We arrived in Villa O’Higgins after sunset following a three-hour boat ride. We set up camp at El Mosco Hostel and Camping, finding a good group of people there: cyclists, hikers, hitchhikers and bus-riders all heading either north or south as there is no where else to go from this small southern Chilean town.
In the morning, Brian was able to get the break in his bike welded by the local pastor. It was a crude job but it looked like it would be okay. He will try to get it done properly in Cochrane or Coyhayque, several hundred kilometres north. After the tough hiking with bikes from El Chaltén we needed another day off to recover and to shop for food for the next section as there are no stores for 220 km until Cochrane.
There was a very social atmosphere in the campsite’s dining room and we got together to make dinner. We formed the Bovine Dining Society and the hunt was on for some meat and all the trimmings. Antonio, the mastermind behind the plan, purchased a hindquarter of beef, potatoes and vegetables and everything to make a salad and the rest of us pitched in later in the day to prepare the meal. The camp hostess made soup from the bones and roasted the meat in one of the large ovens outside. It was a feast! Just what we needed before heading off on the next leg of our journey.
The three of us set out in the morning on to the Carretera Austral. This road was built under Pinochet in the 1980s in an attempt to unify the country and to end the isolation of southern communities like Villa O’Higgins.
The scenery heading north is beautiful. Glaciers spill off mountains all around, creeks and rivers provide an ample supply of fresh water to drink and the gravel road is narrow but not too bad for the first few hours. The wind, behind us for a while, ended up as a headwind on a very bad section of road that was under construction following landslides. The work must be continuous on this road.
After about six hours and 53 km, we arrived at Refugio de Ciclista, a well known spot for cyclists. It’s a hut just off the road where nearly every cyclist who ventures this way spends a night. There is a tiny sign taped to a stick by the side of the road with a hand-drawn picture of a bicycle and the word STOP.
Fifty metres off the road we find the hut complete with fire place and a couple of bunks, some candles left behind by another traveller, a small supply of fire wood and behind it a pond for water. There is even an outhouse. We made ourselves at home, found a bit more wood in the surrounding forest and made a cup of tea to warm up. We added our names to the many already written on the door and soon we were well ensconced in our little home. Brian made a fire while we began preparing dinner.
It was cramped quarters for the three of us but it was a warm, dry shelter. Jan and I squeezed into a bunk the size of about three-quarters the width of a double bed and Brian took the single bunk.
We rose early the next morning as we wanted to make sure we would catch the 1 p.m. ferry from Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungay. At 7, the sun was not yet up and it was cold; not easy to get out of the sleeping bag. A warm breakfast got us going, though, and by 8.30 we were on the road. Brian was a little slower than us waking up and needed a bit more time. We would wait for him down the road.
We began climbing almost immediately. The climb was a bit of a cruel one as we ascended just under 100 metres in the first two kilometres before descending 150 metres over the next three kilometres only to climb another 200 metres over the next three and a half kilometres before gaining Cerro Tres Puntas Pass.
We waited for Brian in the pass but there was no sign of him yet. We were getting cold and had to keep going to stay warm. It was a total of 47 km to Rio Bravo and we did not want to miss the afternoon ferry or else we would have to sit and wait for six hours for the 7 p.m. boat.
We made the ferry with about 20 minutes to spare and anxiously looked down the road for any sign of Brian. We told the ferryman he was coming but he said the boat would not wait. Brian suddenly appeared as the ferry was about to sail. He must have ridden like a madman to catch try and catch us. We were glad he made it. An hour later we arrived at Puerto Yungay and warmed up in the kiosk with a hot café con leche trying to decide whether to stay or go. We went.
Just as we started the climb out of town a lone cyclist rode in with a couple of dogs in tow. Her name is Stephanie from Quebec but she is known as Crazy Girl on a Bike (click to see her blog). We chatted for a while about the road ahead, said our goodbyes and headed off. One of the dogs trotted along with us out of town. She was lame as she was not putting any weight on her right front leg, probably the result of getting hit by a car. There are so many dogs in every town just roaming around and it seems many of them are not very well cared for.
As we slowly climbed out of Puerto Yungay the dog stayed with us. We were only going about 5-8 km/hr but as our speed increased on the downhill slopes she kept following us, catching up on the next uphill section.
