Route: Paso Sico – San Pedro de Atacama – Ge!seres El Tatio – Inacaliri – San Pedro – Ollague
After our windy night a few kilometer passed the Argentinean border, the road kept going up and up. Paso Sico is not the highest point. We, Frederic and I, keep climbing to a first pas at 4.450 meter. The good news is that right at the Chilean side of the border, the gravel road turned into smooth asphalt. And no traffic. After a welcome descent, we climb to another pass at 4.570 meter, yet another record for me. In the distance we see several smaller salt lakes.
As the customs wanted give me only 1,5 liter of water, and nothing to Frederic, we were running low. Luckily, there’s a Chilean police post as well further down the road and they are more accommodating.
The scenery is definitely the most stunning I’v seen so far in South-America. Colorful mountains, electric blue sky, white salt flats and then … the first laguna appears. With that also the first tourist bus that seems to come up all the way from San Pedro de Atacama, still three days away for us on the bike. Luckily, they don’t stay too long. They have a busy schedule to follow, I reckon 🙂
In an old mining post, still manned buy two friendly guys, we manage to get a warm meal and a shower for a very decent price. We could even stay for the night, but there are still a couple of hours daylight left, and we choose to carry on. We end up spending the night at an army camp. A team of about 30 guys, and a medic, goes out every day to clean up the anti personnel mines, which apparently still lay around in abundance along the Chilean / Argentinean border. And even more along the Chilean / Bolivian border, the soldiers tell me. I don’t know whether that’s a Pinochet thing ?
But I cycled along huge mine fields near the Strait of Magellan as well. All these countries here don’t have a very friendly past with one another.
Next day, the wind blows like hell. We have to take turns riding in the front so the other can have a small break. The going is tough, but we are rewarded with more snowcapped volcanos and another laguna.
After Toconao, the road gets bussier.
I stayed for six nights in San Pedro de Atacama in a nice room to get a good rest, do some bicycle maintenance, update the website and prepare my route into Bolivia.
Many cyclists take the so called ‘Laguna Route’ towards Uyuni in Bolivia, but I read, and heard horror stories about how sandy that stretch is, and the numerous tourist Jeeps that pass you all day long at high speed, covering you in dust. I say goodbye to Frederic, who will ride this route.
One of my last days in San Pedro de Atacama, I cycled towards the Valle de Luna. I went around noon-time, which is ideal. You have the place almost to yourself. All toursits do the same thing, and one of these things is ‘sunset at Valle de Luna’.
If the scenery coming down from Paso Sico was so beautiful already, this Vale de Luna is even more spectacular. I can imagine astronauts would come here to practice. It really looks like the moon or Mars.
On my way back to the hotel, later that afternoon, I count 32 minibuses driving to the Val de Luna, plus Jeeps and cars.
They must be sitting on that hill with close to a thousand people, watching the sunset.
From San Pedro de Atacama, I headed straight north towards the El Tatio Geysers. Back from 2.600 meter, up to the ‘Altiplano’ above 4.000 meter. The climb isn’t very steep, but the road is some sort of destroyed asphalt.
Late in the afternoon on my second day out of San Pedro de Atacama I arrive at the El Tatio Geyser. The park rangers say it is closed for the day and I should camp at the parking lot.
I tell them I’m not here for the geyser, that I’m on my way to Ollague, at the Bolivian border. They look stunned at me.
“You have to go via Calama”, they say.
I’m not very pleased with that answer. I tell them it took me two days to cycle up here, and there is no way I will go back. “Look, here is my map, and there’s a little road going further north from here towards Inacaliri. I can even see the track going up over there, behind the geysers”.
They don’t really know what to do with this information. One of the guys tells me that sometimes they have a cyclist coming up to the geyser, but never one that wanted to go beyond here.
They consult another guy who just arrived from San Pedro de Atacama in a Jeep with some supplies.
Luckily for me, he says that it might be possible with a bicycle.
There is a German couple with an off-road camper on the parking lot, and they are not allowed through. The track seems to be out of use.
