As a bicycle tourist in South America there are four elements that can make for a challenging day of cycling: Rain, gravel, hills and the infamous wind. On any given day one or more of these can rear it’s ugly head to test one’s patience and strength and in the end, build a tougher person than the one that arrived on this continent to begin with. The Carretara Austral is notoriously prone to all of these elements rendering it tremendously challenging, and still one of the areas most popular cycle touring destinations – and with good reason.
The Carretara Austral truly brings new definition to the saying “the best things in life don’t come easy.” Hours will be spent grinding up loose gravel roads (sometimes in the rain), until our little fingers are numb from the cold and our patience has all but run out, to be delivered to the world’s most unknown and spectacular sights. In one moment of being awestruck with the glory of nature, with the vast greenery of a snowy rainforest or the endless waterfalls of a magical Chilean paradise, the entire difficulty of the day is forgotten. And more importantly, absolutey worth it! This magical route through Chile is a must-do in your South American cycling adventures.
Villa O’Higgins to Cochrane
We rolled out of Villa O’higgins after a night spent celebrating our freedom from Candelario Mancillio. Eleven days spent cramped into the cabin had us more than ready to stretch our legs and get back on the bikes. It felt incredible to be back on the road, fresh air in our lungs and finally with the ability to move forward with our travels. From the start, the Carretara Austral has you at a loss for words. I spend so many hours on the bike pondering if it’s even possible for me to do the scenery any justice through description. To say that is beautiful, endlessly green and vast beyond comprehension is to barely skim the surface of what this terrain holds. It has the allure of a fairytale world, like we have somehow slipped into JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
The ride out of Villa O’higgins is on a gravel road, through mountains that receive so much rainfall that you can look up and see up to twenty waterfalls cascading down the mountains in one stretch. An incredible sight to see (especially for some drought-ridden Californians!). We were in a frozen rainforest for all effective purposes – surrounded by the chorus of millions of birds, some of which howl like monkeys, adding to the feeling that you are cycling through the jungle. The first half of the ride out of Villa O’higgins before reaching Puerto Yungay starts out quite nicely and turns into some serious hill climbing by the end of the day! It’s not terribly easy but it’s absolutely worth it and regardless of where you head on the Carretara Austral, it’s perfect training for what lies ahead.
During the four days it took us to reach Cochrane, we took in some truly breathtaking scenery. How this place is basically undiscovered by most South American travelers is bewildering, but also fantastic because you share this place with so few people. We were fortunate to have the company of two French cyclists, Fred and Lucy, and two German cyclists, Christoph and Rene, for this stretch of the journey. Because we were moving at similar pace with the same destination, we often crossed paths with these lovely folks throughout the day and at some point even camped at an abandoned schoolhouse together.
We fell asleep on our second night out of Villa O’higgins at the foot of snowcapped mountains, surrounded by arid rainforest with a view of several waterfalls. We wild camped up a lightly used dirt road, which opened up into a perfectly flat spot for camping. We were close enough to a river to hear it quite clearly, but when we ventured for water we literally became engulfed in the most fascinating, vibrantly alive little world under the canopy of the trees. Strange mushrooms protruded from tree-trunks, drooping moss dangled from every limb and tiny ferns sprang up from everywhere. Small flowers sought sunlight in little patches and the birds sang their little hearts out. The world under the trees is very, very much alive. We are lucky to have experienced it.
We were very excited to reach Cochrane and it’s large, fully-stocked grocery store. Cochrane itself it is growing mountain town, stretching out into the hills from the Plaza de Armas at the center. The Plaza itself is almost always filled with children, racing around the whole square on bicycles and go-carts. It has all the familiarity and peacefulness of a small town, where people don’t need to worry about the whereabouts of their children – all they need to know is that their kids are out having fun in the sun. Cochrane even has it’s own Hollywood-esque sign reading “COCHRANE” perched on a nearby hill and visible from all parts of the city. Towns like Cochrane, despite being thousands of miles away from what we consider “familiar,” have so many elements that replicate home…Highschoolers having a car-wash to raise money, giggling and waving “Car Wash” signs around on the street corner, the town coming together on the weekend in the town square to listen to live music and chat. Life in Chile is quite the same as life anywhere else.
Cochrane to Chile Chico – Ruta 265
We wanted to spend our Thanksgiving holiday in civilization so we chose to veer off the actual Carretara Austral and head over to Chile Chico. The days spent inbetween these two towns were definitely the hilliest days of our ride. The road is entirely ripio and as you get closer to Chilo Chico, the road greatly deteriorates in quality. The route itself is stunning and we enjoyed views of a gorgeous lake, islands and adjacent forest from the cliffside overhanging the lake.
