Wednesday, May 29, 2013

la Cosecha

Our timing in San Rafael was perfect to help our friends John and Annette with their plum harvest (= cosecha).  After traveling by motorcycle for a couple of years, then returning to the UK for a short time, they ended up moving to a small farm in San Rafael.  Most of their land is planted with plum trees, but they also have a couple of acres of grapes, walnut and pine nut trees, fruit trees, and a nice garden.  While there, we got the down and dirty on what it takes to harvest over 30 metric tonnes of plums in a couple of weeks.

Plums in boxes (San Rafael)
(22 kg of plums go into each of these wooden boxes)

Mike and Jill catching a ride with a few plums (San Rafael)
(Mike and Jill catching a ride with a few plums)

The plums can either be sold fresh, or sun dried. The drying process depends on a number of factors:  rack space, sun, and high temps are big ones. But once dried, the plums generally have more value or can be stored until they do, so it's worth drying what you can.

Jill, John, and Annette spreading out the plums (San Rafael)
(Jill, John, and Annette spreading out the plums)

Annette and Jill spreading plums with John on tractor (San Rafael)
(Annette and Jill spreading plums with John on tractor)

Plum hand (San Rafael)
(plum hand)

John and Mike sitting for a break (San Rafael)
(Loading up ~275 boxes made us look this tired)

Fully loaded with ~275 boxes of plums, 22 kg each box (San Rafael)
(old trucks are the norm in the area. This one fully loaded and ready to go to the dryer)

Annette's nephew and some of his mates visited for a week or two while we were there. I'm not sure all 4 of those boys knew what they had signed up for, but it really helped having the extra hands!

Better than a tractor?  (San Rafael)
(UK boys making themselves useful)

Mike, Annette, John, Lamb, Richard, Tom, Pinner at lunch (San Rafael)
(Mike, Annette, John, Lamb, Richard, Tom, Pinner at lunch)

Kitty sleeps in some precarious spots (San Rafael)
(Kitty sleeps in some precarious spots)

John and Annette put on a fantastic asado while everyone was still in town.

1/4 cow and Mike.  San Rafael
(1/4 cow and Mike)

Some of the boys from the UK.  Lamb on guitar, Pinner next to him on lead vocals, Tom on relaxing.  Dogs in background focused on that 1/4 cow.
(Lamb on guitar, Pinner next to him on lead vocals, Tom on relaxing. In background, Annette butchering a cow with some devoted onlookers)

While we worked hard for a few weeks during the plum harvest, it was actually refreshing for both of us to be in one spot and doing something every day. The physical activity felt really good. Beyond that, we had a really good time getting to know John and Annette better, as well as Richard and his friends. Annette's wonderful cooking made our stay even more enjoyable - she's a natural culinary expert!

Mike and birthday cake (San Rafael)
(Mike and birthday cake)

John passing the grapes on his ol' Fiat (San Rafael)

** NOTE **

John and Annette are happy to host overland travelers with an exchange of some work for room and board. If you are interested in helping them out while on the road (which we looked at as a way to help ourselves out too - after 2 years of traveling, we appreciated the opportunity to stay in one spot, get our hands dirty, and have some English chats) give them a shout to learn more.

They are located just outside of San Rafael, which is about 3.5 hours south of Mendoza. Their farm is a pleasant place to stay. You may be lucky to get the guest bedroom, unless others are there already. But even if you are camping, they are happy to share their space with you (especially the bathroom and kitchen).

As far as what work you will do, you will need to coordinate with them, but there are a lot of varied tasks that will help them out. And they're not slave drivers; they just want a hand and in return for that you get a nice place to crash and some great food! At harvest time, that is what's done, but aside from that you could be out in the fields, or helping with their construction projects, or gardening, or whatever you think may be a good fit.

We enjoyed the chance to see what happens at harvest time. And the evening cocktails, too. we enjoyed those. A lot.

A really nice write up of other traveler's account of their time, there a couple of weeks before us:
John and Annette's offer is shown here:
Annette's email is: - at - annetteonwheels [you need to reverse this, and make the @ sign, of course]

Hope some of you have the chance to hang out with them in San Rafael.

