The Carretera Austral part 4 – Where there is smoke there is fire….

Timing they tell me is everything and the timing of our arrival at camping Bella Vista in Puerto Rio Tranquillo was perfect. Within seconds of arriving Will had run to the toilet and had a very squirty bum; a theme that would continue for a few days for both Will and myself.

The camp site was full of cycle tourists and backpackers with most northern european languages being heard within minutes of our arrival. The atmosphere was beautiful and a little like an EU summit with the sharing of food, drink and information, luckily we were still included and the actions of our countrymen were glossed over (after some initial teasing). The main attractions of the town are a supermarket, a brew pub and the marble caves. We had stopped here for the last but benefitted hugely from the first two.

Will did not feel well.

Poor Will spent a good portion of the first evening sleeping fitfully and shivering (between hurried visits to the bathroom) and we took the opportunity to rest and chat to the other cycle tourists who were passing through the town.

Lago General Carrera.

The campsite was popular with other cyclist too.

The day time temperatures were high and this made the extra washing that we needed to do much quicker to dry. In the afternoon though we ventured out into town to do some shopping, swim in the lake and sample the craft beers (it was a hardship I was willing to endure in the name of travel journalism). The Lago General Carerra was clear with a pale blue colour reminicant of the cote d’azure but the water was chilly and made more than a quick duck under a feat of daring. After our swim and with Will feeling much happier (but still needing to be in dashing distance of the bathroom) we headed to the pub to try their wheat beer, brewed on site and very refreshing.

Our next trip out was to the marble caves. We had not booked our trip but, given the number of boats offering excursions, were confident that we could find a tour early in the day. Pre breakfast we strolled to the quayside, found an outfitter, donned our bouyancy aids and were whisked off towards the caves.

The marble caves are impossible to describe but have essentially been carved out of the rock by the actions of wind and water over hundreds of thousands of years. They are almost impossible to discern from a distance as the marble forms only the lowest layer of the rocks but up close they display sculpted land forms that are incredibly beautiful, especially early in the day as the incident rays of sun light reflect off the still waters of the lake. I hope the photos here give you some idea.

On our boat was Matt, a chap from the UK who worked as a fly fishing guide in Argentina. He was commited to conservation of freshwater catchments and was really interesting to chat to, so much so that after the tour we found a french run coffee trailer and had what seemed to be the best coffee we had drunk for many weeks.

Even though it was still early we could feel the heat rising (and we had more washing to do as a result of a not quiet successful ‘baño run’ by Will) so we made our way back to the camp site to relax in the shade and tackle some more school work.

The heatwave continued as we rode south towards Puerto Bertrand and Cochrane. Behind us a plume of what I thought to be dust rose into the air but Charly pointed out that it was more likely to be a forest fire. She was right and it was the first of two large wild fires (started by humans) that would cause us some problems (not serious) in the coming days. As we continued on the road we realised that I had forgotten our two plastic pots in the kitchen at our last campsite; appalled at the thought of them being consigned to landfill and Charly and I’s loss of our ‘crockery’. I resolved to hitch hike back from that night’s campsite and retrieve them.

Lunch was in the shade of a bush after a Dutch couple (also cycle tourists) made room for us and shared their nutella with the kids but it wasn’t long before we need to stop again after a section if really bad gravel. A small farm served cold drinks which was a welcome relief and they also had shady camping run by a friendly french couple volunteering their in exchange for free food and a spot for their van. While Charly made camp I walked back to the main road and hopefully stuck out my thumb. Within minutes I was picked up and 45 minutes later was back in Rio Tranquillo picking up our plastic pots and buying more ‘poo tokens’ aka toilet paper. One problem on the ruta 7 is the number of backpackers trying to find a ride and a queue of twenty or so had built up at the last bridge out of town. Remembering a conversation with Matt the previous day and tips he gave for hitching I decided to start walking and chance a lift further down the road. After 5 or so kms of walking in the hot late afternoon sun and dust (I was glad of my shemagh for shade and a makeshift dust mask) I was picked up by a Chilean Mum and son on holiday. They loved the idea of our trip and we chatted all the way back to my drop off point by the camping. It was to turn out to be another lucky meeting (more on this later).

Izzy and Will’s art installation made from things found on the campsite.

After dinner (eaten from our plastic pots) Izzy and Will had the opportunity to be led around the campsite on horseback. Both loved it and the smiles didn’t leave their faces for days as they talked about it – these are exactly the opportunities that we wanted them to have and hope that these memories eclipse the ones of the harder times.

