The concept was to get ourselves and our bikes to Buenos Aires. There we plan to allow Chris to recuperate, and both of us to have a change of scene as we plan Part Two on easier roads and in a gentler climate. Upon arriving in La Capitale Federale, we were very happy that these five days were over.
2011/03/17-18: Ferry from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellón
The Naviera Austral ferry Don Baldo left five hours late, not four. More of the passengers seemed to be locals than tourists. A few of the ports of call have road links to the Carretera Austral, but most were isolated fishing and logging communities. At each port, the stern ramp would be lowered to horizontal and the auxilliary vessel lowered with a winch system to provide transport between ship and shore. Sometimes vessels would come to from shore to collect passengers and goods.
It was evening when we arrived in Puerto Aguirre, and I looked down to the ramp scene from an upper stern deck. I noticed that something the shape of a coffin was being transferred to a local launch. It was wrapped in brown paper and packing tape. Any uncertainty I may have had about the object was quickly removed as I watched the care with which it was handled, and the tearful hugs and greetings in the boat as it moved off slowly through evening mist and rain towards the village. In another context, there would have been a piper playing Amazing Grace. It was someone’s serene and poignant final voyage.
We slept as well as could be expected on the floor of the boat. Arriving in Quellón the next evening, we found a reasonable hotel in a town without much other appeal.
2011/03/19: Bus to Puerto Montt
We seem to be doomed to delays. Our bus spent three hours waiting for a truck accident to be cleared. Hungry children grew crankier and noisier as we waited. We arrived in PM in the dark, and found an OK hotel in an otherwise seedy area.
2011/03/20-21: Two Days and a Night to Buenos Aires
The first part of this long haul was a cyclist’s nightmare. There are several different bus companies, but there was only one that said they would take bikes IF they had room AND also had a single run all the way from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. We bought tickets from Andesmar. On the platform, the driver scowled at our gear and gave a categorical refusal. I said no problem, we’d ask for a refund and do something else. However, a lady from the Andesmar office who was holding a clipboard had words with the bus driver. We think she twisted his arm to take the bikes, having threatened him with delays if she had to prepare a new passenger list for the border crossing. Our bikes were stuffed roughly into the hold, and we got on with the obviously resentful driver warning us we’d have to get off in Neuquen if too many new passengers needed to get on. Fine, we said.
We crossed the border the border without sacrificing any honey this time. In Bariloche, the baggage hold opened to reveal a pile of shipping cartons on top of our near horizontal bikes. A cowboy baggage handler (station employee?) ignored my cries as he climbed clumsily across our horizontal bikes to remove suitcases from the other side. As the bus went for fuel, our bikes lay horizontally, one on top of the other, suspended by their rims across a depression in the undercarriage. How very convenient for all suitcases, knapsacks and duffel bags to be piled onto them and to bounce on their fragile parts for the next 3000 kilometres!!
We were to wait in the station for an hour. I felt knots in my stomach as we sat on a bench.
A station mutt wandered over, sat down, and laid his muzzle on my knee. I stroked his head, and each time I paused, he raised a paw to plead me to continue. I felt my stomach knots release. How did the dog know I needed him at that moment? I thank that dog.
When the bus returned, Chris and I had discussed our tactics. Something really needed to change or we’d arrive in BA with severely damaged bikes. We’d prefer to find another way.
I gathered my Spanish and approached the bus driver, then in his driver’s seat, with a 100 peso ($25) note in hand. I asked very politely (conditional tense) if there was a possibility that our bikes could be placed in posición vertical with due care and with the bags beside them, so they had a chance of arriving in BA without serious damage. We didn’t know what the reaction would be, but we needed to try something. He placed the note on the dashboard. (In Central Asia it would have gone straight into his pocket.) I moved back toward the baggage area, where the conductor arrived to inform me of excess baggage charges. However, the driver strode towards the back of the platform with his expression completely changed, and instructed several people to ensure the bikes were placed securely and carefully en posición vertical “because that’s what Señora wants!” Chris was even allowed to direct and to help. We boarded the bus for the next leg feeling relieved, and assuming we’d succeeded in greasing the driver’s palm. It seemed a good investment to us.
To our surprise, the driver came to our seats and gave us 60 pesos change plus receipts for 40 pesos worth of excess baggage. We’re still scratching our heads about the about the sudden huge change in attitude. The driver even came to ensure the bikes were done properly as they were moved to a new bus as he went off shift, “because that’s what Señora wants.”
The rest of the day, the night, and the next day, we sat in our seats eating the cardboard snacks provided. Chris was getting sick. Horrendously violent movies were played, despite the presence of young children. I looked out the window and saw a guanaco on the horizon. We arrived in BA with bikes intact, relieved but very very tired.
Onward to South America Part Two.