We rose early Sunday morning in Bariloche—at the same time a half dozen police officers were mediating a dispute between some drunk club kids and the taxi drivers across the street—in order to leave The Room for the last time and get to the bus station for a 7:30am departure.
We made it out of town at 8am and $60 lighter after boarding the wrong bus, and were excited to drive over the Andes and cross into a new country.* By the time we got to the other side of Lake Nahuel Huapi it was gently raining and we’d seen several rainbows.
Two “chofers” were going to share the driving. The one who was not driving checked our tickets and passports and distributed packages of cookies along with hot coffee and tea in glasses with straws.
It was too much for me: the early morning start, curvy road, fogged up windows, and the odd couple in front of me—a young guy and an older guy, both awkward, who may or may not have been traveling together and who spoke in English, German and Spanish, none of which appeared to be their native language. I curled up with Lou and went to sleep.
About two hours later we reached border control for Argentina in a mountain pass west of Villa La Angostura, and 40 kilometers later we went through Chilean border control. In between, the highway was bordered with drifts and dunes of ash with the texture of kitty litter. It is humbling to imagine the volcano explosion that instantly pulverized that rock and distributed it miles and miles away.
Shortly after we officially entered Chile, Lou said that his neck really hurt. Then he started to whimper. I guessed what was coming and could do nothing but let it happen. Pete heard Lou crying and came forward from his seat at the back of the bus next to the bathroom and a giant-sized American rock climber (!!) in order to help with the clean-up, and then Lou made an excellent decision to sleep until the bus stopped moving.
If you enlarge the Google Maps image above, you can tell that, just like with the American Rockies, when weather systems approach the Andes they start dropping precipitation: the terrain on the west side of the Andes is green and the terrain on the east side—starting at Bariloche—is arid and nearly treeless.
From the Chilean border we drove west across lush valleys, and near Orsono we started to see free-range dairy cows, horses, beehives, orchards, and cultivated fields. It looked a little like Wisconsin after a rainy spring.
My first let down was the town of Osorno, which screamed “distressed”: wooden row houses with two rooms up and two rooms down, peeling paint, and crooked, single pane windows. Treeless streets. Broken windows. Graffiti. And bodegas and comida rapida businesses that wouldn’t look out of place in the roughest parts of LA.
The outskirts of Puerto Varas looked the same, and then finally we reached the Puerto Montt bus terminal on the Pacific Ocean, six and a half hours after leaving Bariloche.
To me, Puerto Montt lives up to its description as a dump. Pete thinks it just looks like a Latin American city (“You should see Quito…” he says). I am reminding myself that there are many seriously ugly parts of the Twin Cities, and that everything looks worse under gray skies, which Puerto Montt has nearly every day.
Puerto Montt’s main attraction—and what brings people here from Bariloche—is shopping. There’s a big mall with department stores where ATVs are parked across from ladies handbags (or coolers and tents across from motorcycles across from children’s bathing suits). The mall also has a food court, called “Food Court,” where we ate at a restaurant reminiscent of Café Latte. The mall was packed.
At night we walked to a superstore called Jumbo (“Yoom-bo”), which is like a Carrefour or maybe an upscale Wal-Mart. Bing Crosby was singing Christmas songs overhead and there were aisles and aisles of toys, housewares, home electronics, wine and food. There was an entire aisle devoted to milk—plain milk on one side and flavored milk on the other. It was overwhelming and kind of distasteful, but cheaper than in Bariloche. And they stocked Jif-style peanut butter.
On Monday morning we walked two miles to the bus terminal and got in a micro going to Puerto Varas, which we had heard was small and quaint. As soon as we got off the bus I bought some Rainier cherries from a guy on the street and then we found a lovely restaurant facing Lake Llanquihue with a great view of Osorno volcano. We ordered fries for Lou, a savory crepe for me with corn, fresh spinach and diced tomato in a creme sauce, and a salad with a scoop of quinoa for Pete. It made my day to eat a hot meal that wasn’t made of bread or pasta and cheese.
We had promised Lou that we would take him to a kids park at Jumbo, so we headed back to Puerto Montt mid-afternoon. It turned out the kids park was just a climbing structure in the corner of the Jumbo cafeteria, but we met some charming elementary school kids who asked for our autographs and talked with a group of moms. The ladies were lovely, curious about what we were doing and full of suggestions for our time in Puerto Montt (and they oohed and aahed about Bariloche). Unfortunately, even Pete can only understand about 50 percent of what Chilenos say.
We can’t wait to get “home” to Bariloche.
* We needed to leave Argentina in order to renew our tourist entry permits, which are only valid for 90 days.