Chile: Carretera Austral, the southern part

Route: Villa O’Higgins – Cochrane – Coyhaique

18/12/2017
It’s close to noon time before I leave the hostal in Villa O’Higgins. My departure was delayed due to bad weather on Sunday. A bit further north on the Carretera, there was a landslide which killed unfortunately a bunch of people, and more still more missing. Forces of nature are a thing to be reckoned with in this part of the world with it’s frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and mud slides, all having caused huge amounts of deaths in the past.

The road didn’t arrive in Villa O’Higgins until 1999. It’s construction was ordered by Pinochet. Still, it’s all a washboarded dirt road for the next hundreds of kilometer. Cyclists I’ve met in Villa O’Higgins and on the road all told me horror stories about the local horse flies, a bit further north, attacking them in swarms.

At first, the cycling goes rather smoothly, until I arrive at the border of Lago Cisnes. The wind is in a rage, knocking me almost of my bike again. Several parts, I have to push the bike as riding it is impossible.

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A bit over 30 kilometer into my ride, there’s a guy sitting along the road. I recognize him immediately from pictures I saw in Villa O’Higgins. It’s Jorge, a local farmer who built a nice wooden shelter next to the road, especially for cyclists. While I have a chat with him, the fortieth vehicle of the day passes me. This being the quietest part of the whole Carretera, as it’s a death-end, it still has it’s traffic. Don’t believe the stories like “Ooh, you’ll see maybe a hand full of cars”.

As the weather was sunny, I decided not to stay in Jorge’s cabin and ride on a bit longer. I prefer my tent anyways.

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Next day I rode down to Rio Bravo. It was a day full of rain. Waterfalls are coming down the mountains both sides of the road, some of them really spectacular.
I cross twelve other cyclists on their way south: a French man, a Swedish guy, a Chilean couple, two Brazilian men and two guys who didn’t bother stopping for a chat.
I spend the night in the waiting room for the ferry, together with an Australian and an English cycling couple. All these cyclists were riding in the opposite direction.

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Steep, steeper, steepest…. climbing hills in Chile.
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Typical steep descent, followed by another steep climb. Your legs will get a work-out here 🙂 (and your rims will suffer).

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I saw many of these little frogs on the southern part of the Carretera Austral.

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At 11 o’clock, I hop on the ferry to cross this deep sea inlet towards Puerto Yungay at the other side. I shared the ferry with a group of construction workers who are building the new pier in Villa O’Higgins and are on their way home much further north in Chile. After the bus ride from O’Higgins to the ferry, they have to take a bus to Coyhaique, another bus to Puerto Montt from where they catch a plane and another bus to arrive home for a ten day visit before returning to the pier on this southern end of the road.
Apart from a small shed selling hot drinks (but not the empanadas everybody says it’s famous for), there’s nothing Puerto Yungay.
The climb away from the river is steep. So steep they even paved it for a bit. My odo-meter shows 20%. My already sore pulses, arms and shoulders hurt pushing the bike up. It’s a day of continuous rain, mostly pretty heavy. I don’t feeling like turning left, taking the dead-end road towards Tortel, a village famous for it’s wooden walkways i.o. roads. It’s cold, wet and the wind is blowing right out of that valley. I continue another 20 kilometer and pitch the tent on a small, soggy piece of grass along the Rio Baker. It continues raining all through the night.
Met no other cyclists today.

21/12/2017
The official start of summer in the southern hemisphere.
It rains all day and it’s cold.
I stay in the tent, finishing Michael Jacobs book ‘Andes’ and Tilman Waldthalers’s book ‘Querdurch Australia’. I like to read two books at the same time.
I start in a new book: Sapiens from Yuval Noah Harari.
It’s a four day ride from Villa O’Higgins to the next town with Provisions Cochrane. Lucky me I take at least seven days worth of food on rides like this 🙂

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22/12/2017
Still some rain in the morning, but around 09:00 hrs the sun comes out for a bit.
After breakfast, I can pack a more or less dry tent.
The weather stays dodgy all day. When I end up riding in hail, I see a blue sky behind me and wait a bit. At other times I have to hurry to stay in front of the next rain shower.
Riding like this, I manage not to get too wet today. A shame most of the views are taken away from me by the clouds. The mountain range to the west, ‘Cordon Los Nadis’ seems to create it’s own (bad) weather.
I find a nice spot for the tent in the hills about 30 kilometer south of Cochrane, overlooking Lago Chacabuco below me and with the snowy peaks of the ‘Campo De Hielo Norte’, the Northern Ice field behind it. A much, much better end of the day then the two previous days.
I met eight other cyclists today, all riding the opposite direction, two Dutch, three English, two French and one Italian.

