A small collection of thoughts on small Chilean towns (and cities)

Shortly before new years eve I crossed the mountains again into Chile and headed towards the coast to get a 2016 fill of the local sea food. Along the way I passed through some particularly out of the way towns and put together the notes below. Some of course aren’t towns at all, and approach something closer to a city, others are small enough to query whether ‘town’ is even appropriate.

Pucón

Pucón was the first point that I realised the continent was becoming decidedly more touristic. Even Christmas in San Martin de los Andes didn’t feel quite so densely populated by people other than locals, and the fact that Pucón was so small meant that it was immediately obvious just how many foreigners were around.

That said, there’s a good reason for Pucón to be this way, it was small and bordered by a the nearby active Volcán Villarrica which cast an eerie red glow over the city in the evenings. It had a nice beach frontage to the lake and a plethora of cafes and restaurants, all the usual attractions to draw a crowd. I’m not sure I met any Chileans there which I hope presses the point. I did however run into a Swiss girl that I’d camped with on the Carratera, seen hitchhiking further on, and then caught riding a bike near San Martin de los Andes – a nice feeling to know that I’d gotten a fellow traveller onto a bike. I also crossed over briefly with an Australian couple also riding bikes which I hadn’t seen for a few weeks.

I stayed for two nights in Pucón in a really average camp ground, it was well and truly overpriced and I was happy to get out of there. The setting by itself though is really beautiful, I can’t fault it except to say that it’s exactly what I expected and a bit of a tourist trap.

 

Villarrica

Villarrica is a place that I only spent a handful of hours in, it probably wasn’t enough. It struck me as interesting that it also seemed like a decidedly touristic affair and was much larger than Pucón, but really didn’t feel like it had the same scale of tourists or feel to it. It’s probably a place I should have spent more time but after a few days off the bike I wasn’t prepared to stop there.

Halfway between Pucón and Villarrica a truck pulled over ahead of me. Juan-Carlo was the driver and he quickly offered me a lift into Villarrica (it was probably less than 10km). I’ve made a mental pact with myself to accept whatever help people offer me – the decision came off the back of the summer hitchhiking in Canada a few years ago where I realised that I wasn’t really drawn to particular settings, and in fact got far more enjoyment out of meeting people, listening and learning to whatever it was they had to say. He drove me into Villarrica (which I otherwise would have avoided), and I shared a huge punnet of raspberries with him.

Villarrica seems like an interesting place, and I’d like to go back at some point. It had the amenities you’d expect of somewhere on a tourist trail, but if you scratched into the outskirts it really felt like a place that was being lived in, I would bet that there are some very very interesting locals living in the area, probably with radical stories about the nearby volcano’s and eruptions over the past 20 years (there have been a few).

 

Panguipulli

Panguipulli was nestled south of Pucón and Villarrica. I altered my course towards the South because I’d organised to stay for a few nights with a family outside of Temuco, and the pace I was making met I had some time to spare where I could still make it to visit them when I said I would. The course south was also intended to be a reminder that the intention for this trip was meant to be a noted lack of direction – I’d begun to feel like perhaps I was northward bound with no other reason than I had started in the south, definitely not the idea I had to begin with.

The ride to Panguipulli was one of the hardest rides of the trip. The day passing around the nearby lake was hot, and the road conveniently turned to gravel and sand right as it banked up with the starkest incline I’ve seen on this trip. Hours were spent sweating and slaving in baking sun just to try and reach the summit, then cue the roller coaster like hills to lead the unpaved way into Panguipulli.

Skirting volcano's on route to Panguipulli

Skirting volcano’s on route to Panguipulli

It was December 31st, and I found a spot to sleep high in the hills above the lake. After setting up camp I went back into town to look for something to eat and drink. I was dismayed to realise that everything had closed on account of new years, and then encouraged to realise that I really didn’t need much more than I had. I fell asleep late having drunk the last of my red wine and woke up to a fresh 2016 to appreciate the stunning landscape around me. It’s hard to fault Panguipulli’s outlook, it’s surrounded by three volcano’s and is perched right on a lake to boot.

 

Temuco/Pillanlelbún

Temuco is a bigger city, the biggest I’d seen for a while. It feels like a place where business is done, but looks fairly run down. I saw only a small part of it, but did cover a lot of distance in search of a bike shop.

Near the station is a spectacular market called Feria Pinto. Fresh fruit and veg aplenty as well as cheap berries and seafood and the typical empanada explosions I’ve come to expect here. I sat and watched for a while, trying to figure out some more of the bizarre Chilean Spanish being hurled about. I bought about a kilogram of outrageously strong cheese to take to my hosts in Pillanlelbún further north.

Temuco had the best bike lane I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Completely removed and in it’s own linear parkland. I didn’t watch the distance closely but I expect it covered one end of the city to the other pretty well, maybe in the vicinity of 6km without even seeing a car – it took something like 20 minutes to leisurely complete.

Pillanlelbún is a beautiful small town with a large flowing river running through the middle of it. I arrived an hour before my host for the night had finished work, so I stripped down and swam around the river killing time waiting for him.

I got in touch with Juan and Carla through a couchsurfing type community called warm showers which is for long distance cyclists. It’s been around in some form or another since 1993 so predates couchsurfing by quite a bit. It was my first experience and was a great one, we ate and talked together, shared wine and I learnt about local politics and the character of the region we were in. Juan helped me find a good enough bike shop to switch out some parts for almost no money and I went on my way after a few nights rest.

Babu, king of the Mastiff's in Pillanlelbún

Babu, king of the Mastiff’s in Pillanlelbún

Concepción

The ride from Pillanlelbún to Concepción took a slow paced 4 days. For three nights I tracked along the Rio Bio Bio and camped riverside each time. The winding river was incredibly welcome since the peak temperatures here occur some time between 4 and 6 pm, by late afternoon if there’s no easily accessed place to have a swim I’m usually reduced to a sweating heap on the ground to air dry.

