk.

We took a short stroll through the dinosaurus park of Talampaya displaying various models of those that inhabitated this area before their extinction.

Then we continued southerly on the RN76 and RN150 until we reached the gate at Parque Ischigualasto which is part of the neighbouring province San Juan.

Here we booked ourselves in for the 40km round trip late afternoon – it was self-drive in convoy following the guide. We stopped at all worthwhile view points and received detailed explanations. Interesting stops were the painted valley, the stone canon ball field, as well as the museo of the Ishigualasto dinosaur established by William Sill.

We carried on to the formations submarine and the iconic mushroom. Along the high red cliffs we saw more condors just before sunset.

Camping again took place in the carpark –however no opportunity to shower and the men’s toilets were closed due to renovations – no alternative provided.

Next stop was San Juan, the town did not impress due to the plastic pollution along the roads, we drove out of town to the Dique de Ullúm lake and visited almost all camping sites around it and we did not find a suitable one. Either they were filthy, being renovated, private or closed. We ended taking a cabaña at Hotel Bono, fairly expensive and sub-standard for the the cost.

Later we found out that the Hotel had closed for a while as the lake was dry and was only slowly able to recover.

We left early, crossed San Juan, the city center looked more attractive than the suburbs the day before. Continued on the RN40 to Mendoza with ever increasing vineyards in this desertlike area reminding us of the Hexriver valley in the Cape. In the city we visited Plaza España decorated with ceramic tiles as well as Plaza Independencia, where a food festival and fair took place.

Since wine tastings on the wine estates was by appointment only we did not go, but continued to Uspallata on the RP52, a beautiful mountain pass, spring flowers everywhere.

Later the day we found camping in Uspallata at Ranquil Luncay, another camping site that we shall remember due to its incredibly dirty ablutions and lack of hot water.

 

The next morning we aimed to cross into Chile.

On the way we stopped at the viewpoint of the Aconçagua,the highest mountain of South America(6961m), as well as at the natural bridge Puente del Inca with its sulphur-rich termas.

This blog covers 2nd to 5th November 2017

Argentina 7: Quebrada de la Conchas, Multi-Coloured Mountains and Pumice Formations

 

 

From Cafayate we took Ruta 68 through the Quebrada de las Conchas – a road through interesting sandstone mountains and formations of different colourings.

The day ended for us wild camping at the old rail station Alemania underneath the railway bridge along the river surrounded by inquisitive Criollo horses, dogs and cows.

After Valle de Lerma we turned off and circled around the large hydro dam Embalse Cabra Corral on the RP47, all ripio (gravel road) and almost no traffic with beautiful landscapes.

Finally we reached Salta. Here we again tried to find a handbrake cable for the landcruiser at Toyota, no luck. In the city center we bought a SIM card from Movistar to get connection to internet – useless in Argentina, as we found out later. Claro was expensive but possibly a better choice, locals later told us that for the south of Argentina Personal has better coverage – all in all seldom 4G although advertised as such.

Salta has a number of plazas, churches and pedestrian zones which we enjoyed.

 

Then we drove out of town to Camping Papi Lalo where we arrived after dark, let us self in, but the banõs were locked. Being the only campers at this rudimentary site it did not pose much of a problem. Along the stream plenty frogs delivered a free concert and 10 horses chased each other around us. At 6am the owner collected her camping fee and opened the loos.

We returned to Salta in the hope of finding a place to sell us the compulsory insurance we could not get in Brasil – by luck we met a representative of Triunfo Seguros who promptly arranged insurance for all the countries we were going to cross on the remainder of this trip. It also is possible to arrange this insurance with them up front via internet – if only we had known this beforehand. Their head office is in Mendoza. (Another company future travelers can try is Speiser Seguros.)

 

Next we followed the RN9 northwards, narrow and curvy, and passed two dams, the Embalse las Madeiras and La Ciénaga, skirted around San Salvador de Jujuy and Tumbaya and along the Rio Grande until we reached Purmamarca.

