In the southern end of this long slender country, you come to the end of the road several times. This week we arrived at two of these points, at Puerto Montt on the mainland, and again on Chiloé Island.
It was raining the day we drove into Puerto Montt, Chile’s most southern city on the mainland. After months of sun we had begun to believe that it never rained here. But one morning we woke up to rain and cold. The temperature had dipped to 5C overnight. Not great camping weather.
Getting a hotel in Puerto Montt was a bit of work. We needed a parking spot for Vanna and the first two hotels had spaces that would be tight for even a tiny car. Departamentos del Sur had a big gravel lot at the back. Perfect. The desk clerk quoted me a price way over the booking.com price. So in the lobby I used my cell phone to book on the app. Maybe the clerk was annoyed, or maybe we got the last room, but it felt stuffy and cramped, with an attic style sloped ceiling and 1 small window. It had 4 single beds, a bathroom and a kitchenette. At least it was clean, safe and dry.
The first morning in Puerto Montt we decided to try extend our stay in Chile. We still had a month but the fines are steep for overstaying even by one day. First stop, guided by google, was the Departmento de Extranjeros, supposedly at the Police station. The office opened at 9:30, we arrived at 10. Something didn’t seem right. The tight space in the waiting room was crowded with people who looked pretty tough. Other foreigners? More like thugs. Paying fines? Checking in with their bail officers? A guy in a suit stepped out of his office. “No, you have to go to the government building by the plaza.”
So we walked down to the plaza and found the imposing Gobernación Provincial building. Broken or boarded windows, black graffiti messed over the white walls, it looked abandoned. It took a minute to realize it had been badly vandalized, probably during the volatile protests before Christmas. In the first door security told us to go back outside and around the building. So in the correct door, and we found the office. A woman working there said that yes we could apply to extend our tourist card, but we would need to bring photocopies and the process would take a month. We didn’t have the photocopies, so we left.
We knew that Vanna’s permit extension would have to be done at the Aduana which was at the mall. So off to the mall. At first we could not find the office. A security guard pointed to the outside. “On the corner” . No wonder we didn’t see it. The entrance with its huge window wall and glass turnstile was completely shattered. Tin sheeting covered the walls and a windowless plain metal door was the only entry. Sad.
Well no luck there either. The guy at the desk said we could not apply to extend Vanna until 15 days prior to her permit expiry date, and she still had 30 days. He explained the process, twice, in Spanish, but I didn’t understand most of it. So we left. We have 2 weeks to figure it out, right?
But by that time we were starting to rethink our schedule.
We walked along the waterfront, stopped at a little museum with historical dioramas depicting the first peoples up to the German arrival around 1850. Then we walked passed blocks after block of artisans selling woven ponchos, knitted sweaters, and carved wood products. Continuing on, we arrived at the Angelo Fish Market. This was worth the walk.
We gawked at piles of seafood and shellfish. Strings of brown smoked muscles dangling over dried green seaweed, piles of red salmon whole or smoked, huge mounds of muscles and clams and oysters.
Surrounding the market are about 40 cocineras, very small restaurants situated on 2 floors. Peeking in as we walked along the second floor terrace, they were packed with people, having only about 3 or 4 tables each. Muy popular. We found a seat in one, and tried to decipher the menu. I settled on salmon and Bob had a white fish, both served with the same side of boiled potatoes, a chunk of plain lettuce and a tomato slice. Not too fancy. But tasty.
For $5 we hopped on a boat that was offering a short cruise. We putted around Isla Tenglo and came back up the channel passed the port for a view of all the cargo and loading of vessels. The explanations were in Spanish and we couldn’t hear much. But we did learn that the ship anchored way out was Chinese. Chile ranks amoung the top countries that export salmon. China has become an important market.
Leaving the mainland, a short drive from Puerto Montt, we boarded a ferry to Isla Grande de Chiloé.
At just under 200 km long, Chiloé is a popular tourist destination. Traffic on the main road was heavy. Cyclists with packed bikes, backpackers, families getting off busses with mounds of luggage. People arrived and pitched tents in the campgrounds at all hours. Sometimes at midnight.
Our first stop was in the village of Dalcahue for groceries. Parked on a street near the water, we met Tom, an American who had just boated in from one of the smaller islands that make up Chiloés Archipelago. He loves this place. It’s safe and the people are kind. Having lived on that island for 20 years, he raises sheep, sea kayaks everyday and recently bicycled down the Carraterra Austral. No mean feat for a younger person. But Tom is 76 years old.
At the southern tip of Chiloé, near the town of Quellón, we came to the end of the road again. Hito Cero (milestone zero) A monument indicates the end of the Pan-American, Route 5, in Chile. It is 22,000 km from Anchorage Alaska, through the 3 America’s, to this point on Chiloé. (There is still more Panamerican highway in Argentina) And bonus, we received a free certificate with our names on it. Just to prove we were there.
Across the water, we could see two snow covered gigantic volcanos, towering high over the other peaks of Chile’s Patagonia region. Magnificent.
We poked around in small villages with names like Chonchi, Vilupuli and Pumillahue. Chiloé is known for its churches built in the 18th and 19th centuries, for the Jesuit missionaries.
Unique because they were constructed by locals, who used native timber and incorporated boat building techniques into the structures. Sixteen of these Iglesias have been declared Unesco sites. So we stopped at several to admire their lovely arched entrances and tiered bell towers.
We turned away from the main paved road to cross the island from east to west. Dairy cows and sheep pastured on rolling hills. The drive was rough though. It was an hour of rocky gravel over many steep hills. How steep? A strip of pavement had been laid on some uphill sections just so the tires had something to grab. The steepest hills we have ever driven.
We camped overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at the Azule Balena Camp near Pumillahue. There we chatted with a couple from France, a couple from Germany driving a rented campervan, two young women from the university in Santiago, and two Canadians.
At 60+ years of age, Vancouverites Mike and Louise are bicycling south to ride the Carraterra Austral. Not for the faint of heart. To add to their challenge, one of their backpacks was stolen in the Santiago bus station. They had to buy replacement sleeping bags, pads and cookware. But undaunted they kept cycling. We shared a fun evening and a few bottles of Chilean wine.
Two types of penguins, the Magellanic and the Humboldt have some small colonies off the island’s north west shore at Puńihuil.
Arriving there our last morning on the island, the gravel road abruptly ended at the ocean. Where to? We asked the neon vested guy on the beach. Simple. Drive down the beach. At the other end we could pick up the road again.
Boatloads of penguin seekers were heading out to the nearby islands. Pods of tourists in orange life jackets were standing on a big wheeled cart. Two guys wearing hip waders pushed the cart through the water to the boat. Weird, but it worked. To us, the tour boat to penguin colony ratio seemed high. Lots of boats, few penguins. With the camera we could zoom in on the penguins from shore. So we didn’t go out.
South of Puerto Montt is the Carraterra Austral. Also known as Route 7, it traverses through a vast region of islands, fiords, glaciers, and mountains. Chile’s Patagonia. Over 1200 kilometres long, ferries are necessary for bits between roads. This remote route ends at a place called Villa O’Higgins.
End of the road….again.
A dream trip for many is to bike, hitchhike or drive the Austral. Its been on our minds since we arrived in Chile. Can’t wait to get on that road.
But first, we will be meeting up with friends from Canada, who are arriving soon at Puerto Montt.