We got to La Junta unscathed and found a hostel for the night. Fleur walked in and got right down to business, asking if she could put some beers in the fridge. The woman said yes, and soon after we saw the sign listing the rules for the hostel. Number two was no drinking. Oops. Yes, we drank the beer anyway, I mean it’s not like she asked us to throw it out or anything! The hostel itself was not bad: the bed was comfortable, the hot shower was cold, my door was missing the top foot or so, (maybe it was a window?) and my window wouldn’t close all the way and was held together with string. Pretty fancy! A bonus was this cutie who entertained us with big smiles and played guitar.
Again we had a visit to the tourist information office. Again we were informed that we had been misinformed, there was no possibility of buying a ticket on a bus and there was no bus station. We were told what time the buses arrived, and that we had to just wait for one and hope for a spot. The buses to Futaleufu were many days out, but one to Chaitan was arriving the next afternoon. Right after it stopped in Puyuhuapi. Where there was a mob of people waiting and hoping for a spot.
That night our pod feasted on bread and cheese, and Fleur coined the phrase that best describes traveling on the Carretera Austral: carbs, patience and misinformation. Yup, that’s pretty much what we had experienced. There is a lack of fresh produce in these parts but plenty of bread rolls. We had all spent days now doing nothing but waiting and hoping for transportation, and we had yet to be given any kind of valid information on navigating this “highway”.
We “dined” with a German couple, he was very friendly but we had to nickname the girl ‘Ice Queen’. There were to be no smiles or warmth from this one. She’s the type you’d expect to find at the front counter of the hotel in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, with blood stains on her hands. They too were going to try for the bus the next day to Chaitan, and had an actual schedule they had to adhere to. Generously our pod told them we’d let them have first dibs on bus seats since we could get stuck in La Junta without much problem.
Can you believe it?! We talked about hiking and exploring the area, and got information at the tourist office, but all the good hiking and hot springs were car drives, not walks, away. I know you’ll be as surprised as we were that there were neither buses nor other forms of public transportation to these areas.
The word got around to those of us waiting that the bus coming that day would arrive in La Junta with only one seat available, assuming no one took it in Puyuhuapi. We were a positive pod though, and we decided that more people could get off, and that we were going to make it. We just knew we would. So we waited, and waited, and waited. The bus was late, and then later. Finally a guy waiting got a call from his girlfriend who was in Puyuhuapi trying to reserve that one seat for him. Apparently there were twelve people waiting for that bus and when it arrived there was a scuffle, and the driver and someone trying to be a passenger got into a fight. The police were called in. The bus was not going anywhere for a while.
Not to worry, we had a great back up plan. We had the cell number of the driver that got us to La Junta. ‘We’ now refers to the group waiting for the bus, which does not include the German Ice Queen and her partner who decided to ditch the bus waiting and try hitchhiking with around 15 other people. We were: The Pod (myself, James and Fleur), the guy with the cell phone, a Chilean woman and a French hippy who seemed to be only slightly conscious.
Frenchie, as I will be referring to her from now on, likes to hum. She does not do so in tune, it is more of a lowing sound that you’d expect from certain barnyard animals. When she speaks, it is a constant mix of French, English and Spanish, in the same incongruous sentence. She was cutting off large leaves of a local plant that she stripped into fibers and wove into earrings, which were actually pretty cool even though she was beyond strange.
The driver agreed to take us to Chaitan. The only hang-up? He was not in possession of the passenger van he had yesterday. He’s got a pick up instead. A woman shows up an hour later in the pickup and we pile on in. Just then Ice Queen comes walking down the street and begins to hover at the back of the truck. With nary a smile she stands there for at least five minutes trying to negotiate room for her and her partner. There absolutely is none. We have the driver and Fleur in front, me, the Chilean woman and Frenchie in the back of the cab, and the boys in the bed with all the backpacks. It was a small bed pickup and the guys were squished up against the glass of the cab. She didn’t seem to see that, and we felt bad for not taking her. The reality is that they would have been part of the truck if they hadn’t left the bus stop. The lesson here: Don’t leave the Pod. James finally did what the Pod needed, and told her he was sorry, but it just wasn’t going to happen. She looked even sourer, if possible, and left.
At the town limit the woman stopped and our driver of the night before came out of nowhere and got behind the wheel. The woman slid over and straddled the small space between driver and passenger where there was not really a seat! I guess she wanted to go along for the ride.
The road is not improved as you head further North. It is pocked with giant potholes, curvy and unpaved. Our driver seemed in a bit of a hurry and at one point rounding a corner we came very close to a front end collision. He swerved to the side of the road, the smell of burning breaks rising in the air as he thankfully came to a stop, and not over the side of the cliff. We checked the back to see that the boys had hung on and continued. Somehow Frenchie slept next to me, leaning over onto me at times. It was better than the humming, I started to want some of the drugs she seemed to be on.
