FINAL POST. May 6-7: Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park

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In the afternoon of May 6 we were finally there: Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city reachable by road.

 

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Two continents, 24,324 miles (39.146 kilometers), nine months and five days.

This trip has become my baby.

 

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Of course we first undertook an exploratory potty break…

 

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… followed by the obligatory photo next to the city’s famous “end of the world” sign…

 

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… and in front of another sign indicating driving distances from Ushuaia to the nation’s capital and to Argentina’s northernmost border crossing…

 

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… and finally, in front of a tongue-in-cheek reminder of Argentina’s most passionate foreign policy cause: to obtain sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, currently occupied and administered by the British Government.

 

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On May 6 we rose with the sun…

 

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… in time to admire a fog-covered harbor from our hotel window.

 

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Following a good breakfast, we paid a visit to the city’s Toyota dealership to have la bestia‘s oil leak checked out. We left an hour later with an extra supply of engine oil and a unresolved item for my post-trip agenda.

 

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Next we headed to Tierra del Fuego National Park, which greeted us with fierce fall colors.

 

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Admission was free as the season is already over, and we only ran into a handful of fellow visitors.

 

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I had imagined the southern tip of Patagonia to be just as barren as the region’s steppes further north. What Bernie and I encountered instead left us speechless.

 

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We went on a chilly stroll on one of the marked paths…

 

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… and did not talk much during the following hour, taking in the energy surrounding us…

 

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… marveling at the park’s abundant wildlife…

 

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… and feeling deeply grateful for the experience.

 

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Of course there was another sign indicating the end of the world (in this case: road).

 

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I could not resist the temptations of organized tourism and mailed two postcards from Argentina’s southernmost post office.

 

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What a perfect closure of this journey.

 

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On our way back to Ushuaia we visited the Prison Museum and then ordered a pizza, which–accompanied by a bottle of delicious End-of-the-World Malbec donated by Bernie–struck us as the most appropriate way to celebrate the completion of Harry’s and my voyage.

 

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Thank you for following. And if you have any doubt whether you should embark on a similar trip:

Do it.

____________

Harry and Daniel

Ushuaia, Argentina

May 8, 2016

April 29-May 5: Cueva de las Manos, Fitz Roy, Perito Moreno and on to Tierra del Fuego

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Following a frigid night in the town of Perito Moreno–we first stayed on the municipal campground but left shortly after midnight as local youth had decided to stage a barbecue literally right next to la bestia–we left early and reached World Heritage-protected Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in time for a guided tour.

 

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On its way to the cave the group was greeted by this fearless fox.

 

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The vast majority of the cave’s famous hand prints and paintings are actually outside the cave; the cave itself was closed for visitors in 2006 because of vandalism.

 

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Lots of hands (mostly left hands, because paint powder was blown onto the rock through a hollow bone usually held by the right hand) but also choique (Patagonian ostrich) footprints…

 

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… as well as more abstract forms such as circles and dotted lines. Well worth a visit.

 

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As we continued toward the small town of El Chalten near Mount Fitz Roy, we were lucky to come across choiques in their natural habitat.

 

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Southern Patagonia is unlike any other place I’d been to before: barren, deserted, and yet magical.

 

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We approached El Chalten and Mt. Fitz Roy–its iconic shape is visible as the rightmost peak–as the sun was setting.

 

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No comment, for lack of words.

 

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The next morning we wanted to continue south to El Calafate, but the sole gas pump in town only opened later in the day. We ended up stayed for another night…

 

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… and another day, leaving El Chalten in the afternoon of May 2 and reaching Lago Argentino a few hours later.

 

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La bestia has been running smoothly since her last check-up — except for a small and yet unexplained oil leak.

 

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In El Calafate we met up with Bernie, one of the most faithful followers of this blog and a dear friend since 2000. We celebrated the reunion at a steak house, though I stuck to grilled trout.

 

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The next day–May 3–we drove into Glaciers National Park. We missed the ferry we had booked by one minute but thanks to Bernie’s Argentinean negotiation skills, we were allowed to switch to the afternoon trip without having to pay twice.

