I woke up in Coyhaique and for the first time in a long time didn’t want to get on the bicycle. But the sun was shining, a rare occurrence in the last few weeks, so we felt obliged to make a move. Brad bribed me with the promise of a proper coffee and a pastry on the way out of town. So after I had dragged myself out of bed, taken ten years packing up my stuff and savoured my coffee and cake, we finally rolled out of Coyhaique close to midday. I then misread the map and took us the wrong way out of town, down a very steep hill. There is nothing like a steep climb at the start of a ride to wake the lungs and legs up and get you going.
Given our late start, we had no planned end point for the day. It was just a ride until the sun starts to set kind of day. And what a glorious one it was. We savoured the last of the tarmac on the carretera, plugged ourselves into our books and watched the stunning scenery as it passed. We climbed up a narrow valley to 1100 metres, where we finally spotted a huemul (an endangered Patagonian deer) and snow started to fall. The road opened out and we were treated to a stunning view of the valley below lit by the setting sun and I was glad that I’d pulled myself out of bed. We called it a day at a camp site in Villa Cerro Castillo, after 94 kilometres and some decent climbs. The body is definitely capable of more than the mind would like to admit.
We left Cerro Castillo ignorant to the fact that this day was to become a very characteristic Patagonian day and a very character building one. I’m writing this two weeks on and I’m still unsure if type-two fun is the right phrase. From Cerro Castillo, there is no more tarmac on the Carretera, and so almost immediately we felt more adventurous and more in the wilderness. The road follows the valley west, which if you anything about the prevailing winds in Patagonia, firstly, I apologise for not putting a trigger warning on this blog, and secondly, it may induce a feeling of schadenfreude. For sixty kilometres we cycled in to a headwind. Not just a normal headwind, but a classic Patagonian gale force blow you off your bike kind of headwind. At times it was so strong we simply couldn’t cycle. We were struggling to push our bikes on the flat. Welcome to Patagonia! The road was also under construction for twenty of those sixty kilometres, turning the nice gravel road in to a naughty gravel road. Think mud, loose gravel and rocks the size of a fist (not my fists, proper adult fists, I’ve got child hands). Needless to say it took us seven and a half hours to cover sixty kilometres.
At four pm we stopped for a late lunch and were nearing the end of the westward travel. We were optimistic that when the road turned south east in to a new valley, we would be blessed with a tail wind. So we carried on, with no plans of when to set up camp, and I certainly had no plans to make it to the next village of Rio Tranquilo before nightfall. We were right to be optimistic. The road work had stopped, we’d reached the top of the climb and boy oh boy was the tail wind good. We flew along, passers by stopping and staring at the cyclists beating the land speed record, whooping as they went. Brad even tried to Macgyver a sail with various combinations of his coat, hands, legs and arms. We later met a Frenchman who used an umbrella as a sail. We envied his genius and Mary Poppins pannier bags. Seriously who brings an umbrella on a cycle tour.
All was going well, we covered forty kilometres in less than two hours, and here is where the lesson begins. We should have called it a day at this point, been pleased with a hundred kilometres on shit gravel and the worst headwind we’ve had. (For context, on a still day on tarmac we would cover double that distance with less effort). But in our heads we were only twenty five kilometres from Rio Tranquilo, it was two and a half hours until darkness and we were planning on having a rest day to visit the Marble Caves. It seemed silly to save these merger twenty five kilometres until the next day. Especially as rain was forecast. So we stuffed an Alfajores(a thick shortbread, sandwiched with dulce de leche and dipped in chocolate) in to our mouths and carried on.
The road turned to shit. The tail wind disappeared and it started to rain. All of a sudden, I realised how tired I was, my eyelids sagging and my legs heavy. Twelve kilometres in, I was deeply regretting my life choices. Why hadn’t I married a man who enjoyed luxury beach holidays. I could be sipping mojitos on a beach. I told Brad, rather pathetically, that I didn’t think I could make it. I asked if he thought we could? His reply, ‘the town doesn’t have a closing time’. And he cycled off. My husband, the motivational speaker.
