Saturday, November 03, 2007

Carretera Austral Part 5: Coyhaique and Surroundings

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Thursday, March 08, 2007

Days 9 and 10: Puerto Aysén-Coyhaique road, my birthday, Valle Simpson, a flat, Lago La Paloma.

Previous Chapter - Next Chapter

I woke in a nice wooden room with sun occasionally illuminating the yellow frilly curtains. I could hear Camilo moving around in his room next to mine. The ceiling was a scarce few centimetres above our heads while standing, and the floor sounded hollow and creaky underfoot. The bed was warm, the air was cold. Something about last night... a dream? Something bugging me. Suddenly I remembered: I had been woken by a long, strong earth tremor. 

Little did we know it, but that was the start of a long and intense period of seismic activity that would eventually build up to several strong temblores every night. At its peak, there were about a thousand strong ones per month. Eventually this all led to the 6.2 Richter-scale earthquake of Puerto Aysén on the 21st of April, 2007. For months on end the whole town scarcely managed a full night's sleep, and when the television crews went down there to see what was up, you could see it in their faces, in the way they spoke. Things started getting a little loopy down there. Eventually the big one hit, and a few hillsides slid down into the fjords, something that is generally quite bad for those living on the shoreline. Luckily the landslides happened in scarcely populated areas, but the whole affair did lead to the loss of lives. 

I got out of bed and saw that Tom had disappeared. I found a scribbled note saying that he had gone to get some money changed. 

Upon his return, he brought back a tale rivalling the antics of The Big Lebowsky, and breakfast. We ate, packed, loaded the bikes, and as I threw my leg over, I left a lovely streak of dog shit on the seat. Puerto Aysén was saying goodbye.

The road between Puerto Aysén and Coyhaique gets more and more attractive as you push on. 

Windy, very windy. We came around a curve, and met these beauties.

We stopped. I was thrilled! And from the viewpoint overlooking Coyhaique. It's strange: pictures just don't do this city justice from a distance. 

We rolled into town and found the tourist information office. From there, we scouted a few places to stay, settling eventually for one on Calle Simpson, around the 500s.

The place was nice enough. Think of a house, complete with frilly curtains, a living room with dark furniture, creaky floors, a pendulum clock on the wall and the owner lady... Oh god, where do I begin?

The front door was opened by He-Man's mother, from whom he clearly inherited the bowl-cut blonde hair, but not the sagging double (should I say triple?) chin, not the overwhelming girth, not the scratchy and unpleasant voice nor the habit of speaking with her head thrown back. Concerning the pompous antisemitism I cannot be sure, for I don't remember any israeli backpackers in the cartoon series. 

We didn't have much trouble with her, save for the clear and detailed explanation that, of course, since she was offering lodging at a reduced price, it was not in good manners to request a towel. And so on. No, we had it easy, basically because we did not hail from a dusty country called Israel. 

We worked this out while overhearing how she spoke to a bunch of israeli backpackers (including a couple of the hottest girls we saw on the entire trip). They came in to have a look at the rooms, and seeing that one of the girls would have to sleep upstairs, she went up to have a look. One of the guys started up behind her, curious to see where his friend would be sleeping. "ONE AT A TIME!" she screamed in chilean spanish. "ONE only!". They explained in crude spanish that they just wanted to see what the room was like. Grudgingly she accepted, mumbling to herself. They later discussed some other issue, backpackers looking at each other when they did not understand her unforgivingly fast chilean accent, and Camilo managed to hear her say "Ya! No te hagai el weón, si yo sé que me entendís"; come on, don't act stupid, I know you can understand me perfectly well.

Some time later were treated to her lecture on the inappropriateness of leaving socks to dry in the bathroom, since clearly this was not a laundry shop (all of this through a closed door). And so on.

Once the luggage was unloaded and stuffed in our room we set off to the Reserva Nacional Coyhaique, something that you really should not miss if you're ever down here. It's also very close to the city. 

Before that, however, a small detour to satisfy Tom's suspension bridge fetish. 

Up and up we went; again Tom got placed between us at the entrance to the park. Face plate down, chin peeping out from under the largest helmet he managed to find after the crash, garish colours ablaze in the sun, his travel-weary KLR looking like nothing that might roll back to a chilean garage at the end of the trip. And in we went, paying three local fares. 

I love this city.

Coming up the access road, dusty but solid, I noticed an oil trail. Further ahead, it got more noticeable. And soon it became an all-out spray of oil in the dirt. Ahead, an RV was slowly rolling up the road. I got ahead of him as soon as I could and waved him down. I told him he was losing oil. Oh, said he. Down on my hands and knees, and the engine is coughing oil and white smoke onto the dirt. I went back down to the park ranger's hut, and all the way back to the main road, in case I found the oil plug. I obviously never found it, but I wouldn't find out until much later exactly why I never found it. It is sad to see a motorist confronted with the realisation that he may have had an engine meltdown.

There are several small lagoons in the parks, and paths that go around them. We took one of these paths on foot. Some people were camping in a zone with a few picnic tables, under large conifers, overlooking the lake. Further on, we disappeared amongst the bushes, trees, reeds and long grass. 

And in the middle of it all, a beer can. How unpleasant. Bloody hicks; can't get away from them. 

Came around the corner and what do we have here? 

Ah. That would explain the beer can. Nice ass-burn you're going to have, buddy. 


