After six months back home in Seattle, I (once again) left the comforts of four secure walls, a hot shower and family and friends to re-visit Argentina and Chile on bike. This time I planned the trip with my awesome partner Mariano (Nano) who I met last year half-way through the ride.
Carretera Austral (Again?)
That’s right, this year we decided to “re-do” the Carretera Austral (CA or Route 7) that awesome 1,240km (770mi) partly paved/partly dirt road that runs through the heart of Chilean Patagonia. Last year we busted through it. The constant rain coupled with our limited time to get to our ultimate goal of Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, forced us to get an occasional ride and haul-ass the rest of the time. It definitely felt like we were just checking it off the list rather than really enjoying the spectacular natural beauty of the place – which (duh!) is the entire reason to be there in the first place!
From day one this was a completely different ride. We had a two-month time limit, but decided to enjoy the process rather than be ruled by a final concrete destination. We started our ride in San Martin de Los Andes, 1,566km (973mi) south-west of Buenos Aires along the Andes Mt. chain part of the seven lakes route – one of my favorite bike routes ever! From San Martin we rode south to Villa Angostura and then 15Km straight up Cardenal Samore pass into Chile. We cycled up the 1,314mts. (4,311ft.elevation) pass in the middle of a 90 degree day with gigantic horse-flies trying mercilessly to break our spirits for the entire three-hour climb. The pay-off was flying downhill into cool, damp, green Chile leaving the horse-flies in the dust for the time being.
Our route in Chile took us in front of Osorno Volcano and around Lake Llanquihue (second largest lake in Chile!) to Puerta Varas and then finally to Puerto Montt the official beginning of the Carretera Austral.
Last Year/This Year…
Route: This year we started in Puerto Montt. Last year we started in Villa Santa Lucia (entering Chile over the Futaleufu pass – try to say that 10 times fast!) missing the first 315km (196mi) of the route. As fate would have it, we were shocked to find out that only weeks before our trip began, there was a major landslide at Villa Santa Lucia that completely destroyed the town and cut off the road south and north of the CA. As a result, several things happened. First, everyone else seemed to have gotten the memo that the road was closed and decided to call off the trip (except for the relentless Chileans). There were noticeably less bikers this year. The other consequence of the closure was re-routing by boat. We took a gorgeous (free!) 7 hour boat ride through the fjord like inlets of southern Chile in order to connect back up with the CA 70km (43mi) south of Villa Santa Lucia at La Junta. As a bonus prize, we ended up cycling 73km (45mi) from the port of Raul Marin Balmaceda to La Junta on a magical dirt road through a rain forest where if you squinted your eyes just slightly you could see fairies, unicorns and star-dust just up ahead in the distance.
The other major route change from last year was crossing back into Argentina at Paso Roballos instead of ending in Villa O’Higgins. Spectacular! Best decision ever!! Paso Roballos is a gravel road running through the heart of Patagonia National Park. This is the famous swath of land bought up by North Face Founder, Doug Tompkins (more below in hiking).
Hiking: This year we tied our backpacks onto our bike racks and took advantage of some of the amazing hiking along the route. We backpacked three days in Villa Cerro Castillo. This area rivals the famous Torres del Paine and El Chalten but its free and relatively quiet in comparison. We were lucky to have three gorgeous days to do this. On the third day, the wind picked up and a storm came in so we changed course and headed down. We also hiked in Parque Pumalin and rode through Parque Nacional Patagonia. Both of these parks are due to more than two million acres of wilderness that Doug Tomkins (R.I.P) and his wife, Kris McDivitt Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, bought and then restored through huge conservation projects. The goal was then to create national parks with the Chilean government eventually taking charge. This changing of the guard is in process in Parque Pumalin and just happened in January in Patagonian National Park. My advice would be to see these pristine and well maintained parks fast before the Chilean government has time to screw things up. Funny how money for parks mysteriously turns up in other places like vacations, houses and cars!
