I arrived in Chaiten a shadow of myself having not slept in 48 hours. There is basically nothing happening in Chaiten. It was wiped out in 2008 when a volcano erupted. Most people ended up fleeing the destroyed town. You can still see the destruction from the eruption. There is plenty to do in the surrounding area but we all settled for a day of relaxing, eating and drinking lots of cheap wine. Just what the doctor ordered after the turbulent journey.
The Carratera Austral is a motor way that was build only 28 years ago and it 1,240km long. This road is famous for it’s lack of transport, shops, petrol stations but more importantly for its stunning scenery of fjords, glaciers, steep mountains and lakes. You are warned to bring enough food, water and money when travelling as public transport is a rarity. Most locals and backpackers hitch hike and camp on the side of the road. My first experience was a 12 hour bus to Coyhaique. I ended up finding a lovely Chilain mate, Cris and wore the ears off him for the solid 12 hours. Cris is travelling home for Christmas and is taking a total of 4 days using public transport via the Carratera Austral!!
We were dropped off in the middle of Coyhaique at 1 am in the morning in the pissing rain. V grateful for the mates (we also picked up a grumpy American en route). I was happy not to be flying solo on this occasion. Trying to find accommodation was almost impossible. Absolutely every where was fully booked, closed or extortionately priced for a kip of a place. We considered camping in Cris’s 2 man tent on the street. Looking progressively worse we knocked on one last house and the grumpiest man in Chile let us in. Myself and the two random bus men squeezed into the last single bed for a cosy night. We were told we would be charged 1000$ peso’s if we used the kitchen and an additional 1000$ for the tap water. Needless to say I was on the toilet water for the night. Sick with the hunger we all shared the last of my dried oats, bleek isn’t even the word. The conservative American was less than impressed when I asked could I borrow his toothbrush (mine has been missing for a while now). We couldn’t have gotten out of there quick enough. I got the nod to Cris’s house for Christmas dinner so all in all a success!
With no other way of getting to the famous national park Cerro Castillo I set my alarm for 5 am to hitch hike 90 km south of Coyhaique. Delighted to say hasta luego to the moody American I set off excited about my first hitch hike on the Cattera Austral. Novelty obviously soon wore off as I was desperately trying to flag down a car. It can get quite bleek as car after car passes you by and you’re just stuck on a motor way. Diego, a Chilain saved the day and picked me up. He was en route to a soccer match and provided me with lots of beers during the journey. We said our good byes and he gave me a can for the road and a black bag (? Actually was life saving later that day).
You can trek for 4 days in Cerro Castillo or what most people do is a day trek up to see the glacier and the laguna which takes approx 8 hours round trip. This is what I had planned on doing……
I attempted to find a hostel to dump the bags and get trekking. Unsuccessful and struggling with the weight of the backpack I ventured inside the national park to try and rent a tent. It was soon apparent this wasn’t an option either so I made the erratic decision to continue trekking up this steep mountain. I underestimated the trek and the weight of all my stuff. All of my backpacks and food weighed over 30kg. I had done a huge food shop the day before as it was the only supermarket for the next few hundred miles. Needless to say, I went a bit over board and bought 1 kg of oats, rice, pasta, bottles of oil, shampoo, conditioner, wine, beer the complete works. Little did I know I would be carting them up to the top of a glacier. The steep incline was absolute torture with weather hitting 30 degrees. I started trekking at 12.30pm so I was comforted by the fact I had 10 hours to get to the top before darkness fell. I took regular breaks but with the backpack so heavy I couldn’t take it off my back because I couldn’t get it back on with out help. I was fairly isolated for the entire trek and definitely started to question my sanity.
I met an incredible man John en route up who is currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy for a tumour in his lung. He decided to take a break from his treatment to visit his daughter in Chile. He was trekking up the mountain and saw how bad I was struggling that he even offered to carry one of the backpacks. An absolute superstar. Unfortunately John didn’t make it to the top but he did amazing to get so far. The heat was unbearable causing my 4 tubs of yogurts to burst and a pound of butter to melt. The melted butter dripping down my legs was the cherry on the cake. I got attacked by a swarm of bees for the majority of the hike with them constantly stinging my skin. This made things a lot more challenging.