On we clumped in our riding boots and the surroundings turned gradually into a thick fores of tall trees, but little undergrowth. The light came down in golden shafts. Every here and there we'd see barely-visible tracks going out some 100 metres to the side, and they would always peter out to nothing, leaving us all alone in a tall forest, rich and spongy soil underfoot. So beautiful. 

We emerged at sunset.

Tom had the bright idea of finding out where there might be a local brewery, and he was given directions to D'Olbek beer.

A set of large and beautiful wooden houses set amongst a few conifers here and there, something reminiscent of the area around San Martín de los Andes or Bariloche, in southern Argentina (and by extension, I suppose, reminiscent of villages in the Alps). This is where the D'Olbek family live and make their oh-so-good belgian beer. 

We got a tour of the process, and as we chatted, more and more family members appeared. Would you like to try some? Why of course! A large glass, cold and refreshing, straight from the stainless steel tank. Another glass, perhaps? Why I couldn't say no!

We left happy and content. If you ever see D'Olbek beer, grab a bottle. At that time, it could only had in Santiago via special order, boxes of 16 bottles. Camilo and I might order one, when we get nostalgic. I took a bottle in my saddlebags from Coyhaique to Santiago, the label by then no more than a vague shadow of paper on the brown glass from the vibration, but a few hours in the fridge and I was brought right back to that evening at the D'Olbeck brewery. 

Out to dinner we went, and... well, another Dinas. This seems to be a chain down here. Less solitary drunks this time. 

Early next morning, I wanted a shower. Tom was a brave man and just took it cold. Before doing so, however, while his sleepy heart still held hopes of bathing in warmth, he popped his head out of the bathroom window and asked the owner lady if there was, perhaps, a problem with the hot water. He was treated to a lecture about the perfect functioning of hot water in the house, and that one would have to be mentally sub-par in order not to know that the right-hand tap controlled the flow of hot water. Knowing that simple things were no longer simple in this house, I knocked on the kitchen door, behind which lay the beast. She emergd. "Excuse me, but it would seem that there is no more hot water. Is it, perhaps, a hot-water tank, or..."

Ah, the power of the ellipsis plus a fixed stare. "No, it's a gas heater, I turned it off". Feigning the most genuine surprise, I asked "And why would you turn it off?". Her face shimmied under the many layers of cheek blush, mascara, glitter and eye liner, and adopted an expression of complicity. Through the heavy kitchen door, which had so far served as a visual barrier from the israelis hanging out in the living room, she pointed with her thumb. "I turned it off because of them!". "And why them," I ask. "Because they're israelis", she sentenced in a tone that left no doubt about the fact that her last utterance had been constructed with impeccable, perfect logic. "They're so unpleasant to people!".

After a warm shower (warm surely only because I concealed from her the fact that I was born in Perú) we took the unloaded bikes and set off to see the areas south and west of Coyhaique: Valle Simpson, Lago La Paloma and surroundings. 

We stopped at a place with a sign outside that said simply "QUESO". Cheese. Cantalicio Millar and Juana Navarro were the couple's names, and they made the cheese it right there, in a cool and tiny edifice behind their house, using perforated paint buckets and other clever things.

 They were accustomed to selling whole cheeses, but Tom didn't want a whole one. What with all this fussing about cutting a big one, the cost and other things, Sr Millar said "Ok, ok, I'll give it to ya, take it", and handed Tom a half-cheese they had for visitors. It was a strange combination of exasperation and generosity. Boy, that cheese was tasty. 

Our idea was to go to Lago La Paloma first, and then to Lago Elizalde. 

On the way, this large casona, with a waterfall behind it. Can this area be more beautiful? 

La Paloma lake is a special place. Transparent water, boxed in by tall hills. Those bundles are stuffed with freshly sheared sheep's wool. A guy was bringing them in threes from the other end of the lake, his small boat moving heavily through the water. 

Camilo felt like a swim. Tom and I thoroughly enjoyed tossing stones into the water around him, since he chickened out and never went in above his knees. 

As Tom and Camilo skipped stones on the lake for half an hour (yes, I too find that hard to imagine. Who throws stones at a lake for half an hour? The next morning both were complaining of a sore arm. Hmmm...), I escaped through a closed gate and up a trail on the hillside to see another lake. The road gave a good view of where I had just been. 

The lake turned out to be less interesting than I had imagined, so I pushed on, until I considered that I had gone far enough. 

And so off we went to Lago Elizalde. 

It was then that Camilo got a flat rear tyre. We stopped, plugged the hole with a rubber stopper kit, and he set off, trying to reach Coyhaique to get it fixed before it went flat again. 

I set off after him, and what would you know, two minutes later I suffered the same fate. Witness the culprit: 

Happy birthday to me. I used the flat tyre spray, and it didn't work. This is the third or fourth time that crap has failed me. Different brands, always used as per instructions. Happy birthday. I got one kilometre down the road before it was completely flat again. 

Tom and I set the bike down on the grass and removed the rear wheel. 

At least we had a nice day. 

And with that, we rode back to Coyhaique. That night we passed by the supermarket and bought every ingredient you can think of that ever went in a sandwich, and had a banquet in our room at the crazy lady's place, one eye on the door in case she barged in, like schoolboys. 

The next morning, before I set off, Tom discovered a rather interesting surprise in the bathroom. Someone had left a most inspired and artistic shit in the toilet, as if it were first prize at a contest of yuck. He also commented on its amazing adhesive properties. Camilo and I denied authorship of this masterpiece, which left us with no option but to conclude that one of the israelis left it as subtle sweet vengance. Not bad, not bad at all. 

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