Monday, August 3, 2009

The Aysen Region- End of Feb. 2008

After El Chalten (and a 12-hour bus ride on gravel roads up to Los Antiguos, and my second border crossing into Chile) came the Aysen region, commonly known among backpackers as the “carretera austral” (southern road). This is an area in the south of Chile where until the 80s there were no roads, and the only way you could get to the towns was on horseback or boats. Obviously, not too many metropolises grew in this area, and it remains fairly unspoiled (as of a year and a half ago, at least… it’s getting more and more touristic down there, plus there are plenty of industrial dangers looming). The road was completed only in the year 2000, and named the Carretera Austral (road number 7, for those who prefer numbers). It’s around 1200 km long, only 150 or so of them paved. The region is extremely beautiful and wild: in the south there's the huge Lago General Carrera (the 2nd largest lake in South America, and divided between Argentina and Chile. In the Argentinean side it’s called Lago Buenos Aires), and there are many rivers, lagunes, waterfalls, glaciers and springs… basically water in every form and every imaginable shade of blue and green, plus some grey and brown water too... I’ve never seen so much water in my life.
Bus lines in the area are inconsistent and expensive, so most backpackers either rent a car or hitchhike. After some doubts, I opted for the hitchhiking, along with Uri, one of the Israeli guys I was with in El Chalten (fun fact: we went to the same high school in Jerusalem, but he’s 5 years my senior. And we met in Puerto Natales, of all places…), and I don’t regret it for a second. You get to meet some interesting people hitching. We had two rides with Chilean families on vacation, two in the back of trucks, one of them a garbage truck (best ride ever- sitting on top of a big pile of garbage, above the truckbed’s “walls”, facing backwards and looking at the majestic mountainous landscape receding as you climb steadily on a curvy road, not smelling the garbage at all because of the wind hitting against you from all sides… perfect), one with a pair of local horse-ranchers (who were also giving a ride to a marine engineer who was working in the area, and kept talking about how they had only stopped because there were two girls hitching next to us, and they got stuck with us instead), and last but not least, with a local guy who told us all about the ‘proyecto andino’ conspiracy.
I don’t like to generalize, but most people who live in this area gave us the feeling that they’re either afraid of us, don’t like us, or just want our money and nothing else. It’s probably the only place where I can say that I felt a general hostility (never direct, though, Just the feeling) and unfriendliness, and I’ve talked to a lot of people who felt the same way there. I think that the Pinochet years, coupled with the fact that the area used to be pretty much closed off to outsiders, the sudden rush of tourism and the land buying by outside sources cause what can only be called xenophobia. The proyecto andino thing is a great example: in this area, I’d say that about 50% of the tourists are Israeli, 35% Chilean and 15% from the rest of the world (I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all). Take that little fact, add to it the fact that foreign companies had been buying land in the area for good and bad purposes, mix in the much publicized conflict in Israel, and voila! You’ve got a cool conspiracy theory about how all the Israelis in the area are actually scouts, sent by a population that is sick of the war and wants to find a new country, and the Aysen region is being targeted for that. That’s why the US businessmen (who may or may not be Jewish) have been buying land in strategic locations, to divide Chile in two and give the Israelis the Southern half. Nice, eh? I actually had to sit there and deny being an emissary, and swear that I am in fact traveling for fun and the Israeli army is not paying for my trip.
The serious side of this is that foreign companies are taking advantage of the (amazingly not yet completely depleted) natural resources of the area. It’s nothing new, of course. It’s been going on for over five centuries, and continues to happen all over Latin America (and elsewhere, of course). When we were there, there was a lot of protest against several hydroelectric plants that were supposed to be built in the region, amongst them one on the river Baker, third fastest flowing river in the world, which would inundate a huge area, only to then build the longest high-voltage power line in the world all the way to Santiago (remember what I said about the area being unspoiled for now?). If all this is not complicated enough, you can throw Douglas Tompkins, (former?) owner of The North Face, into the picture. From what I heard, he left his businesses to become an environmentalist, bought huge quantities of land in several areas, the biggest one in the northern Aysen region, and turned them into conservation parks. After legally making sure the area would be conserved and has to stay a national park, he “gives back” the land to the country in which it is. From what I heard, it sounds very positive, but he’s pretty controversial in the area and sparks plenty of ideas in the theorists’ heads. The park in Aysen, Pumalin, is the one that “cuts Chile in half”.
Getting back to what I actually did: we spent a day in the tiny town of Rio tranquilo, where we did a nice little speed-boat trip to see some marble caves (which apparently are only made of some marble lookalike rock, but who cares? It looks cool) and then made dinner with two girls in a hostel- chicken in a honey and chili marinade - more about that in the next post.
After that we went on to Villa Cerro Castillo, from where we set out on a 4-day trek on Cerro Castillo, which is a pretty wild trek- the only way to get to the “entrance” is by walking 13 KM on a 4X4 road, and the only way out is climbing over (or under, I guess) several fences and walking back to town through what looks like private fields; but the paths themselves are mostly marked and it is in a national reserve. Some highlights and lowlights: climbing a mountain that looked (to me, at least) very similar to the black and white mountains in the Eilat desert in southern Israel, but when I got to the top there was about 40m of snow that I had to walk and slide on because it’s smack in the middle of the path. Plus, looking back from that point, you could see mountains of five different colours: green, black, white, brown and red; one of the guys I was with slipping while trying to cross a strong flowing river that had no bridge over it and almost getting swept away; a very impressive glaciar perched on a very impressive mountain, with a full wall of waterfalls falling to become a river; sunrise at our campsite the third day; talking for hours about progressive rock bands and permaculture with one of the guys I did the trek with (probably a horrible conversation for the other two guys...); a side trek climb to the top of a mountain that wasn't really on the path, and being rewarded with the incredible panoramic view of the valley below; almost breaking my legs when a basketball sized rock slid from behind me, jumping aside at the last second (the guy behind me, who had initiated the slide, yelled “Ofer, Ofer Ofer!” and, fortunately, my instinct was to jump to the right. Not jumping, or jumping to the left, would’ve probably ended in me having to be carried the next two days); and of course, swimming in and drinking from freezing lagunes, where you can see the glacier and the waterfalls the water originates from.
Back in town, we had a nice campfire barbeque in our campsite in town, with 3.5 Kg of meat for 5 people and lots of red wine (in cardboard boxes… But I must say that Chilean box wine is pretty damn good, and at 4$ for 2 liters, it’s a great deal).
Shit, rereading this and editing it a year and a half later, I’m struck again by how fucking lucky I am that I was able to do these things.
Since this post is way too long already, I’ll leave the rest of the Aysen region stuff for later.

This is probably a good time to invite whoever wants to see my pictures to my Picasa page. There's a link on the right side of the page. The pictures from this area are especially good. As I've said to several people several times, if the pictures are good, it's not because I took good pictures; it's because no matter where I pointed the camera, the picture that would come out would be beautiful.

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