Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Perfect Cycle Tour, Part 2: The Northern Half of the Carretera Austral (Dec. 2015-Jan. 2016)

Ottawa, February 21, 2016

It’s hard to believe that almost 8 weeks have elapsed since our Christmas in Coyhaique.  I have been utterly remiss in keeping my blog up to date, but now that I’m in Ottawa, visiting my mother, I finally have a chance to draw a deep breath, re-read my diary, consult my maps, look at my photos and try to recreate the feeling of the second half of our Carretera Austral adventure.

Sunday, December 27:  66.0 km from Coyhaique to a bridge over the Rio Manihuales

More breathtaking waterfalls
After 2 full days off in Coyhaique with our cycling and backpacking friends Silke, Hans, Els, Vincent and Melanie, we made a late departure from Coyhaique on December 27th, not rolling out of town until 11 am after last-minute errands and shopping in the big city.  I was overjoyed to find the map for the next section of our journey, map 6 in the COPEC series, for which I had been searching ever since Punta Arenas without any luck.  The ride out of town, still on perfectly smooth asphalt, involved a steep climb that was surprisingly easy with rested legs and bodies refilled with lots of delicious food.  We looked back at the sprawl of Coyhaique, a town whose 70,000 population makes it the biggest Chilean town between Punta Arenas and Puerto Montt.  Clouds hid the peaks behind town, so the view wasn’t spectacular.  Luckily, though, the up-close views of the Rio Simpson, the river to which the road descended, made up for the lack of distant glaciers.  The valley was full of big waterfalls tumbling down to the main river, some with names like the Bridal Veil (Vela de la Novia) and the Virgin. 

The view from our campsite by the bridge--not bad
After the section of woods and waterfalls, we passed through a long section of farms not offering many prospects of camping.  We turned upstream on the Rio Manihuales, a tributary of the Simpson, and rode along looking for a decent place to camp.  We had been told to look for possibilities near bridges about 60 km from Coyhaique.  The first bridge after 60 km didn’t offer any prospects at all, and we had almost given up hope when, after 66 km, the road swept right across the main river on a big bridge and we could see a lovely beach to our right with a few families having picnics.  We picked our way down a steep driveway and staked out a section of beach not too visible from the bridge or from the house across the river.  It was an idyllic spot, and soon enough the other groups, mostly of Coyhaiqueans, packed up their coolers and headed off, leaving us in sole possession of what was a very pretty campsite on the banks of a clear, fast-flowing river.  We cooked up dinner and, just as I was starting to work on fixing Terri’s back brakes (I had never fixed hydraulic brakes and it looked intimidating), it began to rain and we retreated to the tent for an early night’s rest.

Monday, December 28, 46.0 km:  Rio Manihuales bridge to Laguna Pedro Aguirre Cerdo

More tumbling water 
We had an interrupted night’s sleep as heavy rain beat down from time to time during the night, and by the end of the night the fly had developed a definite slow leak, with rain gradually seeping across the nylon to drip onto our faces.  It had stopped raining by the time I cooked up oatmeal and French toast for breakfast, but prospects of a timely departure were scuttled by my continued futile struggles with Terri’s hydraulic brakes.  I was mystified by how the brake pads could be removed and then put back; there didn’t seem to be enough room for new, thick brake pads to fit into the available space and still have room for the brake rotor to fit in.  Eventually at 11 am I admitted defeat and put the old worn-out pads back in, and we pedalled off, with Terri unhappily riding a bike with essentially no back brakes.  It began raining as we pushed our bikes up the steep hill to the road, and kept raining all the way to Villa Manihuales, some 24 km down the road.  We were cold and miserable by the time we arrived, so we stopped into a small café and ate tasty empanadas and cake, washed down with cold beers.  There was surprisingly good wi-fi in the café so we lingered, downloading advice on how to fix hydraulic brakes.  It’s amazing how much you can find out on YouTube these days!

The view from our abandoned campground
It was hard to drag Terri out of the café at 3 pm to ride further.  Luckily it had stopped raining, and we found a well-stocked supermarket just down the road for supplies.  We had great scenery all day, with dramatic waterfalls, big cliff faces, dense forest and the general look of parts of North Vietnam. At Villa Manihuales we seemed to have left behind the densely settled farmland which we had been riding through since Coyhaique. Unfortunately we also had lots of headwinds and uphills, much to Terri’s annoyance.  We threw in the towel early, only 46 km down the road, at a place I had been told about a few days earlier by a couple of Basque cyclists.  Beside a small lake (Lago Pedro Aguirre Cerdo, a name almost as long as the lake itself), a sign boldly proclaimed an “Agro-Ecoturismo Camping”, but the gate was firmly locked.  Peering into the compound, it was apparent that the property was abandoned, so after some discussion we tossed our luggage through the fence, passed our bikes over the top and wriggled inside.  We found a perfect spot to camp, close to the abandoned house, with great views over the reedbeds of the lake and sheltered from the persistent strong winds.  The bamboo thickets and dense forest were full of birds, including a new species, the tiny thorn-tailed rayadito, while grebes paddled around in the lake and a curious cat, presumably belonging to the next estancia along the lake, came by and made himself at home.  It was a peaceful spot to look at birds, cook up macaroni and cheese and play some guitar.  It was warm enough (and dry enough) to be sitting outdoors at 9:30 pm writing up my diary, a welcome change from many evenings earlier in the trip.

Tuesday, December 29, 64.3 km: Lago Pedro Aguirre Cerdo to the banks of the Rio Cisnes

Beetle of the day
We slept well, at least until it began to rain heavily around dawn.  We rolled over and slept for another hour until the shower passed, then got up to lovely dawn light on the lake and the cliffs beyond.  Breakfast, on the campground picnic tables, was enlivened by the cat, who showed up to chase birds unsuccessfully around the bamboo thickets.  We had some of our standard oatmeal, with lots of candied orange peel, raisins, walnuts and cinnamon to spice it up, along with lots of toast made over the camp stove.  We waited for the tent and fly to dry, then set off around 11, with our departure delayed by a search for the hook from Terri’s bungee cord that got wrapped around her axle and popped off.  An amazing beetle on the driveway delayed us further as I tried to get decent photos of its green iridescence and massive horns.  Once we finally got underway, the riding was easy, mostly downhill along a spectacular gorge.  Towering cliffs rose above the paved but deserted road, while dense primary rainforest filled the valley, interrupted by massive waterfalls.  After 32 km, we had lunch on Laguna Tres Torres beside a burnt-out building that once (we think) offered boat rides into the Reserva Nacional Maniguales.  We continued a few kilometres into Villa Manihuales, a tiny hilltop town being given an expensive facelift, although it didn’t seem to be interested in maintaining what infrastructure it already had.  The town’s main shops were all closed for siesta, but we finally found a small shop to stock up.  

Rio Cisnes loveliness
We had an afternoon beer in the overgrown main plaza, then rode out of town, up a steep rise and then down, down, down to the Rio Cisnes, yet another beautiful azure river through dense forests, magical mountains and thundering waterfalls.  On the way downhill, we paused for photos and to say hello to a procession of cycle tourists making their way laboriously uphill, heading south.  We rode a bit further along the river, paused for chocolate to restore Terri’s will to cycle, and then found perhaps the best single campsite of the entire cycling trip.  This one was another tip from the Basques:  right beside a roadside lookout point, a small path led down towards the banks of the Rio Cisnes where, behind some dense bushes, a small beach provided a perfect hidden spot, out of sight of passing cars.  
Terri showing off her feat of engineering
It did slope noticeably, but Terri engineered a solution using some driftwood to create a retaining wall and then building up a sand platform for the tent.  It worked like a charm, and it was an amazing place to spend the night, surrounded by rushing emerald waters on one side and a bird-rich bamboo thicket on the other.  Fish leapt from time to time in search of insects, while the sound of the water drowned out whatever traffic sound there was.  We cooked up our last pack of dehydrated roesti (hash brown potatoes), topped with onion and egg, and sipped our Gato Negro sitting on a piece of driftwood beside the river.  It was absolutely idyllic and reminded me of hiking in Sumatra, Indonesia many years ago.
Our wonderful campsite beside the Rio Cisnes 

Wednesday, December 30, 43.4 km:  Rio Cisnes to the Ventisquero Colgante junction

Morning beside the Rio Cisnes
For once it didn’t rain overnight, and we slept deeply on our perfectly level sleeping surface.  We woke up to a deafening dawn chorus of birds, including a call that we had heard many times but never associated with a visible bird.  When we heard the song right outside the tent, we opened the fly and were confronted with a chucao tapaculo hopping boldly around the tent, in and out of the dense underbrush.  It’s described in our bird book as “often heard but difficult to see”, but this guy was so unafraid of us that at one point he hopped right between Terri’s feet as she brushed her teeth.  We cooked up some oatmeal, spotted another new bird (the striped woodpecker) and headed up to the lookout by 9:10, ready for an earlier-than-usual departure.  

