I was up bright and early this first morning in Chile, in part thanks to my fellow guests and in part because of camper van anticipation! With my rudimentary Spanish I managed to ask the owner of the hostel to arrange a taxi for me to the Wicked Campervan depot and the taxi duly arrived with a small delay, having gone to the wrong hostel. Having not managed to find the hostel first time around, it was no surprise when the taxi driver had no clue where to find the address I gave him. I already had the impression from my email correspondence that it was somewhat hard to find and having looked on Google Maps, I knew that it was out of town. After a great deal of discussion with the taxi base, my driver was set on the right track and we headed off in the right direction. I’m still wondering why he didn’t just use his sat nav. As soon as we hit the outskirts of town the tarmac gave way to gravel roads, a taster of things to come.
I was, I have to admit, a little daunted when I got my first sight of the van – it seemed huge, far bigger than I expected. This turned out not to be a figment of my imagination, when I met a few other vans along the way I realised that although I’d booked the smallest 2 person van, I’d actually ended up with one for 3 people. No complaints there, but everyone I met was jealous of both the space I had and the artwork on my van, which was far superior to the porn star and TV hosts that they were sporting!
Having done the paperwork and had the tour of the van, I tried not to think too hard about the possibility of needing to change a tyre along the way and didn’t hang around for long before heading off. First priority was to fill the van up with fuel and then get myself on the Ruta 9 to Puerto Natales, 245km to the north. It’s been a good 15 years or so since I’ve regularly driven a manual and although I’m comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road thanks to my visits to Canada, I’m used to doing it in an automatic car. Wearing hiking boots it was hard to get a good feel for the clutch at first, but I felt a lot more comfortable when I got my running shoes out of my case and changed. Fortunately the way to Ruta 9 was not too complex and I managed to find a petrol station on my way, although I was a little thrown by the fact that it wasn’t self-service and I had to communicate with the attendant about which type of petrol I wanted.
Car fuelled, I hit the road. Time for the adventure to really start. The route was very straightforward, get onto Ruta 9 and stay on it until you reach Puerto Natales! So that was pretty much what I did, although I did take a couple stops along the way. I was quite taken with the bus shelters, particularly this rather unloved looking one, which had a new shiny one skulking behind it.
It was a rather grey day, with a few spots of rain, which somehow suited the flat open grasslands that characterised the first part of the journey. A few cattle, more sheep. And then, excitement of excitements – a guanaco! Yet further along, a lake. With pink spots on it. Surely not? They must be buoys. No, they really are. FLAMINGOES! Sadly no chance to photograph them as I passed by. And then, trotting along the side of the road. Ostriches? But they live in Africa. Emus? No, they live in Australia. A mystery. Finally solved a couple days later when I borrowed a guide from a fellow traveller and identified them as rhea. Of course.
I’d come to Chile expecting scenery, but already I was discovering a wealth of wildlife. Overjoyed!
I stopped for lunch at a small town called Villa Tehuelches (population 151, according to Wikipedia), a place which seems to have no other reason to exist than being 100km away from Punta Arenas. I ate an empanada – traditional Chilean fare after all, admired the crocheted flowers in the cafe, the horses and the designs on the wooden road signs, and then continued on my way.
The weather started to deteriorate and the rain grew heavier, but by this point I was much more comfortable with the handling of the van and having a fine old time enjoying the scenery regardless. By late afternoon I reached Puerto Natales, important stopping point on the way to Torres del Paine, if only for the reason of re-fuelling as the tank was nearly empty and this was the last petrol station before the park! I also needed to find myself some food for the next few days so I trundled around the town with no real idea where I was going in the hope of spotting a supermarket. Once I’d loaded up with pasta, pasta sauce, cheese and the all important chocolate and crisps I found a wifi-sporting cafe and treated myself to a burger. Which is to say, a burger with the burger replaced by avocado. Quite a feat to order when you don’t speak Spanish, but I succeeded and greatly enjoyed it!
Cafe in a van – I’m sad that I never took advantage of its hospitality.
Having finished my burger and headed back to the van, I was all set to complete my day’s journey when I discovered a very soggy looking piece of paper on my windshield. Really? A parking ticket, when I’ve only had the van half a day? How embarrassing! And more to the point, what on earth do I do about it? Lacking better ideas I went back into the cafe and enlisted the help of one of the staff. She kindly came out into the rain with me, spotted a parking warden and took me over to him. He looked at the ticket, told me I owed $1050 (about one pound), I paid up and that was the end of it. Disaster averted! One final stop, then, the petrol station. I got the van filled up, but completely forgot to fill up the jerry can in case of emergencies. This was to haunt me for a while.
The weather was pretty grim heading out of Puerto Natales, but the end of my long day’s driving was more or less in sight. Just another 145km or so until I reached the park. Finally, at Cerro Castillo it was time to take a left turn, at a somewhat incongruously placed roundabout in more or less the middle of nowhere.
Having had good quality roads up to now, it was time to do some real driving as a well placed sign warned me of poor road quality for the next 15km. The sign wasn’t lying. Short sections of paved road gave way to well and truly massacred sections of gravel road and my speed dropped from 100km/h to about 20km/h. Rough roads in a camper van are not quiet! The three chairs I had been supplied (I used one of them, once, during the whole trip!) rattled around with every bump, and pole for the table (which I also never used) rolled around in the back of the van. Each short stretch of paving was delightfully quiet, but rarely lasted more than 100 yards.
To add to the roads and the rain, Patagonia is known for its strong winds and we were hit by a lot of them for the rest of the journey. With the size of the van, it really caught the wind, and I had to fight to keep the van from skittering across the road. Ah yes, this is what a road trip is all about! Eventually the road did improve again, which was quite a relief, and around 8pm I pulled over at a mirador (view point) with a view out to Lago Sarmiento. Apparently there was a great view of the Torres from here, but if there was, it was lost in the cloud. As I prepared my bed for the night a caravan drew up with the same plan to spend the night. I set up the sleeping bag and stripey blanket that I’d borrowed from the pile of goodies left behind by previous campers and snuggled up in my bed, as the van shook in the wind and the rain came lashing down.