Truth be told, this was the toughest stretch in terms of cycling we have encountered so far. We would finish conquering a massive mile-long hill, only to rush to the bottom on the other side and begin the endeavour over again only minutes later. The wild camping options along this stretch are more limited due to the cliffs on either side of the road. This road is also much more frequently used than the previous parts, and by people driving much faster than the speed limit. We did manage to find decent spots to camp every night, still accompanied by our French cycling friends.
Chile Chico was a welcome sight, as we were ready to have a full-blown Thanksgiving feast. Fred and Lucy (being French and all) had never experienced a Thanksgiving dinner, so we shared our ridiculously huge meal of Oven-roasted Chicken, mashed potatoes, salads, chips & guacamole, garlic bread and glazed pumpkin for dessert. It was a welcome change of pace from the ol’ pasta and sauce routine. We caught the ferry across the lake the next day and continued on our journey!
Chile Chico to Coyhaique
We jumped off the ferry fairly late in the afternoon and decided to camp right outside of the town of Puerto Ibanez. We found a dirt maintenance road where a watertank resided and a lovely flat spot beside it that made for a perfect wild camping spot. From here we were overlooking the whole town and the mountains behind it, putting us at the perfect vantage point for an awesome sunset.
One cool dynamic to bicycle touring is that you never really know what the next day will be like for you. Sure, maybe you read some blogs or have some vague idea of what the terrain will be like but in reality, everyone defines difficulty, hill climbs and ripio differently. On this particular day after setting out from Puerto Ibanez, we took our lunch break at the foot of what we could see would be a challenging hill. Once conquered, however, we were blessed with EIGHT MILES of descent through Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo. Literally unheard of in bike-touring land. We were so pleasantly surprised when at almost every turn, the road continued to cruise downhill. It was an incredible, fun and beautiful day. We even had the opportunity to see the elusive Huemul, a Patagonian deer that is in danger of extinction. Ironically, he was standing directly in front of a sign that said “Huemul Crossing.” He was not bothered by us and allowed us to snap a few photos before he strolled back into the forest.
When the wind started to pick up in the late afternoon we thought it would be a good idea to approach an estancia for permission to camp somewhere that could block some of the wind for our tent. Lucky for us, the first estancia we approached appeared to be out-of-use and we easily snuck our tent behind an old, creaky barn for the evening. The only ones to watch us arrive and depart the following morning were the herd of cows in the nearby field. Cows strongly distrust our two-wheeled, cow-eating-machines (as far as they are concerned) and generally try to escape from us a quickly as possible. On some occasions we have to ride through herds of cattle that have decided to graze on either side of the road – we hoot and holler and herd the cattle with the bicycles and it is quite an excellent time indeed.
We awoke to a fairly strong Patagonia gale. The winds here are unpredictable and fierce, sometimes they taper off in the afternoon and sometimes they hit you twice as hard. This was one of the days where even going downhill was incredibly difficult with the force of the wind so we decided to stretch our thumbs, hope for the kindness of the passerby and hitchhike!
Within a few minutes a smiling, younger Chilean in an SUV pulled over as soon as he saw us throw our thumbs out. Despite our bikes, baggage and the time it takes to disassemble the rigs to get them into a vehicle, he smiled, asked questions about our trip and was more than happy to wait for us to squeeze our endless panniers into the car. We talked (yes, in Spanish!), the whole way into Coyhaique as he explained to us that the drivers were bad in Coyhaique, that he was on his way to a soccer game with his friends in a different city and that the country had indeed planted a non-indigenous pine tree all over the mountain sides. We had been seeing neatly ordered rows of Pines all over the mountains, hillsides and even fields and had been wondering how they had come to be there. He told us that it was the government’s attempt to correct some of the mass-deforestation that had occured to support their growing livestock industry. They look quite out of place in perfect little rows and are not indigenous, but breed faster than their Chilean Pine-relatives. An interesting twist to the scenery.
