For the last 3 weeks I’ve been snaking north along Chile’s Ruta Siete, or the Carretera Austral. In terms of well trafficked touring cycling roads it rate’s up alongside the Pamir and Alaska Highway’s. Of course this means that there’s no shortage of cycle travellers on the road, and I’ve been running into up to 15 per day all heading South. Fascinatingly, many of the travellers heading that way have stated that they haven’t really seen any bikelists heading their direction, and this is a shame because the plight of the touring cyclist is often stark fluctuations between visual overstimulation and loneliness.
I guess if I draw a parallel with them I can tell them that I haven’t run into many cyclists heading my own way either, but I’ve managed to maintain my sanity with more podcasts than I care to mention, and chatting with the 15 cyclists I seem to meet each day going the other direction.
The Carretera is a 1240 km route which winds North from Villa O’Higgins in remote Southern Chile, all the way North to the top of Chilean Patagonia in Puerto Montt, which also seems to mark the beginning of what most cyclists I’ve met are calling civilisation (and perhaps the end of the muy fuerte wind on the Argentine side of the Andes).
In order to get to Villa O’Higgins you need to either pass the mountains further north and then backtrack to the start point, or navigate a series of weekly boat departures from remote Laguna’s around El Chaltén. The first stage of the journey was to weave our way West along 40 km of gravel road to the Southern end of Lago del Desierto. Tom and I had left mid week to give ourselves plenty of time to make the once weekly ferry crossings through the weekend. With the benefit of time we holed up at a little campground just out of town to practice slack-lining with the women who were running the camp and gaze slack-jawed at Mount Fitz Roy above us.
Riding only 40 km over 2 leisurely days, we combed our way alongside pristine flowing streams to the launch point for phase 2 of the crossing, a small boat to cross Lago del Desierto and find the Argentinian Gendarmería to have our passports stamped. The day was overcast so probably didn’t do justice to the remarkable ranges around us, but a small amount of excitement was enjoyed when the ship began careening towards the rocks – looking about in shock we noted that the captain was taking pause for a selfie. We negotiated to camp on the North side of the lake, and quickly tucked into a shared meal surrounded by local cat’s, dog’s and a horse while we watched the sun set and the colours change over Mount Fitz Roy.
The following day we rose early for what was phase 3 of the crossing. A steep 6 km push up a small single track which in the steepest places was really a waist deep trench just wide enough to fit the loaded bikes. Determined not to unload the bikes we straddled the bikes and stood atop the trench to inch them little by little up the steepest sections of the trail.
The next major hurdle was a number of small creek crossings, most relatively shallow and with makeshift timber bridges from logs, but a few deeper numbers also. Tom chanced a ride through one of the deeper crossings and quickly found himself in sodden boots. An early experience with rotten insoles meant I opted to take the boots off and ford the icy creek barefoot.
Near the top of the crossing we sat down for lunch very close to the border post and watched a number of other travellers cross by on horse and foot.
From the border post it was a rocky descent over about 15 km’s to Candellario Mancilla where we would wait another day to board the once weekly crossing to Villa O’Higgins.
In Candellario Mancilla we met a group of English and French cyclists which I hadn’t seen since El Calafate. That evening we camped overlooking Lago O’Higgins and were treated by a butchering display, as the owner of the campground ratcheted a cow out of the tree nearby (which none of us had really noticed) and began quartering and carving it into sizeable portions. We quickly negotiated a price of slightly less that $4 AUD /kg and gladly took 6 kg off his hands. Each of us tucking into a kg of meat each and indulging in a steak and chimichurri feeding frenzy – it’s amazing what happens to your appetite when you’re riding loaded distance each day.
The following day was the last phase of the crossing, one final 3 hour boat journey through the fjord’s along Lago O’Higgins. For this last stage we were joined by an Australian couple, making our group of 6 cyclists now 8, and ensuring that the bike riders were fully represented during the crossing.
So, this now put us in position, half a week later, to begin the mighty Carretera. The route was unpaved for perhaps the first 400 km or so, and has slowly become alternately compacted soil, soft sand and then paved roads. I’ve currently speared off the route after a little over 800 km’s and am crossing to Argentina today, where from what I believe, the paved sections become a bit more prevalent which should hopefully make for some faster riding.
