< a couple of caveats before I get on with the narrative.. it’s quite a long one so I hope you’re sitting comfortably.. and one or two of the photos might not appeal to the squeamish or those of a vegetarian disposition… >
Post-apocalyptic Chaiten, 2 1/2 years ago a town of around 4000 people in the shadow of a volcano thought to be dead, its last eruption happened some 9000 years ago. In May 2008 the volcano erupted once again prompting a mass evacuation by ship, burying the town in a thick layer of ash and sending torrents of mud through it’s heart. Now the town has been abandoned by the government and most of its inhabitants. Apparently 400 or so people remain although walking around the place it is hard to believe that number is more than 100. The streets still carry a layer of ash in which footprints are few and far between, frequently the only signs of life are the sparrows.
It is a truly fascinating place with a unique atmosphere. The locals are proud of their ruined town and are fighting for the government to reverse their decision to abandon and restore at least basic services… and from what I saw in the local paper on Chiloe recently with some small success.
The boat from Quellon to Chaiten had an advertised departure of 2400hrs, hard to understand then why the folk in the ticket office told me to be at the port, 3km from town, at 1600 with my bike… There on the cold and windy quayside I met an Austrian couple with a rented pickup/campervan also wondering the same thing. We sheltered from the heavy rain squalls in the back of their van with beers from their 12v refrigerator. By and by a few more folk started showing up.. as, happily, did the ship. Not unexpectedly 4 other cyclists showed up to make the connection to the start of the Carretera Austral, all from Switzerland. Under the direction of the friendly crew We had the privilege of riding onto the ship before the motor vehicles :-) Having embarked all the passengers with vehicles we cast off and steamed 20 minutes to sit at anchor off Quellon.
Killing time onboard I think was preferable to killing time in Quellon, especially given the stormy weather. It was around 11pm I think that foot passengers embarked so we must have moved back to the port while I was dozing. It wasn’t until around 2am that the ship finally throttled up her engines and headed out to sea. I was lying across a row of seats fast asleep and dreaming at the time the heavy growl of the engines became part of my subconscious adventure and eventually woke me up.
During the approach to Chaiten dawn arrived with an icy blast, no more than 1 or 2 degs C on deck and fresh snow was visible on the forested hills above town. It was 7am Saturday morning when I rolled off the ship, tyres crunching the fringes of ice in the puddles. The Swiss set off south immediately while I stayed in town for the day as I particularly wanted to explore with my camera and I do enjoy the atmosphere of these places.
a few Chaiten photos follow before the rest of my ramblings for this post…
I had planned to leave after just one day, but when a rather lovely French girl says to you in a lilting accent on a cold and rainy Sunday morning “oh you should stay, we will kill the sheep and have a BBQ” what are you going to do? Put raingear on and ride away to spend the day alone in the rain and mud…? no, didnt think so.. I also am quite fond of unashamedly carnivorous women although I am somewhat ashamed at my lack of conviction when it comes to riding ;-)
Alexandra and her brother, who looks just like Homer Simpson when he has his hat on, and another friend.. all fantastic folk, arrived on the same boat as I did, we met on Saturday afternoon and proceeded to enjoy a laid back few hours of beer, wine, Pisco and conversation in the sun before heading out late to find something to eat. It was around midnight when we left to find our way back to the hospedaje.. with only a limited supply of electricity in Chaiten only on between the hours of 9pm and 12pm it was eery walking back through the desolate streets with only the light of a thin crescent moon to guide our way. Shadows of dogs silently running through the streets only betrayed themselves with a volley of barks and growls if we came too close. Despite the vocals the local dogs are a cowardly bunch, turn on them with a bark of your own and they run away pretty quick, whether on foot or bicycle.
So to the sheep, purchased on Saturday afternoon it was immediately christened Dolly by Alexandra despite the fact that it was clearly a chap… cohones grandes you see. It spent its final afternoon in the yard, mostly hiding amongst the weeds behind the obligatory battered pickup…
So Dolly gurgled and twitched his last at around 10am Sunday morning and our host showed off his butchery skills as the carcass, genty steaming in the cold, damp air was prepared for the spit. By 2pm Dolly was ready for dinner. I had been out and sorted us with a few bottles of wine early so spent most of the day in a mildly inebriated state. It takes a long time to BBQ a sheep.
