Streaking South

Naviera Austral

Last Saturday the sun faded away on our last day in Chiloe and Stefje and I enjoyed the sunset from the Southern port town of Quellon, where in the distance a majestic mountain turned from white to yellow to purple as the evening wore on. 

As night fell we boarded the Naviera Austral, the most economical boating option to head south through Chile. 

We cruised through the fjords, headed towards one of the world’s last great refuges of pristine natural beauty. Surely, the epic nature of our trip was not lost on us. In the morning light we pulled into the port of Balmaceda, and what a glorious site it was. Sun-draped in the morning, with placid waters reflecting the sun’s light, it was surrounded by numerous islands of mossy green rocks. Unexplored forests abounded in the background and right in front of us there were calm sandy beaches with waves gently lapping at the surface. 

The only sign of civilization was a roughly built gangway sticking out into the secluded bay; if there’s a slice of paradise left, this is it. 

The boat turned Southward and we could now see the ever-reaching archipelago come into view. To the East was mainland Chile, and to the West a series of massive islands, each one a combination of lush green forests and gorgeous granite peaks. 

In the afternoon the blue sky evaporated and an expanse of grey cloud cover shrouded some of the blistering high peaks, but it did nothing to dampen our wonder at this gorgeous sight. 

Our next stop was the recluse port of Santo Domingo, where a wide black sand beach framed next to a vertical mountain sticking straight up out of the depths of the ocean. 

Who lived here? A few tough fishermen departed on a dinghy and we progressed further down the curved bays and calm waters of the Eastern Shoreline. On board we befriended the only other tourists, a french-czech couple headed out to explore Chile’s remote Carretera Austral. Together we speculated as to how far the boat had gone, but upon announcement of the next destination we realized our projections were exceptionally optimistic. The journey was still only halfway through and we were already at least six hours behind schedule. 

We settled in for a long afternoon of lounging on the ship’s deck and observing the soaring mountains passing slowly by.

On board the clientele was a rough and rumble group, consisting overwhelmingly of male adults, either truck drivers or fisherman headed to tiny villages further South. Despite the epic landscapes and intermittent sunshine, most of them spent the day glued to their seats inside, only venturing outside when we sailed out of TV reception zone to smoke copious amount of cigarettes. 

Throughout the afternoon the clouds sunk lower, ensuring that our first taste of seeing the glaciers of Patagonia was obscured. Yet we could still glimpse a few hunking walls of ice, compacted over eons and stretching from mountaintops down into the high altitude valleys like great icy tongues of snow. 

As sunset began around 9PM, we wandered back inside and settled in for a long night passing through skinny channels on the way to Port Chacabuco. The following morning cloud cover and dense fog penetrated the fjords, causing a cold chill in the air yet enabling beautiful misty views of the mountain slopes. 

Waterfalls rushed by on either side, with remnants of more powerful ones visible. Our advancement South overnight meant more snow-capped mountains proliferated into view, adding to the wonder of the awe-inspiring experience of sailing through these ancient cliffs. 

In late morning we rolled into Chacabuco, where plenty of enterprising bus and van drivers met us as the dock with offers of onward travel to larger towns. Here are the details of the journey for anyone considering it: 

  • The boat departs from Quellon at 11:00pm only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
  • Tickets are available online, but you need a Chilean RUT number to purchase them. Alternatively you can buy them at the Puehuen tourist office in Castro or the Naviera Austral office in Quellon. The cost is $16,200 Chilean pesos (as of Nov 2015).
  • The journey to Chacabuco is scheduled for 28 hours, arriving at 3am, but ours took about 36 hours. Expect delays. 
  • For sale on board are pizzas, empanadas, and sandwiches; all are reasonably priced. The water on board is safe to drink, and coffee, tea, or orange juice are also available. 
  • The seats recline, but not very far. A sleeping pad or inflatable mattress to spread in the aisle is definitely more comfortable. Bring earplugs! Everybody snores and the TV plays late into the night. 
  • Passengers taking the complete journey have access to a smaller cabin with highly unexpected yet much appreciated hot showers. 

The Big Hitch!

Upon stepping off the boat we began a journey of epic proportions. In just three days, we aspired to cross over 1,500 kilometers of mostly barren roads, experiencing the true form of traveling in Patagonia and hopefully arriving in Puerto Natales in time to meet up with some friends. 

The hitchhiker’s lifestyle is one of rejection. But just like a salesman or a home-run hitter, the misses don’t count - as long as you connect every once in a while. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as we trudged to the outskirts of Coyhaique, the largest of all the small towns that make up Chile’s Carretera Austral. 

It took hundreds of cars going by to finally bait one into stopping; even then he could only take us about 8 kilometers, the prospect of removing ourselves from the urban traffic was appealing. A carpenter working on a series of new houses, the driver dropped us off by the construction site, framed by a beautiful mountain in the background and with a panorama of lush green fields in every direction. 

True to form, the rural road yielded better results as less than 10 minutes later an elderly man offered to take us all the way across the border to Argentina. Once inside the car, Sergio introduced himself and told us all about his life as a poet, even offering us a copy of his book to peruse. He was headed all the way across the dwindling width of the continent to the Atlantic Ocean port town of Commodore Rivadivia, so we were immensely pleased to ride along with him for a few hours until intersecting with Argentina’s backbone of a highway, Route 40. 

Eager to share his knowledge, Sergio regaled us with tales of his communist political background, the indigenous nomadic tribes of Patagonia who once wandered this wilderness, and the monstrous prehistoric river that cut wide swaths through the area we drove through. It rapidly became apparent why he was happy to give us a light: with the exception of a border stop, the were simply no signs of civilization the entire time. 

