Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Getting to Ushuaia...Again

Palafitos in Castro, Chile

Getting to Ushuaia: The Plan

My trip to Ushuaia started out as a bit of a bummer. I had left Chiloé and Chepu Adventures excited to explore some of the southern coast of Chile along the Carretera Austral.

The Carretera Austral is Chile's answer to Argentina's Ruta 40. While the Ruta 40--large stretches of which I had already traveled--is largely through barren Patagonian steppe and has in recent years largely been paved, the Carretera is a bumpy dirt road through the verdant and mountainous wilderness of Chilean Patagonia. It links settlements previously only accessable by boat, plane, long horseback trips, or in some cases via road over the Andes from the more developed Argentinian side of the mountains. Remote. Mountainous. Sounded magical. Of course I wanted to go there.

The unrealistic romantic in me was hoping I'd manage to magically luck into another yacht hitchhiking stint and would sail along the coast of Chile, stopping along the way to go hiking in some of the legendarily remote mountain ranges (Darwin Range, anyone?). Given that, even if I had the luck, I lacked the time required for such a voyage if I was going to make it to Ushuaia in time to catch my ship to Antarctica (Antarctica!!!), I spent my month in Chepu chewing on alternate ideas for how to get there.

One obvious option was to hop on the Navimag Ferry from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, which goes through the Chilean Fjordlands and would at least let me see the coast, if not hike in it. But it was expensive ($500/person, last-minute discounts were possible but unlikely) and it was booked for weeks.

Another trip I wanted to do was the combination bus/hike/horseback/ferry journey through the Andes from Villa O'Higgens at the end of the Carretera Austral to my favorite mountain town of El Chaltén in Argentina. But how to get to O'Higgens?

Someone at the lodge suggested what seemed like the perfect solution: an inexpensive ferry from the southern tip of Chiloé Island south through some Chilean Fjordlands to Puerto Chacabuco near Coyhaique, from which I could take a series of bus and ferry connections to O'Higgens, and then do the bus/hike/horseback/ferry trip across the border, then maybe spend a day or two rock climbing in El Chaltén before catching a bus to Ushuaia via El Calafate or Puerto Natales. Time-wise it was cutting things close, but it sounded too perfect to pass up. My heart was set on it.

So I went to book my passage and...everything was sold out. My ChepuAdventures host Fernando even called to double-check, but nope, booked for another week. Damn.

Misty sunrise in Chepu. Chepu was beautiful, but I missed mountains.

Plan C: Ferry to the volcano-devestated Carretera town of Chaitén. Also booked.

Plan D: Bus to Puerto Montt, bus to Chaitén, possible bus to Coyhaique or at least some backpacking in the Parque Nacional Pumalín, then a bus back to Puerto Montt, then Punta Arenas, then Ushuaia. I couldn't book it online, but it seemed like it should work out with some wiggle room for missed connections and such.

So I arranged to Couchsurf for a night in Puerto Montt to catch an early bus to Chaitén after a day exploring Castro and seeing some of the rest of what Chiloé had to offer.

It was kind of a giant flop.

Getting to Ushuaia Part 1: Castro, Chile

First, I arrived in Castro and, when I went to find a tour to see some of the churches and other sights, was told that they started at ~$100 USD and the bus schedules to do it independently were not in my favor. That was okay, I'm sure the churches are lovely but I'm more of a nature person than a culture browser. I set about my first errand of doing my laundry, which ended up taking most of the day because all of the laundromats in town asked if I had a reservation and explained they were full for the next four days. It took a while, but I was able to beg the owner of the hostel to let me do some bathtub hand-washing and hang clothes up to dry behind the hostel in an epic laundry line. 

My hostel laundry line in Castro

Then I went for a walk. If nothing else, at least I would see the Palafitos of Castro and the fish market I had heard so much about. Castro ended up being a lot more interesting than I had expected; guidebooks and people who had come through ChepuAdventures had painted it as kind of a dump, but I found it to be a very charming little port town. I even found some Microcoleus mats in the mud flats in front of some of the Palafitos.

Microcoleus mat in Castro

Castro Palafitos

Castro fish market

Wow. Those are...some colors.

I went to the Artisanal market and had some really soggy empanadas; they weren't the best, but I love empanadas and eating with my elbows in crab juice while watching a guy hack up chunks of miscellaneous seafood right in front of me was pretty novel. I also bought a sweater and some shoes that I fell in love with and that were priced well within my budget, the first real souvenirs I think I've bought on this whole trip. I walked to the food market where I tracked down some of the incredible smoked salmon that Amory at ChepuAdventures had been spoiling us with. I had dinner--ceviche and pisco--and then worked on a draft of a paper I wanted to get submitted before taking off to Antarctica. And that was it. The next morning I caught my bus to Puerto Montt.

