We had a month-long love affair with Chile. Twice the price, but one quarter the insanity, we were happy to transfer from Bolivia to Chile.
Atacama: After saying adios to Cody (and a duffel bag full of souvenirs Cody graciously offered to fly home), we begin exploring the high and dry Atacama desert. We try sand boarding. It was J's first time ever on a snowboard and E's second. E remembered why she hasn't been snowboarding since. One highlight of the week: getting to visit the incredible ALMA observatory and see the antennas at 16,500 feet!
Santiago: Beautiful, modern South American city. Felt a lot like California. Our first Asian food (Japanese and Indian) in a long time. We celebrated J's 30th birthday with go kart racing and sushi! The weather was perfect. We went on another free walking tour and enjoyed (sarcasm from J) running into the same Chilean street musician, "Hand Pan Man", we saw perform in the Atacama the week before.
Puerto Varas: The day before we thought our car was going to ship, we find out J has to be physically present for Ecuadorian customs. After some heated phone calls (why didn't they tell us weeks before!? They knew we were no longer in Ecuador), J buys a next-day ticket to Guyaquil, Ecuador and finally gets Glenda on a boat home amongst containers of Dole bananas. E spends the week exploring Puerto Varas, a tiny lakeside town in Chile's Lakes District.
La Carretera Austral: The BIGGEST highlight of our trip so far. Not sure if we can do it justice in a few short paragraphs. It's a wild road trip. The 1247 km road is largely unpaved with miles between towns. Before the Carretera, the only ways to get around these southern regions were by sea and horse. From Puerto Montt (start of the Carretera) to Coyhaique, we rented a car and were able to get to some incredible national parks including Parque Pumalin (recently gifted to Chile by the Tompkins family, founders of The North Face) and Parque Nacional Queulat, home of the friendliest campground ranger ever! Elise went to pay while J waited in the car. J came into the booth after 20 minutes to see why it was taking so long and found the ranger giving Elise a thorough explanation of ALL flora and fauna found at the park.
Rafting the Futaleufú - Side trip off the Careterra and our first go at Class V rapids. So much fun. The water was incredibly clear and blue. We also met a friendly Canadian couple, Sebastian and Courtney, who we connect with again further down the road.
Entering Patagonia: Continuing down the Carretera, we finally arrive in Patagonia - many argue that Patagonia starts in the Aysén region, and the beauty continues as we head south.
Rio Tranquilo: To kick things off in Patagonia, we kayak through the Marble Caves on Lago General Carrera. We've never seen anything like these ghostly, organic caves, winding through giant blocks of marble.
Coyhaique: Chile continues to surprise with craft breweries in tiny towns. Great beer and food!
Parque Patagonia: Our second stay at a park created by the Tompkins family, blows us away as much as Parque Pumalin. Incredible hiking and wildlife everywhere. This park has one of the quietest and most beautiful campgrounds we have ever seen. Reunited with Sebastian and Courtney, we hike together and then catch a ride south!
Home stretch to O'Higgins: After saying farewell to our new friends in the charming seaside town of Tortel, we hop a rare public minibus to Villa O'Higgins, the town at the very end of this crazy road. The final 100km do not disappoint with our fourth water crossing and a gravel road that gets progressively narrower as we wind through the mountains. We pick up a gaucho along the way (who told a story about defending his sheep from a puma!).
Crossing into Argentina: this has been one of the most exciting parts of our journey and the strangest border crossing yet, requiring a 2 day backpacking trip between countries. It starts with an early morning crossing of Lago O'Higgins from Villa O'Higgins to Candelario Mancilla. It's a 1km trek to get our exit stamps from Chile, then a 15km climb to the border with Argentina. The road is well maintained and winds through a carpet of red, orange, and yellow trees covering the hillsides. Once we reach the actual border, the gravel trail turns to several miles of single muddy track leading to Argentinian passport control at Lago del Desierto. The trail is more challenging, but the stunning views of Mt. Fitzroy more than make up for it.
Lessons learned: Chilean Spanish is for real and the farther south you go, the crazier it gets (where did the s's and d's go?). Also you have to be physically present to ship a car from Ecuador, so plan accordingly. The hike across the border from Villa O'Higgins, Chile to El Chaltén, Argentina is challenging, but the views of Fitz Roy are absolutely spectacular.