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23/12/2017
I wake up to a blue sky and have fantastic views to the snowy peaks of the Ice Field.
It’s a short ride into Cochrane today. The Carretera Austral is very rough and bumpy with washboard on this stretch. The landscape again is impressive. I cross fast flowing rivers, ride along Lago Esmeralda and beautiful rock formations. At the outskirts of Cochrane there’s a two day long rodeo going on. I pitch my tent at ‘Camping Cochrane’. Campings here often are not like what we think of in Europe. It’s just in the backyard of someone’s home. But the friendly lady here has built a nice shed where one can cook and sit and a clean sanitary building. Also a laundry service is on order, which I gladly use.
No other cyclists today.

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Picking cherrys directly from the trees at the camp ground in Cochrane.

24/12/2017
Another nice and sunny day, which I use to relax and clean my bicycle.

25/12/2017
Rainy day.
Christmas diner at the campground. The friendly owner has arranged a lamb which is roasted next to a fire by a 84 year old man.

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26/12/2017
Time to move on. I’m getting into the more spectacular parts of the Carretera Austral, all along the Rio Baker, Chile’s largest volume river. The road meanders up and down in it’s valley. From above, I can see the the confluence of the blue waters of the Rio Baker with the brown waters of the Rio Chacabuco. I meet a skunk along the road today. A living one this time (before I only saw them regularly as flat as a pancake).
The road eventually drops down steeply towards the Rio Chacabuco, and climbs equally steep back out of it. Next remarkable stop is the ‘Confluencia Rio Baker & Rio Neff). Just like with the Rio Chacabuko, the brown waters of the Neff river join the glacier blue waters of the mighty Baker river. There’s a track going down to this point, only a few minutes walk from the road. Do it !
Today I meet nine other cyclists, a Californian couple, two Australian guys, a Dutch couple, an Israeli guy and two Italians.
I camp just before Puerto Bertrand right next to the Rio Baker, together with a Dutch couple traveling in a van for 10 weeks in the region.

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Victor, the Israëli cyclist.

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Cyclists’ horror: horse fly

28/12/2017
I rode all the way from Puerto Bertrand to Puerto Rio Tranquillo.
That’s not what I intended, but the last 20 kilometers there were no camping spots. Fences everywhere. Very frustrating. I think I’ll buy some pliers here and start cutting these fences. Then I become ‘The De-Fencer’.
The ride itself was brilliant again. A steep climb out of Puerto Bertrand, 13 – 14%.
Then down to Lago Bertrand, up again and down to Lago Negro and finally Lago General Carrera. As so many lakes in the region, this lake lies both in Chili and Argentina, where they call it Lago Buenos Aires. It’s the second biggest lake in South-America, after Titicaca Lake, which lies in two countries as well, Peru and Bolivia.
Anyway, spectacular scenery, blue sky with white and sometimes grey clouds, strong head wind as well as a strong tail wind. At the top of the hill before Puerto Rio Tranquillo is a field where you could wild camp, but the wind was blowing from all directions and I opted to cycle down to the village and pitch the tent at a camp ground.
Met eight other cyclists today, two German couples, an English girl, a Japanese man (cycling from Alaska to Ushuaia, and after that taking on Europe) and two American girls.

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29 + 30/12/2017
As I missed Perito Moreno and O’Higgins Glaciers, the first voluntarily, the second by an act of God, I did not want to miss out on the chance to visit another glacier. This one at the northern edge of the northern icefield. To visit the ‘Exploradores Glacier’, I had to ride into the ‘Valley de los Exploradores’, a death-end road going west from Puerto Rio Tranquilo, down towards the Pacific Ocean.
The day started well. I hadn’t even ridden ten kilometer and I was already sitting in an abandoned shed of which half the floor was rotten away and the other half full of animal shit. I was not sitting there because I like to sit on rotten floors in animal shit.
No, it was raining. And raining hard.
When I have to chose between riding my bicycle in the rain, against the wind, or sitting on a little, fragile wooden bench on a rotten floor full of shit in a building of which the windows are gone, surrounded by old rubber boots, rotten clothes, a rotten mattress and a bunch of mosquitos … I seem to choose the latter.

Luckily, after half an hour it cleared out a bit (strong winds do have their advantages) and I was happily riding again. Well, not so happy, because the road climbed immediately by 13 / 14% again. But as so often, the views make it all worth-while. A stunning blue lake, Lago Tranquilo, to my right hand side.

I keep riding into the valley, with the mountains of the ‘Cordon Los Parvas’ to the north and the 4.058 meter high ‘Monte San Clemente o San Valentin’ to the south. This is the highest mountain of the southern Andes. Behind the Cordon Los Parvas’ lies the Volcano Hudson, which erupted in 1991 and devastated thousands of square kilometers.
These high mountains tend to make their own weather, and when they do that, this means bad weather. I got to see neither of the two famous peaks and eventually got a lot of rain.
It was already 6 pm when I arrived at the ‘mirador’ (viewpoint) of the glacier. A viewpoint with an entrance fee…
I guess glaciers are like humans or cars or animals, you’ve got pretty ones and ugly ones.
I’ve seen glaciers before in my life, in Norway, Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, the Usa, New-Zealand. This must be the ugliest of them all. Nobody is to blame.
The end of the glacier looks like a dump of building debris. All the stones it carries down the mountain, after the ice has melted. The rain doesn’t cheer up things either of course.