Having spent much of the morning sitting in the woodshed out of the rain but in the thick of the smoke I was a little concerned that riding out of town the next morning I would have every dog in the area on my wheel, not to mention a few vultures as an aerial escort… While eating there was a line of black vultures on the roof slowly moving closer to the fleece which had been draped over the back of the pickup.. and a few dogs waiting expectantly on the track beyond the yard fence.
It was a good meal with us and our hosts family sat by the woodburner, followed by a few hours siesta. A most agreeable Sunday. I shall think of it is as my early Christmas dinner should I find myself in my tent eating rice and tuna on the 25th :-)
Monday then I rolled out of Chaiten in a light and freezing cold drizzle but by the time the asphalt ended after 30km the sun was breaking through, things were warming up nicely and joy of joys.. a tailwind :-)
Shortly after passing the Yelcho glacier, amongst some rather nice scenery, I met an Australian couple on bikes, Jeff & Rose, some 14 months into their world trip. Having chatted a while and shared the obligatory packet of bicuits I took off to climb the next pass. It was a given I’d be quicker, their bikes were pretty heavily laden whereas I can easily lift mine with one hand, even with 3 days food on board.
It was wicked descent on loose dirt to the little village of Villa Santa Lucia. About 3 or 4km south of the village and just off the road there is a small grassy patch by the river. Surrounded by snow capped peaks glittering in the sun it made a pretty nice place to camp. My new Antipodean friends joined me later in the afternoon and we enjoyed an excellent evening of conversation, with apple pie and cream (theirs) for dessert and polishing off my last half litre of rum as daylight finally faded completely around 10.30pm :-)
I did a lot of faffing next morning, partly due to getting up late and partly just being lazy, Jeff & Rose were on the road well before I was, I didn’t get going ’till just before 10.. I caught them fairly early on but then had to turn back a few km to find my windshell that I had lazily stowed under one of the straps of my rear pannier rather than putting it away properly… stupid. Back down the road I met the Swiss gang.. happily with my jacket :-)
The last I saw of Jeff and Rose was at the tiny community of Villa Vanguardia.. a row of 4 or 5 immaculate wooden houses tucked away in the mountain wilderness. We enjoyed misshapen icecreams and picked up some bread there before agreeing we would try and meet at a camping area inside the national park just south of La Junta. They had been excellent company the night before so I was looking forward to that.
The road turned out to be difficult going however, very loose and stony, quite a lot of climbing and a fresh southerly wind to contend with. They never made it.. and neither did I. La Junta looked an uninspiring collection of prefab flavoured houses stretched out along a wide and boring piece of dirt highway. I stopped briefly at 3.30 to get some fruit and a litre of chocolate milk (the best recovery drink around these parts) for later on. By 5.30 I had only made another 25km and had been looking for somewhere to pitch my tent for around an hour.
The land on this stretch of highway, although unpopulated, was all fenced off with barbed wire into ‘parcelas’ for sale or grazing with no easy access to water. Eventually I passed a little sawmill, a one-man operation with a stony track leading down to the river. The chap there was friendly and said I could camp in his yard.
Although not quite as stunning as the night before as camping spots go it was pretty nice.. miles from anywhere, no dead dogs or cows lying around, plenty of water in the fast flowing river, logs to sit on, no dust or mud thanks to the layer of pebbles and backed by 1000ft high forested cliffs :-) I tried to make myself useful when the guys van wouldn’t start, giving him a number of pushes.. sadly all to no avail, he sat out on the road for an hour before a ride came along while I sat on one of his logs and ate my risotto…
Just a short ride of 25km, less than expected, through the national park the next morning to the little pueblo of Puerto Puyuhuapi, located at the head of one of the convoluted inlets or fjords that characterise this part of the world.
The character of the Carretera Austral changed yet again for this stretch, just a single vehicle width of stony, potholed track heavily overgrown with trees and stands of the giant rhubard that seems to grow everywhere down here. Thanks to a tip from a helpful reader (cheers!) as I write these last few sentences I’m camped in the garden of a little yellow house. It’s nice, despite being barely a trickle of hot water the shower felt awesome and I sorted myself out with a big plate of steak, eggs and chips for dinner.. and beer of course.. oh, and icecream.
I am having a day off here too, Puerto Puyuhuapi strikes that perfect balance, for me, of tranquility and life. Travelling alone means when I stop for a day I like to be somewhere with people, good food and so on.
Best of all… after a bit of a rocky start and at last away from the relatively dull asphalt and tourism of the lakes this journey now makes complete sense :-)