We entered into Chile at a remote crossing sitting at 15,370 ft in elevation. The border guards were kind and smiling as they searched our truck for fresh fruits and vegetables. In Chile, there is an extra layer of things that are not allowed in. This time they were on the hunt for seeds as well as the fresh stuff. We had a Costco-sized bag of chia hiding in plain sight. Our biggest worry was that they would raid our tote of spices. We had a jar of dehydrated Scotch bonnet peppers that we were especially attached to tucked far in the back. We lost a couple of cloves of garlic to bureaucracy. Judging by the ping-pong and foosball tables set up in the inspection building, it seemed like they enjoyed their quiet high-desert post there. Once we were done with the business of border crossing we headed downhill into the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. Very far downhill. As we descended the elevation dropped 7370 ft in twenty minutes. Approaching town had us shedding layers and popping our ears at an alarming rate.
Chile felt like California. It had been one year and three months since we last stood on United States soil when we entered. We felt like we were transported back to the USA. It was like we were getting a little precursor to the culture shock we expected to experience when we got home. Suddenly, the gas stations accepted credit cards, the highways had thick pavement, and the construction was industrial and angular. The cost of everything was almost as high as California as well. It was quite a shock.
San Pedro de Atacama was a cute hippy town blooming in a vast desert with a reputation for petty thievery. We were still traveling with our Spanish friends. Hainoa stayed with the vehicles while the rest of us ventured into town to find an ATM. Once our pockets were sufficiently lined we went out in search of camping. We were all looking for the same thing. Hot showers and strong WIFI. We found it at a place that specialized in renting out dome-shaped rooms. It was hot there and the pool was off-limits to campers. We sat in the WIFI zone, listening to dome dwellers splash in the pool and planning our trajectory through Chile.
We were still sleeping in the back of the truck ever since the rain fly of our tent started falling apart. It made it easy to go to sleep at night as the bed was already made but it was a bit like sleeping in a coffin. I had to press my face to the window to stave off the waves of claustrophobia that plagued me as I wriggled my way into bed each night. It was not optimum. It was also impossible to seal it up against bugs. The mosquitoes in San Pedro were horrendous. They were fast, and they bit hard! The bites blistered and lasted much longer than any bites we had experienced. We were sleeping in a coffin full of mosquitoes. We had to get out of there. Plus, it was expensive. We were paying 15 UDS to sleep in a parking lot.
We said goodbye to our Spanish friends and headed out through the desert towards the coast. Warm summer days would soon be in short supply so we did our best to stay focused on driving south without too much dillydally. We slept in a trucker rest stop. There were warning signs about UV radiation. It was like the dial often used to indicate high fire danger but this one was about the solar danger. It went to eleven. Apparently, there is no ozone over Chile. On a good day, it is dangerous to be outside without sleeves and a hat. But when somebody puts a giant hand in the middle of nowhere it would be irresponsible not to dillydally just a little.
The coast of Chile was dry and sparsely populated. Most of the people living there were in the business of harvesting seaweed. They invariably had a shelter made of wooden pallets and tarps with one scrapped car in the yard. Seaweed was flaked out on the beach to dry in the sun. Most of the traffic on the oiled dirt road consisted of old trucks piled high with dried seaweed.
We drove from secluded cove to secluded cove as we made our way south to Santiago. In Santiago, we made it our mission to fix some of the things that had begun to fall apart on The Joan. We were toying with the idea of selling The Joan instead of shipping her home. There were a handful of issues that we could have ignored but might have hindered a quick sale. Santiago was the best place along our route to make some fixes. We met David, the magician of sewing, and commissioned a new rain fly for our tent. While he was busy sewing, we went to the automotive section of town and got a new windshield, new door latches, the AC fixed, and a couple of new headlights.
Santiago also had one of our favorite things in great supply. Vegan restaurants. It was on a foray into town to fill our bellies that The Joan was violated once again. Someone had popped the lock on the driver’s side and snatched a handful of goodies that we had neglected to remove from the truck before driving into town. We felt stupid because it is common knowledge that Santiago is an unsafe city to park in. We lost the drone that we never used and some music recording equipment. We were most bummed that we had lost my camera with the zoom lens that I used to stalk the wildlife. Thankfully, I had just emptied the SD card so all of my pictures were safely tucked in my computer back in our hotel room.
