Have you ever heard of the Marble Caves? Me neither.
A friend I made traveling (Mary from South Africa) told me about them. After seeing some online pictures I put them on my ´´must-see´´ list. After all, I had three weeks to play with, no concrete plans for that time and when would I ever be back in this part of the world?
With a few weeks to go I found a decent price for a flight from Santiago to the small town of Coyhaique in Patagonian Chile, with a return flight to Puerto Montt. Unfortunately, as time passed and I did more research and talked to other travelers, I realized I needed more time in that area that my current flight allotted for, to account for slow and unpredictable travel and weather. However, LAN wouldn´t let me change my flight without a significant penalty.
So, what did I do? I bought a second flight which gave me two extra days in Coyhaique and also allowed in me to fly down to Torres del Paine afterwards.
I know. Stupid.
But this is what sometimes happens when you travel solo for a long time. Your normally rational brain becomes wonky when forced to make decision after decision. Hotel, sights, transportation, food, Repeat.
I arrived in Coyahique late Saturday at my hotel to discover they didn´t have my reservation. The person I had emailed with in English was nowhere to be found and my Spanish wasn´t good enough to understand the explanation the lady on duty gave me. She did drive me to another hostel, which was comfortable and clean, but the proprietor didn’t speak English here either. This was an issue because I needed good information on tours to Queulat National Park, the Marble Caves and the Exploradores Glacier. These were the three things I had paid so much to travel here and see.
Did I mention that the Marble Caves and the Exploradores Glacier are a five hour bus ride south from Coyahique, near a small village called Puerto Rio Tranquilo? In theory not a big deal, unless you´re in a town with a barely Spanish tourist industry (forget English) and non-consistent bus schedules.
Luckily, my new hostel was next to a five-star hotel. Surely such a place would have a better handle on tours and buses and at least one English speaker? Turns out even a common language can´t help in a tiny town with moderate tourist infrastructure! This being South America, there was no one around to ask about buses the next day (Sunday.) It was suggested that I go to the bus station at 7:30am and wait.
So at 7:15am I trudged with my bags the few blocks to the station and waited in the chilly morning air. For two hours. When the bus finally arrived, the driver said it was full. But I only had two days in Tranquilo and I was determined to be on THIS bus — the only one running today. In the end, a combination of batting eyelashes, begging, offering more money and crappy Spanish got me a seat on the floor/steps. Or maybe he was always going to let me on. In the end, he refused to take extra money and only took the correct fare. It was certainly an adventure for me as I braced myself around the sharp turns and bumpy dirt road, all the while hoping I wouldn´t be thrown against the door and fall out!
Actually, it wasn´t so bad and the stunning scenery more than made up for it.
Lush, emerald cliffs, dozens of plunging waterfalls and rushing rivers were everywhere, as if I had landed in Middle Earth from Lord of the Rings. The sky was filled with long stretches of clouds; from dark, angry low-hangers to their fluffier, happier cousins.
Five hours later I tumbled out at Puerto Rio Tranquilo, which is exactly what it´s name suggests: a calm, river port. This village is a blip on Route 7, otherwise known as the Carretera Austral, the scenic paved and dirt road that weaves between Argentina and Chile. It is the only road for hundreds of miles. I stayed in a lovely (although pricey) ´´hostel´´ which was more like a ski lodge, called El Puesto (don´t be fooled by the crappy website. It is very nice.) The big draw in Tranquilo are the Marble Caves and the Exploradoes Glacier. I lucked out in finding the one English-speaking boatman to take me to the Marble Caves. He learned English from working for five years on a farm in Utah.
The Marble Caves were unlike anything I had ever seen. They sit in Lake General Carrera, which stretches across Chile and into Argentina and is the fourth largest lake in South America. We skipped across the water for about one hour, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and under dark, threatening clouds, before the caves came into sight just offshore, surrounded by turquoise waters, Each formation was unique, twisted and contorted from the wind into columns and windows that revealed different shades of white, cream and beige.
I woke up the next morning to a torrential downpour. I had arranged with the owner of a grocery store to drive me to see the Exploradores Glacier. (In a small town like this, eveyone has at least two occupations) But he wouldn´t drive out there in the rain and the girl at my hotel said the poor visibility wouldn´t make it worth the trouble anyway.
Weather is a devil in this part of the world. Sometimes it forces you to make a choice between cutting your losses or spending time and money to sit around and wait. Since the weather forecast was showing at least four days of heavy rain, I decided to catch the bus back to Coyhaique, see Queulat park the next day and then use my first plan ticket to fly to Puerto Montt. Yes, I know; this partially defeats the entire point of the second flight I bought, although I would still be able to use it to fly from Puerto Montt to Torres del Paine. Of course, this was going to give me too much time — at least five days — in Puerto Montt, but I would deal with that later.
I took another five hour bus back to Coyhaique — this time with a proper seat — through the rain, landslides and more gorgeous scenery. I decided to stay at the five-star hotel, Dreams Patagona, where I had previously sought tour information because a) they were having a we-just-opened price sale and I figured I could use one day of pampering and b) being there would help me organize my tour to Queulat park.
Despite two staff members and a manager spending two hours trying to find a tour to the park, there wasn´t a group tour scheduled for the next day, or even the day after that. I could go myself but at a significantly higher price (as in $500 US vs. $60 in a group.) And there wasn´t a group tour until next week – long after my first or second flight would have left town. They suggested seeing San Rafael Glacier for about $350 US, but I was going to see glaciers later in my trip and I really couldn´t justify such a high price tag for this one.
So, I swallowed my frustration and enjoyed my lush room, heated pool with a view of the Andes, delicious room service and English CNN to watch the U.S. elections. I was so lucky to be traveling and knew the wisdom of taking the good with the bad and appreciating ALL of my experiences.
And don´t you know it? When I went to check the time on my first flight — it turns out that it was the NEXT DAY, not in two days. And it made no sense to wait for the second flight that I purchased, since there wasn´t a tour to the park before that flight either.
So, the next day I flew out of Coyhaique.
Overall, my time in this part of Patagonia wasn´t a complete waste — the pictures above can attest to that! The view were breathtaking and I stayed in two very nice hotels. But I had given up seeing Bariloche, Argentina to visit this area and I had spent a lot of money to get and stay in here… and ended up seeing very little for that cost. And despite several hotels and tour operators telling me I could arrange tours when I arrived, the complete opposite was true. Unfortunately, this was something I could have only learned by experiencing.
What I learned about traveling in Chilean Patagonia is:
1) Learn more Spanish, because very few people speak English here and Chilean Spanish is the hardest to understand in South America. There is no stumbling through here.
2) Traveling solo here is expensive and frustrating
3) You can´t just roll up here and get a tour, or a bus, or a meal – especially on a Sunday
4) If you want to do a tour, arrange it in advance — no matter what anyone tells you
5) Bad weather trumps any prior arrangements
6) The best way to travel here is with family or friends so you can arrange group tours or share the cost of a rental car
7) Don´t buy flights too far in advance
8) Better yet, buy a one-way flight and play it by ear for the rest
In the end, everything turned out for the best and my mistakes led to an awesome surprise…