We had to be in Puerto Montt by January 23rd 2012 to meet Warly’s brother Nicolas, and his girlfriend, my best friend Virginie. We could have taken a bus from El Chalten to Bariloche, and then cross the border to Puerto Montt. But the road 40 in Argentina is said to be boring, and we were really fed up of the patagonian steppes. We wanted some Andes mountains!!!
So we changed our plan. We decided to take the Caretera Austral, a small road that pass along the Andes and the Chilean lakes. This road really looked amazing on the guide book, but to rejoin it seemed quite an adventure. You have to take a bus from El Chalten to el Lago del desierto (Desert Lake) , cross the lake by boat, then walk for 22kms and get your passport stamped at the border posts (you can have horses to help you with that trek, but only if you come from Chili to Argentina, not the other way round), then take another boat across the huge Lake O’Higgins, and finally take some buses for a 2 day trip up to Puerto Montt.
But well… that was the initial plan, and things didn’t happen as planned ;-)
We left at 8am from the hostel los Pioneros del Valle in El Chalten to take the bus for el Lago del Desierto. The hostel was quite nice and pretty new. We had to change rooms because we didn’t book the whole stay and the hostel was full. The bus from the company Las Lenguas took us on a gravel road to the Lago del Desierto, the path is following the small valley, and we arrived on the lake banks at 10:30am. As I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough food for the trip, I bought 5 little breads at the inn near our stop, and we sat down to eat breakfast. Moreover, two Brazilian guys we met at the hostel gave us some bread before leaving, so we had food for the trip after all. We must have messed up at some point while regrouping the info, because there were no boat crossing when we arrived the lake, well not until 5pm… And as we didn’t have any place to sleep that night, we really had to get to Chili by the end of the day (we read in the guide book that there was an hostel at the Chilean border post). So we decide to walk along the shore of the lake. On the map, this is a 13-km trip, it should have been over in 3 hours.
The desert lake stretches in the narrow valley near El Chalten, and if the lakes is 13 kms long, it is not more than a kilometer wide. We began our trek pretty confident with all our stuff on our backs, but it wasn’t long after that we became disillusioned. Our backpacks are really heavy, the path is difficult to follow, narrow, steep, hard to see on the ground. We made many mistakes and we were so frustrated at some point, we were thinking into going back. Then, we met Sebastien on the path, a french guy living in Barcelona, in South America for 6 month. Thanks to his good mood and energy, we found back some confidence and carried on.
He’s also a open source advocate, and a computer geek. What are the odds to find someone like us in the middle of nowhere!
We reorganized our bags so that we only have one backpack, I took some of Leeloo’s weight in my bag, and it was tough on my back. I couldn’t really wear the bag correctlty on my back, and as it is a bit old the straps on the hips are too loose, I couldn’t block it right. We finally arrived on the other side of the lake at 5pm, at the camping site near the Argentine border post. We couldn’t go on, it was too late to cross the border and go to Chili. We were a bit annoyed, because we didn’t own any tent, and we had nowhere to sleep. We walked around the camping site to find a shelter of some sort and asked the customs officer if he knew about a place we could stay because of our lack of tent. He didn’t really cared about our problem.
We finally found some kind of shed, where a boat, some gasoil tanks and several mattresses were left under the roof. I made a little shelter out of the mattresses, we were afraid a little of insects, ticks and bedbugs, so we sprayed our bed with loads of insecticide.
My hiking shoes were dead, the lost their first sole the day before, but our last trip during the day has definitely killed them. I was very sad about it, the body of the shoes was still in pretty good shape, only the soles were missing, but we couldn’t change them. On the other side, it was 1.5 kg less to bear in our journey across South America. So I found them a nice place to stay in a corner of the shed, hoping they enjoy the weird sounds of the weird birds that pass by and soothing lake waves.
We woke up several times during the night, it was very windy, but luckily our only sleeping-bag kept us warm all night long. We woke up at dawn in a disturbing quietness. There was no more wind, no more sound, nothing but a wonderful view on the lake, a few meters from us.
We left the camp at 7:10 am. We had to walk 22 kilometers before taking the boat to sail across the O’Higgins lake. The small path climbed up during an hour and a quarter and then arrived at Laguna Grande. We continued on the way, and the trail was more plain. We took a break at 10am. It was becoming hard to continue, and Leeloo has some problems with the weight of her backpack. Our food stock was limited but we was supposed to be enough for the day. We quickly arrived at the official border between Chili and Argentina, and the path became a road.
We ate our lunch near 11am, 7 kilometers before the end of the trail, we walked way faster than the day before. Sébastien, calmly left camp at 9am, and met us on the road near 12:30am. We walked together the last kilometers before the Chilean border post. One last kilometer and we arrived on the banks of the mesmerizing waters of Lake O’Higgins, where we had to wait 3 hours for the boat to come.
The sail across the lake took us more than an hour and a half, but the landscape is breathtaking. The Andes mountains arising the cold blue waters of the lake, in the middle of nowhere, we were totally in awed of this pure and beautiful piece of nature art. On the boat deck, we met friendly guys, one german and the other german swiss. Once the lake is crossed over, we took a bus the 9 kilometers between us and the Chilean village of Villa O’Higgins, last town at the very south of the Carretera Austral, the magical road that runs along the Andes to Puerto Montt, far far away in the north…