After a while, and after filling up my water bootles, they let me go through.
I pitch my tent at the far end of they geyser field. It will be a bad night.
I’m camping at 4.30O meter, it is freezing at night and …. I have mice in my tent ! I take all my bags in the inner tent, because these little bastards are famous for biting holes in your panniers. But I’m also afraid they will damage my tent. Several times a minute I have to chase them away, but they keep coming back, all night long. Why aren’t they going down to San Pedro de Atacama, where it’s warm and where there’s a lot of food ?
Mice at 4.300 meter …. 😦
Next morning, I hear all the tourist buses, Jeeps, cars arriving before the sunrise.
As they all go to the sunset together, they come here for the sunrise.
The Jeeps and buses leave San Pedro de Atacama at 4:30 am.
And … I find it all a bit disappointing. No spectacular geysers like you see them in Iceland, Yellowstone or Rotorua, New-Zealand. Just a bit of smoking coming from the earth at several place and some water bubbling up.
If I had to get out of bed before 4 am to see that ….
The reason they come that early is that later in the day it warms up and you even don’t see the smoke anymore.
It’s a tourist trap, don’t do it when you’re here.
Yesterday, late evening two military vehicles passed my tent. Probably this ‘road’, skirting the border, is only used by them.
The Germans with the camper tried to sneak through this morning, but had to turn back as there were too many big rocks on the road.
On the bike, it’s a fine trail.
It’s hard. The road climbs again over 4.500 meter and has a section with deep sand where I have to push for a few hours. It gets cold here at night, there’s no water (hey, you’re in the Atacama, driest place on earth) and I haven’t seen a single soul in 48 hours. You’re on your own here. Nobody will come to rescue you when things go wrong.
And that’s fine.
I hit the pavement again at San Pedro, which is basically a train station with some slums around it. There’s a big white water tank at the other side of the railway line, which has potable water. I didn’t see any place to eat, or to buy food. Which is no problem, I still carry enough from San Pedro de Atacama.
From here, the road is paved all the way to the border. I’m passing several other salt flats and have to be creative in finding places to pitch the tent. The wind blows here, and there’s not much shelter.
At Ollague I finish what you could call the first part of this trip. The last seven months I spend in Argentinië and Chile, where I cycled 10.132 kilometer.
Total since I’ve started this trip in April 2016: 30.843 km.
Route: Puerto Monto – Puerto Varas – Ensenada – Entre Lagos – Puerto Novo – Los Lagos – Huellahue – Villarica – Los Laureles – Melipeuco – Paso Icalma
There are two roads to leave Puerto Montt to Puerto Varas. Road nbr 5, the “Panamericana”, and one via the airport. The last one seemed to be the smallest one.
When I asked about traffic conditions at the tourist information, the lady told me I can not take that last road. I will 100% sure end up without a bike and without luggage.
And also most of the locals take that road to avoid the fee one has to pay for the Panamericana.
This Panamerica is busy as well, according to her. It also has no shoulder. “We don’t do that in Chile”, she said.
“You’ll have to pay a small fee, but take that road, it’s much safer”, according to her.
I thought it over for a bit. Mostly car drivers are not very well placed to judge what’s ‘safer’ for a cyclist.
As my guesthouse was closer to the Panamerica as the other road, I decided to follow her advise (my guesthouse was in a ‘very dangerous area’ as well, according to her).
Cyclists (which are allowed on the Panamericana highway) don’t have to pay a fee and there is a shoulder all the way. I hope her perceptions about safety and dangerous are as wrong as her other advise.
So, a busy highway it is to Puerto Varas, but it’s only twenty kilometer and this way I get to experience for a little, little bit what the Panamerican is like. Incredible some people choose to cycle this highway all the way across the Americas.
Puerto Varas is a little bit the Brasschaat of this area. A nice upmarket little place, expensive hotels, outdoor stores and a beautiful setting at the Lago Llanquihue. I checked whether they didn’t have a decent camera shop here, but they told me Puerto Montt had it all …
The paved road around the lake has a bicycle lane !