The rain began as a light drizzle but steadily increased as the afternoon progressed. We had been told by other cyclists that there was some good wild camping by the lakes in the pass but we were hoping to find something that would provide cover: an empty shack or house or perhaps an estancia or hospedaje. No luck. But then, just before the final climb to the pass, we crossed Puente El Camino and there was ample flat ground beside it and a dry place under it. It was home for the night.
We took shelter under the bridge, got the stove going for a hot drink and put on more warm clothes. The dog, soaking wet, was still with us. We erected the tents adjacent to the bridge and made dinner while the rain fell steadily. But it mattered not as we were dry and out of the wind and somewhat warm. We did not linger after dinner but fled for the warmth of the sleeping bag. The dog spent the night out in the rain. Hopefully she was smart enough to stay under the bridge.
The rain stopped early in the morning and the sun rose into a crisp blue sky. The dog was curled up by the entrance to the tent, still wet. We had a slow start to the day as we dried our wet stuff in the warmth of the rising sun. Lots of time to photograph pretty pictures.
By 10:45, Jan and I got on the road while Brian stayed a bit longer to dry out. We were going to Caleta Tortel at the mouth of Rio Baker while Brian had planned to continue to Cochrane, hoping to have his bicycle reinforced with a proper repair.
There was only 1.5 km left to climb to the pass and then a 9 km steep downhill run to the junction where we turned west to Caleta Tortel. The dog, dried out in the sun, followed along. We figured we would lose her on the long downhill run but no such luck. She made it with us all the way to Tortel. I still can’t believe a three-legged dog was able to keep up with us for 45 km. I suppose it was a testament to her determination, strength and stamina, or lack thereof on our part.
It was sunny and warm, the complete opposite of the previous day and we were very happy despite the deplorable condition of the road to Tortel along the final kilometres of Rio Baker.
Tortel is a curious little town that is built on stilts and the steep rocks on a protected bay near the mouth of Rio Baker. Many miles of stairs and boardwalks form the ‘roads’ in the town and as a result the only way to get around is on foot. We cycled straight to the airport where we had been told was a free camp site. After having made camp we set off on foot on the long boardwalk and stairs climbing the hill to town.
We wandered around looking for a store and any restaurant where we might treat ourselves to dinner. We found the stores and managed to buy some fruit and a few other necessities but had no luck with finding a restaurant that was open. I guess things were shut down as the end of the season was upon us.
Somewhat disappointed, we bought some beer, filled up our water containers and walked away from the sleeping dog that had been following us for two days. She must have been completely exhausted not to notice us leaving. We headed back to camp where the promise of sitting in the sun for a couple of hours made a nice alternative to the restaurant idea. We cooked our own food and had a lovely evening.
Just after sunset, a couple of other cyclists appeared: Nick and Devon were on their way south. They had run into Brian on the road earlier in the day. We chatted by the fire for a couple of hours, swapping road stories and information.
The next day we cycled the tortuous 22-kilometre Tortel road back to the Carretera Austral to continue our northward journey to Cochrane, the next town of any size with services, hoping to catch up to Brian. The dog had not reappeared, as we thought it might. Probably best she stayed in Tortel. There’s no knowing how far she would have followed us. Perhaps somebody there will take her in.
The scenery made the bad road bearable but after 50-60 kilometres our bodies beg to be taken off the bikes. The constant bouncing over the washboard and the jarring take their toll, especially in the hands, neck and shoulders. We found a lovely place to camp in the woods near a creek about 100 metres off the road. Sore and tired we were happy to finally sit on some flat ground. We made a small fire and cooked our dinner as darkness fell. It was perfectly still. A beautiful end to a hard day.
We had another 65 or so kilometres to go to Cochrane and were not sure if we could make that in one day but we set off with that goal in mind. Again, a gorgeous, warm, sunny day and scenery that just wouldn’t quit made the bad road bearable.
After 20 km we took a break at the bridge crossing Rio Barrancoso before tackling the six-kilometre-long climb up to the pass, 350 metres higher. It was a hot, dusty climb that took us an hour to complete.
The scenery and climate on the other side is noticeably different on the north side of the pass. We were out of the rain forest and into a much drier climate with large pine trees and much fewer streams coming from the mountains. The view to the west was magnificent with the large glaciated peaks of Cerro Bonete, Cerro Serrucho and Cerro El Riñon as we bounced along to Cochrane. After 10 hours, we dragged our sore, dusty bodies into town where Brian greeted us at the town square. We found a store to buy some beer and a camp site to make our home for the next two nights. We were in desperate need of a day off.