Saturday, February 21, 2009

Escape plan

Seems both like I´ve just gotten here, and that I´ve been here a long enough time. But either way, it is now time to head back north and come home.

The bus did indeed show up yesterday morning, just one nerve-wracking hour late. And it brought me 300k south over some extremely awful roads that I am not at all sorry to have missed. Torn up from construction, ripped by recent unseasonable unusually heavy rains, and generally not all that great to begin with. Our bus even got stuck at one point in loose gravel. The kind of gravel that is not rideable on a loaded bike, or any bike probably.

Scenery might have been nice, but mostly fog. Later in the 8 hour bus ride the day opened up at bit, and the landscape changed. More open forest, smaller trees, and a strange sight: a field of golden grass, something I haven´t seen in weeks. So it must be drier here, at least sometimes.

Coyhaique is a bustling and rough little town. Ran into two US backpackers I´d met on the ferry south. Shared their hostal last night.

Trying to get a bus back north was a challenge. It´s the end of the summer season for travelers from Santiago ( the most common of visitor down here) and buses are full. Also lots of dispirited international travelers trying to get further north into warmer, drier weather. And this lost corner of Chile is only accessible by air, ferry, or though Argentina. Plus, with one of the main routes cut off by a volcano... Transportation is a bit tight.

I did manage to get a ticket leaving Tuesday, traveling through Argentina, (with no stops, I think ??) arriving Wednesday in Osorno, only 800k south of Santiago. In that main transportation corridor, I Should be able to get another bus north in time for my flight late, late Thurday night (Friday am). Yea. Hope it works.

Meanwhile, I have 3 days to have fun around here. There´s a big mountain national park only 90k away. Cerro Castillo. I hope to bus out there today, camp, hike, see stuff. Then ride back over two days. So maybe at last I will be able to see the top of a big mountain.

Dang. Seems like too much of this blog is taken up with the logistics intead of stunning reports of wild and interesting landscapes and culture. Sorry, but logistics have been the primary challenge and focus of the trip. Not quite what I was expecting. But ya get what ya get when you travel. This is what I´m getting.

Off to the mountain!

--Greg

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Topless Mountains

I´m still in La Junta, waiting for another bus. The bus today was cancelled. The volcano that destroyed a nearby town in May is erupting again. I can´t find anything about it in the news. But no bus. My backup plan was to ride the same distance in 3 or so days, but that may not be a good idea if there´s a volcano erupting.

So... Tomorrow, bright and early, there´s a bus going the only direction that doesn´t have an erupting volcano (yet) -- South. Day-long trip on the bus to get further south, so that I can get a different bus and go north, back toward Santiago and my flight home. This change may cut into some further riding I´d hoped to do in the Argentine Andes. But should work.

Further backup plan is to ride like heck to the south and arrive in Coyhaique just in time to try to get a flight to Santiago just in time to fly home. That would probably be 6 days of pounding out miles instead of stopping to smell flowers. I guess I could do it, but smelling flowers is more my style. And I´d have to Tough Up and ride rain or shine. Through some of the wettest places in Chile. Super cool.

It seems as if I´ve kind of forgotten to mention what I´ve been doing in an overall kind of way. It´s this: I´m riding southward on the Carterra Austral, a gravel highway that stretches all through the south of Chile. The road was built during the Pinochet era, either for military purposes or to help unify the country -- depending on who you ask. It´s become famous for its rugged remoteness and stunning scenery. A captivating adventure for people -- mostly drivers or motorcyclists -- from all over the world. Though mostly from Santiago, it seems.

I started on an optional near-loop that took me the long way north and east of Puerto Varas and skipped a short ferry ride that connects one piece of the road. And it took another ferry ride to connect further south to where I am, as there are no roads across a long rugged section of Chile.

The very first piece of dirt road that I came to was the worst. Very rutted and chewed up, loose, rocky, dusty. And it was so high-crowned that trying to ride along the edge on a bike was not possible without having the wheels slide out sideways, or wallowing into a bucket of sand and loose rocks. Which put me closer to the middle of the road. Which was a problem because there was a huge amount of traffic along the way. Cars, SUVs, busses, trucks, all trying to get past, either oncoming or from behind. Not as much fun as I´d imagined. I like dirt roads, but partly because that usually means less traffic. But this was a busy highway that happened to be dirt.

After those first awkward 15 km, the traffic, at least, thinned out a bit. The road remained rough all the way to Hornopiren, where I caught the ferry.

