Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Carretera Austral Part 3: Caleta Gonzalo - La Junta

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Monday, March 05, 2007

Days 5 and 6: Ferry from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, La Junta.

The ferry's loading ramp was raised, and we slowly pulled away from Hornopirén. The bikes were tucked away in a corner, normally unused space that we were lucky to be able to occupy. The sea was calm.

The weather was nice, though on deck, the wind cooled anything that was not sheltered. Witness the only use that Camilo's cap got during the entire trip.

Deep and monotonous humming from the ferry's engines. I am on the highest deck, sitting near the hot air grille leading down to the engine room. It's not that cold, and my jacket is warm. An hour ago we left Caleta Ayacara behind, a place where the ferry stops once a week on Thursdays. No sign of the toninas, the local dolphins that usually keep ships company in their crossing of these traits and fjords.

Some chat, some sleep. We are about thirty people, perhaps more, if you count those that are stil sitting in their vehicles. Ah, and one sheep, of course. It was brought aboard at Caleta Ayacara by pushing and pulling, and it peed in protest.

I am surprised at the amount of houses south of Caleta Ayacara. Kilometres and kilometres of shoreline, and a house or two every 100, 200 metres. Every now and then, a church. Behind, the tree-covered hills, and beyond, clouds and a sky that was at times blue, at times white.

Another ventilation duct, now at the stern, middle level. The sun is thirty minutes away from setting. I feel the heat of the sun, the hot air, and the reflection of the sun on the water. I have been all over the ship, looking for the sheep, and I can't find it anywhere. Do they have a sheep locker?

Rust, and the thick marine paint that resists it. Objects and contraptions so massive that rust, should it appear, is not a preoccupation. Anyway. Siting across from me, a heavy metal fan, in a hooded top, Morbid Angel's logo on the chest. He lazily plays an imaginary drum kit formed by his thighs, his knees and his feet. The hot air, permanent rumbling of the engines and the sound of the churning water, the fizz after it comes up all frothy and white, all of that is making me sleepy.

We will get to Caleta Gonzalo late; spending the night is no longer an option.

And so it goes: we had to spend the night. Caleta Gonzalo is within the controversial Parque Pumalín. The first thing you notice upon arrival are the occasional constructions and structures: information center, cafeteria, and so on. Built from wood, well-finished, they give the impression that they were carefully designed and built to simulate an ethno gift and decoration shop. Or perhaps something out of Jurassic Park. It just looked as if they were trying too hard, but that's just me.

We were informed that there are two camp sites. One is 500 metres away and costs 1500 pesos per person. The other, quite some distance away, is more expensive. Or should we just gas it to Chaitén? No, better camp. So off we shuffle with the other semi-dazed travellers.

Off to the side of the road was a small and narrow car parking space; beyond, a short stone wall, and above it, overgrown shrubs and trees. And then a break in the stone wall, and a gaping black hole in the vegetation, dark and spooky as anything you've ever seen. A couple of cyclists wheeled their bikes past us and disappeared in the hole. Since screaming and munching sounds did not ensue, we decided we'd brave it, and started unpacking. We had noticed a DR650 by the entrance, and we did what every biker would: went over and looked at its kit. The rack looked like a cooked noodle, and it had some sort of horrendous rack/frame for panniers made with steel construction bars (yes, the type you normally pour concrete over) rusted and apparently once painted with spray paint. Despite these details, the bike sported a Kryptonite U-lock and a Xena disc lock plus alarm. An interesting contradiction.

The way in was narrow. Did I mention it was dark? Night had fallen as we unpacked the bikes. The trail ran sometimes along the forest floor, sometimes on nice quaint elevated walkways. And soon, 30 cm from the ground and spaced every few metres, those nice dim path lights that some people use on their front lawns. This was not like camp sites I know.

Further ahead, a human traffic jam. Cyclists and backpackers were clogging the narrow path, and two guys in jackets and caps were charging a fee before people crossed the long hanging bridge.

We paid, crossed the bridge, straining under the weight of *all* our luggage (so as not to leave anything unattended on the bikes), and on the other side... a surprise. It looked like a garden from someone's large house in the very well-off corner of Santiago: Stone paths, neatly trimmed grass, islands of bushes and plants here and there, no doubt laid out according to the teachings of Feng Shui, and the aforementioned garden lights. By the entrance after coming out of the forest were large information panels made from hand-carved wood, ethno lettering and so on. They informed the visitor about the private nature of the park and similar things.

