For those heading north from El Chalten by land, the next sensible destination is the Argentine resort town of Bariloche, a mere 24 hours away by bus, if you’re lucky. A less sensible destination is the Marble Caves of Chile. I am, of course, going to the latter.
A few weeks prior I didn’t even know they existed. When I left for the trip, the W Trek was the only stop I was 100% committed to making in Patagonia. The rest I sort of planned out as I went, although Tierra del Fuego and El Chalten were at least on my radar as potential destinations. The Marble Caves, on the other hand, I learned of via a social media comment on a picture of Tierra del Fuego I had uploaded. “I want to go there and to the marble caves,” said my friend’s then-fiancee. Unfamiliar, I dutifully googled the term, and was so blown away by the pictures that I disregarded the fact that I was looking at a Daily Mail article, which should have been a red flag, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
My usually indispensable Lonely Planet South America On A Shoestring guide has all of 3 lines dedicated to the caves, and really nothing about how one gets to the Chilean town where the boat tours of the caves depart from. All I know is that the lake in which they’re located is about halfway between Chalten and Bariloche, and the Bariloche bus stops near a border town on the southern side of the lake. I’ll figure out the rest when I get there.
Twelve hours in a packed motorcoach later, I disembark at Los Antiguos. Everybody stretches their legs, and after the continuing passengers get back on the bus, there’s six of us left in the bus station. It’s obvious we all have the same idea and thus an impromptu expeditionary force of one American, one German, two Dutch, and two Japanese tourists is formed to invade Chile.
The first leg of our journey is short and quick. An intrepid minivan driver is waiting in the parking lot to take us over the border. In typical Patagonian fashion the border towns are nine miles apart, and the actual border lies somewhere between the customs stations. All goes smoothly, though, and by evening we’ve traded the bleak remoteness of Los Antiguos for the remote bleakness of Chile Chico.
Actually I’m being too hard on it. There are absolutely no tourist traps here, and we can honestly say we are off the beaten path — just everyday life in Patagonia, 12 hours from any airport with commercial flights.
Other than me, there’s Marian, a German who just wrapped up his grad studies and was killing time between mountain climbs; Ilona and Manuel, a Dutch couple who had been traveling the world for months, and a Japanese couple who were super friendly but spoke very limited English.
No tourist traps also means no cheery hostels full of friendly backpackers. We’re on our own finding lodging. Our van driver from Los Antiguos suggests a particularly run-down looking house, which he happened to have dropped us off in front of. We decide to shop around but nothing else seems available, or for that matter, particularly nicer. We return to the house — and I do mean house. This is not a hotel, or hostel, or inn, or B&B. It’s somebody’s house. There’s what you might call a carport that leads into the kitchen, where we negotiate our rates with the old ladies who run the place. In the attic, thin plywood has divided up the cramped space under the roof into extremely basic rooms. But 12 hours on a bus plus a border crossing take it out of you and no one in our group is complaining. Before we crash for the night, however, we run into a van driver cruising around town. We tell him where we are trying to go tomorrow, and he quotes us a price of 25000 Chilean Pesos each – almost fifty bucks a head. We tell him to get lost.
The next day we get some breakfast and start planning our next moves. There’s not a lot to do in Chile Chico except worry about how you are going to get out of Chile Chico. As we see it, our options in order of preference are: bus, ferry, hitchhike, overpriced van dude. Bus schedules are not exactly available in Chile Chico, and if they were, I think they’d look something like this:
We ask several locals when the next bus heading westward around the lake is coming. Nobody really seems to know. Maybe this afternoon, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after. I flash back to Santa Ana in El Salvador, being pointed in different directions to find our bus in the mess of the bus terminal and marketplace.
Earlier I said that there’s not a lot to do in Chile Chico, which is true. But there’s not nothing to do. For example you can hang out with the old ladies that run your hosteria and watch TV while John Paul II get canonized. And if you really want to take in the sights, there’s…well I’m still not sure exactly what it is, or why it’s there, but there’s a sort of hill on the edge of town with numbered steps leading to the top of it, with a view of the town and a number of tattered wind socks.
There’s also some kind of celebration or graduation ceremony attended by some town dignitaries, and we catch a little bit of that as well.
But of course our priority was mainly how to move on. I saw some people attempting to hitchhike for hours without success so that’s apparently not a great option by late April (and I don’t know if it would be any more effective in high season). Eventually we go back to the van driver who does not budge off his 25000 peso price. This was more than any of us wanted to pay but as it became apparent that there were no other options, and the cost of another night or two in Chile Chico would cancel out any savings on the bus fare, we finally caved.
(There is another option that we were thinking about, which is to take the ferry to Puerto Ibanez and find transportation going west. We were assured that finding transport on the northern part of the lake would be much easier, but I have no way of confirming that.)
The road to Puerto Rio Tranquilo only covers about a hundred miles, but it’s in terrible shape and the going is slow, even without any unforeseen incidents. The good news is that the views are really pretty fantastic.
About two hours into the trip there is an unforeseen incident as a truck has partially tilted off the road, which means another truck has to be brought in to move the load slowly off the first truck, and we are stuck for a while. The silver lining is that the delay makes it clear that hitchhiking was a terrible option. Literally no cars are lined up behind us.
Eventually the jam clears up and we gradually make our way to Puerto Rio Tranquilo.