Things to do when stranded in San Pedro

So, the weekend was spent in the backyard of the wicked house camping in a broken Ramone. What to do? There’s not much to do in San Pedro it self, other than planning excursions and tours, and eating at cafés (most places won’t serve you alcohol without you eating as well, due to a regulation to combat drunken disorderliness). We walked around window shopping for ideas on what to do, and as mentioned in a previous post, there is no shortage in tour agencies. They all offer pretty much the same though, and there isn’t much to go on in terms of differing one to another. Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet can be of some help, and most of the agencies mentioned in the 2012 edition still existed as of this post (which is pretty rare!).

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The smell of a burned clutch in the morning

I have a tendency to spend nights pondering problems I have no possibility to fix (during the night atleast). So the forced camping in the mud was pretty sleepless. Lars of course slept like a baby, except when I had to crawl over him to get out and pee during the night (like, 3 times). My side door led to an ocean of brownie dough (or was that a dream?).

Finally, morning arrived. We packed some lunch, filled our hydration bladders and put on our running shoes. Sheeet, the first few kilometers was grueling (not exactly in top shape after 6000 km of driving). And there is something incredibly demoralizing in knowing that there’s 15 more to go. But, lo, is that a pick up truck in the horizon?! The first car we had seen since leaving the main road yesterday, could we be so lucky?

It turned out to be a group of Atacameñans, the indigenous people of San Pedro, and in my very broken spanish I managed to ask if they would mind turning around and giving us a lift a few kilometers (I pulled the number 5 out of my ass) until we could get cell signal and call for help (the word “barro”, spanish for mud, was very useful here). They were incredibly kind to oblige, and sure enough, after about 5 kilometers (I know!) on road that was in much worse condition than I remembered last night, we had signal. We called Nico at the office in San Pedro and his reply when I explained that we were stuck in mud, and we needed towing back to town because of a burned clutch, was along the line of “oh, FUCK!”, very reassuring, let me tell you.

But it didn’t take more than about 20 minutes before Esteban, the other Wicked employee in San Pedro showed up in a tiny Subaru Jimny, with a tow bar sticking out the side window (with it’s 1.2 meters it was too long to fit inside the car). I was mildly skeptical, but Esteban simply smiled and nodded, and seemed completely confident that this little car would definitely save the day. And it did! It took some digging, tugging, pushing, and more digging, but finally Ramone was loose! Then commenced the some 30 km towing of shame back to “the Wicked house”, which I guess is just the house were Esteban lives.

Of course, it was a Saturday, and a new clutch disc had to be ordered, so all we could do was scrap all our plans and settle in for the weekend in San Pedro. Not exactly as planned… (but when is it ever?) Still, pretty nice to have stable sand beneath our wheels, even if they aren’t moving for the foreseeable future.

stuck in the Atacaman desert

help has arrived

tow of shame, back to San Pedro

San Pedro de Atacama, final destination

Finally we arrive in San Pedro de Atacama. The town itself is the textbook example of tourist town; with a population of around 2500 people, and an influx of who knows how many tourists annually, the commercial focus in town is pretty clear; the main street, Caracoles, is lined by three types of stores. The tour agencies, the cafés and the thrift shops, which all carry the same sweaters and mittens. Oh, and the Wicked office of course, with Nico, sunglasses and straw hat, pumping rock music on to the street (more on this guy later).

We picked up a few maps of the region at the tourist office, and decided to check out the sunset in the Valle de la Luna, valley of the moon, an excursion pretty much mandatory in San Pedro. With the not too detailed tourist map, and a vague idea of having passed a relevant sign on the main road we headed out, about an hour before sunset.

We could see some signs of the flooding, with ponds a few places along the main road, but the dirt road heading out to Valle de la Luna seemed to be okay, in any case, not nearly as bad as the ripio in Argentinian Patagonia, instead a good, packed, dirt road. After a few kilometers though, there were clear signs of damage where small rivers had gouged the road, but still quite passable. 18 km later, we were kind of wondering where all the tourists were. There should be busloads of them, plus hordes of cyclists. Were we even on the right road? Shouldn’t there be some signage at least? Contemplating whether we should turn around (the sun was setting, and we couldn’t really see any thing remotely resembling a tourist trap), suddenly Ramone lost all traction and we were floating in the most perfect brownie-crust like mud. Lacking modern base line safety measures, like anti lock brakes, there was nothing to do but sit still for the ride. It ended after about 40 meters in mud at least 20 cm deep. Shit. Sheeet. The next 20 minutes can be summed up as Lars digging mud and pushing Ramone, while yelling “more gas, more gaaaas, don’t kill it!” (which I did, and didn’t). However, Ramone was going nowhere, and neither were we. Again the thought emerged; where are the tour buses? Where *are* we? Or, I knew exactly where we were, just not the position of any relevant landmarks. Also, I was pretty sure we had lost cellular coverage about 11 km back.

