The Carretera Austral is a fairly digestible ride to those many international cycle tourists of all ages and varying ability who come out exclusively to ride it, however, at this time of year the mainly European cycle touring contingent is out numbered by summer holidaying Chileans. Most are out to ride this section north of Coyhaique, the majority are from Santiago, the country’s capital. These cyclists are heavily loaded and mainly ride mountain bikes with front suspension; they are social, fresh and fun. All of this energy inspired me to feel excited and energised with more power in my pedals than I had known for quite a while. This was the first opportunity we have had to make friends with Chileans our own age, which of course gave us the chance to get to grips with the ridiculous Chilean slang (Si, po; cachai?; huevon), but also to understand the country and people in a way I was unable to before.
Hitch hiking is a means of travel that is thriving on the Carretera Austral and the faces of these other travellers became familiar to us as we weaved past one another, I’d always give a shout of ‘suerte chicos!’ as I pedalled past. We cyclists all ride with our own style, some stopping to fish, others pushing on at night to organised camping, whilst others preferred to camp wild, but our trips were constantly over lapping and creating a richer combined story of this chapter of the Austral.
This section between Chaiten and Coyhaique is now over 50 percent paved, the upgrade of the road is ongoing and I imagine in the next year this whole section will be asphalt. The remaining ripio is in poor condition due to the amount of re-construction underway, at times it could be quite unpleasant and as a result meant we actually preferred some of the paved parts. Riding the road during this time of transition made us ponder how the surface effects how we engage with our surroundings, it was Charmian who noted that unpaved roads feel more natural and fitting with the surroundings, and on pavement we tend to ride faster and think less. With more pavement will of course come more traffic, and even more changes for the Carretera Austral because of that.
I need to make a special mention about the earwigs of the Austral; although it is impossible to photograph these things they get everywhere when you camp, and the next time you unpack your sleeping things you can guarantee some will drop out of your stuff, these little things seem to like hitch hiking too.
25th January – Chaiten to Villa Santa Lucia
We have a lazy start that morning chatting to other travellers and waiting for our tents to dry, it is 11am before we head out of town.
Examining my frame bag, I have been over stuffing it for a while and the zips finally gave way.
Shop mural, Chaiten.
How often can I used the phrase cabin porn without sounding tedious?
The road is brand new, and there is no traffic. The kilometres pass quickly.
The first of many river and snow capped mountain scenes.
After 45km we cross this suspension bridge and the ripio begins again. For a short while we are joined with a constantly smiling German called Manuel who rides in jeans and likes to stop to fish at every opportunity. To the right you can see two embracing hitch hikers waiting for a ride.
We climb up hill through a forest, following a river the whole way.
During the climb we meet 3 Chileans – Gary (pictured here celebrating the top of the climb), and two brothers Vicente and Jose two brothers from Coihaique, the biggest town on the Carretera Austral.
We rest to eat Nalca stalks….
The brothers tell us about this plant, the stalk can be cut off, and peeled and eaten with salt. It tastes like lemony celery.
It is then just a short push to Villa Santa Lucia.
We find an idyllic spot just before the entrance of the village.
Charms on water collecting duty.
We do a few trips in to the village to buy wine, 3 litres in total and we make what would translate as ‘Christmas wine’, what we know as mulled wine. Spirits are high and when it starts raining we all pile into Gary’s capacious 2 man tent, we stay up drinking and laughing until 2am.
26th January – Villa Santa Lucia to bridge
We do not rise early the following day, partly due to the rain which falls most of the morning. Gary has already been to the shop and bought eggs, bread, butter and manjar. This guy’s energy and enthusiasm is really something. I don’t think there are many people called Gary in Latin America, he says, “you know the name Gary? Like Gary the snail from sponge bob squarepants”.
We left the Chileans at camp still mincing around. By the time we get out of the village it is almost lunch time, so we stop next to this church about 2km down the road.
The campsite where we ate our lunch.
The views are certainly impressive but the rain makes it hard to appreciate at times.
These turquoise rivers become such a regular sight.
There was more surprise tarmac that day. This was the heaviest day of cycle traffic on the road, We saw over 25 cycle tourists.
We had hoped to make it to La Junta that day. Just 20km before we crossed this bridge, it was such a beautiful spot that we back tracked to camp next to it.
Wow, we camped here! Just as we were brushing our teeth ready for bed in the last of the daylight we heard some noise, it was the Chilean boys crossing the bridge, they came to join us at our spot.
The rain has given some serious swamp foot.
27th January – the bridge to Puyahuapi
It rains all night, and the whole of the next morning. Fuschias grow in abundance out here and always look more beautiful in the rain.
We make this video for my brother’s birthday.
Taped to Gary’s bike. Cliches and sentiment might be too much for some long term bike tourists to handle, but I embraced the wide eyed enthusiasm of all the others travellers on the road. I would turn this phrase on it’s head and say the journey of 22,000km ends in a single revolution of the pedals.
Cloud forests and a winding road that follows the river.
Closing in on La Junta. We stop in La Junta for a long lunch and use the library’s computers, we are told not to rush as the road ahead is closed for works and will only open late afternoon.