Time is a funny thing, sometimes hours can fly by feeling like only minutes have passed and sometimes even minutes can drag. The last hour in to Rio Tranquilo was endless. We seemed only to go up or down, not flat. My stomach grumbled and despite the exertion I was cold. I don’t remember enjoying any of that last hour, which is a shame because the scenery was stunning. Once again, I was reminded that for us, cycle touring isn’t a race, it isn’t about making big miles in a day just because you can. There is no point being out in beautiful landscapes and hating it because you are punishing yourself on the bike. For us, the journey has never been about the physical challenge. It has been about travelling through more remote areas, experiencing the landscapes and meeting the people in a way not possible by motorised transport. Especially in Patagonia where there is a saying “el que se apura en la Patagonia, pierde el tiempo” which means “he who rushes in Patagonia, loses time”. But for the record, that day in to Rio Tranquilo was the biggest of the whole trip. One hundred and twenty five kilometres on shit dirt road, with a giant headwind and over a thousand metres of climbing. It took us eleven and a half hours, and two days to recover.
As we cycled in to the village at eight thirty pm, we were coincidentally met by two other cycle tourists and a gentleman explaining there was a couch surfing host in town. They asked if we would like to stay. At this moment, we felt so relieved that this offer had come so easily. They took us to meet the host at his marble caves tour shop across the road, where we hung out for about half and hour while he finished up the days business. It was now dark. He explained the terms of the stay. We could camp at his place for free, which he described as natural living. We could drink water from the glacier (which we took to mean there was a stream running by the property). There was no electricity, but we could light a fire. We could wee anywhere we wanted, but we must dig a hole to poo. And there was no hot water. So basically he was describing any patch of land we had ridden through for the last 125 kilometres. Now I’m a lover of a wild camp, more than happy to pee in a bush and poo in a hole, but I somewhat draw a line at doing this communally. I had images of digging myself a hole only to find a land mine waiting for me. The lack of a hot shower after several grubby days and a hard ride was the final straw. We realise the irony, that hosts for cycle tourists are often known as warm showers after the website that coordinates them. He didn’t call himself by this, instead using the more well known “couch surfing” but we suspected he might not have one of these either. We politely declined his kind offer, I’m sure looking very prissy and unadventurous in front of the other cycle tourists, and went in search of an actual warm shower.
The following day we took a boat trip out to the Marble Caves of Lago General Carrera. This lake is the largest in Chile, third largest on the continent, and like Lake Titicaca feels more like a sea than a lake. The marble caves were beautiful and it was hard to believe that the crystal clear and calm waters we were sailing on had intricately carved these structures. It wasnt until the journey back that we realised just how fierce the lake can be. We were in a large dingy with a fifty horse power motor and we battled through large waves and three metre swell. The driver took us close to the rocky shore, trying to escape the worst of the wind and the waves. At times we came perilously close. Not for the first time this trip, I tried to figure out an escape plan if the boat capsized. Would I take my clothes off? Which direction would I swim? Do I wait for Brad? Could I start a fire with my iPhone? Which of my fellow passengers would I eat first? Where is Winston?
I’m pleased that it took until the following day for us to learn that the lake used to be known as “Lago de las Tempestades”, “Lake of the storms”. And that the founder of The North Face died in this lake after capsizing in a kayak without a wetsuit.
Once my legs had fully recovered from our long day, we set off and were lucky to be treated to sunny skies, but less fortunately the wind was still raging. The road followed the south western shores of the lake and was easily spotted in the distance by the long stream of dust being blown from it.
