Monday, September 7, 2009

The Aysen Region- End of Feb. 2008 (2nd part)

The day after we came back from the trek, we continued up the Carretera Austral, into Coyhaique. Coyhaique is a surprisingly big city in the middle of the Aysen Region. It has around 50000 inhabitants, a couple of big-ass supermarkets, traffic lights, a big central plaza, ice cream places. Even after being told "it's a pretty big city. Much bigger than you would expect", we didn't expect it. Especially not after 4 straight towns where you could count the number of families even if you don't know what a hundred means.
I think we were caught off guard, and didn't quite know how to deal with Coyhaique. I'm not really sure what we even did there besides internet, window shopping (jeje) and eating ice cream. We were also staying with an especially apathetic (should I say passive aggressive?) family in the hospedaje (in the Aysen Region there were barely any hostels, it's mostly families who rent out rooms in their house by the night. I should write more about that later...) our first night, so we didn't enjoy it that much. But just the fact that there's a city in that setting, so cut off from the rest of Chile (the only way to get to Coyhaique without a boat/ferry ride is through Argentina) was a cool thing to see.

We couldn't find a ride out of the city on the next day, so we set up a rule: if we can't find a ride one day, we pay for the bus the next day, but don't pay for sleeping arrangements. We'd slept just outside of town a couple of times before in this area, so that's the first thing we tried to do- but looking for a place to set up a tent outside a 50000-strong city is much different than doing the same outside of a 500 inhabitants town. So after that failed attempt, we came back into town, and sat down in the main plaza for a while, big backpacks and everything, to rest. When darkness came, it brought an idea with it: why not just sleep right there? I must admit I was skeptical at first, but was slowly convinced into it, even if it was just to be able to say we did it later. And so we set up on that path- the pseudo-homeless path. The night was actually extremely uneventful. It was a Saturday night, so there were a lot of people hanging around till 1-2AM, or so, and at some point we just left the park bench, took our sleeping bags out, and lay down on the grass, hugging our backpacks. I didn't sleep that well, since I was kinda worried and pretty cold, but hey- it's a good story, and now I get to tell it.
Next stop after Coyhaique was the Queulat national park, and the hanging glacier. The road up there, with winding, steep curves within a lush, humid forest with the occasional waterfall, might have been as good as the park itself. The park was kind of an odd setup- it had US-style camping grounds, with a private spot to park your car, and your own grill and tap. A far cry from the camping ground in Cerro Castillo, where we were sleeping in a fenced grass field, along with horses, ducks and chickens, and using the owner's house's cold shower, in which there was no way to lock the door. Wanna guess which one I liked better?
We did a couple of trails in the park, one of them the main, beaten one, to the lookout point on the glacier, through a semi-jungle filled with huge leaves (some bigger than a person), moist ground, and big trees. Most of the trail looked like it was in perpetual shade, since the tree leaves layer was so thick. And the glacier itself- well, looking at the pictures now, it's beautiful, but I have to say that at that moment, after having heard so much about it, and after seeing at least 20 glaciers in the two weeks before that, it was kind of a letdown. The other trail we did was a completely different story- apparently it was a closed trail, but noone informed us of that little fact, not even the information sign at the trailhead. After entering about a mile and a half into it, we got to several points in which passing through required some tree climbing, spiderweb evading, crawling and contortionist acts. After the third or fourth fallen tree blocking the trail, and faced with a huge spiderweb that would've been broken for sure if anybody had gone through in the last month, we decided to call it a day and turn back. I guess nobody ever does any other trail than the hanging glacier one. It was a pretty cool trail, nonetheless... just weird. And there was no lookout point in the end to reward you for your efforts, like most trails I'd done, but that was actually strangely satisfying.
We hitched out of the park and into the little town of Puyuhuapi on the back of a Dutch couple's truck. It's funny to get a ride from somebody, and just about the only words being exchanged are "where are you going?" and "thank you". But hey, the view was nice and the wind was hitting against our faces, plus it got us to where we wanted, so I'm definitely not complaining.