It goes all around the lake, said the lady in the tourist information.
Things really get good here 🙂
Outside Puerto Varas, there’s a Jumbo supermarket. It’s not huge as it’s name might indicate, a bit like the Delhaize in Brasschaat and perhaps even more beautiful. They even sell Camembert cheese, have a nice selection of fruit and vegetables, excellent -)
Didn’t know a good supermarket could make me so happy.
Cycling lanes, a tailwind, a good supermarket…. something must spoil the fun a bit, no ?
Indeed, these black / orange terrorist bugs. They are around me in the dozens. I need to take tree branch and sway it around myself while cycling to keep them of me. Half a second after I stop, they’re all over me, diving right at me. They are terrible and so numerous here.
Cycling along the lake, I have Volcano Calbuco on my right side, which had a major eruption on 26th May 2015, in front of me the beautiful Osorno Volcana and behind that, Volcano Puntiagudo.
The bicycle lane stopped in the village Cascadas…
More tailwind blew me quickly to the next lake, Lago Rupanco and then to yet another one, Lago Puyehue. This is where some really bad ripio road started. Big stones and enough low flying traffic to cover me with a big layer of dust.
It sticks in the suncream.
Temperatures always go into the mid or high thirties in the sun during the day.
No complaints 🙂
Lago Ranco is one of the bigger lakes in the Chilean lake region. It being Saturday and the proximity of some bigger coastal towns as Valdivia means it’s packed with tourists. Beaches filled with unhealthy looking tourists, frying more sausages, eating more potato chips, more ice-cream, more soft drinks, more beer.…
Lot’s of garbage along the jammed road.
Bushes full of toilet paper and its smells coming at you.
Jet ski’s, car stereo’s….
Some people seem to love it though.
I can’t be away from it soon enough, but the cycling ain’t fun here, sharing the narrow road with speeding, stressed pick-up trucks racing from one lake to the next.
I pitch the tent in a field, a few meters from that busy road. High grass in between, so nobody will see me.
It’s not your quiet, natural wild camping spot but it beats the camping ground for sure.
After a short day, I end up at Camping ‘Los Suizos’, run by a Swiss man. The camping lays at the top of a 35 meter high cliff with below the Rio Calle Calle.
I have some overdue bike maintenance to do, like switching the front and back tyre, changing back to the first chain and give the bike a good scrub. And most importantly, look for some good alternative, little used back roads going north.
In hindsight, the route I drew out, was fantastic. Still a few kilometer on the busy main road from Los Lagos towards Panguipulli, but then I take a left turn and cross the Rio San Pedro with a little cable ferry. From here it’s all ripio for a while with literally less then a handful of cars the rest of the day. Inclines are steep sometimes and require pushing, but they are never long.
In Huellahue I join the paved road again for a while. Not as busy as further west, but still requires a constant eye in the rear view mirror.
I do have some views of the Lago Calafquen from higher up, but instead of riding down towards the village of Lican Ray and ending up on the busy road to Villarica, I again choose some little used ripio option.
All is good. Again I find a nice place to pitch the tent.
Well, the place is nice, but unfortunately the chain saws from different directions go on till sunset, barking and howling dogs from the north-west, north-east and south-west. The dogs are soon joined by a guy who is shouting really, really loud “whooohaaaa – whoooohaaa” in the distance. The dogs going more crazy. Then he cranks up his ‘music’.
When he finally decides it’s been enough for the day, one of his neighbors a bit to the east opens his sound system. More ‘boonk-e-boonke’ till midnight.
The chain saw gang resumed at 07:00. Mowing the trees from 07:00 till 21:00 hrs. No time to waste.
It’ll be good for the economy. For someones economy.
My chosen path towards Villarica sure isn’t the easiest. Washboard and lot’s of loose stones. But when I hit the main road, a few kilometer outside of Villarica, I’m super-glad I was on these bad tracks. Suddenly it’s like I’m in the Monday morning traffic jams to enter Antwerp. Terrible. Are all seventeen million Chileans here ?