I ride back twelve kilometer to a place I spotted before to pitch the tent and ride back towards Puerto Rio Tranquilo the next day. I didn’t meet any other cyclist in the Valle Exploradores. It’s a quieter route as the Carretera Austral, but in much worse condition (washboard). The route itself is definitely worth it if you’ve got time, with beautiful scenery and many impressive waterfalls, but the glacier is not.

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The Exploradores Glacier in less then ideal circumstances, but even by blue skies, not the most beautiful glacier.

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31/12/2017
To celebrate a wonderful year, I treated myself today with a trip on the Lago General Carrera to the ‘marble caves’. The pictures say enough.
Do it when you’re here.

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Labrador

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Then there was only one thing left to do this year. Leave town and make sure I had a quiet night. I didn’t feel like listening to drunk people, driving cars like idiots around the few streets of the village, bad fireworks mixed in all this. So I left the place early afternoon and rode a bit over 30 kilometer to pitch my tent at a sheltered place and made the usual pasta dish.
Despite the short ride, I crossed about twenty other cyclists. Two French couples, a Japanese guy who cycled Australia and North- and South America, a Scottish couple, a Brazilian guy and a bunch of others. I’m gonna stop counting them and talk to everyone, because I lose too much time. But it’s nice to talk to like-minded people a bit for now.

So, another year has come to an end. A year where I cycled 13.652 kilometer and climbed 154.602 meter. I must improve on that a bit in 2018.

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Lago General Carrera.

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01/01/2018
I take it very easy on this first day of the new year and am leaving my spot early in the afternoon only, after the tent finally dried from the rainy night.
Many people claim the part between Puerto Rio Tranquilo and Cerro Castillo might be the most beautiful part of the Carretera Austral. I don’t see too much of it because of the clouds. It does give it a special atmosphere but the regular rain showers I get all day are not pleasant.
It’s difficult to find a place to camp in the evening as again, all land is fenced off.
I do find a place between trees. Well sheltered, but it’s not a beautiful spot.

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02/01/2018
It rained hard all night, but I do manage to pack a more or less dry tent by late morning. Sometimes I even get sunny spells and from a distance I see already the impressive Cerro Castillo mountain. I have regular chats with other cyclists today again. Most started from Balmaceda, a little airport a days’ ride north from here.
I stay the night at a camp site in the village Cerro Castillo, as there were no options for wild camping before the village, and I want to hike up the mountain tomorrow.

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03/01/2018
Another night and also morning where it didn’t stop raining. It was too late to start the hike up Cerro Castillo. I didn’t feel like waiting at the campground all day and maybe have rain again tomorrow morning, so I packed my stuff and left.
Normally, I would be in a bad mood, because Cerro Castillo is where the gravel road stops and the Carretera turns for the first time in an asphalted section. The Chileans were clever though, and they made the last 8 kilometer of ripio in such a bad state, that even I am happy it turns to asphalt for a while.
North of Cerro Castillo, lies the first + 1.000 meter hill of the Carretera Austral. In a few beautiful switch backs, I work my way up. Near the top are two other cyclists admiring the view. Turned out to be a Belgian couple who started from Cuzco, Peru. In the descent I stop for a chat with a German couple who are on a long trip, starting from La Paz, Bolivia and who will go to cycle Australia later this year. A bit further on the descent I meet an English couple who are on a four month bicycle trip in South-America.
On top of the second hill of today, again around 1.000 m asl, is a campground of Conaf, the Chilean National Park organization. It’s 5 pm, but I want to continue a bit further now it’s finally dry.
The tail wind I had out of Cerro Castillo turns into a fierce headwind now.
All land is still fenced of. Every time I’m almost out of sight and barking distance of one little farm, the next one shows up already. Again, it seems very hard to find a wild camping spot along the Carretera Austral.

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Turning old busses in sandwich bars is a thing here.
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Nice climb on a paved road out of Cerro Castillo.

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04/01/2018
There’s a possibility to get off the asphalted road into the first bigger town so far south, Coyhaiqye, but the wind was so fierce and it didn’t stop raining, so I chose to stay in the pavement.
Bad decision.
This road connects Coyhaique, the regional hub, with the airport at Balmaceda and it’s a real highway with constant & fast traffic.
I stay at a bad campground in town, but more importantly I finally get a haircut, find white gas for my stove which burns so much cleaner then the normal car fuel and can do some shopping.

** Part 2, Coyhaique – Puerto Montt to follow soon. **

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4 thoughts on “Chile: Carretera Austral, the southern part”

      1. I’ve been following your blog for a while, you can call me H.J. I admire your commitment and tenacity as well as your photographs. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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