6. Bonus Spring

Driver, slow down! A child crossing the road could be your son!
Sign at Chaiten-Coyaque road.

I liked Chile a lot. People lived better there than in any other South American country, but life was relatively cheap, and hitchhiking was easy. It looks almost one-dimensional on the map, but all interesting places are away from the Panamerican Highway, and visiting them requires side trips.

The first city from the north is Arica. A highway goes from there to the Altiplano and on to La Paz in Bolivia. The area where Chile, Peru, and Bolivia meet is the most beautiful part of the Altiplano. Its Chilean sector is in Lauca National Park. I spent three days there, climbing volcanoes, walking through picturesque Aymara villages, and looking for wildlife.

Lake Chungara at 4,800 m above sea level is the highest place in the world with forests. It is also one of the best places to see some rare animals: giant coots, vicugnas, Andean cats, diademed plovers, mountain viscachas, and hairy armadillos. This area is said to have the clearest sky on our planet. Watching the stars from the summit of one of the volcanoes was an unforgettable experience. Southern sky has many more interesting things than Northern, and this time it was decorated with a Gothic arch composed of the Milky Way and Zodiac light.

Early mornings were wonderful. Everywhere in the desert, tiny fountains of sand and dust could be seen: large and small rodents were cleaning their burrows. There were so many species of them there, that seeing the same one twice was a rare occasion. Local songbirds all looked like pebbles, but were fun to watch. Some larger birds looked more like boulders, especially tinamous and rheas. The most interesting plant there was Pycnophyllum. It looked like a giant green pillow, sometimes a few meters in diameter. It was hard as a stone, and if you looked closer, you could see tiny violet flowers on its surface.

Lauca was the last place where short-tailed chinchillas survived in the wild. They went extinct in the 1970-s. I was excited to see some animals on a roadside rock, but later learned that they were part of a reintroduction effort, and did not survive.

I met a group of German mountain bikers at the edge of the plateau. They had just arrived from Arica in a small truck, and allowed me to ride down with them on a spare bicycle. That was some ride: 80 km downhill, from 4,500 to 200 m above sea level! At 3,500 m blooming puna gives way to fields of cacti. Below 2,500 it never rains, but fogs get there occasionally. There is only one cactus species there (Browningia), but it is the most weird-looking one: it resembles a squid standing on its tail. From 1,000 m to Arica River valley there is no vegetation at all. The river is lined with the world's tallest horsetails.

Buses are very comfortable in Chile: you even get food and a pillow with a blanket if you take a night one. Next morning I was in Atacama Desert, a long depression between the Andes and the coastal range. It gets no fog, and it hasn't rained there for at least 2,000 years. It is the only place on Earth to see mountains with no traces of water erosion. Flat rocky desert climbs smoothly to 5,000 meters. The road up the slope is a direct line, not switchbacks. Only high peaks look like "normal" volcanoes with spots of ice on summits. There are almost no oases in the area, except for San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in a deep canyon.

I followed the road to the mountains. The vegetation first appeared above 3,500 m: cacti, then grass. We climbed on the Altiplano and passed a tiny sign that said "Chile" on one side, and "Bolivia" on the other. Will I live to see the day when all borders will look like this?

I had no visa to Bolivia, and could only go about 50 km inside before returning to Atacama and then to the coast. The most beautiful place I saw there was Lagunas Coloradas, with three lakes of different color. One is white, one is green, and one red. Three species of flamingoes were breed there at 4,500 m. The winds are so strong that the birds often can't fly and have to walk from one lake to another.

South from Antofagasta, rains occur along the coast after major earthquakes, every 5 to 15 years. Darwin was the first to describe this phenomena, probably caused by changing ocean currents. I moved on, visiting Nature reserves along the road. In Pan de Azucar National Park rains fall almost every year, and there is a lot of fog, so the place has stunning diversity of cacti and tillandsias.

