Lapping the Lake and Gunning it South

I had some time to orbit around Coyhaique while waiting for news from Peru. I decided it would be cool to take a lap around Lago General Carrera along the Carretera Austral (HW 7). This would all be bumpy, washboard road, and I had to think hard about if Savannah could do it. I’d actually only be lapping the Chilean side of the lake, and then take a ferry from Chile Chico to Puerto Ibanez. The problem (or one of the problems) was that the only ferry company I could find online had gone out of business on the first of this year. I assumed, and hoped, that another company had taken over and that I would be able to find a ferry… if not, I would have to reverse the route back West and North around the lake.

My first stop was Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Over the course of the next few days, I stayed at a campground on the lake with good service for working remotely and I took a lake dip every night for a shower (freezing!). I had learned about the beautiful marble caves years before I began the trip, and it was on my list of destinations to check out. For the first trip to the caves, I booked a boat tour with a local company to find out exactly where the caves were and what the lake was like to potentially packraft myself to there and have a more personal experience.

The evening tour of the caves in the small motor boat was stunning, but I knew it would feel much more special to float in my raft inside the caves and watch the blues, yellows, and greens shimmer on the marble rock as the water reflected off of them. I now knew the location of the caves, about 5 miles South of where I was camped on the coast. The next morning at 6 AM, I inflated Terra (my raft) and paddled out at sunrise on the calm, turquoise blue water. I skirted the shores for a couple of miles, then paddled in and out of the caves along the coast line. It was before the tour boats started and it felt like I was the only one on this magical lake. My words won’t be able to describe the beauty of the caves, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. I paddled over a massive trout at one point, and at times I felt like I could see all the way down to the bottom of the depths of the lake. I have no idea how deep it was around the caves, better yet how deep the deepest point is within the lake. When I reached the popular “island” cave, the tour companies arrived with the motor boats and guided kayaking tours. I definitely stuck out in my little packraft. I decided it was time for Terra and I to head back and began the journey North. Some tour boat captains didn’t seem so happy that I was on my self-guided tour (though I did support them the day before!). The way back felt extra long with a bit of a head wind… and packrafts really aren’t the best on flat water, but I got a work out and felt happy with my adventure for the day and exploring inside the caves. It was incredible.

There have been days throughout this whole trip South where it was tough to be in my own company, and I felt lonely. When I’d feel this way, I would try to make connections with people in whatever town I was in (though I knew they would only be short term) or I would blast off full force into the mountains/lakes/wherever and playing outside would be my distraction. Over the past couple of months, as I was spending more solo time and moving faster South than would allow me to make any local communities, it became something that I needed to resolve more actively. One morning in particular along the lake, I was a bit fed up with my mind being my own worst critic. I felt my hands tighten on the steering wheel as I fought back tears. I then decided to drive out on a side road, away from the Carretera, and into the expanse of mountains and glacial valleys towards Bahia Exploradores. I knew I wouldn’t make it all the way to the sea without 4×4, but I wanted to get as far away from any humans or reception or conveniences to be alone with my mind and think on this.

I drove four and a half hours down the bumpy road as the gloomy skies reflected my mood. I saw peaks and glaciers poking out of the clouds, but they seemed to want to stay as elusive as I wanted myself to be. Savannah and I rolled along the dirt road until I found a flat space along the river to camp for the night. I heated up some water for mate tea, and climbed up onto the roof to contemplate and watch the mountains change color with the setting sun. It felt like I was the only living soul for a hundred miles, so I had achieved my goal of reaching solitude. It didn’t all come as an epiphany at once, but that night and over the next few days of driving along the lake and finding the most epic campsites, I began to unravel the knots I had tied in my brain. This is the most challenging situation I’ve ever been in, let alone put myself in. It’s going to be hard, that was the point.

Before leaving my venture along the perimeter of the Northern Patagonian Icefield, I did a short hike to a mirador/lookout to a glacier. It has receded a ton and looking at the vast moraine was shocking.