 

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For the remainder of the morning we enjoyed the views of breathtaking Perito Moreno Glacier from several different viewing platforms.

 

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While I have watched a few good documentaries about glaciers, seeing Perito Moreno’s stunning range of colors with my own eyes was quite a treat.

 

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More hues of blueish whites…

 

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… and turquoise blues.

 

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Afterwards Bernie and I were taken across the lake on a small catamaran where we got ready to explore the glacier on crampons.

 

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Although the three-hour tour was pricey, we enjoyed it a lot.

 

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The next day we continued driving across the southern pampas

 

 

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… and, just as we were about to cross into Chile, met a lovely German couple hailing from Stuttgart who has been traveling for over three years in their yellow MAN truck (far left).

 

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Once in Chile, we followed the Ruta del Fin del Mundo (Road of the End of the World) and spent a night in Puerto Natales…

 

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… and then continued toward Punta Arenas…

 

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… where on May 5 we drove la bestia onto yet another ferry bound for Porvenir on Tierra del Fuego.

 

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The two-hour crossing was surprisingly smooth; although Patagonia is famous for its strong winds and grey skies, we have been extremely lucky: it has been fabulously calm and mostly sunny thus far.

 

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We braved the cold for the first hour and stayed outside (partly to avoid yet another Chilean TV disaster unfolding in the ferry’s main cabin)…

 

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… and finally made it to (Chilean) Tierra del Fuego.

 

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The next day we left early, driving past flamingos…

 

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… and more magical landscapes (note: the photo is not out of focus — it’s the clouds)…

 

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… and, of course, Patagonian vicunas…

 

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… as well as a good amount of Chilean army troops ostensibly training to repel an Argentinean invasion (but then, who would be dumb enough to enter Chile without a good-enough reason?).

 

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We had to stomach one final border crossing — and then we were there: Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego Province!

 

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Only a few hundred kilometers left to Ushuaia, the world’s southernmost city reachable by car.

April 27-28: Chilean TV terror and end-of-the-world flavors

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On our way from Ancud to Quellon we briefly stopped in Chonchi, a small fishing village on Chiloe’s eastern shore.

 

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Chiloe is famous for its wooden and sheet metal churches. The one in Chonchi is reputedly one of the nicest examples of this World Heritage-protected cultural treasure.

 

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We reached Quellon on April 27 just before sunset. The ferry that would take us further south is visible above (center, slightly to the left).

 

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However, prior to embarking we–of course–had to visit Point Zero of the Panamericana!

 

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The sign explains that from here, the drive to Anchorage (Alaska) is over 21,000km long.

 

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We made it!

 

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Then we drove onto the ferry…

 

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… envisioning a quiet and scenic 17-hour cruise to Puerto Cisnes.

 

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Well, the weather thankfully remained calm, but Navieraustral, the company running the marine highway system in this part of Chile, had a special surprise for us: twelve flatscreen TVs that were switched on all the time, day and night, showing a mix of local news, the Chilean version of Judge Judy (including a priest weighing in on what God “wants”), and plenty of violent fantasy movies. Although I managed to dig out ear plugs and a sleeping mask, I am still struggling to understand why in 2016 anyone could consider it a treat to watch TV for 17 hours (or more, see below…) nonstop.

 

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On top of that, the ship (which I termed “Querulant”–grumbler–in a slight twist of its actual name) made frequent stops and was apparently also wrestling with a strong current. What had been planned as a 17-hour journey turned out to be a 22-hour ordeal.

 

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I went outside whenever I felt warm enough to take peeks at the gorgeous rough coastal landscapes — and to escape from TV purgatory.

 

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It all ended well, though: with a hearty fish dinner in Puerto Cisnes and a warm hostel room nearby.

 

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We are now going to head southeast toward Coyhaique and then cross back into Argentinean territory.