** / **

Monday, May 27, 2013


We found the island of Chiloé quite intriguing, without knowing exactly why. And after exploring it for a few days we still find it intriguing. It is fairly disconnected from mainland Chile in many aspects - culture, food, architecture, history - a bit of a world of its own.

Additionally, Chiloé is home to a well known penguin colony that we were definitely stopping at since we missed our chance to see the little creatures down south. After the short ferry ride onto the island we camped just outside of Ancud, then went straight over to Pinguinero de Puñihuil in the morning. We thought we were on the early bird schedule, getting there around 8:30 without anyone else in sight. Turns out we were late by about a week. We knew the season was winding down, figuring we'd still find at least some penguins on land. And we did. About 5 of them.

Rocky penguin habitat, Pinguinero de Puñihuil, Chiloé
(in the middle of the image, on the mid-distant rocks, are about 5 penguins. That's about as good of a view as we got)

Jill touching her second penguin, Pinguinero de Puñihuil, Chiloé
(Jill touching her second penguin)

So, with our big ticket item for the island already checked off, we set about wandering through the backroads. It was a great place to wander, made even better by some gorgeous weather for our first couple of days.

Great country roads in Chiloé
(you see why it was so fun wandering around the backroads?)

Overlooking the bay just south of Puñihuil, Chiloé
(overlooking the bay just south of Puñihuil)

Classic home just south of Puñihuil, Chiloé
(future cover shot for 'el Hogar Chilote' magazine)

Colorful bee boxes, Chiloé
(colorful bee boxes all over. We have since learned that the multi colors help the bees find their right home again)

The sleepy little enclave of Queilén turned out to be a gem. The town has a population of around 1700 people, and the limited offerings to match. The one main street has a small grocer or two, a couple of random shops, a bar (where we met some locals in various states of intoxication), a library and a fairly schnazzy hotel/restaurant that we didn't go into. Asking a municipal worker, we were directed to a campground at the edge of the town. Expecting to get stuck with some more outrageous Chilean camping fees, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that it was free! It may be because it was past tourist season, but however it worked out, the price was right.

Free municipal camping in Chile!!  Queilén, Chiloé
(Free municipal camping in Queilén)

sunset from camp.  Quellón, Chiloé
(sunset from camp)

The next day we decided to make it down to Quellón at the southern tip of Chiloé. That town was much less appealing than some of the others on the island. It felt like a busy, but small, port town anywhere else in the world. And we happened to have a cold, rainy day on our hands, which didn't help the town's appeal any. It did, however, cause both of us to fall in love with the nice little coffee shop that served us warm coffee and a sandwich.

Quellón also happens to be where the Panamerican highway ends. At least one of its branches (I think the original road turned straight east from Santiago to connect to Buenos Aires...). But we figured we'd drive the few km out of town to see the end of the line. Our best estimate puts us on the Panamerican for less than 1,800 km total out of the 60,000+ km we had ridden by this point. We tried to avoid it even more than that, but got suckered into riding it for a few hundred km at a time in most Central American countries (save el Salvador), and then again in Colombia and Ecuador for a couple of hours each. We avoided all but ~150km of it in Peru, and only connected into Santiago on the superhighway. Even so, here we are at a monument for it:

Mike at Hito Cero - end of the Panamerican.  Quellón, Chiloé
(Mike at Hito Cero - end (or start) of the Panamerican)

TA at the Hito Cero monument.  Quellón, Chiloé
(TA at the Hito Cero monument)

Castro was a really pleasant town to check out for a day or two on our way back north. It was a good place to walk around, had a lively plaza, and has plenty of good restaurant options (we went for Chinese). The city may be busier during peak tourist season, which could definitely change the feel, but even if more crowded it would still be pretty chill.

Palofitos on our way back out of Castro, Chiloé
(Palafitos, or wooden stilt homes, in Castro)

The wooden churches of Chiloé are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.  This one in Castro
(Big wooden church in Castro)

A single serving of Curanto, a traditional Chilota dish that was usually prepared in the ground with hot rocks, but is now more often prepared in a huge dish and even includes completos (= hot dogs).  Quemchi, Chiloé
(A single serving of Curanto, a traditional Chilote dish that was usually prepared in the ground with hot rocks, but is now more often prepared in a huge dish and even includes completos (= hot dogs). Quemchi, Chiloé)

Perhaps the most widely known features of Chiloé are the wooden churches dating back as far as the 16th century. The island has over 150 wooden churches, with about 16 on the UNESCO World Heritage list. We ended up riding past a few, as anyone will with such a high wooden church density.

