Patagonia: A Land Less Ordinary

January 2019

Nothing’s easy in Patagonia. Aside from the fact that it’s vast and largely untouched, life is lived at a different pace there. There’s no rush hour, burgers and IPAs aren’t hyped on social media, and more importantly, bus companies don’t even have websites, never mind online booking. When stepping off a plane there is very much an adventure into the unknown, when all you have to hand is a hostel booking in a town (Puyuhuapi) which is a 7 hour drive away.

After a flurry of activity to secure a transfer to Coyhaique, the largest town in the region, we’re on our way and immediately surrounded by scenery like I’ve never seen before. There are dramatic cliffs and snow-capped peaks in every direction, while the wind whips across the road ferociously, shaking the van sideways. An hour later we arrive in Coyhaique, edging closer to our destination, now only 6 hours away.

There’s one bus a day to Puyuhuapi, it leaves in three hours time, and luckily there are still seats available. Supposedly in three hours time anyway, as buses may be scheduled for a certain time but it’s normal for them to turn up at least an hour or two late here. While there’s only one road all the way through Patagonia (Carretera Austral) and no traffic, there is a local saying: “in Patagonia the weather decides for you”, and the same applies to the bus schedule.

The bus turns up when it turns up, and we’re on the road again. We quickly leave Coyhaique behind, and the bus window becomes more like a cinema screen as we’re treated to a stunning new landscape around every corner. We cruise past intimidating mountains, towering waterfalls and rolling hills. Combined with the ever changing weather, the bus feels more like a rollercoaster through a David Attenborough documentary.

Patagonia roads

Hours later the road changes into a gravel trail that snakes its way around the mountains. As the rain beats down, gravel turns to mud and the trail closes in, with the driver now cautiously inching his way around every sharp corner. The fact you’re hostage to the unpredictable climate is clearer then ever here – in winter it’s a dangerous journey, with frequent landslides making this part of the road impossible to pass.

Eventually we arrive in Puyuhuapi, a village stuck in time, somewhere around the 1930s. It’s sleepy and quaint, with just one road through the village, one bar, and one shop. It is nestled in the most picturesque setting however, embedded between the mountains and the fjord, which stretches to the horizon. With the last of the evening light fading and the fog rolling over the mountains, it feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of Santiago. The only constant, and one which seems to apply to even the remotest parts of the world, is that if there’s something which resembles two goalposts, someone will be playing football.

Puyuhuapi fjord

Puyuhuapi

After watching day turn to night it’s time to turn in, as Queulat National Park and it’s famous hanging glacier await the following morning. It’s a short drive to the entrance to the park, where a van drops you off and the driver says a rough time he’ll be back. It sounds speculative but it’s hard to be too concerned – stress doesn’t seem to exist in this tiny part of the world. Time is slow, marked more by the passing of the seasons rather then any loose plans you may have.

After receiving some loose instructions from the park rangers on the best route to take, we’re on our way with nobody else in sight. The moment you first set foot off the path and into the park is a memorable one. The powerful sound of the river rushing below, and the glacier peaking around a corner far in the distance is breathtaking.

Entrance to Queulat National Park

The next day, our four hour hike takes us through the park to the glacier. It’s a fun, rugged journey which involves equal parts clambering around muddy trails, climbing over streams, and soaking up openings where the sun finds its way through the canopy and transforms the greenery into an Alice in Wonderland scene.

Hike through Queulat National Park

The reward is a truly breathtaking view. The glacier is gravity defying, with tonne upon tonne of ice suspended from the edge of the mountain. Yet somehow it clings on for dear life, even managing to resist melting in the beating sun.

Queulat National Park hanging glacier

After dashing down the mountain and back to the village, we commence the wait for a bus back to Coyhaique, which passes through twice a week. I’d spoken to the driver the day before and had been told that the bus normally gets there between 3 and 4 o clock, and not to worry as there are always seats. So we wait, and wait, and wait. After an hour and a half we’re approaching delirium, at one point even thinking that a distant flag blowing in the wind further down the road was said bus. I give the bus driver a call and am dealt a cruel blow. Not only is the bus another 40 minutes away, but there are no spare seats, nobody’s getting off, and he won’t let us on. I even plead with him to let us sit on the floor but no luck.

With time running out and Coyhaique five hours away, we have no option but to head up to that one main road and give hitchhiking a go. After 10 minutes someone pulls over, and I almost can’t believe my luck when the driver says he’s going all the way to Coyhaique and we can jump in. The driver’s name was Gonzalo, a Santiago-born architect who moved to Patagonia years ago, who had driven down to the area for work that morning. Gonzalo wasn’t phased at all by the 10 hours of driving he’d clock up on that day – it’s just a part of daily life here. As well as being more comfortable than the bus and having better tunes (hello Chemical Brothers), Gonzalo also stopped along the way to show us some of his favourite spots.

Patagonia hitchhike

Five hours, a few stories, and one Facebook friend later, we’d made it back to Coyhaique! Our plan here was an adventurous six hour hike through a nearby national reserve the next day. Sandwiches made and bags packed, we turn in with the alarm set for 06:00. That quickly comes around, and we wake up to the thudding of rain on the tin roof and howling wind. I check the weather forecast online and don’t like the verdict, so I check a different website, and then another one, and another one, looking for something to tell me what I want to hear. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a grim day across the board, and I definitely hadn’t trained for a challenging hike in rain and near freezing conditions. We have no option but to cancel our plans… “In Patagonia the weather decides for you”. It frequently changes its mind which drastically and unpredictably alters the landscape. For instance, the following photos were taken within ten minutes of one another:

Patagonia weather

After a few hours of feeling sorry for ourselves, we decide to venture to the Coyhaique National Reserve instead, just an hour’s walk away. In any other circumstances in any other location this would be a highlight – it’s an enjoyable walk through the wild forest amongst the snow-capped mountains, soundtracked by trickling streams, and ending at a serene lagoon.

Coyhaique National Reserve

We hitchhike back to town, picked up by another Santiago-born transplant, who described Santiago as the grumpiest city in the world…he hadn’t been to London. Over a cup of tea in the cafe we declare this trip just an intro to Patagonia and that we’ll be back to take care of our unfinished business. Buying a sleeper van and coming down for two or three months sounds good to me if anyone wants to join.

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