April 17-26: Bariloche, San Martin, and back to Chile

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It’s been a while since I’ve last posted. The cold has since kicked in, and Harry and I have been staying in hostels and hosterias. I also got myself the heaviest down jacket I’ve ever owned, thanks to a Patagonia sale event in Osorno, Chile.

 

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He clearly doesn’t mind his temporary admission to human quarters!

 

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On April 18 we left Chile, crossing into Argentina via the Samore checkpoint in the Andes.

 

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The border region between Argentina and Chile is famous for its lakes, but the weather forced us to keep driving.

 

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Welsh immigrants established a tea house culture in the area, offering opportunities to warm up right by the water.

 

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The sun came out occasionally. Bariloche reminded me of Geneva; although not even half the size of her Swiss counterpart, the city boasts a similar tradition of chocolatiers, amazing views of nearby mountains, and the same capricious weather.

 

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This scene could easily also be near Lac Leman, right?

 

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Huemul Island, the site of Argentina’s first attempt to develop nuclear energy in the 1950s, is visible at the far left. The project–run by a German con man with support from Peron–failed completely.

 

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Thanks to Bernabe and his cousin Tuti, Harry and I got an entire house to ourselves! We stayed here for two nights before moving into a small pension out of town run by a Slovenian couple.

 

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At Pulperia Salamandra I made an exception from my vegetarian rule, and it was well worth it: I had the best steak of my life.

 

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Harry and I went for walks in the temperate rain forests whenever it wasn’t raining too hard.

 

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Turns out he loves chewing on dry bamboo!

 

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Even though the temperatures remained frigid, his genes demanded that he test the waters.

 

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I was worried that he might catch a cold — but so far, so good.

 

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Of course we also had to pay a visit to the famous Llao Llao hotel 25km west of Bariloche. It was here where the idea to drive from Alaska to Patagonia took shape in 2009.

 

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Aside from its chocolate manufacturers, Bariloche is also known for its local breweries. Above: Blest microbrewery, next door from Berlina (which I actually liked better).

 

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On April 25 we had successfully sat out the bad weather, got up early, and left Hosteria Katy after breakfast.

 

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We waved Bariloche good-bye…

 

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… and headed north toward San Martin de los Andes.

 

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We opted for a detour via Villa Traful since the day was gorgeous.

 

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This part of Argentina is without doubt among its finest, and I promised myself to return again during the southern summer and with more time for hikes.

 

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Villa Traful is located on the shore of a crystal-clear lake with the same name.

 

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The scenery reminded of our visit to Crater Lake in Oregon.

 

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Near San Martin, Harry just couldn’t resist anymore. I gave him a hearty rub afterwards.

 

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Much smaller than Bariloche and without the latter’s architectural sins (i.e., multi-story concrete buildings next to old wooden homes), San Martin is among the most romantic urban getaways I’ve come across on this trip…

 

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… and it is also home to one of Argentina’s few Vizsla breeders. Harry and Huesos (“Bones”) got along fabulously…

 

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… despite Huesos being ten years younger than 11 year-old Harry.

 

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I watched the dogs play while enjoying yet another local beer brand.

 

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On April 26 we drove back across the border to Chile. Unfortunately an overzealous Chilean customs official made us throw away Harry’s dry food even though I was able to show that I had, in fact, bought it in Chile a week prior. US$40 wasted — and my general opinion of Chilean mentality (inflexible, donnish, drab) took another hit.

 

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The landscape to the east between Osorno and Puerto Varas is dominated by massive volcanoes, all currently covered by snow.

 

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Arguably the most iconic among them, Volcan Osorno is visible from 80km away.

 

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We briefly stopped in Puerto Montt, the southernmost city on the Chilean mainland…

 

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… where I sampled salmon ceviche right off the boat.

 

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It was already dark when we took the ferry from Pargua to Chiloe Island.

 

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In Ancud on Chiloe we found a Swiss-owned hostel where we stayed for the night. We are now so far south that the sun only rises around 8:30AM.

