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First time on open sea

Posted: 2015-07-09 22:34:00, Categories: Travel, Chile, Argentina, Antarctica, Sailing, 875 words (permalink)

Leaving Ushuaia in beautiful weather.
Leaving Ushuaia in beautiful weather.
We sailed out from Ushuaia in the morning of February 28th in beautiful, sunny weather. It was surprisingly windstill, especially in the morning. Later during the day a light breeze came from the west, the captain turned the engine off and we were moving quietly like sailing ships are designed to do, with just the wind pushing us forwards. We were on the Bark Europa, a hundred year old tall ship which sails to interesting destinations around the world.

Learning how the ropes are connected to the sails.
Learning how the ropes are connected to the sails.
Almost right away after departure started the first training sessions, to make us voyage crew instead of just passengers. One of our duties was to take turns at the lookout on the front deck, watching the sea in front and reporting small boats, icebergs or any other obstacles the ship might risk hitting. We learned how to steer the ship to a compass direction given by the captain and how to handle ropes when setting up or taking down sails. We even put on harnesses and climbed up to the mast, learning where to attach the safety line when working up there.

Dolphins came to greet us in the evening.
Dolphins came to greet us in the evening.
During the whole day and afternoon we stayed in the Beagle Channel, a relatively narrow passage leading out from Ushuaia to the Atlantic. Mostly we saw cliffs and mountains but there were also the town of Puerto Williams and a few smaller settlements on the south side. Many different birds, mainly albatrosses and petrels, were flying around the ship and in the evening a group of dolphins came to greet us. It was a pleasure to watch them dive under the ship and jump in the air on both sides very close to us.

Steering the ship - or helming in sailing slang.
Steering the ship - or helming in sailing slang.
Little by little the canal became wider, at the mouth of it were a few islands and then we were out in the open sea. It was the beginning of the Drake Passage between the southern tip of Chile and South Shetland islands, which are located a couple of hundred kilometers north of the Antarctic mainland. For Sandra and me it was the first time on a real ocean passage, with no land to see for several days.

Sailing in moderate wind.
Sailing in moderate wind.
The wind was relatively light but there was a continuous flow of relatively large waves, or swell as it is called, coming from the west. The waves were not sharp so they didn't strongly hit the sides or splash any water overboard, but made the ship rock back and forth, and roll from side to side. The wind itself came from a different direction, which made the movements seemingly random. There was no easy way of seeing in which direction and how deep the ship will bow at any given time, even when being outside and watching the waves. Inside it was of course still worse and within a few hours we both felt the first signs of seasickness.

Our beds on the Bark Europa.
Our beds on the Bark Europa.
During the following three days we struggled with being seasick, trying to still take part in the activities as much as we could. We took medication which helped a bit, but more important was to pay attention on what to do and not to do. Easiest was to lay in bed, as there the body doesn't try to be in control of the movements. Second best was to be outside and look at the waves or the horizon, and to sit in the deckhouse with large windows was mostly okay. Worst was to read a book or to do anything else which required looking down. The most difficult activities which we couldn't avoid were getting dressed in the cabin and using the bathroom. Nevertheless, we survived and even managed to attend to almost all the interesting lectures about wildlife and practical exercises about handling the sails, led by the permanent crew of the ship.

Practising climbing up the mast.
Practising climbing up the mast.
On the second and third day the wind picked up in speed and turned so that it was coming from more or less the same direction than the swell. It was still relatively light for the infamous Drake passage but a strong good wind for sailing. The waves became higher and water was running from side to side over the main deck. That was normal and nothing to fear about, the ship was taking the waves beautifully and felt secure. And although it was at times more tilted sideways than on the first day, the movements were more predictable. In short, it was behaving like a good sailing ship should. We still had an uneasy feeling in our stomachs but were slowly getting used to it.

On the fourth day of crossing the Drake passage the wind first turned to come from the south and later calmed down. The crew took down the sails with the help of us, the voyage crew (that's how the paying guests are called on Bark Europa) and the captain started the engine first time since Beagle Canal, if not counting the man overboard drill on the previous day. Not long afterwards we saw the first iceberg, a huge block of ice rising to a height of about 100 meters above the surface, and nobody knows how deep below it. Only a few miles further south were the first rocks belonging to the South Shetland islands, our first destination.