The road became tougher after leaving the Carretera to drive North-ish to Chile Chico, where I hoped to catch a ferry. Deep washboards and steep pitches of the hills had Savannah working hard, but she pulled through. I got lunch in a small town along the lake and ended up being the only one in the restaurant. I expressed my concern over the ferry to the owner, who then went full force into figuring it out for me. He called and messaged local friends to see what they knew and eventually found a new website where you can purchase a ticket to cross the lake. There was indeed a ferry! I tried reserving a ticket on my phone but kept getting errors. He loaned me his laptop and as I sipped on a blueberry flavored beer, I tried over and over again to get it to work to reserve a space. He told me there was a festival in Chile Chico beginning soon and there probably wouldn’t be any spaces left after the next day. I thanked him for the help and told him I’d figure out a way to get a ticket, maybe if it was even just trying the website later to purchase a ticket… Chile is unpredictable in that way. Later on, after driving the rough road North and finding a cliffside campsite with 4G, I tried again… no luck. I called home to share the latest mission I was on and my parents asked me if maybe it was an issue with not having a Chilean ID or credit card, and maybe I knew someone in Chile who could help me out? Of course! I sent a message to an ex, and friend, in Santiago to see if he could help me out. He bought me the ticket within 10 minutes, I was all set. I returned the favor by ordering him a dinner sent to his place that night. It’s always better if you can leave a relationship as gracefully as you enter one, you never know when you’ll need to rely on a friend someday.

The ferry ride across the lake was incredible. Despite the insane wind and pelting water from the waves crashing against the boat, I spent most of the ride up on the deck, in the front, taking in the landscape. The boat was running parallel to the border of Chile and Argentina. If I looked to my right, I’d be looking into Argentina, and to my left, Chile. We docked at Puerto Ibanez in Chile, and I found some stealth camping on a beach. The sunset was amazing.

The next day I began my way back North to Coyhaique, where a friend from the states would be working for a bit. Lindy and I have been friends for 6 years. It was incredible luck that she would be teaching an abroad program in the same town I was in for a bit. On my way back to where we’d meet, I embarked on a mission to scramble up a waterfall that I had read about off the Carretera, it was super fun! I noticed some bolts along the way and thought perhaps some do it in a via ferrata style, but to me it was a fun scramble. The landscape was stunning!

Lindy brought down some US goods – Annie’s mac n cheese, Trader Joe’s instant coffee, and a new stove since the threads on my pocket rocket seemed to have gotten shredded a bit. It was so great to see a familiar face down here, the first since my departure. We hiked, climbed at a local crag, chatted, gossiped, tried to mimic the guacamole from one of our favorite restaurants in Ballard, and gave each other a lot of hugs. We did a quick overnight from the other side of Cerro Castillo (from where I had been the week before). It was quite a different landscape than the Eastern side, and the silty, glacial rivers reminded me a lot of Alaska. My water pump died spontaneously after pumping half a bottle of water, so we boiled the rest for drinking (there were a lot of cows in the area), and had silty soup for dinner. Throughout the week that I was visiting Lindy, I slept at a lagoon about 5 kilometers away from the school she taught at. This began to sort of feel like “my” lagoon home. Some people would come during the day, but at night it was just me, Savannah, and the Patagonian wind rocking us to sleep. I gave a quick guest lecture to some of her high school students there and used photos from my job opportunities around the world to show them how cool DNA is. They were about to start a genetics section in their Biology class, so the timing worked out great.

The next day, I received news that I’d probably need to be in Peru late Feb/early March. Originally, my plan was to finish my contract by March 1st and use the month of March to drive South to Navarino Island to do my passion project. Now with the delay due to the civil unrest in Peru, I had to pivot and drive South now (through February) so I could work in Peru in March and have Savannah and I on Navarino Island by April. Lindy and I said our “See you laters” and I headed South.

I had hoped there was a chance I could take the ferry from Puerto Yungay to Puerto Natales. It would have been 2 days at sea with Savannah, and I would have magically arrived at the bottom of Chile. However, due to storms I guess, the ferry was booked completely until mid-March… So crossing into Argentina and gunning it South was the only thing that made sense. Further, the ferry from Puerto Ibanez to Chile Chico was also booked up for the next week. So, I would need to cross from Chile into Argentina via a dirt road with mixed reviews on iOverlander on if it was van friendly. I stamped out of Puerto Ibanez, a process that took all of maybe 2 minutes, and embarked on this mystery road. It began fine with pavers and Savannah climbed up a small range of foothills. In this no-man’s land between Chile and Argentina, the paved road stopped and dirt road began. Easy at first, but then we met more hairpin curves on steep terrain, and finally one of the biggest road hurdles yet…. a giant sand drift. How there was sand in the middle of the foothills along the General Carrera Lake, I’m not sure. But this sand drift was about 3 feet deep and wider than Savannah is long. Not feeling like we (Sav and I) had much of a choice, since I had canceled my TIP for the van and got my exit stamp in the diminishing space on my pages in my passport, we went for it. Luckily I could gain some momentum and speed coming down a small hill before Savannah hit, then surfed over, the drift. I felt the back tires start to spin as the front tires hit the hard dirt. Eventually, the back tires gained traction. I was still celebrating our success when we arrived at the tiny Argentina border station. They were shocked that I was alone, with a van from NY, crossing at this border point. Apparently only 5 people or so cross per day, and none of them were solo foreigners. We chatted for a bit and they offered me potable water to refill my reservoir. By far, this was the most easy border crossing (customs wise) that I have done on this journey South.

