SOUTH AMERICA OVERLAND #1

13-Dec-2008: Santiago, Chile to Puerto Montt, Chile

After saving up our holidays for another four years we have started our next overland adventure. Our plans are to drive from Ushuaia, Argentina at the very bottom of South America to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska at the very top of North America. In mid September we shipped our vehicle from Sydney, Australia to Valparaiso, Chile. Our daughter’s wedding had been set for the 29-November. It was a beautiful wedding at Dreamers in Mount Beauty, Victoria. Right after the wedding we flew from Sydney to Santiago, Chile.

Through mutual overland contacts we were fortunate to find Rupert Kaye, another overland adventurer, who wanted to ship to South America around the same time. By sharing a 40 foot shipping container we were able to significantly reduce our shipping costs. Since our vehicles arrived three weeks before we were due to arrive in Chile, Rupert who had arrived a month earlier and had already completed most of the shipping formalities. Within a day of arriving we collected Troopy from the customs warehouse at Valparaiso and drove back to the La Casa Roja hostel in down town Santiago. At the hostel, Rupert met Simon Bartlett who had just purchased a Honda Motorbike. Simon, a draftsman from England, has travelled around India on a Royal Enfield 350 cc motorcycle and has also backpacked in Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia and Brazil. Rupert also has a good mate Eamon, an environmental scientist from Perth Australia, who is also travelling with him in the LandRover for 6 weeks. Since we were all heading to Ushuaia for Christmas we decided to travel in convoy.

We had planned to leave late morning the following day but were shocked when we didn’t wake up until midday. Obviously the busy time we had preparing for the wedding and jetlag had taken their toll. Fortunately our other travelling companions were also running late. We hastily bought supplies from the nearby Supermercado (Supermarket), filled our water and fuel tanks and headed south out of Santiago on Ruta 5, the Pan American highway.
 

The Pan American highway stretches for 48,000km from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to Puerto Montt in southern Chile. This highway is complete except for an 87km impassable swamp between Panama and Columbia, known as the Darien Gap. This highway is considered the world’s longest “motorable” road.

We have been surprised by the excellent infrastructure in Chile. The roads have been very good. The main roads are all bitumen with the minor roads being of a good gravel surface. The roads have been well sign posted and the traffic is very orderly most probably due to the strong police presence. We did get pulled up once for speeding through a small village but were let off with a warning to go lento (slow). Many of the major roads are toll ways and we have paid up to A$10 a day. Fortunately we prefer travelling on the smaller roads so we have been able to avoid the majority of the tollways.

Most nights we have bush camped, hidden away from the main road, usually in forests, by lakes and rivers, and our speciality, gravel pits. Chile appears quite prosperous. There is farming everywhere. The soil is very fertile with unlimited water either from the high rain fall or the irrigation from huge rivers that are fed from the Andes mountains. Where there are no fruit, vegetable, grain crops or cattle, there is the ever present pine and eucalyptus plantations.
 
Our route first took us east to Constitucion and Concepcion on the Pacific Coast before heading inland to the Lakes district. The Lakes district in southern Chile is home to old growth forests, ice capped volcanoes, water falls and crystal clear blue fresh water lakes, all protected by national parks. We spent a glorious week driving from one lake to another. Each night we were able to find great camp sites hidden away beside a lake or river. We saw some fantastic glowing amber sunsets and moon rises.

Our first campsite was at a rubbish dump, true to the Kingsmill Overland travel tradition. However, we had a panoramic view overlooking a sweeping bend in the river and panning out across to the snow capped mountains in the distance. This area is rich in farming. No land is wasted.

The next day, we arrived at La Trinchera on the Pacific coast. The coastline is different with ash grey sandy soil and gravel most likely due to the volcanic activity in the area in times past and present. From here, we tracked south to Chanco passing huge pine forest and eucalyptus timber plantations. Logging seems to be big business in Chile as we saw many plantations everywhere, logging trucks busily trucking loads of freshly felled timber from plantation to timber mills. Kienny was very pleased to be camping without mosquitoes.

From La Trinchera, we arrived at Santos Del Mar, again on the Pacific Coast. We saw a few local fisherman fishing along the shoreline. They were very friendly, showing us their modest catch for the day. One fisherman very kindly gave us a seafood empanada to sample. It was a combination of shellfish cooked in a Napoletana sauce in pie pastry. It was piping hot and the sauce just dribbled down our chins …oh so delicious! Other than Empanadas, we have not quite figured out what is typical Chilean food yet. So far, we have had fried chicken with rice and salad or with chips and boiled potatoes.

After our amazing Empanada experience, we continued our way south to Concepcion. Our second campsite was near Colemu. We stopped by a river under a stand of very tall gum trees and pine forest. The boys, Rupert, Eamon, Simon and Geoff had a swim/wash in the river as the water temperature was just comfortable.
 

