Friday, December 24, 2010

A Ferry Merry Xmas

Chile’s top road trip, the Carretera Austral, has been the subject of several recent developments that will make this summer an interesting one on the discontinuous pioneer highway that starts in Puerto Montt and ends just south of the remote hamlet of Villa O’Higgins.

In the first instance, Naviera Austral (Spanish-only website) will start ferry service from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, the gateway to Parque Pumalín, on January 2nd. According to an email I received from their Puerto Montt office, there will be service at 9:00 a.m. on January 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 and 16, returning the same days at 3:30 p.m. There is, as yet, no indication of service beyond January 16th, but this route is normally open in January and February only.

This year’s itinerary, though, is a little different than in years past. Previously it went directly from Hornopirén to Caleta Gonzalo, but this year the Mailén will sail only to Leptepu, where vehicles will then have to drive about ten km to Fiordo Largo to board another vessel for the short hop to Caleta Gonzalo (the map above shows this horizontally, though most maps of Chile appear in a vertical format; north is to the left in this instance). This, of course, begs the question as to how pedestrian passengers will cover that distance. For what it’s worth, the vehicle fare is 66,500 Chilean pesos (about US$140 at today’s exchange rate), while each passenger pays 10,000 Chilean pesos (about US$21).

The resumption of service to Caleta Gonzalo also signifies the reopening of Parque Pumalín, which has been closed for nearly two years since the eruption of Volcán Chaitén. According to park spokesperson Carolina Morgado, whom I visited in Puerto Varas on Tuesday, the visitor center, restaurant and cabañas at Caleta Gonzalo, as well as campgrounds throughout the park, are once again open to the public.

Meanwhile, according to the Santiago daily El Mercurio, the Chilean government has backed off its plans to evacuate Chaitén itself, and will try to salvage those areas unaffected by the eruption and subsequent flooding of the Río Blanco (flooding caused most of the damage, depositing large amounts of waterlogged ash in the areas nearest the river). It will restore water and electrical service, and Chaitén may continue to be a major point of connectivity between continental and archipelagic Chile - even if the much of the town comprises a Chilean Pompeii that could become a macabre tourist destination in its own right.

For my part, I will be ferrying to Chaitén from Puerto Montt the night of Tuesday the 28th, arriving the following morning and then turning north for a night at Caleta Gonzalo before continuing to Futaleufú for the New Year. The rest of the Carretera Austral awaits.

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