Another wooden church, north of Quemchi, Chiloé
(one of the many wooden churches)

Our path back to San Rafael took us right through the Lakes District of southern Chile. The area is beautiful. And full of high end destinations/lodges/houses/cabañas/wineries/etc. We took some secondary roads up towards Pucón, stopping to camp along the way at a reasonable place where the owner was super friendly. When he offered us a room for only a few dollars more with private bath and hot water, TV, wifi, comfy bed, all the amenities, it was an easy decision.

 When we arrived in Pucón we fully expected to camp on the outskirts of this town known for its outdoor activities and lifestyle. The municipal campground was a few km from town and still wanted ~US$20 to camp in a shoddy facility. In town we found a nice hostel for not much more, so brought our standards up once again. We cooked a nice meal there and walked around town for a minute. It was fine and all, but felt a bit like an upscale, upsized version of el Chaltén, Argentina. Our favorite stop was in a used clothes store where we each found a pair of pants and a couple of t-shirts for pennies that we could wear on the farm in San Rafael.

Lover's lookout.  Pucón, Chile
(lover's lookout in Pucón)

In some small town (maybe Cunco?) we stopped at a small sandwichería and had our last taste of the ubiquitous Chilean sandwich. The shopowners were super nice and curious about our trip. His curiosity quickly turned into questions about how to translate auto parts into English, find them online in the states, then import them to Chile. He is in the middle of building an early 80's Ford Bronco into an off road monster, and will likely be in the middle of that project for the foreseeable future.

All of Chile's Zona Sur is a fairly active volcano territory (remember what happened to Chaitén?). It was again especially noticeable as we made our way to the Argentina border.

TA in front of a field of volcanic rock, east of Pucón
(TA in front of a field of volcanic rock)

("Volcanic Danger Zone: Behavior Instructions")

("Volcanic Alert Stoplight" showing Yellow)

Driving towards Argentina, somewhere near the Reserva Nacional China Muerta (yes, that's right)
(somewhere near the Reserva Nacional China Muerta (yes, that's right, that's what it is called))

Passing the cool tree.  Reserva Nacional Alto Bio Bio, between Pucón and Lago Aluminé, Argentina
(Passing a cool tree. Reserva Nacional Alto Bio Bio)

Crossing back into Argentina was smooth as could be. The outposts between the Chilean side and Argentina are separated by tens of kilometers, but that distance is strangely filled with lots of people along the road picnicking, walking, peeing, or otherwise just looking suspicious. After getting all checked in with Argentina, we backtracked to the west side of Lago Aluminé to camp for the evening. The municipal campground there is beautifully situated right on the lake and has really nice bath houses. Proving that we were back in Argentina, the cost was just a few dollars total.

View from the municipal campground.  Lago Aluminé, Argentina
(View from the municipal campground)

Our next day took us back into Chos Malal, following a road at a surprisingly high elevation, making it more bitterly cold than necessary. But we made it back to the muni campground in Chos Malal for one night, and for one fine pizza meal, before returning to San Rafael, where we stayed for a few weeks with our friends John and Annette.

High plains between Lago Aluminé and Chos Malal, Argentina
(this was much colder and windier than it looks here)

la Ruta Bimodal

Our turn northbound back on Ruta 7, the Carretera Austral, took us into Parque Pumalín, another one of  Douglas Tompkins lands (see our post about Parque Patagonia) that is now a protected Nature Sanctuary in Chile.  Best of all, there is a hot springs (entry just US$3!) just up the road from the southern entrance to the park.