One more night, and the desert was behind me. The country around Fray Jorge National Park looked very much like Armenia or Uzbekistan in spring. Gardens blooming, roadsides covered with orange flowers like poppies and tulips of Asia, Mediterranean grasslands on the slopes, and the smell of young grass in the air. Even birds in the fields were similar: harriers, lapwings, and thrushes. Inside the park the mountains looked like immense flower beds. Even cacti were all blooming. Among many flowers big and small, I occasionally found Lepuropetalon spatulata, one of the world's tiniest flowering plants. It looks like a normal weed with leaves, stalks, and flowers, but can fit in a thimble. Very tame culpeo foxes were mousing in the meadows. There were even cloud forests on sea-facing hill slopes.

I visited a small Nature reserve further south, the last place where long-tailed chinchillas lived, La Campana National Park in the central part of the country, and the area at the foothills of Aconcagua near the border with Argentina. Central Chile is an island of subtropical climate, isolated from the rest of the continent by deserts, mountains, and cold areas to the south. It looks strikingly similar to Southern Europe or California. But you only have to look under a rotten log to see that this is a very different place: ancient and weird creatures can be found there. La Campana is the most interesting of all parks: it is covered with beautiful broadleaf forest, with the most diverse flora and fauna anywhere in Chile. But Aconcagua area is very dry: for some reason, moisture does not get to the slopes above 1,000 m. It is a high desert with lots of interesting cacti and rodents, but not much else. It is amazing how many vegetation zones can fit in an area as small as Central Chile.

Hitchhiking from one reserve to another took many hours of waiting. The trip to Aconcagua area was particularly difficult because drivers were mostly Argentinos there, and they were much less likely to pick up a hitchhiker than Chilenos. On my way back I got a ride to Santiago from a guy who was a cook at a Chilean Navy base. After an hour of driving and chatting, I told him I'd be happy to get to Easter or Juan Fernandez Islands.

"Don't know about Easter," he said, "but I can get you on a boat to Juan Fernandez. Come to our base tomorrow in the evening and ask for me in the kitchen. Some time around ten."

"But how will I get inside the base?"

"Tell them you have Paco's permission."

I didn't believe it, but decided to visit the base just in case.

Santiago was a large city, but it is very clean, quiet, and European: just the kind of a city where a visitor can't find a place to pee. Even books in the bookstores were mostly about European flora and fauna, not South American. I took a bus to Valpraiso, and found the Navy base. It looked like a concentration camp, with barbed wire and watch towers. To my surprise, I was let in as soon as I said "Paco permitted."

"Where have you been?" Paco said, "Your cruiser is leaving in ten minutes! Let's go!"

The captain said it would cost $300. I wasn't allowed to take pictures, and had to sleep in the engine room. The weather was bad during the trip, so there was nothing to photograph anyway. There were lots of interesting birds and whales in the ocean, and riding on so fast a ship was a lot of fun. Juan Fernandez archipelago consists of two islands, Mas a Tierra and Mas a Fuera. Recently the government renamed them Robinson Crusoe and Alexander Selkirk to attract tourists.

Robinson Crusoe is the warmest place in Chile, and the only one with tropical rainforest (which is very small and badly degraded). Upper slopes are covered with fern steppe, much like on San Cristobal in the Galapagos. I had little time there, and spent it running around like a rabid dog, trying to see all Natural wonders of the island. Its fauna is limited to fur seals, seabirds, one hawk, a few small birds (including one very beautiful hummer), and a few dozen insects. But its plants are absolutely unique. It is the last place where the flora of once warm Antarctic valleys can still be seen. The second island has no land vertebrates except one species of bird, and only tundra and meadow plants, but it is more scenic.

We arrived in Concepcion, and I took a bus to Temuco, the unofficial capital of Araucania. A hill on the outskirts of the city was covered with something like a beech forest of Central Europe, but with bamboo undergrowth. Instead of dormice, trees were inhabited by a tiny opossum-like creature called monte, one of the world's most ancient mammals.

