Carretera Austral, part 3

This final section of the Careterra Austral, between Coyhaique and Villa O’Higgins, was perhaps the most spectacular of all.  Settlements became more few and far between and so did the traffic; the landscape offered gifts of wonder, the dense forests and the blues of Lago General Carerra will be etched in my memory until I loose my marbles in old age.  The  majority of holidaying Chilean cyclists and hitch hikers that had previously shared our path did not continue south of Coyhaique, however the camaraderie of being on the road with other cyclists continued.

I feel as though I have said so much about this road in previous entries, now you just need to look at the pictures.

                      2nd February – Coyhaique 

                      3rd February – Coyhaique to Lago Chiguay

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Our day off in Coyhaique was like any other – we lazed around chatting to other cyclists, carried out repairs and minor bike maintenance, ate lots of fruits and vegetables, went grocery shopping (stocking up on Waitrose peanut butter that is sold in one chain of Chilean supermarkets),  and even made the most of the oven in the Casa del Ciclistas by making a vegetarian lasagne.  The night before we left, a group of 8 Chilean cyclists showed up and started a barbecue at around midnight; they had decided not to carry out this barbecue in the back garden near their tents but in the front garden right next to ours. I decided to just stay up chatting as I knew attempting to sleep would be futile.  The next morning Paul woke to find barbecue ash all over his tent, he summed it up by simply saying, “That was just not cool of them”. However much I may think I have turned into a Latino hippy I still do not understand a common disregard or lack of understanding when it comes to being quiet whilst other people are sleeping.  We were tired but still managed to get out of town early.

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The first of two statues we would see that day in homage to mate, most popular in all parts of Argentina it is also drunk in Chilean Patagonia.

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There was plenty of traffic on the tarmac heading out of town. We managed to loose Paul who didn’t seem to realise we had stopped off the road for a wee, we didn’t meet up with him until a few days later.

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Mostly rural farm scenes that day as we worked our way up hill in the blazing sun.

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There is a mate museum in the village of El Blanco, along with another statue outside, we did not think it was necessary to enter.

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We had hoped to make it all the way to the village of Villa Cerro Castillo in one day but it had been really hot and so when we saw a national park campsite called Laguna Chiguay we went in to check it out. It was a beautiful forest location and prices are given by plot rather than per person, so by grouping together with a Japanese and a Chilean couple the price became 800pesos each ,which is around 80p.

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I made us a rather odd but delicious spicy soya mince, rice and beetroot concoction for dinner. We were asleep before it got dark, pretty knackered due to the previous night’s lack of sleep.

                               4th February Lago Chiguay to camp

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The day started with a scenic ride through a valley along a plateau.

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Can you see our Charms?

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The views just before we begun the descent.

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Represas means dams in Spanish. We have been told by local people that although the government has said that the rivers in Chilean Patagonia will not be dammed it does not stop the energy / dam companies coming in and scoping out the land anyway. There seems to be a strong local resistance.

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Cerro Castillo. It was incredibly windy in town, we stocked up with some food supplies and then had lunch on the outskirts of town.

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In Cerro Castillo the tarmac ends, and it is ripio for the rest of the journey south on the Austral. Once out of the village the wind died down and we enjoyed the quietness of the road.

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Oh hello sunshine.

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Quite original, this lake is called Laguna Verde (Green Lake).

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There was plenty of climbing up to this view.

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What a delightful swampy river.

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That evening we found a place to camp by going through an open gate, through a field and crossing a few streams, it was a perfect spot.

                       5th February – camp to Puerto Rio Tranquilo 

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Giant Robin.  It actually goes by a different name that I do not know. We packed our tents just in time before it began to rain, which didn’t stop all morning.

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This sad dog belonged to a house a few kilometres before the camp spot so we were surprised when we saw him outside our tents, he had stayed there all night. He was incredibly skinny and had some sort of contracture in his neck where it looked was if he had been tied up too tightly for too long. We felt sorry for him until he got his pink rocket out in front of us.