Puyuhuapi is another tiny town, on the shore of a small lake that happens to be connected to a branching (is it an estuary, maybe? I always get those terms confused...) of the Pacific ocean. We found a camping spot right on the lake, in the (Back? Front? who knows) yard of an extremely helpful and generous man. In fact, he was so helpful and generous that we felt really uncomfortable, to the point where later I wrote about it. For some reason, it didn't feel natural to me, and I was reminded of how we're (or should I say "I was") raised to always say "no, thanks" without even thinking when something's offered, or at least "oh, please, don't bother". I've since learned to just assume that if somebody offers something to you, he probably means it and wants to give it, so I just say yes; but it was a long process to get there. Anyway, it struck me how the other hospedajes and camping grounds, where we were treated coldly and in a very business-only manner, had made much more sense than this man (I wish I could remember his name). Go figure.
From being just the two of us, we grew to 6, then 8 Israelis (I told you they were everywhere in this area) in the camping ground, and we ended up with a big bonfire-barbeque, with lots of wine, followed by some skinny dipping in the lake by yours truly. Unfortunately, the wine had confused me a bit, so while I was naked everywhere else, my ankle money pouch, with my passport, travelers' checks and credit card, were still on. The next morning I had to lay all of those down to dry (on one of those big, man sized leaves, actually). Good times. Also in the morning, there was an amazing, magical haze over the water, that dissipated slowly as the sun came up, and then the lake became a perfect mirror. One of my favorite pictures ever was taken that morning- it's in the very first post to this blog.
Trying to get out of Puyuhuapi again proved hard. There was roadwork being done a bit south of town, so for a week or so, the road was close between 11AM and 6PM. That's not a typo. And keep in mind that this is the only road there is. We're not exactly talking about I-95 here... Our only chance was catching somebody heading north out of town, but no luck. We waited on the road for about 8 hours, until 6 o'clock arrived, then took the bus up to Futaleufu.
Futaleufu is a semi-famous town in some circles. It's close to one of the best places to do whitewater rafting in the world. I'm definitely not a big rafting connoisseur, having only done it there, but I've heard it said it's one of the top 3 commercial spots, as there are several level V rapids in close proximity (you're not allowed to do a level VI rapid commercially, so that's basically the highest possible). We found the agency that had been recommended to us, paid 120$ (a huge sum for us, relatively. I probably hadn't spent 120$ in that whole week), and headed off towards the river. The rafting was fun, but not amazing, for me. I can't really explain why... the scenery was beautiful, with granite cliffs around the river, the rapids were exciting, the group we were with was a good one, and we even swam through one rapid (a level II, I think), but it just wasn't as intense as I thought it would be. The best part? When we were about a 100m from the end point, in a level II rapid, the weakest we had done all day long in the raft- I fell off it. I was the only one to fall out the whole trip. The only way I can explain it is by explaining a Hebrew concept: asak. Asak is an acronym for "end of course ambient", when everybody knows it's gonna end soon, everything's been said and done already, and nobody really gives a damn anymore. Soldiers and commanders alike are just going through the motions. So that's what happened- I went into asak, was chatting about the river Thames or something, took my feet out from beneath the big rubber cylinder that was holding me in, and... man overboard. It was funny as hell.
After the rafting adventure, we were famished. So Uri and I, along with a girl called Tanya, again found a camping place with a campfire spot, bought 3 kilos of meat and 5 litres of beer, and spent about 3 hours throwing meat on the fire, drinking and being merry.
The next day we failed to get a ride to the border crossing, so again we slept at the town's plaza. Of course, Futaleufu is one of those aforementioned 500-towns. So the next next day we took an early bus to the border, crossed the border on foot (all the time making jokes about how the sun only shines on the Argentinean side of the border, and mock-kissing the ground once we crossed over), and so it was that we were out of Aysen and in Argentina again.

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