We saw the universe connected from the inside out.
From the heart of a capital to the edge of a continent. From within the stone and steel and smog, piercing the sun, slashing across dusty hills.
Dust turns to dirt, cactus to trees, hills flatten and lay calm. Maps pass between hands, wind pulls at corners, lines become contorted, the land becomes chaos. Sleep is far off, volcanoes loom over the world, roaring silently, their figures romanticized in the fading sunlight. The world shivers and grows quiet, dull fire streaks across the sky, chased by darkness.
The line meets a dot, the map is folded, this will do. Speed slows, the world rushes up to meet us, a small stream of asphalt dislodges from it’s mother and snakes towards stone and steel. Dim streets, lines of dust and people, searching, sleep is close. Movement stops, lives and world move at the same speed, reality restarts. Knock on the door, hope for space, hope for sleep. Wood creaks and we are swallowed into the house. Wrinkled smile beckons us, grey hair leads deeper, the halls are decorated with photos and silence, smell of warmth, smell of sleep.
Morning shimmers off of lakes, volcanoes blossom in the horizon. Warm bodies wrapped in skeletons of steel and rubber hurtle south, the world tries to keep up. The stream of asphalt flows into dirt, the world rumbles, rocks shriek and collide with the underbelly, life hurtles south.
Dirt road meets sea, sleep is soon, we will cross in the morning. A bell rings as we enter, weathered faces look up from their tables and weary eyes follow, they return to their drinks, we sit. Food is washed down with drink, drink washed down with sleep, sleep is cold here.
Towering mountains line the passage, flocks of birds flank the ferry and settle on liquid glass, halos of cloud hide the peaks, maté is passed between hands to keep warm. The ferry docks and the world shudders, bodies jerk forward as life lurches into gear, clouds of dust camouflage the world behind, there is only forward.
Muscles scream, bodies soaked in rain and sweat, breath turns into atmosphere, and the incline intensifies. Marching up, marching through the skeleton of a forest, trees bare and blackened, molten gravestones, sky the colour of soot, life in grey. Tired legs reach the peak, eyes peer into the depths, life slides into the grey, lost in smoke and sulphur.
Tired, always tired, always uncomfortable, always happy. Sleep in the cold and wet, bodies blanketed in smoke and pisco, water pervading tent, mountains standing guard, life exploding continuously.
Sunsets spent driving, sunrises spent drinking, days spent living.
Places of worship carved by nature, cathedrals of marble, mountains claw at sky, light shimmers over everything, the world reaches up and brings a piece of heaven down with it. End of the line. Cottage wedged into paradise, mountains border everything, water so blue, so clear, so cold. So cold it burns, so beautiful it consumes, so eternal it lasts an instant. Glaciers groan in the distance, laughter and light permeates darkness across the lake.
Turn around, return, do it all again, remember, live.
The Beginning of an Adventure
My time living in Chile culminated in two of the most incredible weeks of my life, spent roadtripping through the Chilean Patagonia, along the Carratera Austral. I was lucky enough to have one of my good friends and old roommate from Canada, and my cousin from England, fly in to experience an unreal roadtrip alongside myself, my German roommate and our good buddy from Finland.
The Carretera Austral is a road that runs through the Chilean Patagonia, lined with some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, it is mostly dirt and gravel. Despite being from rural Canada, I had never been on a road of this caliber, and it was immediately obvious that the car we rented, was not going to survive the trip.
Being broke students, we opted to rent the cheapest car we could, a brand new white Hyundai Accent with barely 2000 kms to its name, stupid gringos..
We set off from Santiago and headed south, like my previous trips south through the Lake Region of Chile, the trip was characterized by drastic changes in the landscape, from dry dusty hills cropped with cacti to lush greenery, lakes and looming mountains. We drove into the night and took refuge in a hostal in the city of Osorno for the night.
The next day we set out to Puerto Varas, a pretty touristy town on the verge of Chile’s Lake Region, but a good way to avoid ferrying across Puerto Montt into Patagonia. We stopped in town to grab some delicious but overpriced sea food, as well as stock up on essential gear for our obsessive consumption of maté.
I have written briefly about maté in some of my previous posts, but maté is a drink popular in Argentina, Uruguay and the South of Chile, it is like South America’s version of tea, but on steroids. It is made from the yerba maté plant, the leaves are poured into a cup or gourd and hot water is continuously added and drank through a bombilla, basically a metal straw that stops the leaves from being drank. Maté to some is extremely bitter, and in many places it is customary to add sugar.
