Racing the Sun
A Day's Drive Across South America
This January my son Ethan joined me on STREAM SIDE ADVENTURES’ annual trip to the Patagonia region of Chile. Since I don’t speak any Spanish, in the past the day to day logistics have been tough, doable but tough. E is quite fluent in Spanish so logistics were so much simpler with him with there. But more importantly, I didn’t have to eat chicken and french fries every night for dinner. E could read the menu!
E has more than a little adventurer in him. His choice for where to go for his high school graduation trip was Pamplona, Spain. “Dad, let’s go run with the bulls”. We did it. Really E did, he ran on the horns, while I just kind of pranced and danced around as the bulls ran by me.
Midway through the trip we had a few days that we didn’t have to be fishing. I’m thinking maybe just relax for three days. Not E. At dinner, eating something other than chicken and french fries, E pulled out a map and said, “You know Dad this the only place in the world where you could watch the sun rise over the Atlantic and then drive to the Pacific to watch it set. Let’s do it.” What the hell. If I could prance and dance with the bulls in Pamplona, surely I could race the sun across South America.
Over dinner and a bottle of great Chilean wine it looked really simple. All we had to do was drive over the Coyhaique Alto pass into Argentina and follow the road to the Atlantic. We would spend the night sleeping on the Atlantic and then head back in the morning. So off we went. Chilean passport control was simple. They didn’t get a lot of business. Customs was a different matter. E’s Spanish is mostly “kitchen Spanish” learned while working his way through college as a server at high-end restaurants. Great for ordering my dinner but not the best for trying to fill out the long and complicated customs forms that we needed in order to get our rental car out of the country and more importantly back into Chile the next day. Finally the “customs lady” took pity on us and filled it out for us! Argentinean passport control and customs was a piece of cake and off we went.
The Andes are not all that high when you get down to 46 degrees South, but they are high enough to capture the moisture coming off the Pacific. Not long after crossing the continental divide you find yourself in the rain shadow on a fairly flat dry plain. The country side reminded me of the interior basin of Wyoming or, I’m scared to say, the plains of northern Spain that we passed through on our way for a date with the bulls! In Wyoming you see antelope in the scraggily sage brush, on the Argentinean plains the antelope are replaced with Guanacos and Reas, an Ostridge like bird. Other than the wildlife, there were just long miles of dirt road across the country with maybe another truck every coming toward us once in a while. The roads were straight as an arrow, a condition that led me to drive a bit faster than I should have been driving for the rocky conditions! Tooling along at nearly 80 kilometers an hour I caught that whiff of burning rubber, the one that first makes you look down at the gauges. When all the gauges were OK I knew it had to be a tire. And it was, kilometers from anything. We had a good spare and I had E to change the tire so why worry? We only had over a hundred kilometers to go before we might be anyplace where we might be able to get another spare! We made it to the Atlantic. Our final resting place for the night was a rocky section of beach just outside the small town of Caleta Olivia, a town too small to have a tire store!
E says I tend to speak in terms of song lyrics. The lyrics of one of James Taylor’s songs go something like “Best to go home by another way, home by another way.” Why would we want to just turn around at the Atlantic and go back the same way we came? We had seen all there was to see on that route. This was an adventure so why not follow Sweet Baby James’s advice and go home by another way. And we did. We knew roughly where we needed to go – West – but we didn’t have a road map of Argentina. After a couple of false starts we found the road we were looking for, the one that would take us to Chile Chico, Chile. We chose that as our destination because 1) it was the only other possible new destination from Caleta Olivia and 2) from there we could take the ferry across Lago General Carrera to Puerto Ibanez. From Puerto Ibanez it would be just 35 more kilometers of gravel roads until we reached a paved road for the remaining 185 kilometers to see the sun set over the Pacific at Puerto Chacabuco. Simple, right?
Finding the ferry landing was simple. Just follow the main road through the village until you come to the shore of the lake. We hadn’t expected our luck to be so good that the ferry would be there waiting there for us to drive on. So we had to wait for a little while. Off we went to find a place to have a late lunch. We had plenty of time. And a great lunch it was. Back at the ferry landing we wondered over by the office. The schedule was posted on the door. There was only ONE ferry a day and it left just after 8:00 that morning!
We had made a good race of it against the sun but it looked like our spontaneity and lack of planning had got the best of us. It had been fun to try. Do you think a young man that ran with the bulls would call it quits? No way. “Dad, we can drive along the shore of Lago General Carrera, turn south and head for Caleta Tortel, our Pacific Ocean destination. We’ve come too far to not at lest give it a try! The worse thing that could happen is that we don’t make.” I knew his was right. “OK, let’s get going but remember these roads suck and we don’t have a spare.”
We were off the Pampas and back in the Andes. It was not just nearly 300 kilometers of rough gravel roads; it was 300 kilometers of rough, twisting gravel roads. Steering around potholes, E kept us going while I keep checking my watch and our GPS to see when the sun was going to set. When we finally approached Puerto Bertrand for the turned south toward Cochrane, my spirits lifted. We would be back on Route 7, the Pan American Highway. Surely we could increase our speed without worrying about a flat. Not. If possible the road became rougher and more torturous as we drove along the edge of Rio Baker’s gorge. The sun appeared to be winning the race as we felt like we were speeding at 30 Km/hr.
As E kept us bouncing along, all I could do was to keep checking the time and tell him how much time we had left. “Dad, I’m driving as fast as I can. If we make it we make. Hell, do you even know anyone who as even tried this.” He was right. Even if we didn’t make it we had tried. At 9:30 I stop looking at my watch. I didn’t know for sure how much further we had to go to reach the Pacific and my continually check my watch wasn’t going to get us there any sooner or for the sun to set any later. Then we were there, Caleta Tortel, the Pacific Ocean at 47º 47´ 45´´ S 73º 31´ 53´´ W. The time for sun set was 9:43. My watch said 9:39!
I’m so proud that back in Chile Chico, E had said, “Dad, we can do it!”