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South from Santiago

Zack heads south on a 2,500km circular tour to Patagonia from Santiago, Chile...

When I set off for 2 months solo on the road in Chile and Argentina, I didn’t know what to expect; what to pack; if the bike I finished building the night before flying would survive; who I would meet; what route I would take and where it would take me; I didn’t know I’d have to cycle away quickly from a smoking volcano. I certainly didn’t know that I would ride 2,500km and ascend 22 vertical kilometres (‘approximately’ 2.486 Mount Everests). All I knew was that I wanted to explore through new parts of the world at a pace where I could take it all in…

It’s below zero outside the tent.

I’ve worn 3 pairs of socks for just as many days and am sleeping fully clothed again.

I couldn’t have picked a more uneven place to pitch the tent, and the wind is hammering through the creaky old trees all night.

Oh good. It’s started to rain.

So why am I smiling? I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else...

 

Santiago – Puerto Montt – Villa Santa Lucia

After flying into Santiago, I had originally planned to pedal straight off and see how far south I reached, so assembled my bike on arrival. However, nearing winter and with the far South (Patagonia) being the most recommended and first place where conditions turn sour (and notoriously wet), I promptly took a bus with bike in tow 1,400km to Puerto Montt – a town in Chile’s Lake District which is the gateway to the Carretera Austral, and Patagonia. Alas, the arrival in Puerto Montt brought with it the sun and after a day’s respite, the mysterious 200km long fishing island of Chiloé beckoned. From here I set out to cycle the length of the island and take the once weekly, overnight ferry to the mainland to the now infamous Chaitén (unfortunately due to its catastrophic 2008 volcano eruption). I had a time constraint – a deadline – even though I had planned not to plan!

Chiloé is a beautiful little island, but I could be mistaken for thinking I was in rural England: Blackberries everywhere, rolling hills and despite the clouds it hardly rained.

It was mainland Patagonia where the environment really changed – volcanoes and glaciers appearing across the horizon. But, after some ‘ripio’ riding (dirt tracks which are considered the main road), torrential downpours, and a new twinge in my left knee, my enthusiasm for deep-south exploration was on the wane. That was until starting out to ride the unforgettable

Carretera Austral, the only route down through Chilean Patagonia. Every one of the kilometres was rewarding and filled with memories: the people I met; the wild campsites; the microclimates and mountains; and the feeling of freedom and adventure. And the unfortunate mechanical failures thanks to the grip-less, back breaking ripio! Very few days passed without me wondering why I built a road bike…A fortnight later, I arrived at the modest sign that bears the words: “Welcome to Lago O’Higgins, Finish of the Carretera Austral. 1,247kms”.

To proceed further south than Villa O’Higgins, you must cross into Argentina. Unfortunately, winter was definitely here, and so the border passes were closed by the rangers. Apparently, when it snows down here, weeks can pass without deliveries. With my second deadline of the trip in mind – my return flight home – and being several thousand kilometres south of the airport, it was time to head back north. To speed things up I hitched a lift with a local from Villa O’Higgins whom had sheltered and entertained myself and two other late travelling cyclists in his eco-camp. This generosity and hospitality was not uncommon amongst the locals throughout Chile, despite my woeful Spanish abilities. When there were people, you would never be far from food, warmth and conversation. It is the stretches of unpopulated road in-between that were often a challenge.

"When there were people, you would never be far from food, warmth and conversation. It is the long stretches of unpopulated road in-between that were often a challenge."

 

Villa Santa Lucia – Argentina (via Paso Futaleufú)

Most evenings of the trip so far were spent either hopping fences or tracking down signs reading “Hospedaje” (essentially a B&B, without the breakfast). Luckily, wild camping in Chile didn’t seem to be a problem, as long as you left no trace. Although spoilt for beauty, finding an ideal camping pitch in Patagonia can be tricky given the roadsides were generally rock, river, or cow’s territory. 18:30 – 19.00 became my ‘pick the best spot’ time. 19.00 – 19:30 was ‘take whatever I can get’ time. So to my relief, when I crossed into Argentina the following day they had an official campsite. It had no office. No other guests. No facilities. I figured they’d be ok with wild camping in their country too.

The morning brought with it a stark change to the scenery. The Patagonian spine of mountains holds back most of the rainfall from reaching this part of Argentina so lush mountainscape was replaced with bare mountains to my left and desert to my right. One day here, and my water bottles quickly became my most prized possessions. My days were now planned between potential water refilling points, leading to some of my longest days in the saddle. These long days were no less enjoyable though. Not another sole in sight, just the occasional truck or bus barrelling past, faces pressed to the window, ignoring the scenery but pondering the sanity of that bearded man pedalling his suitcase. The route took me through locally renowned destinations – Trevelin (home of the third dialect of Welsh!), El Bolsón (famed for it’s namesake craft beer), San Carlos de Bariloche (German settlement and major tourist hub city), Villa Angostura (ski resort town complete with Swiss chalets).

For such a sparsely populated area of the world, there was a large amount of diversity here. I was glad to be experiencing it by bicycle, and felt for other travellers not so fortunate, who must have barely scratched the surface.

Eventually it was time to cross back into Chile. Unlike before, this border was hard to miss. Armoured staff, full and thorough passport checks, filling of forms, bag x-ray scans and fruit confiscation. The border pass of Paso Mamuil Malal sat high, in the shadow of Volcano Lanín – a great beacon for navigation and looked exactly as a child would draw a snow-capped mountain. Beautiful. But, if I thought camping had been brisk before, waking up with ice on the outside of the tent set a new level for cold!

Once the breathtaking descent into Chile was behind me it didn’t take me long to calculate that unless the whole route back to Santiago was equally downhill, there was not a chance I was going to make it back there under my own steam. Temuco (a transport hub in the north of the Chilean lake district) offered the most options for buses heading north. I was lucky to make it there though. In the interest of time, I chose what seemed like a short 20-mile stretch of motorway. It felt anything but short though. I quickly learnt that tollgate alarms are easily activated and unavoidably loud. The first one set off when I snuck around the side of it.

I was happy with my decision to be on a bus, towards home that night…

"Although spoilt for beauty, finding an ideal camping pitch in Patagonia can be tricky given the roadsides were generally rock, river, or cow's territory. 18:30–19.00 became my 'pick the best spot' time. 19.00-19:30 was 'take whatever I can get' time"

Valparaiso – Santiago

One final stint of cycling remained before I would say adios to South America. Valparaiso was the starting point, a vibrant port town that billowed during Chile’s golden age. Having learnt nothing from the previous days, some poor map reading led me back to a motorway, complete with another tollgate alarm incident. But I could enjoy the sprawling little towns and line of mountains that guarded the horizon whilst I started thinking about where I might camp for the final night. Whilst marvelling at an array of miniature penny-farthings displayed outside a metal workers a conversation sparked between an intrigued local and myself. In exchange for some stories of the kilometres past, I was offered a bed for the night, BBQ food, backgammon, wine (always delicious in Chile!), and a warm fire. It was a strange feeling to be a foreigner providing stories about someone else’s country to someone from that country. It was a very welcome and unexpected final night of entertainment.

The final day was taken at a lethargic pace until I started the final climb of the trip, which persisted for hours with some of the steepest gradients so far. I was being made to work hard to close out the trip but the summit of that final formidable climb before Santiago was met with a feeling of huge success and achievement, knowing full well that it was the last one to come.

For this tour at least.

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