I had fallen in love with the stuff early on in my exchange and my days were spent sitting in the sun sipping from my handcrafted maté gourds I had purchased in Cordoba, Argentina. We bought a metal cup, a bombilla, large bags of yerba leaves and a thermos to be filled up with hot water whenever we had the chance.
We took off from Puerto Varas into a beautiful sunny day and almost immediately came upon Volcan Cabulco, we spent a couple hours trekking up some of the volcano and enjoying the views of the surrounding landscape, before continuing on towards our destination for the night.
Soon after leaving Volcan Cabulco, pavement gave way to dirt, and the destruction of a Hyundai began. The drive so far had been comfortable, we were only four as we would be meeting up with the fifth member of our trip later on in Coyhaique. One of the funniest parts of the road trip, for me at least, was the amount of farm animals that were allowed to wander wherever they wanted, which usually meant the middle of the road, we were accosted by herds of sheep crossing the street multiple times, and the cows that trotted lazily along the side of the road turned into targets of verbal bullying and infectious laughter from within our car.
We continued into the evening before reaching Hualaihué, a small town which was the only entrance into Patagonia via daily ferries. We ate at a small diner and retired for the night to a small hostal.
Into the Wild
We woke up to a cold wet morning and headed to the dock to catch a ferry across the thin sea passage that snaked through mountains which seemed to blossom right out of the water. The voyage was filled with breathtaking vistas of mountains swathed in clouds and flocks of seabirds landing on water as still as glass. We spent the trip across sitting on the top deck drinking maté and enjoying the view before returning to our car to set off into Patagonia.
We spent the day driving through walls of forest that crept right up to the sides of the dirt road, putting an end to our hopes of finding a cleared patch to pull up and camp for the night. The car ripped along the dirt and gravel, jolting us around and making it difficult to balance the open Escudos those not driving that day would periodically crack open with a hiss.
We passed Volcan Chaiten, a relatively small volcano surrounded by dead forests, slopes covered in grey skeletons of trees, victims of the last time Chaiten erupted. We continued into the town of Chaiten to grab some food, and were treated to a pretty incredible meal of fish and potatoes alongside cold Patagonian beer from a lovely Chilean woman who ran a cozy eatery.
Unfortunately there were no places to stay the night in Chaiten and so we doubled back to a campground we had noticed near the volcano, with the added bonus of being able to check out the volcano the following morning. We arrived at the campgrounds and realized there was no one camping nor working there, and collectively decided to set up camp on the airstrip blanketed with thick grass. We set up our tents, cracked some Escudos and sat down to relax surrounded my monumental mountains that loomed out of the mist of the dying day. Unfortunately shortly afterward a park ranger arrived and said that we couldn’t camp on the airstrip and we moved our tent to one of the designated campgrounds.
The next morning we packed up our camp and headed towards Volcan Chaiten, with the goal of climbing to the top and looking down into the heart of the volcano. I’m not going to lie, Chaiten kicked our asses. The march up was a battle, we were all breathing heavily and sweating by the time we reached the peak, from the top of the volcano we could see a world of grey unravel around us. It seemed like everything was wrapped in the smoke and mist that drifted from within the volcano, and the scars of black and grey cleaved across the mountainside marking the old trails of molten lava. We hurried back down the Volcano and headed into Chaiten to celebrate conquering the tiny volcano with fried fish and crisp beer.
The Patagonian Party Hut
From Chaiten we drove all day to the city of Coyhaique, the largest settlement south of Puerto Montt, the plan was to meet our friend from Finland their and continue south. We spent the day zizagging up and down the side of mountains, through the dirt road cleaved out of the lush forest. Along the way we enjoyed glacial runoff water that we collected from small waterfalls, the water was clearer than air and purer than heaven. Finally we mounted the peak into a large valley and got our first glimpse of Coyhaique, a city nestled in a valley full of wildflowers and surrounded by snowcapped mountains.
We met up with our fifth travel companion, stocked up on some supplies (mostly beer) and left Coyhaique with the goal of reaching a camp grounds a few hours away, according to the map we were using.
We drove into the night, down a road that made the rest of the Carretera look like a cakewalk, even having to get out of the car so we could gun it across a stream that had washed out part of the road. After being violently chucked around the car, the annoyance of which was magnified by putting five guys into a tiny Accent, we reached the point where the map said there was a campground, however there was no campground.
We pulled up to the only building around, a large lit up house alongside the lake, with people drinking and enjoying themselves inside, we knocked on the door and asked them whether there was a place to camp, they told us there was no campground but we were welcome to set up our tent anywhere we wanted.