Anyhow, we were given the opportunity to have the lock fixed the next day at a mechanic shop that was also replacing our sway arm bushings and gear shifter mechanism. I am not a big fan of maintenance. Santiago was a stop that was heavy on maintenance. I was very happy to get out of that city.
Leaving Santiago, we made one pit stop at a Honda motorcycle dealership to refill our propane bottle. Side note: The threading on propane bottles varies by country. We had been lucky up till then to find places that have proper adaptors to refill our North American tank. Many places used to be able to refill the bottles but it seems that Chile is moving to a universal bottle swap system so most of the places that could refill the bottles in the past are no longer offering that service. We have a 10 lbs. tank and it usually lasts us about 6 weeks. Anyhow, we headed back out towards the coast to continue our trek south.
The first stop was at a place called Playa Trinchera at a municipal campground. This was a campground that had wooden shelters and real flush bathrooms on the beach. The crazy part was that it was free. Owing to its great price and fantastic location, all of the sites were taken. So, we staked our claim to an isolated corner of the parking lot for the night. Unfortunately, that corner turned out to be a favorite with folks too lazy to walk 100 yards to poop. Humans are deplorable. On a positive note, since we had a brand-new rainfly, we were able to move back upstairs into our rooftop tent. We had been sleeping in the back since the Lagunas route in Bolivia.
We spent one more night on a beach right next to a toll plaza (not peaceful) before angling The Joan inland towards the town of Pucón in the Lakes District. Chile was the most affluent country we had been in since leaving the United States. Driving through Pucón felt like we were back in California, driving around Donner lake. The roads were crowded with vacationers and the beaches were packed umbrella to umbrella. Chile has a very strong camping culture and campgrounds were abundant. Unfortunately, most of them cost more than we were paying for a decent hotel in Peru and Bolivia so we did our best to protect our budget and seek out wild camping options. We stopped at a very cute vegetable stand to stock up on essentials and headed out of town to find a place to sleep for the night.
We ended up in a gravel pit on the side of the most active volcano in Chile. We were in Parque Nacional Villarica. It was definitely illegal to camp there. We waited until after dark to set up our tent just in case a ranger came by. We were mostly out of sight. The snowcapped Villarica volcano was glowing in the night and the Milky Way shining bright. I was feeling thankful that my camera was stolen in Santiago because it was very cold out and I would have been compelled to play with long-exposure night photography. Instead, I got to cuddle up in the tent and stay warm. Every cloud has a silver lining.
The next day we attempted to hike to some volcanic craters. After about 15 minutes of hiking, we were second-guessing ourselves as to whether we had locked up our computers properly. The recent burgling had us on edge. We abandoned the hike and headed back to the truck. Neither of us really felt like hiking that day anyway. We were both attempting to rally for the sake of the other. We opted instead to drive around in the park and find a better place to lay our heads for the next night.
We headed deeper into the park and found an abandoned picnic area. It was definitely illegal to camp there. We, again, waited until after dark to build our house (set up our tent). In the morning we put the tent away before making coffee. That was a big deal for us. From there we headed up to a trailhead to a glacier. This time we were excited to hike. The trail started in a forest of monkey puzzle trees. They are a conifer native to Chile and are unlike any other we are accustomed to seeing. We exited the forest abruptly and made our way towards the glacier on Villarica volcano. We just can’t seem to stay away from smoking volcanoes. The trail ended at the toe of the glacier where muddy water was trickling out from under the ice. It was a bit anticlimactic. So, we went around the “danger” sign and walked up onto the ice. We were lured on by the hints of blue peeking through the dirty ice. We did not venture deep into the caves because neither of us felt especially like dying that day.
Leaving the park had us driving over one of the worst roads we had encountered on this trip. People had tried to fill some of the deep ruts and holes with sticks and rocks but it was very rough going. We passed many people walking up the road having given up driving before reaching us. We hoped that was not a sign of even rougher roads to come. As we bounced and swayed our way out of the park I made us snacks. I have had a lot of practice making snacks on bumpy roads. That day, the snack menu was crackers with hot sauce, prunes, and peanuts. It sounds weird but it was delicious.