We tend to wear a lot more clothes than most.  Our gear at left.  Normal people gear at right.  El Amarillo hot springs
(I guess we wear a lot more clothes than most. Our gear at left. Normal people gear at right. El Amarillo hot springs)

Entry sign, Sector el Amarillo, Parque Pumalín
(Sector el Amarillo, Parque Pumalín)

The road into Parque Pumalín
(The road into Parque Pumalín)

Mike with huge nalca (Chilean rhubarb) plant.  Parque Pumalín
(I think this is the world's biggest nalca plant. At least it's the world's biggest nalca plant that I've ever seen...)

Just 25 km north is the town of Chaitén. A volcano eruption in 2008 destroyed the town, not only from the ash but also because the volcanic activity caused the Blanco River to change its course, now flowing directly through what once was some of the town. During reconstruction, all important regional functions were temporarily relocated to Futaleufú, where they are now going to stay. We saw a lot of stickers on people's cars and storefronts to bring back Chaitén, suggesting that it was a government decision to let this town die.

house filled with volcanic ash, Chaitén
(house filled with volcanic ash)

The northern stretch of the Carretera Austral is known as the Ruta Bimodal because of its split between land and sea. While in Chaitén we asked at the tourist info stand about camping in the area, hikes, and the ferries running north. He told us that we needed to reserve/buy our tickets at least a day in advance to ensure we had a spot. This was contrary to what we had seen online, that if you want a ferry from Chaitén to Chiloé you need to reserve ahead (and schedule appropriately, as it only runs a couple of times a week). Turns out the advice to reserve ahead was wrong, especially with a motorcycle - it was easy to get on the ferries. But it was fun trying to get a ticket.

At the NaviMag office in Chaitén it was as if the two of us were causing some unknown problem, so much so that no one wanted to acknowledge us. The customer in front of us purchased the exact same ferry ticket that we wanted to buy.    When they were done, the worker got up, didn't look at us and went to a back office. Minutes later she came out and still wouldn't look either one of us in the eye. It was very strange. When asked about a ticket for the ferry, she said the system was down. This was not true, as the customer beside us purchased a ticket after we were told the system was down.  After many questions to try to figure out what we should do (can we come back later, do we need to reserve, ...), we finally got out of her that we can just go to the boat and talk to the captain to get on. It worked out fine, but what a silly way for it to work out!

Waiting for the ferry.  Caleta Gonzalo
(we weren't the only ones waiting for the ferry at Caleta Gonzalo. In fact, we weren't even the only ones without a ticket. Some cars didn't get on and had to wait til the next day)

ferry approaching.  Caleta Gonzalo
(la Ruta Bimodal in action)

The first ferry from Caleta Gonzalo to Fiordo Largo was a short one, just over 30 minutes. Then everyone races off the boat in true Latin American style to be the first ones on the next ferry, just 10km away. And unless you drive slower than the tanker truck, the boat will not leave you behind. This second ferry is a few hour ride, but had a snack bar (open until the line dies away, then it closes) and some comfy booths good for watching action movies (theirs, not ours), napping, and playing cards. There were also some pretty views from the deck.

Fjords between Hornopirén and Leptepú, Ruta Bimodal, Carretera Austral
(Fjords between Leptepú and Hornopirén)

We arrived in Hornopirén fairly late in the evening, and tried 2 campgrounds at the edge of town, but both were closed (for the season?). While asking a delivery truck driver where a cheap hostel would be, the guy accepting deliveries said we could stay with him at his boardinghouse. It was a fine place and he was a real nice guy once you got through his initial seaside gruffness.  The grocery store in town was about the only thing open the next morning for breakfast - yet another unplanned Sunday in a town.

Bay at Hornopirén
(the bay at Hornopirén)

More boats waiting for high tide.  Near Gualaihué
(Lots of boats waiting for high tide in this region. This near Gualaihué)

Coastal view between Gualaihué and Caleta Puelche
(coastal view between Gualaihué and Caleta Puelche)

Fish farm between Gualaihué and Caleta Puelche
(Fish farm between Gualaihué and Caleta Puelche)

From Hornopirén we headed towards Puerto Montt, where we needed to change some more Chilean pesos into US dollars to prepare for our return to Argentina.   We actually had two more ferry rides waiting for us that same day.  The first one to end our time on the Ruta Bimodal.

Ferry at Caleta Puelche
(our last ferry on the Ruta Bimodal. At Caleta Puelche)

On to Chiloé we went...