There wasn’t much to do then but go to bed and plan for an early start tomorrow; jogging back to cell signal to call the Wicked office for help. And the irony is just a few hours earlier that day I had complained about too much sitting still in the car and how it’s time to get some exercise (a half marathon in the desert was not what I was picturing). Oh, and the sunset? Was too preoccupied with mud to pay attention to it.

Atacama, here we come (-ah)

(sorry, titles are hard sometimes)

Here’s one thing I find to be weird; the Atacama desert (which is huge), stretches all the way down to the coast. How can there be like, the entire Pacific oceans’ worth of water just sitting *there*, and then dry, empty of vegetation, coastal hills right next to it?

We took an exit off route 5 on the way to Antofagasta (chile’s second largest city, population of only 300 000), just to go up to the Observatorio Paranal, which houses the Very Large Telescope. Of course, you can go on a tour if you book like 3 months in advance, and that’s only for saturdays, but we still wanted to stop by and ogle the area. While having a quick lunch in the parking lot, we were approached by a german guy who was curious about our camper and wanted to donate a few beers (it’s actually really cool how many people are waving and giving us thumbs up when we drive Ramone along the road!)

The german had some curious news; it’s been raining dogs and cats in the San Pedro de Atacama area, flooding a lot of the roads and in general, giving astronomers a head ache with the high air humidity. Oookay, that was unexpected; that area is like supposed to be some of the driest in the planet. So, now we have volcano eruptions and flooding where there’s an annual amount of a few millimeters of rain.

We pushed on past Antofagasta, and Calama (trying cheekily to go to the visitors center of the huge open copper mine Chuquicamata (only for official tour buses)), and finally arrived in San Pedro. The plan is to spend the last two weeks of our trip in this area, checking out the altiplano, hiking a volcano or two, and in general enjoy life in low oxygen environments.

Dolphins et cetera

We are getting closer now to the Atacaman desert, we can practically smell the sand already in anticipation (or is that only sand residue in Ramone’s not exactly airtight ventilation system?)

La Serena was the next big circle on the map. We didn’t really know what to expect, other than it being a gateway to the Elqui Valley, and a bunch of small observatories we’ve never heard of (except reading about them in the Lonely Planet book, which every tourist travelling here is using). We ended up speeding through the city, except for stopping at the ginormous concrete cross dedicated to the late pope John Paul II. I guess every country in South America has to have one.

The next day we went to the small fishing village of Punta Choros to go on a boat tour to the national reserve Pinguino de Humboldt. Medio march is the low season, but we were still surprised as to how few tourists there were. Anyways, in our bareley sufficiente spanish, we managed to understand that there was 1) a 7 person minimum, and 2) a bus full of tourists was on the way.

Three hours later we realize that some of the finer nuances in the communication apparently had been lost; we were all just doing the “palms up, lifting of the shoulders”-gesture. Finally, when the boat-guy realized we weren’t going to cough up the full minimum price (70,000 pesos), they relented and, with the help of google translate voice-recognition (which is like magic!), sent us to the other part of town, literally, 500 meters, where all the tourists apparently had been hiding. We were ushered onto a small, open boat with 10 other people and off we were.

The goal was two of three islands that form the reserve, Isla Damas and Isla Choros. The reserve is named for a tiny type of penguin found only here (as far as I know), the Humboldt penguin. But in addition the islands are important habitats for birds, more birds than you could count; pelicans, cormorants, boobies (which we didn’t see), and of course seagulls. It’s kind of cool to see exotic big birds like flamingos and pelicans, but in general they are disgusting creatures who literally live in their on shit; shit that is so extreme it needs it’s own name (guano). When the guide steered the boat close to the cliffs, covered centimeters thick with guano, I almost got an acute asthma attack; the ammonia stench was so incredibly strong. Yuck!

