It’s about 6am and I’m aboard the Agios, a ferry ship that runs from Puerto Montt to Chaitén in Chile. My goal is the Carretera Austral, aka Route 7, the 1200-odd kilometre road that runs from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins in Chilean Patagonia.
The Carretera’s route, scything through valleys, over mountain passes and past the fjords and rivers of this magical region, entails a few ferry crossings. The main one, which requires two separate ferries to get you from Hornopiren and Caleto Gonzalo, is very popular at this time of year and there are no spots for the little WR and I around the days I want to travel.
So I grabbed the alternative – the Puerto Montt-Chaitén run, which is an overnighter. These ferries are a pretty essential service for this remote region, carrying freight trucks and service vehicles as well as locals and tourists, so the Chilean government subsidises some of the sailings. In a miracle of planning that definitely does not characterise this trip, I manage to snag one of the subsidised sailings, paying the equivalent of $25 for the WR while I travel free. Result!
I had spent a very pleasant few days in Puerto Varas prior to the ferry trip. With a late night departure on the cards, I checked out of the Hostal Compass del Sur and rode a couple of hours down to the island of Chiloe for a poke around before heading to Puerto Montt.
Chiloe is an interesting place, famous for its wooden churches and colourful houses huddled along the shore in towns such as Castro. It has a feel rather unlike the rest of Chile, and I could have easily spent a bit more time wandering around. But there was a boat to catch, so I saw what I could and headed back to the mainland.
We boarded the Agios last night about 11pm. Departure time was supposed to be 11, but the ferry rocked up late, and I guess these things are flexible. We eventually got away about 1am.
The vehicle deck was packed with trucks, cars, utes and a sole moto – the WR – while upstairs in the passenger area there were many empty seats. Maybe a lot of people elected to sleep in their cars, rather than spend eight hours on an aircraft-style, semi-reclining seat in the main cabin. I can’t imagine the former would be any better than the latter. The cabin was warm at least.
With three seats to myself, I slept passably well sprawled out across the trio. I’d wake up every now and then, but it was better than nothing. I woke properly at 6am when we docked in what I think was Ayucara, a tiny community lining two edges of a bay. They flipped all the lights on in the main cabin, so there wasn’t much choice.
I visit the banó and then wander up to the main outside deck to get the lay of the land and sea.
The ferry has backed up to a grey concrete finger that dips into grey water, like it is testing it for temperature. A grey pebbly beach spreads out either side of the finger with a few houses and low buildings visible among the green forest that covers the hills rearing back from the bay.
All above is grey sky. It’s cold. And raining.
Out past the entrance of the bay the grey water meets the grey sky, separated only by a thin horizon line and shades of more grey.
I can see a church among the houses and a municipal kind of building – long, low with white and green window frames and two satellite dishes out front. And the Chilean flag flapping listlessly in the light, damp breeze.
Some people get off the ferry, heads down against the drizzle, clutching bundles and bags. Others get on the same way.
I watch the deckhands directing a truck down the ferry ramp and on to the grey concrete finger. The truck looks older than me, with faded dirty red paint and many battle scars. On the tray is what looks like a hut made from a shipping container.
Deckhands shout directions and encouragement and warnings as the truck driver struggles to negotiate the transition from ship to shore. Wheels spin on the steel ramp, oily black diesel exhaust belches into the grey sky, and the air is punctuated with ‘hola!’ and ‘ayii!’ and a bunch of other stuff I don’t understand as they finally steer him on to damp land.
The ramp comes back up and we are away again, heading out into the bay and towards that grey blend line. Next stop: Chaitén.
Fuck, I need a coffee.
It’s pissing rain when the ferry finally docks at Chaitén sometime around 10am. There’s a mad scramble among the passengers to either walk off or get in their vehicles and drive, which I can’t understand. I would happy to stay right here out of the weather. Unfortunately, the ferry is heading back to Puerto Montt so I too must join the crowd and thrust myself unwillingly into the cold, wet morning.
I look briefly for a place to grab breakfast, but Chaitén is buttoned up tight against the weather and nothing looks open. So I hit the road instead and hope things improve. At a steady 80-90km/h, the road is amazing – well surfaced and winding through lush valleys guarded on both sides by mountains and cliffs that soar into the clouds. I can’t see their tops.
Someone once told me that this part of the Carretera looks like a lost world. It’s true. If a T-Rex or stegosaurus lurched out of the shrubbery, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised.
The rain stops after three hours and the day brightens considerably. I grab lunch in La Junta, served by a big, smiley man in one of the distinctive jaunty berets they favour down here in Patagonia.
By now the day has turned 180 degrees, with sunshine and a light breeze. My mood has lifted accordingly. I make for Puerto Cisnes and a little hospedaje a couple of streets back from the waterfront. The friendly lady who runs the place tells me the price of the room. I’m shocked. It seems frightfully expensive. There’s not much else to choose from and it’s late, so I agree and wander off to a nearby ATM to extract sufficient pesos.
When I return, I give her what I think is the room rate, only for her to return most of of it. Then it clicks. My Spanish still isn’t very good and I really struggle with the pace at which most people speak. The lady had said the room was “quince mill” or 15,000 pesos. Idiot I am, I thought she meant 50,000.
We have a good laugh and she is generous enough not to be openly scornful of the gringo fool seeking a bed under her roof that night.
FOOTNOTE: Apologies for the blurriness in the photos. They were taken with my phone, which also serves as the navigation device on the bike. It seems vibration has not been kind to the delicate innards of the phone’s camera, possibly damaging the main lens. I have another camera, but it’s usually packed away on the bike and the phone is often more convenient for shots taken on the road, on the fly.