April 15-16: a daring detour and lots of luck

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Harry and I were ready to go. After four days of waiting for la bestia‘s release, we received her back from Toyota Bruno Fritsch in Concepcion — and in much better condition: her steering massively improved; key parts changed; no rattling sounds anymore; and her brake sensor repaired. Some issues are still pending, but they will need to wait until we’ve made it to Buenos Aires next month.

 

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Bad traffic and lots of rain and fog had begun to weigh down on our mood. It was about time we left.

 

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Valdivia near the Pacific Ocean greeted us with sunshine and a maritime atmosphere not unlike what I remember fondly from childhood vacations on the northern German coast. And indeed, back in 1909 Swedish South America explorer Carl Skottsberg wrote: “Valdivia […] is a German town. Everywhere you meet German faces, German signboards and placards alongside the Spanish. There is a large German school, a church and various Vereine, large shoe-factories, and, of course, breweries…”

 

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I went for a stroll across the small fish market. I wish I had had a frying pan or, better even, an oven handy.

 

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My best guess is that these were herons, and like me they were definitely in the mood for some fresh fish.

 

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To my surprise, Valdivia also boasts its own multi-story tourist market offering a cross-section of typical Southern American handicrafts. Many of the items on sale reminded me of those I’d come across in Peru and Ecuador. In fact, what the merchants were selling was probably from there — or straight from China.

 

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Harry took a keen interest in the small colony of sea lions hanging out next to the fish market. He wasn’t scared at all; in fact he seemed to ponder hopping onto the platform. I am glad he didn’t follow through.

 

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And then, on our way to a nearby campground, we saw him: Boris Becker! Or did he see us…? I very much doubt, however, that anyone in Valdivia actually remembers Germany’s greatest tennis player of all times; instead, for them this red-haired guy is most likely just another eyeglasses model.

 

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Unfortunately the rain caught up with us, and so I spent most of the afternoon holed up in a cafe where I had two slices of delicious cherry cake, as well as an unintentional overdose of caffeine.

 

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On April 16 we were woken up by a songbird that sang incessantly for over an hour. And: by more sunshine!

 

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It was time to pay a visit to the arguably most famous local brewery: Kunstmann (which, sadly, has recently been bought by a large brewery conglomerate). At first we only wanted to take a peek, but then the Honigbier looked too good. In combination with a fresh salad topped with candied apples, this counts as breakfast, right?

 

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We continued toward the Pacific shore where Harry met some local dogs eager to play on the beach.

 

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Next, we took the ferry from Niebla to Corral…

 

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… where we were amazed to spot a lone freighter registered in Hong Kong.

 

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The subsequent coastal drive was a wonderful reminder of our days on the US-1 in northern California in September 2015.

 

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Then the paved road ended and a sign read “natural reserve.” On iOverlander, however, the road is marked as continuous, so we continued without much ado.

 

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Half an hour later I had my first doubts. If the temperature hadn’t been in the lower 60s (F / around 15C), the scenery could have easily convinced me that we were back in Ecuador.

 

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The first roadblock came in the guise of a fallen tree blocking the mud slope. I admit I was quite excited to finally put la bestia‘s winch to good use…

 

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… and within twenty minutes the path was cleared.

 

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The next obstacle we had to overcome was: a river. Not a creek — a proper river. For five minutes I was undecided whether or not to drive la bestia straight into the water. Then I took a deep breath and steered her right into it.

 

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… and we made it! My heart rate was as high as if I had just run up a hill. The water had reached up to one third of la bestia‘s doors, leaving the undercarriage and exhausts completely submerged. In hindsight, this was probably a pretty stupid move…

 

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… although the truly most stupid move was yet on the horizon: I had simply forgotten to check how much gasoline I had left in the tank. And so we literally crawled through the natural reserve–now surrounded by absolute darkness–for another three hours in the hope of somehow making it out and to the nearest gas station 50km away.

 

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We did it (or rather, la bestia did it); we arrived in Osorno five hours later than planned and are now officially in Patagonia!

 

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I even found a small restaurant run by a Bavarian emigre where, just before 11PM, I was graciously served the night’s last beer.

