It was our first night bus in 4 years and it should have been one of the more comfortable ones ever. Full reclining seats, the works. But since we are soft from years of relative comfort, we tossed and turned and got little sleep. We’ll toughen up.
When we woke, we were nearing Puerto Varas and our spirits brightened. The weather remained gorgeous and slightly cooler than it had been in Santiago. Our hostel (El Compass del Sur) overlooked Puerto Varas, a small tourist town at the edge of a glacial lake named Lago Llanquihue . At the opposite side of the lake stands a massive volcano, Volcan Osoro, which would be a constant presence on the horizon during our stay.
We wandered Puerto Varas, visited an extremely nicely designed coffeeshop called La Gringa, run by a Seattleite ex-pat who is doing the northwest proud by promoting the lifestyle of sitting around caffeinating all day.
In the evening we burned up the free Internet organizing the next few legs of the trip. Magda figured out the most efficient ways to see southern chile while still making our boat to the Antarctic. Chile is an extremely long country and goes extremely far south, much of it is inaccessible by bus or any other means. But if one is in Southern Chile, one must visit Torres del Paine near Puerto Natale – but more on that when we get there.
At night we drank Chilean wine and shared stories with a couple who have been traveling the Americas for 3 years by car. They’re driving a Land Cruiser outfitted like you picture any hardened safari truck: spare tire on the back, water cans dwelling on the bumper and a coating of dust. They shared stories of their trip down and offered to tell us one horror story that happened to friends in Peru recently. It is apparently so horrid that it changes they way people travel when they hear it. Despite being a little drunk we opted out of listening, humans gravitate towards horror stories, both the listening and the telling, probably for reasons of natural selection. We want to survive by not repeating the mistakes of others (you idiots, don’t go DOWN there!).
I was just afraid it would change the way we travel, like to not travel. At least not to Peru, which is one of the counties we’re most excited about. Even so it took all of our self control to ask them not to tell us.
In the morning we rented a car, a Chinese model called a “Geely”, and started out around the lake. The first few minutes of driving an unfamiliar car in a foreign country always feels a bit Mr. Toadish with grinding gears and whining engines. Inevitably there is a police vehicle following you as you work out which pedal is which. Soon though we were following a road towards the direction we thought we should go. The blacktop ended just outside of town. Not much further, a trickle of water was trying to make a bed out of what was now a gravel path. Then the road ended altogether, next to a cow pasture. The freeway was visible, but not accessible. It was an inauspicious beginning.
The route around the lake turned out to be beautiful when we finally found it. Two majestic volcanos were ever present, the white capped Volcan Osoro the most majestic. We drove up the side of the mountain when we reached its base on the far side of Lake Llanquihue, high up to the treeline and the lower reaches of dusty white glaciers. The view of the lake and the surrounding mountain ranges were clear and inspiring. On the way down our jalopy started making rattling sounds.
We drove up a gravel road to the lake of All Saints, following a river of violent cyan and white rapids. Outside of the car we were harassed by thumb sized horseflies with long needles where their noses should have been. Camping at the lake was an option, but this being summer we had hours of daylight left to explore. Plus the horseflies were driving us nuts.
We drove south to a tiny hillside town called Cochamo, again accessible only by a narrow gravel road that Chilean drivers convince themselves are one way (the direction they are traveling in, naturally). We reached Cochamo after meeting several such drives barreling around tight corners at high speeds.
A tiny town that like Puerto Varas looks more Swiss than what you might think of as Chilean, Cochamo boasts an impressive setting halfway down an old fjord – something I might call a ‘sound’. We ate a delicious fish dinner in a restaurant with a view if the sound, a volcano, and fishing boats returning with their catches. It looked like what Seattle may have in 1880, only with cars and a giant cell phone tower.
We headed north again and near sunset we found a campground on lake Llanquihue, directly under majestic Volcan Osoro. The volcano started to glow a shocking pink, then orange as the sun disappeared across the lake. Soon it was silhouetted by stars. The warm summer night turned cool. Sitting at our little picnic table, the little waves of the lake rolling beach pebbles rhythmically, I think I finally relaxed. Five days into our trip and I was breathing clean mountain air, flavored with the deliciously nostalgic smell of campfire. The stars shown so brightly they almost drowned out the distant glow of Puerto Varas. The waves lapped at the gravel shore all night.
We had to return the car first thing in the morning. It was a pretty straight shot back to Puerto Varas, but there was lots of construction. It was early, not much traffic so we flew through construction zones without worry. We reached a stretch of road where our lane was paved, the oncoming lane still gravel. I was moving our jalopy at a pretty good clip when we noticed how much gravel had spilled over to our side. Magda asked if drivers from the other direction were really going to stay on the gravel, and I said I thought not, realizing if this was going to be the case I’d better slow way down. Just as I cut our speed in half, we approached a curve and sure enough, a tour bus was treating our lane as his own, heading straight towards us. As he swerved back into his lane, a shower of gravel rained down on our poor jalopy. I’d swerved the other way, dodging much of the shower, but not enough: a huge rock had chipped the windshield.
The chip was the first thing the rental agent saw as he approached the car. The Geely was in such a state that we doubted he’d notice, but he did, and we were informed officially that we’d have to replace the whole windshield. No amount of arguing about the state of the roads, the aggression of Chilean bus drivers would change this. Instead we got a lecture on how much worse life could be. Moods considerably darkened, we paid. If we didn’t have a bus to catch we might have continued the discussion, asked for competitive quotes, offered to creatively apply some silicon. Instead we paid and got a ride in the Geely with its next renter, a New Yorker named Fred, chipped windshield and all.