Water-sculpted rocks in the Rio Cisnes 
It was not to be.  I still had to fix Terri’s back brakes, and, armed with the wisdom of a few YouTube videos, I thought I was ready.  I wasn’t; I managed to remove the old brake shoes, but then managed to push the brake pistons right out of their housing, spilling lots of brake fluid in the process.  We put a bit of mineral oil that I had for the stove into the hydraulic system to replace the loss, but the brakes wouldn’t work at all; there were air bubbles in the brake lines that needed to be bled, and neither of us knew how to do it.  Passing tourists gave us advice, but nobody had any spare brake fluid.  We eventually pedalled off, spotting lots of chucaos and even a male Magellanic woodpecker in the dense forest along the road. A few kilometres down the road, just at the turnoff where the Carretera turns away from the pavement, we stopped at a road maintenance crew’s camp.  Reasoning that someone there would both know how hydraulic brake systems work and would have some hydraulic fluid, we asked for help.  Sure enough, the crew’s mechanic came out, took a bit of hydraulic fluid from his truck’s reservoir and methodically bled the bubbles out of the brake line.  By the time we pedalled off, Terri’s brakes were working better than they had ever done, and we even had a small supply of extra fluid just in case.  We thanked our do-it-yourself saviours profusely and rode off up the rutted gravel.

The road crew guys who expertly fixed Terri's brake system
We spent the next couple of hours climbing quite a long way uphill over the Cuesta Queulat.  This section of road will be the next part of the Carretera to be paved, and our friendly road crew were working on getting the road ready for asphalt by widening it and re-engineering the drainage and the road bed.  There were sections of soft gravel, or of steep bypasses around construction zones, but the climb itself wasn’t too bad, at about 500 metres of elevation gain.  We were heading towards a well-known national park, Queulat, known for its population of huemul deer, and the scenery was appropriately majestic, with dense temperate rainforest, thundering waterfalls, abundant birdlife and views of distant hanging glaciers.  
More jungle waterfalls, Parque Queulat
At the top there was a parking lot for a muddy hike to the foot of a glacier.  We elected not to walk, as the views and wildlife were plentiful from the road.  A couple in a rented car offered us leftover chicken sandwiches from their hotel packed lunch which we gobbled down gladly, and we talked to the passengers in a German overland truck (a ro-tel, or rolling hotel) for a while about their journey.

Eventually we set off downhill.  The road improvements stopped at the top, and the descent was on a steep, narrow track that switchbacked down a precipitous slope.   It was just as well that Terri’s brakes were back in working order, as we were riding the brakes all the way down.  Eventually we found ourselves at the bottom of a deep, forested valley and followed the Rio Queulat downhill to the ocean, where the Queulat fjord made for a dramatic backdrop to the road.  We looked for places to camp, but they were few and far between, with estancia fences and steep cliffs limiting our choices severely.  
Terri cycling through Parque Queulat
The road surface was particularly awful, far worse than the ripio we had ridden on further south, so it wasn’t much fun bumping along in search of a place to sleep.  

In the distance, a dramatic hanging glacier, the Ventisquero Colgante, loomed large above the road.  At a road junction where a side road heads toward the glacier, we spotted a small commercial campground and settled in for the night.  They were renovating an old campground, and that very day a backhoe had come in and uprooted vegetation, leaving the site looking a bit like the Somme in 1916:  fallen branches, muddy puddles and general destruction.  It was ironic that after a day of cycling through sublime beauty, we were camped in the ugliest spot we had seen all day.  Still, there were shelters against wind and rain for us to pitch our tent, and our showers were hot and welcome.  A meal of pasta, a beer and a failed attempt at a campfire and we settled down to a refreshing night’s sleep.
Hanging glacier above Parque Queulat
Ventisquero Colgante
Terri cycling along the Queulat Fjord
Thursday, December 31, 21.9 km:  Ventisquero Colgante junction to Puerto Puyuhuapi

We had a very, very relaxed day on the last day of 2015.  We rolled along the coastal road, looking across the fjord to the wild country beyond, past a couple of salmon farms for about 14 km to a destination that had been on our radar screens for a few days:  the Termas de Ventisquero, an upmarket hot spring complex on the shores of the fjord.  When we arrived, there were only 2 other guests, and, paying the excessive pricetag (18,000 pesos, or about US$ 25) we settled into the hot pools for a few hours of warmth and blissful relaxation, two things that had been missing from our lives for a while.  The views were pleasant, looking out towards the exclusive hot spring resort on the opposite shore and to the rainforests beyond.  The grounds were well maintained and full of birds including a kingfisher.  We wallowed in the hot water like a couple of dugongs for almost three hours before getting dressed reluctantly and cycling the 7 km into Puyuhuapi town.  On the way I had another flat tire, and sent Terri on ahead to scout around town.  Unlike my experience on the shore of Lago Carrera, this was a quick and painless repair job.  Once I got going, I ran into a British/Aussie couple on bikes who had cycled down from Alaska in 17 months, and spent some time swapping stories from the road and tips on where to camp. 

Brendan outside Hostal Evelin
In Puyuhuapi, a small, neatly-tended town founded by Sudeten Germans in the late 1930s, I found Terri’s bike outside a grocery store.  She brought me beer and potato chips and pedalled off to run errands while I chatted with a young American, Brendan, who was cycling south.  Terri returned with the news that we were going to stay in town to celebrate New Year’s Eve and that she’d found a good place to stay, or at least the cheapest place in town, Hostal Evelin.  Brendan came with us, and at Evelin we ran into another guest, Joseph, a very interesting guy from Hong Kong who had worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo for years.  Terri and I did some laundry and then went out for a great fish dinner before returning to Evelin for a bottle of celebratory Chilean bubbly and a long chat with Joseph.  We were unable to keep our eyes open past 10 o’clock, so we missed the start of the new year; this is probably the sixth or seventh time in the past 15 years that I haven’t been up at midnight for the turn of the year.  The rest of the town was out partying, however, which made for a less-than-restful sleep.

Friday, January 1, 65.0 km:  Puerto Puyuhuapi to Puente Exequiel Gonzalez

Terri riding beside Lago Risopatron on New Year's Day
New Year’s Day found us pedalling north, full of bacon and eggs and toast, under blue skies and warm conditions, although persistent headwinds spoiled the perfection of the day.  We bumped uphill out of Puyuhuapi and then undulated along the shores of long, narrow Lago Risopatron.  The ripio was once again unspeakably bad, but at the end of the lake we picked up brand new asphalt that would last all the way to La Junta.  It was the warmest day of the entire trip so far, with temperatures in the upper 20s, and by the time we got to La Junta we had worked up quite a hunger.  We had a sumptuous lunchtime feast in La Junta’s pretty municipal park of bacon and cheese sandwiches, along with slices of avocado, and then more bread with peanut butter, all washed down by delicious Finisterra craft IPA beer. 

Scenery near La Junta--beautiful views, horrible road surface
We rode out of La Junta and back onto abysmal ripio, the worst we had yet seen, almost impossible to ride.  At least when we looked back we had the beautiful distinctive two-horned summit of snow-capped Volcan Melimoyu to take our mind off the horrorshow of the road.  There were several welcome stretches of asphalt, but they were all brief teasers.  It took us a good deal of searching to find a good campsite, and we rejected a roadside meadow that probably would have been ideal but which involved a long slog downhill to reach.  Eventually a bridge came to our rescue again, as we camped at the far end of a bridge (the grandly named Puente Senador Exequiel Gonzalez) over the Rio Palena, yet another rushing teal-coloured stream.  The family living nearby had no problem with us camping, and we went down for a dip in the river before cooking up a huge stew of lentils, pumpkin and potato.  I played guitar in the evening, getting a bit maudlin over the beauty of the day.

Saturday, January 2, 48.8 km:  Puente Exequiel Gonzalez to Villa Santa Lucia

We like seeing this sort of change in road conditions!
After a great first day of 2016, the following day was much more trying.  Terri awoke feeling unwell, and I awoke early, did some birdwatching and diary-writing and then retreated into the tent to escape rain.  It wasn’t until after 9 that we got up with the rain continuing, moved stuff under the shelter of the bridge and cooked up breakfast there.  A striped kingfisher hunting for prey beside the river was one of the few highlights of the morning.  Finally, having partially dried our wet tent and fly, we made a getaway at 11:45 with Terri still feeling awful.  We made agonizingly slow progress up the valley on ripio, but just as we were giving up hope of getting anywhere, right at the border between Region XI and Region X, asphalt appeared beneath our tires.  I felt like kissing the pavement pontifically from sheer gratitude.  

From then on we made better progress, although Terri still had no energy and ended up pushing her bike up a lot of the small, steep hills.  It continued to spit rain on us, and the landscape looked less majestic than it should have under leaden skies.  Cookies and leftover Christmas cake, then peanut butter on bread, were consumed beside the road in an effort to jumpstart Terri, and eventually she felt better and made further progress.  We rolled into the scruffy junction town of Villa Santa Lucia around 5 pm and, after lots of indecision about what to do and where to stay, ended up taking a well-equipped but expensive cabana behind a grocery store.  We shared the expense with a Belgian couple cycling the other direction, Jan and Vera, and had a wonderful evening cooking up chicken and potatoes, eating more leftover lentil stew and swapping stories from the road.  We realized, talking to them and to other cyclists along the road, that we were now within sight of the end of our Carretera Austral journey.