The Lakes District proved to be highly fenced. That is to say that there were very few opportunities to wild camp. Most of the land was spoken for. We drove around for the better part of a day looking for camping before we resigned ourselves to the fact that we needed to pay to camp. I found a campground that was on a river that had a hot spring. If we were going to pay to camp we might as well have a hot spring to go with it. The reviews on iOverlander indicated that it was small and sleepy. When we arrived, the place was totally full of weekenders. It was Sunday afternoon and there was no parking anywhere, much less a place to camp. The manager promised that it would empty out by 8 pm when they closed to day-trippers. We took his word for it and changed into our swimsuits. The river had hot water seeping through the gravel of its banks and there were two formal swimming pools that were filled with fresh hot water each morning. There was also a sauna that was fed by a natural steam vent. I peeped in for a moment. It was very dark and smelled like a good place to acquire a moldy lung infection. Also, the wooden door was so swollen and misshapen that it felt like the likelihood of it jamming was very high. I was in there for maybe three seconds. It was three seconds too long. I felt like I barely escaped with my life. We made individual pools for ourselves on the shore of the river by rearranging rocks. It was tricky because the hot water was unpredictable in volume and too hot to touch. The cold water was very cold. At no time were we relaxed. After 8 pm the place did clear out and we were among very few other campers. It was peaceful.
From there we continued south. Always south. We found a wide stretch of land where a river met a lake. Many families were camping. We drove to a far corner past all of the other campers by a couple of trees and felt very much like we had found paradise. It was a warm sunny day and we were reminded of so many other river camping spots we had visited on this trip. Immediately we settled in to stay a couple of days. We deployed our awning, set up our table, put our chairs together and commenced relaxing. It had been a while since we had spent a whole day in one place without driving.
Towards the evening the clouds began to gather. We went to sleep that night feeling grateful that we had a brand-new rain fly on our tent. While we were sleeping a proper storm rolled in. Complete with whipping winds and pouring rain. Our tent was not designed to sustain strong winds. It is very flappy and loud. The flapping woke Scott in the night. He sat up and put his hand in a puddle of water that had formed on my sleeping bag. Our new rain fly was failing. Water was pouring in from the seams. It was bigger than our original fly and therefore flappier. It flapped so hard that the poles that held it in place were forcibly thrown to the ground. Our bed had become a pool and the tent was whipping in the wind. It was then that our awning folded itself in half. It was not designed to fold. It was the middle of the night and we were out in the rain rolling up our awning, gathering towels to soak up the water in our bed and feeling generally grumpy.
Thankfully, the sun returned the next day and we were able to dry out our tent. The awning was not broken, just bent. We were not well-rested but that is not a big deal when you have no job or responsibility. We put a fresh tube of silicone on our shopping list to seal the seams on the rainfly and hoped the rains would hold off until we could find some.
We didn’t linger as long as we had first hoped at that lake. The sun had returned but the wind had also stayed. The weather was cold and a swarm of biting horseflies had moved in. It was less fun than we had anticipated. We continued south to the town of Quellón.
Quellón had two things that we were interested in. One being a ferry to the town of Chaitén. The other being the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway. At the end of the road, there was a big monument to the Highway. We had lost so much time that day searching unsuccessfully for waterproofing for our tent that we arrived in the dark. We had early morning ferry tickets so visiting the monument was going to happen in the dark or not at all. We haven’t really spent much time on the Pan American Highway. It had just been a general landmark along the way. A couple of times we found ourselves on it and would chuckle about how our Pan American Highway adventure was so rarely on the actual highway. I guess it was fitting to give the monument just a sliver of our time.
If you look at a map of Chile, the further south you go the more it seems like the country is entirely made up of islands. There seems to be more water than land. We left the Pan American Highway, hopped on a ferry and four hours later found ourselves in search of our next big road. The Carretera Austral. Before getting on that road we decided to seek out some help with some funny noises our truck was making. Scott called it a howl. I thought it was more of a soft moan. Sometimes a squeak. We googled and found that we might have been a little behind on our chassis lube schedule. By a little behind, I mean that it was recommended every 5000 miles or so and we had never done it. So, we found a guy with a grease gun and were then on our way south again.
It was a drippy gray day. Rain is the norm this time of year on the Carretera Austral. We pulled into the visitor’s center at Parque Pumalín to see if there was camping availability for the night. Parque Pumalín was a private park founded by the American, Doug Tompkins. Recently the ownership had been transferred to the Chilean government. When we arrived, they were still in the process of working out how they were going to manage it. So, for the time being, it was free! The park had a very manicured country club feel to it. The roadsides were impeccably mowed, the road surfaces were smooth, and the signs were ornately carved from local hardwoods.
