Chile to Argentina
Chile to Argentina
The six-hour struggle in high seas from the island of Chiloe across to the southern mainland of Chile had been tedious. We arrived in darkness at a small cove. The ferryboat lowered its ramp like a huge sigh and a dozen cars, followed by a lone Japanese girl on her small motorcycle drove off into the night. We followed a small group of foot-passengers into the driving rain and joined a huddle of people under a solitary quayside lamp.
A bedraggled teenage girl approached and touted us with an offer of accommodation; we glanced briefly at her wet plastic book of photographs and hurriedly accepted. A waiting van took us to her hospedaja above a family laundry shop,
Welcome to Chaiten - Gateway to the Ruta Austral, southern Chile. Alten
Our objective was to travel to the far end of Ruta Austral, to the small pioneer hamlet of Villa O’Higgins, where the track stops abruptly; huge mountains topped with ice fields, and glaciers that plunge into the sea block further travel. A passing traveller had told us of a rumour that horses could be hired from O’Higgins to cross over the Andes into Argentina. If that was so then it was too good a challenge to ignore.
South to O'Higgins
We had almost 1,000 kilometres of narrow unpaved track ahead of us, along a narrow strip sandwiched between the mountains of the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, The route had been recently built by the Chilean Corp of Army Engineers; an amazing feat comparable to that of the Alaskan Highway.
It took eleven days, using various private minibuses and trucks that ran unscheduled services between the few towns and villages to reach Villa O’higgins. The journey, over a packed gravel track, went through some of the most spectacular and varied scenery in the world; past stunning mountains, hanging glaciers, lakes, and rain forests and with frequent sightings of soaring Condors. Overnight accommodation was basic and often difficult to find.
The further south we travelled, the colder and wetter it became. We befriended a woman and her two children on the final mini-bus into the grey, soggy hamlet of Villa O’Higgins. She confirmed that horses were occasionally available from the Chilean border post on the far side of Lake San Martin. She offered to accommodate us for a few days whilst we made enquiries.
O’Higgins seemed an improbable Irish name to find in Chile, Yet Airports, streets, Universities even naval ships are named after him. Bernardo O’Higgins was the illegitimate son of an Irishman, who, with José de San Martín, freed Chile from Spanish rule in the Chilean War of Independence. His name has since been revered as a famous son of Chile.
Within two days of arrival, we had made tentative arrangements to trek across the Andes into Argentina. We were unsure what to expect, except that a truck would call to collect us at 5am. It duly arrived and also stopped at other lodgings around the village to collect an elderly French couple, a middle aged Chilean couple and an Argentinian girl.
We bounced along the lakeshore to a slipway where we boarded a small government supply-boat. It was a freezing three-hour crossing of Lake San Martin to the landing at Estancia Candelario Mansilla.
with our rucksacks hoisted on our backs, we trekked a mile up a mountain path to a stone shelter where three border guards checked our passports, two of whom were delegated to take us by tractor higher into the mountains and across a marsh to an unmanned military landing-strip.
International Horse Trek
It was there that we found an ancient Chilean campesino waiting with eight very suspect looking horses and two pack ponies, he spoke a barely intelligible dialect of Spanish and avoided conversation by busying himself sorting out a ragbag of questionable looking bridles and saddles.
Although none of our newly acquired international companions were skilled in horsemanship, we at least had a common language of English with which to communicate.
Our journey across the Andean continental divide was cold and wet, but unimaginably stimulating; we rode through forests and glacial streams on stout horses using a motley collection of saddles ranging from English and Spanish to just a sheep skin.
Unfortunately, 1 km from the western end of Lake Deseado, the tatty rope bit on Jean’s horse had been chewed through and gave way when she got into difficulty on a slippery 60 degree slope; she ended up going over its head with one foot trapped in the stirrup. She was fortunate to have gotten away with just a sprained ankle and horrendous bruising – she had to wade through the final two glacial streams, which had the side effect of numbing the pain of her sprained ankle.
Stranded without a Paddle
We had aimed to arrive at the lakeside in time to catch a small launch, which called once a week with supplies for the 6-man military Border Control-Post. However, the boat was not there, it had broken down and awaiting spare-parts.
The army’s own boat was also out of action. We were stuck! No food, no tents, no Argentinean money, but lots of camaraderie. We pooled what little food we had, camped in a mountain refuge and made a damp smoky fire to keep warm from the overnight snowstorm.
Meanwhile, the army captain had radioed an SOS to the local provincial government for help, an inflatable rescue dingy was located at a mountaineer’s village at the base of Mount Fitzroy and hauled overnight to the other end of Lake Deseado.
Its arrival the following afternoon was a welcome sight. However the drama was not yet over; two-thirds into our 15km journey across the choppy glacial lake, one of the outboard engines failed; silent prayers were said for the remaining engine until we finally limped cold and wet into a deserted jetty.
Happiness is a warm Bunkhouse
Jean and I went walk-a-bout to keep warm and persuaded a returning wilderness hiker to give us a lift along the 40 kms of flooded track to the recently established township of El Chalten.
We arrived in darkness and promptly found a timber bunkhouse, complete with hot showers and a nearby café selling pizzas. A welcome retreat to catch our breath for a couple of days before planning the 2,753 km journey north across Patagonia to Buenos Aries.
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