The Rio Futaleufu is one of the largest volume rivers in South America, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful. So naturally, with having two months to spend in Chile, my traveling partner and I had to go there! Never could I have guessed that this simple wish would be quite the journey. It’s a dot on the map, so how hard can it be – right?
While in Pucon, Chile, Clay and I asked friends and local business owners logistical questions about our desired destination. Our options in reaching the town of Futaleufu consisted of a 12 hour bus ride through Argentina, or a bus-ferry-bus combo. It seems like an easy choice, except that the bus route includes a ride through Argentina, which means an additional $160 USD fee to enter and exit the country for all of a few hours (reciprocity fees.. enough said). With that bit of information learned and with a trip to Argentina not yet penciled-in on our draft of an itinerary, I purchased two tickets for an overnight ferry online and crossed my fingers bus tickets could be purchased at time of departure.
The next morning we arrived at the Pucon bus station, purchased tickets, and saw a peculiar sight. A young man with a full (and I mean full!) strawberry-colored beard, lugging a big, awkwardly shaped piece of orange plastic with the words Pyrannha written across it (very similar to the boat that Clay was toting). A FELLOW KAYAKER! In the small world that is the paddling community, our new friend Sean, an Idaho-ian, was heading to exactly the same place we were. Five hours later, we climbed off the bus in Puerto Montt. First leg done – easy peasy! The three of us, having decided to journey together, trudged six long blocks through the city. I was weighed down with my backpacking pack and a duffle bag, both strapped to me in some manner, and I pulled Clay’s gear bag (big enough for me to fit inside) behind me, being the wonderful girlfriend that I am, until finally we reached the ferry port. With five hours to kill before our 10:00pm departure, I took full advantage of the free wi-fi (Hi Mom and Dad – yes I’m alive!), and Clay and I devoured a few empanadas between the two of us, which had undoubtedly become the staple of our diet. At last, a few hours later, the three of us were seated on the ferry, bags and boats aboard. We attempted sleep in partially reclined, broken chairs, in a room full of 30 strangers, some situated with sleeping (or not sleeping) babies on their laps, and we listened to coughs, snores, and a symphony of other sounds throughout the night. Finally, daylight began creeping through the windows and we moved to the outside of the ferry to check out the surroundings. *For anyone who has seen the documentary 180˚ South, the impressive mountain Corcovado was visible from the ferry as we neared land and the town of Chaiten!* It was then, standing outside, that I noticed that my boyfriend and our new traveling partner could pass for twins.
At this point, we had made it through the second leg. One more bus and “ESTAMOS AQUI!” We walked from the ferry about a kilometer with our many bags to the town bus station, where we inquired about purchasing three bus tickets for the two and a half hour journey to Futaleufu. The attendant, Matthew, informed us that “Well, the bus can only carry about 15 passengers, and it does not allow kayaks. You can ask the bus driver, but he will probably say no.” The gentleman also informed us that, although there were plenty of seats available, we would have to wait to purchase tickets at the time-of departure, as the bus was subsidized and locals received priority. My eyes bulged as I looked at my friends in disbelief, trying to remember if we had been warned about this loophole. Despite being the bearer of bad news, Matthew was very kind and helpful. He drove us to the edge of town and dropped us roadside, where I held up a “Futaleufu – Por Favor!” sign for four hours (because I was the girl and people will stop if a “cute girl” is holding a friendly sign), before returning to the bus station in time to reconfirm with the bus driver, that no – we don’t have room for kayaks, and yes – there are only two seats available.
After much debate, we decided it was best to send Sean to Futaleufu on the bus, along with Clay’s massive gear bag to relieve us of a piece of luggage while Clay, myself, Clay’s boat, and Sean’s boat that I was now responsible for would spend a night in Chaiten, at the house of a family whose son we had befriended in Pucon. [If there is one thing I learned about traveling in South America, it is that locals welcome you into their home wholeheartedly and do not miss a beat in offering you any assistance. A second thing I learned is that while planning can be important, flexibility and improvising is important even more so.] One hour later, that plan was dissolved when Dennis, a man from the island of Mauritius, located off the eastern coast of Africa, offered us to ride with him, where he would drop us at a town called Puerto Ramirez, putting us that much closer to our destination, before parting at the fork and heading in the other direction. Clay and I graciously accepted his offer. He quickly added that he was planning on making a stop, and asked if we would mind stopping at the hot springs in the PumalÍn Parque Nacional. SCORE! I was smiling ear to ear as we cruised, windows down, to the hot springs. We soaked, took a mud bath, and rinsed off before leaving the springs and stopping at a mini mercado (mercado = market. Could this guy read our minds, or what?!) to get food and water before continuing. Clay and I both enjoyed talking with Dennis, who looked like Russell Brand and sounded like Hugh Grant, and for the remainder of the ride we were happily engaged in interesting conversation.
In Puerto Ramirez, we parted ways. Dennis dropped us at a hostel where a woman offered beds and breakfast for $12,000 CLP (Chilean pesos), or the equivalent of $25 USD each. I politely asked if we could pay to camp in her yard with our tent and sleeping bags, and she waved her hand while refusing any payment from us. We set up our tent, and I admired our views as I spent my first night camping in PATAGONIA! It was an incredible view, even when being admired from inside of a screened tent.
After a good night’s sleep sans crying babies and sleeping upright – which I was incredibly grateful for – we packed up, ate a miniscule granola bar, and started hitching. The first car that was heading our way stopped and picked us up. Clay and I rode twenty kilometers closer to Futaleufu with Chilean workers who were painting one of the bridges used to cross the rio (Spanish for river), and I got my first glimpse of the Futa! It was big, blue, and beautiful! Clay and I both could not wait to get out on the river, hoping that would be sooner rather than later.
Our luck with the first hitch of the day gave me a false sense of ease for the day’s mission. We sat in the same spot roadside for 3 hours before a pair of German kayakers passed us and gladly picked us up. This time, we traveled 10 kilometers before thanking the fellow paddlers and looking forward to seeing them on the river. At mid-day, the sun was hot, there was no shade, we finished our last sips of water at 8am that morning, and our last two meals of crackers and avocado followed by a teeeeny granola bar that morning left us hangry (hangry: hungry and angry). Four hours passed. We played a game called throw-the-rock-at-the-old-beer-can-laying-by-the-side-of-the-road, the card game Rummy despite the blowing wind, and did a lot of talking about food, which did nothing to remedy the situation. Finally, we spotted a TRUCK (which we had been hoping and praying for as a truck bed is ideal for holding two boats) cruising our way, and to our relief, the driver, stopped, let us load up and clamor in, and offered to take us not only to the town of Futaleufu, but to the doorstep of our friend’s hostel that we would be staying at! Fly, a Futaleufu native, was nicknamed for his role as a fly fishing guide, and he knew our friend Nate very well. Thirty minutes later we arrived at Hostal Las Natalias, smiling from ear to ear and happy to see our friend from North Carolina, Nate. We gratefully thanked Fly, entered the hostel, gulped down water, and chowed down on some well-earned food. Finally, the third and final leg of our journey was now complete. Futaleufu. We made it.
Author Hayley Spear spends her summers in the Columbia River Gorge and enjoys paddling, hiking, and exploring as often as she can.