The Ventisquero Sound, Puerto Puyuhuapi, Chile
A quiet shore - the Ventisquero Sound

Leaving Patagonia, Slowly: RTW, The First Five Weeks

In the early days of January I sketched out the only rough timeline that would ever be produced for my current round the world trip. According to that document, one hastily scribbled onto a moving box, I would be saying my goodbyes to the northern reaches of Argentina and Chile in the waning days of February, and looking forward to an extended stay somewhere in Bolivia. Perhaps in the thin air of Potosi or Sucre.

That won’t be happening. Not just yet.

As the harrier flies, I’m still more than 2,400 kilometers from the nearest land crossing to Bolivia, and I’m not feeling particularly rushed to get there. A work gig I had lined up there went sour, taking with it any sense of urgency. I am still eagerly looking forward to it. I just haven’t had enough of Patagonia just yet.

At the moment I’m in Puerto Puyuhuapi, a sleepy village on Chile’s Carretera Austral, where I’m in the middle of an eight-day stay, my longest in one place since I arrived in South America five weeks ago yesterday. My body was begging for a bit of R&R, my mind hoping for a pause for reflection; when I pulled into this quiet lakeside setting on Sunday, I was happy to oblige both body and soul.

Patagonian Time

I knew before I set off last month that plans, no matter how fluid, would invariably change – sometimes dramatically. I didn’t know, however, how much I’d be sucked in by this rugged, and at times pristine corner of the planet.

At the terminus of the Enchanted Forest Trail. Seriously. Queulat National Park, Patagonia, Chile
At the terminus of the Enchanted Forest Trail. Seriously. Queulat National Park, Chile

It’s not too difficult to allow yourself to be lost in time here, or better still, allowing time to lose you. You may know what I mean by that if you’ve ever spent the better part of five hours unsuccessfully hunting a single bird with a lens or spending seven hours trying to hitch a ride that never comes – and not caring in the slightest that those hours have passed you by.

I could have comfortably spent a month getting to know Ushuaia, if only to barely touch the surface of the southernmost city in the world and the people who chose to make that isolated corner of Tierra del Fuego home. I’ll have to settle with reaching the end of the world and hanging out with nearly 4,000 penguins. No complaints.

Magellanic Penguins, Martillo Island, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, 31-Jan-2013

Punta Arenas, Chile’s southern frontier on the Magellan Strait, had a similar allure, one that attracted southern, central and northern Europeans by the thousands more than a century-and-a-half ago to its remote setting.

There are the unspoiled Sounds and fjords near Puerto Natales, Chile, and the rugged peaks and trekking trails near El Chalten on the Argentine side of the Andes nearby, where spending just three and five days, respectively, almost seemed a sign of disrespect. In both places I met people who, passing through as outsiders nearly three decades ago, have yet to leave. I was profoundly pleased that the Patagonian winds pushed away the clouds, ever so briefly, to give me a clear view of Mt. Fitz Roy for my birthday. And I can’t leave out hearing and seeing the humbling might that calves a glacier with terrifying grace.

Perito Moreno 16

And then there is Chile’s relatively isolated Carretera Austral, or Magellanic Highway area, where I’m slowly traveling through now and in no hurry to leave. From the border town of Chile Chico, where Inbal, a travel partner for a week and I started on the byway, to Puerto Puyuhuapi, where I’m sitting right now, I’ve witnessed and experienced more disparate and unique landscapes –all stunning in their own way— than in any other similarly sized area of the world. From 3,000-meter Andean peaks and azure blue lakes to wide expanses of rugged steppe and glacier-fed mountain lagoons, this part of Chile’s Aysen region has it all. Everything but ATMs, fast food joints and paved roads.