My frivolous detour across Reserva Costera Valdiviana taught me a few important lessons: (1) never drive into a natural reserve area late in the day and without back-up; (2) always carry extra fuel — even in seemingly tranquil parts of Chile; and (3) carry alcohol as a last resort.

April 11-14: pit stop in Concepcion

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La bestia needed quite a bit of attention. As already mentioned in earlier posts, her brake sensor required repair; in addition, her steering had become wobbly over the course of many weeks on pretty bad roads, and I was worried that the wind we’re expecting for Patagonia would require more precision than she’s been able to offer lately. Her timing belt and serpentine belt were also worn, and the problem of wheel grease bleeding into her front differential had continued. On top of that, the exhaust system had a few loose parts that I was unable to locate and fix myself. Following some research, I decided that Chile’s second largest urban agglomeration–Concepcion–was the right place for her to take an extended pit stop.

 

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And so Harry and I checked out of “hotel la bestia” on Monday, April 11…

 

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… and into Concepcion’s ibis Hotel, one of the very few in the city where Harry was welcome (for an additional fee).

 

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I found a coffee shop right across the Toyota dealership where I became a regular. The location allowed me to stop by the dealership whenever they had found something that required attention and approval, while also getting some overdue work done.

 

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The pit stop also gave me the chance to explore ordinary urban life in Chile, including some of the best bakeries I’ve come across on this trip…

 

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… as well as some rather odd discoveries: this active firefighter station houses an expansive restaurant popular among local office workers.

 

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I had already noticed back in 2005–the year of my last visit to Chile–that spaces of social interaction in Santiago were oddly worn, seemingly left to their own devices decades ago. This impression only grew stronger as I was wandering across the center of Concepcion. Whether wall colors (pastels),  floors (linoleum), furniture (dented and cracked), table cloths (polyester) or entire apartment buildings (prefab, mostly grey) — stylistically, urban Chile appears firmly stuck in the 1970s. That certainly has its own appeal, but it stands in surprising contrast to the country’s otherwise hypocritically modernist development trajectory.

 

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On Wednesday evening I asked a cab driver for a dinner recommendation. He praised the seafood at Rincon Marino. Let’s just say that it neatly fit the general pattern. The food –cheese empanadas, clam stew, mussels and battered corvina–was very good and the pisco sour was perfect, but the decor… oh well.

Fortunately Toyota once again kept its promise, and after some final streetworthiness tests we should be back on the road before the day’s end.

April 9-10: hello Chile!

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It was time to leave Malargüe — locals were warning me that the border might be closed in case of snow, and the near-constant lowland drizzle had already started taking a toll on our mood anyway. Thankfully the weather improved markedly as we approached the Las Loicas-Paso Pehuenche border crossing between Argentina and Chile.

 

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It was such a relief to cross our “last” South American border without having to worry about corrupt officers or long waits. All went smoothly on the Argentinean side, and although the Chileans spent twenty minutes turning la bestia‘s contents upside down (and ending up confiscating my Trader Joe’s raisins!), we still parted ways as friends.

 

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Lake Maule–right after the border on the Chilean side–is one stunning place. Half lunar, half Alaskan… I very much hope to return one day for a kayak trip.

 

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I actually enjoyed Lago de Maule’s serenity more than hyped-up and overly touristic Lago Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia.

 

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I wish Harry and I could have gone for a swim, but the water–at almost 3,000m–seemed way too cold for that.

 

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I opted to take a quick photo instead — but failed to center the camera appropriately.

 

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Avid readers of this blog probably suspect that colorful rock formations captivate me rather easily…

 

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… and they are right.

 

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We continued driving on April 9 until we reached Talca, one of Chile’s main urban centers south of Santiago. Thanks to iOverlander we found an almost-free (US$1.50) spot for the night that also came with a nice view.

 

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On April 10 we drove further south(west) to Concepcion.

 

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We got there just in time for seafood dinner and several pisco sours.

 

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Patagonia, we’re coming!