Santiago: almost European

The spectacle didn’t end at the pass, the Chilean side was equally impressive and had the considerable benefit of being downhill. The road passes countless waterfalls cascading off the near-vertical cliffs from the snowfields above. Anywhere else, any one of these would have been a tourist attraction, here they just line the road.

At one point the road itself becomes the spectacle as it takes 27 turns down a steep hillside, quite unlike any road I’ve seen anywhere. All good things must come to an end of course, especially when they involve going downhill on a bike and the route flattens out at Los Andes. The ride into Santiago, though not as memorable, passes through some impressive landscapes.

Santiago itself is as first world a city as you’ll get in South America and has a spectacular setting. As with the Argentine towns though, there’s not much to keep you more than a day or two. I enjoyed the civilization, ate some good food and continued on my way. I rode south to Rancagua but soon realised that the roads here are rather busier than I’d been used to. I aimed to find a route that avoided the Panamericana and succeeded for a while but it became clear that this would be very difficult in the long run, every sign and everyone I asked just pointed me back to the obvious route south. As motorways go, it wasn’t bad to cycle on; wide shoulder, moderate traffic and some reasonable views. By the time I’d done 80km to Rancagua however, I decided that this wasn’t going to be much fun for the next week.

Riding on such a large road isolates you from your surroundings, taking away the very thing that is best about bicycle touring, the intimacy with the environment and people. I decided to take a bus.

The Chilean Lakes

I should have checked a weather forecast before taking the bus because, for the first time this trip, the weather gods scuppered my plans. I had ten days of constant, solid rainfall. I did ride 60 km out of Temuco in the direction of the national parks to a little place called Cunco, but the ride was not fun and anything not double wrapped in waterproof was soaked through. The thought riding on what I’d seen described as ‘terribly muddy’ road and then camping was short-lived and I came to my senses, riding direct to Villarrica.

I was actually glad to be sitting still for a week and getting some rest. I discovered, as so often happens after stopping, that I was rather more exhausted than expected. Sleep was been much appreciated and I also enjoyed the excellent company in the hostel, from the Brazilian adventure-racers to a number of friendly Swiss travellers. I took some day rides which were fun, particularly without the trailer, and allowed me to practice a variety of methods of crossing the raging torrents that had sprung up everywhere. Once again, this usually involved getting rather wet.

After about a week, I got my first glimpse of the 2800 m volcano that towers over the town, a mountain I was beginning to doubt existed. Taking advantage of the conditions, I booked a trip to climb it with three other travellers from my hostel. We chose the cheap agency which may have been a mistake but £25 to climb a snow-covered active volcano seemed like a bargain. Of course, if we had paid more, our boots would have been considerably more comfortable and we might have got some waterproof gear, but the essence of the trip would have been the same. We still got to stand on the edge of the crater and inhale sulphur fumes to our heart’s content.

The real Chilean highlight was about to begin: the Carretera Austral.

We were dropped off at 1400 m, right on the snowline with a further 1400 m to climb to the summit. We donned our crampons, were given a 20 second explanation in Spanish of how to use the ice-axe and set off. After this long in South America, I was merely suprised that there was a briefing at all. In reality the climb was a long hard walk. There are no ledges to fall off, no crevasses and the whole thing is covered in nice snow for the crampons. Some parts were quite steep but nothing that couldn’t be skied down. Nevertheless, in the back of ones mind is the thought that this is an active volcano.

I met Malin in Valdivia, we saw the botanic gardens and the sea lions at the fish market, got engaged and headed off south! The lakes were nice, it’s true, and the volcanoes were spectacular, but the real Chilean highlight was about to begin: the Carretera Austral.

Carretera Austral

Pinochet’s legacy for cycle tourists, this is a road that connects some very small towns in the south of Chile and was mainly built to prevent the Argentines claiming the land. It is in the middle of absolutely nowhere and has very little traffic. Perfect volcanoes, ancient forests, clear streams and huge waterfalls line the route. From January to March the road (and connecting ferries) are open all the way to Puerto Montt. We travelled in December and therefore took an overnight boat to Chaiten. We spent two nights camping in Park Pumalin, a remarkable private conservation project owned by an American. There was almost no-one there and we camped alone in two wonderful settings. We had no need for the covered campsites provided since the weather gods were now on my side and there was not a cloud to be seen.

Turning around and heading back through Chaiten, the Carretera Austral continued to be beautiful. In fact Malin and I became somewhat numbed to the standard level of prettiness. Fortunately there were many extraordinary things to make us stop and stare nonetheless. One night, we camped at Ventisquero Colgante in Quelat national park, a large glacier that overhangs the valley it used to occupy. It and the waterfall off it are spectacular, the water turning to snow on its route down, somewhat like a snow cannon. Our luck with the weather ran out when we reached the top of a 500 m climb in the rain, Malin’s stomach was giving her trouble and and we camped up there, basically in the clouds.

Having talked to other cyclists, we think that it always rains up there and apparently gets over 4000 mm precipitation annually. If we’d just freewheeled down the other side, we’d probably have had sunshine again. Nevertheless, we made it to Coyhaique. As we rode in and up from the coast, the landscape became drier. As we approached the town, the valleys became farmed and the road paved. We were at the end of our section of wilderness. The Carretera Austral does continue south but I didn’t have the time to ride it, needing to get home for to start work. Instead, I took a bus to Punta Arenas. A long bus, and one I would have rather avoided. Compromises must be made though, and the road’s still there. Maybe some day I’ll be back to ride it…

Tierra del Fuego | South America

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