Sunday, January 3, 55.0 km:  Villa Santa Lucia to El Amarillo

It was a good night to be indoors, as a torrential downpour hammered down on our roof most of the night.  We had a good feed of oatmeal, eggs, cocoa and tea before setting off at 10:30 under bluebird skies.  We had one last big climb in front of us, gaining 400 metres over 8 km of bumpy ripio.  Terri had recovered from the previous day’s indisposition and rode strongly.  The rain had given way to blue skies and warmth, although we still had the wind in our faces.  We bumped steeply downhill into the valley of the Rio Yelcho Chico and the road surface improved markedly, allowing us to coast along downhill at a decent clip.  In the distance the waters of Lago Yelcho glittered invitingly.  As our road approached the end of the lake, a series of landslides had wiped out the track, leaving steep, muddy slogs to navigate on our bikes.  Then, suddenly, we crossed a striking bridge over the Rio Yelcho into Puerto Cardenas and the road turned to pristine asphalt.  As we had decided to take the ferry to Chiloe from Chaiten rather than continue up the last part of the Carretera, we had now officially finished the last stretch of ripio of the entire trip.  Given that each successive gravel section had been worse than the previous one, it had been an easy choice to take pavement and beaches on Chiloe over ripio and pristine rainforest along the Carretera.

Cycling into Parque Pumalin, near El Amarillo
There was no shop in Puerto Cardenas, so we were without bread for lunch.  We rode a few kilometres to a very pretty river and cooked up instant mashed potatoes which we consumed with sardines and cheese:  not haute cuisine, but plenty tasty under the circumstances.  We then ground our way along the almost-deserted road, battling headwinds the entire way, to the village of El Amarillo.  Terri rode harder and faster than she had for almost the entire trip, as her body finally seemed to be adapting to the rigours of the Carretera.  At El Amarillo, we realized that we were on the edge of Doug Tompkins’ Parque Pumalin, and turned off into the park to camp at Camping Carlos Cuevas.  
Terri dwarfed by gigantic gunnera leaves
The park, created from old estancias that Tompkins had bought up to conserve the forests from logging, was perfectly manicured.  The village was noticeably neater and more prosperous-looking than the towns we had been in recently, testimony to Tompkins’ determination to involve the local population in conservation and to improve their lives.  To the north the impressive bulk of Volcan Michimahuida caught the late-afternoon sun, while all around primary rainforest sounded with birdsong and the electric hum of cicadas.  We put up our tent and went for a walk through the forest, past immense leaves of gunnera, a plant whose leaves look like gigantic rhubarb.  It was absolutely idyllic.  We cooked up macaroni and cheese, drank some Gato Negro and chatted with a couple of Dutch students, one of whom was living in Santiago.

Monday, January 4, 28.4 km:  El Amarillo to Chaiten

On the beach at Chaiten
We awoke to rain on the tent the next morning, just as the dawn chorus of birdsong kicked off.  We rolled over and snoozed for an hour, hoping (in vain) that the rain would end.  Eventually we got up and cooked under the roof of the campground cooking shelter.  We had to put the tent away soaking wet.  We cycled through improving weather, aided by improbable tailwinds, for 27 quick kilometres to the coast at Chaiten.  Terri was full of energy and would surge ahead for brief sprints at 29 km/h before dropping back and letting me push ahead at a more sedate 24 km/h.  We were in town in not much over an hour, looking for a place to camp.  We stopped in at Las Nalcas campground where Melanie and Vincent had left the USB thumb drive that I had inadvertently left behind in Coyhaique.  They were only a day ahead of us, but we hadn’t crossed paths with them, or with Silke or Ralf, since Christmas.  Las Nalcas seemed crowded and overpriced, so we went around the corner and camped at Trekapangui.  We set up our tent to dry, then went out for a wonderful lunch of churrasco sandwiches.  We bought tickets for the next day’s ferry to Quellon, the port at the southern end of the island of Chiloe, then went for a walk along the long, broad beach of Chaiten, littered photogenically with driftwood and full of interesting birdlife.  That evening we cooked up a huge lentil stew and chatted with Camille, an older Swiss guy, and Emma and Dave, a couple of young Canadian treeplanters.

Tuesday, January 5:  19.9 km, Quellon to campsite on Rio San Antonio

Volcan Corcovado and the Yanteles range
Although we didn’t know it, we had experienced the last rain of our trip in Chile.  We awoke early to a tent soaked with dew (it had been a distinctly chilly night) and after a hurried breakfast we were in line for the ferry by 9:15.  We needn’t have hurried; the ferry was late arriving, and we were one of the last people onto the boat as they loaded the vehicles first.  We sailed out at 10:15 and had a great trip across the Gulf of Ancud to the island of Chiloe, the second-biggest island off the coast of South America (after Tierra del Fuego).  The sky was clear, the sun was hot and the views were epic.  Looking back towards shore, we could see Volcan Michimahuida towering over the coast, with the smaller Volcan Chaiten and the tiny Cerro Vilcun making up with ominous smoking menace what they lacked in size.  To the south Volcan Corcovado dominated the skyline, with the Yanteles range and our old friend Volcan Melimoyu standing out much further to the south.  
Cerro Vilcun gently smoking away in the morning sunlight
We sat on the top deck admiring the view and reflecting on the great adventure of the Carretera Austral.  We put into Quellon, a bustling medium-sized city, at 2:40 and went straight into a dockside restaurant for a seafood feast:  merluza (Patagonian toothfish, aka Chilean sea bass) for Terri and chupe de locos (a sort of bread pudding made with “Chilean abalone”, a shellfish found only on the west coast of South America) for me.  It was delicious, and marked our survival of the wilds of southern Chile and our arrival in the more densely settled parts of Chile.

We had heard that there was a possibility to see blue whales in the waters off Quellon, so we went off to the tourist information office to ask about it.  The office had moved and was hard to locate, and wasn’t really worth the effort as the staff had no real idea about anything on Chiloe.  We gave up on whale-watching, stopped in at a huge Unimarc supermarket, and finally got going at around 5:30.  We had a nasty climb out of town accompanied by lots of traffic, but once we were up on the inland plateau, traffic eased off and we rode along in the late afternoon light looking for a campsite.  We looked down a sideroad without any luck, but then the next sideroad, 20 km from town, provided access to a surprisingly idyllic campsite.  We had to wade across a stream twice, but it gave access to a big riverside meadow.  We put up the tent and watched birds flying and swimming by:  raucous groups of austral parakeets, yellow-billed pintails, cinclodes, duicons and elaenias.  Leftover lentil stew, served up with more tomatoes and potatoes, sent us to bed well-fed and content.

Wednesday, January 6, 76.1 km:  River campsite to Changuin

I didn’t sleep well:  we were dripped on by dew soaking through the fly.  It was clear that our fly was losing its waterproofness, so we decided to buy some waterproofing spray when next we were in a town.  We had a relaxed morning, cooking up scrambled eggs and toast before setting off at 10:30.  We actually had fairly strong tailwinds and quite flat topography for the first 20 km, before reality set in in the form of a series of short, sharp climbs and descents.  It was a scorching hot day, and we had our first run-in with the dreaded tabanos, the nasty orange horseflies that plague Chiloe in the summer.  They love the heat, and when our speed slowed down on uphills, they circled round us tirelessly, looking for a chance to land and bite.  After 30 km we stopped and had a snack break, scarfing down empanadas and an apple and quaffing a radler, the drink that powered our Danube bike trip back in June.  After 44 km we turned left onto the side road that led to the Pacific coast and Chiloe National Park, just in time for Terri who was wilting in the heat and pushing her bike uphill, and who was being driven to distraction by the horseflies.  We had a wonderful lunch beside the road not long after the turnoff:  hard-boiled eggs, avocado, tomato and cheese with bread.  As we got to Lake Huillicho, we ran into stiff headwinds that lasted most of the way to Changuin.  Terri found the relentless roller-coaster of a road too much to bear, and when we stopped beside the lake to take a break and look at birds, she was driven away by a swarm of horseflies and cycled off at supersonic speed.

We made our way out to the coast at Changuin, settled into an idyllic and almost deserted campground and had a meal of empanadas.  The view out over the lake was perfect:  reed-lined shores, lots of birds, a few passing kayakers and distant forested hills.  We tried to walk out to the ocean at sunset but got lost and strolled back home in the dark.

Thursday, January 7, no cycling:  In and around Changuin

Otter in the river at Changuin
Chiloe occupies a special place in the hearts of Chileans.  It was the southernmost part of the country that was settled under the Spanish, and developed a distinctive folklore, musical style and wooden church architecture (the churches are now recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites).  Most Chilotes live on the eastern side of the island or on small offshore islands in the archipelago, fishing in the protected waters of the Gulf of Ancud.  The west coast, exposed to the winds and swell of the open ocean, is much less settled and has remained largely undeveloped, and is now protected by the Chiloe National Park.  We had taken this sidetrip in order to do some hiking and exploring in the national park.  We got up early and wandered from our campground into town in search of food and (strangely) water; our campground had had a problem with its water pump the previous day and had no running water.  The owner was in the island’s main town, Castro, trying to get the pump fixed.  As we walked over a road bridge, we looked down and saw an otter contentedly diving to the bottom of the river to dig up mussels, and then returning to the surface to lie on his back, crack open the shells and eat them.  Terri had never seen an otter before and was captivated.