About halfway through we changed seats, and I ended up in the back in the bed with Frenchie. When we drove we were covered in fine white road dust. When we paused or stopped for roadwork, Frenchie hummed. I took deep breaths through the scarf covering my face and tried not to listen to her. We hung on as the truck wound around corners and bumped us against the sides, rocks flying up off the road seemed as likely a demise as the cliffs off to the side.
The rivers filled with ash and flooded the town. The townspeople fled, and according to a local there was only one death. It was an elderly person who died on the boat on the way out. A handful of people returned right after the eruption, and they proceeded to live without electricity or water. Those services were just restored this year. The town is finally rebuilding, but there is even less infrastructure here than the rest of Northern Patagonia. Ash piles are mounded on side streets, and a fine dust still covers much of the ground.
Fleur and I left James to guard the bags while we looked for a place to sleep. We knocked on the door of every hostel (there were not many), and each one was full. I had a tent, so at this point I was only desperate for the rest of my pod. After almost an hour and no success, I started asking people if Fleur and James could possibly just sleep inside, on the floor of the living room or something. It was getting late and doors kept closing on our faces.
Finally atop one hill a man answered who also didn’t have room. He was not keen on the idea of them camping in the living room, or kitchen for that matter! He told us the towns few hostels were full due to a convention. This is what a full Chaitan looks like:
I pleaded with him that they were going to be left outside without shelter for the night if we didn’t find something. Finally he took pity on us and called around. He reached a friend, and gave us directions to two places to try, saying if the first (a hotel) didn’t work, that the second would find a way to shelter them. We gratefully scurried down the hill and found the hotel. There was one room left, and it was not exactly affordable. Fleur went to let James know, and it turned out that one of the members of the truck pod had found a family with beds, room enough for us and affordable. This place was like heaven, clean and comfortable with a family that exuded warmth. They had just returned after four years and were rebuilding their lives. They had not previously run a hostel and the place felt much as it was, visiting a local family and sharing meals.
I will try not to drag this out much longer in case the repetition is boring you. Here is the summary of Chaitan: There was a bus available to get to National Park, but no way to return without hitchhiking. We tried to book a tour for a great price, but it was full. We waited 2 hours to see if they could get another van for the tour. They could not. There was a bus that day to Futaleufu, and then none until the day after, so we waited for the bus. Once the bus was two hours late we found out it had broken down. They were trying to repair it. I went with another guy to see what was going on, we looked at what they were doing to “fix” the suspension, and decided that if they called that fixed we were not getting on the bus.
Yup, that’s the majority of the population of Chaitan, waiting for the bus.
By the way, the bus tickets were SUPER cheap. A guy there told us that the government was subsidizing the buses out of Chaitan to encourage tourism. We tried to contain ourselves from rolling on the floor laughing.
We had a large group and found a local with a van to take us. He said it would be an hour. Two hours later he drove by to tell us he wasn’t going to take us after all. We found another driver, and paid too much money, but had a ride to Futaleufu which is close to the Argentine border (walking distance if necessary) and they sell bus tickets there. For sure.
Alright folks, that’s it for my Carretera Austral story. I would love to go back and explore this beautiful place with a truck. Through all the trials and days of waiting on curb sides, I don’t regret it a bit. It was beautiful, and memorable, and I can’t really ask for more than that. Well, maybe I could. But I will refrain. If you try it my way, just remember to find a pod (we think 3-5 humans is the right size) and repeat the mantra: Carbs, patience and misinformation.
As a side note, most hitchhikers we met eventually did make it, sometimes by bus though. I probably would have been fine to do the same, but many locals agreed that a woman solo was not a good idea so I decided to listen to them. Besides, it would give my mom a heart attack and I love her and want her around for a while longer!
Stay tuned for the next episode where you will hear all about the protests that have closed Northern Patagonia, just three days behind me. You won’t find it on the news, even in Chile, but it’s very real.
By the way, I’d love to hear what you think! Please leave comments at will. Have you ever been somewhere that felt like the Twilight Zone? Have you ever experienced the Groundhog Day effect? Tell me about it, please! (It makes me feel like I’m really sharing this experience with someone.) Oh, and if you haven’t subscribed yet, I would be oh so very happy if you did! It makes me feel loved. And I will promise to never ever spam you, you will only receive an email telling you when I have a new post. Just click on the ‘follow me’ link at the top right of the page. That’s it. I swear. Thanks for reading!