After the ferry ride I was definitely on the Carterra Austral. First 20 km or so were a spoiler, as they were smoothly paved. Then, the real stuff: the dirt. And it´s actually been very nice. Traffic is light. The road is well graveled, and there´s no mud, except for the ¨mud¨ left by cattle. There´s no high-crown syndrome. There are lots of potholes, but I can avoid most of them with my one set of skinny tires. When it´s raining, the potholes fill up, and I get to take the spray from passing vehicles, since few of them slow down.

This whole south country has the feeling of a frontier. I´m not sure how long it´s been settled, or if it´s really settled. But there´s a bit of wild west feel to it, homesteaders doing their best against tough conditions and carving out a living. Maybe much of it has occurred since the road came through. I know some of the communities were only accessible by horse or boats, ocean or lakes, before the road.

The road itself is lined with thick vegetation anywhere that cattle haven´t been keeping it clear. Otherwise it seems like impenetrable forest. There are many, many small rivers and cascades tumbling off the mountains and filling up huge rivers that drain the large lakes. Much of the bigger water has the turquoise blue from ground glacial powder suspended in it. Watching the Rio Palena as it flows past La Junta, swollen with the rain, is like watching a whole world pass by.

Blackberries lined the road further north. An invasive species, I was not happy to see or feel their snarly branches. But I did suppliment a few meals with the ripe berries. A native fushia drops its hanging blossoms all along the road and almost everywhere I´ve seen. Blossoms are not fushia, but rather a crimson red, with a lighter inner blossom . Nalcha (I think) is a water loving plant of similar structure to ruhbarb, thick dull-spiked stalks and umbrella-sized leaves. The stems, I was shown by a hiker, have edible interiors, and taste like strong lettuce.

Every little settlement has some kind of store. Usually marked with a small Supermercado sign. The stores are extensions of someone´s house and have an assortment of often dusty goods arranged in no particular fashion. In a town like La Junta, almost every other house is also some kind of business. Front rooms converted to clothes stores, hardware stores, meat markets, bakeries, bus ticket stations. The locals must know which store to go to for which items. I find that some have good produce and others have a few rotting oranges and a bag of potatoes. One will have cheese, another, not.

My food for the journey has been a variety of ¨canned¨goods - which mostly come in bags (like Capri Sun) -- like tomato salsa (pasta sauce) or jelly. Plus pasta, which is easy to carry. And a good amount of produce. Since it´s available most everywhere, I get it as I go along. Why carry potatoes when you can get them just in time for dinner? No where to get them? It´s time for pasta. The common bread is a round, flat roll with dimples, about the size of a hamberger bun. Often still warm in the house of the senora who just baked it, and who has a hand written ¨pan¨sign out front.

Nectarines, oranges, lemons, plums and other fruits were readily available further north, but are becoming more scarce as I get deeper. Carrots and onions are available, but not many green vegetables. Most of the vegetables probably come from the small greenhouse gardens on most every homestead. And if a small store only carries one thing, it´s probably factory packaged cookies. I´ve been eating a good share of them.

So that´s what I´ve been doing. Riding south on a famous rugged remote road. I don´t have a map in front of me, but I´ve ridden maybe a quarter of the full length. Maybe less. So as usual, I am not the type to force-march the whole thing and check it off some ¨list¨of accomplishments. Just wandering along, seeing what I see, and experiencing whatever happens.

This regret: My experience of the culture and the people has been stunted by my lack of ability to communicate. I can manage caveman speech: Want food. Want water. Where road? But there´s not much room for subtlty or for learning much directly from the people. Do I see Spanish lessons in my future?

Today´s bus was supposed to be a 2:00, so I took morning ride. A road off in the direction of Argentina. Into open pastured valleys, then small forested valleys where granite cliffs were white-stripped with thin waterfalls. A turquoise lake draining into a wide, fast river. Huge mountains in the background, small icy blue glaciers clinging to their possible upper reaches.

I´m saying ¨possible¨upper reaches because of an interesting southern Chile phenomenon. I´ve heard of regions of the world, possibly Scotland, where the lakes are bottomless. There is a similar situation here, where almost all of the higher mountains are topless. You´ll see when I get the photos. Jagged granite spires, torn by glaciers, patchworked with snow, rising high into the air, and then disappearing. Vanishing into a white vapor. Who knows if they actually have tops? And why bother having a top if it´s just going to blow off, like the nearby volcano?

Thanks again for checking in! Lots of writing going on here, with days idle because I´m waiting for buses when maybe I should be riding like heck.

--Greg

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Obviousness

Two things become obvious. One, I´ve ridden myself into a bit of a hole. I´m off the beaten track, in an area that is mostly small homesteads carved into the thick, wet forest. This town of La Junta is a former cattle ranch, now doing its best to cater to the outdoors people who come to fish and boat and hike and take horseback rides.