Terri on the beach at Changuin
After breakfast we spent much of the day walking around the national park.  There were several short trails near the park entrance, and the tepual trail, through remnants of the distinctive lowland marsh forest of Chiloe, was our favourite.  Layers of fallen tree trunks, vines and bamboo covered the ground and provided a rich habitat for birds and orchids.  We walked along another trail, had lunch, and then headed out to the beach.  
Me on the beach at Changuin
The views were great, the light glinting off the surf was dramatic, and it was wonderful to be in the ocean, but the tabanos were insufferable.  As soon as we got onto the hot sand, we were mobbed by dozens of hungry buzzing orange horseflies.  Only by wading out into the water could we escape.  Eventually, though, we realized that people who lay perfectly flat on the sand to sunbathe were the only people not swatting madly at the air.  It seems as though tabanos don’t like to attack too close to the ground, or under a roof.  We walked along the beach to the mouth of the river, where cormorants and gulls clustered to feed on fish which in turn were fed, ultimately, by minerals and micronutrients carried by the river water.  The flies eventually got to us and we retreated back to our campground for cold beers and lentil stew.  I spent time playing guitar, watching the light play across the lake and spotting birds in the water and in the bush; new birds included the diuca finch and the striped bittern.  We went to bed happy with our day off the bicycles.
Mist rising over the beach at Changuin

Friday, January 8, 80.6 km:  Changuin to campsite near Mocopulli

The wooden church at Nercon
Terri hadn’t enjoyed the ride to Changuin (despite the lack of traffic) and wasn’t keen to repeat it, so she decided to take a bus to the big city of Castro while I rode my bike there to meet her.  It was a great day for bike riding, with tailwinds blowing inland from the coast.  I averaged 20 km/h all the way back to the main road, and then slowed down noticeably once I turned north on the traffic-clogged main road and hit a series of hills.  It was scorching hot again, and I stopped for cold drinks, raisins and bananas near the town of Chonchi.  I rode through heat and traffic to see Nercon, one of the UNESCO wooden churches (somewhat underwhelming, although pretty enough) and then into downtown Castro, a scruffy and down-at-heel city, where I found the bus station and settled down to wait for Terri.  When she arrived, we stopped in at a shopping mall to buy some waterproofing spray for the tent fly, then had delicious churrasco sandwiches and stopped in to see the pretty wooden Castro cathedral before riding out of town.  It was a grim slog out of town in intense traffic, past endless stretches of industrial development.  We thought that we wouldn’t find a place to camp, but luck was on our side as we found a perfect spot just off a sideroad near the town of Mocopulli.  In a patch of forest, a field had been cleared for a soccer field and barbecue spot, but nobody was there, so we put up our tent, cooked up supper and slept soundly.

Saturday January 9, 62.4 km:  Campsite near Mocopulli to Ancud

Celebratory beer and mountainous curanto
Our final day of cycling in Chile was distinctly anticlimactic.  We got away by 9:20 (the earliest in a long, long time) and charged into Ancud aided by tailwinds and (mostly) flatter roads.  After 20 km we stopped for a snack to escape from the infuriating horseflies and had the best churrasco sandwiches of the trip in a little roadside diner.  After that we just rode to survive, buffeted by dozens of passing trucks and attacked by tabanos.  Terri pioneered a good form of defense, carrying a bundle of reeds in one hand to wave around her as a fly whisk on the uphills.  By 2:15, after a surprisingly quick ride, we were in the town of Ancud, headed down to the harbour for a celebratory end-of-cycling lunch.  Terri had a memorable salmon steak while I went for the Chilote specialty of curanto, a huge mass of fish, shellfish, chicken and pork that even I had difficulty in finishing.  We had a bottle of celebratory bubbles, then wobbled a long way back from the shore to the bus station to buy bus tickets to Santiago.  As it was the height of the summer tourist season, we couldn’t get tickets for the next day and had to settle for a ticket for the night of January 11th.  We looked around for a place to stay and ended up almost next to the bus station at the Hospedaje Austral, run by the irrepressible Mirta.  We had empanadas for supper and retired to bed early.

We had been riding our bikes since November 19th, so a total of 52 days, including days off the bike.  We had covered 1575 kilometres, including 1245 km since leaving El Chalten and 1180 km since riding out of Villa O’Higgins 26 days earlier.  We had ridden through a series of dramatic landscapes, past huge lakes and limpid blue-green rivers, under glaciers and past vast thundering waterfalls, along one of the great adventurous bike routes of the world.  It had been a great adventure, even if Terri found it a bit more challenging at times than she would have liked.  We had camped in beautiful wild camping spots all along the route, cooked up memorable meals and drunk toasts alongside rivers and beside lakes.  It had been a wonderful bike trip which had been on my mental radar for 15 years, and now it was over.  Now it was time to move onto the next phase of our South American adventure.

Sunday, January 10-Friday, January 15, no cycling:  Ancud, Punihuil and Santiago 

Happy to be done cycling, near Punihuil
Magellanic penguins
We spent the next day as we had spent the beginning of our South American/Antarctic trip:  watching penguins.  We booked a tour out to the penguin rookeries outside Ancud at the village of Punihuil and shared the ride out (about 25 km) with a couple of young Chilean women who were visiting from Valdivia for a long weekend in Chiloe.  The colony featured both Magellanic and Humboldt penguins; we had only seen the first species briefly on the ferry from Tierra del Fuego to the mainland, and never seen the second.  
Humboldt penguins
Punihuil is a big tourist spot, with lots of boats heading out to see the penguins, but it seems to be well regulated and well run, and the birds (not just penguins, but lots of cormorants and other seabirds) aren’t hassled and are left to their own devices for the most part.  We had a great boat trip, followed by a delectable seafood lunch, before heading back to Ancud.  It seemed a fitting close to our southern adventures.

Flightless steamer ducks, Punihuil

Terri, Paola and I and the wonderful apero prepared by Terri
We spent the next day loafing about in Ancud, waiting for our bus to Santiago, and then three days in Santiago visiting old friends of mine from my 6 months of working in Santiago in 1999.  It was great to see them all, and to see Santiago, which has grown hugely in area since I was there.  We spent two nights sleeping at my friend Paola’s place out in Chicureo, a sprawling California-type suburb of detached bungalows that could be anywhere in the rich world, and our last night sleeping at a dismal flophouse near Santiago’s main bus station so that we could catch an early bus the next morning.  The contrast between the two neighbourhoods was striking.  We spent a late afternoon and evening wandering downtown Santiago and Cerro Santa Lucia with my friend Natalie, admiring the rare clear-sky view of Santiago’s surrounding mountains, and had another evening out in the hip neighbourhood of Bellavista with my old tennis partner Nico.  And then it was time to get onto a series of buses to take us across northern Argentina to Asuncion, Paraguay and the next main instalment of our South American trip.  I was sad to be leaving Chile, but excited to be seeing new countries.
Natalie and Terri atop Cerro Santa Lucia

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Delightful Ramble Along the Southern Carretera Austral--December 2015

Leaving El Chalten after four days of sybaritic eating, drinking and hiking was difficult, and it was made more difficult by the wind.  We rolled out in the early afternoon of December 6th, with only 38 km separating us from Lago del Desierto, the site of the first ferry section of this backwoods backpacker border crossing.  How hard could it be to ride 38 mostly flat kilometres?  The answer was that when the Great Patagonian Wind Machine kicked into high gear with hammering katabatic winds dropping off the huge Campo de Hielo Sur and gusting down the valley into El Chalten, it was more or less impossible.  We made the first 7 kilometres with gritted teeth and hard work, but as soon as the valley opened up a bit and we lost the trees that had been lining the road, progress slowed to a crawl, and then stopped altogether.  I could just about make headway, pedalling hard in lowest gear and wrestling the handlebars forwards whenever the winds gusted from the side.  Terri could not, and spent long minutes standing with her head down, trying to keep the fully loaded bicycle from being picked up and thrown backwards with her on it.  The air was full of flying bits of gravel picked up from the road surface, and I felt like a Gothic cathedral being sandblasted clean.  We got to a tiny estancia, Bonanza, had a drink and sat in a shelter to escape the wind, then fought our way another 4 kilometres to a second estancia, Ricanor, where we pitched our tent in the shelter of a dense copse of trees, admired the views of the back side of Cerro Fitzroy (except the summit, shrouded in perpetual wind pennants of cloud), cooked up some dinner and slept soundly, worn out by a day of 18 kilometres.

The next morning we set out early, and with the wind disappearing as suddenly as it had sprung up, we made the remaining 19 km to Lago del Desierto campground without incident, arriving there by 10:30.  The gravel road was deserted and ran through pristine, dense forest cut by tumbling rivers.  Partway along the road we passed a memorial to a Chilean carabinero killed in a border clash with Chilean forces in1965.  Lago del Desierto was one of the last border disputes between the two countries to be settled, in the late 1990s, and some Chileans are still bitter about the loss. 

In the campground we met Silke, a solo German cycle tourer whom we had first encountered in El Relincho campground in El Chalten.  She was also waiting for the next day’s ferry, and after we had set up our tent, we chatted for a while about her 2-year cycling odyssey across North Africa, Europe, Asia and New Zealand.  
On the way up to Glaciar Huemul, above Lago del Desierto

Terri and I went off to hike up to the snout of a big glacier, Glaciar Huemul, a very pleasant 45-minute walk affording sweeping views of the valley we had just cycled, with the Fitzroy massif behind.  We came back in time to cook up another roesti and bacon feast for lunch, followed by patching a slow leak in Terri’s air mattress, writing, yoga, juggling and guitar, before it was time to have beer, sausages and roast lamb from the campground grill for an early supper.

The next morning we rolled out to the ferry landing in plenty of time.  In addition to Silke, Terri and me, Ralf (the cyclist we had met at Daniel’s road maintenance station at Tapi Aike) showed up early in the morning, followed by two Belgian hikers, Hans and Els, and, just before the boat sailed, two more French cyclists, Vincent and Melanie, very lightly loaded, appeared, pedalling furiously, having left El Chalten that morning.  And that was it; the entire ferry, with a capacity of 60 or more people, was given over to 6 cyclists and our bikes, along with 2 backpackers.  
Bicycles on the Lago del Desierto ferry

No wonder the ferry crossing is so expensive:  20 dollars for a 45-minute cruise.  It was a spectacular route, passing under tumbling glaciers, raging waterfalls, steep cliffs and dense forests, and although it’s not technically part of the Carretera Austral, I felt that as soon as we had left behind the pavement and the buses and traffic that lead to El Chalten, we had started the isolated road-to-nowhere feeling of the Carretera Austral.

