Riding in Chile came in three discrete blocks and covered the remote and difficult to reach Chilean Patagonia, the oft quoted and cyclist loved Carretera Austral, and finally a slow and carefree spin towards (through the Lake’s District) and North on the Pacific Coast.
My final farewell to the country was as a rolling foursome with 3 other cyclists as we scaled the old road leading up and over Paso Los Libertadores to Mendoza, where I would stop to bathe in red wine.
Travelled: 3016 km
Tierra del Fuego – San Sebastián to Porvenir / Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
Within a week of riding North from the bottom of the world, the first border crossing landed me in Chile. The frontier zone between immigration offices was dusty, though thankfully not quite as windy as the initial experiences in Argentina. To make sure I didn’t bank any complacency, the road turned to a mix of loose sand and medium sized rocks which succeeded in breaking one of my front pannier fixings with less than 2 weeks of use.
The road skirted the coastline to the ferry which would take me to the mainland, and I formed a plan to spend a few nights in Punta Arenas organising some spare parts, before heading off towards Puerto Natales and prepare to tackle the famous Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
Puerto Natales ended up being an early highlight I can’t forget. I was welcomed into an empty and still seasonally closed hostel by a great Argentinian couple who dished out every bit of hiking, riding and trekking advice they had for the area, and generally offered me some fine hospitality and advice for the road ahead. I waited a few days for my parts to arrive and eagerly studied maps and all the camping and trekking advice I could find for the park.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
The rugged Torres del Paine is seeing increasing publicity these days, and for good reason. Located in the far South of Chile, it’s disconnected from the main part of the country which forces entry via the southern end of Argentinian Patagonia.
Along with perhaps a few treks in the Peruvian cordillera’s, the famed Torres del Paine has one of the world’s most well known and picturesque hikes – that of the ‘O’ circuit winding through the peaks and snow dusted plains of the back country range. Most hikers in the park base themselves out of Puerto Natales to kit-up and then head to the park to complete the circuit or a shorter variation of it. I found most bicycle tourers erred on the same side and opted to stash the bike in one of the hostels in Puerto Natales and bussing it out with their packs to walk for a few days and rest their cycling legs.
I opted to ride through the park instead, and only met a handful of bike riders (maybe 2?) on the way through the park. The motivating factor to skip the riding here has a few layers, the first being the appeal of trekking in the park, others being the at times sandy and mountainous roads through the park and of course Patagonia’s famous wind. All of this aside, the riding was good and the park not so large as to completely sap my energy on the bike – though I was blown clean off the bike on my first day inside.
I opted to make base and camp near Refugio Torres and spent my days up in the mountains exploring before spinning out of the park along a series of sandy exit roads heading towards the border.
Carretera Austral – Villa O’Higgins to Futaleufú
The crossing from Argentina to the beginning of the Carretera Austral involves a few well timed boat rides across Lago del Desierto and Lago O’Higgins as well as a 20km or so hike and ride over the border in between. At the time I crossed on the ferries, they were only running once a week, which meant that timing was more important.
On the once weekly crossing there were 7 other bikes present, 3 others from Australia, 3 from England and a lone frenchman. I saw some photos from only a few weeks later and this number seemed to have jumped for 20 or more I would estimate.
The Carretera Austral is a winding dirt route which tracks North for 1240km from Villa O’Higgins to Puerto Montt in Southern Chile, in all it represents a rugged landscape of mountains, rivers and lakes, and relatively untouched wilderness. You can camp pretty much anywhere you want with little fuss and drink most of the water running out of the mountains.
With the exception of a few little sections of pavement, the route is mainly unpaved and dusty, which means that you eat dirt fairly regularly each day when overlander’s and locals thunder past. The scenery makes up for it.
I opted out of the Carretera at Futaleufú, taking the advice of a number of cyclists going the other way when they said the Northern section was quite wet, and also because of some beautiful riding across the border near Bariloche.
Costa Pacifico – Pucón to Santiago
The start of this section heralded a sandy track to the border crossing close to Pucón, followed by a big descent through lush green valleys towards Villarrica.
After a few days rest I decided to halt my Northbound course and track south for a little while. The rationale was two fold, I was becoming conscious of a heavy focus which always took me up the continent and I was determined to inject more uncertainty into the experience, and secondly the maps showed some smaller roads skirting lake fronts and bordered by volcano’s – it was sure to be beautiful.
After resting in the shade of the volcano’s for new years, I headed towards the main motorway to make some quick tracks North and stayed a few nights with a kind warm showers host North of Temuco before pushing off towards the coast. For the first time on this stretch I appreciated why this was called ‘the Lake’s District’ in Chile.
Every night en route to the Pacific Ocean I managed to find a quiet and sandy camp right alongside a small lake or river, it allowed me to wash myself and my clothes more or less consistently every day, and was always a welcome cooldown from the baking summer sun in this part of the country. When I finally made it to the coast I was welcomed open armed another time by a kind local, and spent a few nights enjoying Concepción and listening to music.
North of Concepción was a similar experience, this time the Pacific Ocean acted as the largest pond I’ve slept beside on this trip, and I feasted on seafood each day as I wrestled the sun for another stint northbound to Valparaiso, where I rested at, explored and ate the entirety of the city.
Paso Los Libertadores
Rounding out Chile and far exceeding my previous maximum elevation for the trip (at the time), I ambled over my first significant pass through the Andes and past the famous Cristo Redentor statue at 3832 masl. The last 600+ m of elevation gain turned off of the paved route through the tunnel to Argentina and offered a spectacular unpaved ascent without cars to a spectacularly cold and windy pass – the insane weather offered a frigid welcome and pushed me down the other side towards Argentina for my last stretch through the sister countries of Argentina and Chile.
There are a number of mentions which are deserved. Notably a few nights spent with the local Fire Departments (Bombero’s), spectacular hospitality in Southern Patagonia and a number of kind hosts who opened their doors to me to stay and rest for a few nights here and there. In addition it’s hard to quantify the number of times I was stopped on the side of the road and handed a sandwich or banana through the window of a stopped car.
In Porvenir, only a few days into my Chilean experience, the local Bombero’s allowed me to pitch my tent behind the fire station, and the invite was extended further the following morning, with the offer of coffee and conversation inside the station.
A huge mention goes out to Monica and Andres at El Patagonico in Puerto Natales – they offered every service they had, including their hostel to myself for a few nights towards the end of the Rugby World Cup. Although the cross over was brief, they remain in contact and every time I get an email I recall a great relaxing few nights.
Cati Polenta saw me wandering a Villa Mañiguales along the Carretera Austral, and wasted little time in inviting me in to camp with her chickens. She explained that she was trying to highlight to her daughter that every bit of kindness is easy, and that it was important to help out everyone when possible.
Chile gave me my first experience using warm showers, a service which outdates couch surfing and links up hospitality experiences for touring cyclists. Juan, Carla and family opened their door to me in Pillanlelbun and Jorge organised for me to stay with friends for a few great days in Concepción.
Without a doubt this existed all through the country, the camping in Patagonia was as easy and accessible as that in Argentina, but was a bit cold to swim, once I’d pushed past Patagonia I became a bit more creative with my campsites, but always managed to find a spot near fresh water where I could swim and fill up my water bottles.
Despite the high costs associated with travelling in Chile, the country offered some of the most beautiful riding so far, alternating between difficult, steep climbs, pristine wilderness and kind locals. The best riding was in the south, with the passes to the North probably offering some more difficult riding necessitating carrying a lot more water.