From Chaiten, we continue our journey south, stood on the outskirts of town taking it in turns to stick our thumb out at passing drivers. Most are lorry drivers or local guys in their work trucks. After half an hour, a pickup slows down and winds down its window; Felipe, a 26 year old electrical engineer, tells us to throw our stuff in the back. He’s fun and sweet, talks to us about his son – a stuffed toy hangs from the rear view mirror – we chat in Spanish then switch to English then back, he finds the Arctic Monkeys for us on his phone and offers us nuts to snack on. I’m squeezed in the back and through the windows look up at the mountains and glaciers and forests around us.
After an hour, the road forks: Felipe is heading to Palena near the Argentinian border and we’re carrying on down the Carretera Austral. He drops us at Santa Lucia, a tiny grid of buildings – around us are buttercups and blue sky and a wooden church and the hills.
After an hour the bus comes, takes us to La Junta where it needs to go to the mechanic as the brakes have stopped working (!) – we stretch out in the sun and wait for the driver to come back. Eventually, we reach Puyuhuapi – a village built in the head of a sea fjord, founded by four German settlers in the 1930s, its wooden cabins sheltering beneath the mist and salt air that hangs in the valley.
We’re staying at a hostel called Casa Ludwig and it might be another of my favourite places we’ve slept: a yellow chalet with wooden floors, a library, driftwood on the landing and stairs that go up and up until we reach our room in the pitched roof.
The owner, Luisa, is the daughter Ernst Ludwig, one of the first settlers who came to Chile in 1935. In the beautiful living room filled with carpentry and books and blankets, we play cards and drink boxed wine we’ve bought from the mikmarket. There’s mist gathering over the water outside. Luisa has gathered an oral history of the town’s oldest residents and she shows me there publishers first draft. I love her description of the region in the introduction: “here the Andes drop off into the sea and on their dry backsides are the high pampas of Argentina. The western shore, south of Puerto Montt, breaks apart into a maze of channels and heavily wooden islands, their topsoil kept permanently soaked by the cold and humid westerlies which the mountains, like a colander, strain of their water”. When I look at a map of the area, I’m boggled by the mad amount of islands and water Chile breaks into at the bottom of the country. Moz reminds me that we’re further south than Australia, and not too far from Antarctica. Mad.
The next morning we’re up early to get a lift from one of the park rangers who works at the nearby Parque Quelat. There’s a lovely couple from Barcelona in the car too – Sylvia and Elena – and we talk about Catalan politics and Nina and Jack’s new life out there. Ahead of us, a landslide has taken away a section of the Carretera Austral and there’s now extensive work taking place to rebuild it; meanwhile, cars have to skip that section and go on the ferry which we have to wait for for two hours, itching to get to the park and get walking.
Eventually we do and it’s a beautiful trail undulating and climbing through the green forest; as we walk we can hear distant thunder of ice cracking and falling from the glacier. We quicken our pace and suddenly we see it, the hanging glacier, suspended the in the valley head and coloured in incredible blues and whites – its mesmerising. We stand looking at it, the waterfalls coming from the ice and, just as we’re about to leave, see a chunk of ice crack and fall, then hear the thunder a second later.
It’s a long journey back to Puyuhuapi as we have to wait again for the ferry. By the time we get there we’re tired but traipse around finding a campsite, eventually settling for the best option: a shed of someone in the village. His wife comes in to light the big old range in the centre of the room and suddenly things don’t feel so bad.
The next morning we’re up early again to try and catch a lift with Jellis and Tess, a lovely Dutch couple that we met on the Quelat walk and who have hired a minivan which has two spaces. The only problem? We have to get to the other side of the ferry before then need to head off. One hitchhike with Rafael to the crossing and we’re making progress. The workmen on the ferry are dressed in fluorescent overalls, stained caps and all are smoking, eyeing us with interest, these two travellers with big bags surrounded by workmen on their commute. On the ferry, I tap on the window of a truck and Javier, the driver, agrees to drive us to Tess and Jellis’s campsite. Success!
We arrive to have coffee in the sun behind Tess and Jellis’s van and then set off, chatting away with their ‘Latin America’ playlist on, singing along to all the songs we’ve heard on our way down South America. The scenery is incredible, the mountains huge around us and yellow and purple flowers by the road. The Carretera Austral goes on and on, aside from the odd pickup coming the other direction there’s barely any traffic as we wind through the beautiful landscape.
We stop partway to do a walk called Bosque Encantado, Enchanted Forest in Spanish. It’s officially closed due to a landslide but we climb over the fence and follow the path. The forest truly does feel enchanted, moss hanging from trees, pools of light, the constant sound of perfectly clear water running through the woods. From the forest we’d hoped to reach a lagoon but this is where the landslide hit: a huge plain of destroyed forest, mounds of mud, massive lumps of ice flow and piles of broken wood. We climb through the destroyed forest and try to navigate our way over the mud and ice field; tentatively I suggest this might not be a good idea. I hate being the scared one or the one to say we should turn back but it really doesn’t feel like a good idea to continue. It’s amazing though, and awe inspiring, to see what Mother Nature can do.
Back at the van we warm up soup on our little gas stove and then hit the road to reach Coyhaique, the last big town on our journey, by the afternoon. That night, we go out with Tess and Jellis for pisco sours and pizza, wine, good chats and laughter 🙂