A view over El Chalten. In El Chalten, Argentina we stayed at a kind of cyclists' camp. It was a small house at the edge of the town belonging to Florencia, a local woman who welcomed all touring cyclists to camp in her garden against a voluntary donation to cover electricity, gas and water costs. As it was high season, the place was packed with guests. Sharing one bathroom with more than twenty others required some patience, but it was a great place to meet other cyclists on shorter and longer tours, most travelling south but some north as well.

The new owners picking up our bicycles. Our time was slowly running out so we asked Florencia if she'd know someone who would be interested in buying our bicycles. It didn't take long before a friend of her appeared and was interested in mine. We said that we'd like to sell both at the same time, the word passed around and soon came another man who was looking for a bike for his girlfriend. We asked for a reasonable price and both bikes were sold. Next day, before the new owners came to pay and collect the bikes, we would have even had a second buyer for both. We learned that it is difficult in Argentina to get quality bikes and the prices are higher than in Europe. There was more interest than we had expected and we ended up even selling two of our panniers and one of the front bags. A big change in our trip and faster than we had thought! However, we had known that we would have to get rid of the bikes sooner or later and had bought them second hand specially for this tour. After selling them, we felt slighly sad but relieved that there was one thing less to think about.

Hitchhiking on the side of the road 40. Photo by Rafael from Brazil. Our next goal was to arrive in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina about 1000 kilometers further south mostly through the treeless pampa. In between we had to still pick up a package containing some winter clothes from Puerto Natales in Chile. It would have been possible to travel by bus, but we had still over a week of time and decided to try hitchhiking. When travelling on the Carretera Austral, we had often seen hitchhikers by the roadside and without bicycles it was now easier for us too.

The way of the thumb worked well. Every time nice people picked us up, we got to practise our Spanish and enjoyed a lot of mate tea as almost in every car the traditional cup of mate was passing around between the passengers. We made our way to Puerto Natales in one day, probably faster than it would have been by bus. There we stayed a couple of days with a CouchSurfing family before continuing forwards. To get out of Puerto Natales was a bit more difficult, but after a couple of hours waiting and walking we got a ride near Punta Arenas, where we camped by the seaside. Next day, the first car picked us up and we only had to change once for a ride directly to Ushuaia. Not only did we get there in time but had also local contacts in the city to spend some time with, perfect. Through a recommendation of another traveller we met in Puerto Natales, we also found a very friendly family from which we rented a room for our last few days in Argentina.

Ships in the port in Ushuaia. Bark Europa on the left looks tiny compared to the big cargo ships and cruiseliners. Soon after posting this, our next big adventure will begin. Tonight we will board the sailing ship Bark Europa for a 52 day sailing journey to Antarctica, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha and South Africa. During that time we won't be able to post anything in the blog nor read our emails, and naturally our mobile phones won't work either on the seas. For me, it'll be the longest time without Internet since I started using it 20 years ago. Probably hard, but I'm sure I will survive. :-) It is however possible to follow the progress of the journey via Internet on the Bark Europa homepage. The position of the ship will be regularly updated on the world map and occasionally also logbook entries will be transmitted on the site via a satellite connection. We will write next time in about two months after we've arrived in South Africa.

Road through the wilderness

Posted: 2015-02-27 19:15:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Chile, Argentina, 1258 words (permalink)

Sandra cycling on the Carretera Austral towards Villa O'Higgins. After our hiking trip in National Reserve Cerro Castillo we continued cycling south on the Carretera Austral. There were no cities or major towns any more and even villages were further and further apart from each other. Especially the last 200 km stretch from Cochrane until Villa O'Higgins was a small road through the wilderness, with few houses and plenty of moors between the mountains, rivers and forests.

Inside a marble cave near Puerto Rio Tranquilo. After Villa Cerro Castillo the pavement ended and the road headed directly west for quite a while before turning south again. The next slightly bigger settlement was Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a touristy town famous for its marble cliffs and caves. Like most visitors, we took a boat tour to see them. The boat spent more than half an hour near the rock formations and went inside several of the caves, so we were quite satisfied with the tour. The way back was like a roller coaster ride, the small boat jumping up and down the waves on the windy lake.

