With the Marble Caves behind me, it’s time to figure out how to move north again. It’s April 28, and the only thing I have to do is get to Lima by May 31 to meet my friend Shannon. If I go straight north through Chile, I should have plenty of time to hit Santiago and other Chilean cities on the way up through the Atacama desert and into Peru and possibly Bolivia. But I really was enamored with Buenos Aires in my one day stopover there, and have been hoping to spend some serious time there. In either case, my path lies north, and the first stop is Coyhaique, whose population of 55,000 makes it easily the largest city I’ve been in since Punta Arenas.
It’s early evening when we arrive (we cover the distance a little faster than we have been, since the roads are now paved again) and the Dutch couple don’t want to stick around. After a little investigation they decide to make a mad dash for a ferry that’s leaving from the nearest port town, Puerto Aysen, which will take them way up to Puerto Montt at the northern end of the Carretera Austral. It’s hard to tell whether there is any reliable bus service taking us all the way up the road north at this time of year, so ferries seem like the better option. However, Marian and I are of the view that a night in the relatively cosmopolitan town is in order, so we leave our ferry planning for tomorrow. The Japanese have also disappeared, and we do not know what their plans are.
As I’ve suggested, Coyhaique is a relatively charming town — completely unexpected in this part of the world. Fairly decent pizza is available off the main square, vendors sell popcorn from carts on the pedestrian mall, and that rarest of Patagonian sights: a supermarket. A real supermarket, with produce and everything — the best I’d seen so far in Patagonia. We immediately squander the opportunity by getting a six pack of Cristal, the cheapest and worst beer I will drink in South America.
Coyhaique is not quite ready for a big tourist influx yet, though, and finding lodging is trickier than expected for a city of that size. Eventually Marian and I find a hospedaje not too far from the center of town that can be had at a reasonable price. We are accustomed to staying in converted houses by now, but this one really feels like it is run by a wacky grandmother.
Showers are forbidden after 10pm, and to be sure of it, she locks the downstairs bathroom at that time. A few minutes later, Marian and I are quietly hanging out in the living room, updating our blogs and checking our email, when she blusters in and shoos us back to our bedroom, complaining about all the electricity we are costing her. The included breakfast is doled out the next morning – one slice of cheese, one slice of ham, one piece of bread.
Marian and I work out ferry passage with one of the offices in town, and then secure a ride to the embarkation point at Puerto Cisnes, another very small port town trapped between mountain and shoreline, although unlike Puerto Rio Tranquilo, there is a fair amount of commercial shipping here. The ferry that we’re taking is substantially larger than the one I took on the short hop between Tierra del Fuego and the Argentine mainland.
I didn’t take any photos in Coyhaique. I’m getting a little burned out on photography, as I’ve been taking hundreds of photos a day for the past two weeks.
One more night is spent in somebody’s attic in Puerto Cisnes, although this time they didn’t care about what time anybody showered.
The ferry is supposed to leave at 2pm, but it doesn’t even tie up until closer til 4, and we don’t leave until almost 5.
Drinking alcohol on the boat is forbidden, but this doesn’t bother a small man from Castro who is absolutely smashed and who is toting a bottle of Coke that has definitely been adulterated. Admittedly, Marian and I have smuggled a couple of cans of beer on board ourselves, but not enough for the whole trip, having fully expected there to be beer sales available on the ferry itself.
The delay means we’re not going to reach open water before the sun sets, which means we’re unlikely to spot the whales that sometimes appear in the area. Still, we have a few hours for sightseeing as the ferry glides through the Chilean fjords, which makes the trip worthwhile.
The sights are better than the accommodations. While the ferry has a few sleeper cabins, it’s really set up for individual seats. And while you don’t have to worry about neighbors – there’s maybe only 40 people on a ferry designed for 250 – the seats do not make for ideal sleeping conditions, as the armrests don’t flip up. I manage to jam myself under the armrests and across four seats to get a little bit of terrible sleep in between some strange conversations with the previously referenced drunk dude.
We finally get to Quellon just around sunrise. All told the ferry took 13 hours. At least we don’t have to deal with our original concern of how to find lodging in Quellon at midnight. The Japanese couple, who had disappeared after the caves, were also waiting at the bus station.
Marian and I feel more or less like shit but decide to press on to Castro via bus, which takes another hour and a half. It’s May Day, and very few businesses are open.
A photo posted by Pete Stasiewicz (@mostlyoverland) on
Although we find lodging, the prospect of spending a night in a mostly dead city doesn’t appeal to us, so we plan to hop another bus to Puerto Montt.
I take just enough time to check out some of Castro’s famous wooden churches. We are on foot and left our bags back at the hostel, so I don’t have my camera with me. By the time I come back, the church is closed for lunch, and we’ve got a bus to catch. I do manage to quickly get a shot of some of Chiloe’s lakefront stilt houses, however, and it is presented below.
Three hours and one much shorter ferry ride later, I’m back in civilization, and I know this because I see a McDonalds for the first time since Buenos Aires.
Like most settlements in Patagonia, Puerto Montt is not flashy, but it’s also a lot more urban than anywhere I’ve been in a while. For the first time since reaching Ushuaia, I’m thinking about my safety when I walk around at night, as the area near the waterfront is dark and grungy. But despite the reemergence of things like graffiti and alleyways, I don’t feel any real threat. And of course we run into people we know – the Japanese couple again, for the last time. The run-in prompts me to contact Manuel, the Dutch guy, to see how he and Ilona are doing. Amazingly, their ferry, which left a day earlier (albeit from a more distant point) was delayed twenty hours, and the Dutch were actually still stuck in Castro while Marian and I had made it to Puerto Montt.
Down the street from the McDonald’s there is a bar and restaurant called Sherlock, which I insist that we eat at, which was probably not a great call, but we were still dealing with May Day closures, plus not too picky at this point in our journey. At least there’s some outdoor seating.
After leaving the bus to Bariloche at Los Antiguos / Chile Chico six days ago, there’s really been only one road forward. From here, it’s time to make some decisions again.