We returned to the car to unload our gear and as we were looking for a place to set up the tent, a Chilean man came running out of the house and showed us to a large shed that they had been using (it was a birthday party inside) during the day, which had a fire roaring, plenty of firewood, a picnic table and space to set up the tent. He told us we were welcome to use the shed and the rest of the firewood and that way we would be warm and out of the rain. We thanked him and set up our Patagonian party hut.
We pushed the picnic tables to the side, got the fire blazing, set up our tent, threw sausages over the grill on the fire and dove into the packs of Escudo we had picked up from Coyhaique. In no time we were warm, laughing, enjoying some cooked food and very, very, very drunk. We spent the night drinking and laughing, some of us even venturing into the birthday party and being warmly greeted by all Chileans in attendance, before retiring to the warm hut to fall asleep.
We woke up heads pounding to the sounds of gun shots far off in the distance, we left the dark safety of our hut and into the piercing morning light and realized the house we camped beside ran a gun club and shooting range. We washed away the sleep and drunken night with cold water from the beach beside the hut and loaded up the car to head further south to our final destination, Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a small town where we could venture to the Marble Caves and nearby glaciers before turning around and heading back to Santiago.
Sky to Ground
World peace all over and over again, sending this out to all my friends, this place my home from sky to ground, see the universe connected from the inside out.
The lyrics from Xavier Rudd’s song Sky to Ground, the tune that we played on repeat throughout our journey, and the song that best describes the final leg of our road trip.
The final push of our trip was filled with incredible landscapes, the beauty of the continent seemed to multiply the further south we drove. We continued from our wild night camping out in the hut towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo, driving along roads that hovered over the sea, dolphins periodically surfacing alongside us, and across drops that fell away violently. We even came across a car that had gone over the side of the road and lay abandoned at the bottom of the cliff, with a sign in the back that read “For Sale” in Spanish.
We reached Rio Tranquilo and bartered with a man who rented us his small cottage along the shore of the General Carrerra Lake, a crystal blue lake surrounded by snow capped mountains and the home of the famous marble caves. We spent our day enjoying the sunshine and braving the freezing cold of the lake before relaxing in the warmth of the cottage making food and drinking beer.
The following day we hired a boat to take us to the marble caves, naturally formed caves of smooth marble tunnels that seem to erupt right out of the lake, we visited the “Church” and “Cathedral”, two of the large marble formations, floating through the tunnels and climbing around the caves.
We returned to the cottage and spent the night eating and drinking with two travellers we had met in town. The next day we loaded the car and headed out to some local glaciers we wanted to see before turning around and heading north back the way we came. On the drive over we came across a waterfall, we pulled over and spent some time getting soaked climbing around underneath it, we changed and hung our wet clothes up on trees hoping they would dry by the time we returned from the glaciers.
We stopped several times to snap photos of the glaciers and hiked up the trail to a lookout point that gave us an incredible view of the millennium old ice slowly creeping across the land. On our way back we grabbed our clothes which were as wet as when we left them, and began to retrace our steps northward through the Carretera and back to Santiago.
We sadly began our journey back to Santiago, a journey wrought with full days of driving, ridiculous nights of drinking, and a close call.
We returned to the camp grounds outside of Chaiten armed with two bottles of pisco. We set up the tent in darkness under attack from the rain, unfortunately we did a terrible job and the rain won. As soon as we settled into the tent water began pooling in the corners, faced with a cold miserable night we decided to fight the rain with pisco, and proceeded to get drunk. My cousin and roommate had never tried pisco so we picked up bottles of cola to treat them to piscola, a dangerously delicious drink, so dangerously delicious that we did not notice the sun coming up and continued to drink far into the morning.
We spent the day sleeping in random locations across the campground, some in the car, some in the tent, some perched haphazardly on a nearby gazebo, before returning to Chaiten to get a ferry directly to Puerto Montt. When we arrived we were told the ferry was full and there wasn’t another one for a few days, our entire trip back had been based around getting a ferry back in order to return the car in time. We were in trouble. We considered crossing illegally into Argentina (you had to have purchased special insurance to take the rental car across the border) and then back into Chile further north.
In the end we sweet talked our way into squeezing the car onto the ferry, we spent the afternoon in a local restaurant before heading out to the dock to be wedged onto the ferry between large transport trucks. Two of us spent the night sleeping in small lobby on the ferry, while myself and two others slept in car. The next morning we arrived in Puerto Montt and sped across Chile the entire day until we reached Santiago close to midnight.
My last few weeks in Chile were some of my most memorable and most fun, I trekked across half a country and back with some unreal friends and we experienced some absolutely crazy moments and landscapes. In 11 days we drove 4190 kms in a Hyundai Accent, through roads meant for 4×4 pickup trucks, needless to say we returned the car and got out of there as fast as we could.