Part 2: El Bolsón to Puerto Ibañez – hitching down the Carretera Austral, Patagonia proper & experiencing English weather

Hitch-hiking long distances

We covered a lot of ground in this middle section, though mostly through hitching. We did very little actual hiking, though we did have one of our most exciting moments on trail. It was also in this section that we realised the map/planned itinerary in our proposal (to Imperial College Exploration Board for the funding) was for a slightly different expedition. We had initially planned to do a hiking/pack-rafting version of the GPT, but decided later on that we didn’t have enough expertise for the water aspects and just stuck to hiking. Forgot to update the trail in the proposal though, which thankfully didn’t cause any major problems.

El Bolsón to Coyhaique

We stayed in El Bolsón for three nights as we tried to figure out our next plan of action while fattening up. We had heard from the German guy we met a few days before that one of the sections was quite difficult to navigate, and so opted to skip that section too. But as we discussed our past experience trying to get food and the much slower pace than expected, we decided that perhaps the best course of action to take would be to hitch the bulk of the distance we were intending to cover and just hike the end bits which would be in Patagonia proper, a different landscape to the one we were in before. Eventually, we decided to hitch from El Bolsón to Coyhaique (the biggest city in Chilean Patagonia), stock up in the supermarket there, then get back on the trail from Puerto Aysén to Puerto Ibañez.


Much rock around El Bolsón, Argentina

While in El Bolsón though, called the hippie city, we did a short hike up the nearby Cerro Amigo (friend hill) with some friends we made at the hostel (La Casa del Arbol). We also took advantage of supermarkets and cooking facilities at the hostel to eat nice meals and fatten up a bit. As nice as it was to be in a hostel (a bed, a solid roof, hot water shower, gas stoves, what more would we want!), we couldn’t stay there for ever, and so on day 24 (9 Dec 2016), we split into pairs and started hitching south, with the intention of regrouping in Coyhaique.


El Bolsón from up on Cerro Amigo

Argentinians are known to be very proud of their European heritage, and from chatting with people from Buenos Aires in our hostel, we found out that there is some preference of whites over non-whites (not outright discrimination like refusing to serve someone etc, but more of a reluctance of families to accept a non-white marrying in kinda stuff). Given that Hamish and Anne (we had split into pairs cos it’d be easier to hitch that way) got a ride before us (they had initially hung back while Omar and I tried to get a ride out of the city. But after waiting for a pretty long while, they decided to go ahead of us and try their luck. Technically, anyone able to give a lift should see us first, so we get a ride before them), maybe there is more subtle discrimination about.

Here, our stories diverge. Omar and I managed to get to Esquel, a little town 164km south, just as the sun set, taking 4 hitches, including a Chilean truck driver and a young couple with a 2.5 months old baby. Then hitched a ride to Trevelin (a little Welsh settlement in Patagonian Argentina) the next day (D25), struggled to get out of that town, before catching 3 hitches to Futuleufú (Chilean town right across the border), though not without a decent amount of walking. Treated ourselves to a nice dinner at El Rincon de Mamá (salmon a la pobre, CLP12,000) before settling down for the night.

The next day (D26), it rained pretty much the entire time. We took 3 rides to get to Coyhaique from Futuleufú, one with an Argentinan woman building cabañas (vacation cabins) at Lago Locanao, then a German couple who’s been vacationing in Patagonia for the last 5 years to El Pangue, which was along the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7), and finally a pair of twins studying medicine in Santiago, who were extremely nice. We stopped by Puyuhuapi and past the glaciers along the Carretera Austral, finally getting into Coyhaique in the late evening. We had hoped to do a quick hike in Bosque Encantada along the way, but time was running short. We managed to locate Hamish and Anne, staying in Hostal Austral (CLP10,ooo) which was a pre-university converted to hostel in the summer. They managed to arrive in Coyhaique late the night before, having got a few good long rides.

We stocked up on food from the supermarket Unimarc the next day (D27), getting lots of salami and chorizo (which can scarcely be found in the small village ‘supermarkets’), chocolate, peanuts, and brown rice, brown pasta and brown flour. We then took the bus to Puerto Aysén (CLP2200), and realised on arrival that because we had decided on our next plan of action based on our proposal, which was following a pack-rafting route, we had actually made a detour. The hiking trail, as was shown on our Garmin GPS device, is from Coyhaique, but none of us had thought to check the GPS before taking the bus. So we spent a night in Puerto Aysén, before hitching back to Coyhaique the next morning (we thought it was a bus we flagged down but the driver was just super nice and gave us a lift).

Coyhaique to Villa Cerro Castillo 

Finally back on trail (D28), but mostly involved walking on the asphalt road. We managed to cover a lot more ground naturally, and while it’s nice to walk on flat ground and not worry about tripping over roots and rocks, the dust from passing vehicles made it a less pleasant time.

