Tales from today, preserved for tomorrow.

Getting to the Valle Chacabuco

Conservacion Patagonica is a conservation group based in San Francisco but primarily concerned with protecting stretches of land in Patagonia. The Chacabuco Valley is just one of these areas which will be eventually donated back to Chile in hopes that they can set examples for future preserves for the country. The Chacabuco Valley was previously sheep farms with hundreds of kilometers of fence installed that drastically reduced the roaming capabilities of herds of guanaco and other animals. Our goal during my time here was two-fold: remove the fence to assist in the restoration of the area back to its natural state, and construct trails for visitors to this future national park to enjoy.

Coyhaique

I arrived into the Balmaceda airport and immediately tried to catch a shuttle for the 40km ride from Balmaceda to the larger city of Coyhaique, which also happens to be the capital of the region. After a little while I could tell something was off.

There were three Santiguans who were also looking for a ride to Coyhaique. After an awkward conversation in Spanish, I eventually realized that the guy I was trying to get an update from spoke perfect English. He told me that apparently there was a fuel shortage and the driver of the shuttle wasn’t sure he had enough gas to get back to Coyhaique. Fortunately the driver took a chance and we made it there no problem.

During the half hour ride I learned more about these Santiguans who I would end up spending the rest of the day with. Fernando and Svi worked for a government agency in charge of alcohol education and were traveling for work to a hospital in Coyhaique. Sindy is a student in Santiago who decided to take a vacation to see a new part of her country. Sindy and I had to take care of some logistics involving rooms and transportation, but Fernando and Svi were happy to tag along since Coyhaique isn’t exactly the center of entertainment.

We learned in the information center that there were strikes going on in the region and they were disrupting all forms of travel, which greatly concerned Sindy and I. Though we had different destinations, we were both trying to get south, and the buses were not running in that direction. I contacted the volunteer coordinator via email and she told me that they were aware of the situation and would be running a private bus back and forth to Coyhaique! I asked if there was room for Sindy and she said no problem.

With our transportation concern out of the way, we set out for dinner and drinks and some more exploring of Coyhaique. We ended up mostly hanging out at Svi and Fernando’s hostel because there really isn’t much to do in Coyhaique late at night. After a couple of noise complaints we decided to call it a night and get some sleep.

About the Strikes

I didn’t learn much about the strikes until later in the trip but I feel now is the best time to explain a bit more. These strikes fortunately didn’t end up affecting my trip all that much but they greatly affected everyone living in the region, and most of the other volunteers I ended up working with. Basically the people of Aysén were tired of being treated like second class citizens to the rest of Chile. Fuel, food, electricity, healthcare, school, and just about every other “cost” was the highest of any part of Chile. This mostly was due to the remoteness.

The people in this area felt that the government wasn’t doing enough to try to help this already poor area out, so they took to the streets and started blockading the only roads in and out of the region. This completely shut down all travel, food shipments, fuel shipments, etc. to the region. It did work to an extent, and they got a few deals worked out with the government in return for opening up some of the blockades. However, at least at the time of my trip, they were still far from getting everything they wanted.

Carretera Austral

The next day Sindy and I were picked up by Don Elvio in the estancia’s (ranch) new 12 passenger van. There were several others on board, mostly families of the workers, all heading for the Valle Chacabuco. Soon we were out of the hustle and bustle of Coyhaique and heading down the Carretera Austral.

The Carretera Austral is the only road connecting central Chile to the south. The Andes had created such a natural road block that until the 1970s, all vehicular traffic had to go through Argentina. This was all fine and dandy until Chile and Argentina got into some border disputes and Argentina started closing border crossings. Eventually the Chilean government said enough is enough and they decided to invest enormous amounts of man power and money into a road all within Chile. Because of all of the work in blasting mountain passes and excavating roads into steep slopes, this 1.5 lane gravel road is one of the most expensive roads in Chile.

For the same reason that the road was expensive to build, it is also a spectacular drive. Despite being on the Don Elvio express going 180 km/h on a gravel road, we were able to take in some spectacular sights along the way. Eventually we made it to the town serving tourists to the famous Capilla de Marmol formation. This was as far south as Sindy wanted to go so after a quick bite to eat we booted her to the curb and continued towards Cochrane.

Cerro Castillo As seen from the Carretera Austral.

The drive only got more beautiful, especially as we started to follow the famous Rio Baker. This river itself is the subject of much controversy and many many other blog posts and news articles from around the world so I’m not even going to go there. I’ll give you a hint though: it involves the construction of a hydroelectric dam which could power all of Santiago, at the cost of destroying much of the Rio Baker watershed. Think of those movies where aliens from another planet (Santiago and the Europeans constructing the dam) come and rape the Earth (Aysén) for all of its natural resources :P .

After arriving at the estancia I was directed to Casa Aysén where I could find Lilly, the volunteer coordinator. I explained to her that I was early and was hoping to see the park before spending all of my time working on it. She told me that I should check out the recently completed Lagunas Altas loop. At only ~20km it’s probably best to do as a long day trip, but I had time to kill so I planned on doing it slowly and camping for 2 nights up in the high lagoons area. This also gave me an entire day to tag Cerro Tamango and Cerro Tamanguito, two minor peaks accessible from the trail.

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