Araucans (mapuche) were the only native tribe in the Americas never conquered by the Europeans. The history of this country is as bloody as it gets. But now it is a peaceful land with friendly people, and looks very much like Ireland. Thirty kilometers inland is a large national park called Congillo. It gets a lot of tourists in summer, but in September I was apparently the only person in thousands of square kilometers of its territory. The weather kept changing from snow to rain to sun every half an hour. In the center of the park was Llaima Volcano, but I saw its summit only once. Most of time the sky was covered with clouds. Dust devils danced in barren lava flows. I enjoyed it all: warm wind eating into the snow, white columns of hail moving in front of dark mountain ridges, cold rain, and the smell of spring. I love spring. It was such a wonderful thing, to have it twice in one year!

The forest around me was weird. The most common trees in southern Chile are beeches. There are a few species of them in the area, some deciduous, others evergreen. For reasons I can't understand the evergreen ones grow at higher elevations, up to the timberline. Some of them can be 80 meters tall.

At first I was hiking through deciduous forest with young grass and flowers. There were few insects around, but lots of songbirds and terrestrial leeches (they do not suck blood in Chile, but are mostly predatory). Dark-blue lakes were full of fish, waterbirds, and huge casque-headed frogs that looked like some Silurian amphibians. Tiny pudu deer and large ibises were feeding on the meadows. But as the road climbed higher, I found myself in the shadow of evergreen beeches growing like huge gray pillars in deep snow. The undergrowth was mostly lush bamboo. It all looked kind of surreal. Tropical mantises, beetles, and tarantulas were crawling on the snow. I felt a bit dizzy. I had been in tropical rainforests, high plateaus, coastal deserts, oceanic islands, and Mediterranean grasslands within two weeks. Just as I thought I'd seen it all, I crossed a low ridge to a northern slope and found myself in a forest of giant araucarias. The snow had already melted there. The ground was covered with tundra-like carpet of soft lichens. The place looked like pine forests of Scandinavia, except for flocks of parakeets in the canopy and hummingbirds hovering around early flowers. A pair of large Magellanic woodpeckers followed me along the road, just like black woodpeckers would do in boreal taiga.

I couldn't cross the last pass because the snow was too deep, and had to spend the night in an empty visitor center. Herds of introduced hares filled the forest after nightfall. A large owl was calling from the center roof. In the middle of the night I was waken up by strange noise outside, and found a small armadillo trying to dig a hole under a wall.

The next day was much warmer, and mountain slopes changed their color as branches of deciduous beeches turned red. It was raining all the time. But the spring was still nice. I walked back to the highway, and hitchhiked to the Lake District, the most touristic part of Chile. It looks absolutely European, except for volcanoes, and is mostly populated by Germans. There are lots of people from all European countries in Chile, but they all speak Spanish by now.

The most beautiful of the lakes I visited was Lago Todos los Santos. It is a narrow fjord that starts near Osorno, a volcano famous for its regular shape, and goes all the way to Tronador Peak (3250) at the border. Beech forests and rivers around the lake are inhabited by a strange mix of native and introduced species: red and fallow deer, rainbow trout, torrent ducks, Canadian beavers, and the world's only terrestrial caddisfly larvae.

The southernmost 2/5 of Chile is a labyrinth of channels, fjords, islands, glaciers, and mountain ridges. Most of this territory is only accessible by boat or through Argentina. Chilean government wasn't happy with this, and tried to build a road as far south as possible along the coast. The road is called Carretera Austral. Some parts of it have so many ferry crossings that they are almost never used. The best way to explore the Labyrinth is by sea. I'd love to take the famous ferry to Terra del Fuego, but it only operated in summer and was very expensive. So I was stuck in Puerto Montt at the northern edge of the Labyrinth.

It was not a bad place to be stuck in. To the south was Chiloe Island, which looked like an illustration to Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. To the east was Alerce National Park, a very beautiful place with oldgrowth temperate rainforests similar to Olympic Peninsula in the US (but with giant conifers mostly replaced with giant beeches). After a few days I finally managed to sneak on a ferry to Chaiten, an 8-hour boat ride which allowed me to skip the less used part of Carretera Austral.

