Day 42-44: 8.-10. 2. 2009

Puerto Varas - Hornopiren

        Time to leave the comfort behind

        This is a strange feeling. Everything is so quiet. Cars do pass by only every now and then. I am back to where I started. An individual traveler on his journey. I have left the hostel with the wonderful people behind in Puerto Varas and am about to enter the “wilder” part of my journey. Only a few hours out of town I do already feel a very significant change to the landscape. And to my mood. I might have been a bit brave last night when simply stating that every good thing has to end at some point of time and then life simply goes on. Like business as usual. That might not have included enough thinking about the feelings during the days after a good thing ended. Now I do even feel a little lonesome. No more (known) people around me. No more familiarity. In my head it feels kind of empty for the moment. It feels as if you have been in a loud discotheque for hours and suddenly you exit into the quiet night. Nobody around you, no sound, all quiet. This is how it feels. I have to get used to it again. This will be my environment for the next few weeks. And although I am not yet on dirt road, this part I’d already better appreciate now. More will come.

        Last night was my first night in a “dorm” (dormitory). Four beds and four people in the room and I have slept really well. In fact that was the best sleep I got within the entire last week. The key reason is that the room was much quieter than the others I had before. Nevertheless, it leaves the “dorm-option” in a very positive light with me. I should do that more often. Is also cheaper than a single or double room. One of my roommates was a funny lady from Switzerland. She is backpacking Chile and has an extremely interesting baggage weight development to share. She came into Chile with 18kg of overall baggage weight. By now, just a few weeks into the trip, she is already at 28 kg. And still trending upwards. She has already bought all kinds of stuff, a summer hat, a big winter cap, a traditional woolen jacket of the region, loads of small things that she was hoping would never add too much weight etc. She takes it with humor though and is even prepared to carry some more. Of course she struggles to understand my “one in - one out” strategy to manage my baggage-weight. But that is ok.     

        The village of Cochamo is where I stay for the night. The “restaurant” or whole village seem to play to different drinking habits as I have been used to so far. The waiter in the restaurant  proposes “una cervezita, senior?” (ein Bierchen, der Herr?) and I decide that I have deserved one evening beer and sign on. He then comes back with a 1 liter bottle. Either I look extremely thirsty or they do really have different benchmarks and habits here. He is almost insulted when I leave the bottle half full in the end. This gives me the opportunity to explain to him what I did today and especially what I plan to do tomorrow. He is delighted. He also explains to me that with those really bad and bumpy dirt roads here it might be even better to finish the bottle. Ideally right before I get on the bike the next morning. Well, it is an idea but I decline the proposal. Unfortunately my suspicion is that this is a common practice with driving cars too. After all the bumps and bad roads shake you well in a car, too.

        It is only 9.30 pm now  but I am ready to fall asleep any second now after a tiring day. At the same time I can see the fishermen getting their boats ready to leave for an overnight fishing trip. It is a Sunday evening. They paddle in a small boat to the bigger fishing vessel and set everything up. It takes about 1 hour and they are ready to go and leave the coast. Tough job. I do see a lot of fish farming here in the coastal region. I wonder how the recent big salmon scandal has impacted on the fish farming and fishing industry here. Somebody told me that hundreds of thousands of farm salmons had to be released into the open sea because the whole population was infected with a virus. Now there might even be a threat to the local ecosystem. I need to ask somebody who knows the details when a chance comes up. Maybe when I am on the ferry. The day after tomorrow.

        “Why do you have these water bags there at the window?” “This is to keep the mosquitoes away. The theory is that the reflection in the water keeps them from flying past the water bag into the room from the outside.” I have never heard that before. The lady hostel owner is convinced that it works though. She has filled transparent plastic bags with ca. 1 liter of water and has hung them up at the windows from the inside. One for each window. When the windows are open she is convinced that no or less mosquitoes come in. The same thing supposedly works with dogs as well if you leave full water bottles in front of your door. This will keep stray dogs from hanging out right there in front of your house. And there are loads of stray dogs in Chile’s cities and villages. Back to the mosquitoes. I have realized that I have not experienced any mosquito- or any other insect-nuisance on my trip. This is in line with something somebody in one of the hostels said to me: “You will not find any other place on earth that has such a wonderful natural beauty and comparatively good weather in summer without an insect problem or wild animals to be afraid of. In this respect the South of Chile is unique”. And the guy is right. No mosquitoes, no poisonous spiders or snakes, no bears, nothing. Just the stunning natural beauty without any animals protecting it. I will take a good look.