I don’t know what came over me but I decided quite quickly I had no other choice but to sleep on the mountain as darkness was closing in. Without a tent or sleeping bag on the side of a Patagonian glacier it was probably one of my crazier ideas. It was without a doubt the most physical and psychological challenge I have ever done. People coming down from the mountain were urging me to turn back but I just couldn’t. Once I set my mind to something I have to complete it. I was comforted by the fact that it didn’t get dark until 10 pm so I had time. The entire climb was a steep uphill with the terrain really rocky and loose near the end. This was actually the scariest park because the backpack was extremely heavy I kept loosing my balance. Having reached the amazing Laguna all of my problems seemed miles away. A beer with this view made it all so worthwhile.
This moment was short-lived when I was told the camp site was another 1 1/2 hour walk away. At this stage my feet and shoulders were bleeding from the weight of the backpack and the bees. I trudged through it and arrived just before the sun was setting. To my delight there were two other men in the campsite a German and a Chilain I thought I’d hit jackpot and could have bunked in to one of their tents. Unfortunately they were having none of me despite me trying to sweeten them up with some wine and chocolate. My only option was to wear all of my clothes and sleep on the black bag I was given earlier that day by Diego.
Needless to say I didn’t sleep all night. In fairness to the German he gave me 3 shots of rum and the Chilain guy gave me 3 cookies. Having lugged up a bottle of wine the whole way I was definitely going to drink it in the hope it might warm me up a little and help me sleep through the icy night. After 2 glasses I ended up knocking it over destroying my ‘blankets’ for the night. Things were looking fairly grim at this stage so I took a few paracetamols in the hope they would get rid of my pain and help me sleep. Throughout the night I got up on the hour to do a few jumping jacks/sprints to try and keep warm and get the sensation back into my feet. In the middle of the grimest of situations I did actually appreciate how beautiful it was sleeping under the stars beside a glacier and laguna with them all the myself ( would I recommend it? probably not) but an unforgettable night nonetheless. I even watched a few episdoes of Narcos deciding I may as well make the most of having my laptop on the mountain!
The following morning I was up at 4am because it was quite clear at this stage sleep wasn’t going to be an option. I ate some stale crackers, cheese and chorizo and a beer (an Israli guy gave me this en route up). The hike down was extremely challenging with steep declines, painful body and lack of food (I ate all my snacks in the middle of the night to warm up). The weight of both backpacks kept throwing me off balance and I had no trekking poles. The bees were less of a burden this time because I wasn’t covered in butter and yogurt so I was grateful for that. Taking regular breaks I ended up falling asleep on a rock half way down the mountains which was bliss.
25 hours later I managed to get off the mountain in one piece. Extremely shook, exhausted and homeless I camped out at the bus stop to try and get out of Cerro Castillo. I had to wait 4 hours for a ride but eventually made it to Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Dinner was an exquisite concoction of pasta, mayonnaise and tuna. I will never forget my night on Cerro Castillo!
Porto Rio Tranquilo is a stunning lakeside area. It’s famous for the glaciar exploradores. Myself and two other Chilain girls headed off to explore them. It was incredible we trekked for about 2 hours to get to the glacier. We were given ice crampons and spent the next 3 hours exploring the different ice sculptures and caves. An incredible experience. I’ve never seen anything like this place. Really special.
The following morning myself and a gang of Chilains went to visit the famous marble caves. We almost got blown out it with all tours subsequently cancelled that day conditions were atrocious. Anyway delighted I managed to see the caves. Afterwards we all tried to get the sensation back into our limbs with the most expensive tea of my life €4.50!!!! (this didn’t include any milk). All in all a challenging week with lots of amazing (+traumatic memories).