As a town, it has the look of a refugee camp, except that a camp would probably have better roads. Many of the homes are thrown up out of materials that look like perhaps they came from the town destroyed by a volcano. Slapped together enough to keep out the biggest part of the weather, then considered good enough.

The room where I spent the night was made from particle board -- exterior grade , the good stuff. With a dirty plywood floor loosely holding up a couple of worn rugs. Window must have come from an older and partially rotten building, and was curtained with a cloth hanging by three nails. What I´m trying to say is that it was the kind of place I might make for myself someday. In a secret-clubhouse-in-the-woods kind of way.

The town´s main street has been -- temporarily, I hope -- replaced with a deep trench filled with rocks, water, spikes of rebar, cement pipeline. It´s not a good look, but I think it´s the first step toward pavement.

I stood waiting for the bus today, until I was told that it doesn´t come after all. There´s one tomorrow, but I was told I didn´t need a ticket until it came. Then --starting to learn --I found someone who spoke good english and found that I had to be sure to buy my ticket today. So now I have a ticket. I hope it does some good.

The reason I need a ticket and a bus ride, is, as I was saying, I´ve ridden myself into a bit of a hole. If I keep riding southward along the route I had picked out. I would not have time to get "anywhere" before my time had run out. Thus missing my flight home, which would have its advantages, but also some important disadvantages.

So I need to head back north, which for most practical purposes means a bus, backtracking a bit, then heading to Futaleufu, a town famous among whitewater enthusiasts. From there, I hope to ride a couple days to the Argentine town of Esquel, where I should be able to catch another bus on northward and back into Chile, to Santiago in about a week. That´s the current plan. Resulting from the fact that I´m running out of time and traveling slowly.

The second thing that has become obvious is that I am a weather wimp. I find that I do not like to travel by bike in the rain. Maybe it´s a curse of having grown up in the dry-or-passing-storm environment of Colorado. But when it´s wet --the all day wet on a gravel road with clouds masking the surroundings -- my interest in riding a gritty road, in spending all day being soggy, in putting up a tent in the rain and trying to stay dry in it, packing it up wet and moving on again... None of this holds much interest for me.

Besides, I am here to see the scenery, and when it´s thick with clouds and rain, there isn´t much to see and to photograph. And my camera tends to stay in the drybag anyway. So... What´s in it for me? I don´t know.

But it rained all afternoon yesterday. And I stood in the rain waiting for the bus that was not coming. I could have been riding, I guess, but wasn´t.

Both rain and storms can be delt with by a guy like me IF I have the luxury of time. I can wait out the rain, and don´t mind walking in it with appropriate rain gear, and can take photos from under an umbrella. So I can enjoy the rain as long as I´m not biking all day in it. It just takes time to wait and enjoy, and ride when it´s clear. But I´m afraid I´m running out of time for this luxury.

So with some luck, I´ll be on a bus tomorrow and on the first leg of my return to Santiago. And I would like to point out that some of this stems from the style of the area I´m traveling in. But most of it comes from my own style of not planning anything, of just wading in and seeing what will happen. And it happens that it takes time to get anywhere, riding or otherwise.

So that´s where I am in a logistical sense. But where AM I? This is Aisen, or Chilean Northern Patagonia. A slice of rumpled land between the Andes and the deeply corrugated coast. As evidenced by recent weather, the moisture of the ocean can be swept inland to freshen the thick forests and turn every steep valley into a waterfall. Normally summer is a somewhat dry season. That may have been the case earlier this summer, but not now.

The forest is made up of deciduous trees. Most of the leaves are small, perhaps to help them resist the colder months. The look of the forest of of rounded shapes blending together. Much different from the spiky p├Čnes forests of North America´s temperate rainforest.

I have seen a number of interesting birds. I have seen them over and over again, and no one here pays any attention to them, so perhaps they´re quite common. There is a buff-necked ibis, which seems to become more active - screaming and crying -- toward evening and into the nights. It has red feet and a long curved bill to go with its buff neck. I have photos I´ll post later.

Another common bird I´ve seen I don´t know what to call frequents the pastures along the road. White face with a vertical black stripe. Greenish shoulders. Makes quite a racket also, as I disturb them -- mostly in pairs -- from whatever it is they´re looking for in the grass.

There is a bird which I associate with crows. Brown with a white banded wing, it has more curve to its beak than a crow, but seems to be scavanging in much the same way. I´ll have to look all these up when I return, I guess.