Purmamarca ist best known for its 7-coloured mountain. We found a spot to camp in the grounds of Hosteria Bebo Vilte – dusty and with inadequate ablutions. In the evening we went to local pub/restaurant La Diabala where Ariel Ramirez performed local folklore music – he is a son of Zamba Quipildor, a revered singer of the Jujuy province – a very enjoyable evening ,especially because a visiting women choir gave a joint impromptu performance of Quipildor songs.

Early in the morning we climbed a koppie in the town to photograph the seven coloured mountain (Cerro Siete Colores) during sunrise.

Since there is another spectacular 14-colour mountain range further north, we pushed on towards Humahuaca via Tilcara, where we took a stroll to the Garganta del Diabolo, a waterfall inside a canyon, not too spectacular. At Humahuaca we met Marcello from Punta Arenas in his self-built vehicle and trailer – an unusual overlander!

Outside the town we took the ripio RP73 to the Mirador del Hornocal (at 4350m elevation) to view the 14-coloured mountain range – the view,both in colour and formation, it is a worthwhile visit, best photographed in the late afternoon. Back in town we found no decent camping site so we wild camped along the Antigua RP 73, a road almost never used and were rewarded with a splendid night sky.

We returned to Purmamarca along the Quebrada de Humahuaca and found better camping just outside town at Camping los Colorados de Chabelita, clean and with very friendly owners also catering often for motorbikers in their rooms.

Following the RN52 the road followed a mountain pass down to the Salinas Grande –a large salt lake, somewhat disappointing if you had visited Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.

Asphalt road up to Susques, then ripio RN40, plenty of curves through mountains and along the Rio Pastos Chicos with the beautiful volcano Tuzgle  5544m high.

The area is known as Sierra del Cobre due to the copper mining in the past.

We passed through the steel construction of Viaducto de la Polvorilla, well guarded, which transports water to the cities.

We left San Antonio de los Cobres behind us and continued along the Ruta 40 south past a few high peaks all above 5000m. We were now in the Sierra de las Grandes, the dirt road wound up to 4937m and Karin felt the effects. A lot of ice was still on the ridges, we were fortunate that the road dipped down to 2800m. We drove up a dry rivulet in 4×4 and wild camped below stunning sandstone formations with a clear night that allowed some photographing.

A short stop in Cachi after a 195km stretch of a dusty winding road allowed us to refresh before we continued to Molinos, the start of many wine farms to come. Following the Rio Calchaguies in the valley with the same name we passed many crazy sandstone formations until we finally returned to Cafayate, camping again Luz y Fuerza, but not before we sampled some more wine ice cream , flavours Torrentes and Cabernet.

 

The Swiss couple Peter and Sylvia told us about the Piedras Pomez – white pumice rock formations that could be reached by turning off at Hualfin towards El Peñon. However, our departure was delayed after we met the eccentric overlander Klaus from Dortmund, who has a wooden blockhouse on the back of his truck – complete with flowerboxes!

 

As we had to pass through Amaicha del Valle again we had a second chance to visit the Pachamama museum- and lucky we were – definitely worth a stop to see the geological exhibits as well as the art and the building by Hugo Cruz.

At Nacimientos de Arriba we took a little 4×4 track up to the west to reach the remote Aguas Termales with its 37 deg C waters – ideal. We wild camped at this spot, locals drove up by bike to take a bath in one of the 4 private baths. Truly a wonderful place, just rudimentary.

After a further morning soak we aimed for El Peñon via a desolate, but stunning landscape.

At Nacimientos de San Antonia we turned off on to the RP43 after passing Laguna Blanca.

 

 

After El Peñon we turn onto RP34, only 4x4s were permitted towards Campo de Piedra Pomez, a large pumice field that originated after an eruption of Volcan Carachi Pampa (3393m) and then was eroded through wind and water.

From here we returned to the Laguna Blanca (3200m) and pitched our camp with Guanacos and Flamingos.

The morning greeted us with a 0deg C temperature and we took the RN40 via Belén, San Blas to Chilecito, however too early to pitch camp. So we continued to Nonogasta, turned off on a new tarred road to Puerto Alegre, then 20km ripio to the RN76, extremely dry and the road lined with the odd cow cadaver. We finally reached the entry gate to Parque Nacional Talampaya.