We drove to the upper campground that was only accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Each of the campsites was named for local mountains and came with a private gazebo with a picnic table overlooking the Ventisquiero Glacier. We chose one that had level-ish parking for our truck and commenced relaxation. We planned to hike to the glacier the next day. Lucky for us, the skies cleared and we had a beautiful sunny day for our hike. The trail was mostly flat, following a braided glacial river. Towards the end, the river forced the trail up into the forest. Then things got muddy and steep. Eventually, we emerged from the forest at the base of the glacier. We could hear the ice cracking and thundering. We waited patiently, facing the cold wind blowing off the ice for a glimpse of movement. We were rewarded by one tiny hourglass of snow and ice pouring off a corner of the glacier. Most of the time when we heard something there was no corresponding icefall. It took will power, but we finally tore ourselves away from the glacier and headed back to camp.
That night the weather turned. Torrential rains poured down. For some reason, our tent did not leak. We were thinking that the wind direction must have been in our favor as the rain fly flapped so violently that there was never any accumulation. Anyhow, we remained dry. We spent the day in our gazebo watching the rain blow sideways across the meadow. Large tree branches cartwheeled in the wind. Our glacier view was completely obscured. Park rangers came by to let us know that the park was officially closed. Trees had fallen on the roads and we were to remain in place until they opened the park again. By noon the next day, everything was sunshine and rainbows, the roads were back in tip-top condition and we were free to leave.
Our next stop was in a town called Puyuhuapi. We found a campground that had hot showers, WIFI and a relaxation space that was heated with a wood stove. We found it and so did every backpacker within a 50-mile radius. It was almost empty when we arrived but by dinner time it was full. It was a good thing I called home when we first arrived because that was the last time we had enough bandwidth to do anything. We ended up staying there for three days as it started raining again and it seemed like a comfortable place to wait for a break in the weather. Plus, the woman running the camp made amazing bread that she would sell each morning. Every place we go there seems to be a regional carbohydrate of choice. In this part of Chile, it was pan amasado– homemade bread. Every third house had a sign outside advertising pan amasado. We were hooked.
When the sun came out we packed up, bought an oven-load of pan amasado and headed for our hike. So did everybody else (not the bread part). We wanted to hike the trail to the viewpoint for Colgate glacier. We paid an exorbitant entrance fee, found the last parking space in the park and headed for the trailhead. There were a ton of people just hanging around the trailhead. We made moves to go around them and realized that they weren’t loitering. They were waiting in line to hike. What? There is a suspension bridge at the beginning of the hike that has a limit of 4 people at a time. There was a line on either side. If we had not just paid the exorbitant entrance fee we would have just left. We found our place in line and marveled at the crowds while we waited. We were behind three sunburned Russian guys wearing polished loafers, brightly colored skinny jeans and too much cologne. When we finally crossed the bridge, we enjoyed half of a moment of solitude on the trail before we caught up to the first group of fellow hikers. It was difficult to pass people. There did not seem to be any sort of etiquette about letting people go around you. It was a little taste of what it must be like for a foreigner to visit Yosemite in peak season. In the end, the glacier view was spectacular. There was a reason for all of the crowds.
After the crazy Disneyland of a hike, we were happy to find a deserted stretch of river to camp beside that night. We watched a beautiful moon slide behind a cliff on the other side of the river while we listened to nothing but wind and water passing by. At that camp, we found a colony of really wild looking beetles. We later found out that they are called Darwin’s beetles. They were iridescent and had great horn-like points on their heads. Wild. We would have lingered and enjoyed the solitude but the funny truck noises we had tried to lube away in Chaitén had not disappeared so we were headed to Coyhaique to visit a well-reviewed mechanic to see what might be the problem.