Upon entering Villarica, I pedal my seven thousandth kilometer in South-America away.
The famous Volcano Villarica, one off the most active in South-America lies at the other side of the lake. It’s last major eruption was on 3rd March 2015. It became super-popular to climb it.
Over 20.000 people a year, I read.
Queuing to the top, not my thing.
I tried again to find a lens for my camera, but in vain. There was a shop selling the same Sony camera I have, but they don’t sell ‘accessories’ and were not prepare to sell it’s lens alone.
Allas, I leave the town asap. Soon on ripio again; of the worst kind.
Slowly I’m getting nearer and nearer to the cordillera, it’s peaks clearly visible now to my east.
As the ripio gets rougher, and the traffic seems oddly enough to increase as well, I decide to take the asphalt road to Los Laureles instead of continuing on ripio towards Lago Corico.
Not special to see in Los Laureles, but I found it a need little village.
The road between Cunco and Melipeuco is the best cycling Chili had on offer. A nice wide shoulder and hills both side of the road. Throw sunshine, temperatures above 30 degrees and a tail wind in, and your day is perfect.
After Melipeuco, the last 40 kilometer or so to Paso de Icalma, which is the border with Argentina, is again on a sometimes rough ripio road, climbing steep at times (i.e; in the 10 to 14% range). Once I’m above 1.000 meter, I’m cyclingbetween the spectacular and odly shaped araucaria trees.
I haven’t met any other cyclist in the Lake Region.
Perhaps because I was too often on the little, steep gravel roads.
Few other things that stand out: The dogs here, as well as in the Argentinean part of Patagonia are brilliant. They do somtimes make faint attempts ‘attacking’ you, but you only have to lift as much as your little pinky and the crawl away, their tail between their legs.
Also remarkable is the high number of Chinese cars on the Chilean roads. “Great Wall” seems to be the most popular mark (and they actually look pretty good), but there were other brands as well. Also many trucks are Chinese made.
I think the Western, Japanese and Korean brands are up to a hard future if the Chinese are going to dump cheaper cars on our markets.
More cars for more people …..
El Chaltén – Passo Icalma
Distance: 2.161 km
Average km per cycling day: 58,41 km
Nights slept inside: 4 (3 in hostel, 1 in the “ferry terminal” at Rio Bravo)
Nights slept outside: 44 (of which 30 wild camping)
Flat tires: 0
Route: Coyhaique – Puyuhuapi – Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda – Chaiten – Puerto Montt
Leaving the town of Coyhaiqe, I have to climb another 10 kilometer or so out of the town on the paved road with a constant stream of traffic before I can turn off to the old section of the Carretere Austral on gravel. It’s a steep climb up a 750 meter high hill. Same complaints as the previous days: all land is fenced off and it’s hard to find a place to pitch the tent.
At night, it rains continuously, just like it has the past week or so, but the days are dry, warm and sunny. I can surely live with that.
06 – 11/01/2018
About twelve kilometer before (south) Manihuales I rejoin the paved section of the Carretera Austral. which continues to be paved for a while now. But, there’s a possibility to take a gravel road about nine kilometer north of Manihuales, which I prefer over the asphalted road. I find a cosy place to pitch the tent, right next to the river. It’s close to the road but I don’t have to climb fences today. For the first time in months, I make a nice camp fire.
This gravel option lasts for 21 kilometer and provides more nice wild camping spots further on. A small part of the road even has no fences either side of the track. This must be like the Carretera of the old days. The rest of the day I follow the smooth pavement and have an early stop a few kilometer before Villa Amengual, so I can do my shopping in the morning.
From Villa Amengual, the road climbs over a small saddle before going steep down into the valley of the Rio Cisnes. After the junction to Puerto Cisnes, the Carretera becomes gravel again and climbs towards the ‘Portezuelo Quelat’ before going down to the next river valley and eventually some kind of sea arm. After a few days with rain, today was a nice and sunny day again.
