Summary: My ride through Chile started in Villa O’Higgins after an adventurous mountain pass crossing from El Chalten near Mount Fitz Roy. I followed the famous Carreterra Austral, Chile’s only road leading into the far South. While this road leads through beautiful scenery, along mountain-valleys with snow-capped peaks and glaciers feeding waterfalls tumbling down cliffs into crystal-clear lakes, it also has its challenges: The road is often one-lane gravel, has lots of hills, and in the Southern summer 2010 it rained almost non-stop. I teamed up with another cyclist from Germany, and we endured a week of solid rain pretty much every day. Near the Argentina border close to Futualeufu I had a major bike mishap, as the aluminum frame of my recumbent bike cracked and abruptly stopped my ride. I limped to the nearest town and then took a bus to Esquel and later Bariloche in Argentina. From there I took time for the two mountain expeditions on Aconcagua and Ojos de Salado, while waiting for a replacement part for my bike. Eventually I continued my ride from Bariloche up North through Argentina.
Video: Patagonia (Ushuaia – El Chalten ; Chile’s Carreterra Austral)
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Wednesday, January 26
Lago Del Desierto to Lago O’Higgins
22km / 14923km; 4h / 826h; 500m
Early start by getting up at 6:30 and leaving around 7am. I think I will have plenty of time but just want to add enough buffer time to not miss the boat. Little did I know…
As expected, the trail on the Argentinean side is very small, steep and muddy. Not the place for a bike, really, much less a recumbent with trailer. But I am committed now, with my panniers already up quite a ways from the day before. Hauling the bike and trailer up the trail is brutally hard work. I take off my thin sweater within minutes and find myself panting heavily after short, steep sections. I need 1h for the first 2km. At places it’s like solving a puzzle of how to get my stuff through narrow spaces. Then there are two river crossings over makeshift wooden planks. Once I unhook the trailer as it would be impossible to carry both bike and trailer simultaneously over the bridge. Other times I can balance over a trunk and use the bike in the water to stabilize. Then there are mudflats; the boots get soaked, the tires sink to the axles in wet mud; everything gets really slimy and dirty. Once the boots are totally wet it gets easier as I don’t try to avoid water as much any more. I reach my panniers and add them to the bike for even more weight. At one point I need to tighten screws on my panniers as they came lose.
Eventually I reach the border at 7 km around 10am. Now there is a (rough) road, still hardly rideable but much better than the path so far. Then there is an airstrip – oddly enough – and I can start riding some stretches again. Soon the km add up and I can see the Lago O’Higgins at the bottom of the valley. It’s about 200m lower than the first lake, so luckily more downhill now than uphill before. Even the sun comes out and stops the rain for a few hours. The descent is steep and with rough rocks on the road tricky. I pump up my front tire to avoid snake bite like I had in Alaska. Soon I’m at the bottom and reach the Chilean border patrol around noon. They note my name and have me fill out the usual customs form before I get yet one more stamp in my passport. It is now that I hear the bad news: No boat today! Maybe tomorrow, maybe even Friday!
Apparently the weather was too bad on Monday for the boat to sail; hence they sailed yesterday. And now they won’t sail on the next day, but wait another day – probably dictated by economics of letting enough passengers queue up. So much for the weekly schedule.
Now I have plenty of time. Luckily there is a hosteria and they receive me (and a couple of other bikers) warmly. We eat lunch, then I retreat to my tent for a 3h afternoon siesta in the rain – good sleeping weather. Then I write some Blog text on the computer (which I hope to upload tomorrow in Villa O’Higgins) and finally we have dinner with other bikers around 9pm. We chat over some cheap red wine and back out into the tent and sleeping bag by about 11pm.
Thursday, January 27
Rest day at Candelario Mancilla. I’m stuck here since the ferry doesn’t go until tomorrow. It’s funny: Sometimes I wish I had more time to relax, stay at a place and enjoy the scenery. However, when forced to stay at a place, I grow restless quickly and think about the time I’m losing and not being able to make progress towards the rest of the journey… At least I’m getting a lot of sleep and good meals here at Candelario Mancilla.