Luckily, we didn’t bird watch for too much of the trip; next up was sea lions, a few penguins staring dumbly back at us, a few sleek sea otters, and the main attraction; dolphins! The guide steered us a bit away from the islands, into the stronger current. He turned off the engine, tapped the side of the boat a few times, and suddenly we were surrounded by dolphins! Incredibly elegant and powerful, and curious (yes, I know, these guys has to shit as well (or do they?). After a few minutes of them chasing and overtaking our small boat, even the sea lions joined in in the game. Totally worth waiting 3 hours for!

Our journey continued northwards. Several nights of camping along the coast, with serene, tinkle-inducing sounds of waves crashing. This thing with rough camping in a camper van was totally as good as hoped for!

Volcan Villarrica, or not

The most famous volcano in Chile is Volcan Villarrica, it is also the most active volcano, with a plume coming up from the crater, pretty much constantly. We first saw this one from the plane, and instantly decided that we needed to come by here and try to summit it, like the other 50-60 000 summiting each year (according to our guide; Lonely Planet). So, done with the Carretera Austral, we headed a bit eastwards from route 5, into Pucon. We had read that the climb up to the summit would be on snow, so we were kind of surprised to see how small the ice field was (a very warm summer?) and started dreading walking on scree and loose gravel, instead of compacted snow and ice (which should be relatively more easy).

Turns out, Volcan Villarrica was a bit too active; just 10 days earlier there was a major eruption, effectively shutting down all activity at least until winter. And what we interpreted as “little snow”, was in fact ashes and tephra streams covering almost the entire volcano. So, definitely a disappointment, but decidedly a very spectacular one; it’s not often we have been thwarted by a volcano eruption, usually it’s something much more pedestrian, like forest fires or flashfloods in the desert (in Death Valley, an oxymoron for sure).

Vulcan Villarrica towering over the small town of Pucon. Notice the vulcanic ashes covering the cone...

So, we returned to route 5, northbound. We are now headed for the more populated, and frankly, less interesting part of Chile. Oh, it’s still a nice view, with vineyards and the odd laguna here and there, but mostly it’s small towns and the four-lane high way. Poor Ramone gets uncomfortable with speeds exceeding 100 kmph, but that’s ok, since its already quite precarious holding my camera out the window trying to “capture the atmosphere” without the wind snatching it out of my hand.

Although Chile has some very old cities and settlements, we haven’t felt inspired to make any stops at the larger cities along the way. Architecture-wise, it seems fairly rundown, even if they paint the, for lack of a better word, shacks, in the color palette of “My little pony”. Eventually route 5 left the flat inlands (which were also too warm for my liking; I don’t do well with temperatures over 22 C) and veered off to the coast. Now we’re talking! Beaches, cliffs, volcanic rock, martian like landscapes (well, sans the fierce Pacific Ocean of course).

We did stop at Valparaiso, just for a quick soaking of the atmosphere, and a trip with the ancient ascensor (1890-ish). Well, strictly speaking, after asking google about parking in Valparaiso, we ended up at the municipal, staffed, parking next to the Vina del Mar metro stop. We felt pretty safe with leaving our car there, and the some 15 minutes with the metro was really very scenic, with the tracks hugging the coastline, with a plentitude of beaches and rustic piers. And we agree, Valparaiso was definitely worth a visit, with it’s steep hills, stairways, ascensors, and the colors! The city is apparently infested with art students, who have made it a mission of leaving no wall unpainted. I’m pretty sure we only saw a tiny, tiny fraction, but what we saw, we liked.

But, urbanites, we are not. So, back to Ramone again, and route 5. we had been looking forward to arriving at the coast, with the idea that there would be ample opportunities of camping along beaches. We were not mistaken. One spot is nicer than the next, and it’s only the arriving dusk and nightfall that forces us to finally make a choice and park.

Northbound from Chile Chico

Finally back to civilization, aka cellular signal! And ATM’s that are willing to give us cash!

