Yes, we know. It has been six weeks since our last blog post and many of you are wondering what the heck happened to us. We have been home in Nevada for over a month already and the reality of regular life sure has a way of jumping right in and taking over. Several times in the last couple of weeks Ned and I have looked at each other and said, “did we really go to South America?!!”
Despite the high expectations of exploring the Chilean side of Patagonia and the Carretera Austral, Ned and I couldn’t shake our slightly deflated feelings of the trip being over. Having reached our “goal” of driving to the tip of South America, our journey back north again to Santiago was definitely wrought with Short Timer’s Disease. To top it off, my mother was dealing with serious health issues, and the pressure to get home was immense.
Nonetheless, we made the most of the drive back up to the closest port from which we could ship Charlotte home. Our amazing friend, Sebastian was already working on Charlotte’s ship passage from Valparaiso to Long Beach. It took us 18 days to cover the 2,000 miles north, and as usual, there is a lot to tell about! Please enjoy this blog as we rattle down more bad wash board roads, do four ferry crossings, chase pigs, fix broken Charlotte parts, don Gore-Tex in rain forests and, of course, enjoy more spectacular scenery.
After two fabulous nights camping (with our equine neighbors) in the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, we made our way back to the town of Ushuaia where we stayed another two nights. El Wagon restaurant became our home away from home in this surprisingly touristy town at the end of the world. Alejandro (above) and Vierna (below) were warm and friendly, and we enjoyed three wonderful meals with them.
We had no idea what to expect either on the island of Tierra del Fuego or in Patagonia proper, but somewhere in our minds we had visions of harsh landscapes and lonely outposts. So far we were finding rampant tourism, complete with crowded cities and the burned out clerks and restaurant staff who wait on difficult visitors day after day. Our friends at El Wagon provided a refreshing respite.
On our final day in Ushuaia, we stayed at El Wagon until 6:00pm, finishing up the last blog, so we only made it 70 miles north to camp on the shores of lovely Lago Fagnano.
High-Fiving each other for making the final turn north, we retraced our steps, crossing the border back into Chile and saying farewell to Tierra del Fuego and the Straights of Magellan as we made the short ride ferry off of the Island.
We were running low on supplies, and the previous night’s über satisfying camp dinner consisted of peanuts, cheese and beer. Breakfast had not been much better, so we were looking forward to a good meal and a good market in Puerto Natales, about 100 miles west and north on the Ruta 9 from the ferry crossing.
Unfortunately, fate had other ideas. The three of us were cruising along near dusk, peacefully enjoying the wide open windswept steppes when we heard a terrible grinding noise coming from Charlotte’s rear end (no, we did not put beans in her fuel tank). Needing to get off of the highway and investigate the problem, we limped down a long driveway leading to this desolate, tumble-down estancia (ranch).
Having heard of the famous hospitality of Patagonia’s many estancias, we hoped this might be a great opportunity and fantasized about joining a big ranch cookout where lots of cordero (lamb) was being roasted on open pits and gauchos serenaded us with Chilean folk music…nope.
Daniel and Marilynn were about as run down as the ranch (the Estancia Cacique Mulato), but were very nice, welcoming us to camp for the night (a good thing since Charlotte wasn’t going anywhere!). Marilynn offered me the use of the kitchen, but not a morsel of food. The ranch was huge and signs of former grandeur were everywhere. The main house was an enormous Victorian, sad and boarded up while Daniel and Marilynn lived in a small hovel near the pig pens. Although Daniel told us that he ran 20,000 head of sheep, it looked as though they were too poor themselves to offer us a meal. Ned and I tucked into Charlotte for the night, munching on more peanuts and cheese and dreaming of cordero asado.
After a rainy night and another snack breakfast, Ned went to work on Charlotte, uncovering a very broken CV joint. The good news was that the intrepid Car Whisperer had, not one but two, spares. He tucked in for a long greasy job, while I went off to see about lending a hand on the estancia.
From a nearby field I heard the frantic squealing of unhappy pigs. Taking off in that direction, I ran into two old ranch hands pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a lumpy white sack. I said hello, then noticed that the bag was moving! Actually it was writhing. Afraid of what I would find, I asked, “Que es?” “Cochinoitos!” they said, grinning from ear to ear while untying the bag for me to take a peak. Sure enough, eight tiny piglets poked their little pink noses out and my heart sank to think that they were just too cute to eat. It took a bit of diplomatic probing, but I happily found out they were simply moving the babies to get them out of the cold and would return for the mother. More questions revealed, however, that they would be ready for the market in another five months.