Getting to Ushuaia Part 2: Puerto Montt, Chile

My first order of business in Puerto Montt was to buy bus tickets to Chaitén and back, then to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, and hoped to have time to have lunch with my friend Max as well. But my Couchsurfing host, Ana, was there when I arrived, and swept me up to her place where she and two other couchsurfers--young French guys traveling south via motorbike--were just sitting down to an amazing seafood stew lunch. With Ana, my dutiful dieting to shed the Argentinian weight I had put on over the past few months went right out the window. The guys had a great idea of recording clips of people from their travels singing and dancing clips of a song and then wanted to stitch it into a video at the end of their trip, so presumably I will end up on the internets in a few months singing "me gusta la manaña, me gustas tu".

Me with hostess Ana

Ana was a saint and took me around town to help me get my bus tickets booked and help me run some of the crazy errands I had. First was a fiasco at the bus station when Plan D totally failed: the buses were booked! So I had to resort to Plan E which I made up on the spot: bus to Bariloche and a repeat of my early November trip to Ushauaia. But it wasn't possible to book that trip in the bus station (of course), but with some determination and forging of Argentinian documents (not even kidding here--sure, what I did was probably highly illegal, but I was desperate) I was able to book tickets online. 

She also helped me and the guys get and exchange a suitcase full of dollars to take into Argentina in order to engage in more illegal activity--this time some blue market money trading. In Argentina, the official exchange rate for US dollars to Argentine pesos went from 5.5 pesos/dollar to over 8 pesos/dollar just in the time I've been traveling. That horrifying rate of inflation has led a lot of Argentines to try to save money in dollars, except that the government has officially restricted the supply of dollars to prevent Argentines from getting them. So there's a thriving black ("blue") market for dollars, which means that you can get a much better dollar-to-peso exchange rate by trading dollars on the street than you can get from your bank, credit card, or ATM. The blue market rate varies, but is typically several more pesos per dollar than the official rate, and can be as much as twice as much. So you can save a boatload of money in Argentina by arriving with dollars. I didn't know any of when I started this trip, but was determined to take advantage of this this time, so I withdrew as many Chilean pesos as I could get in the time I was in Puerto Montt, and then felt extremely uncomfortable when I exchanged it all with a nice older lady at the bus station for dollars, and walked away holding more money divided in various pockets of my clothing and backpack than I had ever seen in one place in my life before. (Spoiler: I did not get mugged)

Puerto Montt

The next day, Ana took us to visit her family in the countryside, including a bus ride along the coast of Puerto Montt, which again is way more charming than the guidebooks would lead one to believe (which call the place "Muerto Montt" and fall just short of calling the city Sketchballs). Sure, it apparently has a thriving narcotics trade with associated gang violence, but that just sort of added to its charm. Puerto Montt was like a cross between Seattle's beauty--with a glittering island-pocked sound surrounded by snow-capped mountains, built on a steep hill spilling into a port--and good ol' L.A. grit complete with the pops of gunshots and graffiti and syringes on the sidewalks. Except instead of the grey uniform of Seattle, the buildings in Puerto Montt are decked out in full Chilean rainbow colors, and the city is surrounded by rural farms and fisheries.

Puerto Montt

Getting to Ushuaia Part 3: Bariloche & the Ruta 40 Trip

Finally it was time to take off and start the journey to Ushuaia. First, over the mountains to Bariloche, where I spent two nights with Anneke while running a pile of more errands buying camera repair equipment and stocking up on dark chocolate (important). I didn't have the time to play that I had hoped I'd have, but it was good to see Anneke.

And then the repeat 36 hour bus ride in the flying fish bowl that I had done in November. It was identical to the last time, except the food menu was slightly different and this time it wasn't me but someone else responsible for the periodic characteristic beeping of GoPro video recordings, and instead of spending it glued to the window I slept a lot. Except for the first hour and the last hour, it's a pretty boring trip.

Although the video I made the first time I did it might make one think otherwise...

But the last hour! Looking out the window as all of the sudden BIG EFFING MOUNTAINS (still with snow on them) appeared on the horizon made my heart leap. The bus pulled into Ushuaia to a sky in flames. The air was chilly. It felt like coming home.

Sunset in Ushuaia

The best part: I had time to hike.

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