“Bahia Murta is the next El Chalten” Matt has said more than once. Having never seen Chalten prior to its transformation into “The Trekking Capital of Argentina” I imagine that, at some point, it was a lot like Bahia Murta is now. In some ways, I think we both dream a bit of being at the forefront of a new destination. In reality though, Murta, as it is more commonly called, will never have the tourist draw that Argentina’s “Parque Nacional Los Glaciares” has, due to it not being in the proximity of a World Heritage Site/National Park. In addition, its challenging access via trails, rough terrain and long dirt roads along with a wet reputation and lack of publicity will, with any luck, keep visitors at bay for years to come.
There are merits to the statement though. The lack of National Park status does not stop the fact that only seven hours up the valley from town, one can lay eyes on beautiful granite massifs and spires thrusting out of rock and ice. It is a place that, if it were in the continental United States, would be regaled regularly in Backpacker, Climbing, Outside and the like. With a variety approach options, the hardest probably being a moderate fourteen miler over non technical terrain to an 800 meter face, half of which goes clean at sub 5.10 and the potential for countless other moderate or hard, long or short, crack or face and snow/ice or rock routes, you can bet the area would be overrun with climbers, routes, and posers. Its multiple valleys, access points, lakes, rivers, varied terrain and scenic beauty would be ideal for various trekking routes and associated services of hostels, shuttles, and restaurants. Here, though, near the tail end of the sometimes one lane, dirt road known as the Carreterra Austral, the Cordillera Avellano is not receiving its due in the sun and hence, the quiet little villa de Murta rests not only climbing’s backwater obscurity, but Chile’s too. And maybe that is just as well.
When Sergio dropped us off, we skirted the edge of town, thus not getting a good feel for what was there. It was only after Matt and Dave went down to the sleepy little hamlet, tucked away off of the Carraterra and on the shores of Lago General Carrera where Rio Murta terminates in a swirling tie dye of grey and blue that we got any sense of the scale and vivacity of the community.
“Chickens” Matt said. “So many chickens. They were everywhere.” I imagine chickens running through the streets, chasing them and Dave and Matt having to kick them away.
“Was the store well stocked?” I asked.
“Yeah, good enough. There weren’t any baskets or carts and the counter was so small we could not put everything we wanted onto it without it falling off” Dave answers. “Once we left” he continues, “they walked out, locked up and left for the day. I guess they felt like they didn’t need to be open anymore.”
“Did you buy them out?” I asked.
“Not of anything important, I don’t think. There were still cookies left” Dave replies, referencing his notorious sweet tooth.
“We went out to dinner” Matt chimes in. “It seemed kinda sketchy. Like it was someone’s dinning room. We kinda debated whether we wanted to go in, but we had no fuel to cook with, so Dave made the decision.”
“Yeah, we walked in and sat down. We said something like ‘comida‘ and the young girl who came to greet us nodded, then went back in the kitchen. Then we just sat and waited.” Dave and Matt are both entertained as the story is told, but I can’t tell whether it is type two entertainment.
“When they brought out the soup, we both looked at each other in amusement. It was asparagus soup. Could tell just by the smell” Dave adds.
“But it got better after that, it wasn’t a complete replication of what we’re eating here” Matt says, alluding to the amount of asparagus soup we have eaten. “There was a panadería , a couple of minimercados, though we found only one that was open, and a nice tourist information place. It is the next Chalten, there are even cliffs above town to develop.”
Our plan was to get picked up in Bahia Murta at 1600 hours on Sunday afternoon. After a brief non-emergency, the result of not hiking all together, we gathered at our lower cache, about a mile outside of town. We crammed, strapped and balanced the left behind items on our already overflowing and somewhat heavy backpacks, then picked our way down the steep, loose cow trail. To no one’s surprise, the wind was blowing as we reached the level ground near the soccer field on the outskirts of Bahia Murta. Our “logistics coordinator”, Marcelo, had arranged for someone to pick us up in front of the minimercado, which was across from the tourist information center. By the time we reached town, it was 1500, so instead of pandering to our desires at the panadería we ambled over to the pick up location. Of course just as we showed up, the proprietor walked out, locked up and took off. Light rain came and went as we waited the remaining hour, then another, and another. After a few failed attempts at contacting Marcelo, I was able to finally ring through to his phone. Once we exchanged the initial and requisite pleasantries, I related our situation. A plan was made to call back in a bit, thus giving me eventually, another hour or so of wandering the streets of Murta.
Murta, sporting a population of not more than five hundred is about 200 kilometers from the Aisen region’s capital and urban center of Coyhaique. The town’s, and river’s, namesake is a Ugni molina, a perfumed shrub that produces edible fruits that are often used in jams and spirits. While a handful of home based shops boast sales of these jams, as well as those of the ubiquitous calafate berry, likely catering to the weekend tourists, the town’s main industry is that of livestock. Tourism is growing though and on an otherwise unremarkable Sunday afternoon, as we sat waiting for our ride, no less than ten trucks, loaded with gear and people, pulling boats passed by us on the way out of town. The lake it would seem is a large draw for this tiny community. My unceasing restlessness and curiosity drove me to wander and that I did, up one street then down the next. The advent of a tourism based industry was quite prevalent in the number of hospedajes and cabana’s for rent that dotted the town. The tourist information center at our pick up point listed several others as well along with selling a handful of locally made mermaladas and woolen items.
Late in the evening we settled on a plan of an 0800 ride from Murta to Coyhaique. Marcelo arranged for a friend living locally to pick us up and bring us north. Our packs being big and heavy, the hour being late and our bodies being stinky, we opted for the Bahia Murta Turistica Bivy. The Información Turística in town was set back a few meters from the road and a few meters in front of a field of grazing sheep. It was surrounded by well kept grass, with a play ground, benches and picnic tables. Behind, near the sledgehammer smashed toilets, the door with the hole kicked in it and below the destroyed light fixtures, there was a covered cement slab that would provide an excellent “urban” bivy site. Despite its vandalized nature with dried, fecal covered pieces of the porcelain vase lying about, the bathroom sink was still functioning and provided us with water. Since I had binge eaten a bunch of oats and manjar earlier as we were waiting for our ride, dinner consisted of our four remaining freeze dried meals with a few cookies for desert. Of course there were the obligatory hot drinks as well, both before and after. The darkness came late, as it does at this latitude in January, but weary from the days travel schlepping heavy packs, we crashed out as dusk was settling in.
The next morning, after a tea and cookie “breakfast” we moved our bags out front and watched life slowly come to the street. A light rain and the usual gusty breezes ushered in the day. Above town, the steep, green nirre, lenga and coihue covered hillsides were shrouded with a low, grey cloud. So it was with little disappointment that when the small red Mitsubishi pick-up pulled up, we loaded our gear, climbed inside and started toward Coyhaique.
The next Chalten? Not likely anytime soon. An OK place from which to base a trip to the Avellanos? Yep, if you know what you are getting into, but if you a gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.