Perhaps one of the more grim days of walking, it was pouring down with continuous rain the entire day (D29). We covered 21km, the most we had walked in any day. I guess we walk more when the weather is shite, cos no one wants to stop and linger for long. As we passed Elizalde, a little village on route, there were bus stops along the road, and we took advantage of the shelter to make pasta for dinner. We had no gas stoves with us, having been making fires to cook every night, but we carried used cans around with us for just such a situation. Some solid fuel tablets in a makeshift can stove, and we managed to whip up some edible grub. A word of caution to everyone out there – putting brown pasta in cold water and waiting for it to heat up enough to cook on a solid fuel stove does not make great dinners. It tasted like we were eating disintegrated semi-cooked brown wheat bits. The sauce was pretty good though, and made it easier for the stodgy mess to go down the throat.

In contrast to the previous day, day 30 was a bit sunnier (with occasional sprinkles). Along with having some coffee (could make a fire cos we slept in an abandoned barn for the night, though it took Omar much effort) and muesli for breakfast, my mood improved and I found it easier to keep up with the other three. I usually lag behind them a fair amount, having found it a struggle to keep with their pace. That didn’t last very long though, and soon I was lagging behind again. Hamish and Anne were soon out of sight, we managed to miss a sign Hamish had created to indicate a turning, and ended up walking an extra 1.5km along Lago Monreal. We soon realised we had lost them when we never caught up with them, and backtracking was way harder, with the wind now in our faces going uphill. Hamish came to find us, and we passed a settler who sold us bread and little fried buns for CLP2000. We eventually got back on trail, and for once found that there were no fences on either side of the trail. As wild as Patagonia is made out to be, lots of it appears to be fenced.

The next day (D31), we experienced real English weather. The day started out pleasant enough, going through a forest, before getting increasingly unpleasant. First a river crossing, then a bog, more forest, scree slopes, a steep rocky scramble, finally flattening out to a plateau. The trail was mostly lost by this point, and we went on following the GPS trail, along a steep side of hill. We trudged along, closely behind each other with Hamish behind me to guard me from falling down when gusts blew, but eventually Omar realised the seriousness of the situation. By this point, not only were our feet wet from crossing the bog, but it had also been raining continuously, with periods of hail, and as we gained altitude, rain became snow and we were rather soaked to the bone. With sleet in our faces and dropping visibility, Omar made the call to back track and find shelter. We dropped some altitude to head towards the tree line, and set up camp there for the night. Not the most comfortable, still being on the hill with roots in the way, but we were out of the gale at least, and could warm up and dry off in our sleeping bags.

When day broke (D32), we discussed over breakfast whether to proceed with the trail or turn back, given that we were unsure of weather and trail conditions. Going on following the GPS would have entailed going down a ravine then back up to cross the mountain pass to get to Villa Cerro Castillo. We had enough food to last one or two days more, three days at a stretch. Despite the strong winds and freezing cold, I was keen on going forward and exploring the possibilities of crossing the mountain pass, as was Omar. Hamish and Anne erred on the side of caution and lack of information, and wanted to back track to the road and hitch to Villa Cerro Castillo. There was no possibility of us splitting up, so we headed back down the plateau to our previous campsite, where we spent almost 6 hours drying everything out over a blazing fire.

