Patagonia: The Anti-Rally–Dispatch 1

Hi there! Our trip in Chile is going great. What a wonderful country!  It seems impossible that we have seen and done so much in such a relatively short time. From our start in Santiago to our current southern most point in the town of Castro on the island of Chiloe, this has been one amazing trip so far.  We have stayed in a charming rural guesthouse run by Germans near the town of Talca, to a deluxe hotel on the shores of Lago Villarica in Pucon and now we are in an utterly eccentric lodge called Unicornio Azul (Blue Unicorn), which rises 4 floors up the steep hillside from the bay and is painted, you guessed it……….PINK..  
Although we enjoyed Santiago mainly because we were finally in Chile, we were happy to hit the road.  IN true Rally mode, Bernard took the wheel and I took the maps, and everything proceeded smoothly from there. The Panamericana is an easy 4-lane highway with little traffic, so a pleasure to drive.  Our transit days tend to take about 6-8 hours of driving, what with stops for gas, for lunch, etc.  Then we stay for 2-3 days in once place and explore that particular area.  In the vicinity of Talca, we went for our first hike. 

I, especially, was excited to be getting into the Andean highlands and indeed on our 3,000-foot climb to the Andean tundra we did spy distant volcanoes and snowfield. I was outfitted in my new knee brace (to stabilize the knee which lost the ACL in my latest ski accident) and limped along favoring the other leg with the bad Achilles tendon!  Bernard had no problems………..   Unfortunately I received a rude surprise at the end of the hike when I discovered one of my toenails had turned purple….. a very bad sign!!!!  
A few days after the hike we got up close and personal with the local hospital in Pucon, where I elected to have an emergency toenail removal, so that I could have some hope of recovering in time to do some real hiking in the Torres del Paine and Fitzroy areas, which we are so much looking forward to.  Travel experiences aren´t always what´s in the guidebooks, and this brief detour to a Catholic hospital was an eye-opener in terms of how good medical care can be in countries outside the U.S.    I now look like a cartoon character, with a white bandage over my big toe(!!), but I feel much better.

Apart from the medical facilities, since I can´t walk much yet we instead enjoyed a super horseback ride for several hours in the Mapuche countryside East of Pucon.  Just Bernard and I (and a charming German girl who showed us the trail) on excellent Criollo mounts.  We also drove up to the Argentne border with Chile to check if our car papers were complete and discovered they weren´t. This necessitated returning to Avis in Puerto Montt 2 days later, where we ultimately had to switch cars.  But that´s another story.  The scenery has us enthralled, as snow capped volcanoes appear around the bend, and trees of a truly exotic nature grab our attention. ONce off the highway the lush steep hills and narrow canyons of the highlands are alluring.  Our sense of the people so far is one of ease and genuine welcome.  It is a little difficult to define exactly what makes the difference between what we feel here vs. other countries. Somehow there seems to be a lack of ostentation and an acceptance of travelers as, well, just people, which is really refreshing.  I am enjoying wiping the dust off my Spanish and being chief communicator.  Bernard is picking up some vocabulary as we go. 
From Pucon we headed straight south to the ferry to Chiloe, second largest island of Chile.  Imagine our surprise when car traffic came to a screeching halt about a kilometer from the port.  Why?  Unbeknownst to us, we chose to go to Chiloe on the one weekend of the year when the island organizes an immense –and obviously very popular — local food and crafts festival. People from all over Chile were flooding to the island for the weekend.  Instead of the typical ferry schedule of one boat every hour or so,  there were 6-8 ferries plying the 35 minute passage to and from the island every 15 minutes.  It was amazing to see the efficiency and orderliness with which cars were loaded onto boats! 

Once on the island, of course, it was a rather slow drive to get to Castro.  But we were rewarded for our perseverance (and for overlooking how dismal a city Castro really is) by the fantastic fair today.  We went early and the very first thing Bernard did was buy a climb up a 30 meter fire truck ladder, in support of the local Castro fire department.  Then we wandered amongst the 55 large stalls where over 300 pigs, lamb and beeves had given their lives to create the most extraordinary display of wood-fired barbecue skills we´ve ever witnessed….or tasted!  

BBQ booths were hosted by everything from the local girls basketball team, to the Red Cross, to each of the 7 companies of Bomberos (firemen) that make up Castro´s department. We literally ate our way through the fair:  first some sweet fried bread,  then a bread made from potatoes and flour,rolled thin, wrapped around a hot cylinder and barbecued over wood coals till cooked, then smeared with shredded seasoned pork and folded in thirds………then some pie and coffee at the Red Cross stand,  followed by a plate heaped with a big chunk of lamb, steamed potatoes and big wheels of sliced tomato, washed down with the local chicha, a fermented apple juice,  followed soon thereafter by baked salmon and a 7-layer cake.   We had a good time 🙂
Late afternoon we drove over to the western-most side of the island where there´s a national park and waddled a mile or so down a sandy path through lush jungle-like woods till we came  out on the dunes and could see the wild breakers of the Pacific.  All while rain fell in slashing sheets.  This was the first test of our rain gear. Proof that it works well is that I wore my rain pants and my slacks stayed dry.  Bernard didn´t wear his and his trousers were soaked!!!

Tomorrow we will return to the north end of Chiloe, from where we play to pay a visit to a penguin rookery where Magellanic and Humboldt penguins share the turf. And then monday  it´s on to the Navimag ferry which will wisk us southward through magnicifent fjord scenery to Puerto Natales. 
More in another week!

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