You’ve just gotta be smarter than a pig. I never did find out why Mama Pig did not frantically follow the piglet laden wheelbarrow, but she did seem to have fun toying with poor old Juan. She calmly let him approach, even offering her nose to the lasso…
…then wheeled away only to stop and happily begin to root around in the dirt. This went on for at least ten minutes. I kept asking if I could help, and Juan breathlessly kept saying, “No gracias.” It was a pretty comical show to watch but even more fun when I finally joined in. Enrique (slightly younger than Juan) eventually got the lasso on one of Mama’s back feet, and they began to herd her toward her babies. With a twenty foot lead on the rope, Mama Pig led us on a merry chase, darting off in every direction but the right one. Poor Juan even dropped the rope two times, giving me the heroic opportunity to jump on it and stop the pig. Yeah right. At one point the three of us, waving our arms and hollering like madmen, nearly had her cornered. I am ashamed to say this would have ended the fun had I not given quarter when the pushy pig barreled right toward me. Yup, I was a chicken, but Mama outweighed me by several hundred pounds, and I do value my life. We all looked like idiots, but it was very entertaining, my only regret being there are no photos to share.
By now I was (as Ned said later) an official pig farmer, and there was more work to be done. Another mother and her babies needed to be relocated so the game was repeated.
This time there were eleven of the cute little things, and Juan and Enrique showed their confidence in my newfound pig husbandry by letting me pick a couple of them up by the back leg (the only way to do it so they said) and plunk them into the sack. Mostly I just held the bag.
By the time we got Mama #2 and babies moved, Ned had finished changing the CV. We said our goodbyes to Daniel, Marilynn, Juan (who gave me a hug) and Enrique, and trundled on north.
After blissfully devouring cordero asado in a restaurant in Puerto Natales, we restocked our larders and drove on to the famous Parque Nacional Torre de Paine. It was late when we arrived, so we opted to camp at an official scenic lookout. Thinking that the majestic towers would look fantastic in the morning sun and that the place was deserted, we saw no problem with the plan.
We were right about the morning sun…
…but just about half way through our morning exercises, buses and vans carrying dozens of tourists showed up to shatter our peace. I even caught one snapping a shot of Ned as he finished his pull-ups. Ok, I admit, we were in a Park, camping at a posted lookout, doing funny looking exercises in a funny looking van, but we still felt like monkeys in a cage.
The weather was typical of Chilean Patagonia, extremely cold and so windy I was nearly knocked off my feet several times. Cliffside hiking didn’t sound very fun, so we just drove the big loop around the park enjoying the fantastic scenery.
We passed dozens of cyclists braving the wind and cold and making us feel like old weenies living in the lap of luxury. These two teenage boys from France were pedaling a tandem bike the length of Patagonia. They should have incredible stories to tell their kids.
The road north in Chile ends after Torre de Paine, so we crossed back into Argentina, retracing our steps until we reached Paso Roballo, east of Cochrane where we were able to cross back into Chile and finally onto the famous Carretera Austral.
Toward the bottom of Paso Roballo in the Valle Chacabuco we entered land owned by the shiny new Patagonia Park.
Rescued from overgrazing, these 170,000 acres, previously a huge, hundred year old sheep ranch, were purchased ten years ago by Kris and Doug Tompkins, well publicized environmental rights activists, and, respectively, the former CEO of Patagonia (the clothing company) and the founder of The North Face & Esprit clothing empires. Their goal has been to restore the land to nature, removing all the fencing, as well as all foreign flora and fauna, while introducing human tourists, providing them with hiking trails and fancy lodging. Eventually they plan to give this preserved land to the Chilean government to manage as a national park.
PATAGONIA WITHOUT TOMPKIN$
Without getting into touchy details (I’ll save that for the book!), it turns out that there is quite a controversy surrounding the land’s purchase and the Tompkins in general. Sheep ranching in the valley has been the mainstay of the local communities, and many people lost their livelihoods. Weighing human needs against the need to preserve beautiful places on our planet is a tough challenge.
The brand new Estancia Valle Chacabuco.
The creators’ vision when building Estancia Valle Chacabuco was to capture the grandeur of the old lodges at Yosemite and Yellowstone. We were actually a little surprised and put off by the excessive opulence. To us, the upscale country club atmosphere appeared quite out of character with the Patagonian surroundings.