The mechanic, Sergio, was a bit of an Overlander Angel. He allowed us to camp in his back yard while he made time in the shop schedule to check out our truck. We weren’t the only overlanders there either. Our friends Colin and Lucia, who we had first met in Guatemala, were camped there renting shop space to fix some things on their van. It was a reunion! Once The Joan had her time on the lift it was determined that she needed a new center support bearing for the driveline and a set of U joints. I guess that delayed lubrication schedule didn’t really work for her. While we were in the automotive maintenance mode we figured it was a good time to get a bit of welding done on the truck. Because we carry so much weight in the truck some of the supports for the bed had collapsed which caused the camper shell to knock against the cab when we went over bumps. We were constantly going over bumps. Sergio recommended a guy named Victor to be our welder and set up an appointment for us.
Victor was a little hungover when we arrived but he seemed really nice and the fact that he was willing to work on our truck on a Sunday was great. In order to get to the spot that needed welding, he had to drop the gas tank. Unfortunately, we had just filled up and that sucker was heavy! Victor welded while Scott stood on a ladder with a bottle of water ready to extinguish any fires that started in the back of our truck. We had removed most of our belongings but there were some bits of cabinetry that were permanently mounted which were in danger of igniting.
When it came time to replace the gas tank Victor had to siphon the gas out of the tank in order to be able to lift it into place. He didn’t have a suitable container handy. He scrounged up a plastic barrel that used to hold who-knows-what. He rinsed it out with hose water, a quick follow-up rinse with some gas and with a quick suck on the end of the hose proceeded to fill it from our tank. Once the tank was reinstalled (with a lot of head-scratching as to which hose goes where) he used the siphon to refill our gas tank. All the while I was googling what the ramifications of water in our gas tank or contaminated gas might be. Certain death was not in the search results so we figured we might have a rough running tank of gas but would be okay after we filled up again.
We were feeling remiss for neglecting The Joan’s lubrication for a year and a half so we asked Sergio if he thought there was anything else we might want to address before heading further south where mechanics and services are few and far between. It was then that it came to our attention that we were about 5000 miles overdue for a timing belt/water pump service. He also let us know that there was a design flaw in the ball joints for these trucks and they have a tendency to catastrophically fail every 40,000 miles or so. Sergio recommended that we not use any of the locally available parts. The parts needed to be shipped from the United States. We talked about ordering the parts and having them delivered to a mechanic further south for installation. The problem was that we couldn’t find a reputable mechanic in any of the southern cities. Not to say that there aren’t any good mechanics in the southern reaches of Patagonia, just to say that we couldn’t locate one. We did some calculations and figured that we had roughly 4000 miles left to drive on this trip. We decided to grit our teeth and try to make it home before having this service done.
We were feeling good enough about our plan and headed out to see what there was to see in Chilean Patagonia. Our spirits were high as we anticipated a night camped out in nature contrasting with the prior nights spent amidst broken down vehicles. We were about a half-hour along when The Joan started coughing. We rolled our eyes and blamed Victor for contaminating our gas. We powered through her hiccups and coughs. The smell of unburned gas started to fill the truck. She would run smoothly for a bit and then have another coughing fit. We confused a few hitchhikers when she cut out in from of them. They thought that they had lucked into a ride. We waved them off and restarted the engine. By the third time she cut out, the fumes were really intense. The next time she died, we pulled off the road onto the gravel shoulder and immediately saw that gasoline was raining down from our undercarriage.
Scott grabbed the fire extinguisher from behind his seat and we gave The Joan a wide berth. We watched as gasoline poured onto the gravel beside the road. It was coming from the frame of the truck. The rain of gas soon became a light drizzle and finally ended. We were baffled as to how the frame of our truck had become full of gas. I tried to call Sergio. My cell phone indicated that there was service right there. Unfortunately, my cell phone is often a little liar and those three bars of Claro were purely decorative. We stood beside the road staring at the truck for quite some time before a nice Argentine man pulled over to see what our problem was. We explained the lluvia de nafta (rain of gas) as best we could. He wanted to see for himself. We were very reticent to turn the truck on being fairly confident that gas would start pouring out of every orifice followed shortly by a massive explosion. He seemed sane and insisted the truck would not explode. Whatever. Scott turned the key. I hid in a ditch, just in case. The Joan turned over and ran just fine. No rain of gas, just a horrible smell of stale gasoline. Scott and our new friend poked and prodded for a while to no avail so we decided to try to make it back to Coyhaique to see if Sergio could give it a look. I rode with the fire extinguisher on my lap. Our new roadside friend followed us all the way back to town. We parted ways with a honk and a wave as we turned up the road to Sergio’s shop.
