I left El Calafate, Argentina at 16:00 on Friday 29 March and I pitched my tent in Puerto Varas, Chile at about 14:00 on Sunday 31 March. Where was I during the 46 hours in between? In transit, on a bus, neither here nor there. You’d think that you could just hop on over into Chile from El Calafate, but no – you have to go all the way back to Comodoro Rivadavia on Argentina’s east coast, then cut back west all the way to Bariloche, on the east side of the Andes, near the Chilean border.
The two days in between El Calafate and Puerto Varas are best illustrated with this map:
The 28 hours it took to get from El Calafate to Bariloche went by too quickly. Back when I was in first year at varsity, the 12 hours on the bus from Cape Town to Kimberley felt like a lifetime of misery. Now, I relish the long-distance travelling. It’s a chance to regroup, to rehash and revise, to memorise a few key things about what has been and what is coming. I love it.
I should add that you can get to Bariloche by travelling directly north from El Calafate, but the road is apparently very bad and unpaved for long stretches, trucks don’t really use this route and settlements are very few and extremely far between, making successful hitchhiking unlikely at best and deadly at worst. Tour operators will take you but will charge you a hefty sum for the privilege, excluding accommodation.
We arrived in Bariloche at 20:00 on Saturday, 1,840 km later. I now had exactly one week before Lollapalooza in Santiago and I couldn’t afford to lose any time, so I didn’t bother going into town and decided to spend the night in the terminal instead. A personal first.
I killed a couple hours in a take-away joint doing some writing until they closed at 23:00. By this time, the place was almost entirely deserted. No buses would go to Chile overnight and the first bus out of there was at 07:30 the next morning. At midnight I looked at the time and thought, ‘Seven hours, no sweat!’ But then two women started locking up and they horded us into this small little space between two doors, with just two benches. It was me, a tall dude my age (probably younger) who didn’t seem too keen for small talk, a young couple, an old German ballie and two homeless-looking types … Though none of us looked particularly fresh or homely that night, I imagine.
When I imagined this night I thought I’d at least have a bench to myself to sleep on, but I resigned myself to my new fate quickly, something I’ve learnt to do these last few months.
However, I was not feeling quite as optimistic I was feeling an hour previously. The minutes were dragging along and I was squeezed onto a bench with two others. Then the ladies who horded us into the small space came back and asked to see our bus tickets. I produced mine and soon enough we were shuffled back into the main building, each with a bench of our own – luxury! The homeless types didn’t have tickets, so they weren’t let back inside.
I rolled out the blue camping mattress and the sleeping bag, wrapped my legs through my bag and used the smaller bag for a pillow and … six hours later the sun was coming up. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s sleeping. I wanted the full experience, so I washed my face and brushed my teeth in the tiny bathroom sink of the terminal before leaving. There’s no way to overstate the pleasure of a fresh face and a fresh mouth.
Osorno was next. We crossed the Andes and the border at Chile with no real hassles, even though it did take forever. The Chileans are hardcore about their border, believe it. Sniffer dogs and line-ups, the works.
Getting to Osorno was where my plan ended. The only certain thing was that I had a few days before I had to be in Santiago, and I wanted to see some of Chile’s lake district. So my strategy was to take the first bus that was going to a smaller lakeside town out of Osorno. I started at one end of the small, crowded bus terminal (Sundays, be warned) and most buses were only heading north, but eventually I found what I was looking for. Within 20 minutes I was on my way to Puerto Varas.
Camping was definitely on the cards – hadn’t pitched my baby since San Ignacio! – and Compass del Sur hostel was the place. I opted to walk through the town where the German influence, architectural and otherwise, is obvious. Signs advertising kuchen reminded me of my sister and my family-in-law. More coffee shops than can technically be necessary. The street food here is salmon, salmon and more salmon. Salmon wrapped in salmon stuffed with salmon. I did not cave.
It was a pretty walk, but the longest of my life, considering that I was lugging the world’s heaviest backpack uphill with a body that had not seen a bed in days. To add exhaustion to injury, I walked past the hostel twice before finding the gate and when I finally set down my bags I didn’t even care that it was expensive to camp in the backyard (CL$7,000 per night, about ZAR140) and immediately took them up on their offer of a discount of R20 per night if I stayed for three nights. That would mean that this would be my only lake-district town until I got to Santiago, but I didn’t care.
It’s difficult to put a finger on the difference between Argentina and Chile, though it does feel decidedly different here. Chileans are generally shorter and a little rounder in the face. Things are better kept, neater, prettier overall. And obviously Puerto Varas is a rich person’s weekend spot – upmarket (read: expensive). The concentration of designer clothing stores seemed a little vulgar.
Transformed by my time with Nikki and all the amazing trekking we did, the next morning I was up super early – ah, the smell of wet grass outside the tent flap, the drops of condensation inside, that flat-on-your-back, super-rested, let’s-grab-this-day-by-the-horns feeling – and took an hour bus ride around Llanquihue Lake to Petrohué for a look at the forest and the Saltos del Petrohué waterfall.
It was a perfect day. Turquoise waters filled with fat salmon trout, wet green forests, space and time, high cliff faces crashing down into postcard-perfect emerald liquid.
It was hardly a hike, though, I could’ve done it in high heels, so after I saw the waterfall I took a long 6km hike down a sandy road along the river to the Petrohué village itself, where the buses pick you up to take you back to Puerto Varas.
I had vague plans to climb one of the volcanoes – I was probably leaning towards taking on Volcán Calbuco (2,015m) as opposed to Volcán Osorno (2,652m), but rain the next day forced me onto the hostel’s patio, book and writing and random bursts of small talk with strangers and drank my first batch of boxed Chilean wine.
I did make it out for some sightseeing around Puerto Varas, which is wrapped around Llanquihue Lake. The following evening I would take an overnight bus to Santiago, where I had secured space with a Couchsurfer who was also going to Lollapalooza.
Man, I miss being outdoors. I have been in Santiago for four months now, and the only long-distance walking I have done has been the 10km from Las Condes (fancy) to my ‘hood, Barrio Brasil (not fancy). Granted, the city is home to wildlife of a different sort, sightseeing with its own set of charms, and it’s fun … for a while.
But I am beyond thrilled to pitch that tent again when I move north in less than two weeks’ time.