Touring Region de los Lagos, Chile. Part 1: Valdivia - Puerto Montt
We had arrranged for the rental of a 4x4 pick-up truck ahead of time, which I recommend you do, especially during high season, or you are likely to be without or far worse - in a small car on the Carretera Austral. It is on the pricey side, but it is worth every penny. The sense of liberty that came with our own set of wheels after being governed by set bus routes and times was exhilarating. Music blasting, all windows wide open, hair flying in the warm summer breeze, we headed out of Valdivia, toward the great, wide open, the unknown.
Before long we... oops... dead-ended in the parking lot of a supermarket. You know well what often happens when a male driver and a female navigator get lost. I know you have all been there, before the days you could blame the GPS. Solving this navigational task could potentially break or make the rest of the week which was to be spent behind the wheel, exploring Region de los Lagos and beyond. A close look at the map revealed we were only two blocks from the right track, and we were soon on our way again.
We drove until the sun began putting his pajamas on, casting long shadows across the well paved road. The exit sign said "Rio Bueno" and it was not in the guide book, so that's where we headed to get into port before dark. As we circled the town looking for a place to stay we learned that the the brothel was still very much open for business, the train station was not, and the supermercado, contrary to many others earned the "super" part of its name as it was stocked with delicacies. We picked up empanadas, pan amasado, cheese, avocado and wine, completely unsuspecting that this would become our diet for the next week. Just before the day turned as black as a coal mine shaft, we found Cabanas y Moteles Techos Verdes, a relatively large number of wooden cabins built on a small, but well thought-out plot of La Señora Margarita's backyard, just a few blocks from the main street. This is clearly her kingdom, and she keeps it clean, comfortable, and provides a welcoming atmosphere. With the car in the attached garage we entered our room: dressed in a pastel salmon-pink with pink hues it looked like something out of the Pocono resorts, a tacky destination resort in Pennsylvania. I looked around for the complimentary bottle of cheap champagne and the heart-shaped black jacuzzi, but luckily they were nowhere to be found. Instead, we proposed a toast with a glass of red wine to having stopped moving after fifteen hours of non-stop travel. Nourishment, hot showers and extremely nice, fluffy towels worthy of a first class hotel topped up our supply of energy and happiness.
Despite what sounded like a dancing sea lion on our roof we awoke well rested and ready to continue our adventures. Chile, contrary to Argentina, is not a coffee-drinking nation, and driven mainly by an immediate need for caffeine we stopped in Puerto Varas, a Germanic town of thirty-three thousand people on the shores of Lago Llanquhue. A growing tourist destination with a cute city center and a well manicured lake-side promenade, it has several options for fantastic espresso, including a mobile espresso kiosk (http://www.cafeapie.cl/) and Cafe La Barista where you can enjoy delicious sandwiches, smoothies and more. It is also one of the few places in the region where you can obtain a fishing license, an absolute must if you intend to fish in Chile, which is an absolute must for any fly fisher heading to Patagonia. Fueled by caffeine we found the fishing store called "Queen Fish" but couldn't understand why the shop was closed when the hours of operation indicated it should be open. It was Sunday.
Overlooking the white-capped, sun-kissed lake and the snow-covered Volcan Osorno we enjoyed a tailgate picnic in the bed of our fire-red 4x4 truck, talking about where to go next. The world was our oyster: La Carretera Austral. The last frontier. 1240 kilometers of packed gravel penetrating the most hostile and beautiful environments? Or the city of Puerto Montt to purchase bus tickets for our last leg to Santiago? We decided with some hesitation to roll the dice and obtain tickets at a later time and immediately head south along the Carretera Austral, knowing full well that the likelihood of finding a place to buy tickets would diminish exponentially the further south we went.
However, the road continued to rise up to meet us as per the Irish blessing and directed us past the bus station. Unable to deny that another power insisted we have tickets for the journey to Santiago, I was dropped off and already back at the side of the road, tickets in hand by the time my partner in crime had turned around to face the correct way. Ruta 7 took us along the shoreline, initially bordered by casinos and a huge shopping center, later by soccer fields, grazing horses and bobbing fishing boats. As I turned the last page in the guide book, the pavement ended. We were on the gravel that makes the Carretera Austral so notorious. Giddy, we continued south. Destination unknown.