Monday, 26 May 2014

The Carretera Austral



I was excited to cross back into Chile despite having already spent plenty of time in the country further north. For the next week or so I was going to be cycling part of the "Carretera Austral" which is probably the most famous bicycle route on the continent stretching for more than a thousand kilometres from Puerto Montt to Villa O`Higgins at it`s most southerly point. It was built during the time of the Pinochet regime to link some of the isolated rural communities in the south of the country and passes some spectacular landscape. I was only cycling part of the Carretera Austral as there is a ferry near the end that only runs up to the end of March.


I crossed into Chile just after dark but I still had a bit to go to my first town. Although it was after nightfall with a cloudless sky and a full moon I could still clearly make out the beautiful mountainous landscape around me. There was almost complete silence with no wind and no traffic so the mostly downhill ride from the border crossing to the first town of Futalefu felt like something from a surreal dream. After being asked to call back twice at the local fire station, finally said they wouldn´t be able to put me up due to lack of space. But the initially surprised local priest that I asked saved the day and let me stay in an unoccupied house beside the church. The following morning after having used up most of the Chilean pesos I had left on the usual bread and banana staple I was slightly perturbed to find that my bank card did not work at the only atm in the town. I was also informed that this would be the last atm I would pass until I reached Coyhaique a bigger town a few hundred kilometres down the Carretera Austral. Thankfully I had stocked up well in the last supermarket before leaving Argentina.

Back into Chile heading from Futlafu to the Carretera Austral





As it was starting to get chillier in the evenings and this part of Chile is known for its rain fall I was trying to either find places to camp that had a bit of shelter or stay indoors. The following night when I was camping in a kind of a barn I managed to explode a bag of pasta sauce all over myself. This would all be great fun if I wasn´t camping out and supposedly trying to avoid rodents instead of attracting them. Just as well it somehow managed to explode mostly over my trousers, shoes and socks. I managed to do it a few times so the choice language I screamed on each occasion probably scared away any curious wildlife. .






Elaborate map of the Carretera Austral painted
onto a wooden bus shelter

I finally hit the Carretera Austral proper the following day and was not initially bowled over by the landscape.

It seemed to get gradually more impressive the further south I got. I bumped into Jos, an Australian touring cyclist heading north who I had been tipped off about by Stefano the motor biker I met back in Bariloche. We exchanged notes on the route ahead but didn´t hang around for too long as it was chilly and starting to drizzle. He warned me about an abandoned house infested with mice to avoid and also had had a bit of a nightmare camping in a snowstorm further south by the massive Lago Buenos Aires. Jos mouse storey played on my mind a bit and so for the next few nights I made sure that my stove was well washed and packed away as well as all my food. I didn´t want another pasta sauce incident attracting animals. Despite preparing for the potential of getting rained on every day on the Carratera Austral I was lucky to get some dry days despite some suspiciously dark low lying clouds at times. I think prolonged downpour is the thing I dread the most on this trip which I have been lucky enough to avoid for the most part. So far..




A few days into the Carratera Austral I made it to Queulat National Park. It was after dark when I passed the main entrance and Jos had said there was nobody around so a good place to camp for the night was in the information centre. As per his instructions I stealthily made my way through the park and past all the empty camp spots to the info centre at the end of the main path. My other touring pals Simon and Olivia had also mentioned this natinonal park but had warned me that it was around the equivalent of USD 14 when they passed in March. Being on a long journey and a tight budget where I spend the majority of nights camping out in my tent I usually avoid official campsites where you have to pay. I will pay for a bed and a shower from time to time if needs be but why pay in a campsite if I can usually pedal a few kilometres down the road and camp in the bushes! Being keen to avoid any park rangers I kept the lights low that night. I was up early the following morning as I had erected my tent on the main table in the centre. Coming into winter and being quite far south it wasn`t bright until around 9 am. I was keen to check out the hanging glacier that the park was famous for before I hit the road. I put my bike around the back of the info centre and went for a stroll. There were two paths and after coming back from the short 300 metre path with nobody around I got greedy and decided to do the bigger hike up closer to the glacier that took two and a half hours to do. Of course I bumped into two park rangers half way into the second hike. They told me I could pay on my way out of the park. Ah great. Later on after collecting my bike and on my way out of the park I stopped at the ranger station at the front gate. I was honest, I was only after crossing into Chile a few days previous and my bank card at Futalefu didn´t work. I wouldn´t have any cash until I got to Coyhaique. He seemed to be more of a decent lad then the other guy I had met earlier and said that was fine. Gracias! The ranger also advised that I had a climb ahead but the paved road started after about 30 km.



