El Bolson

El Bolson is known as a hippy town. Although it’s not all that apparent at first, it becomes very obvious once you walk through the market. It’s a mix of locals selling self-grown organic vegetables, food stands and exile-hippies selling their art, but mostly hippies. I first tried to visit it around 11am, but found out that they hadn’t even started setting up yet. When I came back five hours later, they were already wrapping up everything again. I’m guessing business must be very good or non-existant, but I suspect the latter. I did get to see it the next day.. around 2pm seems to be a good time to catch people between too hungover to get up and getting ready for the next party.


But neither the hippies nor the market are El bolson’s main attraction. The surrounding mountain ranges are. El bolson lies in a small valley, with two mountain ranges shooting up around it. The first day, to get acclimated, I rented a bike to visit some waterfalls nearby. My idea of doing some of the carretera austral by bike died then and there. I did neither enjoy riding or rather sliding through the loose gravel nor swallowing the dirt of all the cars shooting by.. I almost turned around out of frustration. But in the end, there wasn’t too much uphill, the gravel got less after a while and the cars vanished almost entirely once I turned of the main road. The ride ended up being a nice little excursion. The first waterfall, cascada escondida, is a large water fall of 30 meters, that no matter how hard you try you’ll never see entirely.. It’s really escondida.

The entrance to the second waterfall, cascada mallin ahogado, illustrates the Argentinian’s desire for signs and prohibitions quite nicely. The amount of signs telling me about all the things that were forebidden was quite mesmerizing.  The waterfall itself is actually part of a hydro-electric plant.. Which managed to maintain the natural beauty of the waterfall, while using it for electricity. The waterfalls were really pretty and the sun was shining relentlessly. But I’m finally adapting to the local climate,  so that I could enjoy the nice heat rather than spend the time worrying about getting sunburned. I returned in the early afternoon, allowing for an extensive visit to the the tourist office and the mountain office, where I was recommended to do all the walks available. I was also given a rather basic map which showed, as usual, distances in time rather than kilometers. Luckily one of my earlier travelmates had introduced me to the awesomeness of maps.me, which allowed me to check the distance and, in walking mode, even the elevation covered in each hike. The latter, unfortunately, turned out to be not entirely accurate, but as a rough estimate it gives a good idea. The estimated times of the app are, however, just about as ridiculess as the ones given on the map. Just to the other extreme. While the map says I’d need 4 hours for 5 km to climb from 1200m to 2200m, the app says it should take less than an hour. Well I’m not ashamed to admit it took us longer than that.

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Los alerces

While in Esquel we did one major excursion to the national parc Los Alerces. The tourist information in Esquel had told us that this is the best outing possible in Esquel, so of course we had to go. They showed us on a map, that there was a 3km-hike at the top and a 3km hike just a bit further and a 2km hike a little further down and then a 6km hike a bit further away still.. We looked at each other and asked if it would be possible to do them all in a day? The lady in the tourist information looked at us in disbelief, then acknowledged that maybe, if we’d stop nowhere and walked very fast we could possibly make it, but really it wasn’t a good idea at all. We took that advice to heart but decided to completely disregard it. 20km of completely flat or downhill walking in nine hours didn’t seem all that unfeasible to us and it turned out to be the right decision. Not only did we make it, but we also had time to stop for lunch and several viewpoints and still come up with an hour to spare at the end for an craft beer.


Los alerces is completely different from the landscape around Esquel, which is surprising that they’re so close. It’s a forested area, with large trees, crossed by streams and many lakes. Our first stop was the Mirador for the lago verde. The green lake, named such because it has turquoise water. The three kilometer loop was qualified as easy – intermediate because it contained stairs.. Even though we looked for them, we never did find the stairs. I’m guessing we found the easy-easy variant. From there we walked down to Lago Menendez to have a look at the glaciar. After crossing a slightly wonky suspended bridge, we were greeted by large signs warning us about the presence of pumas and giving us all the tips about how to scare away a puma. This prompted us to do the exact opposite of everything indicated to make the Puma disappear. My travelmate tried to sound like a puma to lure the other puma out of the hiding spot, while I tried to sound like a very yummy sheep or something.. It didn’t work. No matter how big the signs were, we didn’t see any traces of pumas anywhere. Rather disappointing. The three kilometer loop, again classified as easy – intermediate was completely flat and I’m not sure how it could’ve been made any easier. Needless to say that we did not need the indicated one and a half hours to make it there and back.