The next day, we visited Saltos Del Laja, known as the mini Iguazu. It was very picturesque and very refreshing as we were able to walk right up close to the waterfall. Being a Sunday, there were lots of other local Chilean families enjoying the day out as well. There were enterprising local hawkers peddling their hand carved arts and crafts, showing off their beautiful beadwork and other jewellery made from silver and turquoise. One can’t get away from the ever popular hot empanadas and charqui caballo (horse meat jerky).
 

We were at a fuel station just outside of Los Angeles (Chile) when Geoff discovered he could pick up WiFi internet. This was great for us as we were able to email family to tell them we had arrived safely. We have been able to pick up WiFi internet in most towns and at many of the local fuel stations.
 
Later in the afternoon, we arrived at Collipulli to see a very tall viaduct. This was a very impressive piece of engineering across the Rio Malleco. It would have been a bit scary for the train passengers to look out of their windows to see the deep gorge down below.
 

We made camp 1.5 km down a small logging track, near Victoria. The track brought us to an open area surrounded by gum trees. Once again, we had the place to ourselves. Even the insects did not bother us at all. 

The next morning, we continued on the dusty gravel track to Lake Malleco. The track was lined with thick bushes of what looked like yellow wattle. We are constantly reminded of Australia with all the gum trees and wattle along the way. 

Lake Malleco is very beautiful. From the road, the setting was absolutely peaceful and pristine with a small farmhouse perched on higher ground and overlooking the crystal clear lake. There were two fisherman in their tin boats waiting patiently for the fish to bite. Continuing along, we came to Lake Tolhuaca where we took a 2 km hike up to the fresh water lake and back. We were amazed to be able to see through the clear blue waters down to the bottom of the lake. After cooling off, we headed back to our vehicles and continued on to visit the Termas de Tolhuaca (hotsprings) along the way. This was a small resort with a small pool fed by the hot springs. We saw some locals plastering mud all over their bodies and washing themselves in the springs. We later called into Curacutin to pick up some food supplies and made our way towards Conguillio National Park.
 
Conguillio National Park is spectacular country with old growth alpine forests and grassland against a backdrop of the imposing Volcano Llaima, instrumental in the formation of three alpine lakes. Much of the surrounding area is of sharp volcanic rock and ash coloured sandy soil. Our guide book tells us that this volcano last erupted in 1994. We camped by a rushing stream, sheltered under a canopy of old growth alpine trees in the Conguillio National Park. It was great falling asleep to the sound of the rushing waters nearby.

The next morning, our track took us around the Volcano which is covered with snow almost down to its base. Our route took us past the lava flows. One gets an eerie feeling standing in the pathway of the lava flow. In full flood, this lava flow would have destroyed everything in its path. Only the alpine forests not in the path of the lava flow have been spared.

Our route next took us through Mallipeuco, Villa Garcia and Cunco. This road reminds us of the Ovens and Kiewa Valley Highways in Victoria, Australia. Mallipeuco is like a small alpine village with snow capped mountains in the distance and the ever imposing Llaima never far away. Here, we bought more supplies for dinner. There are many small towns and villages along the way where we are able to buy bread, fruit, meat and vegetables. Most fuel stations accept payment by credit cards. We arrived in Lake Vallarica later that afternoon where we enjoyed lunch by the lake. After lunch, we continued on to Pucon, a mere 15 minutes drive away. The road around the lake took us through some amazing Lakeshore properties. These are private homes with nice driveways and have million dollar views of the lake and the impressive volcano. 

Pucon is definitely a tourist friendly alpine village. The main street is tree lined and very tidy with an abundance of upmarket apartments. There are many shops that sell adventure tours for hiking up the smouldering volcano, hyrdospeeding, kayaking, fishing and white water rafting. This town is buzzing with tourists from all over the world. Goretex seems to be the garment of choice here in Pucon. There are stores that sell North Face, Berghaus, Nike, Merrills etc…so it should be very easy for one to pick up a last minute kit to go mountaineering or hiking.
 
Our travelling companions all jumped at the opportunity to do some hiking and hydrospeeding. Geoff and I were delighted to have a couple of days to stop and catch up on some much needed rest.. We stayed at the Campground La Posa, conveniently located within walking distance to town. We were parked where we could pick up WiFi internet and we all took turns emailing and skyping. 

We met a few other independent overlanders who all have amazing tales to tell. There were two groups riding their pushbikes from Alaska to Ushuaia. There was a German couple who have travelled in their Mercedes campervan all round the world. They gave us good tips for driving through Central and South America. We also met people from the big Overland Trucks, some of whom have been travelling with the same truck for 9 months. It seems everyone is heading to Ushuaia for Christmas, a “tradition” well-known to all overlanders.

We left Pucon via Vallarica where we came upon a procession of school children marching with balloons and chanting slogans. One of their banners was in English. It seems they were marching against drugs in their school community.
 

