Patagonia 2015

by Tristan MacDonald

Photographs by Tristan MacDonald
Web Page Construction by Linden B. (Lindy) Sisk

Note: Most photos are links: click on the photo to view a larger image.

L-R: John (JJ) James, John Tesdorpf, Tristan MacDonald

It was with great excitement that the three mochileros, John Tesdorpf, John (JJ) James, and Tristan MacDonald, set out on the 9th of February for Patagonia, Chile. Lindy Sisk was unable to join us on this trip because of a previous engagement. We headed out of St. Augustine in JJ's Outback, which was conveniently going south to Miami with his wife Rhonda on a business trip.

After dinner at Miami Airport, we boarded a LAN Chile flight bound for Santiago, Chile, arriving at 8:30 AM the following day. We had to wait for a connecting flight at 1:25 PM for Balmaceda. We duly arrived at 4:45 PM, and rented a Suzuki SX4 fairly routinely apart from language difficulties. Getting the luggage aboard was much more of a challenge, but from then on we pretty much knew the order of loading. After a 31 mile drive to Coihaique, we settled into a very nice fishing lodge appropriately named Cinco Rios. Dinner and a couple of bottles of Chilean wine put us in the mood for bed.

Arrival at Balmaceda

Wondering how to get the luggage in the car

First lodge

View from the room

Pisco sours

Another view from the room

The next stage was to reload the car for an epic drive towards our trailhead some 300 miles south. After eight hours of driving mostly on dirt roads, we arrived in Cochrane, where we spent the night in the Cabanas Hervilla, a two room hut, very clean and very hot with a wood burning stove sufficient to heat a large house. After dinner at Ada's Restaurant, the beds felt fine, and it was decided that we would get breakfast the following morning at the lodge in the Park Patagonia, the site of our intended hike.

On the road south

Road down to Puerto Tranquillo

Cerro Castillo

Lago General Carrera, 2nd largest lake in South America

Headwaters of the Baker River


Cabins in Cochrane

Guanaco (click the link)

Chacabucco Valley

The next morning, the weather was fair and cold, and after doing a final repack of packs, etc., we headed out at about 9:30 AM. On arrival at the park headquarters, we realized that breakfast was out of the question, and coffee only a maybe. All shoes had to be removed as you went into each building, as the floors were polished to a dangerous shine. John and JJ managed to snag a cup of coffee, but I was rudely told that coffee was not for me. Quite disconsolate and very under hydrated and under fed, we headed up the road (still dirt) towards the trailhead 16 miles towards Argentina.

The stone hut at the base of the trailhead is being refurbished and this area will be used as a campground for hikers in the future. The whole park is a work in progress, but the bridge over the Chacobucca river was in place, saving a wet start to our hike. We finally started to walk over the first 1.2 mile stretch of dry riverbed toward the Valle Aviles, which was the site for our hike. Reaching the far eastern side of the valley, we climbed steeply out of the riverbed towards a bench above the Aviles, which would be our route for the next 6 miles or so. The trail went up steeply and down steeply as it crossed multiple rivers and washes, and about five miles in I ran out of steam. I believe it was a combination of no food for breakfast, dehydration, and a maladjusted pack. I was carrying too much weight on the hips, and it was killing my replaced hips. After some adjustments and a relief from the load I was carrying by John, who took a large bag of food which he carried for the rest of the hike.

John and JJ at the trailhead

After a lunch at the side of the trail, we reached a swinging suspension bridge at 5.8 miles. The bridge is suspended over a gorge about 150 feet over the river. Crossing this to the western bank of the river was exciting and another rest was taken to regain our composure. Onwards and upwards we went, walking on a well-maintained trail, through some of the most breathtaking scenery we had ever seen or hiked through. After a further couple of hours, we came to a small stream, and decided to call that a day. We made camp on a fairly level if prickly piece of ground. Most of the trailside was made up of these extremely prickly low bushes, which would be as uncomfortable as landing in cactus. After dinner and a couple of cocktails, and vitamin I (ibuprofen), I felt better and slept well.

First lunch

Suspension bridge over the Rio Aviles

First night camp

After an oatmeal and coffee breakfast, we broke camp and proceeded up the valley, sometimes high above the river and sometimes in the wash of the river itself. We passed and inspected a shepherds hut, long since abandoned but still complete with rudimentary equipment like tin cups hanging on the wall, bed platforms, shelves, and a place to tie up their horses. A short distance on, we came to an extremely fast creek. There was a cairn marking where a bridge had once stood, but no sign of a bridge. It was off with boots, and on with very underused water shoes. JJ found a possible crossing place where the creek looked fordable. John went across first with JJ second and Tristan last. The other side proved to be a perfect campsite for our second night.