We have passed only a few cycle tourists traveling in the same direction as us, and also surprisingly few traveling north. I often find the interactions we do have interesting ones. There seems to be a mostly-followed etiquette that one should stop for a quick chat, like fellow residents of a country town. But much like hiking on a trail, not everybody says hello as they pass. When travelling towards cyclists coming in the other direction, I find the scenario a bit like two dogs walking towards each other, trying to suss out the situation. There’s always the conundrum of – are they going to slow down and say hello – I should slow down and say hello, I wouldn’t want to be rude – and occasionally the ‘oh, no. They’ve stopped but I haven’t. How awkward’. I’m not sure if others have this or its just my socially awkward English tendencies shining through.
Anyway, on this day we came across four cyclists sat behind some bushes, as a wind shelter, not to hide from us, I think. They were clearly having morning tea but we had stopped a few kilometres before and surprisingly didn’t feel the need for another snack. So we had a brief chat and carried on. Despite this encounter being short, its always nice to chat to someone who in that moment you have so much in common with and yet in the grand scheme of life there’s little that draws you together.
We called it a day at the most southerly end of the lake, wanting to savour the spectacular views for as long as we could. We were lured down a steep driveway in the Pared Sur Camp, which we later came to learn was the humble abode of Pablo aka Mr Carretera Austral. Pablo showed us around his beautiful site. Wooden cabins with dorm rooms, tent sites with access to luxurious bathrooms and a shared dining room perched on the hill. And glamping domes complete with double bed, a wood burner and panoramic views. He explained that a large college group from Santiago had just cancelled their trip due to the unrest and so he was willing to let us stay in a fancy dome for a special cyclists rate. Now I know what I wanted to do. I wanted the night of glamour, but as is the way with women, I told Brad I didn’t mind and that he could decide whether we camped or stayed in the dome. Luckily, the dome brought back memories of our wedding day for Brad, when we stayed in a similarly styled yurt. The memories for me are not quite so vivid, on account of me having one too many wines (bottles) and falling asleep before eleven. So Brad was thankful for the opportunity of a second go at our wedding night, minus the alcohol. So we stayed in a dome and it was great.
Over dinner, we learned from Pablo that he was somewhat of a mountain bike legend in the region, having led tours on this road since its construction began. He had lost count of the number of times he had ridden it, but reckoned the number must be upwards of forty. He has also taken a mountain bike around the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, but was cagey about how much he actually got to ride it.
The next day was another beautiful ride despite the occasional rain. It largely followed the Rio Baker, a river so blue it is almost unbelievable, and this led Brad and I to have a discussion about why? We never resolved the matter, figuring it obviously had something to do with a glacier and probably something to do with the sky, but we couldn’t reconcile why it then turned green when it met the Rio Neff at the “Confluencia” if the colour was solely due to the sky, and anyway, we are in Patagonia, the sky is never blue.
Cycling leaves a lot of time for the mind to wander and often results in either one of us coming up with random questions such as ‘what is the difference between a wave and a swell’ and ‘how many possums are there in New Zealand’. Brad often tries to answer my questions with confidence regardless of whether he knows the answer or not. We have often written these questions down, meaning to look up the answer later, but we rarely do, life tasks getting in the way.
We had a day off in Cochrane, and I’m glad we did.It is the day we learned that dogs believe they have a divine leader. Walking in to town we heard the emergency services/ volunteer firefighter siren go off. Every single roaming dog in the street, of which there are hundreds, stopped, turned their heads to the sky and started howling the same hymn like school boys in a choir, only these dogs all have their balls.
South of Cochrane there are two hundred kilometres of the Carretera Austral remaining. We decided to break this in to four days, mostly to savour the last moments but partly because our tails were still between our legs after “the longest day”. The sun was shining, we were cruising at a gentle speed, feeling as if finally after upwards of ten thousand kilometres we were getting the hang of this zen thing. We listed to various sounds of birds calling and the river flowing beside us. It was one of those moment where you find yourself thinking how lucky you are. And then a bird flew in to Brads wheel. Brakes screeched and we skidded to a halt. For the second time on this trip in an dead animal related incident, Brad screamed like a little boy and wailed “No, no, what!? No”
As the bird flapped around on the ground, a fox appeared and started trotting towards us. We both stood aghast hoping it would fly away. It didn’t. We did. For the rest of the day I referred to Brad as the bird murderer. I’m not sure he has quite got over it.