After a night in the Argentinian pampas (if you’ve seen one, you’ve probably been seeing it for some stretch of time), we now crossed back into Chile at the sleepy town of Chile Chico. There’s not much to do here, besides stocking up at the supermarket and getting more fuel. We had two options onwards; we could either take the scenic route, around the Lago General Carrera, and about 300 km of gravel roads, or take the 2 hour ferry straight across the lake to Puerto Ibanez… We’ve never quite appreciated asphalted roads before this trip, and the choice was made easier by the low cloud cover and rain; so we got up at first crack of dawn and sat hopefully outside the ticket office, waiting for it to open. There are no information in english, and while the google translator app has been a savior a few times, it can also dish out some pretty interesting interpretations. It turns  out, taking a ferry in Chile is pretty much the same as in Norway; first come, first serve (except for those who’ve booked tickets online).

Now we’ve definitely come into some different climate. It’s been pouring down the last few days, since crossing Lago General Carrera, and poor Ramones windscreen has developed a leak (though nothing some duct tape wouldn’t fix).

Coyhaique was a bit of a shock; much busier than we anticipated, and not a very pleasant place to stay, in our opinion. We loaded up on vegetables that was confiscated at the border, bought gas and left, as soon as possible. This part of Chile looks to be a pure road trip. There aren’t too much to do here, maybe fishing for those so inclined. It rained a whole lot, with only a few pauses with sunshine. We also had the pleasure of waiting 4 hours at a stretch of road with construction (closed between 1300 and 1700 due to dynamiting). If only we hadn’t been so slow to get up in the morning…

We didn’t get many kilometers today because of the delay, and stopped early in the small town of something nearly unpronouncable; Puyuhuapi, at a not super nice campground, but with good company (and I don’t mean Lars ;) and the prospect of a hot shower tomorrow.

The wrong way to El Calafate

Leaving the Torres del Paine national park behind, we steered Ramone towards the Argentinian border. After many kilometers of ripio, unpaved, dirt roads (The spanish word for gravel roads is ripio, which i find to be a very fitting word as the stones and washboards try to rip poor Ramone apart), we ended up at Cerro Castillo, where we almost forgot to stop and get our stamps at the border control (the gate was just wide open, you know?). Not much english spoken here, as usual, but we managed to get our passports stamped by one guy, and Ramones papers stamped by the other, and off we went. In like, 30 kmphs, due to lack of asphalt.

We hadn’t realized beforehand, only because we didn’t look very closely on the map, how much of Patagonia was actually in Argentina, and so we now had a distinct lack of travel-mojo for the next stretch, to El Calafate and El Chalten, primarily.  Mostly money wise; Visa is not that common (luckily, we have MasterCard as well, though Lars has forgotten his PIN, of course); roaming apparently doesn’t exist, not even for our Norwegian mobile provider; the most prevalent ATM wont give us money; and the exchange rate to Argentinian pesos is horrible, except if you bring USD or EUROs, cash, and make exchanges on the black market.

But this we found out after the very first blunder; namely choosing the shortest way from Cerro Castillo to El Calafate, along Ruta 40 ( which i guess is Argentina’s route 66 or something, except with a lot less services along the way). We knew there would be plenty of buses carrying tourists to El Chalten, and seeing none of these along the way, it got pretty obvious that we had picked the “scenic route”… In hindsight i asked the GPS for an alternate route, and sure enough; there was one of twice the distance, but still with less time than the one we chose. The upside was a pretty damn quiet camp spot along the way!

The main high light of El Calafate, and possibly the only one, is the Perito Moreno Glaciar. This one was a must see for me. It is quite spectacular and incredibly active, and although we weren’t fortunate enough to see a big calving, ice the size of large boulders was constantly falling off, hitting the water with a loud gunshot like noise. The front of the glacier is some 4 km in width, 50-60 m above the water line, and 14 kilometers deep. And this is just one tiny arm of the ginormous Campo de Hielo Sur, the southern Patagonian ice field. It completely boggles the mind!

As an aside note, we asked a park ranger to pretty please, let us camp in the parking lot over night, but I think those days of leniency are long gone. We were politely directed to a free camp site, at Estancia Rio Mitre, which of course, isn’t free anymore. Though, at 60 pesos per person, it was the cheapest, and much, much nicer than the ones in town (and also preferable to the night before where we learned a new spanish phrase: “no puede campara aqa”, with “aqa” being an informal, friendly “aqui”). With a baby llama guarding the door. To pass, you had to pay the toll of cuddles, Lars of course was happy to oblige.

Then, onwards to El Chalten. This is the main spot in Argentina for hiking, but being march and the shoulder season, the town was pretty quiet. Or it may have been the Patagonian wind, with some rain added for variation, chasing people inside.

