Archive for October 12th, 2008

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October 12

October 12, 2008

We stepped off into the grand, unplanned unknown of Chile today. Since our idea of what we’re going to do here is a lot looser than it has been at other destinations, and there aren’t too many “tourists-can’t-miss-this” flags (i.e. a Machu Picchu or Ephesus) you can pin into a map of Chile, we suddenly find ourselves with more freedom than we’re used to. It seems odd, but although we are on a lengthy vacation, our time over the past several months has generally been planned far more minutely, and further in advance, than it is when we’re back home and working 9-5.

Currently the plan is to spend some of this freedom camping, hiking and generally communing with nature, because (a) Chile has great natural beauty and (b) camping is cheap and fun.

Last night we’d assembled our things and stripped back a lot of the stuff we don’t need for ambit hiking expeditions, because we decided we’d go somewhere in the direction of the mountains in the morning, and camp there for as long as the idea seemed viable (estimate: one night). This morning, all we knew was that there was one bus only, at 8:30 from Bellavista de Florida, for a place called Banos Morales about two hours out of town, and that we had to aim to be on it.

Banos Morales is the site of a thermal spring, at the end of the road to Cajon de Maipo, an Andean valley that pushes up to the snowline. Here, we thought we could camp by a mountain lakeside about two hours’ walk inside a national park called El Morado.

Well, eventually we did catch that bus. Eventually. But thereby hangs a tale.

After arriving at Los Heroes metro station in good time, we found that since it was a Sunday, the trains didn’t start running until eight o’clock, leaving us a mere half hour to go around fifteen tube stations with one line change after gates opened at the station. Unsurprisingly, we arrived a few minutes late at Bellavista de Florida, where we were supposed to catch the bus.

A chap minding the bus interchange advised us that the same bus could be caught if we raced to Las Mercedes, a further ten or so tube stations and another line change away, by nine o’clock. So we rushed back into the train system, and once again, after a nail-biting few minutes watching stations glide past, arrived slightly late, again, at Las Mercedes.

Having given up hope of catching the single bus that went all the way to Banos Morales, we settled instead for the next bus to San Jose de Maipo, an intermediate stop that was still about 30km from our destination. We thought that from there, we might be able to hitch-hike or attach ourselves to a local collective service.

On the bus, Max dozed off. I wandered up and quizzed the driver to ensure that we went as far as San Jose de Maipo, and this was confirmed. Then I made an interesting discovery: by some unexpected chance, we were actually ahead of the Banos Morales bus. Evidently it was running a bit late. The driver and another passenger combined to explain to me that if we got off in San Jose, we could just switch vehicles and we’d get the ride we needed.

By the time we did reach San Jose de Maipo, the Banos Morales bus was right behind the one we were on, so it took a matter of seconds to transfer at the stop there. After two lengthy subway chases and a bus-hunt, we had our vehicle.

After San Jose, we left the environs of Santiago completely and entered the countryside proper. The terrain began to rise up and on either side of the road snow-covered peaks shone under a blue sky. There was a pretty cold wind blowing in through the windows of the bus. About an hour later, we reached Banos Morales.

Our plan to camp by the lakeside was a complete fizzer, as due to the weather conditions the rangers weren’t letting anyone but fully-equipped “Andinistas” camp within Monumento Natural El Morado. Turning back from the park entrance with our packs, we walked first for half an hour beyond the town looking at potential campsites, and then for an hour or so in the opposite direction. Despite all our surveying, we ended up opting for a campsite right in Banos Morales itself, and pitched our tent about two metres from a clamouring mountain creek, in a small flat cleared area with its own ruined fireplace, and an overturned fridge to sit on.

Having finally divested ourselves of all our camping stuff, we were able to enter the national park. The ranger informed us that due to heavy snow cover within the park, we wouldn’t be able to reach the lake at this time of year without specialised equipment: in fact, we’d only be able to walk into the park for about an hour before having to turn back. This didn’t bother us unduly, as we’d just spent the best part of two hours merely finding a campsite!

(The campsite turned out to be quasi-free – or at least, when we asked the proprietor of the nearest business she said we probably wouldn’t have to pay, and that on no account should we pay anyone to sleep there except the real owner, a woman called Senora Mercedes. Apparently scammers come by and demand camping fees from innocent tourists from time to time.)

It was about half past two, and most of the park visitors for the day were already leaving – families, heavily equipped mountaineers, and groups of friends down for a hiking weekend. As we toiled up the steep, tacking path from the ranger’s office to the glacier, they passed us in numbers. The white-capped mountains were looming overhead, and closer to our altitude we could see drifts of snow thawing in the spring warmth, feeding the streams flowing down into the valley. The terrain was quite barren: no trees and only a smattering of blasted weeds to cover the rocky earth.

After about twenty minutes the grade of the path eased dramatically and a view deeper into the glacier valley began to open up before us. A couple of kilometres away from us everything was shrouded in white, and on the edge of this whiteness we could make out a few hardy, brightly coloured tents.

We approached the point where thick snow came on, and small puddles from the thaw became prevalent on the path, around which we had to pick our way as the biting cold wind blowing along the bottom of the valley gave me an instant runny nose. Here, we had to stop and turn back as the path was entirely snowed under, but we weren’t too unhappy with that.

The path back down to the campsite was much easier, although even colder, as the wind was from the bottom of the valley for most of the way. At one point, we were overtaken by a supremely fit man carrying a massive 110L pack festooned with mountaineering equipment, and half skiing with two climbing poles as he jogged along.

When we reached Banos Morales, we rewarded ourselves with a hot chocolate at the general store, the proprietor of which was an unstoppable joker. A heavy-set woman of about forty, she laughed outright when I enquired if there were “bebidas calientes” (“bebida” doesn’t quite mean “beverage” in Chile), and proceeded to go on about the colour of my eyes, to my embarrassment. I was glad not to be the hapless, clueless American who walked in five minutes later and asked where the bathrooms were, only to be subjected to cutting mockery. There was no fault to be found with the hot chocolates, however.

We purchased some newspaper and a box of matches, scrounged around for bits of kindling, larger pieces of wood, and one long, thick half-burned tree branch, and successfully built a fire on our first attempt. Very satisfying. Finding a billy that had been abandoned at another site, we used it to heat up our pre-cooked rice and sausage dish, and had a hot meal, together with a cup or two of the cask wine we had with us. So happy we were with ourselves that we invited an American couple from Michigan, at the next site, to join us around our fire for a drink. We gave them wine, and they gave us tea, and we had a good chat. They turned out to be enthusiastic climbers, and gave us some tips about where to find hiking equipment in Chile, as one of them had done a year as a student in Santiago, and knew the town pretty well.

By eight o’clock, the cold had become bitter enough to make a retreat to our tent practically mandatory. After running a tap over the last burning log, and kicking the ashes over, we crawled into our sleeping bags and dropped off to sleep.

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