Saturday, 17 March 2007

The Carretera Austral

Having spent rather a long time travelling "with" my bike (as opposed to "by" bike. I´ve been bumping into people from the trip to Antarctica ever since leaving the boat, and having initially thought that I was a tough cyclist, they think its hilarious that I´m taking the bus everywhere...), I decided it was time to get back in the saddle. Having done some hiking, to ease my way back in, I started off by combining the two - trying the well-known "hiking carrying a bike". A once-only in the life-time experience, I wouldn´t recommend it... Crossing from Argentina into Chile, I was making my way from El Chalten, past Lago del Desierto to Villa O´Higgins, which involved man-handling my bike 5kms along a footpath that looked like:
Great fun with a fully-loaded bike, as you can imagine... I thought it was going to be 7kms, so I was extremely glad when I got to the end early, to find the long-awaited sign telling me I´d arrived in Chile!

It was then another 15kms ride down a terrible road, dragging my bike through an icy-cold river to get to a tiny hamlet called Candelaria Mancilla, the border control and Lago O´Higgins, the next obstacle:
A massive (and beautiful in the sun) lake, the boat across it goes supposedly every Saturday, but its schedule is a little "subject to change", and is one of the reasons (along with the path and road) why this border is very seldom used. It only seems to exist as both Argentina and Chile want the land around it, and the whole area is in dispute. Still, having made it thus far, there was NO WAY I was going to drag my bike back up the road and through the forest again! In the end I was lucky - the boat was only one day late. I stayed in a little estancia with a wood-burning stove (actually, the only place to stay), and it was the perfect enforced rest that I needed after all the hiking. It poured with rain outside, but I just sat inside drinking tea, eating freshly baked bread and talking to the other "intrepid travellers" who had made it there.
The goal was to get to the Carretera Austral, a road leading 1,200 kms north through Chile from Villa O´Higgins to Puerta Montt. And disembarking from the boat, in torrential rain in the pitch dark, I´d made it, along with four other cyclists. We pitched the tent right where the boat docked, unable to cycle anywhere in those conditions, and for the last five days, we´ve been pedalling our way north. The area is incredibly remote, and the weather extremely changeable, so it´s been fantastic to cycle with others - a French couple cycling around for 6 months, and a crazy Austrian couple on a tandem who´ve been cycling for two and a half years, so far...
As for the Carretera Austral. Hmm. This is my favourite sign (after the one indicating that the road is about to go downhill of course). Chile, the most developped country in South America, is proud of the fact that it has built a bridge... And the road, initially pretty good, doesn´t really bear mentioning. A dirt road, it´s actually more like a gravelly, rocky, pot-holed and hideously rutted track with a big pile of stones running up the centre. The great debate (taking up many hours) is whether to cycle on the gravelly stones in the centre, slip around all over the place and use up loads of energy, or whether to take the ruts along one side and jar every bone in your body. Its a difficult choice, and as neither seems really good, endless hours of fun can be spent trying first one, then the other...
Its not really so bad, and when the going gets hard, I just have to look up and remember that I´m cycling through Patagonia, in one of the remotest parts of the planet. The first couple of days it rained a lot (my tent loved it...), but after that, the sun came out and we had a spectacular couple of days. Cycling in the sun through beautiful valleys, alongside lakes and rivers glistening in the sun, past mountains with dollups of snow sprinkled here and there and the odd glacier. Again, maybe some photos can describe it better than me...

We´re currently in a little village called Cochrane, the first place we´ve come to, and taking a day of rest (laundry, drying everything, internet, maybe even a glass of wine later!). The last few days we´ve been camping next to a river, literally in the middle of nowhere, eating around a campfire and watching the stars. Its an incredible experience - not easy, I won´t pretend it is, but then the best experiences rarely are... Tomorrow we confront the rutted road again for another 6-ish days cycle ride north to Coyhaique, the next "town" on the route. I´ll see if I can come up with some more choice words for the road then... In the meantime, I hope you´re all safe and having fun! Helen.

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