At the end of the second day, we arrived at Puerto Yungay, a one building port at the end of the one road. The time table stated that while during high season the last boat is at six pm, November is low season and our ferry across to Rio Bravo was only scheduled twice a day, the last sailing at three pm which we had already missed. We were surprised therefore to find this tiny place full of cars and people and with two boats in port. One was the scheduled weekly ferry to Puerto Natales. It was unclear where the other boat was headed, but it looked ready to go with its back down on the ramp and engine running.
We spotted the Argentine cyclists we had met in Rio Tranquilo and asked them in our terrible Spanish what their plans were. They were going to sleep in the ticket office when the boat to Puerto Natales departed at eight pm. It was therefore “clear” to us that there was no boat across the lake this evening and we would have to wait until the morning, as the Argentines were. But we couldn’t figure out where the second boat was going. The ticket office was closed and there was no one official to ask, just lots of people milling around looking hopeful. So we joined them, and had the same confused conversation over and over again
Sarah: where do you think that boat is going?
Brad: I don’t know
Sarah: all these people can’t be three hours early for the boat to Puerto Natales
Brad: maybe they are
Sarah: perhaps this boat is ours and will actually leave at six
We flirted with the idea of asking someone, but the chances of us being enlightened was slim due to our questionable language skills . At six pm, when anticipation had reached fever pitch (I never knew you could be so agitated about a boat you’d already missed) the engines roared and two cars, in on the secret of where this boat was going, drove on. It was then I heard a yell of “Rio Bravo” from on board. We were in. This was our boat. We hurried on and as we did they lifted the ramp and we sailed off leaving most of the cars and the people in the point. Turns out, everyone does arrive three hours early for the once-weekly ferry to Puerto Natales. Or so we thought…
There were no cars on the other side when we got off the boat at six fifty five pm and so we began setting up camp. Meanwhile the ferry driver waited patiently for the schedule seven pm back to Puerto Yungay. Clearly no one was coming, like stopping at a red light in the middle of the night, it’s just something you do for that one in a million chance. As the ferry sailed around the headland, dust billowed from the road behind us. A Jeep travelling at rally car speeds came around the corner and slid to a hand brake halt at the top of the jetty. Two young me hopped out, one of them cursing in Spanish and the other (almost certainly said) “I told you everyone arrives three hours early for the ferry.” They had almost given up hope, but as the dust rose up in the the sky like a signal, the ferry honked its horn and started back towards the jetty. And so we bore witness to the biggest, and to his mate the most infuriating, “I told you we’d be fine” in history.
Over the last hundred kilometres, we had a great day cycling by the river, up a wide glacial valley and over a mountain pass. Cars came in ones and twos, only three times that day corresponding with the ferry. Otherwise we raced the road graders and played chicken with them. They won.
We pulled up stumps at another Refugio. This time owned and kindly offered for free by a local farmer, Jorge. The Refugio was a hut with a fire place, slats for ventilation and two benches. Jorge dropped by to see how we were going, laughed at our pitiful attempt at a fire and invited us in to his bachelor pad for a maté (a traditional caffeinated herbal drink sipped through a straw and often shared) before giving us some dry wood. We also joined him in feeding homemade pastries to his favourite sheep. Jorge played some music, powered by solar electricity and collected water from a bucket he had filled from the stream. We talked about an avalanche that had come threateningly close to his abode in the middle of the night during winter. I can’t imagine anything more frightening and isolating than being woken up in the middle of the night by the roar of an oncoming avalanche, unable to see where it is and unable to communicate with the outside world. Such is the life of lone farmers in this area. Chile has one of the highest inequality ratings in the world, and sitting in Jorge’s home and mentally comparing it to the affluence in Santiago, it’s not hard to see why. Given the geographical isolation of this area, it’s hard to see how this inequality will change any time soon. Nor how burning down one’s own metro system and supermarkets is going to help.