We had some okay weather, but with a low cloud cover, so we didn’t really see neither the Fitz Roy, nor Cerro Torre. We got to see a few glaciers though, again these are arms of the Campo de Hielo Sur. There is no free camping inside the park, but we found a charming campsite just a few kilometres past  El Chalten heading towards the Laguna del Desierto. 60 pesos per person, and hot showers. Also, with two sheep who thought they were dogs. Also, we learned that Ramone will completely drain his battery if we forget to turn of the headlights before going hiking.

Time to get back to Chile, and cellular signal, or even just usable wifi. Again, some 80 km of ripio, but then all asphalt, all the way to the Chilean border town, Chile Chico!

Northbound from Punta Arenas

We didn’t spend more time than necessary in Punta Arenas, and hit the road asap after collecting the camper van. Or Ramone, to use it’s short hand name (the name should be self evident from the pictures). Personally I have no idea who The Ramones were, but we’ve had a fan take a selfie with Ramone, so I guess we could have worse luck as to the décor. But it’s hardly a speed machine, and doing more than 90 kmph is quite… loud. Not the engine of course, more from the wind noise as the car is hammering itself through the patagonian wind.

The wind! Constant. Unrelenting. Wind!
Everyone who’s been to Patagonia says something along the lines of; o-ehm-gee, so beautiful, amazing, nature, llamas, mountains, glaciers, steppes, rain, sun, rain and sun, and _wind_. They are… not wrong. Already in Punta Arenas we could start to get a feel for the ever-present wind, and we quickly learned how important it is to park Ramone nose first into it. And that’s the weird thing about the patagonian wind; it’s always just the one direction, mostly west to east, although you can have local variations depending on the terrain. Apparently the wind is a pure summer phenomenon, and in the winter there is hardly any (according to a seemingly knowledgeable local person).

Anyway, heading out of town, due north. We decided to skip Terra del Fuego, and spend the some 24 hours of driving to/from Ushuaia saved, in the mountains instead. After only a few hours of driving on Ruta 9, due to a late start (lost quite some time hunting down gas canisters for our kitchen stove), we found a nice side road next to a river to park for the night. Lots of anticipation for our first night in Ramone, rough camping it in the Chilean middle-of-nearly-nowhere. And it was awesome! Super comfortable beds, though some refining the technique of the getting in and out of the side door while putting on/taking off shoes and not dropping them is needed.

The next morning we arrived in Puerto Natales. By a real stroke of luck we managed to get on a kayak excursion the morning after, arranged by Hello Kayak. Not a cheap option, but very professional with great personal equipment (semi-dry suits) and the guides were real kayak-bums (maybe I invented this term) and very skilled. The kayaks were the double kind, which can be a challenge for people with different paddling timing, but after some initial cursing and dousing of river water, Lars and I managed to paddle sort of in sync. But not much paddling was needed, where we flowed with the down stream of River Gray, with the quite stately Torres del Paine at our backs, and the absolutely magnificent ice range in the west (I instantly forgot the name after asking, but something with O’Higgins). After some hours of paddling, we drove to a nearby camp ground (Luis the minibus driver was kind enough to slow down enough for Ramone to catch up), where the kayak bums served up delicious salmon and beef for dinner, and we had Australian and north-American help in finishing our boxed wine and Cerveza Austral. They were amazing company and it took an embarrassingly short amount of time before the conversational topic deteriorated into bodily functions and the like… always a sign of quality company!

Waking up with a slight red wine hang over, we took farewell with the rest of the guys who were paddling on for the next stretch, while Ramone and us headed to the main attraction of the park; the Torres del Paine. Pavement has yet to come to the park, and it was a fairly bumpy ride (although, this is just the beginning of the bad roads ahead).

We decided to only walk the day hike to the Torres (towers). Just under 3 hours up, with sun and summer-temperatures, to be rewarded with dipping warm feet into the ice cold laguna underneath the Towers. When sitting by the laguna and looking up, it’s quite mind boggling when you realize the summit is 2000 meters above where you are sitting — the scale of the place is so unfamiliar that I would probably put the summit at just about 500 meters up; this is the sort of stuff I’m “used to” seeing from back home. Properly impressed, we rushed back down to cook some pasta bolognese-ish dinner, and found a super nice camp spot right outside the national park gates, with a sweet view of the towers in the sunset.