Picking up hitch hikers, life at altitude, landing on the tourist trail, and time travel

When you pick up a hitch hiker you have a very,very short period of time for you both to figure out if either of you are a serial killer.

As I rolled past, he put his cigarette out on the heel of his Vans and put the butt in his pocket. Serial killer he may be, but a considerate one at least. I stopped, rolled back, window down and asked where he was going. Atacama. Jump in amigo.

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Cerro Castillo, Chilean Patagonia : a walk into the hills

In which we seemingly spend 24 hours on different trips…

Cerro Castillo
Sunrise at Cerro Castillo

Cerro Castillo in Chilean Patagonia is a striking set of rock spires, above a glacial lake. It is a 6km, 1200m trek to reach a ridge, affording grand views of the range, the first 4km of which can be done via horse. We got into the tiny three-block town that serves as a base for the peak mid afternoon, planning to make the trip the following day. Time and tide, and indeed weather and horses, wait for no man. So things took a turn for the spontaneous. The following internal narratives cover the ensuing twenty four hours. Turns out they were quite different experiences…

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Chaiten rodeo – small town fares are the same the world over(?)

In which we stumble into a small town rodeo and head-butt a cow…

Chaiten rodeo
Moments before head butting this cow. But I got the shot

Juan is nervous. Though his dad is with him, this is his first time. As he hands his soft broad brimmed chupalla hat to his sister and puts on the helmeted version he conspicuously makes the sign of the cross before him.

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Salmon in Chaiten, heading south on the carretera austral

In which we take up an unexpected offer…

Fresh salmon on the carretera austral
Preparing fine food on the road

“Do you want a salmon?”

A man in a yellow football shirt, jeans and sandals is standing in front of us. He is holding a black bin liner, which, given the shape of its sag clearly contains a large fish.

We are not in a fish mongers, nor by the docks. In fact we are outside a repurposed single coach from around 1975, parked, or possibly left, on what passes as the main street in a small coastal town called Chaiten, in northern Patagonia. The bus is now a cafe, of sorts, selling German cakes, obviously.

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The Chaiten volcano – surprise!

In which we hike to the 2008 volcanic crater rim…

Chaiten volcano crater


The last thing you’d expect to hear on the bleak, barren and sulphurous rim of a volcano crater it has taken three hours to reach is a baby crying.

Volcan Chaiten, until  May 2008 wasn’t volcan Chaiten at all. It was just another mountain. But then ‘SURPRISE’, it blew up. Over the course of four days this put 200 million cubic meter of material on the surrounding area after throwing it 20km into the sky.

Not all surprises are nice.

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Parque Pumalin

We reached Parque Pumalin driving north from Chaitten on Thursday evening having caught the overnight boat from Quellon on Isla Chiloe and spending the day walking around Chaiten, taking advantage of the free internet.  The drive takes about 30mins on a gravel, winding road around the foot of the Andes.

Another day on the road, Chiloe
Final night in Chiloe, at the end of panamerican highway

A big sign on the right announces your arrival to the park. That and the end of the asphalt road are the only indicators that you are now leaving civilisation behind.

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Salgado, Tompkins and life

Yes my friends. This is an existentialist post which one would usually expect from Andy. But here I am wanting to talk about the lives of Sebastiano Salgado and Douglas Thompkins. And soap.

About a year ago now, Andy and I went to see “the salt of the earth“. A movie which was highly recommended to me by my Dad and Deppy who are keen cinema goers. The movie by Wim Wenders, a favourite, chronicles the life of Salgado the illustrious Brazilian photographer who after a couple of years of working as an economist for Breton Woods institutions picked up his camera to tell stories about people and nature. His photos are mesmerising, mostly shot in black and white. His work focused on the impact of industrialisation on people as well as nature before he turned to document the Rwanda genocide. In the film he talks at length about the impact that those trips to Africa had on him and his disappointment in the human race. So much so that he gave up photography to return to his native village only to find it deserted; the deforestation of the Amazon had destroyed the local economy. Undeterred, he and his wife set up Instituto Terra, a foundation focused at replanting the rainforest with local species he and his wife are growing.

Now on to Douglas Tompkins; Founder and CEO of North Face who died last year. A keen environmentalist and conversationalist, Douglas bought 3,000sq km (yes… kilometres) of temperate rainforest in Northern Patagonia and set up Parque Pumalin in an effort to preserve the forrest. It is one of the largest private parks in the world, home to the now active Volcano Chaiten, a glacier and a 4,000 old forest. The Parque is open to the public with a handful of camping sites and marked walks. It’s unbelievably well looked after, you can tell that immense thought and care has gone into setting up and managing the site; it’s a Disneyland for outdoorsy people.

When planning the trip we enquired about working in Salgado’s forest. Unfortunately they don’t welcome unskilled volunteer labour. We have however spent the last couple of days in Parque Pumalin.

Which brings me on to soap. And the question of what am I doing to make the slightest positive mark in the world. Because selling soap (what I’ve been mostly doing for the last couple of years) is not really making a difference in the grande scheme of things…

If you haven’t seen it, do check out “the salt of the earth”. And have a look at the Pumalin website.

A week in Chiloe

Isla Grande de Chiloe, located in the south of Chile right on top of Patagonia is renowned for its beauty, cuisine and national parks. We spent a week here, following advice from guidebooks, blogs and locals.

The landscape 

Everything you read about the island’s spellbinding beauty is spot on. On the west side, battered by the Pacific winds and mist the landscape is rough, wild. Trees shaped by the winds, beaches that go on for miles, big cliffs and a feeling that nature is most definitely in control here.

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