After our three-day hiatus in Coyhaique we were well rested, had clean clothes again and were supplied with an abundance of food. It was another brilliant day. Brian had left the day before and we would try to catch up with him on the road. Climbing out of Coyhaique was a bit of a chore as the road runs up for nearly four kilometres to a bench on the north side of town.
The landscape around Coyhaique continued to be grass lands, similar to the country north of Lago General Carrera. But that changed as we descended the ridge and plunged into the narrow valley of Rio Simpson. The sun did not reach the road which meant it was quite cold. But we were on a downhill trend and we were able to stay warm by setting a fast tempo along this twisty track.
The landscape opened up once we reached the turn-off for Puerto Aysén, one of the coastal towns that used to be the only connections to the north before the Careterra Austral was built in the 1980s. We had cycled nearly 50 kilometres but it was only 4 p.m. so we carried on.
We turned north, staying on Ruta 7, the Careterra, following Rio Mañihuales. With the valley much wider here the views of the surrounding landscape opened up, revealing some of the Andean peaks in the national reserves Coyhaique and Trapanada.
After another couple of hours cycling and the sun getting low we scouted for a place to camp. We stopped at a large bridge crossing Rio Mañihuales where there was a large area that had obviously been used by other travellers. Fresh bike tracks on the sandy beach below the bridge probably belonged to Brian. We set up camp and made our dinner beside the river. We built a small fire to keep us warm. Fall weather is really setting in and the temperature drops dramatically once the sun is down. We are also noticing the days getting shorter.
In the morning, we were greeted by yet another glorious, sunny day. We have been so lucky. The Careterra is notoriously wet but until now we had barely had any rain. The only rainy day was when we cycled out of Puerto Yungai two weeks before but since then it has been sunny and warm, with the exception of the days we were in Coyhaique but since we were not cycling, it didn’t matter.
We were on the road by 10, which seems to be our earliest start time these days. We get up around 8 and it takes us a couple of hours to have breakfast and pack up camp. This seems to have become our rhythm. No need to rush things so we just go with the natural rhythm of the day: up at sunrise and to bed not long after sundown.
We arrived in Mañihuales just before noon. At the gas station we pumped up our tires and had a coffee. We also buy a few things at the little store and ask where the “Casa de Ciclista” might be. We get directions and find it easily and find Brian puttering away inside. Initially, we had thought of spending a night there but it was too early in the day to quit. We had just had three days off in Coyhaique so we told him we would keep going for another hour and stop for lunch. He said he would try to catch up with us on the road.
Just out of Mañihuales we met a guy walking south along the road. He was carrying a small makeshift backpack and looked like he had been travelling a while. Turns out he’s been walking for seven years and his name is Martin Hutchinson, from England. He began his walk in Mexico and was planning to go to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina. We chatted for a while about what he’s been doing all these years walking through Latin America. He said he was getting tired of it. No wonder. We wished him luck and went our separate ways.
We were now in Lago Las Torres National Park with its dramatic peaks rising all around us. The landscape just continued to be one jaw-dropping scene after another. Neither of us have been able to think about any other road we’ve travelled where the scenery has been so continuously gorgeous for such a long distance. The only one we can come up with is the Cassiar Highway in northwestern British Columbia which runs about 800 km north from Terrace to the Yukon border. Maybe we’ll have to cycle it some day to compare.
Brian never did catch up with us that day. We stopped at a camp site along the shore of Lago Las Torres but found the price a bit steep for what it had to offer, so, we carried on up the road to Villa Amengual. This sleepy little town did not have much to offer, either. The store was closed. The sun was an hour or so away from setting and there was no camping, although, a man told us we could camp in the church yard in the centre of town. But with no water and no baño that was not very appealing, especially given the dogs, chickens and kids running around town.
We got back on the bikes and rode on, stopping only to pick up water at a creek away from town so that at least we could camp at the next suitable spot. The climb out of Villa Amengual was a steep three kilometres with no places to camp anywhere. Once on top, we gazed down into the valley of Rio Cisnes with its large gravel bars offering plenty of camping. The ride down was very fast through several hairpins and we found a great riverside spot to camp just as the sun was setting.
We scrounged enough dry drift wood to have a small fire by which to cook and warm ourselves as the temperature plunged. It was a beautiful, still evening and before long the moonless night sky revealed the countless stars. The Milky Way has been so vivid in southern Chile. Every night when I have to get up to pee, I always stand there in awe looking up while doing my business before going back to the warmth of the sleeping bag.
We continued following Rio Cisnes to the end of asphalt where the Careterra turns back into its bumpy, gravelly self and turns north into Queulat National Park and the pass we had to climb: 500 metres of elevation gain over 8 km, or a grade of six per cent. After riding asphalt for over 200 km, the shock of the gravel was a bit hard to take, especially climbing a steep grade. The road was narrow. It was only about 4-5 metres wide and not many places where cars could pass each other easily. No problem for us, though, as there was very little traffic but it was a slow, hard climb.
We had lunch in the pass, soaking up the sun and enjoying the views. The downhill run was the craziest road I’ve ever ridden. The total descent was 600 metres over 9 km, but in the middle there is a section with 17 hairpin turns taking the road 300 metres down a knife-edge ridge over 4.5 km. Too bad it was gravel and not paved.
By the end of the day, we had covered nearly 80 km and arrived in Puyuhuapi, a small town situated at the north end of a fiord, settled in the 1930s by German immigrants. We ran into Johnathan, a French cyclist we had met on the road to Coyhaique, at Camping La Sirena, as well as Marjolein and David, she from the Netherlands and he from the United States. The campground was run by an older couple who were lovely people. The fired up the wood stove in the common area and we used it as a kitchen, all of us cooking our meals and sharing stories from the road.