One more bird is common, but I have no idea what it looks like. There´s a bright call of four quick dropping notes. But whenever I look, there´s nothing but dense forest to see. Seems it´s always inside, out of sight. On the ferry ride and along the seashore I´ve seen cormorants, gulls, black-necked swans. But one should always take my bird identification with a grain of salt, as I ain´t much good at it. Wait for the pics, I guess.

The only mammal I´ve seen that wasn´t -- to my knowledge -- domesticated was a small furry creature running off the road. Seemed to have a short tail with short fur. A bit smaller than a rabbit. I have no idea what it was, but there do not seem to be the plethora of squirrel-type creatures that exist in North America.
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I´ve seen lots of trout, hanging from fisherman´s sticks. They were introduced here, but seem to be doing well, to the delight of anglers. There are also salmon, escaped from the salmon farms who´s buoys and fences are taking over the protected waters of the sounds, and even the long glacier-carved valleys filled with lakes.

This section of Northern Patagonia is said to be more remote than the more famous points further south. Seems to be true. The people here are fascinatingly self-reliant. Lumber is made locally, and to non-uniform specs. Each building, fence, gate, stile, is to some degree a work of personal craftsmanship, as parts are worked to fit and function. Gates have fascinated me. No trip to the hardware store for a hinge. Instead many have wooden caps and platforms, carved to accept the end of the hinge-post, and allow it to swing.

Even the windows of the places I have stayed show this workmanship, much of it excellent. Non-uniform wood has been shaped to fit matched panes, and matched to a frame, apparently by hand. I respect the time it takes, and respect the time it would otherwise take to earn money to buy parts, and time to go get them somewhere. It´s the kind of craftsmanship that North American mountain second-home owners pay extra for, to paste a ¨rustic-ness¨ over their otherwise box-cut homes.

Changes are in the air. Most every town I´ve come through is suffering from some kind of improvement. I speculate: As Chile as a whole becomes a fully developed nation, this remote, independant area is in danger of being left behind in a third-world economy of raw materials, animal husbandry, and small farms and ranches. To ease the transition, it is attempting to grow a tourist industry that will suppy income that small farms do not. Thus towns are being spruced up, and infastructure improved, attempting to extend the tourist season and encourage people to come.

Change will come, perhaps in a pattern that has developed in other countries. This internet center where I type is full of school boys playing video games. Many will not become their fathers, living here on the land, but will move to cities to become a different type of people. Some will return or be left behind. But many will not. And this area will change again.

Tomorrow, bus willing, I will go to Futaleufu, which is one of the most famous whitewater areas in the world. It is currently in danger of loosing all it has gained as a tourist center. A huge Spanish company wants to dam the river and produce hydroelectric power for far-north Santiago. Hydro power is ¨clean¨ but much damage will be done. Huge valleys flooded. The local hot point: huge power poles and electric lines that will obsure the scenery that Patagonia is trying so hard to sell.

The future? As usual, no one knows. But I will consider it a privledge to have been here to see things as they are now.

Thanks again for checking in! Sorry about the comments not showing up. I´m supposed to review them first, but I´ve managed to forget the password that lets me into that email account. I´ll keep trying.

It´s clear and beautiful out this afternoon, at last! I could be riding. Unfortunately, the best way to get where I need to be is to wait for a bus.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Onward at the speed of, um, something slow.

I had three days to enjoy Hornopiren. First day I went for a ride with a German woman from my hospidaje. She was on vacation from teaching biology in Peru. She rented a bike and we rode back the way I´d hitched in, plus some coastal road. The best part was more views of the common Chile farm in these parts. Cows, geese, pigs, chickens and a big garden. Plus the ocean right there for fish. Very self reliant folks.

Next day I did almost nothing. Mostly sat in the Plaza de Armes (any town that´s a town has one) and watched the world revolve around me. A tiny kid happily riding his bike off the curbs, which, size for size, were bigger than most things I jump off. A man with a large woodsman´s axe sat at a nearby bench with his wife. Men walked with what they needed for the day. Oars. Shovels. Power brick saw. Hammers. If it was too much, they used a wheelbarrow. But not a car or truck.

The town was in a bit of a mess, since they´re paving all the rough dusty streets with paving bricks. Meanwhile it´s torn up and messy in places.

Dogs live in all the cities and towns I´ve been in. Just happily lolling around. Seem healthy. Don´t interract with people much. But I watched a couple of them vanish quickly when an old woman bent to pick up a rock. Speculation, but I suppose around here you are too old when you can no longer bend over to pick up a rock. Then the dogs eat you.