We set up the tents and headed off towards the common cooking area, some quinchos with picnic tables. Camilo had managed to find the only guy wearing a touring jacket, and the three of us sat down to eat crappy food and chat. It turns out that Nicolás had worked at ING while Camilo was there. He told us about his bike's rack, how it had had a more dignified start in life, at least during the conceptual stage. He had even tried having it made by Alejandro Muñoz, the same guy that made my rack and who was, by now, quite well known amongst Santiago bikers.Unfortunately Alejandro said he wouldn't be able to make it in a few days, so Nicolás set off to Lira, the motorcycle street, to find the first guy with a welding kit that could throw it together. If I'm not mistaken he took it to Lifan, importers of the ever crappy, ever failing chinese bikes that are flooding the Chilean market. He had no need to continue, for I knew already where the source of its crappiness lay. They did a half-assed job, and by 7 pm, when they closed shop, it was still not ready. He took it home as it was, and the paint was a last-ditch attempt at keeping rust at bay. Nico was now on his way home (he'd reached Caleta Tortel), and it had broken several times since he set out.

That night I discovered the loss of my sleeping mat. It was very cold. I had to use my sheepskin seat liner to insulate myself from the ground. It was so cold, I took a few swigs from the pisco hip flask I had. And I think I lit the gas stove in the tent.

The next morning, sun!

Chaitén was close, so we wouldn't stop there.


If I'm not mistaken, this is Puente Yelcho, inaugurated towards the end of the 90s. Before that you needed a barge to get across.

Yelcho Glacier.

Villa Santa Lucía.

I came around a curve, and there was Camilo chatting with another biker. And that's how we met Tom Paprocki, from Wisconsin ( He had come all the way from home on his KLR, nicknamed El Jugoso.

Doubltess my favourite sticker is the "Chofer Mimoso" one. Usually seen in urban buses and taxis in Latin America, it roughly translates as "Cuddly Driver".

He was going at a slower pace than we were not only because he was alone, but more importantly because he was involved in a serious accident in Bolivia, fault of a truck driver, that sent his riding buddy back to a US hospital.

I love these road signs. Surely they were out of uphill signs, and rotated a downhill sign.

We noticed that our home made bash plate was also a cowshit plate. Is that the biggest skid mark you've seen or what?

In La Junta we took a cabin for the three of us, made pasta, and befriended Tom.

There is an amazingly well stocked supermarket at La Junta. They have everything. This is also the only point where you can use a debit/credit card for hundreds of kilometres in any direction. As if that weren't enough, they are also a Copec gas station. The supermarket also has a few internet points, a bizarrely advanced point-of-sale system running on a couple of recent PCs at the counter, several surveillance cams, fresh fruit, cheese, everything. And outside, speakers playing music, apparently a looped CD of La Oreja de Van Gogh. Check it out on Youtube to get a feel for what we were being exposed to.

Something interesting from the website:

That was La Junta in 1981, with 40 houses. And today:

I recommend you take a look at the Vialidad website (if you speak spanish); they've put together a wonderful photographic essay of the different parts of the Carretera Austral, all packed with interesting info.

A few parting words on speedboats. Think of the speedboats you've seen throughout your life: Don't most of them lie forgotten in garages and patios? To me, they are sculptures that remind us that not all purchases made by the Man of the family are wise, or well considered. But anyway. Perhaps some day this boat will see water again.

Next Chapter: La Junta - Puerto Aysén

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Carretera Austral Part 2: Puerto Montt and Hornopirén

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Monday, March 05, 2007

Days 4 y 5: Pucón-Puerto Montt, Start of the Ruta 7, Hornopirén.

Previous Chapter - Next Chapter

Despite having gone to bed late, I woke up early. The tent was not sunlit. I could hear a soft, constant noise, the occasional crinkle of a plastic bag at another campsite, the clink of a fork a few tents off. What was that soft, constant noise then? My consciousness drifted here and there, compared it to the sound a TV makes when it gets no signal, and promptly shut down for another five minutes of dozing. My eyes popped open wide when I understood what the noise was: rain. Crap. That meant that we'd have to take everything apart and pack in the rain.