Self-evaluation

Puyuhuapi is the consummate sleepy town, nestled at the north end of the Seno Ventisquero (Seno = Sound), an extension of the much larger Canal Puyuhuapi whose blue waters can be seen well before the rough road finally descends towards this settlement that 500 people call home. I instantly got a good feeling about the place, coupled with that call to put on the breaks and stay in one place for a brief stretch. A period to reflect on where I’ve been, where I’m headed, what I’ve been doing and how I’ve done it. And to do a little catching up.

Lago General Carrera at Rio Tranquilo
Lago General Carrera at Rio Tranquilo

There’s been an itch of guilt –albeit a tiny one— lingering unscratched in the back of my mind for not having done much writing here on Piran Café over the past five weeks. I’ve been busily collecting notes from the outset, sometimes incessantly, for what I hope will evolve into a book-length manuscript. I haven’t, however, figured out how to balance that with writing here since the focus of each is necessarily very different. I’m working on a plan, though, that will be set in motion shortly. ☺

I’ve been fairly pleased with the photography aspect of the trip so far – I’ve snapped lots, and have managed to publish at least a few almost daily here and on my Facebook and Google+ pages. Check those out when you’ve got a few minutes – most are public so there’s no need to have accounts to view them.

Fuchsia magellanica, in El Clafate
Fuchsia magellanica, in El Calafate

Moving forward

I decided a few days ago that I quite likely won’t be returning to Argentina, staying in Chile instead to travel nearly the entire length of this long, skinny country before heading to Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama. The country’s shape, at 4,630 kilometers long and just 430 at its widest, has always fascinated me. It’s difficult to imagine what exactly the people living in the relative isolation of Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost ‘real’ city where I visited three weeks ago, have in common with those who live in the capital Santiago, some 2,200 kilometers to the north.

The working plan is to travel overland to Portland, Oregon, in the U.S. Pacific Northwest before heading west over the Pacific. I’ve got a long way to go and part of me says that I’ve got to keep on moving. To get a sense of how far south I still am, Puyuhuapi, at 44°19′00″ S, is further south than Cape Agulhas (34°50′00″ S), the southernmost tip of Africa, further south than all of Australia and virtually all of New Zealand. To illustrate how little ground I’ve covered, the southernmost point I reached is Martillo Island, home to the penguin colony on the Beagle Channel, at 54°52′00″ S. That’s just 1,227 kilometers away.

But part of me is also saying: ‘Dude, just keep going with the flow.’

My only deadline now, as far as reaching a certain place at a pre-determined time, is to meet my old friend and college roommate Drew at the Panamanian-Costa Rican border sometime in the last few days of June. So for now, I’m going to stick with the flow option.

Most immediately?

I’ll be leaving Puyuhuapi on Saturday for Chaiten – I just purchased the last remaining ticket – where I’ll stay for a night or two before moving on to the port city of Puerto Montt to mark the official end of the Carretera Austral. Depending on weather conditions and the boats used, a direct ferry connecting the two takes eight to 12 hours. A combo overland and ferry option, depending on the connections, could easily take up to three days from Chaiten, if I don’t stop much along the way. I’ll quite likely do the latter.

Even Chileans are advising that there isn’t much to see or do in Puerto Montt so I won’t be there long, but I do have a mission. My zoom lens has been misbehaving and I’m hoping the root of the problem isn’t beyond the capabilities of technicians at the Canon dealer there. Fingers crossed.

I’m also seriously considering some Spanish language courses very soon. I was planning to take an intensive two week class in Bolivia, but my inability to carry on anything beyond the most basic of conversations is growing more frustrating by the day. I’m looking into some possibilities in Pucon, a popular outdoors destination about 300 kilometers north of Puerto Montt. If anyone has any other suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them. Muchas gracias, and thanks for reading.

~ By the Numbers: The First Five Weeks ~

Number of days: 37
Number of countries visited: 2
Number of bus rides: 10
Number of hitchhikes: 2
Number of beds: 12
Number of National Parks visited: 4
Number of museums visited: 4
Number of cemeteries visited: 3
Number of trips to a laundry: 4
Number of red wines tasted: sorry, I lost count in Buenos Aires

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