Coyhaique is a busy, fairly large city nestled in the mountains. We stocked up on food here and continued on our journey. The days that followed are probably my favorite of the tour so far. The sun was shining and we were comfortably riding in shorts and t-shirts for one of the first times, the wind was in our favor (basically never happens when traveling from South to North) and we happened to arrive in this region as all of the Purple, Yellow and Pink Lupines were in bloom. We rode for over twenty miles on roads lined with blossoming flowers, down a canyon that fringed a river. If I died and went to heaven, it might look something like this! Absolutely surreal and astonishing. There are no big buildings on this route, only small farms and estancias that appear to have been there for decades. We camped in a bed of flowers within earshot of the river and thoroughly enjoyed our days spent in this little paradise.
Relying on the kindness of others is not as scary as it may sound. What you generally find is that people want to help you far beyond what you’re asking for and have a level of warmth, friendliness and selflessness that I think hardly exists in America. We tend to shy from strangers, in the event they are trying to deceive us. Not here. They welcome you with open arms, offer to feed you, to let you camp on their property, to drive you farther than you were hoping for. Lots of love out there in the world.
We stopped to ask a family if we could simply cook our late-lunch somewhere with a wind-break. They happily offered to let us cook inside of a retired tour bus that had been parked in their yard. It often happens that tour buses on this route cease working and are just abandoned at the location of their death – perhaps that was the case of this bus. Regardless, we jumped inside and were beyond stoked to have a break from the wind. We cooked lunch and as we were gathering our things, the father Lulo, offered to let us camp on the property. His daughter cruised around us excitedly showing off her pink bicycle and there was a perfectly grassy spot next to our Magic Bus to camp. We decided to stay in Villa Manihuales for the evening and Devin, at the advice of a friendly local, went down to a laguna to fish. Lucky for us he caught a MONSTER of a rainbow trout! Dinner that night, in the shelter of the bus, was amazing.
After Villa Manihuales there is more beautiful scenery. However, the pavement comes to an abrupt halt and this is where a multi-stage road construction project begins. Road closures interupt your day, not to mention the noise of
machines and the endless trucks and tractors blasting their way up and down the road. If you’re planning to ride this, you will have to cater your schedule to road closures from 1pm-5pm every day. They are literally blasting the mountainside apart with dynamite so occasionally you can even hear the boom and echo of tons of granite exploding. The road condition here is quite abysmal since some of it is only halfway processed – basically expect to spend some time riding in sand… On the bright side, you have enormous nativ Nalca plants to keep you distracted. They are HUGE and definitely look like they belong on the set of Jurassic Park.
Ending our time with the Carretara Austral was bittersweet. It offered us the most spectacular, unusual and scenic days of our tour so far but also gave us a solid challenge. The scenery has continued but our route has veered back toward the Ruta 40, the Pan-American Highway, and our travels have found us living in Bariloche, Argentina for the holidays. We are also taking this opportunity to work on our Spanish fluency with a few weeks worth of Spanish courses. Stay tuned for our next update covering our adventures in Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes!
Information for Travelers:
-Shelter for camping exists at 35km out of Villa O’Higgins. Free and very basic. Wild camping is also possible, with excellent spots along most of the route.
-Shelters on both sides of the lake that are possible to camp in, with bathrooms and running water.
-Boat is free and on-time every day.
-Be prepared for some good hill climbs, all totally worth it for the views!
-Excellent Supermercado selling everything from tools to boat parts to cookies to bread.
-Free wifi in the town square – works well enough to Video Chat.
-Hospedaje & Camping half a block off of the town square. Patty, the owner, is friendly and helpful. Inconsistent hot water is made up for with hammocks and a lovely outdoor dining area. CH$3000/person/night in November.
–Access to all types of facilities – grocery stores, farmacias, hardware stores, etc.
-Daily Ferry to Puerto Ibanez, fairly inexpensive and very large – Approx. 2 hour ride.
-Be prepared for even more hills on your way into Chile Chico.
Puerto Ibanez to Coyhaique
-Took us two days to ride from Puerto Ibanez to Coyhaique, with a quick hitchiking stretch due to the wind.
-Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo is beautiful, from South to North you have eight miles of downhill that is a total blast. In reverse, you have a good workout!
-Possible to camp within the park but not for free! Pay, stealth camp or camp outside the borders – up to you.
Coyhaique to Villa St. Lucia
-Small stores are all along this route, so don’t worry about stocking up on too much food. Basics like pasta, papas, eggs and pan are easily accessible.
-Most important thing to be concerned about on this route is the CONSTRUCTION! There are 5-6 different places with construction projects going on that close down the road from 1-5pm daily. This begins south of Puyuhuapi.
-If you have more specific questions about the Carretara Austral, don’t hesitate to email us at AllisonMSouza@gmail.com or CASupertramps@gmail.com!