Our camping place next to lake General Carrera. The road followed the coast of the lake General Carrera, at times high on top of the cliffs offering marvellous views of the lake. At the bridge over the narrow passage between lake General Carrera and lake Bertrand we stopped for a break. A Chilean family was enjoying the sunny afternoon and the father started fishing using a simple reel of line, a hook and baits. Within twenty minutes he had caught three trouts, one weighing a bit less than a kilo and two smaller ones, one of which he gave to us to cook for dinner.

Baker river just before joining the Nef. Following day we arrived to the southern end of lake Bertrand, where the water was flowing out forming the beginning of the Baker river. It was one of the most beautiful rivers on our route, with clear blue water rushing down the valley. Some 15 kilometers further south was the confluence of rivers Baker and Nef, where large masses of water joined each other with great force. The water from Nef was much more brown so Baker lost its superb colour at that point.

Horseman on the alternative route near Cochrane. Before arriving to Cochrane, we took an alternative route on the other side of the Baker river. In distance it was probably even a bit shorter than the main road, but included a very steep climb of 500 meters of altitude over a pass. We had to push our bikes several times, but enjoyed the views and the quietness of the route — during the whole 30 km we saw only one car and a horseman.

Cochrane was a slightly larger town than all others in the region with a couple of thousand inhabitants and a better than average selection of groceries. We bought food for a week knowing that there wouldn't be any shops during the next 230 kilometers, and headed out to the last section towards Villa O'Higgins, the southernmost point of the Carretera Austral.

Wetland by the side of the road towards Villa O'Higgins. The first 40 kilometers after Cochrane was very bad gravel with a lot of washboard, not the most enjoyable cycling experience. There was also still a significant amount of traffic, mostly cars and minivans heading to Caleta Tortel, a village famous of its wooden walkways by the sea. We were not willing to cycle 25 km there and the same way back to see the village so we skipped it and continued directly south from the Tortel crossing.

After the crossing of Caleta Tortel the number of cars reduced dramatically and the road became nicer and nicer. Water was flowing down from the mountains on both sides of the road in numerous small streams. There were many lakes and even more wetland, making us feel like being in Swedish or Norwegian Lapland. It was the only road through wilderness with only an occasional house every 10 or 20 kilometers, which contributed to the Lapland feeling. Although even here fences often separated the privately owned lands from the public road, there were plenty of wonderful places for wild camping.

Mountain lakes seen from a viewpoint near Villa O'Higgins. We came forwards a bit faster than we had anticipated and arrived in 4,5 days to Villa O'Higgins. It was a rather pleasant village or small town, mostly living from the tourism but featuring modest family-owned guesthouses and small grocery stores instead of hotels and fancy restaurants. It was a dead end for everybody coming by a motor vehicle, which meant that most didn't bother to drive that far. There was a general sense of calmness and we heard of many people who had stayed in the village longer than they had originally planned. We spent three days resting and going for a couple of short walks, and would have probably stayed for some days more if we didn't have a certain date to be in Ushuaia, still quite a long way further south.

For cyclists and backpackers, it was possible to continue further from Villa O'Higgins and to cross the border to Argentina. Actually there were even two alternatives, a road and hike over the mountains to the east and a more well known ferry crossing plus hike towards the south. We chose the latter, mainly because it brought us much more directly towards Puerto Natales, where we had sent a package at the beginning of our trip to pick up later.

The ice wall of the glacier O'Higgins. One of the two ships crossing the lake O'Higgins offers a half day side trip until the glacier carrying the same name. Compared to the steep fare of simply getting on the other side of the lake, the glacier tour was more reasonably priced so we decided to go for the full package. The tour brought us close to the impressive wall of ice several dozen meters high, with small icebergs breaking off and floating on the lake. We had never been so close to a big glacier before and with its various shades of blue it was more colourful than other glaciers we had seen on the trip. As a small surprise a glass of whisky with glacier ice was served to all passengers. We opted for the kids' version of juice and ice, adding alcohol to our already slightly upset stomachs after the trip on the windy lake didn't feel like a good idea.

