Blog: “Down that dusty road”

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Cochrane, Puerto Tranquilo, Villa Cerro Castillo, Coyhaique – 220km (Total 1343Km cycled)

Highlights: Very rough ‘corrugated’ ripio, great weather, tailwinds, beautiful long climb and descent, no broken spokes, hitting tarmac again, and mislaying – then finding – another pannier!

Click here to see photos from our cycle tour on La Carretera Austral

surly long haul truckers and extrawheel on the Carretera Austral

Day 79-80 : 27-28 March 2012 – Leaving Cochrane
Within a few hundred metres we were back on the ripio and toiling our way up some extremely steep hills out of Cochrane. When the terrain allowed us to lift our eyes away from the tricky gravel we enjoyed fabulous views over the river Chacabuco and the surrounding peaks with their little glaciars (well, they would be considered little in Europe). The weather forecast promised days of good weather and it did not lie. At points it was a bit too hot to climb these steep stony roads. Though as soon the sun dived behind the mountains the temperature dropped fast.

cycling La Carretera Austral cochraneI was looking back down into the valley from which we’d just risen and spotted the French tandem descending the other side, struggling like us with the ripio, wobbling all over the place, stopping and starting, trying the left side then the right side of the road. They manage to stay on the bike, though, and make an impressive team when steaming along this difficult terrain on their very-long-vehicle (tandem plus Bob Yak trailer).

At around 35km from Cochrane we found a great little campsite called El Parque, where we rang a little bell and were greeted by a friendly farmer who had been toiling away down by the river. He turned on the gas for the hot water especially for us. We had heavenly hot showers in the rickety shed of a bathroom, and just managed to crawled into bed before the rain set in for a wet night. The farmer told us that the reason for the tricky surface over the last 15km was because they had put a new layer of gravel on, as an ‘improvement’. Maybe for trucks but not for cyclists. Peli often plumped for getting off and pushing – especially on tricky bends where the road tended to bank steeply like a velodrome – rather than skidding and skating about.

pureto bertrand chileThe next morning we made the 10-15km to Puerto Bertrand, a stunning little hamlet next to the lake. We found the French tandem drying out at the harbour after a wet night. They’re not having a good time with their tent and the rain – it’s brand new and yet the fabric soaks up, rather than repels, the rain. Hopefully they will get a new one sent out to them here. We do feel lucky to have our fantastic Hilleberg.

We plodded on and made good distance, enjoyed the weather and stunning views over Lago Bertrand and Lago General Carrera (also known as Lago Buenos Aires in Argentina).

Now, when wild camping you are always trying to find the perfect spot, away from the road, near water and nicely hidden. A nice view is always a bonus, too. We struggled to find anywhere suitable for the next 10-20km and our legs were getting heavy and our tummies rumbling. We settled for second best – a little layby made by the work men who are trying to tell the glacier rivers to run a certain direction. A futile task, I think, since the water cut these massive valleys we are in, and nature will surely eventually win the battle.

the french tandemOur Trangia had just about started to boil when the French tandem arrived, looking rather knackered too. They’d spent the last hour and a bit looking for a place to pitch their tent. Ah, vous etes la aussi! they exclaimed, as they pulled into our little hideaway.

Day 81 : 29 March 2012 –
I feared, looking at the map, that we would have some big climbs ahead so we had an early start. The tandem had just about put their coffee on when we pulled out: a first from us to be on the road before everyone else. We had tailwind around the flat bay but couldn’t really enjoy the ride or admire the view until at a standstill, since the ripio was extremely bad in places.

peli cycling La Carretera AustralWe did manage some nice lumps but at least we were covered by the trees from the worst of the wind. On the last hill into Puerto Rio Tranquilo we spotted a French cycle touring couple who had been on the road for the last three-and-a-bit years. They had planned three years but by the time they get back home it will be four years on the road. Aurelie and Florent, terredepaysages.over-blog.com/, warned us that a strong headwind would be before us before we get into the village.

In Puerto Rio Tranquilo we found two Chilean cycle tourers, whom we’d met at the campsite in Cochrane, who had been trying to hitch a lift since 9am. It had just gone 4pm, and they had to be in Coihaique by the next day to get their flight up north. We gave them hitching tips, show some leg erm wave your arms in an urgent fashion instead of politely sticking out your thumbs. They gave us tips on where to camp (with slightly-sleazy old Manuel, who had a farmhouse nearby). A few minutes later while pitching up we saw their bikes on the back of a 4×4 pulling out of town. The tips must have worked!

