Eli and I are still on the road and still loving the freedom of our car, although after a long day or two of driving, we are more than ready for some breathing room outdoors. We try to get in a hike day or some sightseeing every few days so we don't feel too confined to our car. Our Easter was a memorable one. We picked up our first hitchhiker, a young kid travelling a few hours to see his family. I was embarrased at the condition of our car...stuff piled everywhere to make room for him...but he didn't seem to mind, as he slept the whole drive...and we could hardly communicate with him since he only spoke Castillano. After we dropped him off, we stopped in a town called Coihaique to refuel, get groceries, and shower. We found free showers at a hostel. A guy staying there offered to let us use his showers as the owner was away. Sweet! Although cold, a shower is ALWAYS appreciated. I have a new love for hot showers and nothing feels better than a hot shower after a week or more of cold showers. For Easter dinner we had to finish off our supply of hot dogs. We keep hot dogs on hand for those times when we can't find a decent grocery store. This time, instead of eating them in a bun, we mixed it up and diced them with eggs and avacado. Like I said, a memorable Easter!
Our friend Anibal from Punta Arenas suggested that we make our way to his favorite thermal hot springs near a little town called Chaiten in Chile. When we were in New Zealand, Eli and I had been wanting to experience some real hot springs but due to our budget constraints, we had not yet splurged on them. This time, we were determinded to follow through. We were very pleased to hear that these springs were only $6 each and they were nestled in a garden like setting opening up to the surrounding valley. It was a bit drizzly out but it made the hot water steam more dramatic.
We spent about 2 hours soaking up the warm water. After our bodies were totally shrivelled up, we headed North to the town of Chaiten. In 2008, Chaiten was hit by a devastating volcano and has since become an ash covered ghost-town. It was quit the site to see. 75% of the ocean town was abandoned with nothing but piles of ash and derelict houses. But then, every so often, there was a remaining perfectly spotless building amongts the debris. There were also still numerous amounts of stray dogs and people living in this town. We saw some older ladies shoveling ash, I wondered how often they do that. I assumed that the people still living there were the ones who could not afford to move. The town was so eeary and it made us thankful that we have not had to experience such devestation in our lives. That same day, we continued up the road a little ways to an area called Santa Barbara, a small black sand beach. We turned off onto a bumpy dirt road, drove by the 2 house neighborhood, and found a black sand beach that we had entirely to ourselves. We drove right up on the sand and parked just before sunset. We had read that this beach often had dolphin sightings at sunset so we were surprised that no one else was there. We also wondered if maybe the dolphins had left for the season. To our delight, as I was getting our stove ready for dinner, I caught a glimpse of a black fin in the water. Eli and I jumped and ran to the shore to find a family of dolphins swimming nearby. There must have been about 10 dolphins! Eli said the scene looked like one of those cheesy Hawaiian paintings with the mountains, sunset and dolphins.
If it had been warm enough, I would have jumped in the water to go swimming with them. They were so beautiful as the sun illuminated their fins. That night we were easily lulled to sleep by the ocean after our relaxing day of hot springs and dolphin watching. This was one of my favorite days in South America so far! Not everyday on our trip has been so rewarding but we have continually been blessed with safety and health. We never go hungry and we always have a place to sleep, eventhough each day we have to figure out where that place will be. We have definitely gone through a sort of transformation on this trip. Our priorities have changed for sure. Our daily regime not only consists of trying to see as much as possible, but we also have to consider how to make our money stretch, what we will eat, if we have enough fuel to cook with, enough gas to drive with, what's the weather today, are we driving on paved or dirt roads, where will we shower, where will we sleep, and will we be able to communicate with the people we run into. I guess with all of those things to consider, when we do have a hiccup in our day, we usually take it in stride. Good thing we've adapted because the day after our perfect day, we got a flat tire. This could have totally messed up our day, but seeing as how blessed we have been, the timing couldn't have been better. Eli was driving and we pulled over to make some sandwiches for lunch. We heard a loud hissing and discovered that it was our tire. Without hesitation, Eli and I got back on the road knowing that the next town was only 10 minutes away. We pulled into this town, our tire was getting pretty low, and right away we found an open mechanic. We made our sandwiches on the hood of the car while the mechanic merrily sang some tiring changing songs. Within 2 hours, we had our tire changed and we were back on our way. Too bad he couldn't fix our original tire and didn't have the right size so now we were driving on our spare and would need to stop in the next town to get a new spare. And he gouged us $60 to change our spare out. Oh well, Eli asked "where's a Discount Tire when you need one?"