From there we walked along the second to last trail to the last one. I had read that this hike needed to be registered at the local ranger station. What I did not know is that the ranger station was all the way down the hill, while we wanted to go all the way up the hill. Everyone else seems to know this though because the last person registering themselves to go up to the laguna escondida had been there some ten days earlier.. The only good thing that came of this is that since we needed to go back down to register ourselves as “not lost”, we coincidentally ended up right next to the shop selling the beer making for a nice end to our day.


If you do just one of the loops, I would definitely recommend the laguna escondida, even if it’s the most challenging one as you have to walk up a hill to reach it. The laguna is not the part that makes it so spectacular, even though it is nice. It’s the view over the lago menendez, the lago verde and the green river winding itself around the lago menendez which you get once you reach the top of the hill.

Esquel

From Futaleufu we wanted to go to Esquel, that means crossing the border into Argentina. We were sitting at the bus station, waiting for our bus when a guy walked by yelling “Hasta el limite” (To the limit). We thought nothing of it.. until he came back, looked straight at us and told us to get going. Turns out the village at the border of Argentina is conveniently called “El limite”.img_20170327_192221.jpg

The bus drops you of at the border, then you cross border control and hope that the corresponding bus on the other side will turn up to bring you to Esquel.. Walking those 40km seemed somewhat out of question. Everything went according to plan and we soon set off to Esquel.
Esquel is small, much smaller than anticipated. We arrived in the late afternoon, under a thick layer of clouds. Nothing seemed spectacular at that time and it would stay that way for the next few days. We did all the little excursions around town, the Cruz, the laguna.. They’re nice but not exceptional.

 

It wasn’t until the clouds went away and we could see the moon-like landscape surrounding us that we understood the appeal of the area. Completely barren landscapes in grey,green and red showed up totally unexpected.. as the mountains turned out to be way higher than I thought. I ended up walking up to the Cruz again, just to know what it looks like in the sun. The first layer of snow on the mountain tops, just added its extra magic.. Even though most of it was gone by the time I reached the viewpoint. There’s something about clear skies, bright sun and snow that doesn’t add up all that well in late summer.


After that we continued exactly were we had left off in Futaleufu: Lounging on the very nice couches of the Pinto Hostel and doing pretty much nothing. Finally it was time for the last good-bye steak and our group, consisting of only two, split its way. I was going to the US and the other half was moving on to El Bolson, where I would follow shortly after.

 

(The graffiti in the featured image says “Peace starts with a smile” and made me smile every time I passed it)

Futaleufu

We reached Futaleufu in a slightly sleep deprived state. But the bright sun and the lovely city soon reanimated us. City is saying much, it’s more of a village, with a giant town square with a lawn to lounge on and banks to sit on. It has a very relaxed vibe. We also got incredibly lucky with our accommodation, the hospedaje Cañete. Run by the stereotypical (grand)mum. She’d make sure we each got our own room and that the included breakfast featured eggs every morning. On the third morning, our group split and we lost our first travelmate to the bus to Pucon. Even though the bus left at 6am, our hostess insisted on getting up and making breakfast for him. She then used the extra time in the morning to bake a cake (for us?) for breakfast. The next day we were treated to fresh fruit from her garden and finally to fresh home-made rose hip jam. It was just great and oh so difficult to leave.


While we were in Futaleufu we got lazier and lazier. While we did go rafting the first day, we only managed a small hike the next day, a walk around the lake the next and finally we just barely made it to the river for a swim. Though I’m sure that swim burned almost as many calories as a hike since the water was absolutely freezing.