By 11 am we were getting off the boat at the tiny Argentine carabinero station at the lakeshore and having our passports stamped.  From there the crux of the crossing began, a 6-kilometre hiking trail along which we had to push and carry our bikes uphill to the actual border.  
Ralf muscling his bike up the track

It took nearly three hours of unremitting toil, partly because it was quite steep and partly because the trail has been cut so deeply into the soil of the forest that it’s like a trench, almost a metre deep, making it very hard to figure out how to place your feet in order to push effectively on the bike.  I took off my front panniers and put them on the back, while I wore the big backpack that usually lies across the back panniers.  It made the bike very back-heavy, but it allowed me to avoid being too wide for the narrow trench.  Terri had been the most apprehensive of all the cyclists about making it up the hill, and yet, perhaps because of sheer determination, and perhaps because of her newly lightened panniers, she absolutely flew up the hill.  The rest of us struggled to a greater or lesser degree.  Silke and Ralf, like me, had heavily-laden bikes that needed a lot of muscle power to move, while Melanie and Vincent found it hard to get enough purchase on their fairly low bikes that barely protruded from the top of the trench.  
Vincent pushing uphill along the trench
Eventually the trail flattened a bit, giving lovely views back over Lago del Desierto, and then traversed a forest which gave sections that were almost rideable, interrupted by cold, muddy river crossings.  
Terri and I relieved to make it to the Chilean border

It was an enormous relief finally to reach the ruins of the old Argentine border post where Ralf, Vincent and Melanie decided to camp after 6 very hard-earned kilometres.  Meanwhile Terri, Silke and I set off downhill on the rough but rideable jeep track leading 15 km down to the estancia of Candelario Mancilla on the shores of Lago O’Higgins.

The ride was spectacular, through dense forest, down a rough airstrip, across huge landslides, up and down a roller coaster of gravelly hills, and finally steeply downhill to the lake.  The views over the greenish waters of Lago O’Higgins and the steep mountain cliffs behind, all in a golden late-afternoon light, were magnificent and made us forget our tired shoulder muscles.  
On the way downhill to Candelario

We rode down to the Chilean carabinero post, just before the estancia, ate our remaining fresh fruit in an orange-gnawing frenzy, then checked ourselves back into Chile.  Ironically, this must be the one border crossing into Chile at which the border authorities are sublimely unconcerned about bringing in fresh fruit and vegetables.  We rolled along the last kilometre to the campground at Candelario, a desolate little plain with little in the way of shade or wind shelter, put up our tents, cooked up dinner and fell asleep, excited about the next ferry crossing to Villa O’Higgins the next morning, and the cruise to the mighty Glaciar O’Higgins along the way.

Have you ever seen the play Waiting for Godot?  The next four days were a bit like living through that play:  a couple of tramps waiting for Mr. Godot to show up, which he never does, although they are always hopeful that he will show up tomorrow.  We packed up our tents and rolled down to the dock the next morning at 10 am, ready to load our bikes onto the boat that would show up at 11.  At about 10:15 a man who was fiddling with the engine on a small Zodiac wandered over and mentioned that there was no boat that day.  When we replied that we had tickets for that day’s boat, he said that the port outside Villa O’Higgins was closed because of high winds, but that probably the boat would come the next day.  When Silke rolled down with her bike, we shared the sad news.  After sitting in the pleasant (and largely wind-free) sunshine on the dock for a while, we pushed back up the steep hill to the campsite, put up our tents again and settled down to wait. 

Over the course of the day, more would-be travellers came down the hill:  Ralf, Vincent and Melanie, and a number of backpackers who had crossed Lago del Desierto the previous afternoon.  Many of them hadn’t brought any food, and now they were all stranded without supplies.  Terri and I had bigger problems.  The wind had indeed kicked up in sudden, unexpected gusts of tremendous fury that roared down the slopes behind Candelario like avalanches of air.  The biggest gust of all, erupting out of nowhere, almost flattened Silke’s tent with her inside it, and it was only saved by her reaching up to push the tentpoles back up off the ground.  Terri and I were outside, and when we had finished watching Silke’s successful struggle, we turned around to our own tent to find it destroyed, a pole broken and scattered and the fly shredded by the jagged edge of the pole.  We quickly knocked down the remains of the tent and surveyed the damage.  It took a while to find the missing bits of pole that had flown away when the elastic holding the pole sections together had broken.  With the aid of a short length of repair tubing from Silke and lots of duct tape from Ralf, we were able to reassemble the tent pole (although it was definitely bent out of shape) and patch the huge tear in the fly.  Amazingly, this cobbled-together tent has now been working well for over a month.  Spooked by the experience, we didn’t dare put our tent up again to be torn apart a second time and slept outdoors under the stars, being buffeted by the wind and occasional spits of passing rain.  It was not a restful night.

Not the worst place to be trapped for four days

The next three nights, with the wind still raging, we paid to sleep indoors in one of the guest rooms of the Estancia.  The wind slowly died away, although even on the third day there were still great roars as huge tsunamis of wind descended on us from above and then tore spray from the lake surface.  It started to rain fairly regularly, though, so it was good to have a solid roof over our heads at night.  Terri came into her own in terms of survival, as she bought big chunks of beef from the farmers along with onions, potatoes and carrots and made roast beef over an open fire one afternoon, then created sumptuous stews the next two days.  We ate better than anyone in Candelario for those four days. 

The Copa Candelario soccer match

One afternoon we went over to the border station to play soccer with the carabineros and the geographers who were busy surveying the bottom of Lago O’Higgins (the fifth-deepest lake in theworld, at 836 metres, and the deepest in South America).  It wasn’t a highly skilled game, but we had a lot of fun and burned off some of the frustration of being stuck waiting for a boat.  We were imprisoned, but it was a pretty enough spot to be imprisoned, with the jade-coloured lake waters, the mountain cliffs and the morning snow on the peaks combining for some vivid colours.  If we had known for sure that, for instance, the ship would come in two days’ time, we could have gone for a couple of days of walking around the shores of the lake, but instead an umbilical cord of uncertainty kept us confined to the immediate surroundings of the dock.

At least it was an eclectic and interesting group of interesting travellers to be trapped with.  In addition to the cyclists, with whom we spent a lot of time, Hans and Els proved to be very interesting, with a taste for off-the-beaten-track exploration and trekking.  There were a couple of exchange students, Alex and Katarina, studying in Santiago who had good stories of living in Chile these days.  A trio of Australian science students who had been at El Relincho in El Chalten with us made for good conversation as well.  An older Swiss man on a bicycle, Jorg (aka Jorge), had spent his career running cement factories all over Africa and South America and was a fount of great stories.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday came and went, each day like an iteration of Groundhog Day, but finally on Sunday, December 13th we got word that the ferry had set sail from Villa O’Higgins that morning.  It was an anxious wait, particularly as the vessel was half an hour late and wasn’t visible until quite close to the original sailing time.  As the ship landed, a stream of backpackers and cyclists poured ashore, keen to start hiking and cycling, including a French family on interesting tandems, with the back half conventional and the front half (where the children sat) being recumbent.  Those of us who had paid extra for the glacier tour went aboard and settled in for a few hours of scenic wonder, aided by a perfect, cloudless day.  Silke and Ralf, who had not intended originally to go to the glacier, signed up at the last minute in order to get something memorable out of the long wait. 
Glaciar O'Higgins
The glacier tour was well worth it.  We steamed west along the main body of the lake before turning south and heading towards the distant snout of Glaciar O’Higgins.  We started passing large icebergs almost immediately and had huge glaciated peaks to the west to feast our eyes on for quite a while.  Long before we reached the glacial face (almost 15 km, according to the captain of the ship), we could see the unmistakeable signs of recent glacial retreat (the glacier extended this far as recently as 1938), with bare, scraped soil separated from the lush surrounding vegetation by a sharp line.  This glacier is retreating enormously rapidly, apparently because it is coming from a lower section of the Campo de Hielo Sur that is seeing decreased snowfall.  Perito Moreno, in contrast, flows from a higher altitude and is showing no signs of retreat at all.  We cruised to within a few hundred metres of the imposing ice face (some 60 or 70 metres above the water) and watched and listened as occasionally bits flew off under pressure into the water.  The ice was a tortured, twisted shape that looked like a sculpture created by a sculptor on psychedelic drugs.  A zodiac was despatched to collect a chunk of floating ice, and in a few minutes we were all served generous glasses of whisky on the glacial rocks.
Whisky on the glacial rocks

We returned to Candelario, picked up the remaining passengers and set off from Villa O’Higgins, relieved to be making forward progress at last.  It was an uneventful crossing with more spectacular views of waterfalls and cliffs, and by 9 pm we were ashore at the ferry port 6 kilometres south of town.  We put together our bikes and set off, with Vincent and Melanie setting the pace, Terri and Silke following closely and Ralf and I bringing up the rear.  Ralf turned off to camp beside the lake before town, and the other three settled in at El Mosco, the best-known backpacker joint in town, but by the time Terri and I got there after raiding the local grocery store, they were full and we went across the road to Los Nires, another campground which proved to be an inspired choice.  We paid for camping but as we were the only guests, the owner told us we could sleep in the dining room to keep warm (it was a very chilly night).  Shortly thereafter another set of cyclists, Mikael and Pauline, arrived on very neat bamboo-frame bicycles, and bedded down on the other side of the dining room.  We stoked up the fire in the wood stove and Terri kept it burning all night, keeping us toasty warm.