It is amazing how similar is the geography of these channels to northwestern coast of North America. Chiloe is a mirror image of Vancouver Island, the straight we were following was an analogue of Puget Sound, and the shores further south looked very much like the coast of British Columbia. The boat moved through the Labyrinth, surrounded by flocks of petrels, cormorants, and prions. Schools of dolphins, porpoises, and penguins were crisscrossing the channel. Other passengers noticed I was watching the wildlife, and soon I found myself giving them a lecture about the local fauna.

I tried to find someone to give me a ride from Chaiten, but instead found that four other people were planning to hitchhike: a young couple from France, a guy from Brazil named Paolo, and Jose, a Mapuche Indian. So we took off from Chaiten together, sometimes getting separated or reunited, depending on space in cars and trucks that gave us lifts.

It took two days to get to the southern end of Carretera Ausral. It is one of the most scenic roads in the world, but it is unpaved and there isn't much traffic. However, there are garbage bins every 500 m, and the roadsides are very clean. We had to walk for hours between rides. In some places the highway goes close to the coast, through wet rainforests with tree ferns, giant Gunnera plants, and fuchsias blooming everywhere. But most parts of the road follow inland river valleys. There are many small settlements along it. They look like villages in Bavarian Alps, except that fences are made of huge beech stumps.

Most of the country was virgin forest, stretching across hundreds of kilometers and numerous National parks. It was still early spring in the mountains, so on high passes we had to walk through snow, but the trees around us were all green. The weather kept changing every half an hour, with brief snowstorms, showers, and sunny breaks. We saw dozens of rainbows every day, and some little known animals, especially when the highway was going along lakes or fjord shores. Small wild cats, very rare Patagonian weasels, and Chilean deer crossed the road in front of us. Elephant and fur seals were playing in the sea. In one place deep holes were dug along the roadside, probably prepared for utility poles. They served like pitfall traps, and I got some small mammals out of them that few naturalists have ever seen: shrew opossums and octodonts (endemic rodents looking like either mole rats or long-tailed baby rabbits).

Jose had a fishing rod, so we caught some salmon and trout along the way. Native sticklebacks and lampreys were also tasty, but very difficult to catch. He entertained us by telling horror stories about the Araucan wars. I thought he was making them up. I didn't believe his great-grandmother had really impaled forty Spanish prisoners. Anyway, I had to recall some tales of Stalin era and Russian civil war in retaliation.

As we were getting further south, the glaciers got more and more close to the road. But the weather was getting better. Cute long-nosed frogs appeared in roadside lakes. Hummingbirds were chasing each other at every meadow. We even got a chance to swim in a hot spring.

Our last ride was the best one: the driver was a chief of a tree farm. He started discussing local flora with me, so we practically switched to Latin and got everybody else bored to death. But he took us all the way to Puerto Chacabuco, seven hours away, and showed us all interesting places along the route. We got to Queluat National Park, and he offered to show us a hanging glacier few kilometers from a turnoff. We were watching this dirty gray river of ice when the ground started to shake, and the entire frontal part of the glacier fell off, leaving bright-blue wall of clear ice behind. It was not a big earthquake, but we could hear avalanches falling in the mountains. We had to get in the car and drive on very fast: there was a good chance of the road being blocked. Soon we got to a high pass. There were lots of avalanche cones along the way, but the road somehow remained free.

We got to Puerto Chacabuco an made a boat trip to San Rafael Glacier, one of very few glaciers reaching the sea from North Patagonian Ice Field. I expected to see some calving, but all unstable chunks of ice had been broken off by the earthquake, so there wasn't any activity. There were lots of dolphins and sea lions in the sea. The fjords looked very much like southern Alaska. On the way back we saw an otter chasing gulls on a beach.

Unfortunately, there were no boats to the next part of the Labyrinth. I'd love to see Ancho Narrows, a deep channel 90 km long but only 100 m wide, with high cliffs on both sides. Jose and the French couple turned back north, while Paolo and I hitchhiked to Coyaque, a large city beyond the Andes. We left rain and snow behind. Now we were about to learn what a spring was like in Patagonia.

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