Savannah had her first temper tantrum just past this border crossing on a remote dirt road with a landscape sculpted by the fierce wind of the South. The usual suspects of an electrical issue presented themselves – check engine light, followed by “service engine immediately,” followed my “engine overheating,” and then… no power. I checked the coolant and oil and knew that, mechanically, she was fine. I waited a bit, wiggled some wires and spark plugs, tried the key trick that the mechanic in Ecuador taught me, and she started. We rolled on a bumpy dirt road for 70 kilometers, taking about 2 hours, before I pulled in behind a YPF gas station to camp for the night.

The next day my goal was to drive to Gobernador Gregores, just to put some more miles in South. It was another long day of driving and self reflection. With each of these stints I seem to unlock a new perspective or epiphany or thought to chew on for a bit. I saw tons of guanaco, which was funny since I got so excited with the very first one I saw. Little did I know I’d be seeing hundreds of them on the rest of the drive. I also met a new ostrich like species that I had never seen before, and didn’t expect to find down here in South America… it looked African. I sent the video that I captured of this massive roadrunner-like bird racing the van on the side of the road to some bird friends. Apparently, it’s a rhea and it is related to the ostrich. I arrived at my campground destination. A campground instead of a gas station this night because I was long overdue for a shower. When I was checking in for the night, I heard two sets of footsteps behind me. I turned to see who was coming in and knew that I knew these people. A slight smirk slowly creeped it’s way into a big grin when I realized I did indeed know them! Andre and I had met them over a year ago in Nicaragua at a hostel! What are the odds that on this date, at this campground, our paths would cross again. We couldn’t believe it and spent the rest of the evening catching up. They had already made it to the bottom of Argentina, to Ushuaia, and were on their way back North. They still had their cat, whom they adopted along the way. We shared stories of our travels and they gave me some helpful advice about visiting El Chalten and Torres del Paine, the two main Patagonian parks in Argentina and Chile.

The next morning we said our chao’s and promised to keep in touch. They left as we exchanged big smiles and waves. I took advantage of a morning shower, not knowing when the next one would be. Then… Savannah wouldn’t start. The engine wouldn’t turn over or even try, I just got the warning messages. Stumped, I sat in the parkinglot of the campground assuming at this point I would need to pay for another night since the receptionist had already reminded me that it was checkout time. I decided to give it one more go, she started, and I rolled with it. On the way to get gas, she died again… but then started. I got gas and, solely for the sake of venting, explained my situation and frustration I was having with Savannah to the guy pumping my gas. After he filled her up I shrugged and said (in Spanish), “Well let’s see if it starts?” and she did, so we exchanged laughs and I rolled away. She was fine on the pavement – we were going about 70 mph and temperature gages and everything was fine. A ways out of this town though, HW 40 turns to washboard road again. We rambled through about half of it, maybe 20 miles, when the issues returned. Same lights, same messages, same power failure. But here I was in the middle of nowhere… without reception, and a car only passing maybe every 20 minutes (below a selfie of frustration that I snapped to my mom and sister during the breakdown, delivered about 5 hours later once I had reception). She decided to die among the carcasses of guanacao who couldn’t jump the barbed wire fence along the side of the road. The wind was so strong that when I’d open the hood, repeatedly over the next couple of hours to try to figure out the problem, I’d have to support it with my arm so it didn’t slam on my head. One couple stopped to help, but after we checked the oil and coolant, they didn’t know what else to check either and I told them not to worry and to continue their trip and that I’d figure it out. I tried all of my tricks and Savannah was still dead. I pretty much gave up on the thought I’d be able to drive her out at this point and planned to ask the next person who would stop to ask the next town for a tow truck to haul me out. Trucks and cars flew by kicking up stones at Sav… it was a definite low point. Eventually though, a young Argentinian couple stopped. One of them came to help me, and for a while he tried the same things I already had. I told him he didn’t need to spend too much time if he needed to get somewhere, but he replied with a shrug and a smile and said that they were just coming back from their vacation and that he had plenty of time to help me figure it out. He thought to disconnect the battery, then reconnect it, since it could be a fail safe issue where, if for some reason an electrical issue tripped an error that caused the van to stay in limp mode, reconnecting the battery could erase the memory of this fault. He gave Sav her lobotomy and miraculously she started, as if she hadn’t had any problems at all! He gave me a small wrench that he used to disconnect the terminal, so that if it happened again I could do another reset. I continue to be blown away by the kindness of the people I meet during my trip.

