by Mark McLean
Being a skint ex-student, the first thing to strike me about Chile was how cheap everything was. Five quid buys a large clean double room for a night, even in Santiago the capital city. Two pounds for a restaurant meal, maybe three with a sweet and a beer, and a staggering six pounds for a 920km bus ride. If you've ever got a month or two for a holiday, go to the less developed world. Not only is the change fascinating, the cost of getting there is easily outweighed by the ludicrously low cost of living, and you can live like a well off person for a while!
The language proved interesting (Spanish) but fortunately Wol had been there before so she got lumbered with all the talking. Our first trip was to a volcanic region about 1000kms south of Santiago. We hoped to climb Volcan Puyuehue, a snow covered peak surrounded by temperate rainforest. We quickly learned that rainforest is so called because it rains all the time and this being the southern hemisphere Winter it was pretty chilly. Not only that, but the combination of snow and jungle is particularly unfriendly as you have to fight your way through the bamboo with a freaking great ice axe strapped to the back of your rucksack. However, the vegetation was arranged in classic geography text book fashion and half a day's climb saw us out of the jungle and into deciduous forest. This soon gave way to open Alpine meadow, deeply snow covered, and a refugio much like a Scottish bothy. An examination of the graffiti therein suggested that if we were successful in the following day's summit bid it would be a first British Winter ascent! Anyhow, we got a fire going, cooked some sausages and slept well with complete disregard for the fact that the mountain was some ten years overdue for eruption.
Next day the weather seemed reasonable, cloudy and snowing gently but nothing severe. We set off, first over tussocky grass and then up pumice strewn upper slopes. As we climbed higher the wind increased and visibility reduced, until there was a regular gale force blizzard going. We dropped into a gully for shelter and continued upwards for a time but the weather was appalling. Discretion, valour, refugios, hot sausages and stinging snow all pointed one way: down. Back at the hut there was very little wind, and indeed the next day we repeated the performance, but once again the weather was atrocious a few hundred metres further up. We retreated back to civilisation and decided to go somewhere lower next.
This was the island of Chiloe, just of the coast of Chile about two thirds of the way down the country. We spent four very pleasant days walking along the beach and through low lying temperate rainforest. Still wet (Chile has a very British climate in its southern half) but warmer and occasionally sunny. Warmer that is except when we tried to cross a river that was clearly too wide and too deep. As the bank whizzed past and refused to get any closer I thank Ortlieb for truly waterproof stuffsacs that keep your gear dry and your rucksack afloat. More useful still was the sandbank where the river met the Pacific surf. We grounded on this and crawled to safety, teeth chattering violently.
After our R & R on Chiloe it was time to head yet further south. An epic 36 hour bus ride through Argentina took us to Punta Arenas, about as far south as you can go on mainland Chile. Thence to Puerto Natales, the nearest town to the Painc National Park. Covering the last 70km to the park proved difficult as Winter had stopped tourism and with it public transport. However we found someone prepared to take us for an exorbitant $80 and spent four wonderful days there, plus two more walking back. The weather was perfect, sunny, clear, still and very cold. The scenery is quite incredible, glaciers coming down from the Chilean icecap which is hundreds of miles across, into lakes where they break up into icebergs of an amazing blue colour. The surrounding mountains are on an Alpine scale with some incredible pinnacles of rock. Unfortunately tourism is big business and during the Summer the place is crawling. Apparently though it is perpetually very windy in the Summer and the best weather occurs during the Winter such as we had. My advice is go in the Winter but take a thick sleeping bag!
By now our time was up. We travelled 5000kms north to Ilo in southern Peru where Sarah was archaeologising. I helped out for a week and then pissed off to Machu Picchu and other Inca sites. Quite amazing they are too, particularly when viewed as feats of precision engineering, but I couldn't help straining my eyes towards the snowy mountains in the distance.