        “En Chaiten todo esta kaputt”. This is exactly what the hostel owner says to me. Chaiten is the town that has been erased from Earth by the volcano eruption in May last year. And “kaputt” is one of the few German words that is being officially used in Spanish. Funny. Not funny for Chaiten though. So lets go and see what it really looks like.        Finally the real journey begins – the Carretera Austral

        Oh my god. I think today I got a first feeling of what the 1200 km on the Carretera Austral will look and feel like. This will not be a walk in the park! The Carretera Austral links the South of Chile to the more populated North. It has been a military project to build this road to ensure the South would not fall to Argentina easily and to encourage more people to populate the South. In Pinochet’s view a country had to be populated all across its land. So much for the theory. The good news: Today I have already been going through fantastic natural scenery. I have been riding around a huge Pacific Ocean-fjord, right at the seaside all the time, with beautiful mountains and spectacular views all around me.  Some mountains were even capped  with snow and small glaciers on the top. And the road was sidelined either by mountainous rock or a forest that almost looked like a rainforest. Simply marvelous. It is easy to imagine now why it took some decades to build this road to the South. It winds its way right through the mountains and through dense rain forest. Cutting a way through this is not easy. The forest at both sides of the road is indeed like a natural curtain. It closes the view straight away. Peering into it only confirms that behind that line nature rules. The not so good news is that I also got a taste of a really bad road and a very strong headwind. Both applied at the same time brought my average speed of the day down to 12 km/h ! Even in slight inclines I was in my first gear right away. I found out that at a speed below 4 km/h it is really hard to balance on the bike. Especially with a strong side wind. Sometimes I needed almost all the road for myself. The overall tour of the day comes in at 90 km and more than 7 hours effective riding time. The maximum altitude was only at 150 meters but I have a total of 1350 meters of altitude covered today. This is because the road goes up and down all the time. No long climbs but steep ones. This wears you out. I have prepared mentally, reset my expectations to cope with a traveling speed like this for the rest of the Carretera Austral. Lets go for it.

        I have a nice encounter  today. When I stop by the road to take a picture and to rest a bit a very old man approaches me. I have stopped in front of his house so he comes out and checks what I do. He is very friendly. We get into a small talk but I cannot understand him. Nor can he understand me. Reasons become apparent quickly. He doesn’t hear well and I have to apply the same strategy than with the old man last time. I shout at him so loud that I am scared to annoy his neighbors (who live quite far). When he smiles at me for the first time I see why I cannot understand him. He has no teeth at all. Not a single one. Hence he developed his own special pronunciation which is too hard to get for me. His son appears at the scene. He is pushing a little trolley along the road, filled with fire wood. He says he prepares for autumn, they will be using it as of March. He picks it up almost 5  km from their house. Walking of course. Quite tough. He identifies himself as a family member because he does also miss more teeth than he retains. Following into his fathers footsteps. I regret I did not ask them for a picture. They are the real “locals”.

        The weather begins to change more quickly now. I haven’t been in the rain yet but full sunshine and dark clouds already change hourly. Back home clouds of that dark color would almost safely mean a lot of rain. Here the clouds seem to have a capability to keep the water longer. Or to look meaner than they actually are. Or they haven’t shown me their real capabilities yet. Lets hope for the best. So far I have only had one (partly) wet day on the bike. I am sure it will stay this way. Positive thinking…(Wo wir sind ist vorn!).

        In Contao, the few hundred people village where I stay overnight, after 9 pm everybody seems to meet at the central village placa. There are about 10 banks for sitting at that place and they are all taken when I stroll by. The group size varies from 2 (often couples) to up to 8 or 10. Genders are both male and female at about the same number. And people are of all ages, from young to old. Most of the people smoke but nobody drinks. Interestingly the people of this village seem to be much less resistant to the cold as the people in the village where I stayed last night. Temperatures are comparable (ca. 16-18 °C in the evening) but clothing habits differ widely. Skirts, shorts and shirts only was the dress code last night. Here I see long pants, jackets and even quite some woolen hats. Strange. I wonder where this comes form.

        Here we go. Good logistics and discipline always pay back. Today the memory card in my photocamera quits service. No way to get the pictures back or safe it anyway. I am glad I do a photo download  every night. Only photos of less than 1 day got lost. That is a pity (great pictures of volcano Osorno and myself with some lamas are victims) but not a disaster. I am also glad I have a spare one in my baggage. Need to buy a new one as soon as I can. That won’t be the case soon though. Lets prey for this one then.

