Futaleufú, Chile definitely makes the list of Adorable Towns of the World. This is the kind of place where you park your horse along the road without even hitching it up. Here checking out at the grocery is an endearing 20 minutes of a local kid running around adding up prices on a hand calculator. Delicious clear water flows from the taps, friendly dogs snooze in the streets, massive cows wander around contentedly, mustachioed locals in ponchos and wide-brimmed hats grill up mutton for dinner and the sun sets at 10pm over the surrounding granite spires and turquoise rivers.
Our four-night stay in Futaleufú was totally unplanned but wholly welcome. We had happily bid farewell to Bariloche at 6:30am and rode south by bus along Argentina’s Ruta 40 until we reached the border town of Esquel. Along the way we passed expanses of dry Argentinian ranch land and dusty roadways. It’s remarkable how dramatic the difference is between Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia is: the mountains, though not exceptionally high at 2000m, hog all the rainfall and leave the eastern side pretty parched.
After napping in Esquel’s park we caught the bus up to the border, walked the few hundred meters between Argentina and Chile, and took a short shuttle down into the town of Futaleufú. The plan at this point was to spend the night and continue the following day to points further south; Futaleufú is a popular whitewater destination, but otherwise didn’t sound like much from what we read. We realized this wouldn’t work once we eyed a bus schedule at the Chilean border post. So, no bus for four days? Okay, guess we’re really getting into Patagonia now!
Futaleufú is not very big: walking across town takes five minutes. I expected a different atmosphere after reading about package tourists coming for rafting, but this was way off from reality. The town is relaxed, welcoming, and just the right level of touristy that we could manage to find places to eat and sleep. Our first night was in Hostal Las Natalias – a cozy, friendly place a short walk out of town.
We would have stayed longer but they were full so Elaine found us a sweet airbnb cabin to call home for three more nights. In the meantime, the owner of Las Natalias happens to be a pro whitewater kayaker who offers classes every day – just the sort of thing I was thinking I should do with my time here. It doesn’t look that hard, right? So I suited up with Nathaniel and we went to the riverside equivalent of the kiddie pool to practice basic survival skills.
Turns out this is not, in fact, as easy as it looks. As soon as you’re in the water it’s very different from a regular kayak – very maneuverable yet prone to skidding if you don’t know what you’re doing (like me). Proper technique heavily involves your core and your hips, parts of me which tend to suffer neglect. Still I sort of was able to stay on a straight line and turn on command, so we progressed to flipping upside-down many times while Nathaniel worked me through increasing levels of bailout and roll. I wasn’t able to totally get the solo roll recovery but got close.
After a couple hours of basics we hit the river. Not the Rio Futaleufú, which has world-class rapids that would quickly destroy me, but its tame neighbor the Espolon. I got to try catching and peeling out of eddies, ferrying across the current, and in general riding along baby rapids and really gaining an appreciation for how precise and engaging whitewater kayaking can be. It was a great half-day and I think it’s something I would try out further if I have the opportunity!
So our life for the few days in Futaleufú was pretty relaxed. Visit a couple of the local grocery stores to see who has produce, collect enough to feed ourselves for the day, cook some meals, hike around. We visited some viewpoints along the real river – “the Fu” – and saw some gorgeous countryside and farmland.
I decided to do some rafting on the big river while we were here. It was explained that the river was running quite high due to rainfall – until recently it was fully closed – and the open section we would raft would only last an hour, maybe less, but it would be the best and most nonstop portion. So I showed up the next morning and a mixed group of Chileans, Europeans, and myself packed into a dusty van to get to our start point. We donned wetsuits, got the standard safety briefing, and hit the water.
I’ve been whitewater rafting ~five times between the States and Ecuador. I think every time I’ve ended up in the water against my best intentions. Perhaps, I thought, I’d manage to stay in the raft this time? Well it was all great until our guide decided that our boat was good enough to tackle the big class V rapid on the far side of the river halfway through – I knew we were in for it when he whistled to the safety kayaks, gesturing that we were taking the hard way. It was several massive waves in a row and out we all went!
From Futaleufú we finally caught our minibus south for 12 hours over a bumpy blend of gravel, bricks, occasional pavement, and one ferry around a washed-out section. We survived the long day and reached Coyhaique, a hub of sorts in the area. As far as these towns go it’s so-so and pretty expensive, especially for lodging. After one night in an overpriced hostel room (only one toilet+shower for everyone – really?) we wanted something better for a few days while we did some hiking in the area. So Elaine found us an airbnb shipping container – awesome! We’d need a car to get there, but we were actually thinking of renting a car anyway so we could get to some trails. Perfect.
Turns out that renting a car in Patagonia is really expensive. The best we could find was a junky little Suzuki Jimny for over $100 a day – yikes! Oh well, it would be worth it: we had our eyes set on this one hike at Cerro Castillo that was a couple hours outside of town and reportedly amazing by all accounts. But first we took our rattly ride east and after a few wrong turns (we ended up at a military zone gate) we found our new digs.
Super-friendly Manuel has set up a few of these container apartments, decorating them with local artwork, and they’re just fantastic. It’s one of the coziest places we’ve found to stay, and the view of the local fields and hills was great! There were also several friendly neighborhood dogs to say hi to.
The next day it was time for the hike we were really excited about: visiting the blue mountain lake of Cerro Castillo. This is often part of a multi-day trek but we are lazy, and besides, the weather wasn’t the best for camping. We looked at the forcast and it didn’t look any better the following day so we decided to drive out to the trailhead and give it a go.
Well, after 2.5 hours along the Carretera Austral we were ready to get started. Or not… “The trail is closed today,” the friendly locals told us. “Well, if you want to die, you can go up there.” Apparently an imminent storm was bringing 100kph winds and snow with freezing temperatures. So we had to settle with some views from along the highway and we returned, tails tucked, to Coyhaique. So much for paying to rent this car!
We attempted to make the most of our day by hiking up into the hills near our container-home later that afternoon. Based on Manuel’s description I figured we could hit a nearby summit, but it wasn’t long before we were thwarted by fences and really tenacious burrs. Well… not everyone has the same idea of what makes for a good long hike, I guess. Still really beautiful, though.
Our challenging day ended with losing power from the high winds moving in. Turns out that being in a shipping container with all six sides exposed to the wind (they’re raised up on concrete blocks) gets cold quickly! After a cold chicken and pasta dinner we cozied up, jackets on, to reach a better day.
With one more day in Coyhaique and the weather still gusty and gray, we opted for an easy local hike in the nearby national park. While it didn’t have any epic Patagonian views, it was still a nice few hours through the hillside up to a series of clear ponds with fat trout swimming around.
From Coyhaique we were headed next to the small town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo and a destination we were really excited for: the Glaciar Exploradores!