Carreterra Austral – Rain is inevitable, Suffering is optional

Riding on the Carreterra Austral

Since last Saturday, Jan-30, I have been traveling North on the Carreterra Austral from Villa O’Higgins. South Chile is one of the rainiest places on Earth, and this seems to be a particularly bad summer with lots of rain and fairly cold. So this has been one wet journey up here since leaving the bike-friendly hostel El Mosco in Villa O’Higgins.

Leaving the hostel El Mosco in Villa O'Higgins

The first leg was from Villa O’Higgins to Rio Bravo (100 km). The road is pretty poor, with lots of washboard and plenty of potholes. One cannot ride at normal or high speeds; especially downhill one needs to concentrate so as not to go too fast and ride outside of the typically two good tire tracks. I don’t find this particularly pleasant as one can often hardly look around and enjoy the scenery as one is too focused on the short section of track ahead. Plus the constant shaking on the gravel roads is hard on the equipment. That said, the scenic beauty here is spectacular, with snow-covered mountains, their glaciers feeding waterfalls cascading down into crystal-clear lakes surrounded by rainforest. I also met 6 cyclists on this day, with only twice as many cars on the road all day.

Carreterra Austral - a gravel road along lakes and lonely valleys

Stunning views of rainforest and rivers from the Carreterra Austral near Puerto Yungas

After staying in a nice refugio overnight the Belgian cyclist Tom and I took the ferry crossing from Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungas. From here we started the ride up North to Cochrane. More of the same rough road through scenic landscape.

Belgian cyclist Tom leaving the ferry in Puerto Yungas

Road over a 400m pass en route to Cochrane

Getting to Cochrane took me a long time due to the poor road and also a flat rear tire. I rode into the dark until about 10:30pm and 116km, when according to my map and some early road signs I should have been in Cochrane already. But it was another 8km or so, with some more hills, as I was told by a pickup truck driver who came by at night. Luckily he offered me a ride to town which delivered me to Cochrane completely exhausted and by almost 11pm. I was very happy to still get a warm meal and then just fell into bed for a long sleep.
After the first two very hard days I decided to have a rest day on Monday in Cochrane. I needed to do some laundry again and eat and sleep. It turned out to be quite a lovely day actually. One of the few times I did see blue sky on the Carreterra Austral…

Rest Day in Cochrane

Then I decided to take the bus to Coyhaique, some 340 km to the North. This was done for two reasons: One, to compensate for the 2 days I had lost at Lago O’Higgins waiting for the ferry; two, to jump over the worst section of the gravel road, which my recumbent bike and trailer is not the best design to ride on. So I took a 7h bus ride to Coyhaique, the first half of which was sunny and provided some really great views of the various lakes, including Lago Carrera, the second largest lake in South America.

Taking the bus from Cochrane to Coyhaique

Lago Bertrand and Lago Carrero in background - view from busride to Coyhaique

Upon reaching Coyhaique it started to rain. This rain would basically continue almost incessantly for the next 5 days! I rolled to the tourist info at the pentagonal plaza and got some maps and information. I then stopped at an Internet café to check email and proceeded to a hostel. There I met the two Belgian cyclists Ellen and Nicolas who had come down the Carreterra Austral from the North. We went for dinner to exchange information about what to expect, road conditions, where to stay etc.

Chatting with Belgian cyclists Ellen and Nicolas about the Carreterra Austral over dinner in Coyhaique

The next day the ride started with the worst weather conditions I can remember on the bike: Headwind, rain, and cold temperatures around 5C. There was a 200m uphill section to a little pass. On the downhill it got so cold due to rain and wind that I froze badly in my fingers and face. Why am I doing this again?

