Chile 12: Punta Arenas and back to Torres del Paine

  Overlanders touring in South America know that, when crossing the border into Chile, the unexpected can happen. Some vehicles pass easily, others are subjected to a search – mainly for fresh produce. Taking the small border post Bella Vista after a public holiday should  have been quick and easy. It was not. The customs official subjected our vehicle to an extremely thorough search, even after we had voluntarily surrendered half a pineapple that we could not eat, as we were filled to capacity (the fruit was then deposited into an underground rubbish container in our presence). While it started sleeting this good official climbed into the vehicle, searched all over, found eggs in the fridge, which we said were cooked. This was not good enough -he made us open an egg in the vehicle in his presence – luckily it was hard boiled, otherwise we would have had a mess. With him, standing by, was his young son on holiday – we assume dad had to demonstrate to him how good a customs official he really was! After this short ordeal we proceeded via Russfin passing the derelict machinery from the gold rush, passed Cameron and ended up at our gaucho hut with its graffiti in order to have some shelter from the wind. The batteries disconnected, we spent a quiet, but cold and very windy night after the sun set at 22:30. After an early start, a quick breakfast we were ready to go just when the rain set in again. On days like this Karin really appreciated the fact that our cruiser had heated seats – within 15 minutes you felt comfortable and warm while the Tierra del Fuego harsh windswept landscape flew past. At Bahia Azul we again used the ferry which crosses every 20-30 minutes. Along the way saw some typical wild horses and the road remained virtually straight. Arriving back in Punta Arenas we immediately drove to Toyota in the Zona Franca ( close to Navimag port) to see whether a vehicle service could be arranged – after their customary siesta, at 15:00 they could accommodate us. So we drove to find Callegos Batterias in the hope to find replacements. Since the one good battery is a 145Ahr, we needed to replace both with the only available choice – a set of Turkish batteries. It is not quite what we would have intuitively selected, especially as they are identical, which meant some cable needed to be extended to fit them in. On the positive side the pair cost R 2978 – about half of what we had previously spent in Peru on Panasonics which had only lasted a year. Toyota serviced the vehicle in the afternoon, but while adjusting the handbrake cable at the rear, the thread snapped off. We needed to be back next morning for it to be brazed as no spares were available for our model. Luckily we got again accommodated at Hostel Aventure Austral where friendly Teresa checked us in. This gave us a chance to explore the city of Punta Arenas on foot and we took supper in a seafood restaurant – shrimps and Merluza. In the habour a luxury liner from Hurtigruten casted off – we never knew that they were also going into the Antarctic regions.   Just as we got ready to drive down to Toyota, Karin picked up a dental problem. With our knowledge of Spanish, how would we find a suitable dentist in a city we did not know? Toyota (here pronounced Toshota) came to the rescue! The friendly Venezuelan service assistant had a friend that is a dentista and Karin left by taxi to see Dra Pamela Eliana Luizaga de Munoz while I waited for Toyota to attend to the brake problem. By siesta time all was done – Toyota cost R 2624 for the service, R 1231 for repairing handbrake, checking brakes, rotating tyres and replacing some lightbulbs whereas Karin’s treatment was reasonably priced as well. We left Punta Arenas with the a good feeling –  things can be sorted out at this southernmost city of Chile. As we got closer to Puerto Natales again, the landscape metamorphosed from flat to hilly and the Andes mountains became visible again. With this change also the flora underwent significant changes. For the night we ended again at Camping Güinos with Francisca and her husband and we got our laundry done for P6000 for 6kg loads. Will we ever get used to the icy cold and wet conditions? Fortunately we could sit inside and share the communal kitchen with a number of backpackers and cyclists before creeping into our warm down sleeping bags which we had specially custom made in South Africa by Makoti Down Products – a manufacturer from Uitenhage we can recommend, their products proved robust and warm and they can manufacture to size.   Before we departed to the Torres del Paine we restocked provisions, as in the park no shops are available and we shall proceed from there back into Argentina. Since gas cycliders from our portable gas stove cost approx. 1/3 of what they cost in Argentina, we stocked up and then drove to the little town of Villa Serano just before the entrance to the park, drove through town past the last house with its red roof and carried on a track toward the mountains until we found a lonely wild camping spot on the bank of the clear Rio Serano that runs from within the Torres del Paine park. Of interest were the cleansing stations for anglers - Chile tries to prevent the spread of Didymo, a type of thin grass that cloggs the rivers. All equiment and angling boots/trousers need to dipped before and after the activity. The only noises we heard during this quiet night were some cows, sheep and horses grazing close to where we found shelter. Before we entered the park the next morning we prepaid Camping Serano for the coming night and then drove in. At the Mirador del Condor we hiked up the mountain for 1 hour, enjoying the splendid views. On the way we saw the rare Porcelain Orchid as well as Guanacos and Andean hares. Next we visited Mirador Grey and walked to see the Grey Glaciar – rain made the walk a wet one and we spent some time hiding under bushes at the Mirador and waited for the rain to pass and were rewarded with a glimpse of the glaciar and some drifting ice. Back at camping Serano we appreciated their shelters to cook in and then it got late after Sven and Iris also arrived and the red wine flowed liberally.   We had to skip the hot shower the next morning as the generator, required to pump water, had not been started yet. We decided to leave early as it promised to be a beautiful day, but this might only last minutes here. Luckily for us we could do a Panorama or two with all mountain peaks exposed except Cerro Paine Grande, the highest with 3050m. This was followed by a walk past Salto Grande, the waterfall up to the Cuernos lookout, a worthwhile point to see the glaciar as well as Condors on the way. From our vantage point we could see an excellent example of an Aréte (Grat in German), that was formed through two glaciars running down two valleys, leaving this knife-edged aréte in it wake. For the night we met Sven and Iris again on camping Pehoé, another site with shelters and warm showers and we enjoyed another supper in good company.   After a short trip to Lago Azul we decided to leave via the northern entrance toward Cerro Castillo. The border is at Cerro Castillo . Here we enjoyed a coffee and cake at the restaurant on the border and met Julia and Markus again, the Photonomads from Austria, we had originally met at the museum in Ushuaia. Leaving Chile at this border post certainly was a lot less stress than entering at Bella Vista a few days ago. This post covers 2nd to 8th January 2018

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