The road has been a difficult one to describe in all – there really isn’t any sense of trying to break it down to a smaller level because the truth is that every day is as visually stunning as the next. Clear glacial waterfalls present themselves every few km’s in order to fill the water bottles or soak the hat on hot days, there are an abundance of like minded bike travellers who are keen to talk, share lunch and laugh. Add to this that you can camp pretty much anywhere so far, there are hidden enclaves near waterfalls and lakes everywhere I’ve been.
I’ve been in the tent now for about 4 weeks straight and I haven’t found any reason to pay for a bed yet. Occasionally I wash in the rivers if the weather is warm enough and every few days I’ve tried to find a small paid campground to wash my clothes, since I’m not carrying an extraordinary amount of them. I’m very protective of my tent at this point, it’s my home and my lifeline – the other day I came back to a campground to find a cat had crawled under the fly, and climbed up into the top of the tent, leaving small claw holes in the inner tent (not big or an issue, but still damage). I smiled and told the owner of the campground through gritted teeth and sarcastic laughter that if it happened again I would punt her cat into the neighbours yard.
Early on on the Carretera, Tom and I parted ways. We largely make different paces and there’s a very important reality of riding like this that you can’t compromise your own rhythm. Some people like to stop and find tranquil lunch spots to rest, others like to eat quickly on the side of the road or even without getting off of the bike. For the first few days we were leapfrogging each other, but this ended in Cochrane with myself and a French traveller taking a day off to relax in the small town. That evening we were joined by a duo of American skiiers/mountaineers who were on their way back from attempting a first crossing over a particular ice cap from Chile into Argentina. They were carrying portioned food for a month on the ice cap, and when the weather went sour they needed to get rid of it in order to be able to cross at a regular border post. I very gladly welcomed a weeks worth of portioned salami and cheese as well as a jar of peanut butter (this stuff is gold, hard to find over here and very expensive).
I set out solo and rode a relatively quick 5 days to Coyhaique, up through Parque Nacional de Cerro Castillo and meeting Tom again briefly for an evening before he went further North. Entering Cerro Castillo, I was presented with a small series of great switchbacks to ascend relatively quickly. A very small test of what’s to come I imagine, as I learnt that Paso de los Libertadores to cross between Santiago and Mendoza has a gruelling 29 switchback’s minimum if you can navigate the tunnel at 2800 masl, or something like 100 if you decide to continue up the old road to the true top of the pass at 3200m
After Coyhaique was a more timid few days of alternating paved roads which allowed for large days of riding. Along the way I passed through a small place called Mañihuales which I’d been told was home to a Casa de Ciclistas which I could stay in. After scouting around I’d concluded that the Casa no longer existed, when at about the same time a small woman named Cati yelled out that she knew a nice camping spot. Expecting to be shown a hidden enclave in the hills I followed her and her daughter up towards the mountains where she showed me a beautiful patch of soft soil with her roosters in the yard and gave me a line to drinking water I could use.
The conversation was minimal but I learned she was a single mother and trying to teach her daughter the importance of kindness. She had a beat up old bike hanging on the wall of her shed and a number of spare wheels scattered around the property for parts as well as some better conditioned bicycles that her and her daughter were using.
After this it’s been a quick few days of riding, carving deeper tracks into this beautiful landscape and moving North through La Junta. The weather has become noticeably cooler as I approach the wet section of this route – though when the rain and fog sets in the brief glimpses of sunshine make the sides of the road here come alive with white and purple and pink flowers everywhere.
The second thousand kilometres has been bowled over and I expect it will be closer to 3000 km’s by Christmas time.
I celebrated my last day of riding along the Carretera by eating up a big day on the bike with a newfound Swedish cyclist heading my way at the same pace. The whole day was spent riding, laughing and talking about other places in the north we planned to visit and dream cycling tours for the future.
The Carretera has been good to me, to couple the beautiful scenery the road has been full of some of the most interesting people I’ve met to date. The road is full of riders, world walkers, motorcyclists, and even a ditch girl who bought a horse on a whim to travel south with a friend (he was on bike).
For now it’s time to say goodbye to Chile yet again and head to Argentina for a week or so I think, refuel on empanadas and gear up for Christmas.