We took a day off in Puyuhuapi and accepted Marjolein and David’s offer to drive us to a trailhead in Queulat National Park to go for a hike to see the the glacier. Jonathan also came along. The five of us had a nice relaxing day with a short hike to a viewpoint where we admired a large hanging glacier. We checked out the hot pool along the road back to town but they were asking almost $25 for a soak. We all agreed it was a bit too much to sit in a hot tub. Instead, we headed back to camp and relaxed, made dinner and sat around the wood stove.
Brian had come to Puyuhuapi but carried on up the road another 15 kilometres to El Pangue to meet Paula and Fabio, travellers we had met at Rio Tranquilo. We caught up with all three of them at El Pangue the next day.
They were staying another day but since we had just had a day off we carried on north to La Junta. After buying a few groceries and gasoline we decided to carry on out of town to find a place to camp in the bush. We found a lovely spot a few hundred metres down a side road about 12 km north of La Junta with an amazing view of Cerro Barres Arena.
From La Junta on, the Careterra was under construction for about 50 km. The conditions were awful for cycling. The road had been made much wider to accommodate two lanes of asphalt but the surface was covered with fist-sized rocks, making it very difficult to cycle. This along with the dust from passing traffic and construction trucks made for very unpleasant conditions all the way to Villa Santa Lucia. The final 10 or 15 km to Santa Lucia were paved but for some reason the pavement ended at the southern limit of the town, leaving a dusty, bumpy, pot-holed track going through this little town that is a crossroads for travellers heading to and from Futealufu and a border pass with Argentina.
We tried to rent a little cabaña in Santa Lucia but had no luck so we ended up camping in the sports field across the road from the town. The woman at the store where we bought some beer and groceries told us many people camped there and it was quite alright. Late that evening, an hour after sunset, another cyclist rolled in. It turned out we had met Hector a couple of weeks earlier a the Chacabuco road north of Cochrane where he was hitchhiking with his girlfriend, taking a break from his cycling trip that began in Mexico and has lasted more than two years. He was on his way back home to Antofagasta in northern Chile.
The three of us cycled over the pass just north of Santa Lucia. It was quite a day that began with an 8.5 km climb right from town but once over the pass we had essentially a 72-kilometre-long downhill run all the way to Chaitén with the final 48 km on beautiful, smooth pavement through Pumalin National Park, another of Kris and Doug Tompkins’ private parks in Chile. Hector decided to continue on a bit more so he would be able to cycle to catch the ferry the next day at Caleta Gonzalo. We stayed and rented a cabaña in Chaitén.
Chaitén was severely damaged in 2008 when Volcan Chaitén erupted. The eruptions continued into 2009. People have moved back to Chaitén and have begun to restore the town but the volcano, only 10 km from the town, can be seen smouldering on the horizon. There is still a lot of evidence from the eruption as many buildings were destroyed and more than a metre of ash was deposited on the town.
The following day we cycled north from Chaitén to Caleta Gonzalo where we camped in Pumalin Park’s Rio Gonzales campground. There were no other campers so we had the place to ourselves. In the morning we packed up and headed to the ferry dock and spent a couple of hours in the café indulging in tea and cake.
At 2 p.m., we took the 30-minute ferry across the inlet and cycled 10 km down the road to the next ferry which took us to Hornopirén. It was quite entertaining to see the large trucks loaded with cattle trying to back onto the ferry. There was not really enough space for these large trucks to turn around and it took a long time.
The ferry to Hornopirén took nearly four hours. By the time we arrived it was dark and we cycled into the town centre to look for a place to sleep. Again, we rented a cabaña and decided to stay the next day as the weather was absolutely atrocious.
The rain that the Careterra Austral is known for had finally appeared. It came down in buckets but we were holed up inside and stoked the fire keeping the cabaña nice and warm while we watched movies on the nice flat-screen television. There were a few English movie channels so we indulged in having a very lazy day. We bought some chicken and vegetables at the store and grilled the chicken over a wood fire outside in the carport with coals taken from the fireplace. It was quite a feast.
The following day, Paul’s 50th birthday, was the scheduled rendezvous with our friend Frank Seier in La Arena, 56 km and another ferry ride north of Hornopirén. The weather was pretty unstable with quite a bit of rain but the road was in reasonable condition and the final part to the ferry dock was paved.
We had trouble communicating with Frank about whether we would cross to La Arena or he would cross to our side at Puelche, but in the end we crossed and Frank had rented a little house for the three of us to spend the night. It was very basic accommodation but it was clean and dry and had a wood stove that heated the place very well. Unfortunately, there was no running water so we got water from the owner a couple of houses down. Because of this, we negotiated the price down to 10,000 pesos, or $20. We were just happy to be warm and dry. It had been a cold, wet day.
And so, we finished the Careterra Austral. It was an amazingly beautiful ride covering about 1,200 km which took us 28 days, including rest days. It was not an easy ride, but very rewarding in many ways. I’m amazed at the amount of abuse our bicycles took on that road and not once did we have any issues. Our bodies also took a fair bit of abuse but we managed to take lots of rest days to help recover from the hard days of riding. I imagine that the road will be mostly paved in a few more years making it much easier to travel but also busier. The beauty of this spectacular road was the lack of traffic. It helped that we were here in early fall as it already is a much busier road in the summer.
We will carry on north with Frank and cross the border back into Argentina. Stay tuned.