Friday, January 28
Break-down of tent and wait for the ferry. In early afternoon the ferry arrives and takes us across Lago O’Higgins. After a short ride we get to Villa O’Higgins, at the Southern terminus of the Carreterra Austral. We all ride up to the cozy hostel El Mosco and stay here for the night.
Saturday, January 30
Villa O’Higgins to Rio Bravo
100km / 15032km; 7.5h / 834h; 1200m
I take it easy in the morning since I stayed up late last night for Blog posting (until 2am). At 8am I take a hot shower and then sit down in El Mosco’s cozy living room for breakfast and email. I also buy some more groceries for the ride ahead and finally set off around 11:30am.
Luckily the weather is fairly good with sun and clouds but no rain – somewhat unusual for this region. The Carreterra Austral is a one lane gravel road with surface quality ranging from smooth sand to fist-size rocks on washboard and big potholes. So one can never go too fast, especially downhill. The terrain is beautiful though: Some moderate rainforest, lots of lakes, waterfalls, snowy mountains and glaciers.
The road leads into a valley West from Villa O’Higgins up the Rio Mayer. Then there are three passes, one small (150m) and two medium sized ones (400m). Climbing on gravel is difficult with my bike and I sometimes get off to push in the steep sections. Beautiful views from those passes are the reward for the hard work.
I meet 5 riders (and only 10-15 cars) on the way: Kurt and Sylvia from Switzerland, Julian and Freya from Australia and Andres from Chile. I always stop and we chat for 10-15 mins about the trips and the road ahead. Other than that I don’t pause much, just twice before the bigger hills to eat a little bit. I won’t be able to catch the evening ferry at 7pm in Rio Bravo, but there is a nice, newly built Refugio at the ferry terminal which makes for a perfect stay for the night: It is a clean hut with toilets, water and some wooden benches and ceiling. I arrive there at 8:30pm after 7.5h of ride-time for 100km – fairly slow by comparison to a flat, paved road!
Another cyclist is here, Tom from Belgium. I guess one could call this road the Carreterra Cyclista International! We both cook some dinner and eat while the daylight is fading. A rising full moon creates a serene evening mood in this tranquil place right on the lake shore – an unforgettable scenery. Into the sleeping bag by 11pm for a long sleep as tomorrow’s ferry doesn’t leave until 10am…
Sunday, January 31
Rio Bravo to Cochrane
116km / 15148km; 9.6h / 844h; 1800m
We sleep until 8:30am since the ferry won’t leave until 10am. Some simple breakfast and packing the bags again. The ferry gets here by 9:40am and we prepare our bikes to get on the boat. The ferry ride takes about 40min and brings us over to Puerto Yungas, a military road construction camp. While Tom takes off right away, I stop at the little kiosk there for some ham and cheese sandwich, as this will be the last place to buy food until Cochrane. Light rain; I am not very motivated today, maybe still tired from yesterday? Anyway, at 11:30 I start riding. The road climbs steeply to about 440m, much of which I need to push as it’s too steep for me with the recumbent. For the first 10km I need 1h 15min (7.9 km/h avg). At this pace there is no way to make it to Cochrane by tonight…
The weather is getting better and the scenery is fantastic; however the road is terrible, with sections of deep gravel that are barely rideable and lots of washboard! So while I enjoy the scenery I despise the bad road. Even on flat sections with slight tailwind I can’t ride faster than about 15 km/h, as the washboard and/or deep gravel gets too crazy at higher speeds.