We did, and it was quite unpleasant. Somewhere in the pile of stuff that we had on top of and below the campsite's table (both slightly drier than everywhere else thanks to a tree) was my inflatable bed roll. I got it as a Christmas present, it's one of those thin ones that self-inflate. A few days later I realised I had lost it, most certainly hanging in the tree or tucked out of the rain under the table.

Wet and uncomfortable in our yellow rain suits, we set off. We didn't want to have anything to do with the scenery, turnoffs, tourist stops. We just wanted to get there as soon as possible.

And we did. Stopping at service stations every now and then, for food or fuel. On one of those stops some naive soul, glancing at the half-donned rain suits as we munched some food, actually asked Camilo if we were motorcycle delivery people. Ah, the wonders and mysteries of thy neighbour's mind...

One thousand kilometres from Santiago, and night fell.

We rode in to Puerto Montt quite late, and weren't too thrilled at what we managed to see of the city. We decided to stay at a hotel (Millahue), so we could dry our things and get good rest before the main leg of the journey. It was still raining.

The next morning we trudged over to the Easy home maintenance store to buy a few things. I got the unpleasant surprised that my waterproof gators, needed to complement my short touring boots, had had some sort of existential crisis, and were no longer waterproof. It seems the rubberized backing just dissolved. I wonder why, since they weren't a year old.

I decided to buy a few metres of polyethylene, transparent contact glue, 3M two-sided outdoors sticky tape. The plan was to extend my rain suit's trousers with all of this, since they rode up whenever I was on the bike. Camilo bought kitchen gloves (yes, those yellow rubber ones), since his gloves were getting soaked.

Before we left the room, I noticed that roof of the building next to the hotel had been used for some strange re-decorating sessions.

We set off in the rain towards Hornopirén. We were finally on the Camino Longitudinal Austral, the Ruta 7. We didn't know what to expect: mud, holes, washboard, giant rocks.

After about 60 km of riding we reached Caleta La Arena, where we took the first ferry. The queue of vehicles was quite long, but we just buzzed straight down to the loading ramp. Ah, the beauty of motorbikes. If you can't do this sort of thing where you live, it's time to pack up and ride across a border or two.

We bought the last empanadas we'd see for a while, which we had not time to finish before El Trauco came in.

It rained still.

The ferry was swaying a bit, and both bikes were in risk of toppling over, particularly mine. Beside us, a large truck, rocking on its suspension with each wave. Unsettling, to say the least.

On the other end, about 50 km to Hornopirén.

You can't really see it clearly, but down there by the river there's a wall of nalcas, giant-leaved plants that were a constant sight in the damp areas from this point on.

We had no way of knowing it then, but this segment of the Ruta 7 was a good approximation of what the rest of it would be like. The fears we might have had about mud turned out to be unfounded, and though some parts of the trip were harder than others, we never had serious road trouble (not considering the stretches of loose stones and strong crosswinds that make your palms sweat).

The greatest danger on the Ruta 7 are other vehicles. In many places the road is not wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other without having one of them slow down and brush the overhanging vegetation aside. Most parts of it were what one might call a three-track road, and some times gravel, stones or loose earth lay outside of these three tracks. That meant that having to leave the right-most track at high speed would result in a certain fall.

Sometimes the road was wide, flat and well packed. This was generally the case in areas of dense vegetation, where there was enough organic material in the road surface to keep things from turning nasty too quickly.

In Hornopirén, it rained still.

We rode up to the small office of Naviera Austral, but they were closed for lunch. There were many people parked on the narrow road that passed the office and led down to the loading ramp. Quite a few were standing about: a few families, a few young backpackers, a few foreign tourists. A young guy finally came out of the office, and by the way people looked at him, he probably worked there. A gringa asked a question in bad spanish, and so he answered in English. I barged in, speaking in English as well, and when he was no longer able to understand what I was saying, I switched back to Spanish. This seemed to surprise him and those around us. What, can't a guy have two native languages? Though I was not a pretty blonde, I had briefly been a gringo, and had my questions answered, but now that I was merely a chileno, he gave me the cold shoulder and buggered off down the few slick wooden steps, into the tiny garden, out the small rusty gate, and disappeared in the general direction of the tiny cluster of trinket and homemade food stalls. A first taste of what we would later learn is Naviera Austral's modus operandi.