We called our automotive lifeline back in California, Scott’s brother Dan. He sent us pictures of the correct configuration of the tubey thingies that attach to the gas tank. Apparently, we had been pumping gas into our evaporation lines. How that gas made it into the frame of the truck will have to remain a mystery. With the truck up on the lift, the botched configuration was rectified and we were good to go.
This little squall in our otherwise smooth-sailing life made us think twice about making it the last 4000 miles without the timing belt/water pump service. We decided to stick with Sergio. We made a plan to order the parts and continue our exploration of the Carretera Austal while we waited for delivery. Once we reached the bottom we would turn around and head back to Sergio’s for installation. The Carretera is often driven as an out and back as the road ends at a town called O’Higgins. If you don’t have a ferry ticket for onward travel (which we didn’t) then we would have to return north to cross into Argentina. Our plan added about 200 miles to our overall distance. In the big picture that was nothing.
Once again, we are headed south and feeling good about the prospect of sleeping in the wilderness. We saw a lake on the map and decided to head there. It looked like the road did not connect with any other roads so the chances of solitude were pretty high. We drove for a couple of hours past many small lakes before we found a spur off into the forest. It looked like someone’s forgotten wood-cutting lot. Perfect. We tucked in for the night and ended up staying for two. We didn’t discuss it. We just both neglected to make any motion towards packing up in the morning. On night two the rains came and inspired us to keep moving.
The next day, as we drove to reconnect with the Carretera Austral, we came across Colin and Lucia. Great minds! It was nice to see them outside of the mechanic’s shop.
We were advised that Carretera Austral is in the process of being paved and that the road is closed between 1 and 5 pm south of Cerro Castillo (Cerro Castillo is a BEAUTIFUL mountain/park with a prohibitive cost to enter). Timing is not our strong suit. We rolled into the line of stopped cars around 3:00 pm. No biggie, we don’t really have any place to be except Montevideo, Uruguay on March 26th to organize shipping The Joan back to the States and that was six weeks away. So, we found a wide spot in the road, assembled our kitchen and proceeded to make a late lunch/early dinner. At 5:00 pm they opened it up and all the cars passed the dusty construction zone at once. With all of the traffic, the dust became so thick that we often could not see the tail lights of the car in front of us. We were just thankful that we were passing this route in a truck and not on a bicycle. All of the cyclists we passed looked miserable.
Our destination was to visit marble caves on the shore of Lago General Carrera. There are two options for seeing marble caves. Puerto Sanchez, where a motorboat takes you to see the caves or Puerto Rio Tranquilo, where you can kayak to see the caves. Normally, we would opt to kayak but the kayak option is very popular and thus very crowded. We opted to go to Puerto Sanchez. After a very confusing conversation with the woman in the tourist office, we headed down to the docks to see about lucking into a tour. It worked. We met a group of four traveling from Santiago and asked if they minded if we joined them. They checked with their boat guide, who was happy to have two more fares, and we were off!
The boat ride to the caves was very short. We rode over to a small island off the shore of the town and nosed our way into the mouths of many small caves. Interesting shapes were pointed out: a whale tail, a sitting deer, etc. We learned that Lago General Carrera is 590 meters deep and was once a kilometer deep. The finale of the tour was a walk through one of the caves. They gave us helmets with headlamps on them and led us through a windy reach of the cave. Very cool. On the way back to shore we were thankful that we were not in kayaks. The wind had kicked up as wind is wont to do in this area of Chile and the lake was covered in whitecaps. We had to zig-zag our way back to shore to avoid being swamped.
It needs to be said that this area of Chile is full of ridiculously luminous water. As we drove the Carretera Austral south we kept rounding corners to see vistas of jaw-dropping colors. Lago General Carrera could possibly be described as Cerulean blue. The next lake we came across was Lago Negro which, as indicated by its name, was black. Apparently, it got its color from minerals in the mountains. According to a man named Saturnino, the minerals were safe. Which is good because we filled our drinking water jugs from that lake. Beyond Lago Negro was Rio Baker. The waters of Rio Baker were crazy blue. The river looked like it was illuminated from within. Downstream the electric blue of Rio Baker joined with the opaque green of Rio Neff and continued on a murky turquoise color; still beautiful but less dazzling than Rio Baker.
