Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Futaleufu to Chaiten

It poured all night, so it was good that we were not camping (and having to pack up all of our stuff wet early in the morning). We woke up early to catch the bus to Chaiten. The only bus of the day leaves at 7:00am. Despite the fact that the Cabana owner had tried to call to make a reservation, the bus people were a bit unprepared for us. On the list of reserved seats, there were two marked 'gringo'. I guess that meant us.
The bus was a 14 seat van, including the driver. There was not room for the bikes to ride inside, so they agreed to tie them down on top. There was a third cyclist, so that meant three bikes in total needed to be strapped down in preparation for driving on the bumpy gravel road ahead. I just had to close my eyes and pray there wouldn't be any major damage to the bike. The road was slow and bumpy and the rain poured for the whole three and a half hour drive. Every half hour or so the bus would stop and someone would get off or another couple of people would cram in to what seemed like an already full bus. Seemed like a decent business, although I think the road takes its toll on vehicles, which could be expensive.

The route would have made for tough cycling and probably would have been more than two full days of riding. The scenery was great, basically rainforest and mountains. Every day so far has been uniquely different in terms of landscape. There has been no shortage of cool stuff to see.

When we arrived in Chaiten, it was pouring rain and we really didn't know where we were. The bikes made it unscathed, so I was happy about that. We had decided it was worth the money to try to take the 35 minute flight, rather than the 10 hour ferry ride to Puerto Montt. We were uncertain about how frequent flights were, how full they would be and whether we could get bikes aboard. Since Epuyen, we've been in no English whatsoever territory. This is fine, but it means I can't asked the more complicated questions. So, I asked our bus driver for directions to the airport. We rode in the rain back down the highway and onto a gravel road that led to the airport. The was no ticket counter or information regarding flights at the airport. This is where a broader understanding of spanish would have come in handy, as we would have been able to determine that this was not the place to get a ticket BEFORE riding out to the airport.

The aiport was essentially one large room, maybe 1000 square feet, with a pot belly stove on one side. There were a few tourists, two of the tourists were from Washington DC. We learned from them that an airplane was scheduled to arrive in the next half hour to take them to Puerto Montt. We decided to take our chances and wait to see if we might be able to hitch a ride on their flight. At the very least, we were indoors and getting warmer.

After two hours of waiting, the weather was clearing. It was still overcast but it was no longer dumping rain. We decided to ditch this plan and head back to town to book a ticket we could count on. It was easy to find a ticket office. Chaiten has a poulation of about 3500 people in a concentrated area; seven blocks by five blocks. The first place we tried was full for the next two days. The second (and I think the only other) place had space today at 4pm AND they didn't seem to mind that we had bikes. YES! We quickly booked our tickets and then realized they only took cash. No problem, right? Just go to the bank. We went to the only bank in town. After trying my bank card numerous times, we realized the problem was not insufficient funds, wrong pin code, or too large of a request. Rather, my bank card and visa card only work on the 'plus' network. This bank machine was on the 'cirrus' network. Unfortunately, it was the only bank in town and the nearest place to find a 'plus' compatable machine was Puerto Montt. We could not get Puerto Montt without cash, but we couldn't get cash without going to Puerto Montt. UGH. Erik uses the same banks as I do, so he had the same problems. BUT, he had a mastercard, which could have worked, except that he couldn't remember his pin code and used up all of his attempts. Long story short, we spent a long time at the bank and couldn't get any money out. The best we could do was exchange our remaining Argentine pesos and US dollars, which came out to about two thirds of what we needed. Erik commented several times that we had enough for one of us to go and I was getting a little bit worried. We went back to the ticket office and I explained as best I could that we only had two thirds of the necessary amount and wanted to pay the rest when we got to Puerto Montt. They were nice enough to agree and they even let us keep a few bucks so we could buy lunch. Lifesavers! It was such a strange feeling having no money. My favorite tools, bank card and Visa, were useless here.
I should point out that the only reason we did have that much money is because of Erik. I always prefer to keep as little cash on hand as possible, I guess in case we get robbed or something, I don't know. I do it in Canada too. I'm just spoiled by our system. Cash is a nuisance, or so I thought. Several times on this trip, Erik has insisted on getting more cash that I think we need. Thank god for that, as I'm not sure how we would have gotten out of Chaiten today otherwise.

We went for lunch and spent every last peso we had. We rode out to the airport for our 4:00pm flight. There was a man at the airport telling us that we owed more money for our excess baggage and that we couldn't fly unless we paid. So, we had to explain our situation again. Fortunately, he eventually agreed to let us board. By now it was pouring rain again and we watched the baggage guys get soaked as they loaded all of the luggage onto the plane. Considering that rain appears to be very common here, we were surprised to see how poorly dressed they were. This went for almost everyone else we saw today too. It doesn't appear to be a matter of insufficient means to buy proper clothing. There was one lady this morning wearing a down jacket in the pouring rain. The baggage handlers wore simple winter jackets that were not waterproof. Others were dressed in fashionable, but permeable clothing. Erik and I sppeared to be the only ones in rainjackets.

The plane ride was fun. I love smalll planes. This one sat 9 passengers. We rode through the clouds quite a bit, so you could see nothing but white all around. Our landing was a bit rough. Actually, the roughest landing I've ever experienced. I generally don't get nervous on airplanes, but it was really gusty and we were wobbling all over the place. Approaching the ground, we were not even parallel to the runway. I didn't think we were going to die, but I thought there was a good chance we were going to crash. But, we didn't. I have to wonder if the pilot was ever nervous.

We rode our bikes from the airport and into town. This is seriously the way to travel. No messing around with transfers and such. We stopped at the first bank we saw and took out more money than we can probably spend on the rest of the trip. We then rode around to find a place to stay. Of course, it started pouring rain again. We checked into our hotel and I walked over to the office of the company that flew us here to pay off the balance from our tickets. It would have been easy not to pay since they had no information about how to reach us. Its unusual to come across that level of blind trust. It made me feel good about coming here.
Over dinner, Erik and I discussed our objectives for the next few days. His leg issues combined with a big list of things we want to see, led us to the decision to rent a car. The guy from the hotel, who doesn't speak any English, helped us out a bit, but I had my first productive telephone conversation in spanish tonight! I normally require a degree of charades and broken spanish to advance a conversation, so this was a big accomplishment for me.


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