The next morning the Bamboos set off north, but we were seized by an attack of the lazies.  We wanted to use the internet, but could not connect, except at the public library on one of their four computers (wifi did not seem to work anywhere).  We also wanted to eat, so we bought two kilos of beef from the campground owners to grill and to stew up, and I baked a cake in the well-equipped campground kitchen.  We had the place to ourselves that night, and cooked up a huge feast before retiring to our sleeping bags near the fireplace.
What ten dollars worth of beef looks like in Villa O'Higgins

Finally, around 11 am on December 15th, after another grocery store run and more library internet, we rolled off onto the Carretera Austral, with at least a kilo of cooked steak in my panniers to have on sandwiches for lunch or to spice up our suppers over the next few days.  Somehow it had taken an entire month to get from Ushuaia to Villa O’Higgins, far longer than anticipated, but we were underway at long last along what most cycle tourers rate as one of the best adventure cycling trips in the world.  That first day was cold and intermittently cloudy, and it started to rain not far out of town.  The road was in reasonable condition for a dirt road, perhaps because there is almost zero traffic on it.  All that day we were passed by fewer than twenty vehicles; this section of the Carretera Austral makes almost no economic sense, and is more a reflection of Chile’s determination to impose its sovereignty on a remote area than on the need for the road.  The scenery was wild, with lush forests, rushing rivers and a handful of economically marginal estancias lining the road.  Chilean flickers, a type of woodpecker, were everywhere, pecking away at dead standing trees.  We meandered up the lovely Mayer river, then crossed a bridge and circled a small lake (where it started to rain). 

We stopped in after 30 km at a government-built refugio beside the road, next to a tiny estancia, to dry off and eat some of our leftover stew.  Two of the estancia workers, Maria and Jorge, stopped by to ask if we wanted to buy some fresh hot milk, and we said yes.  They returned with a litre of piping hot milk and a basket of firewood.  Maria lit a fire in about 30 seconds with a single match and no kindling, and within a few minutes we had a roaring flame going that dried out our soggy clothing while we drank hot chocolate and ate stew and chatted with Jorge and Maria.  Jorge was from Villa O’Higgins and was an itinerant farmhand, working at a new farm almost every year.  He was full of stories and information, including a (true) story of a puma attack on a cyclist the summer before about 30 kilometres down the road and a (not so true) rumour that the American eco-millionaire Doug Tompkins (who had just died in a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera a few days before) was responsible as he had been breeding hybrids between mountain lions and African lions and releasing them into the wild in secret.  Tompkins is a figure of wild rumour in Chile, hated by nationalists and the political right and loved by environmentalists, all stemming from his purchase of huge areas of southern Chile to make the privately-owned Parque Pumalin and Parque Patagonia and save these areas from logging. 

After lunch, we set off again into the intermittent cold rain and did another 20 kilometres up the Rio Vargas and around Lago Vargas to the point where the Carretera Austral starts its first climb.  Vincent had told us about another free government-built refugio for cyclists, the Refugio Arroyo La Luna, hidden just off the road; a bicycle tire wrapped around a pile of rocks was the sign, and we turned off gratefully to find a twin of the place we had had lunch, a sturdily-built structure with a good roof and benches along the side for sleeping or sitting, along with a fireplace.  
Refugio Arroyo La Luna

After 53 kilometres, we were glad to find a roof over our heads.  The doors and walls were covered with the graffiti of years of cycle tourists who had stayed here, including the French family on the recumbent tandems that we had seen disembarking in Candelario a few days previously.  We added our own names and also availed ourselves of the spare gear left behind by swapping my battered and bent water bottle holder for a shiny new one left on the wall.  There was no readily available dry firewood in the sodden swamp, despite some in-depth searching on my part, and we lacked the fire-starting skill of Maria, so that our attempt at a fire didn’t last long enough to dry our clothes very effectively.  We cooked up supper, glad to be in out of the rain, and I played some guitar as dusk fell.

The rain stopped as we were heading to bed, but resumed with a vengeance around sunrise, and we stayed in bed for a while hoping that it would die down.  We got up around 8, had a hearty breakfast of oatmeal and cocoa and set off by 10 o’clock.  We climbed up over our first pass, then afterwards over two ridges to avoid gorges on the Rio Bravo.  As Terri was apprehensive of cougar attacks, I had to bring up the rear.  It started to rain partway up the pass and the rain strengthened into a torrential, frigid downpour that made cycling a misery, especially as our fingers went numb in the 4-degree air and even colder rain.  We finally made it over the last ridge and the rain stopped, allowing us to have a picnic lunch of hard boiled egg and cheese sandwiches beside the Rio Bravo.  Refreshed and no longer cold and miserable, we rolled easily along a fairly flat track to the ferry port at Puerto Rio Bravo, 47 km from where we had slept and 100 km from Villa O’Higgins, where we discovered that we had three and a half hours to wait until the next ferry.  We waited, reading, drying wet clothes and looking out at the pretty fjord that we were about to cross.  As 7:00 approached, a few vehicles gathered and Terri had me ask a truck if they would have room for her the next day to take her over the steep pass out of the ferry port on the other side, but they were only crossing to pick up a load and then catching the morning ferry back.  Once the (free) ferry was underway, we got into a conversation with the neatly-dressed group at the next table who turned out to be Jehovah’s Witnesses who were keen to convert Terri.  One of them was assigned to save her soul, but Terri handled the young man’s spiel with diplomatic tact and managed to say no without offending him.
At the other end, the few cars disappeared and we settled down to sleep at the ferry terminal.  It seems to be expected behaviour for cyclists, and the man who operates the overpriced little café made sure that we got enough water to cook as there was no water in the terminal building itself.  We made the acquaintance of the captain of the ferry who took Terri’s wet clothes to dry on his cabin heater.  We cooked up supper and then turned in on our air mattresses and under our sleeping bags on the waiting room floor for a good night’s sleep.
Morning view in Caleta Yungay
We awoke to brilliant sunshine and calm water that made for great views over the fjord.  We got some water from the captain on board the ferry and cooked up breakfast and evacuated the waiting room before the first cars of the day arrived.  
Breakfast outside the ferry waiting room, Caleta Yungay
With no trucks likely to head towards Cochrane for several hours, Terri decided to try to cycle over the pass rather than waiting for the uncertain prospect of a lift.  The climb, almost 500 metres, was steep but straightforward, through very pretty woods with wonderful waterfalls visible beside the road and across the valley.  
At the top of the hill out of Caleta Yungay

The road had some remarkably steep bits that had Terri off her bike and pushing, and which had accounted for a truck that had gone off the road going downhill the previous day; a group of men were gathered trying to dig out the truck and rescue the front end loader that had been its cargo and was now mired in a swamp.  The descent down the other side was spectacular, through a series of narrow gorges providing glimpses of the mighty Rio Baker at the bottom.  Just as we reached the bottom, 20 km from the ferry, a bus from Villa O’Higgins drove by and we saw Hans and Els waving happily from the back seat.  A few minutes later we came across the bus stopped to pick up passengers at the Tortel junction and we had a brief chat with our Belgian Candelario survivors before a toot on the bus horn sent them running for their ride.
Terri riding along the Carretera
We rolled easily up the broad Rio Baker valley for 8 more kilometres and had lunch (the last of our steaks on bread; the cold weather at least had the virtue of preserving food well) in an idyllic meadow beside the green waters of the river, the most voluminous river in all of Chile.  Afterwards we raced along nearly perfect dirt roads for another 15 km, averaging 20 km/h, until we hit road maintenance work which turned our lovely firm dirt into a mire of soft, wet, fresh gravel into which our tires sank.  We pushed, we rode at walking pace, we were passed by gauchos on horseback, and finally the road work was finished and we were back on our old dirt, to our great relief.  We climbed slowly and steadily up a side valley, then rolled down the other side looking for a good camping spot.  Terri rejected the first proposed spot, and it was a good thing she did, as about 10 km further along (63 km from the ferry terminal), we found a perfect wild campsite not far from the road, nestled amongst shrubs above a tributary of the Baker with expansive views of the snow-capped mountains surrounding us.  We had a dip in the river to clean up a bit, and then cooked dinner while admiring the views, coloured vivid shades by the setting sun.  I had time to stretch my sore back, play some guitar and do some juggling until the gathering dark drove me into the tent for another good night’s sleep.
On the way downhill towards Cochrane from our camping spot
We awoke to brilliant sunshine and more great views, and after a leisurely breakfast, we were on the road by 10:15.  We lumbered down the valley to its junction with a larger river, then putzed along through pretty scenery marked by reed beds before leaving the main valley for a climb up another tributary.  I gave Terri a head start and did some stretching before setting off in pursuit.  There were some seriously steep sections, but I only caught Terri just before the top.  We descended onto a lake-filled plateau and made slow progress along a road that wove up and down into a headwind.  At 3:00 we finally stopped for lunch after our final climb, and we had a relatively easy downhill all the way into the neat and tidy town of Cochrane after a ride of 61 km.  In San Carlos campground we saw Silke’s tent, and in the main Plaza de Armas in the centre of town we met Vincent and Melanie.  We treated ourselves to a dinner out, then retreated to the campground where we met a young British cyclist, Ben, who was trying to repair a broken luggage rack.  We slept poorly, kept awake by crowing roosters and the loud fights of the bands of feral dogs that infest most Chilean and Argentine towns.