The nights continue to be wet and it takes some time for the tent to dry. By the time I arrive at the entrance of Parque Naional Queulat, the sun is out again.
The main attraction here is the ‘Ventisquero Colgante’, a ‘hanging’ glacier. A 3.3 km trail leads up to a viewpoint. It’s a spectacular thing, but seeing where the glacier is now, compared to where it used to be in 1940 and 1970 as you can see in the N.P. building… I don’t think there ‘ll be much glacier left to hang here in a couple of years.
Puyuhapi is a nice little town, but not nice enough to convince me to stay for the night.
A bad stretch of ripio, with stones as big as fists follows for the first 15 kilometer or so. It’s late evening when I pitch the tent at a camping twenty kilometer south of La Junta. I’m the only camper (yesss, it’s gonna be quiet 🙂 ) and the owner has to fire up the wood stove for his only guest in order to have some hot water for the shower.
La Junta is another little town with a few small village stores. Normally I’d be continuing on the asphalt going north, but the landslide in Villa Santa Lucia still hasn’t been cleared (and apparently won’t be before April), so I take a left turn, cycling west towards Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda. A few very nice camping options at the beginning of the road, but it’s still too early in the day for me. The gravel goes from good to bad, to very bad, to a bit better again.
I’m riding in the valley of the Rio Palena and the scenery is excellent.
Big shame is the amount of traffic traveling this route, in their usual style, speeding at centimeters beside your legs, leaving huge clouds of dust behind.
In October last year, I rode further upstream along this river in colder and wetter conditions. About ten kilometer before the end of the road, there’s a ferry to cross the river, but that’s only running until 6 pm. I won’t make that and have again difficulties finding a place for the night. Not because of fences, but due to the jungle here. Eventually I pitch the tent near a waterfall in front of which some heave bulldozers destroyed the vegetation recently.
Next day, after crossing the river, I notice there are several nice options to camp between that side of the river and Puerto R.M. Balmaceda.
The compulsory registration process for the ferry was some of the most inefficient things I have ever seen in my life. There was one lady sitting inside the office when I arrived. It took the lady and the man with the tattoo of a skull on his hand 35 minutes to make the booking (no idea why they “work” as a duo, instead of each taking a customer ??). Then there was a group of six kayakers ahead of me. It took just under an hour to arrange the registration and booking for them. The lady had to enter their passport numbers four times before she succeeded. Then it was me. They reached succes in my booking in 24 minutes. Lucky I arrived in town three hours before the ferry left.
The ferry ride through the Gulf of Corcovado is scenic, with good views of the snow capped volcano Nevada.
North of Chaiten, the road is paved again. Here I enter the Parque Nacional Pumalin which, just like Parque Nacional Patagonia further south, is a park established by Douglas Tompkins and his wife, he the owner of ‘The North Face’, she of the clothing line ‘Patagonia’ and ‘Esprit’. They donated it to the Chilean state in March 2017.
The temperatures are tropical and so is the environment. All dense jungle with big ferns and other rain forest plants. Wild camping would be very hard here. I climb the volcano Chaiten, which erupted in 2008 and made a devastation in the town further down. It’s a hard hike up the steep hill, but the views are spectacular. I can see the Pacific Ocean, the ‘Lago Blanco’ where I would camp later that day and the crater two lakes, a brownish one and a green one and also a new mountain arose after the eruption.
Next day make another hike in the park to some waterfalls of which the higher one is very spectacular. I also make a hike into a part of the park where there are still some Alerce trees, these big and old guys which were also in the ‘P.N. Los alerces’ in Argentina which I visited a few months ago.
After the five hour ferry ride from Caleta Gonzalo to Hornopiren (with the snowy cone of the Hornopiren volcano just behind the turquoise sea) there isn’t all too much time left for biking. I’m leaving Hornopiren nevertheless. It’s a small village where all traffic seems to stuck up, waiting for one of the two daily ferry’s. Pretty soon, the Carretera Austral turns into ripio again, the version with the big loose stones, and a climb between 10 & 14%. Quite a bit of traffic, so I’m riding in a constant cloud of dust.