 

This blog covers 24th Oct – 1st November 2017

Argentina 6: Meteorite Chaco, Tafi de Valle to Cafayate

Before leaving Brasil we decided to fill up as the diesel is cheaper than in Argentina. The border crossing took only about 40 minutes both sides and then we headed south-west along the RN12 with little traffic. Our route took us via Eldorado, Jardin America to San Ignacio where we decided to again stay at Club del Rio campsite with its super large pool and good conveniences. A thunderstorm woke us at 4am – we decided to start early and avoid breaking camp in the rain – and drove in heavy rains via Posadas along the Rio Paraná to Corrientes with a 2km long bridge crossing this river.

Not being a beautiful city, we decided to push on down the Ruta 16 into the Chaco, a very dry area of Argentina – beautiful sunflower fields lined the road. In Resistencia we tried to see whether Toyota had a replacement handbrake cable only to find their siesta time is from 12-15:30 – we were not going to wait and realised, that clocks tick differently in Argentina (most of the time everything shuts down from about 13:00-17:00 – a bit frustrating when on the road).

We aimed to reach the termas at Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña – these had been converted into an upmarket spa in the centre of town so we looked at the municipal camping –probably the worst we had seen until now, not fit to stay and the terrain completely muddy.

At Avia Teray we turned off southerly on the Ruta RN89, en-route checked out a couple of truckstops for overnighting, but the recent rains had turned them into bogs. By now we realized that it would be a long day driving until we spotted a turnoff to some scientific park just after Gancedo – a 12km gravel road, we surely would find a wild camping spot. To our surprise we reached an incredibly well-designed and clean meteorite scientific park run by the local Mogoit indigenes.

We had a beautiful quiet night among trees and took time to explore the Parque Cientifico Y Educativo with a number of meteorites displayed, a centre with underground museum and video show where scholars were visiting, learning all about space, planets, meteor showers etc.

In this area 18 meteorites have to date been unearthed, among them the Chaco, the second largest in the world ( the largest meteorite known is the Hoba meteor near Grootfontein in Namibia – we were proud to relate where we came from and for the curators it was the first time meeting people from Namibia!). This area, known as Campo de Cielo, is the largest meteor impact field know to-date. This remote stopover has been a total surprise to us and can be recommended to fellow travelers when in the Chaco area.

We continued on the RN89 via Quimilí up to Taboada, then northerly via Santiago del Estero to Terma de Rio Hondo, a stretch where poverty prevails, a harsh and dry land. Finally we ended at camp Inti Punku with 6 thermal pools.

The camping site was close to Embalse Rio Hondo, a large dam.

In this town every house seems to have hot water fed from the vast termas – even the toilets were flushed with hot water! It is a buzzling spa town with 200 hotels, but not pretty or well kept – it seems to have had its best times in the past.

We left via the RP11 and near Lamadrid continued on the RN157 –the area seems poor, lots of small houses, plenty of rubbish and plastic.

At Monteros we got on to the RP307 and proceeded along the lush Camino de Valle, a mountain road with its 1294 bends through the tropic forest of Reserva Natural Rio Los Sosa with Ferns,Laurels and Cedars and its prolific parrots.

The road took us from 230m to 1800m and at Parque Provincial de los Menhires we looked at the 129 geoglyphs in mist and 7deg C. They are more than 2000 years old.

By the time we reached the mountain retreat of Tafi de Valle it was miserable and we took refuge at the well appointed Las Castañas Cabañas. This little village offers many restaurants and artesanial shops.

Next morning we woke up to a misty morning and continued the mountain route to 2900m towards Amaicha de Valle, the landscape changed to semi-desert with large cacti.

Our visit to the Pachamama museum was snookered as they were closed on Sundays. Already the exterior looked very interesting and we hoped that we should have a later opportunity.

We proceeded to the Ruinas Indigenas de Quilmes – a large terrain where the Quilmes peoples resided in times past. It is also a popular spot visited by Argentinians themselves to witness their forefathers cultural remains.