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It was a cold and wet morning with plenty of up hills.

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We stopped in a wood barn to snack – even the delights of a whole tub of manjar to share could not warm our soggy bones.  We didn’t stop for long, we had to keep moving to keep warm.

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The sun finally came out in the afternoon and by lunch time I could be found sunbathing in the star fish position.

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Rio Murta.

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Maybe someone could tell me the name of these? I call them puff ball spikes. They are pretty incredible in that as soon as you touch one, or it touches your clothes  or shoes each individual spike separates from the ball, and hence this is how it spreads itself.

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We descend into another valley…

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Our first glimpse of Lago General Carrera, half of the lake is in Argentina where it goes by the name of Lago Buenos Aires.  I don’t really understand why the two countries can not come up with one name for this lake, Bolivia and Peru managed it with Lake Titicaca.

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It was a beautifully sunny afternoon, a day of two halves.

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Gauchito Gil the Argentinian folkloric saint, statues can also be found in Chile on sections close to Argentinian border crossings.  We had hoped to wild camp that night and avoid paying for a place in town but due to a misunderstanding we found ourselves in the village of Puerto Rio Tranquilo. We had not been aware that the Marmol Caves were such a big attraction and hence this is a tourist village; visitors also flock to see the glaciers and take advantage of the hiking opportunities.  That evening in town we met up with Cornelis and Paul. I was in a thunderous mood about having to pay for camping (an hour of attempting to find some free camping in town had been a fail) in a site where people were playing music until the early hours (we didn’t end up paying to camp anyway, no one ever collected our money).

6th February – Puerto Rio Tranquilo to camp just before Puerto Bertrand

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We decided not to visit the caves, it seemed like a lot of money and we also felt a little overwhelmed by the unexpected touristiness of the town, a decision we are now regretful of.  Having said that I woke up on the right side of the bed and apologised to everyone for being in a bad mood the day before.   We had agreed to meet up with Paul at the petrol station and it was there whilst waiting for Paul that we met up with Martin, the English cyclist we had met back in Puerto Montt.  He had left 5 days ahead of us but had taken some shorter days and extra rest days so we were now in the same place.  We had a jolly good chat before Martin set off ahead of us. You can see me chatting to a Canadian couple we had met. Photo courtesy of Martin.

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We met up with Paul at the petrol station in town, he had been kept up all night with other campers snoring (different campsite) so it was his turn to be in a bad mood, I think a hug and the lake views helped sort it out.

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The lake was the bluest of blues and progress was slow due to taking so many photos.

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The photos do not do justice to this awe-inspiring lake.

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I took this photo from a bridge, which is where we met up with Martin again.

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You can see Martin, centre of the picture slowly working his way up hill.

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As a band of 4, we cycled most of the afternoon together.

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Blues on blues, and birds on a small lake peninsula.

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We stopped to buy cherries on the side of the road….

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… one kilogramme soon turned into four! They didn’t look as though they would be good but they were so sweet and juicy. Martin commented that life doesn’t get much better than this, quite true.

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We stopped to chat to these workers who had been to the Campo de Hielo (ice camp) glacier to fit satellites.  They said if we came back the next day they would take us on a trip there, we didn’t want to wait around though so kept on going.

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We worked our way along the lake and then up and away, this was our last view of it. It was on the climb we lost Martin. Laguna Negra in the foreground.

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We cycled round Laguna Bertrand and then up hill. We had hoped to make it to Puerto Bertrand that day but we realised after stopping to shove a load of biscuits in our faces that we did not have the energy. Most of the land is fenced off so we stopped a farmer who let us camp on his land and gave us water.  Just as I was returning from collecting water I saw a glimpse of Martin’s high vis jacket on the road and then shouted across the field.  He had no idea where the noise was coming from so as I ran up to him I saw him looking around.  We welcomed him into our camp and since it had been such a long day we didn’t hang around being social.