Our next stop along the way south was Caleta Tortel. Caleta is the preferred Spanish word for cove in Chile. I think it sounds classy. Caleta Tortel is unique in that it does not have any roads in the town. A road leads to a big parking lot on the edge of town and after that, it is all wooden walkways and stairs. The town hugs a rocky cove and is surrounded by a wooden walkway suspended over the water. The water’s edge is littered with old retired boats being reclaimed by nature. Where a captain once stood, daisies were blooming. The town was really cute, but it has been discovered by so many tourists like ourselves that it didn’t have the magic I imagine it once did. We took a walk along the water and continued our southbound journey.
We were lucky that we didn’t linger in Caleta Tortel because we rolled up to Puerto Yungay moments before the last ferry of the day across the water to Rio Bravo. Once we got off the ferry I felt a sense of urgency to find camp. I was just sure that everybody on the ferry was angling to get to the camp spot we had picked out from iOverlander. It was the best-reviewed one close to the ferry. We were the first vehicle off the boat and we got to our camp spot no problem. None of the other cars that came after us even slowed at the turnoff to our spot. Even though the competition was all in my head and nobody else seemed to want our spot, we won. First place for best camp spot, undisputed. It is the little things.
The southern reaches of the Carretera Austral were beautiful and blustery. Waterfall after waterfall passed by our windows. We were warm and cozy inside the cab. We made a couple of stops to take pictures of especially scenic viewpoints or exceptionally charismatic swans. And one more stop because we ran out of gas. Oops. We were carrying an extra ten gallons in jerrycans on top so it was not a big deal. Just a cold refueling experience… for Scott. I waited in the warm cab. There was a gas station down in O’Higgins to top up before our return north.
The days were still very long as we were very far south in the austral summer. I think it was close to 8:00 pm when we reached the end of the Carretera Austral. The sun was low and the mountainsides were glowing. We found a place to park so we could visit the commemorative signs for the end of the road. When we returned to our truck to begin the return leg of our journey we were sent off with a beautiful rainbow that followed us for miles.
We paused in O’Higgins for gas and groceries before heading off on a spur road up into the mountains. The road ended on the shores of Lago Christie. We had envisioned camping at Lago Christie but upon arrival, it was clear that we would wake up transformed into windswept popsicles if we were to stick to that plan. We doubled back and found a protected nook in a forested patch next to a placid river. It was just the type of place we would normally have spent a few days enjoying. Not this time. We needed to head back up to Sergio’s for truck maintenance. Sigh.
It only took us two sleeps to get back up to Coyhaique. We hadn’t had any contact from Sergio since he texted to let us know the parts had arrived. We didn’t want to camp in his backyard again without an explicit invitation so we headed outside of town to a little park with parking next to a polluted river. There was a van occupying the best spot when we got there so we parked up on a rise closer to the road. It wasn’t our most peaceful night of rest but we got the job done.
When we got to Sergio’s he set us up with a place to park inside his back shop. Where Colin and Lucia had been parked the last time we were there. It was nice and warm in the shop.
We were looking forward to cooking without the wind for once. We didn’t have wind but we also didn’t have propane. We watched the flame slowly die, heaved a sigh and dug out our little backpacking stove. We had four small canisters of gas that would hopefully last us until we were able to refill our propane in Ushuaia, a mere 1000 miles to the south.
A young guy named Mayckol did the timing job for us. Scott had also noticed that the steering had been acting funny on the Carretera Austral. When he turned the wheel to either side it did not want to return to center. It wasn’t acting like it had when the power steering went out. There was no whine or howl… maybe a whine. Anyway, after Mayckol was done with the timing belt, water pump, and this and that we had Sergio look at the steering. One of his other mechanics drove it around and agreed that the steering was not behaving as it should. Everyone figured it was probably the power steering pump. We decided that we could live without power steering for the rest of the trip and we wanted to save some money. We asked them to check out our ball joints too. We had ordered new ones when we got the timing kit just in case they failed. They shook our tires and said that things looked fine. That being said there aren’t a lot of visual cues that ball joints are failing.