From here we followed the Ruta del Vino Tucuman to the Ruta del Vino Salta and the wine estancias grew in size and beauty until we reached Cafayate, where our first stop was at an ice cream parlour (Heladeria) selling wine ice cream in the flavours Malbec and Torrontes wine – delicious! The night we stayed at Camping Luz y Fuerza at the southern entry to Cafayate, windy, dusty but ok as there was not much choice.

 

This post covers the period 18th – 23rd October 2017

Brasil 6: Jaguars, the Transpantaneira and Porto Jofre in the northern Pantanal

The following day was a long day driving through the agricultural fields of Mato Grosso via Rondonopolis, Juscimeira then towards Cuiabá, where we found a camping opportunity at a restaurant and playpark called Sinuela.

Very friendly owners, we were allowed to park approx. 300m off the highway next to their house, clean ablutions and showers – all for free as we ate dinner at the restaurant! A busy highway, trucks from Bolivia as well as from Manaus seem to pass Cuibá at a rate of at least 600 per hour in this region, so driving was strenuous.

We were now reaching the edge of the northern Pantanal – 5200km since we started from Montevideo about a month ago.

From Cuiabá going south via Poconé (not a pretty town but an interesting entrance arch) there was only one dead-end road ending at Porto Jofre – the Transpantaneira – an elevated dirt road crossing as many as 125 little bridges on as many kilometres. The road originally was destined to go all the way into Bolivia. However, each year the road was flooded so the plan did not work out. Today a number of pousadas along this road offer opportunities to observe birds and to see jaguars.

We drove about 35km in and decided to call it a day at Pousada Rio Claro – the heat was intense, we could park and camp here, use their cool pool and clean ablutions. The afternoon’s boatride with other birders proved to be a good choice seeing Osprey and falcons; so was the next mornings rowing with a guide watching caimans, various birds of prey and a beautiful juvenile Rufescent Tiger Heron.

We were hardly back at the lodge, when the predicted rain set in and did it pour down – we had no choice other that to remain put and catch up with pictures and blog writing. For 3 months the region had no rain, the smell of the first downpour reminded us of Africa. The landscape soon was flooded and made it impossible to camp – so we took one of their rooms and were lucky that the lodge was not yet fully booked for the night (as it was for the next). It was quite different to be in a room the first time since we started a month ago. During the evening’s game drive we saw a number of raccoons, foxes, and frogs that sounded like sheep.

Next morning, we took another boat trip and then proceeded along the Pantaneira towards Hotel Mato Grosso situated on the Rio Pixaím, where we had heard that the birdlife was prolific. On the way we saw a nesting Jabirú stork with two chicks in a large tree.

The friendly staff at the hotel permitted us to camp close to the gate, use the bathrooms and the pool. The following morning, we were woken by the cacophony of many different bird species – probably the best we have ever had camping anywhere.

Dieter and Beate Reiser, whom we had met at the previous lodge had slept in a room and envied us for the bird concert in the morning. Our morning boat tour was good but we did not see any new species of birds except a Ferruginous pygmy owl in a tree at the hotel.

We were not lucky to see the elusive Agami Heron which tends to hide in the undergrowth along river banks in this area.

 

So we proceeded towards Porto Jofre in the hope of seeing jaguars and camped at the Pantanal Jaguar Camp.

 

Porto Jofre is very small, essentially consisting of the hotel by this name, the Municipal camp, the Jaguar Camp and possible one or two more. Jaguars can best be seen up the river by boat, so we booked our first boat tour for the next morning. Not knowing any better, we also booked a boat at the Pantanal Norte Porto Jofre Hotel. Behind the hotel we visited a pond with giant water lilies.

While leaving the Jaguar camp by vehicle we spotted our first Sunbittern – a bird that looks like a butterfly in flight. Unfortunately we did not catch it on a photo while flying – it is magnificent to see.

Towards sunset we took a drive back along the Pantaneira, saw more nesting Jabirú, black-headed Capucchin monkeys and plenty other birds.

Next morning our first boat drive went for 40 minutes high speed upstream to get to the area where jaguars could be spotted. We spotted the male jaguar named Geoff, a seasoned caiman hunter, up on an embankment. What a sight – he bore all the marks of a fighter and hunter.