Villa Cerro Castillo to Puerto Ibañez

Getting to Villa Cerro Castillo from where we were by road was no easier on day 33, as even on the roads there was barely any traffic. We backtracked about 5km on the road, battling the winds, and stopping to have our quick lunch of, no prizes for guessing, a chapati. As always, when you start eating, a potential ride goes past. Thankfully another came by soon enough and the couple kindly dropped us off along the Carretera Austral, where we could hitch the next ride to Villa Cerro Castillo, since they were heading north back to Coyhaique. Our next ride Daniel, who works for Travel Aysen, brought us down the Carretera Austral to the road that split off leading to Villa Cerro Castillo. While waiting to hitch our next ride, we met a cycle-touring Swiss couple whom we had met earlier in the north of the Carretera Austral, when it was pissing down rain and we were trying to get to Coyhaique. We met them again in Villa Cerro Castillo, and then again in Cochrane – what can we say, Patagonia is small? Just as we managed to flag down another ride, the medical student twins who gave us a ride to Coyhaique passed in the opposite direction, and reversed back to say hi. I suppose when there’s just one major road in this huge expanse, it makes the place seem quite small.
Our next ride, a Chilean guy and his Canadian partner, got us to Villa Cerro Castillo, and were full of interesting information. He apparently lived in Canada for a while, but came back when there were proposals to dam the Río Baker to join in the fight against it. It was a huge controversy – in many places, we saw stickers or signs that said ‘Patagonia Sin Represas‘ (Patagonia Without Dams). From him, we learnt the locals’ perspectives on the environment, the Tompkins’ work on conservation in Patagonia, and the relationships between stakeholders. They worked at the Green Baker Lodge in Puerto Betrand, and Villa Cerro Castillo was on the way. Too soon, we arrived and had to get off. As much as we wanted to practice our Spanish, it was really good and informative meeting people who could speak in English and tell us about the nuances of issues in the area. We came upon cafe Puesto Huemul which offered free wifi, really good food, locally brewed beers and a great view of Cerro Castillo (when there were no clouds). That night, we stayed in a local hospedaje (CLP8000) and stayed up late chatting with the old man whose house it was.
We spent two more nights in Villa Cerro Castillo, though we moved to a campsite El Mirador (CLP4000). Spent some time back in Puesto Huemul utilising the wifi, and the next day (D35) doing a day hike to Laguna Cerro Castillo, about 15km round trip. It was freezing cold and super windy, but amazingly stunning, with the glacier at close view. We figured we could have continued on the hike and made it to Villa Cerro Castillo on foot if we persisted in going up the hill from where we left off, and instead of going down the ravine and up the mountain pass, just continued along the ravine till we reached what we think is Las Horquetas, the start point for a popular 3/4 day hike to Villa Cerro Castillo (it’s in Spanish, but Google Translate exists for a reason).
We eventually left for Puerto Ibañez (D36). Our mistake with the packrafting trail in our proposal meant that instead of a 150km hike to end our trip at Puerto Ibañez, from Coyhaique it was just about 115km or so, and our detour to hitch to Villa Cerro Castillo cut that by even more. The next stretch of hiking from Villa Cerro Castillo to Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez though, was really scenic and pretty. A fairly sunny day for once, we stopped by Museo Escuela and the others went to look at the museum and the Alero de las Manos (wall of hands). I opted to enjoy the view of the mountains, try my hand at sketching and do some journaling. Camping that night by Lago Central was extremely windy and cold, but we were thankful that the Americans who owned the surrounding land had a little shack built, which we could use to hide from the blasting wind.

We got into the next valley on day 37, after a short detour when we went around Lago Tamango/Central (which would have brought us back to Villa Cerro Castillo), and again it was a brilliant, sunny day. I started liking Patagonia a bit more – I initially thought it was just a horribly rainy, windy, and miserable place. There was much less wind in this valley, and a lot of rock all around.

We finally got into Puerto Ibañez (D38), and it being Christmas soon, we decided to spend it there. We stayed at a great campsite, Don Omar camping and hospedaje (CLP3000 + CLP1000 for a hot shower). Basically camping in his backyard, but he also had a little shack with a wood fire stove and electric sockets and toilets for us, and we basically had the place to ourselves.


Christmas at Puerto Ibañez

We spent all of Christmas Eve (D39) preparing dinner. A 2.5kg chicken was cleaned, marinated and put in the gas stove oven by 11am (it took 2.5 hours to make bread the night before – we weren’t sure how long the chicken would take to cook). There was a big cherry tree in the middle of the backyard that was full of cherries, and I happily spent an hour or so picking cherries, using a ladder to get to the higher boughs, and the others pitted the cherries to make some kind of a cherry jam (an attempt to create something like cranberry sauce). Also made some banana chocolate bread (was supposed to be more cake-ish but wells we do what we can with what we have, mainly yeast instead of baking powder). We also cooked potatoes, carrots and onions over the griddle on an open fire (so much oil we were basically deep frying it). After 9 hours, the chicken was finally cooked and we finished it over the fire. It was probably the best meal we had that we cooked for ourselves.  We offered some of the banana bread and cherry jam to Don Omar and his family, and wished them Feliz Navidad, and he was so nice, he gave us a bottle of apple cider in return and invited us to lunch with them the next day. He also told us there was gonna be dancing in the main plaza at 1am, but we either got the time wrong or he remembered it wrong.

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Christmas day (D40) was an amazingly nice and chill day. I had wanted to go for mass the night before, at 830pm, but didn’t want to delay dinner, so enquired as to mass the next day and was told there was one at 11am. Well there wasn’t one, and we asked one of the shop owners who said it was at 1130am. Neither was there one then – in fact, there usually aren’t priests at that parish, and the guy only comes in once a week. Nonetheless, we had a lovely lunch with Don Omar, his wife Claudia and daughter Cathy, finishing off with a drink of apple cider topped with pineapple sorbet – apparently a classic drink of the area. Googling it now, it appears to be a mix of Chilean and Argentinian culture – Don Omar’s from Buenos Aires (Argentina) while his wife’s from Cochrane (Chile), and they have the sweetest love story ever. He then offered to take us kayaking after lunch, and we paddled around the shores of Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America for a bit, before the strong winds sent us all scurrying back to the campsite for warmth.


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