Blog: “La Carretera Austral, Chile”

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Villa o’Higgins, Puerto Yungay, Cochrane – 220km (Total 1016Km cycled

Highlights: Stunning views, tough hills, our first 1000km, hot water and hospitality from Manuel from the ferry.

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

cycling La Carretera Austral

Day 71-72 : 19 March 2012 – 20 March 2012 – We are famous :)

We got up nice and early and expected to leave nice and early but the comfy facilities at El Mosco and the company of other cycle tourers made it hard to get going. We packed our bikes and, as always when spotting a bit of free space in our panniers, we went food shopping. Peli just went into the shop to get some Dulce del Leche, but I heard a squeak from her and out she came with bags of lovely fresh fruit and veggies: juicy plums, shiny apples, red peppers and avocados. The shop had just got a new delivery, pretty good timing for us, since the region is in the middle of a strike and we are at the end of the road.

meeting cycle tourersPacked and ready, we set out to ride the Carretera Austral north. We had heard that it would be nasty in places, some of the worst roads down here south, but compared to what we rode in Tierra Del Fuego this was pretty good.

We met an English couple, David and Rachel, based in Scotland, and chatted about our plans to settle in Edinburgh once our World Pootle is over. Later, we met a Scottish couple, Colin and Gemma, who are now based in Sweden, coming towards hoping to catch the ferry to Argentina. It was good to hear news from them of the cyclists we’d met in El Chalten, but less good to tell them that they may be in for a wait for the ferry to Argentina.

The first section from Villa O’Higgins was pretty easy but as the hills woke up so did my knackered legs and flu, so we made little progress compared to the others who set off the same day.

cycling La Carretera Austra out off ohigginsShortly after being overtaken by a speedy Dutch couple with large rucksacks, who had – in the spirit of the moment – bought some, for the lack of a better word, BSOs (Bike-Shaped-Objects), we camped up on the first bit of flat we could find. During the night the rain started and we were in for a wet few days of riding. Oh, I forgot the wind also woke up, not as bad as we have experienced before but right into our faces. We were cycling due west in a valley, running west to east, creating a powerful wind tunnel. We had to walk some sections (taking no risks after Torres del Paine!).

Then the hills started to kick in again and we had to push a fair bit, but we soldiered on. We also met a group of four cyclists who had joined together on their journey. Two Argentinians, one Brit and one we are sorry to say we can’t remember his nationality. We got some good information about the route ahead – massive hills, apparently.

cycling La Carretera Austral hillsWhen meeting the last batch of cycle tourers we discovered that we have made it into cycle touring folklore… for the time being, anyway. People had heard about our wait for a fork, and of our website, woollypigs.com. \o/ we’re famous :) We also kept hearing about a young lady called Holly who is heading towards Alaska, but we just keep missing her by a few days, one day we will meet, we hope.

Our second night we went into what we at first thought was a refugio only to find out that it was a farmhouse. Nonetheless, the owners, a Basque man and his wife, let us hide from the wind behind his woodshed. They had a delightful little dog, 4-year old Poroto (“red bean”) who was unfortunately a little too scared of humans, but very curious about what we were pitching in her little domain.

Day 73 : 21 March 2012 – We are sailing
ferry rio bravo dogAfter leaving the Estancia we endured a simple massive climb out of a valley before a long downhill in the rain. The last few miles to Rio Bravo, where we were to take the ferry to Puerto Yungay was rather hard work: a wet and “would it ever end?” kind of ride. We arrived at the tiny harbour which only had a landing ramp and a refugio, with toilet and a dog. The dog we later learned had followed Fernando, the Portuguese chap, out from Villa O’Higgins to the port, just shy of 100km. From what we understand it does that regularly too, it also followed Christi and Tauru (twoblindtoride.org) on their journey to the ferry.

We camped out in the refuge, trying in vain to dry out our soaked clothing, and waited for the ferry, which should sail at least every two hours during the day. But because of the strike it was doing fewer journeys, pretty much when the boat was full. Manuel from the ferry came up to us and chatted with Peli, with me trying to understand the odd word, and then invited us on the boat for some hot tea. When he asked Peli’s real name, he declared it to be ‘muy lindo’ (very beautiful – which is exactly what the Basque farmer at the Estancia had said – they seem to have a thing about the names of Queens). Manuel told us he was 71. He didn’t look a day over 50 but he had been at sea for more than 30 years and had 24 grandchildren.

ferry at Puerto YungayA 40min ferry journey later we pulled into the tiny Puerto Yungay and set up camp in the still-being-built refugio. We stocked up on biscuits and chocolate at the local Kiosco run by Don Francisco, at a premium price, but we needed the extra fuel. Don Francisco explained that the little shop was intended to “help, in a small way, the pasajeros who travel the Carretera Austral”. We were certainly glad of the calories. The ferry did its last tour of the day and Manuel came to our refuge with a flask of boiling hot water for our bedtime hot chocolate. Thank you, Manuel.

Day 74 : 22 March 2012 – Running low on fuel
cycling Carretera Austral hilly roadWe got up nice and early to face a climb of a lifetime. We are pretty sure that it would had been a stunning ride if we could see it from the low rain clouds. We did our fair bit of pushing up the ripio to then enjoy a brilliant down hill, though we took it very gingerly, as the conditions were a bit iffy: wet gravel, no railings and the sheer drop down something that resembled a bottomless pit. We could just about hear the roaring water far, far below.

cycling La Carretera Austral Tortel junctionWe arrived at the junction to Tortel, only 22km away on what we had been told was very rough ripio. We took our time pondering whether we should make the detour down there or not. Lots of other cycle tourists had told us that they had parked their bikes at the junction and hitched a ride on a tour bus or random car out there. However, it is now low season, and while we cooked up brunch we saw no other cars coming the right way. After a nearly an hour we spotted the young American, Max, who we shared the ferry over Lago o’Higgins with, coming towards us from Tortel. After a little chit chat we decided that it would be best to head towards Cochrane since we were running out of fuel (alcohol for the stove) and Tortel didn’t sound like the kind of place we’d be able to find it. It was a shame, but we’re not the fastest tourers…

As we cycled on the weather changed and got a bit warmer and we made good distance for the first time in a long time. We stopped to have a little snack and spotted the young Dutch couple coming after us, with a dog. It had run with them from Tortel. It was fickle with its affections however: when we took off it decided to join us for a while.

