While I was visiting Casablanca, I was trying to figure out what to do next, and I came across a deal to Antarctica that I couldn’t pass up. On February 2 I will embark on a cruise to the white continent! But what to do until then? My new friend Paulina said she had always wanted to go to the marble caves located in the Aysen region of Chile in the heart of Chilean Patagonia. They were on my list of things to see in Chile as well, and I needed to head south anyway, so we made a plan to go see them. And by “made a plan” I mean we bought a ticket to fly to Balmaceda the next day and booked a room for one night in some lady’s house and nothing more. I have never travelled so spontaneously, but so far I have really been enjoying the adventure.
We arrived in Coyhaique and made it to Maria Elena’s house. I took it as a good sign that her name was Maria Elena, just like my mining town in the north. Since she immediately offered tea upon arrival, my streak of being well taken care of by Chilean Maria Elenas continues. Coyhaique is the regional capital, and is a good base for exploring the surroundings if, like me, your definition of adventure doesn’t include camping and trekking. There were a few companies in town offering day trips, and the town itself was worth walking around. We decided to stick around town and since we liked Maria Elena we asked if we could stay a few more nights. No problem!
We went on two day trips from Coyhaique, one to the marble caves of course and one to Queulat National Park. I had never heard about this park before, but it had a beautiful hanging glacier with a waterfall over a lake. We opted for the less strenuous hike (which was a path that looked like it passed through Hobbiton), took the boat ride on the lake, and watched as a few giant pieces of ice fell off the glacier. The marble caves were equally spectacular and well worth the trip down here. You have to cross a pretty tempestuous portion of Carrera Lake (the second largest lake in South America) to get there. The ride back was like a roller coaster, with the small boat jumping and tossing and turning in the waves. But that is the price you pay to see all the beautiful rock formations and colors in these caves.
In Coyhaique, we found a wonderful lookout point that offered beautiful views of the river below, passed by the Indian rock, and did a tasting at a brewery on the edge of town. Another nearby national park had us hiking all day, passing by many lagoons and peaceful forests. To cap off all this adventure, I got a little taste of something I had always wanted to do but had never tried: hitchhiking. Hitchhiking, is a fairly typical method of transport here where buses are infrequent and few connections exist up and down the Carretera Austral.
The park was only a few miles outside of town, so we did not hitchhike far, but boy did it feel strange. First of all, just standing by the side of the road waiting for a car to pass can take a while. It is so disheartening when you see a car and you hold out your thumb and they pass by without stopping or even looking at you. Do I look particularly dangerous or dirty??!! Some hitchhikers wait hours for a ride, which does not seem to me like the best way to spend the day. You really have to have time and be flexible in your schedule (and willing to wait…and wait) if you are going to try and travel the entire Carretera Austral “a dedo.” But many people do it.
Fortunately for us, after just a few attempts, Nelson stopped and gave us a ride back to Coyhaique! We immediately engorged ourselves on pizza and beer as a way to celebrate a job well done and the end of this leg of the adventure. Pauli returned to Santiago and I continued up the Carretera for a few days.