For the first time since El Calafate, we finally had reasonable internet connectivity in the campground, and we lingered the next morning, having a long breakfast, going out to buy food supplies for the road, and doing laundry.  It was almost 2 o’clock by the time we cycled out of town, climbing steeply and then crossing back into the main Rio Baker valley which we had left behind three days earlier.  
Back to the Rio Baker north of Cochrane

The valley was dramatic, with steep gorges and frothing rapids that make the Baker one of the prime kayaking rivers in Chile.  The intense green-blue colour of the water was so vivid that it didn’t look real; it was like cycling through a Van Gogh painting.  We ground uphill and flew downhill repeatedly until it was time to stop for the evening, only 34 km from Cochrane.  Terri spotted a great wild campsite overlooking the Baker, and we settled in, cooking up steaks while gazing down at some of the biggest rapids on the entire river.  It was a far better place to sleep than in the campground in Cochrane, and I was pleased at the quality of the camping spot we had found.
Steak dinner overlooking the Rio Baker
The following day, December 20th, was the first day of summer in the southern hemisphere, but it didn’t feel very summery.  Neither was it a lucky day for cycling.  We got out of the tent around 7:30, having been awoken in the night by rain.  We had a great breakfast of oatmeal seasoned with cinnamon, raisins, walnuts and candied orange peel, once again with a prime view of the churning green rapids of the Rio Baker.  We were just packing up when another rain shower started, and we ended up having to pack up a very wet tent and fly in a hurry.  We continued upstream on the Rio Baker, and on the first big uphill of the day, I was waiting for Terri at the top when suddenly the familiar figures of Melanie and Vincent appeared behind her.  We spent the day leapfrogging each other along the road.  The scenery continued to be excellent, with more rapids and lovely shades of water, first green and then, upstream of a big river confluence, a profound teal that looked very unreal.  The Rio Baker was dotted with upmarket fly fishing lodges and a couple of rafting and kayaking outfits, along with a handful of summer houses, but there were still wild stretches along which it would be possible to camp.  We spent a lot of time taking pictures of the artificial-looking water colour before finally rolling (under a fine mist of persistent drizzle) into Puerto Bertrand where the Rio Baker starts flowing out of Lago Bertrand.  
Azure water in the Rio Baker near Puerto Bertrand
It’s a tiny little tourist town, and we had difficulty finding a grocery store that was open.  We bought supplies and ran into Vincent and Melanie again.  Terri took advantage of a land line at the store to call a bus company and reserve a ticket for two days later from Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Coyhaique, having decided that we would not make it to Coyhaique in time for Christmas unless she did that and left me to cycle a few longer days on my own.

After a steep climb out of town, we cruised along a flattish section before I suddenly became aware that I had a flat back tire.  I replaced the inner tube with the spare tube that I was carrying while Terri made us sandwiches.  I have always had issues with putting the tire on my back rim, as it’s a downhill mountain biking rim designed for tubeless tires and it’s a very tight fit getting the tire’s bead back onto the rim.  I wrestled for a while and then finally got the tire back on.  We continued for a while to the junction where the road to Chile Chico branches off along the south shore of Lago Carrera, took a few photos of the unreal blue of Lago Carrera and then headed north along the main Carretera Austral.  The riding was fine, but soon enough I realized that the back tire was flat again, perhaps due to damage inflicted by me while wrestling with the tire.  I sent Terri ahead to scout out a camping spot and then began working on the tire.  This time, with my spare tube already in use and already punctured, I had two tubes with holes in them and needed to patch them.  I pulled out my patches and glue and got to work.  I quickly realized, however, that my patches were very, very old.  Looking at them, I thought they might date back to my final Silk Road stage in 2009, or even back to 2004.  Using Schwalbe Marathon tires, I rarely get flat tires, and so these patches had been sitting in my toolkit for many years.  I discovered that very old patches don’t stick so well to inner tubes.  I worked away diligently, finding holes, scraping the rubber around them to make the glue stick better, putting on the patch, holding it in place for 10 minutes, but every time I then put the repaired tube back into the tire, the patch popped off.  After 2 hours I was out of patches and still had a flat tire.  There was only one thing to do.  I put my luggage back on my bike (except for my backpack, which I wore) and started pushing the bike along the rough road on the flat back tire. 

It wasn’t great for my back tire and rim, but there wasn’t much else to do.  I pushed for almost an hour and a half as the clock ticked towards 9 pm when finally I spotted Terri in the distance.  She and Vincent and Melanie had run into each other again at an apparently abandoned farmer’s shed where Vincent and Melanie (who had passed us just before my first flat tire) had been cooking supper.  A man who herded sheep in the area had just evicted them, not because they were trespassing but because he was worried about them catching hanta virus (the subject of a big education campaign in southern Chile at the moment) from the mice that live in the old barn.  
Our shelter under the verandah roof
He offered us shelter on the porch of a house for sale just down the road and we accepted the offer, putting up our tents under the porch roof.  It was a little cramped for space, but given the rainy weather, we were very glad for any solid roof over our heads.  Vincent and Melanie provided me with patches and Vincent also showed me an easy trick to put on the tire by pushing the bead into the indentation in the centre of the rim (where the spokes are anchored; this reduces the effective diameter of the wheel and gives just enough slack in the bead to allow the tire to be pushed over the rim just using one’s thumbs.   We slept well, and were glad for the roof as a truly titanic thunderstorm erupted in the night, hammering down on the porch roof but leaving our tents dry.  It had been a hard-won 47 kilometres of cycling that day!

Bird-rich delta of the Rio El Leon in Lago Carrera
The next day, Dec, 21st, was a truly spectacular day.  Vincent and Melanie got away first, although they left behind their chain lube and a roll of duct tape that I packed up to give them when next we met.  After the torrential rain of the night, the day was clear and sunny, and the sun lit up the wonderful teal of Lago Carrera.  The road led first into a stiff breeze, but then after we turned a corner on the lake and started heading due east, we were sheltered from the wind.  As we climbed a bit away from the lake, we looked back to where a larger river, the Rio El Leon, flowed into the lake from the west and formed a delta.  Unlike most of the lake, this section was alive with birds of all kinds, presumably feeding on fish and crustaceans nourished by the mineral-rich glacial waters of the river.  From a distance, we could see geese, herons, ducks, ibises and others thickly spread across the grass of the marshy lakeshore.
On the way into Puerto Rio Tranquilo
From this point on, the views got more and more spectacular.  The road climbed steadily above the lake, lined by colourful wildflowers.  The yellows and pinks of the flowers contrasted vividly with the greenish blue of the lake, the grey cliffs of the opposite shore and the white of the snows and glaciers of the distant higher peaks.  I kept stopping for photos, but eventually we turned the corner and pedalled north along the lakeshore into a raking cold headwind that led us downhill into Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a surprisingly large tourist town 38 km from where we had slept.  The first order of business was to have a large lunch, but beforehand we arranged with Vincent and Melanie who, unsurprisingly, were also in town, to go to see the Marble Caves by boat with them at 3:00.  As we waited a very hungry half hour for our churrasco sandwiches, with Terri about ready to tear the waiter to shreds and eat him for lunch instead, Silke walked into the restaurant and we had a bit of a reunion.  She had been to see the caves that morning and highly recommended them.
On the way to the Marble Caves
I had heard next to nothing about the Marble Caves before arriving in town, but they really are a wonder of the world.  Our boatman headed off from town at a good clip into a fairly rough lake; luckily the waves were from astern, but even so we were glad to get around a headland and into dead calm water near the caves.  The coastline was composed of low cliffs of grey marble, and the water had eroded and dissolved the unusually soft marble in the same way that happens with ordinary limestone caves.  Our boatman claimed that this is the only place in the world that marble caves can be observed, and I’ve certainly never seen them before, but it seems hard to believe that nowhere else can they be found.  Whatever the case, all four of us were open-mouthed with admiration at the colours and shapes to be seen.  
Marble Caves near Rio Tranquilo
We motored right inside a few of the larger caves, and admired others from close range.  The shapes of the walls and the colour variations of the marble made them look almost man-made, like Gaudi’s architecture but much more beautiful.  I took a ridiculous number of photos, mesmerized by the shimmering reflected light that played across the walls. 