After another hr or so I stop for a drink and some cookies. The two riders on their big BMW Enduros come blasting by – I envy them for their vehicle on this road… More rivers and lakes along the way; I finally get to near 75km and look out for the supposed Refugio, but can’t find a shelter other than a run down little wooden shack at the confluence of two rivers next to a bridge. As it’s sunny and mellow I decide to continue, well aware that the raining 45km will take me all the remaining daylight hours…
Then I feely bike getting wobbly – the dreaded feel of a flat rear tire! Very bad timing, as I will lose another half hour, already pressed for time until sunset. But I have no choice and hurry to mount my spare tube and re-inflate the back tire to get going again. At 80 km there is a turn-off to a Refugio and camping 3.5km off the main road. I should have gone there given that it was already 7:30pm.
Another 35km … I decide to press on hoping to make it before sunset.
But unfortunately more big hills ahead, which further slow me down. I know it would be better to turn around to the Refugio, but dread the thought of rolling back down the hill and having to climb it again tomorrow morning. Plus I’d like to get online tonight… So I press on.
Beautiful sunset and red clouds reflecting in lakes against far away hills glowing on the last light of the day. No time to stop and take pictures, though. More hills, slowly I have doubts about getting there in daylight. Short stop to refill my water bottles from a clear stream. Then it gets dark, slowly but steadily. At 110km its hard to read my watch or odometer, then I can hardly see the road surface (which on gravel is dangerous as you can’t see the potholes or rocks).
I should be very close by now, but don’t see any lights… Why isn’t Cochrane near? At 116km a pickup truck approaches and I flag him down. How far to Cochrane? Still 8-9km with some hills! As it’s completely dark by now he offers me a ride to town, which I gladly accept. He drops me off at a hostel/restaurant which still serves hot meals at 11pm. I am glad I finally got here and after dinner I sink into a deep sleep.
Monday, February 1
Rest day in Cochrane
Tuesday, February 2
Bus transfer Cochrane to Coyhaique
Beautiful landscape around Rio Baker, then Lago Bertrand, Lago Negro and Lago Carrera. Passing through Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo.
Sunny until noon, then more cloudy and rainy in Coyhaique.
Wednesday, February 3
Coyhaique to Villa Mañihuales
90km / 15242km; 4.8h / 849h; 620m
Breakfast at nice B&B followed by email and fixing of slow flat front tire (wire in tube) as well as spare tube (from flat tire prior to Cochrane). Groceries at supermarket and leaving by 11am. Very rough conditions: Rain, headwind gusts, uphill and cold ~5C – 500m higher there is snow! First 20km very hard over little pass and very cold in face and on fingers. Then another 30km heading W towards Puerto Aisen, some headwind but never too bad due to surrounding forest and mountains. Then turn to NE and following Rio Mañihuales upstream through rolling hills and farmland – reminds me of the Gasteiner Tal in Austria (in very bad weather). I stop at some waterfalls for pictures but otherwise keep going to stay warm and get this 5h rain ride over with. Very good paved road for last section with slight tailwind.
In Villa Mañihuales I stop at a nice, cozy cafe to warm up over hot coffee and sitting next to their stove. Then a young man, Jorge, comes in who had seen my bike and invites me to stay at his place (casa ciclista) for free. Nice to get to know him and his family. Unfortunately no hot water at the place – a hospedaje under construction – so no hot shower I try to get online, but don’t succeed with WiFi at several places – not sure why – but finally via LAN cable at one place. Later we go for dinner and to bed by 11:30pm.
Thursday, February 4
Villa Mañihuales to Villa Amengual
59km / 15304km; 4.3h / 853km; 550m
Full-on rain in the morning. I figure that due to the relatively short distance today I don’t need to start too soon. So I sleep some more and then by 9 have some breakfast and by 10 go to the Internet cafe. Better to spend time here where there is some infrastructure than in what might be a very little place tonight. Plus, the rain can only get better… In fact, the rain stops for a bit and there are even some rays of sunshine poking through the clouds. I buy some groceries and then have some lunch at one of the few open restaurants. Eventually at 1pm I start riding.
In the initial headwind I come upon another cyclist, Wolfgang Butz from Germany. We talk and just happen to go along at about the same speed. He has been bike touring for many years in the Andes and knows a great many places there; also with our conversation the time passes more quickly, as there is otherwise not too much to look at. Besides, one can hardly stop anywhere, as it’s quickly getting too cold in this wet condition.