On my map, I’ve seen an alternative smaller route along the coast of this little peninsula. It’s longer, but I hope it has less traffic. It appeared even to be paved for a while. It’s been a while, but today I find a nice place to camp at the tip of a bay.
Soon, the alternative road turns to gravel as well. Gravel with washboard, but no big climbs. I’m having a full day of riding along the Pacific Coast. Major problem here, just like the previous days, are these big black and orange insects, almost as big as the tip of your thumb. I don’t know if they are horse flies as well. They look much meaner. They always come in pairs, or in two pairs, circle at high speed around you for a couple of times and then come to hang right in front of your face (so they must be able to fly backwards, as I’m cycling at that moment). It’s intimidating.
The tricks is not to try and hit them while they fly around you. They’re too fast. You must wait until they’re staring you in the face. But while you hit one, there are still three left.
It must be quite a sight, riding a heavily loaded touring bike on gravel, with stones as big as eggs, trying to stay upright while you’re swaying arms and legs to get rit of these flies, face covered with bandanas to protect yourself against dust and flies. A few of them land on your sweaty back and sting you there.
A lot of nice, old wooden churches along this route. Near the tip of the peninsula, I find a side road of this side road. I have to cross a shallow river, but get rewarded with more spectacular views. The sea water is surprisingly warm so far south.
It was not my idea to ride into the town of Puerto Montt, but my camera fell down from a pole a couple of days ago, and the lens broke. I still have a small point-and-shoot camera for back up, but don’t want to rely on that one the whole trip.
About 30 kilometer before Puerto Montt, I pitch the tent in a field above the road, whit good views of the Pacific below me. No wind protection, so hope the weather will be quiet tonight.
It’s been a very hot day and it’s impossible to go inside the tent while the sun is at it. After the flies lunched of my back during the day, it’s now the mosquito’s eating diner at my back.
Lot’s of scratching tonight…
In the whole of Puerto Montt, there’s no wide angle lens.
I check every shop and asked every shop whether they knew a place…, I checked tourist information. They all said I might be lucky in Santiago. But checking the Chilean Sony store online… they even don’t have it in stock. Seems like I’ll have to continue shooting pics with my old Nikon point-and shoot cam for the remainder of the trip 😦 .
Riding the Carretera Austral is maybe not the easiest thing, but it can be done by anybody who is in reasonable shape and has a bit of stamina and a decent bike and gear.
It’s not the distance what makes the route hard. There are other factors:
The (often bad) ripio, the head-winds, the rain, the steep climbs, the horse flies, the traffic at times, the longer stretches without any service,…
What about the Carretera Austral as a biking route ?
Is the scenery nice ?
Yup, it definitely is and I enjoyed it.
BUT, I think it is seriously over-hyped.
Often, the Carretera is described as one of the world’s best cycling routes.
This depends on perception of course, and while I find the route to have way too much (unkind & speeding) traffic, again, somebody else could think differently.
Often the route is described as wild camping heaven as well.
That’s a flagrant lie.
After a couple off days on the route, I started asking cyclist coming from the opposite direction about their opinion of this so-called wild camping heaven. All, without exception, said they “couldn’t see that”.
No question of perception here.
For the most part along the Carretera it was hard, if not impossible to find a wild camping spot for the night. Often I kept riding for another 20 kilometer after I started searching for a spot and still ended up in a bad place or at a camp site.
Mostly because all land is fenced off, or unsuitable for camping (steep hills or dense jungle).
Overall, I’m still happy I cycled it, but I think there are routes in various parts of the world that are very spectacular as well, with better camping options, less traffic and more considerate drivers (Sweden, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, Usa, ….)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
Another nice and sunny day, which I use to relax and clean my bicycle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. **
After a night in a hotel in Puerto Natales, I took the bus onward to El Calafate, back in Argentina and from there straight onto another bus to El Chaltén. In hindsight, I’m happy with my decisions not to cycle this stretch through the pampa, against the relentless winds again. Only the stretch between El Calafate and El Chaltén on the routa 40 is much nicer as I anticipated, and there I regretted it not to be on my bike.