At times, it was even possible to cycle on the hiking trail instead of pushing the bikes. The majority of passengers returned on the ship to Villa O'Higgins, we and a few others stepped out on the south side of the lake, where we camped for a night before continuing. The Chilean border control was only a few hundred meters further, the actual border with Argentina 15 kilometers away. Until that point there was a narrow gravel road, followed by a 6 km hiking trail leading to the Argentinian border post at Lago Desierto. It was a scenic but pretty strenous day, as our loaded bicycles were not the ideal vehicles for a narrow trail going over roots and stones. However, we got through with lots of time and patience, as all the other cyclists taking the same route.

Lake Desierto with the famous peak of Fitz Roy in the background. Lake Desierto was a beautiful place for a rest day. It was free to camp at the northern shore and during the first evening we had a great view to the Fitz Roy mountain and other high peaks over the lake. One day later we took another expensive ferry over to the southern shore to avoid another longer stretch on a hiking trail around the lake. Then it was only a 40 km easy ride to El Chalten, a touristy town and a hub of hiking trails near and around the famous mountains and glaciers. For us, it was the ending point of our bicycle tour, and the beginning of a new chapter in our travels.

Like a painted scenery

Posted: 2015-02-21 14:52:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Hiking, Chile, 1462 words (permalink)

Arto on the ridge, looking down from the high plateau near Cerro Castillo. Photo by Sandra Teräs. We cycle with backpacks on top of our panniers so we can stop, repack, leave the bicycles and proceed on foot whenever we want. In National Reserve Cerro Castillo we went hiking for half a week, mostly through valleys but also over two mountain passes, near sharp high peaks and glaciers. On the top of the second pass, we had a view towards the south over hills, valleys, rivers, lakes and forests, looking like a painting.

The road a few kilometers south of Coyhaique. After a couple of days in Coyhaique we continued further towards south on the Carretera Austral. On the first day we rode through a rather dry landscape with a strong tailwind pushing us forwards. In the best downhill I reached 76 km/h and Sandra 66 km/h. Late afternoon just before the village of El Blanco we stopped at a house which had chicken running around in the garden and a sign "Eggs for sale". We asked for six, the friendly old man packed us seven and didn't even want to accept any payment. On the opposite side of the road was a house selling home made cheese and we also went there to buy some. This time we paid but got a quiet wind protected place to camp behind the house for free.

Sandra crossing one of the small rivers. On the following day we continued towards National Reserve Cerro Castillo and soon crossed the border of the park. The road was a steady uphill, but paved and not too steep. A French couple in Coyhaique had given us a hiking map of the area which they didn't need. Around 2 pm we arrived at the starting point of one of the two longer trails crossing the park. We checked that we had enough food and made a rather spontaneous decision to go on the trail. We hid our bikes and panniers between bushes, packed everything we needed in two backpacks and started walking.

Valley of the river Turbio, with the mountain pass in the background. The first 15 km of the trail was relatively flat, following a river valley through a forest. It was fairly easy walking except for several small river crossings without bridges, which meant that we had to take off our shoes and walk through the cold water. Sandals would have been useful but we had left ours at the bikes to save weight. On the first evening we walked about two thirds of the flat part and set up our tent next to the river. Officially wild camping is not allowed in Chilean national parks and reserves, but in less frequented areas it is usually rather easy. We're not doing open fires and naturally not leaving any trash behind us.

Approaching the pass. During the night and morning it was raining, but shortly before noon the rain stopped and there were more and more openings in the clouds. We came to the park rangers' hut and got some information about the route ahead of us. In Chile it's even more useful to talk to the rangers than in Europe because the maps are usually not very detailed and often outdated. Also in this case a couple of new campsites and one trail weren't marked on the map, and another trail which was on it didn't exist any more.