We spotted Max again and he pointed out why we were doing so well today – a lovely tail wind. It was funny that we didn’t even notice that at all, we just plodded on, enjoying the ride. Around the same time the Dutch couple whizzed past on their BSOs with rucksacks strapped to the back. And they picked up their dog again.

We camped on the bank of a river near a bridge for the night and tried our best to hide from the mozzies.

Day 75 : 23 March 2012 –
cycling touring on Carretera AustralAs we were packing up we met Stewart (we think that was his name), an American chap living in Santiago on a little holiday on the Austral. He warned us about a big hill to come but then told us it was then pretty much downhill from there to Cochrane. Just as we were about to take off I spotted my fourth broken spoke on the rear wheel. It is getting rather not funny.

As we carried on the weather got better and we really enjoyed our ride. Just as you do when cycle touring you look for a place to camp for the night, not sure what is ahead. You pick one spot thinking that will do for the night, as you never know if there is anything else coming up and when, only to find a perfect spot just a few hundred yards down the road. Yup, as we zigzagged our way through the river valley we spotted at least five stunning and perfect places to wild camp, just within a few miles of our previous night’s spot down by the river. Mister Sod, your Law is always with us.

camping overlooking lago Larga, chileWe had around 70km to Cochrane, which is just at our maximum distance on very good roads. So, when we had climbed the massive hill and got to Lago Larga, it didn’t take long to talk ourselves into stopping with 35km to go, when Peli spotted a perfect spot with views over the lake and the mountains behind.

Day 76 : 24 March 2012 – Downhill to Cochrane
Again we had perfect weather, tail wind and sun. The first 15km went past fast and we had a celebratory lump of chocolate and dance when we passed our first thousand kilometres. They had been long in coming but the last nearly 200km went past well and we have enjoyed being on our bikes again.

La Carretera Austral pushing uphillA few more ups and down was endured before we got to the last long downhill to Cochrane. Great, scary fun riding down the gravel roads. You pick up good speed on the good stuff going down, but down in the “valleys” the ripio turned into a washboard of small, regular ridges that shake you apart. There is a “magic” speed that takes you over the ripio, but you have to let the bike do its thing: don’t fight it and hope that it doesn’t glide out into the deep gravel wash, because then you’re in trouble. However, as you’re flying over the ripio, your momentum dies out and your whole bike – and body – start to shake. And while you’re shaking to bits, you can’t pedal to keep the momentum, so you grind to a halt. You’re now faced with the challenge of having to pedal out of the hard, washboard ripio and soft gravel wash in a high gear – because, of course, you’ve forgotten to gear down while concentrating on the bone-shaking downhill. It takes some getting used to, but you soon learn the skill and can cycle some good distances on these roads. But it is knackering!

Relieved to reach a stretch of tarmac, we rolled into Cochrane, named after an English Lord, just after lunch. We found a little campsite a few steps away from the main square. A quick and much-needed shower later we were out hunting food. The local supermarket is the place you go to get chainsaws, sweetcorn, climbing equipment, milk, barbed wire, bread, guns, pasta, life vests, flour, cement mixers, chocolate, flat screen tvs and tomatoes. Yes, you can get it all here.

cooking steak on camping stoveThe local butchers open up a few minutes later and I got a massive and ever-so-tender steak to cook for dinner. It was a bit of shock for Peli to enter that tiny shop, with flies and dead things hanging everywhere. Having ordered my steak for me, she quickly retreated into the fresh air, looking rather pale. I think I’d better spare my vegetarian travelling partner in future, and learn how to ask for a good cut of meat in Spanish.

Day 77-78 : 25 March 2012 – 26 March 2012 – Resting our weary legs.
peli cooking banana pancakesThis was a total rest day for us, hey it was Sunday after all. We had a good sleep in our fabulous tent and spent the rest of the day reading, updating the blog, lazing in the sun in my hammock and eating. While fettling the bikes I spotted yet another broken spoke, the fifth one, it is getting more than a bit annoying now. All on the non-drive side and facing the same way and only the original ones. This makes me wonder if it was a bad batch of spokes or a badly-built rear hub that cuts into the spokes. The loosening of the spokes did help a bit, instead of one breaking every 40km, only two have snapped over the last 220km on rather bad ripio.

I’m hoping that we can limp the next 320km into Coyhaique where I hear we can get some more spare spokes, and then limp again to Puerto Montt where hopefully the post from the UK will have arrived with some more spokes and other goodies. We just chatted to Peli’s Mum, who is on the case putting together a tuck box of Yorkshire Tea, squeezy Marmite and Green & Blacks chocolate!

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

2 COMMENTS

  1. ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
    i want to be with youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
    i can’t stand anymore Parissssssssssssss ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
    Enjoy!
    Kiss to both of you :)
    Tony

  2. Hi. Big Guy!

    Gosh!! still pootling around in the Southern
    Hemisphere!!
    They look like vertigo-inducing climbs.
    You look well on it!
    We all miss you !
    Jul skiing. Ped.-baby soon(shuush!!)lol !!

    All the best
    Cat. :-D.

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