Last night at the Holiday Inn Express was one of well earned luxury after a week and a bit on the road. Our bed was larger than some of the rooms we had stayed in! But, a price to match, so it’s good that there are more affordable options around.
At the end of September I had started looking at some suitable passes to get from Chile into Argentina. Just before we were due to leave, the car rental provider advised that we would not be able to pick up the necessary papers for taking the car into Argentina until the week after our arrival in Chile. A quick bit of rescheduling left me with one main concern: would the passes in the south be open? Some stated that they would only be open from 1 November – too late for us. I explained our problem to the owner of Hosteria Al Paraiso in Villa Pehuenia and he suggested the near by Paso Icalma, so small that Google Maps had not appeared to have heard of it, instead trying to send me on a 134 km detour! A weather check at the time reported 150 cm of snow and freezing temperatures.
There had not been much information about this pass on the internet and there was a significant stretch of track that was only ripio quality on the map. I remembered some of the tracks in 2010 which were turned into mudslides by an overnight thunderstorm and remembered the rain that we had experienced just a couple of days ago. Like a good IT Project Manager, I had ‘invoke reverse processing’ as an option.
I need not have worried. But let’s start at the beginning:
We enjoyed a nice Holiday Inn breakfast and a little later than usual set off. The hotel had been ideal for access from R5, but SatNav seemed unfamiliar with the town of Tembuco. After some scary experiences where it tried to send us the wrong way up one-way streets, we learned that this was in fact a feature – it consistently got it wrong each time! Back to first principles: we needed to head into the Andes that we could see some 50 km out of town in the east. Driving in a straight line, sooner or later we had to reach the outskirts of town where skylines were more easily seen and rush hour traffic would not try to push us off the road.
Angie was familiarising herself with strange sounding names of villages on the map and soon found one that we had driven through, that proved that we were headed in the right direction. It was nice and sunny despite the TV forecast of clouds and rain and the scenery was of a typical sunny UK Spring day, with fresh green leaves breaking on the Alamo (poplar) trees. Quite a fast road too, with average speeds of 80 km.p.hr. So far so good. But I remembered the drive to Antuco a couple of days ago where it got cold and bleak fast as we increased in altitude, and the Andes loomed up fast, their peaks covered in snow.
Then the asphalt stopped and we found ourselves on good gravel, but the sort of stuff that our car, christened Dodgy, had difficulties in keeping a straight line on. I suspect tyre wear and pressures might be to blame – something to check out at a next fuel stop. With the scenery improving, the slower speed was no hardship. Araucaria trees appeared on the hills, covered in mosses and lichen, producing an eery feel to the place.
As was the case in 2010, there were also a lot of dead trees around – stripped by nature of bark, standing like skeletons on the lower hills. Workers were busy in places to clear up the dead wood. Had these trees (Notofagus – southern beech?) been hit by a disease? Taking pictures nicely distracted us and so it came almost as a surprise as we saw the name Icalma appear by the side of the road. We were there at the pass, not at all the way that I had imagined an Andean mountain pass (1,300 m)
Four Chilean immigration officers competed for the challenge of best English speaker, all very relaxed and no other customers in sight. I told him about our experiences in 2008 at the Cristo Redentor pass on the day before New Year when we had been in a 12 km long queue to get from Argentina to Chile – a night mare. They laughed. ‘Send them this way’! they said. I promised to award them best ‘Exit from Chile’ officials. 12 km later, having taken some nice shots in no-man’s land’ of the Argentinian Lakes before us, we were met by an unsmiling Argentinian custom’s official, who directed us to park the car and enter the small wooden building. Here we were met by four girls in uniform who giggled as they tried to make sense of our passports. They called on a grey haired senior colleague for help. All in all we must have been more interesting than the cyclist who seemed to have been the other crossing that day – or more likely the warm(ish) empanada delivery man.
One more call to make, to a small hut across the road, where two more officials were glad to see somebody different from the locals and with mucho gusto stamped their way through the documents that imported our car temporarily into Argentina. Was I german? they asked, looking at my passport. ‘No, Holanda’ I replied. Ah, they said, better at football than Germany! No argument there, although the number of world cup wins suggest a different story. (S2865 – Lago Aluminé)
And so we turned up a day early at Hosteria Al Paraiso where it took a while for me to recognise our hostess Monica. No problem, they had rooms, so we could relax and catch up with Diaries and a bit of relaxing new age music that sets the tone for the hotel.