Day 82 : 30 March 2012 – The lost pannier
found pannierThe road along Lago General Carrera towards Bahia Murta was rather nice indeed. We could really enjoy the hills, views and the ride. We cycled along yo-yoing with the French tandem. But, at our lunch stop, a nice little lay-by overlooking the lake, I spotted that I was one pannier down on my Extrawheel trailer. (This is how good it is, and how rough the roads are here, you don’t feel that you are 5-6 kilos down on your trailer.) Bugger. I left Peli to stand and panic slightly while I discarded all my panniers and zoomed off back the way we came in the hope of finding it again. My heart was slightly in my mouth, I admit.

Riding on the ripio unloaded was rather weird, but I could really get some speed up. A small kilometre later I came upon the French tandem who were waving at me frantically. They had found my pannier around a kilometre further back. They had even looked down the steep slope into the turquoise waters of the lake to see if I had gone over the edge, since the tracks looked like I had fallen. The panniers have stayed on doing some serious speed over some rough ripio. The bike, panniers and trailer and I have had our fair bit of shaking but we have all stayed together through the rough times! So what caused it to fall off this time, I cannot tell.

Anyway, we definitely owe our French saviours a beer or two for finding it and bringing it back to us.

Our heart rates back to normal, we were able to settle down and have our lunch. While we were tucking in, Alexander from the UK came zooming down the hill, his iPad tucked into his lycra top (he was listening to a lecture at the LSE on mental health, apparently) and joined us for lunch and a chat. It turned out to be a nearly two hours sitting in the sun, discussing everything from cycling to politics (there’s not much difference, frankly) before we got going again. Just as we had packed up and were about to set off, I spotted Alexander’s wallet laying in the grass. It was a day of – almost – losing things!

The next 20km really tested our riding skills. The track had recently been relaid with a new surface. Entirely cyclist-unfriendly. Huge rolling stones, no handy strip of smooth, hard surface at the side to ride on. Even on the flat it was hard to keep the bike upright, your wheels just pinged right and left as it saw fit. Well, as the huge boulders saw fit. You often had no grip at all, the wheel just gliding around and spinning along with the stones. It was really quite desperate, and we were even struggling to walk. It was like walking on golf balls, or large ball bearings. I spotted a tell tell sign of a tandem that had fallen. (We were told later they fell off on one side of the road and had walked over to the other side of the road to try their luck there, only to fall off again within five metres.)

Making such slow progress, and so late into the evening, we started to consider how to continue with our journey. Would we have to keep walking, or hitch a lift with a truck? I even saw a few cars skidding on the surface. How they could say that this was an improvement of the surface of the road, I do not know!

We found a little side track alongside Puente Murta next to the milky-turquoise river, where we rested our tired legs for the night and planned our next steps.

Day 83 : 31 March 2012 – Race away from the machines
peli downhill Carretera AustralThe next morning everything about the hard riding condition was forgotten. Well, nearly. The road only got better as we clocked up the kilometres. Well I say, somewhat better. Well, I mean, not as bad. Well, I mean, you could ride on it. Just.

The surface was hard, at least, though heavily potholed. As we were having a drink and snack break on a bridge, the huge yellow machines which turn over the surface of the road arrived. The driver waved to us in a friendly manner, and told us we’d be better off going first as he was about to start his road work. That is to say, digging it all up and making it into the gravel pit we rode on yesterday.

Now, having three of these monster machines behind you, knowing that the road surface will only get much worse does wake one’s legs up a bit. For the next 15km we stormed ahead, eyeballs out and lungs on the handlebars. Not since the UK and good old tarmac have we made any speed like this. Flying past the French tandem, we cried to them that a monster was coming, ride for your life!!! It was possibly rather rude of us to fly past them shrieking, “Hi! Massive machines behind, bad roads, must dash!” like mad things. Oh dear.