                                 7th February – camp to Cochrane

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Morning camp. It had been the coldest night I had experienced since Bolivia. Picture courtesy of Martin.

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Charms leaving camp.

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It was just 8km down to the small village of Puerto Bertrand….

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… it was here that we bumped into Cornelis again with his 47 year old bike that has taken him around the world. He and Martin hit it off and instantly become riding partners.

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We cycled along and up, and then took a small walking detour to visit the confluence of the Rio Baker. Here we saw a French / Danish couple Claude and Mert whom we had met at the Casa del Ciclistas in Coyhaique.

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We lunched at the entrance to the confluence and then carried on with views like this all afternoon.

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For me, it was probably the hardest part of cycling on the Carretera Austral. There was a lot of up and down, my least favourite type of climbing. The corrugation was bone shaking and I think we each lost an item of our belongings to the bouncing, me, my water bottle and Charms, her bottle cage.

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This gorgeous gorge makes all that horrid corrugation almost worth it.

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Looking back on the road we had snaked round. We arrived in Cochrane around 5pm and decided to stay in a hostel, it was not much more expensive than camping and was totally worth it to be able to use a kitchen and sleep in a bed.  Martin and Cornelis arrived at the hostel around an hour later.

                  8th February – Cochrane

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We took a day off in Cochrane, doing normal rest day stuff and as usual I was busy all day. We also prepared a shared meal as pictured, finished off with banoffee pie and washed down with plenty of wine. Martin can command and audience and was telling us his predictions about the next British general election, a hung parliament with Labour winning, and ultimately Alan Johnson becoming the future prime minister. He then gave us a chronological account of the events of the Falklands war. All fascinating stuff.

              9th February – Cochrane to camp

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One last visit to the super market before the three of us: me, Charms and Paul head out of town.

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Old man’s beard, this moss is incredibly sensitive to pollutants and therefore only grows in the purest places on the planet.

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Scandinavian Black Metal album cover.

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After a morning of gradual climbing it was time for the descent.

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Dramatic clouds above pyramid shaped mountains.

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Through a forest and then up and round another valley. We were on the look out for a good camp spot for around an hour before we found an ideal forest clearing.  About an hour and a half later we heard a bike bell, it was Martin who had again come to join us to camp, we were happy to see him.

                  10th February – camp to Puerto Yungay

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Morning camp, Martin was up and out early and was ahead of us most of the day. We faffed around a little before hitting the road.

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Dead tree forest, another grey day.

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All types of moss on the carretera.

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Surreal Patagonian cabin.

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At the junction to the village of Caleta Tortel we then began a climb, it was there we could see Martin ahead of us, he can just about be made out on this photo.

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Near the top of the climb Paul had a problem with his derailleur and chain, so we all stood around in the rain giving moral support. He couldn’t fix the problem so instead he walked with his bike and Martin cycled slowly next to him, Charms and I went ahead. We did not take any photos of this section due to the rain.

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In Puerto Yungay (or YOUNG-GAY as Martin would pronounce it) it is necessary to get a free boat to cross the river, they run 3 times a day. We had missed the last boat and it was raining heavily. After drinking hot chocolate in the little kiosco next to the port we started to look for a place to sleep that night. Two north bound Swiss cyclists (pictured, right) showed up and we got the soldiers who worked at the port to agree to let us sleep in the spare dormitories, they even gave us wood for the fire.  There were six of us, and then we saw two cyclists outside in the rain, so we beckoned them in.  It was a Dutch couple Eelke and Corine (pictured, left), a couple we would keep crossing paths with until Ushuaia. The Swiss girls had won a competition held by a Swiss bank that paid for gap years, they were sketching stories of their trip as they went along as part of the condition of the prize, the girls were full or exuberance and positivity, a real breath of fresh air.