Despite the Tompkins’ obvious distain for all things requiring energy and motorized vehicles, and their hype about the irresponsibility of leaving large “carbon footprints,” this lodge was build on a massive scale, involving a lot of machinery and fossil fuel to construct, and it now requires more energy use to sustain it. The hypocrisy of it all rubbed us the wrong way…
…as did the prices for lodging. It would have cost us $500 per night…
…to stay in this small room. It was obviously beautiful, but the snobbery of the staff and the inability for average income people to enjoy the place was off-putting to us.
No shoes allowed in the entire lodge…a Doug Tompkins quirk, but never my favorite.
This reading room was full of coffee table books co-authored by Doug Tompkins, berating everything from energy use to mass food production. We agree that the glaring challenges of pesticides, GMO’s, pollution and animal extinction are terrifying. I also pragmatically know that rare is the person who is willing to give up driving, flying, boating and eating mass produced food. Doug Tompkins, himself, soars all over Patagonia in his own small airplane, burning plenty of fossil fuel. My issue with the offering of coffee table books was not in pointing out the problems, but in not offering practical solutions. Suggestions on par with sending our daily living conditions back those of the poorest villages we passed through in Guatemala (for example) or reducing our offspring to one child per couple are not practical solutions in this modern world.
Ned was particularly amused to find this book. In his words, “Isn’t Tompkins’s airplane as much a “thrillcraft” as my Jeep, race cars or Charlotte? Hypocrite!”
Thrillcraft? Seriously? A riding lawnmower burning hydrocarbons. Where are the sheep?
Carretera Austral literally means the Southern Highway, which is kind of funny since it was the roughest, slowest, most washboard infested road we’ve been on yet. Nearing the end of our journey, Charlotte was exhibiting a worrying number of ailments. Rather than being exciting, the rugged terrain only gave us visions of poor Charlotte literally shaking apart. We were also on the wet, cold Pacific side of Patagonia now, and while beautiful in its own way, rainforests are just not our favorite. The constant rain, cold, bugs and lack of open land made camping less fun and exercise scarce. (And yet we still saw many cyclists toughing it out here, battered by the elements…really making us feel wimpy!)
We’ve seen these falling rock signs all over Chile and have dubbed them “The Fast Rocks Sign.”
Do rocks really fall faster in Chile?
The sun came out and lifted our mood as we drove along the magnificent turquoise Lago General Carrera, the largest lake in Chile and the second largest in South America.
We passed this sign advertising the Marble Cathedral and natural camping. We had no idea what it was, but it sounded intriguing.
We drove down a very steep dirt road, enjoying the scenery but worry about breaking another CV which was making horrible noises as we descended the grade. If another one broke, Charlotte would never make it back up the arduous climb.
Once at the bottom, we found that we could bush camp for free and were able to book a boat ride to the Marble Cathedral in the morning. We met several fellow travelers (even a VW enthusiastic Argentinean couple in an early splitty Bus) and had a quiet night in semi privacy.
By morning the rain had returned but we were determined to see the Catedral de Mármol, whatever that was.
When we arrived we were stunned. This is the Catedral de Mármol, but the spectacle did not stop here.
The lake shore was lined with marble caves carved by wind and water, suspended over the glacial turquoise waters. Despite the rain, I could not stop taking photos. It was truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, certainly one of the most unusual.
Look closely. Can you see Ned under Charlotte (again)? Taking advantage of our nice camping spot and using the last spare CV, Ned got Charlotte repaired and up the hill. Now it was a race to get to Santiago before another CV (or something else) broke.
Getting exercise wherever we can…
…Taking showers wherever we can.
Desperately in need of a good wash, we spotted an abandoned campground and drove in to find clean water for Charlotte’s heat exchange shower and rare privacy.
Continuing north we came to the Tompkins’ first Park, Pumalin. The park is immense, covering 760,000 acres. This was the Park entrance at the south end, near Chaitén. Unfortunately, signs everywhere indicated camping was only allowed in walk-in campgrounds. Camping in or near your vehicle was glaringly prohibited. In light of the obvious usage of gas powered mowers to manicure the vast amount of lawns in the park, we found the bias against motorized vehicles puzzling.
Pumalin Park, named for the Pumas being preserved here, was a steep, mountainous rainforest…
…and a botanist’s dream! The forest was full of unusual and beautiful plants, including these mammoth leafy things (we are obviously not botanists)…
…and giant ferns! (They are ferns, aren’t they?)