        This is the first real bike traveler that I meet on the road, going the same way as I do. He is Canadian and travels with a friend, who is a bit ahead at the moment though. The two are on a hiking / biking / fishing trip in Chile. They have already been South to hike “Torres del Paine”, now they are in the “middle” to do the biking and fishing bit. Then they will go up north to the Atacama desert and Santiago. Nice guys. One of the two just finished the “Ruta de las conquistadores”, a 4 day mountain bike race through Costa Rica, from coast to coast. This sounds like a real adventure and huge challenge. We arrive in Hornopiren together. Here is the place were the ferry to the South leaves tomorrow morning. I have pre-booked a ticket via Internet a few days ago. That was a great idea because the ferry is full now. No way to get a ticket without reservation. I am glad. Waiting here for a few days for the next ferry in this little village wouldn’t be exactly my favorite way of spending my time. I could go and visit some National Parks around here (they are literally everywhere here!) but that is what I plan to on my journey south as well. So, yes, I am happy I will be on the boat tomorrow morning. It will be an 8 hour boat tour to Chaiten. With seating like on a bus. I am looking forward to the experience. This will be great. The views to the coastline and mountains will be spectacular. We will also go through some fjords and between islands. Hopefully the sea will not be too rough. On that occasion: Maybe I should not have dinner today? Not that the family that I am staying with plans to invite me for dinner later today? I am in a “home-hostel” for the night. A simple bedroom in a private home that is made available for guests. The host offered this when I bought a tea and cake in his shop around the corner. For some money of course. He convinced me with the fact that he has wireless internet in his house. Hence I can update my homepage while I am writing these lines. Might be the last time for a while. It is getting rougher and much less populated day by day. Hope to talk to you again soon !    

Day 45-48: 11.-14. 2. 2009

Chaiten – La Junta

        The ferry,  a destroyed village and an active volcano !                 

        The ferry is a classic bottleneck on the journey south in this part of Chile. On that occasion I meet some other cyclists, people in camping vans or on motorcycle. Also backpacking hitchhikers are on board. The first encounter I have in the morning even before going on board though is with a fellow  German cyclist, Oliver, who is packed as much as I am. That is always a good reason to talk, so I approach him. He cycled a 160 km stretch on very bad roads yesterday (and actually also halfway into the night) just to ensure that he managed to get this ferry today. The ferry goes only 2x/week and Oliver is on a 2,5 weeks holiday trip. Clearly he wanted to ensure that he does not lose time waiting here in Hornopiren. He must have been on the bike for 12 – 15 hours. And he only got a few hours of sleep in his sleeping bag right here on the ground at the ferry terminal. Crazy. A sympathetic guy. We will continue our tour together at least for the next few days. Oliver works for Lufthansa in Quality Control in the catering subsidiary and clearly makes good use of the opportunity to fly cheaply around the world. He doesn’t have a ticket for the ferry yet though as he didn’t know how or where to buy so I help him convince the officials to let him on board today’s ferry, although it is already fully booked.  It works. The other bikers I meet on board are the two Canadians  I already met yesterday and three Chileans youngsters (ca.18 years old) who are on their first bigger bike camping trip (3 weeks). They are heavily loaded, with one big trolley and indeed have a lot of stuff to carry. They don’t have enough panniers on their bikes hence they spend a lot of the time on the ferry repacking their stuff, again and again. They are very nice people, enthusiastic on their first bigger journey, very positive and open minded but lacking experience, especially with regards to their equipment though. We will meet them a few more times on our way south. One of the camping bus people is German as well. He is a teacher and on an 8 month journey through South America in a 27 year old VW-bus. He shares wonderful stories with us and we have an expert chat about VW-buses and the pros and cons of new models vs old models. I think it is about time I get one when I am back home. The ferry ride takes 8 hours and is a very welcome occasion to relax, sleep and enjoy the scenic coastline. The clouds are dark and do not appear to welcome us back to the mainland. They seem to say: “Just come back home and I will welcome you with a nice heavy shower.” So far I was surprised though because simply having very dark clouds does not automatically mean that is does rain heavily. A nice surprise.

