The Whole Picture is Nothing But a Compilation of Details.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Touring Region de los Lagos, Chile. Part II: Puelche - Hornopirén

We hit the gravel as I turned the last page of our guide book.

Ruta 7, also known as the Carretera Austral is wedged tightly between the vertical hillsides of the Andes mountain range on one side and steep, loose gravel plummeting into the ocean on the other, along some 770 miles of breathtaking, jagged coastline along the southern regions of Chile. This road, as long as the distance between San Francisco and Seattle, not only provided access, but also brought tourism, education, medical and dental care to the 100,000 or so residents landlocked prior to its completion in 1999. As a point of reference, approximately 800,000 people live in San Francisco.
You would think we'd be at sea for days...
With no destination in mind, other than southbound, and with only one road to follow, navigation was easy, bar the very distractive beauty which made us swerve countless times and stop a few times to take in the smell of the ocean, the tranquility and the striking scenery. Gravel and rocks the size of small meteors were hitting the car, the sun beamed down on us and the shimmering bay as we drove until we could go no further – the road literally and physically ends with a ferry terminal in La Arena.

The ferry from La Arena to Puelche is the shortest and northernmost of three ferries in this region that bring cargo and passengers further along where nature governs and no road can be built. The other two run from Hornopirén to Ayacara, and from Ayacara to Nueva Chaitén. From Nueva Chaitén, the Carretera Austral carries you to its end at Villa O’Higgins.
At a geographical point of no return we consulted our map and a bus driver to assure there was an ATM and a gas station on the other side before we spent our last pesos on the ferry ride. A place to spend the night was rated less important, as was eating, since like ferrets we has stocked up on snacks and water. The minute we boarded, a sense of eerie beauty descended on us; the ferry moved through a foggy, grey landscape at a gentle speed, with a red tailed hawk aboard for a free ride and penguins diving for fish alongside: Dreamlike.

From Puelche there are two ways to get to Hornopirén, where the ATM is located: the coastal route or Ruta 7. Daylight was fading, so we chose the shorter, interior and direct north-south ruta 7 to secure pesos and a roof over our heads before the night enveloped us in her darkness. We were told that once we hit the south shore, we just needed to turn our noses to the east, and Hornopirén would be at the end.

Overly brightly lit, like any ATM, this modern convenience was easy to find and operate. Cash in hand, we set off to find a roof over our heads which proved more difficult (remember, it was high season) and interesting. Finally, a simple inquiry in a supermercado (think bread, canned goods and some local vegetables) turned into a long discussion about heritage as the European roots go deep in this part of the world…  It also helped us secure a room at Hotel Hornopirén, which is clean, quiet and well run. No frills or disappointments.

And as we came to find out the next day… an awe inspiring view of the inlet.

See for yourself: Early Morning Walk In Hornopiren, Chile


Friday, August 5, 2011

Testing the Waters

Asking me if I want to go sailing is like asking a puppy if they want to go for a waaaalkiiee, and it is only through extreme self control, and fear of being locked up in a padded room that I keep myself from running in circles hollering "When? When? When?".
The morning was sunny, hot and humid, with not a puff of air. We were intent on sailing, and knowing that the sea breeze would kick in at 12:30 pm as it does almost daily, a result of warmer inland air rising as hot air does, sucking in the cooler ocean air as replacement, creating an on-shore breeze for the afternoon, we began what would turn into a cartoon-like adventure on, in and out of the water and on, in and out of the boat: a quick little 13' Sunfish. The Sunfish is known for being incredibly responsive to the elements. If you don't sail, think race car, not truck...

We gathered the colorful Bermuda-like rigging, centerboard and tiller and hooked the boat up to the golf cart used to get around the farm. The boat "trailer" was the kind you typically seen pulled by hand: two wheels with tires (in our case, broken) on a frame that fits into the centerboard slit. Down the bumpy, dirt road we went...  chased and tagged by our tow.

A short ride later we arrived at the water's edge where we were instantly attacked by incredibly fierce, flying cannibals equipped with shark teeth. Since we were carrying the boat down a rocky, slippery path, they had a clear competitive advantage, that is, until we pulled out the D.E.E.T. bug spray... Death BY green-heads or death TO green-heads?

We had agreed to also use this morning to train for an upcoming ocean swim race, so as soon as we had the boat and all rigging by the edge of the water, we hopped into the beckoning bay where we swam, laughed and frolicked like little kids. We hooked onto a "no wake" buoy and talked about nothing for awhile but soon realized our boat was floating down the river two hundred yards away...  And we even KNEW the tide was still coming in...  Fighting fits of laughter, I put my swim-skills to use and caught up with the bobbing boat. Boat in tow, I swam back to - oops, there's the centerboard, and... a shoe (mine), and ugh the tiller too - shore, where the rest of our belongings were gathered and hung up to dry.

Round two with the green-heads.

Sails hoisted, we pushed off into the vacuum of dead air. And drifted. Eventually, we found a pocket of airwhere the wind filled our sail - we even created a small wake. Before long, a shrill whistle interrupted the silence, followed by someone hollering "Are you racing?" Seeing the irony in the situation we could only reply, smiling, "Does it look like it?" A nice reach took us to the other side of the bay - the one closer to the ocean and since we were now desperate for a steady breeze, we decided to go around the point and test the boat in the Atlantic Ocean.

Hogging the tiller and sail (you almost have to do both in a Sunfish because of how she sails), I gained more confidence and ability with every tack, and we had a lot of fun whipping up and down in front of the beach, dodging power boats and jet-skis. The change came about as we started to head back in through the mouth of the basin, with shifty winds, and an outgoing tide, which means less water and more sand bars to contend with. Approximately eight feet of water travels through this narrow opening over six hours, so the current gets strong...

Having tacked four times, ending each port tack by a moored blue hulled power boat despite pointing as high as we could, we reluctantly threw in the towel, beached the boat and began a determined trek back to base, fighting the strong current in waist-high water, a workout worthy Rambo VII. Where there was a good line for us to sail (and more importantly, water), we would perform a flying start, with me sliding onto the deck as soon as the sail filled with wind, laying on my stomach with the tiller in my hand, ready and able to jump into the water and onto the boat as needed. Talk about the feeling of being one with your boat...

Two hundred yards from our desired destination, at this time primarily towing the boat, half swimming, half pulsing through the water, we got hung up on the aforementioned "no wake" buoy. So close, yet so far away. We felt like a tourist attraction with all of the Sunday traffic going by on their way home...

Finally three girls in a power boat asked if we needed help. Hooked together we began our journey toward rest, food and cold beer. Putt, putt, sputter, sputter, putt, silence, the unmistakable sound of no gas. What was once two girls and one boat in need had multiplied to five girls and two boats, drifting across the channel towards an unavoidable collision with a sand bar. Captain Power Boat tried the can once more and shook enough drops into the engine to get her started and once again, we were on our way back to base. About to detach, a giant, two-story power yacht went by and with its wake, landed us both on the sand bar. Plop. At least we were back where we needed to be.

We pushed the power boat and sent her on her way downriver, and dragged the Sunfish the last twenty, very muddy yards back to base, where we took on the green-heads in round three. Our feet got sucked deep into the mud as we carried the boat up above the high-water mark. On the last trip down through the mud flats to collect the sails my feet totally slid out from under me, like Bambi. SPLAT! And there I sat, laughing. I had been foolish to think the adventure was over...

Later, I was told that today's was the best journey she'd ever experienced.