Glacier right after the pass. After a few more kilometers through the forest next to the river the path started climbing up towards a pass. It wasn't a very long climb, about 500 meters of ascent on a good trail brought us to 1300 meters of altitude. That doesn't sound very high, but it was comparable to trails a thousand meters higher in the Alps: above the treeline, windy and snow fields remaining in places where the sun didn't shine the whole day long. A nearby glacier reaching down to about 1500 meters of altitude was keeping the temperature lower than it otherwise would have been. We could see the glacier from just a couple of hundred meters away, with melting water flowing down in numerous small streams, joining each other further down to form a river.

Campsite in the forest. The crossing of the pass was easy, the descent on the other side rocky and steep. It probably took us more time to go down than we had needed to hike up. However, after an hour of carefully descending step by step we had the steep part behind us and the trail became easier again. It went still down for quite a while first through gravel and then through forest before reaching the campsite. The facilities were very basic as on every site in Cerro Castillo: some flat space to set up tents, a dry toilet, a table and a couple of wooden benches, drinking water from the river flowing by. We had the whole site for us, the park rangers at the hut had been the only people we met during the whole day.

The mountain lake being fed with glacier water. During the night and morning it was raining again but similarly to previous day the rain stopped before noon, with a mix of sunshine, clouds and a couple of short showers during the rest of the day. The trail led us up to a clear mountain lake with a small meadow of green grass on the eastern shore, gravel and rocks in all other directions. We had a picnic by the lake and then climbed the steep and rocky slope up to a ridge and a small highland plateau. There we met the first other hikers since the start of our walk. It was the most famous section of the park and there was also a shorter trail leading to the same point, starting directly from the town of Villa Cerro Castillo.

View down to the river Ibanez and the whole landscape below Cerro Castillo. On top of the ridge we could see down to the town and over the whole landscape towards the south. The valley of river Ibanez dominated the foreground, behind it were hills, lakes, other rivers, patches of forest and higher mountains in the background. The Carretera Austral road crossed through from north to south-west with a couple of tiny side roads starting from it. With the shadows of clouds over the land the scenery looked almost like a painting. We sat down and watched it for a while before continuing further on the trail.

On top of the shoulder. The trail went up on a shoulder of a mountain at about 1600 km of altitude, the highest point of the hike. On our right we could see the sharp peaks of the Cerro Castillo, partly hidden behind clouds. The wind was blowing hard and we had to watch our steps when coming down along the steep rocky slope on the other side. Then the trail went again inside the forest where it was easier to walk, but still quite a way until the campsite. Distance marked on the map was 1,4 km, which was apparently just the straight line between the two coordinates and had nothing to do with the actual walking distance on the path. On the way, we met Simon, Jose and Clara, three Chileans from Santiago, and walked together with them the last kilometers. Then it was time to set up the tent, cook dinner and go to sleep as usual.

Horses on the trail when hiking down. At the campsite there were a few more hikers going to different directions. We headed down towards Villa Cerro Castillo, again together with Simon, Jose and Clara. On the way we had a 1,5 hour break when Simon set up his equipment and made a multi-channel sound recording for his sound landscapes project. It was a sunny, hot day and we were all quite tired when finally arriving to the town. Next to the main road was a funny looking hamburger restaurant built into two old buses. We ordered a burger each and a plate of french fries to share. The service was slow but the burgers good and huge — I was satisfied with one and Sandra with a half, the rest we packed with us to eat later in the evening.

A huemul looking at us on the roadside. After eating we bought fresh fruits and other food at the minimarket on the opposite side of the street, said good bye to the Chileans and started hitchhiking back to our bikes. There were no buses any more, only a few cars and some competition from other hitchhikers so we had to wait for some time. Finally we managed to convince a pickup driver that there was enough space for us at the back and got a ride. It was a cool ride through mountain landscape in the evening light. And we were specially lucky because two huemules (a Chilean species of deer) were next to the road and the family in the pickup was also enthusiastic to see them. They stopped and we got good photos.

Back at the starting point of the trail our bikes were where we had left them behind a bush. We camped for a night, repacked our gear for cycling and continued further south along the Carretera Austral.

Sandra waiting for a permission to ride forwards. We spent 2,5 weeks in January cycling from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique on the road number 7, better known as the Carretera Austral. It is the main and only road leading south in this part of Chile. Most of the villages and towns on the way are small so the traffic wasn't heavy, and the road surface was in many parts still gravel. However, as the only land route south it is becoming increasingly important, and there is a big effort going on to make it paved at least for the complete northern half until Coyhaique.