The final day in to Villa O’Higgins was glorious. We only had thirty five kilometres to cover, but we took all morning in the sun, no wind, and clear skies to enjoy riding by mirrored lakes and snowy mountains. Villa O’Higgins is the end of the Carretera Austral, but for bikers and hikers it doesn’t have to be the end of the southbound journey. It’s possible to take a boat across lake O’Higgins and cross in to Argentina on a trail. Given the boat only goes twice a week we had a compulsory two day rest in town and we treated ourselves to a nice hostel, complete with private room and a fantastic breakfast. We met a conservationist from Valparaiso who was leading a group of North American students doing some field research on the endangered Huemel. We had an interesting discussion about the future of the land in Patagonia. He described a conversation he had with a local mayor about what Patagonias true resource is. Environmental tourism or industry. He had to zoom out on google maps to highlight how different Patagonia is to any other industrious parts of the world. Perhaps when a place like this is home it is easy to take for granted how grand the natural beauty surrounding you is and is therefore not intuitive to see how necessary planning and research for conservation is to protect that resource. For us, we are certainly astounded about how so few of the areas we have cycled through over that last 11000 kilometres are unspoilt by humans. New Zealand has two thirds of its native forest over the last 500years, in America nature feels like it has become a few theme parks dotted over the country and South America is full of mining, deforestation and rubbish blowing everywhere across the landscape. If only we could take every local mayor from every town in the world and send them on a cycle tour.
The boat across Lago O’Higgins could have been mistaken for a trip to Antartica. Waves rocked the boat back and forth between views of the water and sky, and at one point we passed an enormous blue iceberg. On arriving at the small jetty we cycled the 1km to the immigration office and it was by far the most relaxed we have come across. It felt more like an invitation to ‘come sit by the fire with me’ than the usual stern faced official process. They weren’t at all interested in the cocaine packed in to our tyres.
From here, trail was amazing. What a way to finish. On the Chilean side, naturally there was a we’ve-got-more-money-than-you dirt road. And when we reached the official border, it appeared to meet a forest in a dead end. There was simply a welcome to Argentina sign. Upon further inspection we located a walking trail. It took us about two hours to cover six kilometres. We hauled our bikes over fallen trees, pushed them through bogs and balanced our way across make-shift bridges. It was net down hill, and some parts were as technically difficult as things we had trouble with on mountain bikes back home, let alone with the weight of our panniers. It felt like a test of all the skills and fitness we’d gained over the year. And I’d say we passed. Simply because we came through with the biggest smiles on our faces of the whole trip.
One more boat trip on the other side and we would be on the home-straight in to El Chaten. We would make it that day, but not without a classic South American experience first. The immigration officials on the Argentinian side clinically informed us the five pm boat (ours) would not be coming due to a storm on its way. So when a boat arrived at four pm we hopefully inquired as to whether we could hop aboard. Nope. It was chartered to collect a small posse of three-star Argentinian generals visiting the outpost. For some reason they welcomed us aboard when a native Spanish speaker and fellow cycle tourist Victor spoke with the captain. I spent the journey wondering if I’d just been sold to the Argentinian army. Thankfully, they accepted our tickets for the rival boat company instead.
The road in to El Chaten was, at first smooth and net down hill. It felt like we were flowing as smoothly as the river beside us. We rounded a bend to see, on one side, flamingos perching in an emerald lake and a view of Fitzroy on the other (the inspiration for the Patagonia logo). I almost cried, not wanting this cycle tour to be over. And then out of nowhere, the road turned to shit. Rocks the size of hockey balls lay on corrugations and sand traps caught us off guard. It was perfect timing. I was f*$@!?#g done. Get me off this bike.