(November 26-27 – written by “10K Dave”)
We’ve been travelling in Latin America for more than year now and come to expect finding very old towns. Starting Mexico nearly everything seemed to be founded in or around 1534, when the Spanish arrived. This continued as we travelled south with even Valparaíso, Chile having a founding date of 1536.
Most of that changed when we reached Patagonia. Suddenly we started finding towns founded in the 1930s and 40s. The Deep South was simply not overly interesting to the Europeans. Various indigenous peoples lived here but they don’t seem to count (wrongly, obviously) when it comes to founding dates noted by towns or listed on the internet. Coyhaique fits into the “new town” bucket. It was officially founded in 1929. Today it has about 50,000 people. The major industries are fishing, farming (cows and sheep), the nearby port of Aysen and of course, tourism. It is also the seat of regional government – creating a good number of jobs. It is big enough to have an airport and boasts 3 regularly schedule daily commercial flights.
Coyhaique is also a gateway city Southern Patagonia. It sits in a valley at the confluence of the Rios Simpson and Coyhaique, and is surrounded by snow capped mountains in almost every direction. It makes you wonder if locals ever tire of looking at the views – or perhaps they don’t get too many brilliantly sunny days like we’ve had the last two days here. And yes, in case you were wondering, Coyhaique has a Patagonia clothing store – as it should, really.
Even though Coyhaique was founded less than 100 years ago, the region has certainly not been “unknown” before that. In fact, before many permanent settlements were established in the south, the loggers came and did their best to extract as much timber as possible. Here in the Deep South, these efforts just about brought an end to the now famous Monkey Puzzle Tree.
The Monkey Puzzle Tree is Chile’s official tree and because of the longevity of the species, it is often called a living fossil. The loggers loved these tall, straight trees and almost wiped them out in the first half of the last century. Even while threatened, it wasn’t until the 1990s that cutting these trees down was outlawed. The species is currently listed as threatened.
For us, the tree reminds us a lot of the Wollemi Pine, a long thought extinct tree recently discovered to be living in small, remote groves in New South Wales, Australia. It turns out that the two trees are related so we aren’t far off in our thoughts. The origin of the monkey puzzle name comes from when the first samples were taken back to the UK – one of the locals noted that “it would puzzle a monkey to climb that tree” – and the name stuck. You can see what he was talking about when you see the spiky trunk and branches found on the trees.
We’ve had good luck getting resupplied with food here in Coyhaique. We’ve found good coffee to drink and carry south, local artisan foods and Unimarc, a major grocery store. Our biggest issue leaving here is getting my bags to close as I carry most of the food – Nancy is convinced that the people south of here don’t eat, don’t drink coffee and don’t have any pasta/rice/cereals. We have a lot more camping going forward but we have stores noted no more than 4 days ride apart – I’m sure we’ll be fine. We won’t starve. (Senior editor’s note- I’ll remind Dave of his comments when he is sitting at camp eating food other than the packaged cookies that will likely be the primary food item in the tiny grocery stores that we see as we go through the random small villages south of here…)
We’ve taken the rest time here to learn more about lupine. To be honest, I’m not sure where we ended up with Chilean lupine. One lupine species has a recorded history here for at least 1,500 years. However, in nearby areas of Argentina’s Patagonia lupine is listed as an invasive species. Lupinus, spelled lupine and lupin, has at least 200 different species globally. After about an hour reading various internet sources today, I gave up. Best I can tell, there is bad and good lupine. The lupine that is considered bad in many corners of the world is the lupine that is found natively in mainly North America. Both good and bad lupine probably exist here in Chile. Bad lupine, who knew?
Reaching Coyhaique means that we’ve covered about one half of the Carretera Austral. The second half has more gravel which will no doubt make it more difficult. The first half was harder than we thought it would be – the rain, gravel and steeper than usual grades all contributed to a tough ride. Heading south, we’ve mapped out mostly shorter days. This will give us more time to deal with the roads, but also more time to enjoy additional camping – there are fewer towns south of here as well.
The forecast for the next week or so is OK – early summer may finally be arriving in Patagonia. Woohoo, more days riding without booties. It still isn’t anything we’d call hot but drier sound great to us.