I arrived into Concepción and contacted another person I’d met through warmshowers. Gonzo and Camille let me stay with them for 3 nights and kindly showed me the city and its bars and parks. I happened to cross over at the weekend and the city came alive with free performances and music in all the streets, there was even an Afrobeat style festival on the Saturday.

Getting close to Concepción, trying to even out the tan lines

Getting close to Concepción, trying to even out the tan lines

Gonzo explained that the city, if you took into account the surrounding satellite cities, was actually the second biggest in the country. It felt much more like a place to live and breathe rather than travel, but I think this is true of all cities. The idea that you can spend a few days (or even a few months or years) in a city and actually understand the culture of the place is a bit of a farce if you ask me – they’re much more layered than they appear at a glance.

Curanipe

Riding north from Concepción I had my first real brush with the Pacific Ocean to the North and South of Curanipe. I rolled into town to find a vibrant seaside community slinging mariscos everywhere and dutifully engaged in mariscos empanadas as I watched the sun go down over the beach.

Approaching the coast for the first time, the dry landscape switched to green almost immediately

Approaching the coast for the first time, the dry landscape switched to green almost immediately

The campground on the beach was exceptionally expensive, so I opted to roll out a tarp on the sand and pass out at a similar rate to the sunset. I woke up covered in dew and let the sun dry my sleeping bag before pushing out of town and briefly away from the coast.

Going commando, Curanipe

Going commando, Curanipe

Vichuquén/Paula

Near Curanipe, I met a passing Belgian cyclist who had come down from Alaska. We spoke briefly about his trip and he told me he couldn’t wait to get back into Argentina because Chile felt a bit too European to him. I rode away a little perplexed because I really hadn’t experienced a huge amount of this myself, until Vichuquén.

I passed briefly through Vichuquén and Paula as I snaked my way around the immense local lake. Vichuquén had a decidedly Spanish feel to it, with cobbled winding streets weaving through the small outpost. Villa’s came right up to the road and red and purple flowers were in bloom over every vertical surface. I stayed long enough to have a chat to the local Bombero’s, who told me a nicer place to camp for free was just up the hill in a place called Paula.

Camping on the boardwalk near Vichquén. Not the best sleep, but not all of them can be good

Camping on the boardwalk near Vichquén. Not the best sleep, but not all of them can be good

Paula was beautiful and interesting, it felt like a holiday spot for wealthy Chilean’s, but offered an outlook on a little beach lakeside where I could camp. I set up on a boardwalk in the middle of the lake, safely shrouded by reeds but unable to escape the party which would eventuate late in the evening on the foreshore.

Pichilemu

Pichilemu is Chile’s surfing Mecca and was the first spot in almost 700km I’d had a real break. It had the appeal of a coastal surfing community but was a sprawling residential mess. Mostly gravel streets kept the focus of the area on the waves and it was full of locals and imports alike, all looking for the best wave.

I stayed a few nights to have a swim and surf and found a beautiful secluded campspot near the outskirts of town. Leaving Pichelemu showed me for the first time in a while what la cordillera de la costa had in store around Valparaíso had in store, with a long steady ascent up into the hills and away from the coast. It took most of the morning to track away from the ocean.

Valparaíso

Undoubtably one of the most unique places I’ve ever been. The whole place is set on a series of incredibly steep hills banking sharply up away from the ocean. To go with the landscape there’s a series of elevators dating back about 150 years to help the locals and tourists get around.

Linking each of the hills is the most complex street system I’ve ever seen, it routinely switches between roads/paths, stairways and ladders and never goes in a straight line for more than 50 metres. It’s really a big and complex three dimensional maze that I’m convinced noone really knows their way around.

Owing to the complexity of the city, there seems to be a bit of petty theft around since the police won’t run up the stairs even if they see a crime. It means it’s just too easy to disappear with a wallet if you’re so inclined. I also routinely saw ambulances fumbling their way through the cobbled and tangled streets trying to get their way to someone who had taken a spill down a flight of stairs.

Valparaíso, I have no idea how this city is accurately navigated

Valparaíso, I have no idea how this city is accurately navigated

Just outside my window in town was Plaza de Descanso, which transformed nightly into an all night party with all the locals decending to dance, play music and beat drums until 5am, when they were replaced with street cleaners to prepare the place for the next evenings party. I struggled to sleep for the first few nights before I realised I needed to join them instead, no more sleep happened after this.

Leaving Valparaíso I ran into a few local’s on their way out of town to ride south to Pichelemu, I shared their ride for the first 30km and then parted to track quickly to Santiago.

Road company, JP and co headed to south to listen to music

Road company, JP and co headed to south to listen to music

Santiago

Santiago is what you’d expect of a big cosmopolitan capital, originally I intended to stay for only a few nights but ended up there for closer to a week to explore the place.

My base was a quiet hostel with good company and skateboarding pooch. I used Santiago to try and sort out some required parts for my bike, but quickly learned that Chilean’s are incapable to saying no to a request – I learned this in a drawn out way when the tyre’s which were being ordered for me failed to turn up 3 days in a row.

I crossed through for Australia day and celebrated as best as Chile would allow, coopers beer and fairy bread at a local pub run by an expat from Adelaide before hitting the strip in Santiago to push through to the early hours.

Australia day in Santiago, great company and beer to boot

Australia day in Santiago, great company and beer to boot

I pedalled out of town with an Australian couple I met near the beginning of the Carratera Austral, and we picked up a roaming french world cyclist near Los Andes to begin the pass over Argentina – next update.

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