The reason for coming to Puerto Chacabuco was to renew our visas, but since we were in harbour, we fancied a trip inland, our last chance to experience Patagonia (yes! That meant going south again), before we head for warmer climes. We also wanted to resupply Caramor with fresh food (there are only so many ways you can cook creatively with tinned peas) and deal with the backlog of laundry.
Puerto Chacabuco is a commercial harbour for the fish farming industry, picture an out of town industrial estate by the sea. In addition, there is a cruise jetty, a posh hotel, a couple of restaurants catering for long distance hauliers, a few houses and a football pitch. The harbour, until the 60s, was up river in Aysén but it silted up (and the ships got bigger). The boats moved but the town remained with all associated services.
Leaving Caramor is always a worry so we wanted to make the most of the stable weather forecast for the next three days. Early the next morning, we quickly packed a three-day bag, rowed ashore and called the local taxi.
We dropped the laundry off at a launderette in Aysén and headed for the government offices where we were able to renew our visas in a couple of hours, for a fee. The other option would have been to cross over to Argentina but it can be a hassle. When the conversation turned to earthquakes the friendly civil servant demonstrated the effects of an earthquake by shaking his desk at different speeds to demonstrate the various stages of a tremor.
After lunch we caught the bus to Coyhaique, the capital of Aysén Region. The landscape was stunning, crystal clear mountain streams, lively rapids, towering cliffs, alerce conifers with cows, sheep and alpaca grazing in the flat grassy valleys.
The bus climbed one last ridge and the view opened up, a large semi-arid basin with the town of Coyhaique on the far side. Here we would be able to arrange transport to Chile Chico, our destination.
The 'Rough Guide to Chile' says of Chile Chico “Sitting on the southern shore of Lago General Carrera, the small agricultural town is a sunny place with an attractive Plaza de Armas, lined with apricot trees and pines, and is famous for its fruit festival at the end of January, as well as Chile’s best cherries. The town was settled by farmers who crossed over from Argentina in 1909, causing a conflict known as the “Chile Chico war” when they refused to hand over land to the concessionaires given grants by the government. The new settlement depended entirely on Argentina until a road was built between Coyhaique and Puerto Ibáñez in 1952, after which Chile Chico’s orchards became Coyhaique’s main source of fresh fruit."
It sounded delightful. We could either hire a car and drive there (a long and winding road) or we might be able to catch a bus and then a ferry to cross the lake, the second largest in South America. The tourism information office informed us that the ferry left at 8pm and if we were quick we could catch the connecting bus.
The bus was fully booked. As we stood discussing our options, the man behind the counter suddenly announced that he had two seats for us after all but that we would have to pay the driver. Franco thought he was suffering from 'can't be asked' syndrome but that when he realised we might not buy tickets at all, he 'magically' found us places. We found out later that he'd gone to the trouble of booking us with a competitor!
Heading south out of Coyhaique, the countryside became increasingly dry. We passed through poor open agricultural land, then the road descended into a canyon and we cranked our necks to glimpse the vertiginous slopes of bare rock and dust of the Cerro Castillo above. The trees along the road soon petered out as we returned to the cold steppe. This is the dry pampas of Patagonia which extends all the way across Argentina to the Atlantic.
By the time a forest of poplars marking Puerto Ibañez appeared, I had a skull splitting headache. It had been a long day and I hadn't warn my sunglasses, a mistake, given the strong glare. As we got off the bus we were scoured by the strong dusty wind but the ferry was waiting.
Lake General Carrera
I hadn't expected a desert! I was already missing the trees. I was looking forward to the orchards ...
Two and a half hours later in Chile Chico, we piled into a taxi and took a room at the first hostel we passed. Congratulating ourselves on how well the day had gone and excited about the morrow, we crashed for the night.