We wound back and forth across a modest mountain range, then descended into an enormous flat plateau that stretched for miles in every direction. Outside of Cayhaique, we had marveled at the huge pine trees and their forests. Now just an hour away, Sergio summed it up perfectly: ningun arbol, not one tree. The horizon expanded so flat across the land that clouds in the distance looked like they were just a few feet from touching down on the land. Oh, the land! Patagonia’s steppe contained thin and low-level bushes, the only flora that seem to withstand the harsh winds and deep snow drifts of winter. The feeling of the car loafing along a dusty gravel road and the views yielding not even a little hill to hide behind brought my heart back to the salt flats of Uyuni, that endless expanse of nothingness. 

Sergio drove carefully on the interminably rocky road, cursing out drivers who failed to oblige by his idea of safe conduct and marveling at the straightways so long you could land a pair of 747s on them. Almost four hours later he left us in Rio Mayo, graciously pointing the way further South. Because it’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet, we expected to find a small town, but the dusty outpost appears to be of note only due to the dearth of humanity in every direction around it. 

Far and away, this was the slowest flow of traffic that we had ever tried to hitchhike at. 10 or 15 minutes would go by without so much as one vehicle passing, ensuring that we ended up waiting almost two hours for a ride. Not worried by the prospect of spending the night there, we spent the long spring afternoon reading and lounging on the side of the road, bolting upright whenever a car approached in the distance. 

When a car finally did stop, we were whisked away. Compared to the previous leg going 60km/hr on dusty gravel roads, we felt like we were approaching warp speed, flying by the landscape at over double the speed on a smoothly paved road. The two construction workers who picked us up brought us to their hometown of Perito Moreno, and were even nice enough to find us an available campsite to spend the night, Camping Raul. 

Raul was an entertaining character. With a pair of tinted safety goggles and a neon green cap adorning his 71-year old head, he spoke to us in that staccatoed Argentine style, leaving long mid-sentence pauses between furious onslaughts of words. When I told him the price of his campsite was too much for us, he quickly slashed the price in half in exchange for writing some kind words in his guest book. 

The next morning the sunlight began filtering into our tent at 5am, signaling the start of another long day in Patagonia. We walked to the outskirts of Perito Moreno, a dull yet endearing little town, and strategically placed ourselves on the Route 40 South for another day of hitchhiking.

If yesterday had been a story of rejection, today was one of patience. On our way out of town only a few cars passed by, so we walked to the last intersection and peeled off jackets, then sweaters, under the intense heat. The road was so flat and the sun so strong that in the distance I could see the heat rippling up off of the surface, adding an eery element to our position in the middle of a vast desert plain. 

It took over an hour but finally a laboring truck stopped, lifting us temporarily to Bajo Caracoles, over 120kms away yet the next place with any inhabitants. On the way we began progressing through the land of estancias, the type of farm indicative of traditional Patagonian lifestyle. Imagine the biggest ranch you’ve ever seen, multiply it by a factor of ten, and you just might come close to comprehending the size of these fenced in grazing grounds. Dotted with small packs of sheep or cattle, a single can stretch along the road for over 100kms, worthy of its own marking on international maps. 

In Bajo Carracoles we peaked in our experience of desolate tiny towns, as this was just two blocks of huts along the side of the road. Correspondingly, it was the most paltry trickle of traffic yet, as we could go 30 minutes without hearing the rumble of a car from either direction. Luckily, we had a gorgeous view of the snow-kissed Andes mountains behind us.

Again it was a long wait, but salvation struck when an 18 wheeler stopped and we hopped in the front seat adjacent to the gregarious Carlos. He offered to take us as far as Gobernador Gregores, the next town on the 40, but also explained that we might be better off taking a different route: heading first to the Atlantic Coast and then progressing South on Route 3, as there would be more traffic and plenty of trucks. We conferred and studied maps, eventually agreeing with him and deciding we had had enough of the desolate 40. So after a quick pit stop in Gregores to drop off some of the furniture he was hauling, we continued with Carlos onwards to Piedra Buena and the 3. 

The whole way across the flat landscape of Southern Argentina we barely encountered anything; just massive estancias, herds of guanacos (wild llama-like creatures that prowl the steppe), and the undying grasses and bushes of the region. Some stretches were so straight that Carlos just put his elbows on the wheel and forgot about the need to steer, chatting with me instead about Argentina’s economy, global warming, and his retirement plans. 

At 8pm sunlight still reigned as we pulled into Piedra Buena, nothing more than a small collection of houses and a popular overnight stop for truckers. By then we had rode with Carlos for over seven hours and covered plenty of ground, so we decided to make camp and try to make more progress the next day. 

At 7:15 the following morning we were walking to the outskirts of town, and by 7:25 we were in the cab of another huge truck, barreling down the freeway South towards the end of the world. Another day, another amazingly friendly truck driver who was eager to give us a lift and help out some tourists in his native Argentina. Alejandro took us as far as the turnoff point for Rio Gallegos, where he turned East and we walked West, hopping to make our way towards Chile. 

When the second car stopped, my heart skipped a beat. Could it really be that easy? Yup! Matias was our next 18-wheel compatriot, offering to take us all the way to a town just 40 kilometers from our final destination. For the next four hours we rumbled from tip to tip across almost the entire country, finally returning to a view of the Cordillera in the early afternoon to break up the monotony of the never-changing flat landscape. 

Two quick local busses and two friendly rides later we were across the border and in the Chilean town of Puerto Natales, downright joyful and utterly triumphant at having criss-crossed the length and width of Patagonia over the last three days. For the entire 1500 kilometer journey we ended up forking over a total price of $2.50, whereas a bus on the same route would have run us more than $150. We’ll be forever indebted to all the gracious and hospitable drivers of Argentina that made this leg of our journey one of the most memorable and adventurous yet.


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