        Pumalin Park

        “Do we go into Pumalin Park or not?” This is the big question Oliver and I have to answer when we leave the ferry in Chaiten. The Pumalin Park is supposed to be extremely beautiful and untouched. It is fully owned by an American, Douglas Tomkins, who bought the land 2x the size of Luxembourg to protect it in its unspoiled natural state. Now he has established a national park which contains beautiful rain forest, volcanoes and stunning wild life, plants and animals. There was this huge volcano eruption in the middle of the park though which has devastated the area and caused the park to be closed for the entire 2008/2009 season. We want to see it though and decide to go anyway. A great decision ! What we see when we cycle our 30 kms into the middle of the park is just awesome. The road does indeed lead through tropical rain forest with plants the sire like in movies like Jurassic Park. We expect a huge dinosaur to appear out of the green wall any second. We also see the volcano that erupted 9 month ago and it is still active. Some people say the biggest eruption has been but others, including the government officials, say that the really big bang is still to come. This is why they do not support the rebuilding of the ghost town of Chaiten yet. Whatever, I can confirm that this volcano is still active. It does smoke like a big group of chimneys. The whole area, kilometers around the volcano, is either completely devastated, with trees completely erased or burned down and everything covered in ash or it shows at least still the remainders of a serious ash covering. Amazing. We turn into the (closed) campground “El volcan” which we have all for ourselves of course as it is officially closed. “Hopefully we find a little spot of gras or an area that is not covered with ash to put up our tents!” A brave hope as everything is grey in this area. But as we keep going a bit of green comes up there behind some plants, and more, and more. It almost looks like a soccer pitch. No, it is the aircraft landing area. This one has already been remade. Perfect. We decide to camp right there, in the middle of the landing area as this is the only place that is not covered in ash and turned into cement (this is what happens to the ash when it rains). “What is that noise? Is it water from the river? Or is it the wind? Or is the volcano?” What a strange feeling I have when I am in my sleeping bag at night. I sleep right there next to an active volcano. I estimate that the smoking chimneys are less than 2 kilometers away from the tent. Cool. The place is spectacular also because we can see a few hanging glacier tongues stretching down from the mountains on the other side of our campground.  Natural beauty at its best. An awesome camping experience. If I would have missed that I would have really missed an absolute  highlight of the tour.

        Chaiten – the destroyed village

        Riding through Chaiten, the destroyed village, the next morning is really like going through a ghost town. Of the 5000 people that lived here before the volcano eruption only 300 have come back to try and rebuild their houses or parts of the village. They do not get government support though as the risk of another eruption is still too big. Hence they work with generators to produce their own electricity and get water pumps going again. The houses and streets are covered in masses of solidified ash. Everything is grey. A heavy slick mass spreads everywhere. There were two big drivers for the devastation. The ash that came from the sky and the river that ran through the village and swept houses and bridges and cars and everything away. These are very poor people here. They lost everything. We have lunch in one of the houses that had not been destroyed. The lady runs an improvised restaurant in her living room. She explains to us in detail what happened, shows us pictures and tells us about the government plans to move the whole village a few kilometers to the North to rebuild it in a safer place. This is not what the locals want though, they want to stay in their beloved place and rebuild the village where it is (was). The decision is not taken yet. It might take a long while.  

        Termas in the rain, real rain forest and a hanging glacier !

        “Darf ich mich einmischen ? Ich bin Chilene aber habe in Berlin studiert. Meine Kinder leben dort.“ The dark looking guy in the hot spring spool approaches Oliver any myself in almost perfect German while we are discussing about school uniforms during our bath  in the hot spring. Jorge shares with us the insights about school uniforms in Chile and why they do not prevent the brand-competition among pupils. In Chile school uniforms are made by branded manufacturers like Nike and Polo. The colors are the same but the brand competition is exactly the same as without a uniform as the brand logos are shown extensively. Oliver and myself where praising the English school uniform system as a good way to manage the problem of brand-pressure among pupils and where guessing that Chile might not have this problem. Now we know much better. And the encounter gets even better. Jorge turns out to be living in Punta de Lobos, the surfer hotspot where I spent new years eve. He knows my host from those days, the professional surfer Diego Medina, very well. Now that is funny. What a surprise again. The world is a nutshell. I am convinced about this now. Jorge makes a living by importing all kind of things from anywhere, mostly Asia, into Chile. An interesting person. We finish our conversations with the reception of th hottest investment opportunities in Chile. E.g. we could by a hectare of land in the Northern Chilean desert for a few dollars. Or some land to the North of Santiago at the coastline which might be the next “in-resort”. Prices are very low still. Nice thoughts but the budget is low too. Hence I decide not to bother.

        The weather is exactly right for hanging out in the Termas. It rains heavily while we recover our strengths in the warm water. We spend about 3 hours there in the water, relaxing, chatting with Jorge, even eating home made Kuchen from the owner of the Termas. This is truly wonderful. Great relaxation. The not so nice part is that the rain simply doesn’t stop. Today we have already been biking in the rain for a while to get here. Now we have put our tent into a little but dry cooking and eating area in the Termas-campground. This is the only dry place we can find. It adds a certain adventure bonus to our camping experience. It makes everything a little tougher. Even sleeping at night is more difficult because the rain is so loud. We will have the same experience in our next campground. The days are wet and rainy here now. Nevertheless, bottom line we are still very lucky as we find dry windows for our riding time quite often and at least we can put our tent into dry areas in the campgrounds. It could be much worse. The positive thinking still helps, even in the wet North of Patagonia (Motto: “Wo wir sind ist vorn!”).