Very bad weather conditions when leavign Coyhaique - rain, headwind, uphill and cold

There were 50 km to ride into the wind to the West before a turn to the NE would end at least the headwind portion. The last 40 km the wind came from the back left, so it was a bit warmer and faster to ride. At least there was all paved road and no gravel yet. The road passed several waterfalls which were pretty to look at. That said, I hardly stopped anywhere as in this kind of weather your best recipe to stay warm is to always keep going…

At Cascada de la Virgen nearing Villa Manihuales

Eventually I got to Villa Mañihuales at 90 km. I stopped at a café and warmed up over 2 cups of hot coffee and sitting next to the wood-fired stove. Then a young man (Jorge) came in who had seen my bike; he is a passionate cyclist himself and invited me to stay at his place – a casa ciclista. As there were also Internet places I took him up on the offer and could end the first day after 5 hrs in the rain.

Friendly Chilean cyclist aficionado Jorge and his casa de ciclista

It rained all night incessantly and the next morning I woke up to ongoing rain. I figured I’d ride a half day to the next village (Villa Amengual) some 60 km up North and first stayed in bed a bit longer, then went to an Internet café and also for lunch; after all, the rain could only get better. And indeed, when I finally left around 2pm it had stopped raining for a bit and the sun was poking through some clouds, if only for a half hour or so.

View of mountains along Carreterra Austral

On my ride I came upon Wolfgang, another rider from Germany. Since he was also going North we joined up and rode together for a while. Talking with him and sharing various road stories made the trip go by much faster. Then we got to Villa Amengual and found another hostel – in this rain we did not consider camping. We wanted to have a hot shower and warm meal, followed by a dry bed at night. This way you can at least recharge your mental and physical batteries overnight so that you can go out and ride again the next morning in the rain.

Hostel in Villa Amengual - simple but dry and warm

The next day was a hard ride again in three parts of about equal length (30 km each). The first part was easy, on pavement, not too many hills, following the Rio Simpson to the confluence with Rio Cisnes, passing the famous Piedra Del Gato. The second part was hard: Crossing the 500m pass in the Parque Nacional Queulat. Here the road is a narrow, steep, 1-lane gravel road through rainforest.

Huge leaf of Nalca plant along pass road on Carreterra Austral

Coming up the pass in the rainforest and in the rain

Fellow German cyclist Wolfgang Butz riding up the pass

The last third is a stretch along a fjord with the town of Puyuhuapi at its Northern end. There are some thermal baths and also some salmon farms along this fjord.

Salmon farms in the fjord near Puyuhuapi

Puyuhuapi is perhaps the nicest little town along the Carreterra Austral. There we again had some good food and cakes, as well as a really lovely hostel – called Hostel Carreterra Austral – with view of the fjord and free public wireless Internet access. We had great dinner at the Café Rossbach, with German heritage in the village being unmistakable.

Hostel Carreterra Austral - our warm place to stay the night

Plenty of German cakes to chose from at cultural festival in Puyhuapi

The next day was perhaps the hardest day weather-wise, as there was no pause in the rain at all. We decided to ride to the next village called La Junta, only 45 km. This was about half the distance from the previous day, with half the time (3.5h) and half the vertical elevation gain – but still the same, full, 100% wet clothing due to hours of rain.

One of the bad stretches of the Carreterra Austral

Again, we quickly found a hostel with warm wood-fired stove, a hot shower and a dry bed. We also ate dinner there (and breakfast the next morning) and hung up our cloths in the room to dry – with the oven pipe conveniently leading up through our room providing us with some heating for the cloths.

Hanging up cloths to dry - wet during the day, drying up over night, repeat

Now it was day 5 since Coyhaique, and day 5 of rain! At least today there were some pauses, so it wasn’t too bad. We rode 70 km in 5h to Villa Sta. Lucia. From here we plan to turn East towards Argentina on the East side of the Andes. We hear that it is much drier over there.

More rainy road through the rainforest ahead

I don’t think I have ever been riding in so much rain for such a long time. This is one of the wettest areas in the world, and this summer is one of the wettest on record. Rain really is inevitable here! So one needs to remember the Buddhist philosophy that “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”…

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