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The beach at the river was absolutely beautiful, small pebbles, a bit of sand and water that covered all shades of turquoise. What wasn’t so nice was a dog that seemed to be the local resident of the beach. Whenever I went into the water he’d swim after me, then try to climb on top of me, while I was swimming. Disregarding the non-negligible amount of bruises and scratches this brought me, it’s also somewhat scary to suddenly have 40lbs of wet dog on top of you while swimming. No matter how violently I pushed him back, he’d just look hurt, swim a round and then come back again. Ultimately he won and we left. Luckily we didn’t see him again after the first day.

(some nice pics to distract from the bloody history)

On that day we also learned about the bloody past of Futaleufu. It was originally founded by a family 150 years ago, that arrived first into the area of Futaleufu und basically declared the entire Chilean side of the valley as “their property”. This didn’t sit well with other people who’d wanted to live in the same valley. After a number of discordances between neighbors a solution was found. The neighbors set out and killed the entire family, so that nobody could put claim to the territory anymore. As the Chilean barkeeper put it “This crime goes unpunished until today because at the time there were no Chilean authorities in the area and they had to rely on Argentinian police”.
With the decrease in day activites, the night activities increased. Seeing as to how Futaleufu is such a huge city it has exactly one bar, which we visited of course. I’m not sure who brought up the idea of Tequila shots, but it certainly wasn’t me. After the first, I was surprised how nice Tequila can taste. After the second, I was worried about where this was heading.. After the third I realised he was giving us double-shots not single shots and I stopped worrying, I was way beyond worrying. This was the time we decided it was time for dancing. We’d seen the Scorpion’s Pub earlier. One of us had heard from one of the rafting guides that this is a place where one can go dancing. When we asked at the bar for confirmation, the guy laughed and said “No that’s the local brothel”… So we had another shot of Tequila instead. We stilled wanted to do dance, so we asked one of the locals where to go. He recommended the Scorpion’s and when we pointed out it was supposedly a brothel, he laughed and said “No, no.. They even have a pool table. You should totally go there”.

(some more nice pictures that have nothing to do with the text)

So we went… and what do you know.. It was a huge dancing hall with four barely dressed ladies sitting in a corner waiting for their opportunity.. Not quite a brothel, not quite not a brothel either. Not wanting to be rude we ordered a beer and sat at a table.. Nobody but us, the scantily dressed ladies and a giant disco ball revolving above us. Definitely one of the most cringe worthy experiences so far.

When we went back to the first guy recommending the scorpion’s to us the next day, he doubled over laughing and clarified “I only told you it exists, I never recommended you go there!”. Well now we know.

On the road

After returning to Puyuhuapi from the Bosque Encantado our journey to Futaleufu began. We’d already been told that we could catch the bus to La Junta that night, but that the bus continuing on wouldn’t leave until Friday, two days later. Nevertheless we had no desire to stay longer with the lady that took all our cash, so we sat on the road and waited for the bus.
The idea of hitchhiking crossed our minds..

Surely people would be traveling further than the bus could bring us… After trying for two hours the bus arrived and exactly at that moment a small truck pulled up too and dropped off 10 people that he’d been giving a lift. We inquired and he confirmed, that yes he’d be going to Chaiten and we could get dropped off in Santa Lucia, from where buses actually go daily. We couldn’t believe our luck and climbed on. After an entertaining drive to Santa Lucia, the driver inquired if we even had anywhere to stay and if it wouldn’t be nicer to continue on to Chaiten where he had organised food and beds for about 10 people and from where buses to Futaleufu also leave daily. My guide book said Chaiten has another thing we desperately needed: An ATM. So we agreed to ride on..

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Just half an hour later, exactly in the middle between Santa Lucia and Chaiten, we suddenly hear a flopping noise… Didn’t take long to confirm our worries: A flat tire and while our driver had a spare tire, he had no gear to change the tire. It’s 11pm and we can’t believe our luck: There’s a car coming. Well we were right to not believe because that car didn’t stop..