Savannah had another seizure about half an hour later on the same road, but she could get her shit together this time. I was still riding the high of the help that I had received when I saw a couple hitchhiking on the side of the road headed to El Chalten. I wanted to pay the kindness forward by giving them a ride and pulled over. Though I only have one other seat in Savannah, we figured it would be fine if one of them sat on my bed as a seat for the hour ride into Chalten. They were a young couple, from Poland, exploring South America. We chatted about travels and plans and how beautiful Patagonia is. It was wonderful to share these thoughts and ideas with other adventurous souls.

After dropping them off in town, I parked at the “free camping” across from the visitor’s center. There were about 50 vans parked in this lot by nightfall. I couldn’t help but notice how every other van was occupied by a couple or by two friends. I suddenly felt embarrassed to be traveling alone. This, coupled with feeling a bit shook by Savannah’s mysterious issue, left me in bed the next day while rain and wind pelted her. Instead of fighting the emotions, I tried to embrace them. This would just be a day of self care. I made a big pot of soup and nested in Savannah through the storm, both literally and figuratively.

The day after called for good weather, so I planned to hike up to see Fitz Roy and have a chance of seeing the full formation. I left around 9 AM and hit the human traffic jam just walking the streets of El Chalten to the trailhead. I met another, slightly frustrated, solo hiker from Italy and we shared our annoyance at how many people there were and teamed up to endure them. We skipped and dodged around people trying to keep our natural pace and not get caught up in the congo line. He had already done the trail before but during some bad weather and never got to see Fitz Roy. We gained ground when we could, but when it came to the last big ascent the going was slow, as it was basically a staircase over the last couple of kilometers to the top.

Once at the top, the wind was insane! We could lean dramatically into the wind, towards the ground, and it would keep us upright. We poked around for a bit and found a boulder to hide behind for some lunch. I shared some of my leftover quesadilla since it would go bad soon anyway (cheese and spinach) as we took in the views. Fitz Roy was larger than life, it’s incredible that there are routes to the summit. I hope someday that I am strong enough to climb those spires. Now, they were covered in a fresh layer of snow and looked icy cold, especially with the wind whipping around them. We soon finished lunch and headed back down. On our way back we saw a sign that could potentially be a cool loop to see another iconic peak, Cerro Torre. A storm in the valley was moving in and this would add quite a few more kilometers/hours to our hike. When he asked if I thought we should do, I said let’s go for it. We were prepared for rain and wind and this didn’t actually add too much extra distance, and we’d evade the crowds coming up/down if we did this loop.

We cut across the valley between Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre on a cruiser trail. We both hiked fast, which was ideal. Soon, we met the main trail heading to the lagoon with a view of Cerro Torre. Weather was still ominous, so we knew we probably wouldn’t have a good view but decided to go for it anyway. Four quick kilometers later we were there with howling winds, crashing waves on the icebergs, and absolutely no view of Cerro Torre. We laughed as the wind blasted and tossed us around. I’ve never experienced that type of wind before, it was so powerful. We waited for a bit hoping for an opening but then finally began to head back to town. Once in town we exchanged high fives and a hug for a wonderful long day out, we had been hiking for about 10 hours! We ended up hiking about 40 kilometers, about 25 miles.

