After spending some time in the central part of Chile we looked at the map and realized that we weren’t that far from the lake district. With lots of volcanoes and lakes to see on our way south, the lake district was definitely on our list of places to visit. This is the part of Chile where the landscape starts to change. Things green up. The forests get thicker. The mountains have more snow on them and, last but not least, there are more volcanoes within easy reach.
We had a 2 hour flight down towards Lago Villarrica and the touristy town of Pucon. Things were fine until we encountered rain and lowering ceilings with about an hour to go. We deviated around the rain, skirted the low clouds and followed the wide central valley over to the lake. Our view of the volcano was obscured by the same cloud layer we had been dodging that day but we would see the top of the cone the next day.
The skydiving folks we had met in Peru months earlier had told us that we could camp at the airport in Pucon. It was only after landing there and walking around a bit that we realized that ‘camping’ means different things to different people! There was no campsite, only a stand of trees with an opening big enough for a tent right next to the drop zone. We didn’t really know where we would end up staying so we set the tent up anyway and hung around for a bit.
A guy with a truck and his young son drove past the airport to look at airplanes coming and going. They walked past the plane and we chatted for a while in our best version of Chilean Spanish. We talked about the busy tourist season, the cost of things in Pucon and various accommodation options. A minute later he was on his phone calling around and asking about places we could stay. A few calls later we piled into his truck with our bags and drove into town to stay with a friend of his who rents out rooms in a house. It was one of the more affordable options for lodging that we found so we took it.
Of course, it didn’t help that it was new year’s eve and that the place was crawling with vacationing Chileans and Argentines. Everyone was looking for a party on the lake shore that night and it was clear that a peaceful night’s sleep was impossible.
Any picturesque town on a lake shore with a looming volcano is going to become a tourist hot spot. We just didn’t realize how busy and expensive Pucon would end up being. It’s a beautiful place for sure, but when you are on an extended trip and watching the budget, these popular tourist spots can put a damper on your plans pretty quickly.
It would have been great to take a climbing tour of the volcano but since our sights were set on getting to Patagonia, we figured we would save the pennies and head south sooner rather than later.
Just 20 miles away, on the other side of the lake, is the small town of Villarrica. We had been told about the aeroclub there and how friendly they are towards travelers in small planes so we decided to call them and see if we could camp there for a night. The guy on the phone said sure, no problem. Once again, the aeroclubs in Chile surprised us. We landed in Villarrica and we were instantly made to feel welcome. They had a big club house with a kitchen, BBQ, picnic tables that were available for use. Even the club’s hangar was offered to us, we jumped at the chance and pulled Emcinco inside. Emcinco was due for a wash and wax so having the hangar available was useful in getting some chores done.
Flying to Patagonia takes some planning. Not just the kind of planning we did a year ago, but the short range planning needed for logistics like weather, lodging, ground transportation, etc. that you do a few days prior to departure. We used our time in Pucon to buy some detailed maps and to sketch out a plan for Patagonia.
The further south you go in Chile the more unpredictable the weather becomes. You have to take advantage of the good weather windows that come along and that’s exactly what we did the day we flew to Puerto Montt.
Initially we considered stopping in Puerto Varas on the way south but when we saw that we could make it even further south with the good weather, we pressed on. Stopping for fuel in Puerto Montt also gave us a chance to get some helpful information for the guys in the flight plan office. We met a pilot there who showed us some routes to fly on the way to Futaleufú. We got some good local knowledge on the weather patterns and resources for weather information.
We fueled up and left Puerto Montt, flying out over the bay. This was it, Patagonia starts here and we were flying our way through it!
The first waypoint on the way to Futaleufú was Chaitén, the town that was almost wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 2008. We followed a river inland and eventually found Lago Yelcho, our first major landmark that kept us clear of the highest terrain. Yelcho is a big lake, fed by glacier melt waterfalls, streams and creeks. It was here that the local pilot info proved useful. We were to look for the Futaleufú river flowing into the east end of the lake, turn left and follow it upstream until we got to the town. Of course we had the airport loaded into the GPS too but with the terrain and the weather, you end up following roads, rivers and valleys most of the time instead of flying in a straight line.
