Groundhog Day in La Junta

Friday morning the sky was a bit bluer. But it seemed the road south was no closer to opening. The gas station attendant told us that the police had asked her to let everyone know that the road was still closed and would likely remain closed until Monday. Monday… three full days away, which would put us pretty well behind schedule….

We had debated over breakfast that morning about how to tackle the day. There are exactly four ways to leave La Junta. The road south, continuing down the Carretera Austral was not an option until the road opened, hopefully by Monday. The road west and out to the coast would mean waiting a week for the next ferry – not really an option. Driving north would take us back the way we came, which didn’t seem to make much sense. To the east, about 100km down an unpaved road, was a border crossing into Argentina at Lago Verde. We weren’t excited about exiting the Carretera after only a day, but we really didn’t see any other options. Since the weather hadn’t improved and it was still raining, we weren’t convinced that the road would open by Monday. And waiting until then to come up with an alternate plan didn’t seem wise to us. So, we decided to try our luck with crossing to Argentina, hoping we could cross back into Chile at the next border crossing south of the landslide.

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The road out to Lago Verde was so beautiful we almost didn’t notice the horrific bumpiness of the unpaved roads. Our car was doing great for the most part, but since the cupboards and shelves of our vehicle are full of silverware, pots and pans, and various other odds and ends, every bump sounds like our house is falling apart. And since it’s slow going on the dirt roads, the trip out to Lago Verde took a solid two hours. We finally parked outside immigration, feeling relieved and somewhat triumphant, as if we had beat the system. The town was dead, there was no one waiting at immigration, and we marched inside and told the officer that we were headed into Argentina, ready to hand over our passports…

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… only to have him kindly tell us that the rain had caused flooding, making the bridge  into Argentina impassable.

We were floored. We reminded the officer that we had just driven two hours from La Junta and that the road south was blocked… we asked him if he had any other advice, and he suggested that we take the ferry west of La Junta. We explained that the tourist office had told us the next ferry wasn’t for a week. The guard picked up the phone, called the ferry, and told us that there was a boat leaving at 1pm today. Our jaws dropped. We had specifically asked about the ferry at the tourist information and he told us with confidence that it wasn’t an option for the next week. And now at 10:30, with a two hour drive back into La Junta, and then another 75km on unpaved roads going west out to the coast, there was no way we would make it to the 1pm boat. We couldn’t believe it.

We turned around and came back the way we came, back to La Junta, kicking ourselves for not checking with the police about the Lago Verde border crossing, for not asking the tourist office to call the ferry, for not thinking things through more or asking more questions… in the end, we tried to gather information, but since we don’t know a lot about this place, we don’t know the right questions to ask. And since the Carretera is the only north-south option available in this part of the country, we’re learning that it isn’t a place you can visit on a schedule. Inclement weather, bad roads, and all things unexpected are the norm. We’re learning the hard way. The lesson was painfully reinforced, when two difficult hours later, we arrived back into La Junta, only to find that the road crew was now doing some major construction on the bridge leading north from La Junta which meant… we were literally trapped. We had arrived back in La Junta, only to be trapped. We felt like caged animals. And I felt like crying. It last two days had been a lot. Little sleep on the ferry ride, challenging driving on unpaved road all day, a halt in our progress south, and now another ridiculous delay. I felt like we had raced out of central Chile, skipping some activities that we would have really enjoyed, in order to get here and now… it was all just a bit frustrating. We stopped for gas again, which was really the icing on the cake since it was the third time we had filled up in 24 hours and we hadn’t made any progress yet. Seeing that our escape north was closed was the last straw for me. I took a little walk, had a little cry, and regrouped. Poor Wolf – he certainly has his hands full with me sometimes. He dealt with it much more maturely that I did but was certainly just as angry and frustrated.

We talked to the road crew working on the bridge going north who told us the road would be open again at 3pm. It felt like groundhog day. Or déjà vu. Hadn’t we just played this game yesterday? With nothing better to do, we went back to the tourist office, hoping to give the kid who gave us wrong information a hard time. Luckily it was someone else manning the shop and we asked the same series of questions, including a few new ones, about our options, and the prospects for opening the road. This time around we felt even more misled. We asked when the road north would be open, and she told us it was open now but would be closed at 3pm. Since we had just driven away from the construction site, we knew she was completely wrong and told her so. Then we asked about where we could get wifi in the area – she told us to try the café we had eaten at the day before (the wifi there hadn’t worked at all) or the campsite where we had stayed the night before (they didn’t even have wifi). We asked again about the boat or ferry options and this time we were told that the ferry was delayed due to bad weather and they didn’t know when the next one would sail – maybe Monday but we would have to check back tomorrow to find out. Complete fail. We felt so misled. It seemed that we couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone, no one knew what was going on. To be fair, maybe that’s just how things are here. All the time. A little bit remote and therefore a little bit fuzzy.

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Defeated, we waited around for a couple of hours. Finally, just before 3pm, we made our escape north during a lull in the construction work. Our plan was to drive north, back the way we came, the head east to Futaleufu, where we would cross into Argentina and head north just a bit further to catch a main highway, and then finally start back south again. All in all, our planned detour would take us in the completely opposite cardinal direction, into another country, and in the end about 400km out of our way. As an added bonus, we knew the majority of that 400km detour would be unpaved. We had our work cut out for us.

At the turnoff to Futaleufu we picked up two girls heading the same direction we were. A couple of Israeli’s they had actually started on the other end of the Carretera Austral and when they got to Puyuhuapi, they ended up taking a fishing boat in order to get around the road block. Together we drove through another beautiful valley, along the beautiful Lago Yelcho, and followed the Futaleufu river which looked primed and ready for the whitewater rafting we vowed to return for one day.

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We dropped the girls off in town and stopped for gas before making our way to immigration. I had read about what to expect beforehand and hoped there wouldn’t be any surprises. Stopping on the Chilean side, we waited in line for immigration, where the office took our tourist card (completed upon arrival) and asked to see our vehicle paperwork. He documented some of our vehicle information in his computer, stamped our passports documenting our exit, and sent us to the customs desk. At customs, the officer asked for our title and temporary permit (provided to us at customs in Valparaiso). He reviewed them both, took our temporary permit, and sent us on our way. We drove a few kilometers down the road and stopped again at the Argentinian side.

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There, we completed new tourist cards and again showed our title to the immigration agents who stamped us into the country. At the customs desk they reviewed our title again, entered the information into the computer and then had us sign two copies of our a temporary permit. We kept one, and we were free to go. First border crossing with the car a success!

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More unpaved road greeted us in Argentina. Because it was late in the day, we were on the prowl already for campsites and about done with the first day of our detour. We made it to the small town of Trevelín where we found a campsite on the edge of town that looked completely abandoned, but once we drove in we met a nice family running the place who were friendly and eager to help, including allowing us to pay in US dollars since we hadn’t had any Argentinian pesos since Iguazu Falls.

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The campsite and our drive in, despite the gravel roads, were both gorgeous and also completely different from what we had left behind in Chile. Big skies over the Argentinian Pampas certainly had an appeal. Our host told us it would get below freezing that night and although we didn’t have a thermostat, I think he was right. It was chilly until morning but we were so happy to be making progress we hardly noticed.

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