                                11th February Puerto Yungay

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We woke to heavy rain and blustery wind going in every seeming direction. From the comfort of our bunk beds indoors the idea of being outside in that weather was not an appealing one. The first boat of the day was leaving at 10am, an hour away, so we decided not to pack our stuff up in a rush to get it. There was another at 12pm and then at 6pm and if the weather wasn’t so bad we would get a later boat. The Dutch headed off regardless into the rain and Paul, Martin, Charm and I stayed put. The two Swiss girls left around mid day, a pannier rack had broken on one of their bikes so they were busy creating a splint from a piece of wood and some wire, which they were hoping would last them until they could find a replacement rack somewhere north of here.  It did not stop raining the whole day and we therefore stayed put, it was our first rest day since we can remember where we actually just rested.  Soldiers are stationed in the area as they are building a road to create a new border crossing close to Villa O’Higgins, these two made me and Charm lunch, an offer we were keen to take up as food was running low due to this unexpected rest day, and the kiosco selling nothing more than over priced empanadas.

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The little dormitory hut we called we called home for 2 nights. On the second night some posh English gap year cyclists showed up, and Cornelis who had been paying to stay in a cabin came in to join the fun.

              12th February Puerto Yungay to Villa O’Higgins

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Puerto Yungay, the rain had finally stopped. This old dog, who I named ‘major’ in my head was an old bearded thing who sat outside the army hut in all weathers and barked if you came too close to him.

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Bikes first, and then cars loading onto the ferry. Freewheeling the 30 or so metres between the dormitories and the boat I managed to get a puncture, the culprit was a giant piece of glass and I therefore spent half of the journey fixing it.

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Arriving on the other side to the small port of Rio Bravo. This was the last day on the Austral and I took time to appreciate all the flora that had become familiar to us over the last 3+ weeks. I wouldn’t be seeing nalca again on this trip.

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Martin and Charms.

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Horses grazing in the distance.

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Cornelis –  unassuming, wise and a wonderful soul.

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It is a day of road side waterfalls and moss.

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A mossy swampy field.

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Paul coming up behind.

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Yep, more moss.

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The Swiss girls told us about 3 climbs in and out of valleys, we barely noticed them, it was a pleasant day of riding through lush forests, along side lakes and rivers.

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We stopped for lunch, Martin and Cornelis were not far behind.

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We had made such good progress that we decided to shoot for Villa O’Higgins that evening. The last stretch around this lake and then along the final strait into the town was tiring for us.  On arriving in town the first thing we did was go and buy our boat ticket for the journey across Lago O’Higgins. This was the cheaper of the two boats and was not running until the Saturday which gave us a rest day in O’Higgins. I should also mention that the village is named after Bernado O’Higgins, a Chilean liberator of Irish ancestry.

           13th February – Villa O’Higgins

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The previous evening cycling into town we had met Seth, who was volunteering at the Tsonek eco campsite. It was the cheapest place in town and nestled away in a forest clearing it was a great place with really great people and feeling (buena onda as we say out here). All the travellers staying there had unique and interesting stories and I spent most of the morning chatting to Brian, a north bound fat biker from Colorado about dirt roads in Peru.

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Tsonek eco camping.

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That afternoon in town we bumped into Seth and Lee (well actually I heckled them from across the other side of the village).  I had been facebook friends with Lee since August as we had been riding similar routes through the Andes, his friend Seth (different Seth to the one we had met the day before) who had come out to Puerto Montt to ride south; the boys had been behind us by a day during the whole of the Austral.

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Since the boat was leaving at 7am the following morning we decided to check out of the campsite and sleep at the port.

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There was a gaucho festival in town so we headed there to watch locals dance and drink a beer. The main festivities were kicking off the following night so it was a quiet affair.

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With Seth and Lee we cycled into the darkness towards the port 7km out of town, and the end of the Carretera Austral. The 1200km road that had taken 24 days to ride from Puerto Montt had re-energised me, provided new friends and incredibly sweet memories, it had been a blast.

 

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