We spent the next five days in Bariloche, Argentina. Yes we crossed the border again. I hope my passport doesn't fill up so I can still leave the country! Eli had spent about a week in Bariloche 4 years ago and has always bragged to me about there delicious steaks, home-made ice cream, and his "favorite hike of all time!" I couldn't wait for all of this. First order of business was finding showers. We found some hot water showers at a hostel, it was well worth the $2.50 each! We also paid the hostel owner to watch our car while we planned to do the 3 day hike. Eli warned me that this hike was difficult but I was eager for the challenge. We set out for our 3 days with perfect weather and plenty of food. I packed extra fruit and snacks for this long hike which made my 20 pound pack feel even heavier. Eli offered to take some of my weight but I was stubborn. Day 1 took about 7 hours of hiking up and down through steep rocky ledges and valleys. Halfway into this day, we skated down a "scree field" for about 15 minutes with our hiking shoes and trekking poles. It was really fun but exhausting. I didn't realize how tired my knees were until we started descending down steeper, bigger, loose rocks. I told Eli that I felt like a newborn horse trying to learn to walk since my knees were so wobbly. Sure enough, right after I spoke those words, I tripped, took a couple of tumbles, and landed very akwardly. Luckily a big rock broke my fall as my chin smacked against it. There was some blood and some tears but Eli did a good job of bandaging me up and showering me with sympathy. I managed to muster up the courage to continue down...No way was I going back up! By hour 7 we made it to flat ground which should have been easy sailing with just a few yards to go. But my legs were still weak and shaky as we walked through some mud. I thought I cleared a log sticking out through the mud but my toe tripped me up and I body planted right into the mud and scraped my shin on the log. Eli once again came to my aid as I was crying and laughing at the same time while I asked "are we there yet?" It was quite humerous with the mess I was making.
We finally made it to a campsite, I washed away the mud and my hurt feelings in the cold stream and felt better. Eli then told me that day 2 and 3 were going to be more difficult and longer. He also let me know that there was an easier hike out through a valley if I wanted to leave. I told him I needed to sleep on it. The next morning, I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a car and I got really nervous thinking about taking another fall. I didn't want Eli to have to rescue me or call a helicopter to lift me out so we decided it would be best to walk out. Plus the weather was changing and we didn't want to be hiking in the rain. Ok, so I swallowed my pride and took back my self proclaimed rating of "expert hiker" and we left. It was still 7 hours out of the valley but it was not as difficult. Since we had left our car in town and took a bus and a ski lift to start our hike, Eli told me that we might have to walk a little ways to get to another bus back. He didn't realize that the valley would end at a dirt road that was about 6 miles from a main road. Arggg. That added a little more time on our day and my pack was starting to get heavy and my feet were telling me I had some blisters forming. Funny how 12 days hiking in Nepal I was blister free but 2 days hiking here was causing me so much grief. Half a dozen cars drove by us on that dirt road but nobody stopped for us even though we were sticking our thumbs out. This was my first time hitchhiking and I was not impressed. I told Eli that I had a new respect for hitchhikers and I vowed to pick more up if they weren't scary, homeless, male, or escaped convicts...that probably rules out all hitchhikers in the USA. After about 2 hours on the dirt road, we made it to civilization. We ran to catch a bus heading into the center of town. I was so thankful to have a ride, I barely noticed how smelly, dirty, and blood stained I was. Only while I was standing, holding onto the handrail with my arm over a girl's head, I began to notice the uncomfotable odors. I was embarrased but tried not to think about it and instead I focused on our next priorites. In this order our priorities were ice cream, showers, then a steak dinner! Notice in the picture below the bandaid on my chin.
I promise by my description it was alot more traumatic than it looks. Hahaha! That night for dinner, we ate at El Boliche de Alberto's, known to have the best steaks in town. It did not disappoint! Eli ate a sirloin the size of 2 fists and I ate a tenderloin. This was by far the best steak I have had in my whole life.
Our steaks, mashed potatoes, bread, pesto dip, and bottle of wine was a total of $35. Outstanding! Eating steak was much better then spending a night in a tent on the side of a mountain! After stuffing ourselves silly, we drove out of town a little ways to find a good place to park our car to get some sleep for the night. Our plans for the next 2 days would keep us in Bariloche getting our new tire, doing laundry, connecting to internet, and eating more home-made icecream.