Peli was leading the race against the machine at a real whack of a pace. Then the climb started. A sprint, a breakaway, then a climb – the day was starting to resemble the Tour de France. We zigzagged up to about 640m, then stopped for a breather and a bite of chocolate.

wild camping Carretera AustralThen the downhill started. With a tailwind, good surface, great views and the sun out too, we really did enjoy the next 20km or so.

As we got tired and the night drew in the possible camping spots seemed to dry up. With tired legs, we scanned the roadside for a spot, almost plumping for second-best, right at the side of the road. We were very glad we’d persevered, however, as just a few metres later we found the most perfect spot. A beautiful view over stunning mountains and the river, close to a waterfall and hidden away from the wind and prying eyes. Peli had a bucket shower (using our fabulous Ortlieb folding bowl) while I cooked up a feast of pasta, lentils and vegetables. Perfect!

Day 84 : 1 April 2012 – The last leg to Villa Cerro Castilio
woollypigs cycling Carretera AustralThe first bit of the road snaked its way along the river with some great views. I had in my head that Villa Cerro Castilio was on a hill, firstly as the name means “Castle Hill”. I was sure that on the map it looked like it was at the top of the valley, so I was preparing my legs for a long climb. This did materialise, but quickly turned into a long downhill with stunning views of the mountains around us and Cerro Castillo (or Cerro Castell) which the village is named after. Not some battle, castle or rich person that we are used to in Europe, that results in castles popping up on hillsides. No, here the village was named after a 2675m high mountain peak with a raw spiky edge to it.

El Basco camping Villa Cerro CastilloThe last 10km was all downhill but the wind had woken up and the road turned bad too. So, we were extra-cautious and walked around 2-3km on the steepest and most exposed parts, since we didn’t want a repeat of the Torres del PAINe incident.

We stuck up on cookies, chocolate and other comestibles at the tiny local shop before heading to the El Bosque campsite in Villa Cerro Castillo. A wonderful place with a big refugio to do your cooking in and keep warm, great views over the valley and the mountains and a warm welcome by the owner and his daughter.

Day 85 : 2 April 2012 – The chocolate climb
the-french-tandem-climbingWe tried an early morning but the warmth in the refugio slowed us a bit down. So it was nearly 10.30am before we got rolling. On the climb out of town we heard a bicycle bell tringing, and a call of “woollypigs!” from above our heads. It was the French tandem couple who had made their wild camp on the banking slopes of the roads overlooking Cerro Castillo. And then the challenge was laid down: Bernard said, “last person to the top buys chocolate!”. They shouldn’t have told us their secret a few days earlier – their “drug” to get up the hills was a horrid powder fruit drink, full of sugar. We’d stocked up the night before on some in strawberry flavour, and were ready to attack the climb! In true French Alps serpentine way the road climbed early – 700m up to 1120m, our highest climb so far.

This hill climbing really does put a smile on Peli’s face. She is a real mountain goat, a beautiful one too.

peli-climbing-1120After we had put our lungs back in we had a fabulous long downhill to enjoy, alongside some extraordinary rock formations – sandstone, we think. The forests have already started to turn into their autumnal colours, dark reds and yellows were out in splendid form. While we were having lunch the French tandem zoomed passed, shouting, “We will get some chocolate…!”

As we turned into the last 30km to Coyhaique – suddenly a very busy, tarmac road – the wind was directly into our faces and drained us fast. We stopped at a bus shelter, looked at the road ahead and the weather and decided that it would be a good idea to hitch a lift. We didn’t feel like battling the wind with traffic coming past us at speed, even though it was asphalt. We have had nearly two weeks of empty roads bar the odd farmer in his 4×4, and we were feeling a bit rusty on this sharing the road thing.

peli-cycling-threesWe are getting used to this cycling touring lark. 30km on ripio is easy to reach now, without being too knackered, and with the help of this wonderful long downhill we clocked up nearly 60km before we called it a day. We did our first “naughty” wild camp of South America – we couldn’t find anywhere at all to pitch up as everything was fenced off, so we found a little hole in the barbed wire and, as the night drew in, we climbed into a forested plantation, carpeted with rabbit poo.

Day 86 : 3 April 2012 – Hitching a ride
The night was extremely rough, with on-off rain and some gusty winds which woke us repeatedly during the night. But, even in the sandy and loose ground our “Catervilla” (Hilleberg Kaitum 3GT) tent stayed put. We got up at sunrise and set off into the strong wind, in the hope of catching a lift, but as we toiled up the little hills with views across the rolling farmland – very reminiscent of the Peak District – we only found very empty roads.