Fishing boats next to the Carretera Austral. The first 60 km from Puerto Montt the road followed the seaside, a relatively narrow passage between the island of Chiloe and the mainland. The coast was lined with small fishing villages which looked pretty in the late afternoon and evening sun. We camped on a small grass field facing the sea and could see the sun setting behind Chiloe.

Arto playing with cats at the guesthouse. The next day we left the sea for a while and hit the first section of roadworks: 20 km of bad gravel, dust, trucks and other machines preparing the road for pavement, which unfortunately wasn't ready yet. The day was saved by a very nice guesthouse where we stayed with eleven cats, other animals including dogs, ducks and goats, and a nice family taking care of all of them and us as guests of course. We even got homemade bread and duck eggs to complement our dinner which we cooked ourselves in the kitchen.

Huge wild rhubarb leaves in the Pumalin Nature Park. From Hornopiren there was a 5 hour passage by two ferries until Caleta Gonzalo, where we entered the Pumalin Nature Park. It is private land but maintained in a similar way than national parks, with marked hiking trails, campsites and information services. The park was full with lush vegetation, in particular large ferns and huge wild rhubarb leaves (nalca in spanish), some of them more than two meters across. It was clearly a region with lots of rain and we also had our share, but luckily also a few sunny moments between the clouds. The campsites were beautifully arranged and the same aesthetic appearance was carried out throughout the park, including every sign and information board. Unlike national parks, there were no entrance fees to access the trails, and the campsites were very modestly priced at 2500 CLP (about 3,5€) per person.

Glacier at Ventisquero Yelcho. From Pumalin we came to Chaiten, where we stayed one night in a guesthouse and refilled our food reserves in a supermarket. After Chaiten the road was paved, relatively flat and we even had a good tailwind for the next 40 km so it was easy cycling for a while. Then it was gravel again, but a fairly pleasant and smooth one this time. At Ventisquero Yelcho there was a free camping and a walking trail leading to a glacier hanging down from the mountains.

Small road in a mountain valley leading towards lake Claro Solar. We started meeting more and more cyclists on the way, most of them travelling south as we did. The majority were Chileans, but there were many from other parts of the world as well. One of them, Alex from Australia, joined us for a few days. Together we did a very nice detour in a small quiet valley leading to lake Claro Solar. With the mountains in the background and a couple of farms with cows on the fields it looked a lot like German or Austrian Alps.

A bird in front of the mountains coloured by the sunset. Photo by Sandra Teräs. We passed the town La Junta and about 40 km later stopped in another called Puyuhuapi, where we stayed mostly inside because of the rain and had a rest day. The Internet was good enough to call our families, catch up a bit on what's happening in the world (which we rarely do on the road) and search for information about the areas coming up. In the night there were fireworks and a dance party to celebrate the foundation of the town about 80 years ago.

Bosque Encantada trail in the Queulat National Park. After Puyuhuapi we came to the Queulat National Park, where we saw another glacier and had a relaxed evening with our own small campfire at the park campground. The next day we cycled further and walked the "Bosque encantada" (enchanted forest) trail through a beautiful moss-covered old forest until a laguna up in the mountains. Sandra dipping in the laguna at the end of the Bosque Encantada trail. About 20 other people had also found their way there — surprisingly many considering that the beginning of the trail was poorly marked, and it wasn't one of the shortest nor easiest walks either.

The last 180 km until Coyhaique the road was paved and not too hilly, following river valleys between the mountains. It was sunny again and one of the days was so hot that we had a long afternoon break cooking in the shade and swimming in the Maniguales river. Lake view on a windstill day on the road towards Coyhaique. Traffic became heavier as we approached the city and the road was narrow so it was probably one of the most dangerous sections of the whole trip. Still, almost all the passing cars left us plenty of space and we arrived safely to Coyhaique. That was a perfect place to have a break, take a nice warm shower, get our clothes washed, communicate with our WarmShowers hosts and prepare for the way further south.

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