Sage words for anybody traveling the Carretera Austral. We encountered this expression in different forms and different languages along the way, eventually passing them along to other travelers. A long, lonely dirt road stretching from Chaiten in the north to Villa O’Higgins in the south, the Carretera is more than a transit route–it’s a frame of mind. Somewhat akin to the mythic status of Route 66, travelers moving north and south on the Austral swap wisdom, bond in moments high & low, sharing in both the inspiration and bewilderment encountered along the way. We came to Patagonia for the magnificent scenery, but found the experience of the Carretera Austral an entity onto itself.
The first thing to know about the Carretera is that the bus may be coming, may have already left, might be here now, or may no longer exist. All this may be true, all this may not be true. As a consequence, it is very easy to get stranded along the way and one must have patience and perhaps a bit of luck with the hitcher’s thumb.
We came to the Carretera Austral via the overnight ferry from Puerto Montt in the north. Imagine taking the Staten Island ferry, for ten hours. Yup, it was like that. Somehow or another we managed to catch a bit of sleep before arriving in Chaiten, a small town nestled in an idyllic spot along the coast between the northern and southern sectors of Parque Pumalin. Chaiten has water, mountain, trees and oh— there’s also a wee Volcano bearing it’s name just up the way. It is Volcan Chaiten which truly defines the area, since the volcano erupted and flooded the town with volcanic ash two years back. The Chilean government did not want Chaiten to be resettled, but the settlers mindset is hard to shake in the people out here, and they returned to dig out from the ash on their own. Eventually, acknowledging the people were not going to leave, the government reversed its position and began work to repair infrastructure. We arrived a few days after the electricity was restored, and did not take many pictures for concern of engaging in a morbid type of disaster tourism.
Our first experience with the Carretera Austral came the morning after we arrived in Chaiten. We left our things behind in town and set out, on the advice of the local government tourism official, to hitch our way into Parque Pumalin for a two day hike. Standing on the side of the road, playing a spirited game of “toss the stone at the bottle,” we met two cyclists completing their month-long Austral journey. Justin, from the Hudson Valley and Matt of Sheffield, UK, had emerged from the woods where they had set up shop at an abandoned campsite by the ocean. “Come stay,” they encouraged, “it’s got everything you need!”
We waited a few hours and got a ride as far as a remote airstrip 10 km north of town, where the lone bus ends its route. Alas, the summer ferry in the north of the park had shut down, effectively eliminating all north/south transit and removing any possibility of getting a ride into the park. Realizing the futility of our mission, we returned to Chaiten, forlorn and disappointed. Rather than spend another night in a hostal, we slipped into the woods north of town, discovering the oceanside retreat our cyclist friends Matt & Justin spoke of. There, we pitched our tent and spent the rest of the day by the ocean, reading. Come evening, we joined the campfire proceedings with Matt, Justin, a litter of puppies, and a couple hitchhikers from France. A great time was had by all.
The next day, we set our sails further south, with the ultimate goal of reaching the town of Puyuhuapi and the nearby Parque Nacional Qeuelat. Everything started well enough, with the morning bus arriving, as promised, at ten. The only catch was that this bus only went as far as La Junta, a mere hour from our intended destination. Surely there’d be another?
The bus ride to La Junta was four bumpy and dusty hours, winding our way through the most amazing scenery you can imagine. Both Lex and I were literally dropping our jaws with every turn. It was perhaps the most beautiful ride we’ve ever been on. So beautiful, in fact, that we didn’t mind one bit both times that the bus broke down. We had our tent and our food and would have gladly stayed anywhere along the road. Anywhere, that is, except La Junta.
La Junta is a kind of ranch town, carved into a broad valley by settlers given land grants from the Chilean government in the 1930’s and 40’s. We arrived, blissed out from the ride and even happier yet, having learned that in an hour more there would be a connecting bus to Puyuhuapi. Success!
Or perhaps not. The bus driver emerged from the “office” at the “station” declaring there would be no departure until 5:30AM the next day. With rainclouds gathering, we figured it’d be better to spend the night inside where we could easily get up and meet the bus. We purchased our tickets, and were assured by the bus company that the driver would stop at our lodging on the way out of town and that there was no need to walk to the station.
The next day, after an evening in an establishment that nearly won the budget traveler’s award for Worst Sleep Ever, we waited through the rainy pre-dawn hours for a bus that never came. If you’re ever in La Junta, you’ll discover that about 10 minutes is enough, no less a full twenty-four hours.
We were stranded, with little recourse and no desire to spend another day. We tried to get a ride, to no avail, eventually returning to the bus station to argue our case. After a slightly tense exchange, they refunded our fare and alerted us to the presence of a different, rival bus company on the other end of town. Through the rain we trod, only to learn that their bus had already departed, but there was a third and final bus line with an office in town.
By office, I mean to say shack. An empty, dilapidated shack bearing numerous contradictory postings concerning the comings and goings of Buses Becker. The neighboring shopkeeps, who presumably see each arrival and departure through their store windows, offered partially encouraging counsel. One said a bus would arrive today around 1pm. The other said only the following Sunday. Yet another was sure the bus came Wednesdays at 3pm. We retreated to the town square, figuring our odds were pretty good for a midday deliverance from La Junta.
Exhausted from the early rise, we hit a low point and decided that we might as well just complete the picture and pass out on a park bench in the town plaza. When I woke up, I recognized a lone traveler who had been camped by the side of Carretera earlier that morning, trying to grab a ride in the opposite direction. There is something about desperate situations that engenders the possibility of immediate friendship.
We spent the rest of the day hanging out with Javier from Valparaiso, a very cool younger guy hitchhiking his way up from Chile Chico. He wants to open a cultural center in Valparaiso, providing both performance space and fundraising capacity for the local art, cinema, music, and poetry scenes. He wants to help the different scenes grow together as one, and to help his hometown gain notoriety. Frowns turned upside down, and, low & behold, right about 3 pm Buses Becker rolled into town to carry us that final, hard-won 40 km to Puyuhuapi.
Glad to hear you are finally ‘on the bus’. Isabella Hope Kotch, was born 3.10.11 –6 lbs, 3 oz -19 in long. Marivi is fine, Micah is proud, all are home. Izzy is so small, just a little bigger than a burrito. Cute as a button!!!
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This is an amazing post. I can only imagine the scenery and those types of intense highs and lows that you can only feel stranded in a foreign country. Wish I were with you guys!
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