We have been very impressed with Chile. It is a great country in which to start our overland travels. The Chilean people have been very friendly and helpful. Everyone is very proud to declare that there is no corruption in Chile. So far, we have found that to be true. There is a very strong sense of safety consciousness everywhere in Chile. There is a big police presence in the streets, speed radars on highways and through towns and one policeman even came to our campsite just out of town to check us out. Even in the small fishing boats, all the fisherman wear life vests. At the ports, everyone is required to wear safety helmets and covered shoes.

As we continued driving through the Lakes Region, we were able to stop at roadside stalls to buy strawberries, cherries, cheese and honey. They are much cheaper and tastier than buying from the supermarkets. One can also buy hand crafted wooden furniture from the many artisans. Our route took us through Lican Ray, Lago Calofquen, Pucura, Traitriaco, Conaripe and Panguipilli. Once again, we traversed through hectares of lush green alpine forests interspersed with small farms with the happiest of cows grazing blissfully.

Late in the afternoon, not far from Frutono, Troopy decided to break down on us. Just prior to this, we had switched from the rear auxillary tank to the main tank as the auxiallary tank had run dry. We didn’t get very far when Troopy lost power and stalled. Geoff started the engine again and we would get going for 50 metres when the engine would stall. Thinking we could have air in the fuel system, Geoff tried to prime the diesel fuel line but this worked for only a short distance. Fortunately, the others found a good camping spot beside Lake Ranco which was little more that 1km away so we were able to limp into camp. The fellas worked on the problem and found a micro-switch had failed thereby not allowing us to switch from the auxillary tank to the main fuel tank. This took a little while to find as the fuel tank indicator light showed that the fuel was coming from the main tank when in fact it was still coming from the auxillary tank. A temporary switch was installed until a genuine switch can be found. In all our travels, this is the first time that Troopy has ever broken down. Fortunately the problem was minor.

We continued on our way towards Peurto Montt via Vivanco and Crucero. We stopped for lunch at a spectacular bridge just before the town of Chirre. This bridge straddled a very steep river canyon and was very impressive. We walked up to a small grassy ridge to get a better view of this impressive bridge from a distance. The river canyon is a very sheer and steep drop of about 400 metres down to the rocky river. As we were walking off this grassy ridge, Kienny slipped and began to slide uncontrollably down the steep side of the canyon. Fortunately, the fall was broken by two small bamboo bushes. Kienny tried to grip on to the vegetation but that gave way as it was only grass with shallow roots. Simon quickly grabbed hold of Kienny’s foot to stop her from sliding any further in case the bamboo gave way. Simon and Geoff were able to pull Kienny up off the canyon wall by her feet. It didn’t take long for reality to set in and we were horrified to think that Kienny could have plunged down the steep canyon to the rocky river 400 meters below.

With Kienny having found her legs again, we proceeded towards Entre Lagos along Volcano Avenue with great views of Volcano Casablanca and Volcano Osorno. Both volcanos are snow capped, Casablanca has the sharp ragged peak while Osorno was a bit more rounded at its peak. We decided to stop early atop a small mound overlooking Lake Rupanco. This area is frequented by locals who come to fish for trout in the late afternoon. We all enjoyed a wash in the fresh water and were delighted to witness a beautiful moon rise.

Next morning, we continued on through Peurto Octay and Fruitillar before arriving at Peurto Montt which is the fourth largest seaport in Chile with a population of about 200,000. Our plans are to take the Carreterra Austral Highway south but this involves one or two trips by ferry. As it was the weekend, the shipping and ferry offices were closed. We decided to fill in the weekend by visiting the island of Chiloe, a half hour ferry ride from Puerto Montt. Chiloe is well known for it’s unique houses built with wooden shingle tiles on the roof and even on the sides of the house. It is largely inhabited by an indigenous group. We visited the fishing hamlets of Quemchi, Dalcahue and Castro. It’s interesting that in Southern Chiloe, our current latitude is the same as the most southerly point of Tasmania.

At Quemchi, we stopped for lunch at El Chejo restaurant. This is a cosy little family run restaurant decked out with wooden carved furniture and ornaments. Our miserly Spanish was not a hindrance to ordering food as the owner invited us to the kitchen to sample every pot of food on the stove. There was a big pot of seafood soup, stewed lamb in spices and panfried salmon all served with potatoes and salad. We could also have empanadas. We loved what we tasted that we ordered all three dishes. The Chilean music added to our culinary experience. We were so full we could roll out the door! Eamon the ironman ate all three dishes by himself! He was very satisfied.

In the past two weeks, we have really enjoyed travelling with Rupert, Eamon and Simon. We got along very well and have had many laughs together. Each one has a lot of interesting life experiences to share and we have been fascinated by their stories.

After visiting the island of Chiloe, we will head back to the ferry terminal in Puerto Montt to make enquiries to see if we can take a ferry across to Chaiten. We have heard conflicting stories about Chaiten, which apparently has been decimated by the recent eruption of Volcano Chaiten. We would like to drive the Austral Highway and some Chileans tell us that it is no longer possible while others say it still is.

So, we will keep you posted of the next stage of our overland adventure. Wishing you a Happy and Safe Christmas.
 
The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com
 
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