The bicycles have taken an incredible pounding. We had no idea they could take the kind of abuse they’ve received on the Carretera Austral. For long stretches, the road is absolute torture on the bicycles and our bodies. The washboard, the big stones, the dust. It’s not exactly a cyclist’s paradise. The upside is that the scenery is breathtaking and we get to enjoy it for many hours every day as we slowly navigate this rough, dusty track through southern Chile.
We enjoyed Chacabuco all by ourselves for a night and cycled back out the way we had come in. This time our view was to the west and the glacier-capped mountains of the Campo de Hielo Norte, the Northern Patagonia Ice Cap, and peaks like Cerro Largo, piercing the sky at nearly 3,000 metres.
Once back on the Carretera, we turned north, crossed Rio Chacabuco and climbed out of its valley on a 3-kilometre-long, steep (8 %) and winding road. Once out of the Chacabuco valley, we continued following the turquoise ribbon that is Rio Baker, all the way to Puerto Bertrand.
This tiny outpost on the shores of Lago Bertrand does not have much to offer in the way of services but there is a small store where we bought some vegetables, eggs and wine. We cycled a few kilometres out of town to a campground just after crossing Rio Catalan. Instead of going into the campground, we went through a field across the road and found a lovely spot to camp along the shore of Rio Catalan with a great view of Cerro Nyades (3,078 metres) and the peaks surrounding it.
The road out of Puerto Bertrand was quite good as they were working on it. The bits of road approaching and leaving towns tend to be in pretty good shape, especially if there is an incline. But generally, the condition of the ripio is rather poor. We slowly bounce along at about 10-12 km/hr trying to enjoy the scenery. The problem is, though, that you have to keep your eyes on the road almost all the time to avoid the big holes, the big rocks and the worst bits of washboard.
The downhill sections don’t offer much relief. We mostly ride the breaks because too much speed over the bumps can be disastrous. However, we can often find a few inches of relatively smooth gravel road that hasn’t been obliterated by speeding 4x4s and then we can achieve speeds of 20-30 km/hr on a descent. These moments are rare on the Carretera.
The sunset, and the next morning’s sunrise, along Rio Catalan were gorgeous. Wild camping is still the preferred option but every few days it’s nice to have a shower to wash the dust and diesel smoke off our bodies. We found just the place in Rio Tranquilo on the shores of Lago General Carrera where we were reunited with Brian Musallo who had skipped Valle de Chacabuco. We also met another couple on the road, Katja and Mark from Germany and England, and the five of us camped together at Hospedaje Bella Vista.
In the morning we took a boat tour on Lago General Carrera to visit the Marble Caves. These small caves along the lake shore are beautiful indeed. They are marble sculptures created by the ceaseless pounding of wind and water.
We spent two nights at Bella Vista and met another couple of travellers there. Together we went shopping for dinner. We had grilled pork chops and potatoes along with a salad of corn, beans, tomatoes and onion, all washed down with our favourite plonk: Clos Cabernet Sauvignon, sold in convenient tetra packs from .5 of a litre to 2 litres, in half-litre denominations. They pack well on the bicycle and they don’t break or leak.
From Rio Tranquilo, Brian, Jan and I headed north the following day on our way to Coyhaique, the largest town in this part of the world. The road out of Rio Tranquilo runs along Lago General Carrera for a long way, undulating along its shore, with great views of Chile’s largest lake, a huge turquoise gem straddling the border with Argentina where it is called Lago Buenos Aires. It is the second largest lake in South America next to Lake Titicaca on the Peru-Bolivia border.
At the north end of Lago General Carrera the Carretera Austral follows Rio Murta. We camped along its gravel shore below a hanging glacier right at the base of a pass where the road swings due east and climbs into another valley, eventually following Rio Ibañez to Villa Cerro Castillo. We made a small fire and cooked dinner while the sun set on our amazing world.
We climbed 9 kilometres to the pass the following morning on quite a good road surface. It made the climb much easier than if it had been on loose gravel, like so much of the road. As the kilometres ticked by, the road surface worsened but the views got better. Cerro Castillo came into view. It’s an impressive peak that dominates the landscape even though it’s relatively small at 2,318 metres. It is the centre piece of Cerro Castillo National Park.
