Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ferry to Puerto Ibanez and the Carretera Austral to Coyhaique

From Chile Chico it is possible to drive to Coyhaique but much of the road is unpaved and rugged so we have elected to take the ferry to Puerto Ibanez and then the carretera, which at that point is paved to Coyhaique. We had been told that the ferry leaves promptly at nine in the morning and that we should get to the port no later than 8am to buy our tickets. Going from the south shore around a point and then to the northern shore takes about 2 and a half hour, which gives an indication of the vast size of the lake. The crossing provided us with more of the stunning views of the south end of the Andes where many of the mountains have perpetual snow on them and the erosion caused by the glaciers is clearly visible. With a population of around 1000 inhabitants, Puerto Ibanez is a town even smaller than Chile Chico but our destination is Coyhaique which is considered to be the midpoint on the Carretera Austral in this remote region of Chile. For those who come to Chile seeking adventure, traveling the rugged road known as the Carretera Austral (or Camino Austral), the name given to Chile’s Route 7 which winds its way for a thousand kilometers (600 miles) through the remote and thinly-populated archipelago of Chilean Patagonia is almost guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience. It is a region that is largely covered by a lush, dense rainforest. Deep fjords cut into the coastline from the Pacific and the rocky Andean peaks rise up from the shore. In this far southern area there is no dry season, and for eons the storms rolling in from the sea have left layer after layer of snow on the mountains, which over time has compacted to create and sustain the glaciers. These in turn feed a plethora of waterfalls that constantly cascade their way down the mountainsides into rushing rivers and then through the forests back into the fjords. The unique contrasting mix of lush forests, waterfalls emerging from high cliffs, glaciers and valleys that are tucked into the flanks of the Andes icy slopes, is breath-taking. As we drive through rocky mountain passes that drop into deep river valleys and see the dense jungle areas bordered by glaciers, I am at a loss for adjectives that adequately describe the beauty that surrounds us. The two-hour drive went quickly and soon we descended into the town of Coyhaique. Founded in 1929, the city is settled at the confluence of two rivers, the Rio Simpson and Rio Coyhaique and surrounded by snow capped mountains. After a couple of false starts, we find Don Joaquin Cabanas where we have reserved two cabins for the night. The cabanas are nestled in a forested area to the south of town and although simple and rustic with a large studio style bedroom/living area, bathroom and kitchen, they are perfect since we are traveling with pets. We walk, feed and get the dogs settled in before going into town in search of lunch. Leading from the central plaza is a pedestrian only street which has souvenir shops and a few restaurants. We chose one which had window tables so we could watch the tourists, eat some sandwiches and drink traditional schop (draft beer). Afterwards we browsed the souvenir shops and the Handicrafts Market held in the main plaza where local artists and craftsmen show their works made of wool, leather, pottery, stone and wood. After a stop in at the tourist center, we left the town center to collect the dogs and do a little sightseeing. Our first stop was the mirador on the Rio Simpson. We were treated to great views of the meandering river valley and the town. We then went to find a local statue “Piedra Del Indio”. Located on the eastern bank of the Simpson River, the statue is actually a rock formation reminiscent of an Indian figure. We were told that the best place to observe this phenomenon is on the bridge crossing the river. Well, after much observing and pointing by Tom and Mariano, Marcela and I finally could make out the “features” of the Indian. Let’s just say, you need some imagination but with time it does seem like the facial contours of a person. Where “Indian” comes into it, I am not sure. I don’t think the dogs understood it either because all this standing around has them bored. We tried to find a place to let them run off lead but there were just too many distractions wherever we went so they had to settle for lengthy leash walks. Dinner that night was at the upscale restaurant in the Diego Del Alamargo (DA) Hotel. Both Tom and I had the Beef Lomo (Fillet) which came out as a huge chunk, cooked rare exactly as we like it and Marcela and Mariano both had the more sensible Grilled Salmon which they said was also excellent. We are also all quite tired from our travels. On Sunday, the drive home via Rio Mayo took about 8 hours. After crossing the border we stopped at a small hamlet for coffee. The tiny tienda/restaurant was occupied by a family group dressed in traditional garb complete with gauchos who were tending to a lamb spread on a rack and being barbequed for lunch. The gaucho cheerfully allowed us to photograph them and the lamb over the fire. It was very tempting to stay around for lunch as the lamb looked sensational but we still have a lot of driving. We stopped again in Rio Mayo for a quick empanada lunch and then it was home. A whirlwind three days of driving, sightseeing and being with friends. We are grateful that Mariano and Marcela invited us along. What a great addition to our memories.

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