We crossed the Andes once more from dry Argentina into the lush valley of the mighty Rio Futaleufu. I am always struck by how the weather affects the way you perceive a new place. When we passed through the village of Futaleufu, or Futa as it’s known, months earlier, on our way south, it was pouring down rain, windy and miserable. As a result we rushed through the valley looking for better weather. While beautiful, we didn’t get the opportunity to really appreciate or see it.
This time around we had amazing weather. The beautiful blue skies created the perfect backdrop for the lush green hills. We went in search of the confluence of the Rio Futa and the Rio Espolon. For some reason we had it in our minds that there was a big rapid to see there. We eventually found the confluence after leaving the van and walking about a mile, but there was no rapid. What we did find was a wonderful gravel beach with perfectly clear, cold water passing by. Our walk in the hot sun had really gotten to us and so we took the most amazing swim. It was incredible. The cold, clear water sucked the excess heat right out of us, along with the rest of our worries (not that we had any). We spent several days wandering down the valley and exploring the small roads leading to tucked away farm fields. Like many places in the Northwest, the Futaleufu valley is stunning in the summer when the sun is shinning, but when the rain is falling sideways, while still stunning, it is not as enjoyable. I am very happy that we got to experience Futa a second time.
Meeting the Carretera Austral once again, we headed north this time instead of south. Again we were mesmerized by the small road crawling through the wilderness of immense rivers, lakes, and mountains. We eventually reached Parque Pumalin. A park established by the late Douglass Tompkins, founder of The North Face brand. Before his death, Tompkins spent a great deal of time in Patagonia trying to share HIS vision of conservation. Dam building and sheep and cow herds have caused great destruction to the ecosystem and native animals. To combat the human impact, the Foundation secretly bought up a large swath of land containing volcanoes, glaciers and lush temperate rain forests. The plan is to eventually turn the park over to the Chilean government. We had a great time hiking in the park and are glad we didn’t miss it.
We had one eventful experience, we went for a hike that started at the end of a long dirt road. The second part of the road was a one way loop, about 10 miles around. As we drove in to the trail head we passed and ignored, a sign indicating that this road was for 4 wheel drive vehicles only. We made it to the trail head without any problems and took a great long hike, up a wide valley to see a magnificent glacier. We were able to walk up close to the face and look up the tunnel formed by river gushing from underneath. I am always impressed with the rawness of glacial geology. Most other geology requires you to think about processes that happened hundreds of thousands of years ago, or about things that happened deep underground. Because most glaciers are actively receding, the geologic change in these valleys is happening now, in real time. The valleys walls are still trying to find their balance after the supporting ice has melted away, the glacier and valley are still spitting out tons of sediment continuously changing the path of the river through the flat valley bottom. Even in this lush region, where vegetation gets established in what seems like days, the plants and trees are still trying to take a hold on the raveling slopes and on the mountains of newly deposited material.
After returning from our hike, up this awesome valley, we began driving out the other side of the loop. However, this side has to pass over a pretty steep hill. As I said before, this is a pretty new park and they are still getting all the kinks worked out. This was a newly “improved” section of road has fresh gravel placed in the deep ruts, however, to our disappointment they neglected to compact the gravel. The road had three steps of steep grades. The first two steps had brand new tracks of concrete that worked perfectly and we were able to power right up them. But the third was just loose gravelly sand that provided no help getting up the hill.
After a few tries we gave up and decided to go back the way we came. Lola is a big girl and does not have very big feet. Soft sand is hard for Lola. Backing out down the narrow, windy road was not an option so we needed to turn around. Not so easy with a 20ft long van on a steep, two-track road in a thick forest. They even got rid of the all the turnouts because it’s a one-way road. We found a spot and decided to make a try for it, and backed into it, digging out a small tree, to make the turn. We found that the spot was not quite wide enough, and to get Lola’s right tire to make the turn, we would have to go right through a ditch. After some frustration we started filling the ditch with split firewood that just happened to be laying on the side of the road. We stacked the wood crisscrossed for some strength and made a run for it. Luckily, the woodpile held and we were on our way back down, going the wrong way. It was 9pm by this time, and luckily no one was coming the other way. I guess the lesson learned here is to read the sign a bit more carefully and play it safe and not go, but on the other hand, everything worked out ok. Lola and we are fine. So maybe we just learned a lesson on how to get Lola out of a hairy situation.
