Sunday, January 16, 2011

Via Sur

By Alex Mehlin 

We left Puerto Montt with a bus full of provisions, high ambitions and hope. One thousand kilometers, two ferries, two hikes, one smoking volcano, one abrupt run in with a stump, ten species of violent flies, 16 hitch hikers, 100 glaciated peaks, a million waterfalls and a billion trees later we safely arrived in Coyhaique.

The Carretara Austral starts in Puerto Montt and runs south to Villa O´Higgans covering Chile´s Northern Patagonia. The rual Ruta 7 established in 1976 as an effort to connect Chiles most remote communities spans 1,240 km or 770 miles. Most of the road is a combination of gravel and dirt, characterised by pot holes, washboard, falling rock, puddles, wind and rain. Hardly populated the region is inhabited by only 100,000 people 50,000 of which are located in Coyaique.

The land north or Coyhaique is highly protected, national parks and private reserves butt into each other pushing remote human habitation to small towns built around a Copec gas station, a phone and electricity. Food is hard to come by when it is available Hanta Virus is a concern, carried by rats that infest the mossy jungle forests of Northern Patagonia, we have been warned of the danger by every and any Cofac ranger. According to our medical book, Bugs, Bites and Bowels, if infected 50% of patients die. We are extremely cautious. 

Beyond the silly dangers of viruses, running out of fuel, freak brake downs, violent storms and unpredictable roads it seems that Patagonia is not the wanderlust extreme adventure it once was. 

Southern South America is a funnel catching any adventure hungry tourist with a fat pocketbook and spewing them into Patagonia. Every day we pass hoards of touring cyclists, elderly couples in rental cars, hitchhikers of all shapes and sizes, overland companies and Argentinians and Chileans taking advantage of their holidays.
The road has become kind of a whose who of the South, since the majority of travelers are all going south, destination Ushuaia, we see them all on the road. The Gypsies are a bunch of colorful, outlandish and loud bunch dominating the road. For a while it became the vogue to ride on the top of the bus, going 20kms getting 360 views of epic terrain according to Zach, ¨it is the only way to ride¨. 

In our phase of roof top transport we became a memory in every one we passed photo album of Patagonia. It is not uncommon over a glass of wine or tank of gas for fellow traveler to say they have heard of us. Hitchhikers proclaim we are best hitch they have ridden. People get so attached to the idea and ease of the bus it is hard to remove them from the bus once we have reached our daily destination. For this we have made a magic number of 11 Gypsies. Once you are on you get to keep your position as long as you would like or we allow you. We will bend our Gypsy count under extreme circumstances such as, short rides to town or extreme weather where we feel bad for the soaking we soul who litter the ruta sur.

Due to the nature of the terrain; shifting glaciers, dense jungle like forest, sprawling peaks crawling fjords and vast plains there are only a handful of established hiking routes. We have discovered that they are all going to be highly used. Patagonia summer only lasts for 3 months before the winter sets in and everyone is scrambling to check off Torres del Paine and Fritz Roy the two quintessential Patagonia hikes.

Outside of the popular parks, short day hikes beckon us to explore the ever changing landscape. These hikes are much easier for the Gypsies since they take little preparation and only a days effort. Beyond hiking it is impossible to not to appreciate the land. Every night without any effort we set our tents to backdrops of some of the most impressive scenery in the world.
In a land where every thing makes you feel  small we will be pushing south capturing, living and enjoying the moment always keeping in mind that it is fleeting. In the back of our minds we know that next season we will be off in a new land and another wave of tourist and will trudge the rugged remote beauty that is Patagonia.    

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