The only option was to keep limping on, covering the 36km into town. At least it would keep us warm. The headwind and the lumpy roads – after such difficult rides the days before – took their toll on us and the kilometres went by very slowly. At 20km to go we were having a bit to eat and putting on raingear when we spotted a small van. We flagged it down, and it stopped! The driver took us all the way into Coyhaique and it was there we really felt how tired we were. Trying to unload the bikes from the van was hard work.

We quickly found a supermarket, stocked up on junk (we always have cravings for crisps when we arrive after a tough section) and went hunting for a place to camp. The tourist information told us a few places, but the first one had closed for the season. The second one, a bit out of town, was on a steep hill and the owner took his time to arrive, so we went back into town, planning to knock on every door we would find until we found one that said yes.

Just as we got back into town we spotted Alexander again! He had just left a place he said was very good, just around the corner – Hospedaje Yolanda. Yes, we could camp in the garden, but there was not much space to move about for the dog, chicken and the building works. So when the owner’s son came and said you can have a whole cabana (our own, shower, toilet and kitchen – can you imagine?!) for only a few thousand more a night, our tired bodies could not resist.

We soon learnt that Tauru and Christi (twoblindtoride.org) had stayed here for two and a bit weeks while they were waiting for bits to arrive from the states. Yolanda, the owner, had fallen in love with them, and proudly displayed a photo of them on her wall. :)

Day 87-88 : 4-5 April 2012 – Resting and planning ahead
We settled into our cabana for three nights, for a much-needed rest. While here, we’ve been making the most of having hot water on tap (Peli said yesterday that she would never, ever, take it for granted again), and thinking about our route ahead. We have also fed-up (mushroom risotto, pancakes, and I had some delicious fresh mussels and clams bought by the owner’s son from the local pescaderia), and stocked-up. The local bike shop were not able to provide me with spokes long enough, so we will just keep our fingers crossed as we approach Puerto Montt. Adelante!

Click here to see photos from our cycle tour on La Carretera Austral

7 COMMENTS

  1. Great to see another post, have been wondering how things are going. I had been going away cycle camping for Easter until my DH had his bike stolen on Saturday. Now in my sixth decade it’s unlikely that I’ll cycle tour south America so it’s good to do it vicariously so thanks for posting. We will be up to Scotland in May when we replace his bike. I understand the connections you are making with other cycle tourists. BTW it’s great to here that the extra wheel is going well as we have just bought one. DH is hoping to take a bit more of the stuff so I don’t have such a hard time hill climbing.
    Best wishes for furthur great travels.

  2. So happy to hear that you are on the road again, even if the roads of Chile can by challenging. Enjoy the rest of he Carretera Austral and keep the up-dates coming. It is a lovely read for us who are trying to live a post-cycling life.

    Lots of bike love

    /Hanna

  3. Great to hear about your adventures! Sounds like you are having a lot of fun! Good luck and keep on blogging! Lots of Love the Wraggs (Gail, David, Natalie, James, Rebecca and Thomas!) xxx

  4. I’m worn out just reading you diary, I think I’ll go and take a swim in the pool and crack a cool stubby.
    Keep on blogging.
    Happy Easter
    Best wishes
    Ian

  5. Brenda : I know that the extrawheel will do you both good. Easy to ride with though also easy to overload these panniers too :) I would say stay under 20kg even when can take more.

    Hanna : we hope that you are doing fine post cycling, it must be chock to the system. We are in La Junta now resting before the last leg to Puerto Montt.

    Ian : Have a cold one on me. I think you will love it here too: good walks, hummingbirds, Condors, glaciers, rain forest and bbq meat :)

  6. Viva Yolanda! She’s so sweet – how funny that you stayed there as well!! I never got to see the inside of Alex’s cabins but it sounds fantastic! We missed the pesxaderia when we were there but did roast some delicious lamb – mmm… Sounds like you guys have been having some real adventures! Hope to see you soon so we can share cake and naughty camping tales! xo

    • Yeah it was a great place to stay, we were shown your picture which she have hanging on the wall and kept kissing :) Yup it is time to do some cake swapping and tales, so wait for us :)

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