I was feeling really impatient to get on the road to Argentina. Sergio mentioned that he knew of a guy who might be able to refill North American propane tanks but he wouldn’t be around until Monday or Tuesday. It was Saturday and I was not keen on hanging around any longer than we needed to. Plus, I didn’t have a lot of faith that the propane thing would work out considering we didn’t have an adapter for Chilean threads. My hopes of heading straight to the Argentine border were dashed when Sergio suggested we drive around a bit to see if the timing belt job felt good before leaving the country. Fine. Whatever.
We headed out to camp at Lago Atravesado. The lake was about thirty miles outside of Coyhaique. We almost made it there. We had crested a hill and were heading around a blind corner when we felt a thump and ground to a stop in the gravel. We looked at each other in disbelief. Yup. Busted ball joint. The wheel was still attached to our truck but in no useful fashion. What a great opportunity to use the triangle reflector kit we had been hauling around for almost two years. We set out the triangles to warn oncoming traffic of our presence and set ourselves to trying to figure out how we were going to get out of this pickle. I knew there was no version of our future that included us living out our golden years on the side of the road in Chile, but I was definitely curious as to how this was going to play out.
This time my cell phone was pretty honest about the fact that we had no service. We knew that Sergio offered a towing service. We also knew that it was Saturday afternoon and he had likely left on his camping trip already. It was worth a call though. We have a Garmin inReach that we can use to text people. So, we tried reaching out to Scott’s brother and Stepfather to see if they could call Sergio for us to get a tow. We couldn’t text Sergio direct because you can’t add new contacts to the Garmin without internet service. While we waited to see it that plan would work (which it didn’t) a guy rolled up in a boxy blue car and offered to take us to the nearest town with cell service and call a tow. Scott hopped in the car and I stayed behind to guard The Joan. A quick kiss goodbye and would I ever see him again? I jotted down the good Samaritan’s license plate number and description of his car just in case. Many cars passed while I waited for Scott to return. Two cars stopped to try to help. A half an hour passed before I saw that boxy blue car round the corner. Scott never got cell service but our new friend did and he called many tow trucks on our behalf. The fourth call was successful. Now, all we had to do was wait for a half-hour to forty-five minutes. Sure enough, about a half-hour later we see our tow truck.
Our tow truck driver, Cristian, became our new favorite person. He worked hard to get The Joan onto his flatbed tow truck. It was not easy because that front wheel refused to get with the program. It had completely forgotten how to roll. In the end, The Joan had to be winched up the ramps backward. I collected our triangle reflectors and we piled in with Cristian for the trip back up to Sergio’s.
Coincidentally, Cristian and Sergio knew each other. Small world. When we couldn’t get ahold of Sergio, Cristian offered to take us back to his place and fix the ball joint for us the next day. The only catch was that we would have to go with him to meet his girlfriend so that he could help her hook up a trailer to make a dump run. No problem! The trash trailer was at a building site where he and his girlfriend were building a house. She is the architect and he is the labor. The house was almost finished and really cool. If felt like Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso met for drinks in Sweden and designed a house.
After picking up the trailer we went back to Cristian’s house. He introduced us to his mother and his nephew and left with his girlfriend to go to the dump. We set up our ground tent in his yard because we could not deploy the rooftop tent the way it was parked on the tow truck. And we couldn’t get The Joan off of the tow truck without first fixing the ball joint. The best part was that he let us use his shower. We were really, really, really ready for a shower. I guess he knew that since we did ride with him in his tow truck for an hour. Anyway, the shower was heaven. We both slept like logs only to be awakened in the morning to the sound of Cristian banging on our truck.
We crawled out of the tent and he sent us inside to have breakfast with his mom, sister, girlfriend, and nephew. We enjoyed morning coffee with avocado bread and bananas. Before we knew it, our truck was fixed and we were on our way.
We needed to kill some time to wait for Sergio’s shop to open the next day to replace the other ball joint so we went on a tour of beautiful lakes. I didn’t want to sleep down by the river in Coyhaique again so we drove an hour out to a beautiful hobbit-like forest to camp. The next morning, we drove into town and got the second ball joint replaced. Amazingly, the steering problem we were having went away.
The guy who was trying to fill our propane tank came to the realization that he couldn’t do it without an adaptor of some sort. Surprise, surprise. He didn’t figure that out until it was too late in the day for us to try to cross a border so we ended up staying at my not-favorite spot down by the river. That night we shared that spot with three other vans while a crew of graffiti artists did some touch-ups on their art under the bridge.
Finally, it was time to cross into Argentina.