        “Is this the entrance to Mordor?” The mountain we look at reminds me of the Lord of the Rings movie. It looks like the entrance gate to the dark realm of Mordor. Two high towers of rocks left and right frame a little gate into the mountain, all covered by a mean looking ceiling of dark clouds. This is just one of the plenty of stunning impressions that nature has ready for us here. Truly  enjoyable, even in bad weather. Or maybe only in bad weather.

        Like the hike we do through the (literally very rainy) rain forest to the “Ventisquero Yelcho”, the hanging glacier at lago Yelcho. We do this hike together with a Chilean family that we meet at the campground. Pepe, Maria and Sole. Pepe, the father, is a lawyer. Marie, the mother, is a doctor. Sole, the daughter,  is a market researcher for the Chilean subsidiary if GfK, the German “Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung”.  The rain forest is exceptional. The denseness is immense. The path is very wet, really narrow, at times very low and hard to walk on the feet rather than all four. It is extremely humid and rains heavily all the time. The path leads alongside a river with strong currents that is being fed by the hanging glacier that we are about to see soon. The plants again have a size that I have never seen before. One plant looks like an enormous salad. I can easily hide within the salad population. Finally, after we have fought our way through the last few hundred meters of dense jungle we emerge from the monster-salads into the open and see the hanging Yelcho-glacier right in front of us. Another stunning view. I could already spot many glaciers higher up in the mountains while we were passing by by bike but now the first one is really close to me. The whole scenery and atmosphere support the overwhelming impression. The rain, the dark and low hanging clouds, the colors of the glacier, the coming darkness of the late evening. Everything fits together to provide this wonderful impression. I am glad I made the effort to get here.

        “This is exactly like dolphins do with ships. They swim right in front of the ships and play with the waves.” We have a bird doing the same thing with us on the road. He sits down at the side of the road until we get close, than takes off and flies along the road right in fron of us in funny waves and curves. This game goes on for at least 15 minutes. The bird seems to enjoy this as much as we do. Just in case that this bird is not yet officially captured as a species, I herewith propose to name him “Spassvogel”. At least Oliver and myself keep this term for us.   

        My fishing experience

        “Do you want to come fishing with us?” The area here is very popular for fishing ,with lakes and rivers full of sizeable Salmons and Trout. And Pepe is a fanatic “pescador” (fisherman). Oliver and I arrive after a six hour ride on dirt roads in the same hotel as Pepe and his family stay in. We have just met them again in the road here in the village of La Junta. We were talking to the three Chilean youngsters from the ferry that we met here again as well. I believe it will not be the last time we meet. As we are on the same journey southwards and as there is only one road to go on this is very likely. I am glad that I can support them with photocopies of my detailed maps that I have of the Carretera Austral. It seems to be easier to find good maps of this area in Germany than in Chile ! Anyway, back to the fishing. What a wonderful invitation by Pepe & family! I always wanted to try fishing. Especially in an area like here. Oliver and I quickly put on some normal clothes and follow the Pepe-family to go fishing. The five of us get into their car, go to a river nearby, find our way walking to the riverside and begin to fish. Pepe shows us how to do it and we spend some time hoping for the big catch. It doesn’t happen though. Obviously beginners luck doesn’t work all the time. The experience in itself is fantastic though. I can now better imagine why some people are so fond of fishing in rivers and lakes. The calmness of the activity sends you into a very relaxed mood. Especially for people who like some time for themselves for thinking and reflection (like myself) this must be a great thing to do.  I have enjoyed this, even without having made the big catch. Thank you, Pepe, Marie and Sole !

        Food secrets of long term self-sustainable cyclists 

        On a little side note I find it worthwhile sharing two of the secrets around what to eat on a longer term self supported bike ride (or hike). It is also a good example of some basic “out of box” thinking when preparing your meal. Precondition of the food is that it has to be lightweight, low in volume, easy to prepare and that it contains a lot of energy, mainly carbohydrates and protein. Both of us use milk powder (filled up with water) to prepare our müsli or porridge in the morning. A good addition to the pot is baby food powder. It comes in various tastes (I prefer the chocolate one), is high in carbohydrates (and protein) and gives the whole müsli-mix a creamy consistency. Highly nutritious and very tasty ! The evening example is to cook pasta and a creamy instant soup and to simply add the pasta into the soup. You don’t need to prepare a sauce for the pasta and you combine the taste and water contents of the soup ith the carbohydrate load of the pasta. Recommendation of the chefs. Bon appetite !