My last idle day in Hornopiren, I rode out to the National Park. It´s a large reserve containing two volcanoes and much more. With almost no, um, anything. There´s one marked trail. I got there and ran into Molly, an English teacher in Santiago, originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I was only going to hike in a little way, since I was wearing my bike shoes. But with her company, good conversation, and no problem with my feet, I hiked in 3 hours on the muddy and/or rough trail to a large lake, surrounded by lava rocks and black beach sand. The forest along the way and river along part of the way were quite nice. Less of a nothing-but-trees-to-see than the last trail I hiked. And more hiking (6 hours! I´m a cyclist, dang it!) than I´ve done for years.

Next day I got onto the ferry and headed to the town that was destroyed by a volcano in May. The boat trip started out foggy with drizzle, but became bright and sunny. Clouds on shore hid the tops of the mountains, but allowed a view of the coast. We had a tail wind which almost matched our speed, so being up on deck was very pleasant. And no one that I noticed fell off, despite a lack of what the U.S. would call safety features. Forested hills rolled onward and onward down the coast for the full 8 hours. Green humps of islands, and one odd square-topped island rock that probably had birds all over it, but was a bit too far to see.

Chaiten looked alright from the ferry landing. But the paved road into town ended upbruptly at a pile of grey ash that looked like it challenged regular cars. The town itself was covered in ash and still emerging. Some places, that is, were emerged. Others looked like they´d given up the ghost and moved on. The Chilean government has said the town will be shut down, but the people who live there and have always lived there want to dig out and live there. Biggest problem during the eruption was that the ash diverted the river which ran straight through town and flooded much of it, burying what it didn´t wash away in cement-like ash. There was one store open along the way. I got a couple things and hit the road. Passing and re-passing groups of hitchhikers I´d met on the ferry, as they scrambled for the few rides available.

Fast road out of town. Pavement at first, and the tailwind from the ferry continued to blow me on my way. Passing and re-passing groups of hitchhikers I´d met on the ferry, as they scrambled for the few rides available. I made it to a large suspension bridge over the outlet of Lago Yelcho and camped in some trees next to the bridge, near some other campers who were under the bridge. I washed off in the river while bats whirled right past me, eating the mosquitoes that were eating me. My fourth night of camping, I put up my tent. Drizzle and blood-suckers safely outside.

By morning it was clearing. Sun came out just before I left, so I stopped leaving and dried everything out quickly. Beautiful bright sunny day. For two hours. I rode along and past the lake. Passed the first real glacier, a frozen blue tongue snaking down a steep valley. Onward and upward through the thick forest. Thick forest: let´s call it like it is: Rain forest. Temperate rain forest, which like the forests of the north Pacific coast of the US, require rain.

The rain started as I finished climbing up a steep valley onto higher land. Hard rain at first, then drizzle, then a persistent and constant rain. The gravel road began to run with water. I became soggy and covered with road grit, as did the bike, which began to have a few problems. Here´s another thing I might have thought of before I left: My bike was weatherized (such as it was) for the semi-desert where I live. I might have made a few changes -- like lube on the cables -- if I´d thought about what riding in a temperate rain forest might be like. Then, I might have been able to shift down into my small chainring at the start of the steep stretches. Instead of having to get off the bike and manually shift, before getting back on and trying to climb. And maybe both brakes would have worked.

About halfway through what I had hoped would be a long day, I saw a sign that said "Snack" like that, in English. Sounded good to me. A soda for sugar as I stood dripping on the senora´s floor. But they also offered a room in a house for pretty cheap. And I decided to stay the night, get clean, dry, and work on the bike.

It rained all the next day. I walked under my umbrella takaing photos, as the river rose and the rain came down. Seven houses make up Villa Vanguardia, including the one I had all to myself and two other empty holiday rentals. Lumpy yards between the houses were pastures for chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, sheep, cows and horses. None of them, nor the local folks, seemed at all bothered about the rain. Just sweatshirts. Maybe a hat. A few with woolen ponchos.

Rio Frio was carring a fair amount of lumber downstream by the end of the day. Not out of its banks, but up into the green vegitation. Inside, I got some writing done, and some good idling. The second night - last night - a couple from Santiago and their one-and-a-half-year-old child joined me, and brought noise to the place, besides the cries of ibis in the dark, and frogs in the yard/swamp, rain against the window panes.

This morning it was clearing. I had dried my clothes around the wood-fired kitchen stove. Bike was back in functional condition. I packed up and rode off. A big 40km -- only half a day -- brought me back to rainy weather. And to La Junta, where I hope to catch a bus tomorrow, heading south. Making up some distance that doesn´t really need to be made up for. But there´s some scenery further south that I´d like to see. And I already feel like I´m running out of time. If it´s taken me this long to get south, how long will it take to get back to Santiago in time for my flight?

Stay tuned! And thanks for checking in!