“If you’re looking for a place to camp in Coyhaique, just go to the graveyard! That’s what we did. It’s free,” a young University of Santiago student gaily told me while having me pose for a ridiculous photo on the boat.
“It’s right by the river, perfect location,” she added. “The dead won’t care. I loved skiing in Colorado.” Confused, intrigued, and a little weirded out, I thanked her and left to seek refuge from the wind in the cabin.
My plans for making my way south through Patagonia had fallen apart pretty quickly, which seems to be a fairly common theme on all my travels of more than three days.
Almost out of cash and sunlight at the end of my trans-Andes trek from Argentina to Chile, I hopped in a van whose driver promised to drop me off an hour down the road in exchange for the equivalent of about $2. According to my maps, this town just an hour from the tourist hordes in picturesque Puerto Varas was home to ATMs and supermarkets.
“No, the closest ATM is in Puerto Varas. We have a Neighbor Box, though,” the owner of the shack that was the ‘supermarket’ told me.
What the hell? I asked, in more polite terms.
“A Neighbor Box is exactly what it sounds like,” the cashier told me with a verbal eye roll. “And no, you can’t use it to get cash.”
Having finally found a campground that took credit cards, I paid the $9 and set up my tent in the rain. Then the campsite next to mine decided to have a dinner party with music until 1:30am, and I used the last of my cell phone’s power and the unreliable wifi to book an Airbnb room for the next night. Totally worth the $27.
Also with the last dying embers of my 3.5 year old phone’s dysfunctional battery I made plans to meet up with my cousin, who by pure coincidence was in the same part of Chile at the same time.
Ready to get away from the north, I bought a bus ticket to the working class rainforest island of Chiloé and reserved a few more Airbnbs (one of which involved an elderly technologically retarded woman who still wasn’t really sure what Airbnb was, and asked “young gringo, can you help me with my online banking?”; the perils of Airbnbs with no reviews).
The next bus south wasn’t leaving for another few days (a common theme on the Carretera Austral), and hitching seemed difficult with lots of competition. So, after 24 hours in Chaitén without a whole lot to do, I made my way across the border to Argentina’s Esquel, gateway to Los Alerces National Park.
From Esquel I headed south on Argentina’s Route 40, popularized by author Bruce Chatwin (and home to much better connections than the Chilean side). After 9 hours passing through the dry Patagonian steppe, with the snow capped Andes rising to the west, I arrived in the border town of Los Antiguos.
Los Antiguos is a phenomenal little one street town solely because its campground is blissfully quiet. No screaming locals blasting music until 4am is a godsend down here. I shared the hiker campsite with a German couple and a Japanese guy who was biking from Canada to Tierra del Fuego. The Germans were also coming from Los Alerces National Park, and reminisced about being called nazis in the park campground. The Argentinian people are so charming, and remind me a lot of Israelis.
There’s no bus service across the border to Chile Chico anymore, so with a combination of hiking and hitchhiking I was able to painlessly cross into Chile. Even walking 7 or 8 miles, I got to town at about the same time as those who hitched the whole way.
I was able to nab one of the last tickets on the boat across Lake Buenos Aires to Puerto Ibáñez, from where there are vans to Coyhaique on the Carretera Austral. Two others, from France and Belgium, and I arrived late and went to the aforementioned cemetery-side campsite. There was nobody there except a dog that was weirdly protective of us and growled at a couple passing by who asked for rolling paper.
Coyhaique, with a population of around 40k, is easily the largest city in the region. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have the time to take the Carretera Austral all the way to its terminus and hike El Chaltén in Argentina. Rather, after a very frustrating day having spent six or so hours trying to figure out transportation info, I checked the weather forecast and opted to just book it to the Fitz Roy Range in Argentina and disappear into the mountains for four days. I’ve forgotten what sunshine and warmth feels like, but the weather prediction says I should get a taste of those this week in El Chaltén on the other side of the Andes!