Today we still have paved roads, except for the middle third, which is pothole-riddled gravel.
Before too long we are near Villa Amengual. The first place we stop at is a bit off the road; despite signs for accomodations there is a somewhat unfriendly Chilean there who basically sends us away again without much useful information. 10min later after a last hill we get to Villa Amengual. It’s a little bigger actually than I thought and there are lots of places here to stay overnight. Also a few small supermarkets, and some good dinner at our hostel, so we don’t stay hungry. Except for the fact that there is no Internet – or only an unusably slow connection – things are pretty good. To bed around 11pm after some red wine and cheese and chatting about bike stories…
Friday, February 5
Villa Amengual to Puyuhuapi
90km / 15396km; 6.6h / 861h; 1220m
First 30km on paved road with 200m up & down. Then just passed the “Piedra del Gato” at confluence with Rio Cisnes end of pavement and begin of 500m pass. Steep, narrow 1-lane gravel road through rainforest, quite an adventure! Uphill it’s warm due to the generated body heat; downhill takes time as one cannot go fast on these roads.
We cool off quite a bit and at the bottom my feet feel like wood and I need to add a layer under the GoreTex to warm up a bit again.
At 65km we stop at a cabin hoping to sit inside, but they won’t let us in Anyway, we eat some of our food since we han’t taken a break in 4-5 hrs. Lastly we roll along the fjord to Puyuhuapi, passing by the occasional thermal spa and also the large salmon farms. Unfortunately low hanging clouds and rain nix our hopes of seeing the hanging glacier “Ventisquero Colgante”, much less camping there. More rain at the end and we are very happy to reach Puyuhuapi around 6pm. After some searching we find a nice hostel – aptly named Hostal Carreterra Austral – and take a hot shower and hang up our wet cloths to dry.
Then we go for dinner – you guessed right: Salmon! Later a large group of American motorcyclists with a guided tour comes in and converts the formerly tranquil into a now loud sportsbar kind of place. We retreat to the comfort of the quiet living room in our hostel and enjoy a glass of red wine. I even get to Skype with Jill for an hour courtesy to free public WiFi. Into bed past midnight to the soothing sound of nonstop rain…
Saturday, February 6
Puyuhuapi to La Junta
46km / 15442km; 3.5h / 864h; 680m
We sleep late as we decide to go only to La Junta, essentially a half-day ride of only 45km. The next good place to stay would be another 70km and almost 1000m vertical in addition. We have breakfast and check email; it continues to rain. Then we even have lunch at the nearby gymnasium where there is some sort of festival. We leave at 2pm, mentally prepared for 3-4 hrs of rainy ride. And there is lots of rain!
Sunday, February 7
La Junta to Villa Sta. Lucia
70km / 15512km; 5.2h / 869h; 700m
Better than yesterday, some stops in rain, but still completely wet and cold by end of ride at 5pm. Into little hostel with hot shower and wood-fired oven, as well as warm meals inside. Outside lots of rain. At night I’m looking to find WiFi for some email communication, but without luck. Hoping for better weather tomorrow…
Monday, February 8
Villa Sta. Lucia to Futualeufu (Esquel by bus)
46km / 15558km; 3.2h / 873h; 600m
First hr rain and downhill to Lago Yelcho, past overturned truck. Lots of little up & down hills. Rain subsided to drizzle and dry phases; sky turning brighter on horizon! 1h rest at rafting center with sandwich and coffee. Then continuing for last 30km. After 5km or so my recumbent bike frame cracks at the rear fork!! End of the ride for now…
Chilean driver gives me a lift to Futualeufu. There I buy a bus ticket to Esquel (bus only goes every two days, so I don’t want to get stuck here). Bus ride has long delay at border, but dry weather and sun coming out first time in a week!
Evening in Esquel at David’s place, who offered me a stay during the bus ride. To Irish pub for email to ChallengeBikes and this report…