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After a few more cars, finally someone took pity and stopped. But he didn’t have the necessary gear either. So he offered a lift to the driver to get the necessary utensils in town… Leaving us behind in the middle of nowhere.. Around 2am we gave up the hope that our driver would come back. Around 2:30 we were woken by Police inquiring what we were doing there.IMG_20170323_015835

Turns out they actually came equipped and even helped us change the tire. Excitement all around until the car was slowly lowered and we watched the air escape out of the spare tire in disbelief. A second flat tire.
The police packed up, told us they commiserated with our shitty luck and left. We stared on in disbelief for a while. No offer to give us a lift or get someone to come get us.

At 3:30 our driver returned, ready to change the wheel… only there was no spare tire anymore.. Only two flat tires.. So everyone went back to sleep, as well as that was possible between the intensive snoring and the 10.000 mosquitos eating us alive.
The next morning we found an alternate driver willing to lift us to Chaiten from where we managed to catch the bus to Futaleufu as planned. The bus drive was normal, meaning absolutely stunning views, but no delays. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Bosque encantado

Reaching the Bosque Encantado from Puyuhuapi is harder. In particular in the week we were there. In theory the bus goes three times a week from Puyuhuapi to Puerto Cisnes, with the option to dropping you off at the Bosque and picking you back up on its way back. Unfortunately it turned out that bus was defective and the smaller replacement bus already sold out. In addition that week the road to Puerto Cisnes closed between 1pm and 5pm for road work, so that going back and forth wasn’t all that easy.

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Luckily everyone knows someone and the park workers who drove us the day before knew something that would drive us to the Bosque for a not so small fee. We were happy just being able to go there at all and agreed. The scenery on the drive was amazing, it had already been amazing when we first past it on our way to Puyuhuapi but most of it was covered in closed. Today there wasn’t a single cloud. The entrance is a tiny door already half hidden in the woods. Behind it unveils a landscape saturated in green with moss everywhere (except the path). Hanging from the trees, growing on the trees, on the ground, on the hand rails, on the stones. A small river meanders through the wood, broken trees lying over it. Different types of moss and (as I had learned the day before in the information center) lichen alternate. The entire scenery seems completely untouched and abandoned. After the first part, that is the “actual” enchanted forest the path starts to climb up towards, you guessed it, a laguna, a glacier and a mountain peak. These have become our inevitable companions on this road. Glaciers everywhere. Shortly before reaching the laguna the forest opened up and allowed a view on a lovely waterfall, probably coming from the same glacier as the laguna.

Ventisquero Colgante

Puyuhuapi offers access to the Queulat national park, whose main attractions are the hanging glacier (Ventisquero Colgante) and the enchanted woods (Bosque Encantado). The first can be reached by a bus service going in the morning around 9am and picking you up in the evening around 5pm. Why those times you may ask? Well as it turns out this is run by two of the three employees running the park entry and boat rental. They bought a bus and now offer the lift for a small charge. Obviously they can’t leave before their work day is over.. although arriving late seems to be an option.

At the entrance of the park every one needs to get off and pay their entrance fee. Upon our return a small surprise awaited us. A Kolibri had made its way into the car and was frantically trying to get back out.

The Ventisquero Colgante is nice, the walk up to the viewpoint is just 3.5km long and leads through luscious green woods. Plenty of fern and moss on all sides. The big-leafed gunnera also grows in every possible and impossible location. The final viewpoint offers a nice view onto the glacier who is, unfortunately, no longer really hanging but more lying on top of the cliff. The waterfall running off of it is quite impressive though.

The information center later told us that this glacier used to reach the fjord, now over 7km away. Since it’s discovery in the 1840s it has been receding and growing in irregular intervals.. So who knows it might be hanging again in the future.

Even though we did take our time to make the way up and down and then did all the other walks offered (ranging from 200m to 800m), we still ended up with quite a bit of time left over.. It’s not really a full day excursion. We did find a great way to pass the time, analyzing the Rorschach pictures the wind and weather had left on one of the sheds. Can you see what we saw?