Approaching El Chaltén, I had my first views of the magnificent and iconic Mount Fitz Roy, named after the Beagle’s Captain Robert Fitzroy.
While I was completely battered from the bus ride and wanted to take a rest day the day, the weather was brilliant again. That’s an opportunity one can not let by here, so at 07:30 hrs I was walking out of town already into the norther section of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares towards the ‘Lago de los 3’ trail. This is a trail of about 10 kilometer (one way) leading you up to a lake at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy. To my surprise, I was almost alone on the trail. The last kilometer is steep and a bit harder, but the rewards is awesome and the pictures speak for themselves.
I do get it on my nerves of all this people who nowadays have to pose with outstretched armes in front of every natural attraction, as if they discovered or created them.
On my way down, I crossed busloads of people climbing, struggling up. It was a good decision to leave that early. I’m surprised to see so many people, twenty years my junior who are sitting along the trail, panting, totally exhausted. People are even more out of shape as I thought.
Luckily, about two kilometers on the way back, I can take a right turn to a trail which connects the hiking trail to Mount Fitz Roy to another trail, the day hike towards Cerro Torre.
It was still pretty early, so I decided to do both trails in a day. On the connecting trail of 8 kilometer, I only met one couple and one single hiker. It’s an easy trail along few lakes. Very beautiful and inside the forest, so you’re pretty sheltered from the high winds.
On the trail towards Cerro Torre, there’s no protection for the wind anymore, which blows with enormous forces right in your face. I headed on but really quickly the white clouds which covered the famous peak became darker and darker, the already storm like wind fiercer and fiercer.
I decided to turn back, as this would lead to nothing. I couldn’t see anything of the peak, and wasn’t eager to continue in the rain or snow.
Amazingly, I still saw people totally unprepared going on towards the Cerro Torre, carrying no rain gear, without decent shoes. And then they are surprised they have to be rescued.
Around 4 pm, I was back in El Chaltén, having hiked 30 km and 1.800 altimeter.
Saturday was a rainy and windy day which I used to do an oil change in the Rohloff hub and book my ferries on the Lago del Desierto and Lago O’Higgins. I skipped the famous and touristy Perito Moreno Glacier, but only because I had a boat trip to the O’Higgins Glacier in mind.
Sunday was a real warm and sunny day again, so I retraced my steps towards the look-out point of Cerro Torre. How lucky I am. Some people sit in El Chaltén for a week and never get to see a thing, and here I am sitting in a t-shirt looking at these spiky Andean peaks against a blue sky, drinking pure water from the streams floating down of them.
Late Sunday, I got the message I urgently had to go to the people from ‘Exploradores’, where I booked my ferries. It seemed the ferry on Lago O’Higgins had a serious problem and would surely not run again until Christmas. A big bummer. There’s a second, smaller boat doing the trip, but their website still shows sailing schedules of last year, and it’s not clear whether and when they would go to the O’Higgins Glacier. I booked my transfer online. The people of ‘Exploradores’ office did a really great job in tracking me down, calling all the hotels, hostels and guesthouses in town until they found me, in order to advise me the ferry broke down and give me my money back.
On Monday I cycled the 40 km from El Chaltén towards Lago del Desierto. A beautiful gravel road, many times in bad condition. But the scenery makes up for it. I stop at a beautiful waterfall, cycle between snowy mountains, cross rivers, along lakes, ….
On the way down, I got interviewed by a friendly Italian lawyer who writes in his spare time for a cycling magazine. Again I posed for a few pictures 🙂
On all my previous trips before South-America, I only got interviewed once for the local tv of Nong Kai in Thailand but now it’s one after the other.
At 16:30 my ferry leaves for the one hour crossing towards the Northern edges of Lago del Desierto.