From Pumalin we hopped a ferry to the Island of Chiloe. Chiloe has been populated by Europeans for a very long time, from the early 1600’s. It’s an island of beautiful forests, rolling hills and picturesque farm fields, and surrounded by many protected islands. It was a bit strange for me coming to the island, because it is described in the guidebooks as peaceful, rural, and quiet. This is what I was expecting. However, after coming from southern Chile with its small towns, only recently connected by road, Chiloe was a bustling metropolis. The ferry docked in Quellon which is a real city with lots of people, shops, and a real economy.
While exploring Chiloe we saw a map in a museum showing the elevation of the region, I’ve included it below. Up to this point I kept asking myself why Europeans had lived on Chiloe for so long, but the mainland had been all but forgotten about. On the mainland many of the towns had only been established in the 1940’s. Others were established even more recently through an effort to make a claim on the land and keep the damn Argentinians out. It wasn’t until I saw this map that I understood why. It shows how much more hospitable Chiloe is to a farmer than the mainland. As you can see, the red areas of the map are above an elevation of 500 meters (1,600 feet). At this latitude, above 500m, farming in this climate is very harsh with frosts all year round and miserably wet winters. This is all to say nothing of the steep valley walls and craggy peaks. The mainland provides only the occasional river valley and a few deltas as good farming areas. Why would anyone leave the gentle rolling hills of Chiloe for the harsh mountains of the mainland?
We had a lot of fun exploring Chiloe. The island is steeped in a rich, proud, history. They have many wooden churches built in the same architectural style as the great stone cathedrals of Europe. Because why would you use stone if you’ve got tons of wood laying around and a bunch of skilled boat builders who know how to work with wood? But the weird thing about this is that when you build with stone the flying buttresses and arched ceilings are not just for show. They are absolutely necessary to keep the heavy stone blocks from tumbling down. When working with wood the builder can rely on long wooden beams to bridge the span between columns, and doweling to keep the ceiling connected to the walls. The arches and buttresses do nothing for the strength of these wooden churches. For me, what makes these 300 or 400 year old churches such incredible works of art is that they took the time and extra step to match the style from Europe.
One evening we found ourselves in the small, very old village of San Juan, located at the end of a long narrow road. We met this gentleman, who had lived his whole life in San Juan and was very proud of it. He gave us a small, informal tour of the few streets and the boat yard where there were four wooden boats in the process of being built. In the old days this village was a pretty important place because of the boat yard and fishing industries. What I found most interesting about his village is that it was really hard to get there from anywhere along the road. It’s at the end of a long narrow dirt road that was very steep in some areas. We were surprised as we entered the village by how many homes there were. It’s hard to get here, unless you think about how you would get there way back in the 1800’s. By Boat! San Juan isn’t that far, as the crow flies, from the main city of Castro and is easy access to all the islands of the archipelago. San Juan is frozen in an age where everyone’s neighbor is a fisherman and easiest way to get around is by water.
We ended up spending about 5 days on the island and would have liked to spend more time getting to know the people and places. Castro had some great restaurants and gave us a much needed dose of city life. Chiloe gave us our first exposure to the wonderful seafood Chile has to offer. We would have spent more time in Chiloe if it hadn’t started pouring rain, which is, I suppose, the only true way to experience life on this rainy island. From Chiloe we headed north into the Lakes District.
We traveled from Futa and through Chiloe from February 26th to March 8th, 2017. Also, check out the Our Route So Far page, it shows exactly where we’ve been. You can also see how far behind we are on the blog ;-).