Food: This year we made a few dietary changes in order to incorporate more protein into our diets and improve energy. First of all, we bought a small frying pan in Puerto Montt in order to have eggs for breakfast even when camping. Yes, Nano rode on “ripio” or washboard/gravel with a half-dozen eggs in his pannier nicely swathed in a T-shirt then strategically placed in his clothes bag. Not one ever broke! We also ate more beans and lentils when possible. We put the dried beans in a water bottle to soak all day when we knew we would be in a place at night where we could use the kitchen to cook. And perhaps the best score of all was (drum roll)… Peanut Butter! Yes, crappy, preservative filled peanut butter, but peanut butter nevertheless. This was a new discovery for Nano. In fact, he lived off the pb. He controlled the pb which gave me leverage to control the chocolate, no-one got hurt and everyone was happy!
Lodging: The other goal for this year was to spend less money on lodging. This is a little tricky when it’s raining all the time, but thankfully this year it only rained half of the time instead of all the time. Out of 54 nights 19 were “free,” 19 were paid lodging ($10-$20 a night) and 16 were paid camping ($5-$15 a night). Not bad but could be better. It all depends on the weather! Some of the places we stayed were a ferry station, abandoned house, abandoned police station (with howling wind and doors banging all night), warm-showers (couchsurfing for bikers), ranch, construction site, fire station, apartment, national parks, hostels and boarding houses. Every night is an unplanned adventure!
The Kindness of Strangers: Everyone we met was friendly, kind and accommodating. One day when a man who was fishing with his buddies saw us he walked into the nearby store and bought us a bag full of goodies for our ride. He told us that the attendant in the store also pitched in when she found out who he was buying the goodies for!
And finally, the last day of our trip was emblematic of the entire ride. We wanted to hitch back to Buenos Aires, but two bikes and two people getting a ride proved to be almost impossible. We actually got a ride 450km. to a small town in the middle of the Argentinean steppe called, Piedra de Aguila. This town was about five blocks long and two blocks wide. Over the duration of the day, standing on the side of the road during a hellacious wind storm, everyone in town passed us and gawked at least once. “Yay, we’re crazy,” I wanted to say but instead just looked pathetic. Thankfully, there was a bus station in town. About half-way through the day we bowed our heads and shuffled over. Yes, there was a bus leaving tomorrow at noon but wouldn’t allow our bikes. Nano worked his magic (as always) and finally the woman agreed that we could box them up and pay as oversized luggage. Fine, we had no other option, but now we were almost completely broke and had about 20 more hours in town before the bus left. We walked around the corner to the gas station to share a coffee (gas stations in Argentina have espresso machines and excellent coffee – when I see a YPF gas station, my eyes light up!). The attendant had seen us the day before and knew our story. We ordered one small espresso to share but when we went up to pay, he had made us two large expresso’s on the house! Our plan was to sit in the gas station until dark, go eat dinner somewhere, then sleep in the bus station so we wouldn’t have to pay for the nights accommodation. About 8pm we hauled our bikes and our sorry behinds down the block to find a cheap restaurant. As we were leaning the bikes against the wall, a woman walked by and said, “The restaurant across the street is cheaper and has bigger portions. Say no more, before you knew it, we were ordering one plate of chicken Milanese with mashed potatoes and a salad. The owner walked over to greet us and asked us where we were staying. When we said the bus station she said, “No, you will be my guests in my hotel tonight.” When we finished dinner, she gave us directions to the hotel and told us it was all arranged. The next morning we went to the bus station early to box up our bikes. We needed to find tape, scissors, and big boxes. Before we knew it, one shop owner brought us tape and scissors another found us big boxes and another invited us to breakfast. When the bus finally came, they helped us load up and handed us a bag of home-made bakery goods for the road. And so, on the road, when you least expect it, amazing things happen!
In total we rode 1,760km (1,072mi), met people from all over the world, enjoyed many days of sun, hiked, drank craft beer and never-ending supply of crappy coffee with powdered milk, got colds but never got hurt of robbed. I’d call that a huge success and loads of fun! Until the next adventure…adios amigos!!
Instagram: If you are interested in seeing photos of my trip, you can find me on instagram at deelafountaine.