Bariloche was a great little touristy town and we managed to get everything done that we needed to do. Bariloche was as far as we had planned and we had no idea were our next destination would be. Generally we wanted to head north and Eli had read about a place called Cochamo Valley. There wasn't much written about this place in any of the books we read but online it claimed to be "the Yosemite of South America" so we knew we had to go there. We crossed back into Chile and got a complete shake down at the border as we were asked to empty out our car. This was the first time the border crossing had been so thorough so we were a bit frazzled trying to lay out all of our personal belongings and handmade bed for the border patrol. We passed the drug dogs sniff test and luckily we weren't smuggling any Argentine fruits, so we were given the all clear to pass. Whew.
After a couple of hours of messy dirt roads, we made it to the town of Cochamo and found a another dirt road that we hoped would leave us to the entrance of the valley. Since it was getting late, we slept at the end of the road not knowing if this was the right way, in hopes that in the morning we would find our way...finally a real adventure. Yes we were feeling like we hadn't been very adventerous until now, strange I know.
We woke up to beautiful sunshine with plans to spend 3 days hiking to and around the valley. The trail wasn't labelled and there was a questionable bridge leading to a trail that was being guarded by a fearless looking bull.
Luckily 2 Chiliean cowboys on horses came along and informed us that we were heading the right way. After we scrambled through a few barbed wire fences to avoid the bull, we were on our way. The trail was another challenge in itself. Never before have we walked through so much mud and muck.
Since this trail was covered with a dense mossy canopy of trees, it never saw sunlight, and was primarily used by horses and cows, it was pretty sloppy. I didn't have any major falls this time. but a couple of times I was grumpy and was wishing we hadn't started this adventure. But I wanted to keep going because another cowboy along the way promised there was a "Refugio" campsite not too far ahead. Plus, we were excited to see what this valley really had to offer. It took Eli and I about 6 hours to tread through the mud but once we arrived, it was totally worth it! It was like Yosemite! The campground was deserted, except for some cows and a little building made for campers if it rained. There was a massive pasture of green grass surrounded by large rock faces all around and through a small forest there was a beautiful stream.
We set up our tent, cooked our hot dog dinner over a fire pit, and we were visited by a guy from Nevada that was living up there with his wife and 5 year old child. He had been taking care of the campgrounds during the camping season for the past 6 years. He was a nice guy and gave us some ideas for day hikes. We went to bed when the sun disappeared. That night was exceptionally chilly and we woke up to a frozen tent. Once the sun came out and everything thawed, Eli decided to go off exploring some of the trails the guy had mentioned while I napped in the sun. It was a great day! The next day we got up early, as we were warned that a rain storm would be coming, and we started our hike out. I don't know if the mud was less or if we were just super hungry, but we managed to make it out of the valley in half of the time it took to get in. I promised Eli a big bowl of guacamole when we got to the car and it was like a carrot dangling on a string for us the whole way. It worked! Yum, we cannot get enough of the avacodos here. We eat 1 or more each day. We made it to our car just in time for the rain to start. We were filthy so we headed off to find showers. We had heard that we could take showers at certain gas stations. We found one that cost $1 each and it was pure heaven. They were clean and hot! I never would have guessed I would be one to shower at a gas station, but I swear by them now. For camping that night we parked not too far off of the interstate, not our usual choice for sleeping but it was getting late. I was so tired but couldn't fall asleep. I must have sensed a possible disturbance coming. Finally around midnight I must have dozed off because at 2am Eli and I were startled by flashing lights of the Carabineros (police). It is hard enough to get in and out of our car on a good day but imagine Eli trying to get dressed, squeeze out of the car in the rain at 2am with the police hassling him. They didn't seem to happy waiting for Eli to scramble out of the car and they told us we had to leave and couldn't park there. They did let Eli know that we could drive 1 km down the road to a truck pull off and sleep there. I was still under the covers while all of this was happening. Luckily we were able to get some more sleep in our new designated parking spot. We would be headed to another Chiliean town the next day, Pucon, that was recommended to us. We are hoping that the rain will let up and we won't have anymore hassle from the Carabineros!
By the way I have become a sucker for stray dogs. I was able to avoid eye contact with them in Asia but they are more persuesive here. Especially the puppies or the mommy dogs. I sometimes have to sneak them a few bites of tuna fish or crackers. We always know when it is lunchtime as every town has sirens that they blare at noon and the stray dogs all begin to howl.....