Self explanatory photo…

Harder times continued the next morning with a return to the ripio but thankfully it was a little cooler than previous days. We crossed the magnificent bridge between lago General Carerra and Lago Bertrand and a steady ride beyond this brought us to the town of Puerto Bertrand, a tiny place offering a myriad of rafting and kayaking trip down the Rio Baker. The Rio Baker is the biggest (in terms of flow) river in Chile. It drains Lago Bertrand and it’s clear blue colour looked, on the day we crossed it like a blend of molten sapphire and emerald. The town did not have much to offer us but with recurrent bathroom issues we decided that an organised campsite would be better than a wild one. We were proven correct once more…

Riding towards Puerto Bertrand

Lago Bertand

Rio Baker

The Rio Baker merges with several other more minor rivers with the blending of colour and clarity each time. As we rode towards the Rio Baker and Rio Neff confluence we met the mum and son combo who had so kindly given my a lift the previous day. They were delighted to meet the kids and offered us fresh fruit and a top of water – both gratefully recieved. The fresh fruit gave a boost to our meagre lunch as we strolled towards the ‘confluencia’. The flow of water was deafening and, as I am increasingly aware that photgraphing theses landscape features is very hard indeed so rather than try too hard I sat, watched and listened. Izzy, Will and Charly did the same and the moments spent as a family watching the water cascade over the short drop was magical.

We continued our theme of following natural wonders as we headed into the Patagonia National Park later that afternoon. A former overgrazed sheep ranch it’s spectacular landscapes now house increasing vegetation cover, huge numbers of guanaco (Llama guanaco), puma and smaller (but increasing numbers) of the endangerd huemal deer. The park, ironically given its stance on fossil fuel use, is not easy to reach in anything other than a pick up truck but we persevered with the rough road, wind and rain to reach the campsite.

That evening walking to the washing area without my glasses on I saw what I thought was a big dog strolling across the grassy campsite. Izzy who was by my side corected me and identified the puma. Less than one hundred metres away it was a rare site and a reminder to keep the kids close to us at all times. Will did not like this and refused to comply earning him the new nickname Puma Snacks…..

Warning signs for Puma encounters.

Beautiful but tinder dry alpine meadows.

Llama guanaco

Puma scat

Guanaco print

The park originally bought by the Tompkins Foundation and now donated to the people of Chile is very little developed for hiking but a couple easyish trails do exist. We walked parts of these with the kid and enjoyed the amazing views and close ups on guanaco, often having to wait for them to move off the paths in front of us. We found puma prints and scat on the trails – a constant reminder of their presesnce and watched andean condors sore above the cliffs. The new visitors centre held exhibits on human impact on the environment and the history of the park and surroundings. The kids loved it and it made explaining why Charly and I do certain things like buy second hand clothes, limit our car travel and meat comsumption much easier. There was also a restaurant with the salads and vegetables being grown on site in big, well hidden, greenhouse. It was an interesting idea but as we walked back to the campsite past them we heard the unmistakeable hum of a diesel generator and our unfortunate relience on fossil fuels was brought back to us.

While eating lunch we chatted to one of the waitresses who warned us about the poor air quality in Cochrane (the nearest town and our next stop). We explained that we had no choice but to move on as we were short of food and she very kindly offerred to buy supplies for us and bring them back when she returned to work the next day. This kind offer was typical of the Patagonian people and has made our trip so much easier. The extra day in the park was appreciated and the air qualiy there remained high and we were glad that we did not have to ride through the smoke.

Counting down the kilometres.

Two other cyclists we had met (Jerry and Carolyn) rode on to Cochrane that day and sent a message to say that the air was actually OK due to a change in wind direction. We made plans to ride into Cochrane the following day. The ride was not too difficult as most of the gravel was good and it was a relief to have a supermarket with some fresh produce and a cold beers. Having not slept in a bed for a while we set our hearts on a cabaña. We eventually found one that slept three and the owner was happy to let us squeeze in. It was cozy, had hot water and a comfy bed so we were super happy. I popped out to the supermarket and while I was gone the cabaña owner reappeared and warned Charly that there may be a need to evacuate the town due to the forest fire. Izzy was a little upset and the owner quickly reassured us that she would find a truck that could take us and our kit if it came to it. We spent that night on tenter hooks and barely unpacked just in case. Rain in the night and a drop in the wind speeds lessened the probability of evacuation and on the second day we relaxed into a pyjama day. The smell of smoke and the constant buzz of helicopters carrying water to drop onto the fires never let us forget that they were there and they would continue to impact on us for the next section on the road south.

If you like what I have written about our trip then consider clicking the following link to ‘buy me a coffee’ – essentially this means more cake for the kids……

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Ed

Biologist who teaches. In 2018 I took time away from work to travel and world school my children. We travel by bike and try to treat life as the adventure that it is.

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