On the trail above the Rio Aviles

Abandoned shepherd's hut

Hut interior

John crossing side stream

Second night camp

View from camp near sunset

The following morning dawned with a lot of clouds and a promise, not fullfilled, of rain. It was discovered that John had forgotten to pack his wet weather gear, JJ had a new tent with no poles to give it structure, and Tristan, who was the weakest link in the outfit, was quite tired. After a good deal of discussion, we decided to forego the third night further up the valley, so we recrossed the river and made plans to stay at an interim site that would offer an easier trip out if the weather did turn bad. Apart from a small shower, this did not happen, and after a day's walking we settled for a very small copse of trees near the suspension bridge we had crossed two days before. This proved to be an ideal site with great views of the surrounding mountains as the sun bathed them with light in late afternoon.


Enemy thorn bushes
These made tent placement problematic

Camp three

View from camp

The fourth and last day was spent on a long uphill climb to the bench on the west side of the Aviles river, then across a very flat plateau to a steep descent into the Rio Chacabucco valley back to the car. We decided to revisit the lodge to try to get a late lunch. This proved more fortunate than breakfast, and we were soon seated in the company of three German tourists, who suggested we use the extra day to drive up a road they described as one of the most beautiful they had ever seen — and so it proved to be. After our arrival in Puerto Tranquillo, where there were no rooms in any of the hosteleries, we headed up the recommended road, known as the Bahia Explorado. Having been told that there was a hostel at mile 28, we stopped and procured the last room available of the four rooms. Continuing for the last 19 miles, we saw mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers coming right to the road.

Lunch back at the lodge

The Baker river

The lodge, Bord Baker

It was an unparalleled trip with the ever-increasing vegetation as we came down to sea level following one of the rivers which drain Chile's largest lake, Lago General Carrera. The river merely added more drama to the scenery surrounding us. This sidetrip added a further 93 miles of dirt road to our already impressive total. Staying at this hostel was definitely one of the high points of our trip, not for the comfort it offered, but the two extraordinary people who had run it for the last 14 years. An Englishmen who we met there was touring the country alone on a motorcycle, surely risky business on mostly dirt roads. The couple who ran the lodge we thought might have have been ex-Bader Meinhof members exiled from Germany after that group was broken. The only thing normal about them was their 4-year-old daughter. However, a very tasty dinner of salmon for me and beef for everyone else was finally served at about 9:30 PM, giving us plenty of time to drink a lot of their wine. There was a slight argument with our host, who had been messing around with JJ's phone and altering some of the settings. JJ threatened to leave and sleep in the car, but thought better of it, when he realized that the seats would not recline and it was cold. Lights out at about 12:30 AM.

Are we in the Caribbean?
John on the dock

View from the road

Close to the Pacific Ocean
That's salt water

Nice hostal on the road

The following day we drove the remaining miles north on the Carretera Austral back to Coyhaique, stopping to get fuel and a few things in this rather dismal town. We overnighted at the very luxurious Da Hotel, and visited a quite exceptional restaurant that John had found in the Lonely Planet guide. After an appetizer of salmon ceviche, we were served up several dishes, patatas fritas, and salad, all this accompanying a huge brazier of various meats and sausages. This was kept hot by a layer of boiled potatoes, and beneath that was a layer of charcoal. It was delicious, and was eaten down to the last potato.

After a night spent in our posh hotel, fighting indigestion brought on by overindulence of food and wine, we headed out to Estancia El Zorro, where we were to spend our last night in Chile. The Estancia was in the middle of fifteen million hectares of grazing land, and incidentally is for sale for $10 million. It was to say the least a rustic but remarkable experience, greatly enhanced by about a dozen fishermen from all over the U.S.A. We had lunch with some, and spent our afternoon driving to the Valley of the Moon, which was a vast volcanic landscape stretching further than you could see. Our return to the Estancia was in tandem with the fishermen, all of whom had fish stories to tell. We sat down to dinner in their company, and talked of many things beyond fishing. Our lunch, dinner, wine, bed, and breakfast cost $240 for the 3 of us, which compared favorably with the $5000 a week the fishermen were spending. Then, we didn't get to fish.

Last night

John and JJ looking at the Valley of the Moon

Next morning, we were up and at it for the drive to Balmaceda Airport, which is actually a few huts and a one-runway airport. Our long trip home had started. Arriving home at 2:30 PM the following day, tired from traveling, but excited by what we had seen and done.

© 2015 by Tristan MacDonald
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