Well worth the two hour hike to check out "Ventisquero Colgante"  the
hanging glacier
 I arrived at the top of the summit of all of 500 metres (which had still managed to take me ages... a far cry from the Peruvian climbs) just as it was getting dark. Terrible timing because not only was it chillier higher up but what I could make out of the landscape appeared to be stunning. I kept pushing on in the dark not having a clue as to where I was going to stay that night as the next town was still another 30 or so kilometres away. At the bottom of the descent on the far side and about a kilometre along the paved stretch I passed some pre-fab buildings and the first sign of lights on. Knock, knock. Who´s there? Can you not tell from the smell.... it´s a touring cyclist! It was a base for the guys working at paving the road. Thankfully they welcomed me in, fed me a stack of rice, bread and tuna. I even got a bunk bed for the night.


This guy was walking the length of Chile and left Punta Arenas about two months previous.
He expected it to take him a year.. I`ve heard that one before
Don´t forget the rules of following your dream, always wear
a high-viz vest
A quiet Casa de Ciclista in Villa Manihuales
By the following evening I had made it to the small town of Villa Manihuales. This is a well know pit stop for the many cyclists that do the Carretera Austral every year. The lovely Jorge who runs the Casa informed me that I was possibly going to be the last cyclist to pass through this institution because in June he was moving to Puerto Aisen which is nearby but not on the main Carretera Austral. Despite spending a lot of this trip on my own I thankfully very rarely feel lonely but it was slightly weird being in the Casa on my own having heard from Jorge that the record number of cyclists staying in the place in one night was 18! That and reading all the messages in the guest book of tourers I knew who had passed earlier. Seems like March was the time to be there.





The following day there were two route options for the days ride to Coyhaique, a 90 km mainly on a hilly dirt road or the 10 km longer paved road that would involve heavier traffic with not much of a shoulder nearer Coyhaique. I opted for the dirt road. By 9 pm that night, exhausted and having been cycling in the dark for the previous few hours I was starting to think I should have gone for the more straight forward paved route. Thankfully Marcello, my couchsurfing host in Coyhaique didn´t seem to mind my late arrival and even gave me a nice meal. That evening I had a great chat with Marcello and a some of his friends over a few glasses of wine.


After leaving Coyhaique a few days later I was planning on turning off the Carretera Austral and heading for a ferry across Lago Buenos Aires to Chile Chico which is a small town on the border. Before I got to the boat I had the biggest climb of my stint on the Carretera Austral at over a thousand metres. I found it easier than my days ride into Coyhaique as it was all paved. It was probably the coldest I had been on the trip so far when I was up at the summit just as it was getting dark. There was plenty of snow on either side of the road but the road itself was clear. I descended on the far side until the snow disappeared happy that I had made most of distance as the only boat crossing the next day was at midday.






I caught the ferry without any hassle and had a beautiful sunny day for the two hour crossing. I hadn´t arrived long in Chile Chico when I met up with Angela who was my couchsurfing host. I had a very relaxing day off hanging out with Angela and her flatmate Maria. They taught me how to make a delicious vegeterian Charquicán which is a local Mapuche speciality. The following morning I headed for the nearby border back into Argentina.
Couch Surfing!

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