The boat ride back was exciting, to say the least, as we were now heading directly into quite sizeable waves churned up by the stiff wind.  
Marble Caves
Our helmsman was an old hand at managing the lake, but the sheer mechanical pounding that our backs received as the boat slammed down into the troughs was enough to compact our spines a few centimetres, and we were relieved to stagger back onto shore. Beside the road, we saw yet another billboard opposing projects to dam many of Patagonia's iconic wild rivers (such as the Baker).  Opposition to the HidroAysen project has been fierce and sustained and seems to have won the argument (in 2014 the five-dam project was cancelled) but environmentalists are worried that it will rise from the dead once again. Terri and I decided to stay indoors that night and after looking at a few overpriced cabanas we found a friendly little hospedaje where we were able to cook up a big bean stew and sleep in a big double bed for the first time in a long time.
Anti-dam billboard, Rio Tranquilo

The next morning Terri caught a bus to Coyhaique with her bike.  She had ridden hard and done well on challenging roads for seven days, and had ridden particularly hard on the way into Puerto Rio Tranquilo.  However, with three days until Christmas and 220 km separating us from Coyhaique, and with her strong desire to celebrate Christmas indoors in the city, she decided to spare herself a punishing three days and get to town early, leaving me to enjoy three longer and more challenging days on my own.  I waved goodbye to her at the bus stop and headed off up the lake.  As was the case the day before, bracing headwinds raced down the lake from the north and it was a slow start to the ride.  By the time I got to the north end of the lake, it was starting to spit rain, and it kept up for most of the day.  It was a cold, miserable, chilling rain that left my fingertips numb despite my gloves.  Head down, riding uphill on a rough stretch of road, I missed a well-known stopoff for cyclists, a house with a welcome sign in Hebrew where a couple of very religious Chileans invite in passing tourists, feed them excellent home-made pizza and then harangue them about religion for a couple of hours.  I kept riding, trying to stay warm by constant movement.  There were lots of ups and downs, and by 6 pm I was looking for a place to camp, but was foiled by estancia fences.  Finally I found a spot just off the road but hidden by a hill to put up the tent.  It had finished raining by now, and I had a pleasant evening cooking, eating, playing guitar and reading.  I had covered almost exactly 80 km, the largest daily total so far on a day spent riding entirely on dirt.
Snow on my bike in the morning
That night I slept well, but was awakened early by the sound of rain falling on the tent.  I opened my eyes and was surprised that the raindrops seemed to be sticking to the tent.  It was, in fact, snowing.  I rolled over and went back to sleep, disheartened by summer snow.  I got up again at 8:30 when the dripping of melting snow off the overhanging trees began to work its way through the tent fly.  I got up, cooked oatmeal for breakfast and then lingered, reading and playing guitar, waiting for the fly to dry and for the air to warm up.  As I loitered, first Silke and then Vincent and Melanie rolled by; they had stopped for pizza and come-to-Jesus (and various jokes in very poor taste about Nazis that had offended Silke) the day before and so had ended up behind me, camped in an abandoned hut ten kilometres up the road.  I eventually followed in their tire tracks and had another long day, riding down to a wide valley and then up a tributary.  Lots of roadwork slowed progress (the asphalt section of the Carretera is being extended south), as did some heavy headwinds.  On the bright side, though, the skies slowly cleared and I rode into Villa Cerro Castillo at 3 pm to find a school bus turned into a restaurant.  I ate a huge churrasco sandwich and talked first with Silke, then with Vincent and Melanie, and then with a Basque couple cycling in the other direction who had some good tips for camping spots along the road.  I also chatted briefly with three American reporters who had spent five long years trying to arrange an interview with Douglas Tompkins, finally gotten a date with the elusive tycoon and then had him drown in Lago Carrera only two weeks before they arrived.  They were hopeful of interviewing his widow Kris McDivitt Tompkininstead.

I left town at 4:30 with the biggest climb of the entire Carretera Austral ahead, a 900-metre vertical climb over the Portezuelo Ibanez pass (1120 m above sea level).  
Highest climb of the Carretera Austral, just north of Cerro Castillo
There were wonderful views of the beautiful Cerro Castillo and also of the neighbouring Cerro Las Cuatro Cumbres.  The climb turned out to be remarkably easy since the road surface was now perfectly smooth asphalt and I was pushed along by a blistering tailwind, and I made very good time over the top, reaching the top after only 2 hours.  The scenery at the top was open and windswept in the Natural Reserve of Cerro Castillo, and I continued downhill in search of better, more sheltered camping.  Vincent and Melanie caught up to me where the road turned uphill again up a tributary stream, and we rode together for several kilometres, searching for a decent place to camp.  
Scenery atop the Portezuelo Ibanez
We had been told by the Basques that there was a shelter in the national park, but as the kilometres passed by without sight of any shelter, we eventually lost faith and decided to camp beside the road, 78 km from where I had camped the previous night, in a tiny patch of bush in a canyon swept by the strongest winds I had seen since Candelario Mancilla.  It was an uncomfortable night as I was afraid to put up the tent as there was a real risk of it getting shredded again.  I slept out under the stars, occasionally woken by tiny spits of rain, and was glad to get going the next morning.

December 24th was the toughest day of cycling of the entire trip for me.  Vincent and Melanie got away before me but stopped to cook breakfast at the lake atop the pass, where the shelter and campground that the Basques had told us about was, only 2 km past our windy bivouac.  If only we had toughed it out for 2 more kilometres!  As soon as I came over the pass, the wind switched from a howling tailwind to a screaming headwind and stayed that way all the way into Coyhaique.  Any pleasure I might have had from the downhill was destroyed by the sensation of having a wild animal tearing at my face and at my bicycle, slowing progress to a crawl.  Even the fact that I was on new asphalt didn’t make the riding any easier.  Just before the Carretera joined the road to Balmaceda airport, Melanie and Vincent caught up to me and we took turns in front breaking the wind while the other two drafted behind.  It was painfully slow progress, only 11 or 12 km/h downhill on pavement, despite working at maximum power.  Eventually Melanie had had enough and she and Vincent stopped to eat and shelter from the wind, while I pushed on alone, determined to make it to Coyhaique as soon as possible and escape the wind.  There was quite a lot of traffic; this valley, stretching to the Argentine border, is where almost everyone who lives in Region XI (Aysen) lives, and the population density was surprisingly high.  There were almost no forest cover, and big estancias stretched to the distant mountains.  I kept my head down, my teeth gritted and my determination alive.  Slowly the kilometres added up, and by the time I got to the sprawling suburbs of the big city, the road finally had some shelter from the wind as it sank deeper into a canyon.  Just as I came into town, I had the worst dog encounter of the entire trip.  As I passed a small property, two dogs raced out onto the road and gave chase, teeth bared and making serious attempts to bite me.  I stopped and confronted them, which usually makes dogs back off, but this just spurred them on to further attempts to bite me.  I kept the front of the bike between them and me, and looked around in vain for some rocks to throw at them.  They continued to circle and dart at me, and eventually I put the bike down and ran at them, screaming obscenities and kicking at them.  I finally found a piece of spare lumber lying beside the road and started swinging it at them, trying to hit them in the head.  Eventually, after a couple of minutes of close combat, the dog’s owner showed up and asked what the problem was.  I told him to control his unspeakable dogs and waited until he had them by the collar before I cycled off, letting him know what I thought of his dogs and his control over them.

When I got to town, I checked my phone and found no messages from Terri.  It turned out she had sent messages on Viber, WhatsApp, Facebook, Gmail and SMS, and I received precisely none of them.  We had bought Claro SIM cards in Punta Arenas, and had had no network the entire time since, except for a single day in Cochrane.  I would have to rate Claro as the least useful mobile phone network in southern Chile; Movistar and Telefonica seemed to work much better for other travellers.  I called Terri and got through, receiving directions to the wonderful hospedaje that she had found run by a hospitable, funny city councillor named Nina.  I got there around 3 o’clock, had a shower and settled in for a few days of eating and relaxing.  Terri had been busy in my absence, getting a snazzy haircut, buying lots of food to cook and getting in touch with all the travellers who had shared our trip from Chalten.  It turned out that Ralf had just left town, but had stopped in that morning for coffee.  The Bamboos (Mika and Pauline) and Ben (the English guy with the broken luggage rack—he had taken a lift in a pickup truck to Coyhaique—were in town but staying in a distant campground.  A couple of hours after I arrived Vincent and Melanie showed up, shattered and glad to be out of the wind.  And even later the doorbell rang and Silke showed up; she had left Cerro Castillo before us, but had run into some German backpackers partway up the climb and had stayed the night in a campground with them, leaving her a big 100 km day to survive to get to Coyhaique.  It was surprisingly emotional seeing everyone safe and sound under the same roof, and we had a delicious Christmas Eve stew that Terri had cooked up on the wood stove ahead of time.  

Nina, our gracious and welcoming host in Coyhaique
We ended up staying two full days in Coyhaique, leaving on the 27th, and we cooked up big festive Christmas meals both on Christmas Day and on Boxing Day.  On Boxing Day, walking out of our hospedaje, we ran into another couple of familiar faces.  Hans and Els had just gotten off a bus and were looking for a place to stay.  We directed them to Nina’s and that evening we had an almost complete reunion of the Lago del Desierto boat crew, with only Ralf missing.  It was a festive meal that evening, full of stories and reminscences, and for all of us, on the road without family and long-term friends during Christmas, it gave us a much-needed feeling of companionship.
Our Boxing Day dinner crew
The ride from Villa O’Higgins to Coyhaique was 564 km, and took us 10 days.  It was an absolutely wonderful bike ride in terms of adventure, views, camping and freedom.  The road surface was surprisingly good most of the way, with a few intervals of horrible loose gravel, and the traffic was almost non-existent south of Cochrane and pretty light up until 40 km before Coyhaique (where we joined the Balmaceda Airport-Coyhaique road).  The views of glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, fjords, forests, mountain peaks and spectacular rivers were pretty hard to beat, and (for me) were the highlight of the ride.  Some of our campsites were outstanding, and (despite the prevalence of barbed wire estancia fences) wild campsites were relatively easy to find.  Despite episodes of heavy rain, cold and wind, this part of the Carretera more than lived up to expectations. 

The next blog post will cover the northern half of the Carretera Austral, another wonderful 9 days of riding to Chaiten and 4 more mixed days across the island of Chiloe.  Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this tome!