My original plan was to camp near the Argentinian border post, where I’d have spectacular views of the back side of Mount Fitz Roy. It was too cloudy to see anything now, and as I understood the little ferry I booked to cross Lago O’Higgins would go on Tuesday ‘somewhere in the morning’. There wouldn’t be any more crossings later this week, due to the upcoming bad weather. I could not do otherwise than start the famous and hard crossing towards the Chilean side in the evening. The Argentinian border guards were surprised I was still taking that stretch on so late in the day.
This must be one of the most peculiar border crossings in the world. The Argentinian immigration sitting down at the Lago Del Desierto, the Chileans at the Lago O’Higgins. From the Argentinian side, there’s only a mule trail going steep up towards the pass, separating both posts. The path is often a gully, one meter deep and just as wide only. The first part I have to unload most of my backs, go up and down a few hundred meter to carry the first load, come back down to pick up the second load, bring that up, come back down to collect the bike and push that up again, so doing the stretch five times. Luckily, it’s mostly dry, but at some parts I got some drizzle.
I push and push, carrying my stuff over rocks, through another gully, through several larger and smaller streams, through a muddy swamp, until at 22:00 hrs, half an hour after sunset I pitch my tent on a flat part in the middle the trail. I guess there’s no chance at all anybody will come through here at night.
I wake up at 6 am. I’m about one kilometer from the pass and the official border. Just before this border, there would be better camping opportunities on a nice grassy field.
Crossing this border also means my seventh Argentinian / Chilean border crossing this trip, and also my third crossing of the Andes range.
The Chileans luckily made a ripio track up to the border, which makes the going a lot easier. It’s again a glorious day today and looking back, I still have some sights of the back side of Mount Fitz Roy in the distance.
Despite the many photo stops I take, I still arrive with the Chilean border guys down at the lake around 9:30. It seems I’m just in time, as a small boat approaches the jetty at Candelario Mancilla, as this place is called.
I’m the only person present, but soon seven other cyclists and a bunch of hikers descent from the campground which lays a bit above the jetty.
The Captain told me today he doesn’t do any glacier trips, as he has to bring some solar panels to a farm further down the lake.
He’ll be back around 2 pm to bring us to the other side of the lake.
Apparently, the boat is allowed to take 16 passengers only. We are eighteen people. Everybody seems to have their own reason to justify why they could board the ship instead of others. Even those (most of them) who had a booking for the other company which doesn’t run. They were stuck here since five days already. The weather was too bad on this side of the Andes to run the boat.
A group of five French cyclists seems to be really arrogant about their ‘right’ to take this boat. The female part of an Austrian cycling couple starts crying a bit, and suddenly they earned their right to be on board as well. Emancipation, equality and feminism only go that far apparently…
As the boat doesn’t make a trip towards the glacier today, and the captain promised to do another run tonight around 7 pm, I decided I did not want to be part of this unsympathetic bunch for a few hours on a small ship and instead enjoy the local scenery a bit longer on this side. A French hiker kindly gave up his place on board as well, to make space for the crying Austrian girl. The male part of this Austrian couple asked me ‘What currency do you pay in Belgium ? ….’
I thought I heard it all in my life, but apparently ….
Needing a few ‘real’ rest days, I pitched my tent a few kilometer outside Villa O’Higgins. Luckily, the weather was bad, So all the more reasons to stay in the tent to read and rest, without having the feeling I should be on my bike 🙂
O’Higgins Lake is called San Martin Lake on the Argentinian side of the border (Both O’Higgins in Chili and San Martin in Argentina were important independence heroes for their country, living and fighting at the same time as the famous Bolivar ).
The lake has a very irregular shape, with eight arms, four in each country. With a maximum depth of 836 meter, it’s the deepest lake in the Americas. The lake’s surface is at an elevation of abt. 250 meters, which means the bottom at some parts is at almost 600 meter below sea level !
The lake is fed by multiple glaciers of the huge ‘Campo `de Hielo Sur’, the Southern ice Field.