There was no space on the ferry that day, and there were people in Hornopirén who had to wait three or four days for a ticket. Luckily we were able to get something for the next day, again thanks to the fact that were were a pair of motorbikes and not something larger.

That night we visited every single hardware store in Hornopirén, searching for a 12 mm allen wrench. Camilo needed it to take the front wheel off, should he get a flat. We came across what must be the best-equipped small-town hardware store we've ever seen. Bicycle brake lines, chains, wrench sockets, nails, glues, lubricants, license plate frames, rolls of wire, netting, the list just went on and on. And Camilo found what he was looking for, so after chatting to the nice guy behind the counter, we were off to the supermarket to find something to eat.

I open my eyes and turn the cellphone's alarm off one final time.
The constant purr of the small gas heater, the cold air, and the two blankets on my bed are not something that I'd normally need in February. Outside it is softly raining. Anything in the room that might serve as a hook (including the curtain rails) has at least two damp things hanging off it, drying. Camilo is still asleep. I peek through the curtains. There are the bikes: soaked, bits of mud and sand stuck to them. If I visually follow the narrow path up to the cabin into the distance, over the trees and bushes, I can see the black silhouettes of the hills, covered in dense vegetation.
At that moment the clouds part slightly. The room is now slightly lighter, a shadow here and there become more defined. On the bikes, a few drops manage a glimmer. And then the clouds close up again. I have a feeling that was the only bit of sun I'll see all day.

Since my bike was unloaded, I went for a spin.

After the rain, sun!

I went up a small dirt road towards the Parque Nacional Hornopirén, passing through the small town of Chaqueihua. The road ended in front of a saw mill, and further on, a wooden gate across the entrance of a place that looked very much like private property, though it was apparently the way in to the park. I glanced at the map again. My desire to reach the Lago General Pinto Concha was not to be fulfilled. (Spanish speakers will understand my motivation :-).

At the saw mill I was told that there is another road that went all the way up to another lake. The road was not an easy one, but you could do it on a motorbike. So off I went.

And yes, the road was indeed a 4x4-only trail. Large volcanic rocks, loose and part of the ground made riding hard but very, very fun.

Up and up I went, riding gleefully through muddy puddles that covered the crank case, gassing it over unreasonably sharp and gigantic rocks, I came to a place that was almost impossible to do if you weren't coming at it fast. (Never forget the difference between attempting to get over an obstacle using the engine alone, versus the engine plus your inertia). I lost speed, and nearly went over to my left, in one of those nearly-nearlies at 0 km/h.

The Polo brand gators that I was wearing (in case of rain and as a substitute for my other ones) were ripped to shreds after kicking and slipping on the sharp volcanic rocks. With the kind help of a guy that came out of nowhere I was able to push the bike up over the hard part and carry on. Soaked in sweat (because I was in my rain trousers), I pushed on.

After more puddles, mud and all the rest, I decided to stop. The trail had become ridiculously steep and irregular, to the point that I was not sure whether I could safely come back down it without a problem. The visit to lake Cabrera was therefore left for another day.

Coming down turned out to be easier than going up, and just as much fun. This is the house (and probably the family) of the guy that helped me.

And this is the hard part. The picture was taken looking up the slope, so the horizon is really about where the rocks between the diagonal boards are, in the lowr third of the picture.

Soaked in sweat, covered in mud, volcanic sand and dead leaves, I arrived at the cabin, where Camilo was sunbathing or something equally unmanly. He set off to get a place in the ferry's queue, and I changed clothes and packed my stuff. I took off my jeans and put on some semi-water-resistant trousers I bought for cheap at a place that sells fireman and ambulance crew uniforms and kits, complete with reflective stripes around the trouser legs. My tshirt was soaked, so it got strapped to my luggage, and I just wore my bike jacket. Excuse me, miss, where's the bachelorette's party?

We boarded without a hitch, and they tied the bikes down with clicky straps. When everyone was aboard, a family on the ferry's frontal loading ramp was still arguing with the crew. "We have a reservation, we have purchased tickets that show our vehicle's license plate, the ticket is for today, and you're not letting us onboard". The crew member just said that they'd better get off the ramp, because the boat was about to set sail. And with that, by raising the loading ramp, the argument was over. A gentleman leaned over and commented, upon observing all of this, that this scene was one that happened time and time again. "No, this always happens. It's a shame". Long live Naviera Austral.

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