The next morning I headed South, feeling the time crunch for making it South to Punta Arenas, where I can store my van, and then fly North to Peru. I stopped in Calafate and had to convince the man running the campground that, despite the fact that the campground was full, I could tuck into the corner and not be a problem at all… eventually he agreed. There was a festival in town that week which meant every backpacker and overlander in Argentina was trying to camp here. I just needed a place to park and a shower, other than that, I’d be self sufficient in Sav. I took myself out to dinner, mostly for access to wifi since my reception was bad. I caught up on work stuff while eating a pizza and enjoying a surprisingly very good IPA (Argentina and Chile are more known for their wine than beer). I realized that with my work schedule, I would either be able to visit the famous glacier in Calafate via a boat tour or I could hike in Torres del Paine. I decided on the latter and the next morning headed South to cross the border back into Chile.

The border crossing went incredibly smooth again, and with no van breakdowns along the way which was a relief. I spent one night near the border parked in the ghost town of Cerro Castillo (confusing because I hiked in another place called Cerro Castillo in Chile a week before), then onwards to Torres del Paine. I made a new friend who would be interested in joining me for a night hike to get to the towers by sunrise. I could do it myself, and happily. But if the opportunity comes up where we can share the joy of seeing a beautiful place with someone else, why not? For people who have such a transient lifestyle and move on from a place so quickly, it’s cool to cross paths with someone else who is like-minded and to share an experience.

We started hiking at 3 AM. We had a similar hiking pace (fast) and passed others on our race against the sun. I forgot how much I love hiking at night, it had been a while. It’s brisk and a bit chilly, so it’s easy to keep a good pace. There’s the mystery of what’s around you, and you’ll only realize what you had walked through the night before on your way down. Also, it’s quiet, not many people are out there at this hour.

We reached the mirador just before sunrise. We crushed the supposed “4 hour trail time” to the mirador in just 2 hours. I pulled out my sleeping bag to throw over us while we waited in the icy air for the sun to start to warm it. There were still quite a few people up there, but despite the occasional photo shoots, it was tolerable to share the space with them. The views were stunning. I learned from my friend that the spires began forming 89 million years ago, and only finished forming 12.5 million years ago. Basically, magma pushed up through the sedimentary rock and formed the granite spires. The sedimentary rock is to the right in the photo below of the spires. Absolutely incredible! We trotted our way back down, weaving around the large groups coming up. I couldn’t believe how many people were on the trail and I was so happy that we decided to do the hike overnight. Definitely worth the sleepless night!

I’m now in Puerto Natales, Chile, chilling at a very cool hostel. I have a plan that I’m ready to execute to travel to Peru for work. I found a place to park Savannah in Punta Arenas, about 3 hours South of where I am now. From there I’ll leave Sav and fly to Santiago to pick up some heparin tubes for blood collection that we weren’t able to source in Peru. I’ll stay at my friend’s hostel and catch up with him (where I parked my van for the months I was working in Santiago), then fly to Lima on the Feb 26th. I’ll work there for about a month, then return to Punta Arenas and finish the journey to Navarino Island to do my passion project. Everything is falling into place, todo bien.

Roadtrip song here – Anthropocene by Kr3ture

Map of camp spots, here!

2 thoughts on “Lapping the Lake and Gunning it South

  1. I am running out of words to describe how I view your blogs …. amazing, awesome, beautiful, gorgeous pictures, happy, a little sad ….. all in one blog. You will never cease to amaze me, Kelly. I could spend a few weeks exploring those caves … wow! And those spires are unbelievable! Savannah can be a little brat at times, huh? lol Keep on keeping on, Kelly. Be safe. Love you, Aunt Pap
    If you received two messages similar to this one, it is because I guess I really have NOT solved my computer problem. Damn

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Las cuevas de marmol son espectaculares y me alegra que hayas podido ir y estar a tus anchas sin la multitud de turistas.
    Las rabietas de Sav entiendo que son frustrantes pero pero son graciosas que se solucionen con esos trucos jaajajaj, te recomiendo desconectar las terminales electricas y limpiarlas con limpia contactos ya que la falla que te muestra es por los sensores que pueden estar buenos pero ya las terminales electricas deben estar sucias o sulfatadas o las 2da alternativa el sensor está proximo a averiarse.

    La soledad solo te hace mas fuerte mentalmente y a no depender de otra persona para ser feliz, sigue buscando tu felicidad y disfrutando cada aventura.

    Y disfruta el camino de la vida con sus tramos faciles y tranquilos asi como los recorridos de off road duros que solo te van a hacer mas fuerte y esos tramos duros nunca se olvidan porque forjan un caracter y una personalidad.

    Liked by 1 person

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