The closer we got to Villa Cerro Castillo, the worse the road got. We really pushed to make it there as it meant the end of gravel. From then on we would have about 300 kilometres of pavement ahead of us. So we plodded on through the deep gravel and bounced along on the washboard until finally, after a long 70-kilometre day our tires touched asphalt for the first time in a long time.
We were exhausted. We bought some ice cream to celebrate, along with bananas, eggs, beer, wine, avocado and, amazingly, fresh lettuce and tomatoes. That night, we had a salad, followed by meat ravioli with a mushroom cream sauce, washed down with red wine. We collapsed in our tents for the usual 10 hours of sack time.
Brian took off to Coyhaique the next morning. He wanted to get there in one day but at 95 km distance, that was a tall order, especially given the mountain pass right out of town. We chose to stay and rest after two tough days on the gravel and go for a little hike to get better views of Cerro Castillo.
We had a lazy morning in the warm sunshine. We made pancakes for breakfast and enjoyed what was probably the warmest day we had enjoyed since being in South America. By noon Brian hit the road and we hit the trail. The heat made us a bit sluggish and after a couple of hours climbing into the mountains we had had enough and returned to town. We found some fresh meat at one of the small stores as well as some vegetables. That night we had a feast of grilled osso bucco with roasted veggies washed down, of course, with the vino tinto of choice.
After plodding along the gravel roads since leaving El Chalten nearly three weeks earlier, the smooth road leading north from Villa Cerro Castillo felt amazing. The fact that we had a 15-kilometre-long climb ahead of us didn’t matter. The lack of bumps, dust and abuse from the road was the only thing we could talk about.
After a few kilometres we stopped to pump up our tires. We had been riding on soft tires to make the gravel a bit more bearable and help absorb some of the bumps but on pavement they felt a little sluggish. As I pulled the pump off my rear tire’s valve, the valve separated from the rest of the tube and the air came rushing out. My second flat tire of the trip. It took about 15 minutes to change the tube and we were on our way again. I did not have any more spare tubes but we had been told Coyhaique has a good bike shop where we could buy another.
The road climbing up from Villa Cerro Castillo winds through a mountain pass at just over 1,100 metres above sea level, the highest pass we’ve crossed so far in South America. Fall is in full swing at the higher elevations and the reds and yellows stand out vividly against the different brown hues of the mountains. We met a couple of French cyclists with whom we had lunch just down from the pass.
The descent was fabulous. Not very steep but with enough gradient that the riding was easy. We coasted down through the mountains for about 15 kilometres before climbing 200 metres back up over seven kilometres. After that, we were suddenly out of the mountains and back in wide open rolling grassland. It was all downhill to the tiny town of El Blanco.
We had enjoyed mostly tail wind through the day but once we were out of the mountains, the wind came from the opposite direction. But even with a stiff head wind, we were able to cycle faster than on the gravel the previous days. During the final kilometres into El Blanco, the wind significantly increased and rain showers hit us intermittently.
There was no camp site in El Blanco and the prospect of spending a night in the tent getting pummelled by the wind and rain was not all that attractive. A small hotel run by a couple of small women (really small, about two feet shorter than Paul) provided a great alternative. We were the only guests. It wasn’t cheap but the price included dinner and breakfast and we had a nice room with a big bed and ensuite bathroom.
We had not slept inside since first arriving in Punta Arenas on February 11, so it was a real treat to have four walls and a roof while outside the wind and rain wreaked havoc. After dinner we crawled into the queen-size bed and watched a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad’s final season that we had copied from another traveller (thanks! Eleanor)
We coasted the final 35 kilometres into Coyhaique, a city of 50,000, by far the largest we’ve been in since Punta Arenas. It is the capital of Aysén Region. Sleeping indoors agreed with us and we are happily ensconced in a little apartment with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and fire place. All our dusty, dirty clothes are at the laundromat and we’ve been shopping for good food and we’re eating fresh fruits and vegetables. It has become cold so other than shopping and trying to find things, we’ve mostly been hybernating in our little cabaña eating the food we’ve bought. Life on the road has its rewards.