The unfortunate thing about Pumalin park, is that it essentially cuts Chili (being very narrow) in two. With the Pacific archipelago on the west, and the Argenitina border on the east, there is no way to drive north/south through the park. To go north, we needed to take a series of ferries to continue our journey, or make a 500 mile detour east back in to Argentina. The town of Chaitén was the jumping off point for the first ferry, and we were very much looking forward to having a nice breakfast in a warm restaurant. When we arrived, however, we found the town in horrible shape. The houses and buildings were ramshackle and/or boarded up, and the only restaurant open was freezing cold and the employees unwelcoming.
This van (above) says “Chaitén is Not Dead.” We disagreed. It was Sunday when we arrived, and we were dismayed to find that the ferries were all booked until Wednesday. At this point, we just wanted out of there. We made the decision to drive 100 miles back south and then east on the bad washboard roads to what we had heard was a cute town called Fulaleufú.
Note: We did find out in Fulaleufú that Chaitén was buried in ash in 2008 when Volcan Chaitén erupted, essentially killing the poor town. Perspective really is everything. Doing a little homework beforehand might help, but we really do like discovering as we go.
Fulaleufú was a wonderful stopover. We stayed at this great lodge, a welcome respite from cold, wet camping.
Ned spent most of our two days in Fulaeufú working on Charlotte, trying to shore up an increasing bad coolant leak – another curse stemming from our alternator bracket issues. I worked on photo editing and relaxed in the warm luxury of our beautiful room.
On the way back to the coast from Fulaleufú, Ned and Charlotte rescued another vehicle which had slid off the road and into a ditch. It was only the third time we’ve used the winch, once to pull ourselves (Bolivia) and twice to help others (Mexico and here).
Finally it was ferry time. It took us three boats and 12 hours to travel 30 miles, but we finally were able to continue north.
Another broken alternator bolt, another clever Ned fix (note the green wire). It seems baling wire and duct tape are holding Charlotte together these days.
Our final camp, just south of Santiago was quiet, but it was a little anticlimactic. We were suddenly aware that the trip was coming to an end and were feeling a little sad. It was fun, though, looking back and coming up with some intereting statistics. Since returning to the trip in December, we have spent 75 nights on the road; 55 camping in Charlotte (46 bush camps and 9 in campgrounds or driveways) and 22 nights in hotels.
Over the last 14 months of the journey we have come up with a very technical method for determining which way the wind is blowing. This is necessary so we can park Charlotte to block the wind for cooking.
And speaking of paper products, this has been an ongoing topic of deep discussion as, in country after third world country, we’ve found next to useless paper towels and toilet paper. We were delighted to find in Chile a brand comically subtitled “Evolution.” They are almost as good as the dozens of brands we are offered in the U.S. and are capable of absorbing at least some liquid before disintegrating.
Back in Santiago, I just had to show Ned the MallSport (the one where I got an army knife and dumbbells back in December). We ate lunch in the warm sunshine, watching surfers try their skill on this man-made wave. Very cool.
Ned tested his balance on this awesome hanging jungle gym…
…and did very well!
MallSport is also the first place I have seen a kid’s only bathroom.
How fun would this be if you were a kid?
It has been summer vacation and all the schools have been on holiday since we arrived back in December, so we have not been able to give away any more of the world maps we bought in Ecuador. Sebastian and Luz’s kids, Seba and Amelia turned out to be enthusiastic recipients.
In the meantime, Sebastian, a true gift to us, had busily been setting up Charlotte’s shipping. He was able to line up passage for her the same week we rolled back into Santiago. Despite it being a very hectic time in Sebastian’s normal work life, his hours of preparation made everything go smoothly when we all arrived at the port in Valparaiso. Ned was able to load her and tie her down himself, so we felt more secure about her month-long boat ride up the Pacific to Long Beach. We had to air her tires down to almost flat to get her into the container, then drain all the gas and disconnect her battery.
After fourteen months and 29,400 miles, our South American odyssey came to an abrupt end.
A million thanks will never show our appreciation for the selfless Sebastian who, along with his wonderful family and friends, made our time in Chile extra special.
The day after loading Charlotte, February 19th, 2015 we said goodbye to South America and flew 30 hours home to face reality…
Stay tuned next time as we reveal a mini-trauma that occurred in the shipping process and cover the retrieval of our beloved Charlotte from her watery vacation. As this goes to press, her ship is supposedly docked in Long Beach waiting to be unloaded… Our plan is to fly to L.A. and drive her home to Minden on her own power (questionable at this point). If she rolls into our own driveway she will have covered just 100 miles shy of 30,000 miles since rolling out of it back in December 2013. What a THRILLCRAFT!