Roots en route.
We enter Parque Nacional Queulat but it is hard to appreciate in the rain and the work related traffic.
We descend to Puyahuapi as the Chilean boys catch us up.
The village has some famous sea thermal baths but the spas are not in a cycle tourists budget…
… instead it is time to jump into the sea. Note Jose’s attempted to waterproof his panniers.
I love Puyahuapi. We opt to stay in La Serena campsite. We were so wet that we did not mind paying the price to sleep under shelter and dry all our clothes on the wood burning stove. It rained all night which confirmed the decision to be a good one.
28th January – Puyahuapi to Parque Nacional Queulat
We stick around all morning, cleaning our bikes, drying our stuff in the sun and just enjoying the place.
We stock up in the village shop and hit the road around 3pm.
I can’t imagine there are many places in the world with flora like this so close to the ocean.
Our plan is to ride the 22km to visit the Glacier Colgante.
Foreigners pay double the Chileans to enter the national park. We camp inside the park, sharing the campsite fee with a big group of Chilean boys making the fee nominal. One of them manages to fix my frame bag.
View of the glacier from across the lake. We walk for a few hours through a forest trail to get a closer look.
The walk was worth it to get closer, but was difficult to take a descent photo close up due to being in the shade of the forest.
29th January – Parque Nacional Queulat to camp before Villa Amengual
The following morning we are told by some construction workers that the road ahead will close between 1-5pm . That gives us 2 hours to ride what they tell us is 20 flat kilometres. It ends up being around 30km and including a big climb, we don’t make it. Chileans love signs, these read – no making fires, no cutting plants, no hunting, no dropping rubbish.
We race along trying to make it before the road closes, which makes it hard to appreciate the beauty.
Looking back on Parque Nacional Queulat as we near the top. Note the nalca and fuschias.
Not too ugly.
We arrive at about 2pm and by the time we eat lunch and chat to the other cyclists there is just enough time to snooze in the shade (and listen to an Alan Partridge audiobook) before the road re-opens.
I counted 15 cyclists.
That day marks the beginning of our time with Paul, a Swiss / New Zealander with a kind and gentle soul, he is real gem.
The descent is horrible and dusty with lots of loose egg sized rocks, it was a relief to arrive on the asphalt.
We ride through a valley along the river.
We join forces that evening with Mateo, a cyclist from the Chilean island of Chiloe. We climb over a fence with a ‘no entry’ sign and set up camp in a disused building.
Over candle light we talk ’til late, about the history we are taught at school versus the history we see as relevant to us now, Mateo explains a lot about Chile’s past.
30th January – camp to Villa Manuales
Mateo leaves early in the morning and we never meet him again, sadly. It is a short ride to Villa Amengual.
Church in Villa Amengual. We stop in the village to buy food and eat.
Lago Torres, a popular campsite for many cyclists.
It is a pleasant afternoon on the asphalt.
We notice some dirt roads and wish we had taken them.
Here is a proper introduction to Paul. We arrive in Villa Mañihuales and find a little service station that sells the best lemon meringue that I have eaten since Huancavelica, Peru.
Britain is so synonymous with tea that these Chilean tea bags are marketed to look like a British product…. because you know, the houses of parliament are right next to Tower Bridge!
We sleep that night by some cabins with an abandoned truck, it is here we first meet a Dutch cyclist Cornelius.
31st January – Villa Manuales to Coyhaique
This sign visible to north bound traffic is quite interesting to me. We had gone to Arica in an ambulance at the end of September when Charmian had fallen off her bike, and had spent Christmas near Temuco. We had obviously ridden further though as the distances given are for those taking the PanAmerican Highway.
Heading out of Villa Mañihuales we had a choice of routes to Coyhaique, the paved road or the more direct unpaved section…
Charms and I take the ripio and Paul takes the asphalt, we make plans to meet at the Casa del Ciclistas in Coyhaique.
From the outset the road was a winner, tranquil beauty.
We stop to eat biscuits and watch some bulls have a full on fight, really entertaining stuff. We make up characters for the bulls, the one with a white face is all brawn and is trying his luck with the old time champion, the black one is the voice of reason.
The only place open in the small village of Villa Ortega is the kiosco run by this lady, her name escapes me. She was incredibly sweet and gave us some of her homemade biscuits and said that although they were stale they were made with all of the love in her heart. We warmed our hands on her stove before pressing on.
We had been climbing all day…
… around 10km out of Ortega we began a stunning descent.
We arrive in Coyhaique and the Casa del Ciclista. Boris, the guy who’s house it is is away riding, his friend Paulina is meant to be keeping an eye on things but she is rarely around. The way some people open their homes with so much trust is something I still find incredibly humbling. We meet up with Paul and go to a Peruvian place for dinner, the next day will be a rest day.
I noticed this on a street in Coyhaique. Action Poetry is a Latin American movement that leaves quotes and poems on the walls of city streets. Always beautiful and thoughtful. Let’s get this going in the UK? This is a rough translation of the MLK quote ‘I have decided to stick with love, hate is a too greater burden to bear’.
- Carretera Austral, part 1
- Carretera Austral, part 3