 

We briefly glimpsed two more male jaguars while searching the tributaries. Our guide Marcos, a biologist, explained in good English about the behavior and territories of the jaguars. An index has been started to identify them by their markings. Jaguars in this area are much larger and stronger than in the Amazon due to their prolific diet of caimans –they are in fact after Tiger and Lion the third largest cats.

Back at the jaguar camp we got to know Ailton, the owner, who currently was helping filming crews with land based camera traps. Their boats are well equipped for filming the Jaguars ashore.

The owner explained to us the history of jaguar sighting here in the Panatanal – it is due to the fishermen, that the tourist industry was started after they realized that regular sightings occurred. The adjacent farmers still loose some livestock, but have started using water buffalo as a buffer zone to protect cattle and sheep. The water buffalo are not indigenous but ended in the area when a ship wrecked further north transporting them. A great concern however is the possibility of poaching Jaguars for the Chinese market, similar to the reasons that African cats are being decimated for their bones and teeth to be used as aphrodisiacs.

For the next night we moved to Camping Municipal –a mistake! The view was good on the river, the rest was lousy – immensely dirty bathrooms (not being cleaned despite our request), many mozzies, and the whole night the generator was running. Karin got the worst share of bites.The only compensation was seeing more Hyazinth macaws.

Next morning 6am we left per boat from the Porto Jofre hotel, a mere 200m away from the campsite. The trip with Luciano, the guide and boat captain and only us as pax, rewarded us with exceptional sightings: giant river otters in the water and on land, close sighting of two Jaguars growling at each other (later identified as Patricia, the mother, having cubs close by and Hunter, her adult daughter) and a snake-like striped worm lizard.

On further trips with the Jaguar camp boat we were very lucky to observe a caiman hunt by Geoff, the old experience caiman hunter. We could follow the Jaguar on land and in the water until he finally cornered and caught a mid-sized caiman in some dense growth.

A bonus was to see the migrant Swallowtail kite above.

On our return journey along the Pantaneira we counted 90 wooden bridges up to the Mato Grosso Hotel, where we stayed again and this time could observe the shy Agami heron on a morning boat trip as well as other birds.

Our route then took us via Cuiabá (where we shopped at the best supermarket on our entire trip – Biglar Supermercado – we spoiled ourselves) and continued towards Chapada where our night was spent at Camping Refugio das Seriemas, a very small private camp of average standard.

The tourist office was not very helpful, so we explored the area and visited the bridal fall (Veú de Noiva), a 85m scenic waterfall. Next we ended up camping at a site we saw advertised by a sign along the road and were surprised to find ourselves the only guests at Camping Acamporto, with a clear river to bathe in ( rio Coxipó). Brand new banõs and a cold water drinking fountain made the stay pleasant in the 40 deg C heat.

We visited the town Bom Jardim, swam in the clear waters of balneario Estivado with shoals of fish, observed hooded capuchin monkeys frolicking in the trees above our vehicle.

Then drove to Lagoa das Arraras where many parrots were observed.

On our southbound return we again took the MS 427, our “Anteater“ road –this time we were more lucky and saw another giant anteater. After arriving at camping Soy Assis, Dieter got spontaneously roped into a cooking class by a group of students and prepared with them a trucker’s dinner, drank a lot and had immense fun.

Leaving the area we had a farewell moment with our favourite bird showing off in its nesting palm:

On our way many stalls sold handcrafted pots and pans.

From here we speedily made our way to Foz de Iguaću, where we got the vehicle serviced by Toyota Zeni (first did not want to service the VX100 at all as it is not sold in Brasil, we were not satisfied with their service, skipped lubrication of essential parts) and paid a visit to the second largest hydro station, the dam Itaipú – meaning singing stone in Guaraní – a joint venture between Brasil and Paraguay (170km long, 12-15km wide, 170m deep at the wall, 14000MW, each penstock 10m diameter).

 

Distance travelled since leaving Montevideo to here had been 8170km.

 

This post covers 1st -17th October 2018