The approach to the airport was a challenge. The wind had picked up a bit and the airport was surrounded by high terrain on all sides. We landed, tied down, unpacked and then chatted to the man in the tower. Not surprisingly the kindness of strangers prevailed once again. He found us a place to stay and arranged for a ride into town. It’s the people we meet on our travels that make this trip amazing.
We were dropped off at a ‘hospedaje’ in town and met our host. Another person visiting the house had heard us smashing words together in Spanish and took pity on us. She spoke English, yay. Melanie was friendly young woman who had relocated to Futaleufú a few years earlier. She volunteered at the school and ended up buying a small piece of property up the valley in partnership with a friend of hers. It was fun to chat to an ‘expat local’ and learn about the area.
It turns out that this river valley is quite famous for its rafting and kayaking. People come from all over the world to run the ‘Futa’, as it’s known among the locals!
It was nice to find a small town that we could hang out in for a few days, maybe longer. We slept in, took long walks, chatted to locals, walked the foothills on the outskirts of town and generally slowed down. There is a saying around here that reads: ‘if you hurry in Patagonia, you are wasting your time’!
We decided to walk out to the airport and get something from the plane, then stroll down to the river. It was a relaxing way to spend a few hours outside since the weather was nice. A van pulled up to us walking down the road and we heard a voice yelling at us. It was Melanie, she was heading up the valley to work in her vegetable garden and offered us a ride. We jumped in and took off up a bumpy dirt road in a van that was about to self-destruct at any minute. 10 minutes later we were picking peas, pulling weeds and digging in the dirt. It’s pretty clear just how much hard work goes into creating an organic garden that produces delicious vegetables and herbs.
The soil needs work, the infrastructure has to be built from scratch, the water supply has to be constructed. It gave us an appreciation for all of the effort that went in to that organic carrot you just ate yesterday. The rewards for our efforts? A box full of freshly picked peas, zucchinis, tomatoes, cilantro, green beans that we cooked for dinner that night.
The randomness of travel allows us to meet interesting people, and we sometimes get swept up in their daily activities when we let ourselves go with the flow.
We could have stayed in Futaleufú for weeks. It’s a laidback place in a beautiful setting with friendly people. What more could you ask for? A downside to continual long-term travel is that you have to move on, even from the places you really end up liking. It’s part of the process.
As mentioned before, the weather is sometimes a major factor for us. It dictates what we can and cannot do to a certain extent. We thought that we had a reasonably accurate idea of the conditions further south, so we launched for Balmaceda, a fuel stop but not much else.
About 45 minutes down the valley from Futaleufú the cloud layer dropped and the rain started. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be too big of a deal but, in Patagonia, the terrain doesn’t give you a whole lot of options when the weather goes downhill. We pressed on for a bit, poking our nose down various valleys here and there, taking a look at the conditions.
Even with deteriorating weather the scenery was amazing. The valley walls are covered in waterfalls and rain forest. There are lakes everywhere. It’s like a thick rolling carpet of greenness that covers everything.
We looked at the map, looked at the GPS and decided to land in La Junta to wait out the rain. With a firm dirt airstrip, La Junta was a pretty good place to look at the weather and come up with a plan. The best place to do this, of course, was the local coffee shop on the Carretera Austral.
Not far from La Junta, down the valley to the south, was Puyuhuapi. They had an airstrip too. If we could make it to Puyuhuapi then we would be at the coast, all we had to do then would be to fly over the fjords and stay clear of the mountains. We had hatched a plan, now it was time to see if it would work out.
Climbing out of La Junta we could see that the weather had improved a bit. It was still raining and the clouds were still low, but we could follow the main road down the valley and out to the coastline. With most of the terrain behind us, all we had to do was fly over the water and around the peninsular to Puerto Aisén. The fjords and sounds were incredible. There were hundreds of small islands reaching out into the Pacific ocean. Some of them were barely visible through the rain and clouds. We flew over massive salmon farms floating in the sound.
Around the corner from Puerto Aisén, the rain got heavier and the clouds even lower. Could we make it through another valley and over to Balmaceda? It didn’t look possible.
We landed in the wind and rain, stuck for the night. Maybe tomorrow?
Miles to date: 7250 Nautical Miles