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Crossing the invisible line in the middle of nowhere

Paul 2007-04-11
We heard of the possibility of continuing north from Fitz Roy on a foot trail and crossing the Argentina / Chile border through wilderness. The concept, filled with romanticized adventure, drew us in.

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The way had three stages: a van could take us north 37 km on a farm road that dead-ends at the southern end of Lago Desierto. We'd hike 45 km up the length of the lake and through a mountain valley to Candelaria Mancillo, where a once-a-week boat stopped at its port before cruising three more hours to Villa O'Higgins, the southernmost point of Chile's incredible Carretera Asustral (Southern Highway).

The trick was getting to that boat on time, because it waits for no one, but we'd have to wait a week for it if we missed it. Everything had to go according to schedule to make it work, because the boat would pass in two days, and we had a solid two days walking ahead to get there.

So, after a good night's sleep in El Chalten we hop in the van that would drive us as far as the road went. Raoul, our driver kept staring out at the side view mirror. Several times along the way, he stopped, walked to the rear wheel, examined it before hopping back in and driving on, saying nothing. Until one time when on his return from his mysterious stops, he announced that the van was broken and we could not continue.

He said that at a farm ahead, he thought that there was a radio where he could call back to town for help. But even the most optimistic rescue schedule wouldn't give us enough daylight hours to hike the required day's distance to catch the boat the next day. Our optimism sank as we realized we'd have to turn around and forsake this route.

Then, as if sensing the importance to us, he and his front-seat mate-sipping cohort Andre crawled under the van and seemingly futilely started banging a rock against the wheel. We overheard one say to the other: "un más grande!", before such a bigger rock was produced, and the hitting transitioned to heavy duty smashing. Then, quiet. As he slid back out, he said ok, let's go! Apparently a rock had lodged itself in the brakes and the friction had heated the wheel to the point he thought it would explode. He knocked it out and all was well.

A rush of hope and expectations filled us as we started off again. Maybe this would be our way after all!

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The hike was generally as magnificent as others, but with its own special flavor. At one point, the deep, hum-free silence was broken by an attention-snapping thunderous slap followed by a earth shaking deep rumble as our eyes scanned for what we knew was a huge chunk of ice breaking off the mountaintop. Across the valley and high up, we saw it smashing to pieces as it crashed down the mountain, instigating the spectacular sight of the slow creep of an advancing avalanche. For several minutes we stood in awe of the immense spectacle we knew we were the only human witnesses to.

After the first four and a quarter hours we'd covered the fourteen kilometers of tough terrain that was sometimes more like climbing a cliff, pulling ourselves upwards in grunting motions one foothold at a time, arriving at the northern point of the lake. There, an Argentinian military outpost, whose young soldiers serve isolated one-month rotations before swapping with fresh-smelling replacements, we had our passports stamped for the country exit.

Photo: CIMG7388 (2007/03/17 10:49)
The actual border lay another two hour hike on foot and horse trail north, where we set camp. The border, where the trail widens momentarily to host a sign "Bienvenido a Argentina" sitting a few meters before another "Bienvenido a Chile". Nothing more. Nobody and nothing but trails leading in both directions from the signs.

Standing there, the absurdity of borders was underscored: imaginary lines drawn on maps across unbroken, undifferentiated land. I hope for the day when the concept is taught in the history classes of people who think of themselves as citizens of the world.

Why do we try so hard to find the few differences that one human community has from another and cling to these, instead of recognizing the overwhelming similarities? Dreaming of exotic far-away places, I always expected to find these to be utterly different than life I've known. But the more of the world I've seen, the more I see that while we tend to notice the differences, they are few compared with the similarities.

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Over the two days of hiking, we saw nobody else other than the military post the first afternoon until we arrived at Candelaria Mancillo. You'd likely think, as we did, that the point this point on the map was a town. Well, when we got there, all there was were two little houses with a fence around them. A fence! We'd walked for two days and saw absolutely nobody. Why the need for a fence here?

Hesitatingly, I open the gate, unsure of whether we'd be welcomed or shot. There, we find a rugged-looking older man and woman, all smiles. Surprised by our presence and curious about how we got there, we are warmly welcomed.

We ask if we could lunch with them. Of course! They were just about to sit down, instead they added a little more water to the casuelo vacuno (ossobuco soup) with noodles and drew a couple more stools around their rustic kitchen table.

It turns out that Candelario Mancillo is their grandfather's name, the first and only to settle here. His decedents, all 3 of them now make up the "town". They run cattle on the land and get all of their money and most of their food from them. The boat that passes once a week supplies them with what they can't, namely sugar, oil, matches and flour...

While they have no telephone, a turbine spun by the nearby stream supplies enough electricity to charge a battery to operate their two-way radio and a few light bulbs at night. That radio is their lifeline to civilization.

Twice a day, the nearby town of Villa O'Higgins has someone who radios all the estancias in the region to see if they're ok. If there's no answer for three days, they send someone to get the body. There's no road to here. Just the boat once a week. They are completely off the map. Except they're on it!

We exchange stories, and I try to understand what would motivate people to live this far away from everything. The answer? The view across the lake is beautiful. There you have it.

The boat arrived precisely on time and took us to Villa O'Higgins, uneventfully. The small town of 300 just got electricity and phone service a few years ago when the road was extended here.

We stayed in some enterprising guy's house, in bedrooms converted by bunk beds into dorms, and took him up on his offer to drive us six hours north to Cochrane. We hadn't planned this too well... We were out of pesos, and there wasn't a bank for hundreds of kilometers. Cochrane, a town of 3000 was rumored to have a bank.

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We drove north on the Carretera Austral, Chile's major highway. As the hours of scenery passed, we kept expecting to find signs of development. A roadside restaurant, a gas station, a hut, something. But, as we learned, this far south, major highway means a dirt road, precarious looking wooden bridges and road that sometimes dead-ends at a dock served by a twice a day ferry. There are no buildings of any kind.

In Cochrane, we were let off in front of the bank. Closed Sunday, we try the ATM. It doesn't produce cash. Our driver has just driven off, and we now stand peso-less in a new town. We think of running after him and seeing if he can take us another eight hours north to the next town, Coyhaique. With 20,000 people, surely cash would be available.

Thankfully, a second bank card operating on the MasterCard / Maestro network (our usual bank is Visa / Cirrus) that we carry for just such an occasion extracts the magic from the machine.

We look at a hospedaje, a small family hotel, but it's gross. Really. The toilet had a floating poop in it. So we find a willing homeowner and set up our tent in their back yard. It's amazing how our own tent is more luxurious than the available accommodations here.

Like most of our experiences in Patagonia, these ones underscore the remoteness of the land. Beautifully raw. Just how we like it. Thank you.

The photos from this post are also on flickr in case you want to see it as a slideshow


Permalink by Bill   |  April 11, 2007 02:48 PM

Sometimes luxury is also in the eyes of the beholder!!!

Super article and thouroughly enjoyed sharing with you.

love you both