Chile, the long thin country, is 4,200 km north to south with no part more than 180 km from the Pacific Ocean.
The Carretera Austral is a road in southern Chile built during the reign of the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. Nancy and I rode it early in 2016. This is a record of our adventure.
Our warmup for the Carretera Austral began in Chillan, five hours south of Santiago by train. We rode mostly on paved road preparing for the Carretera Austral.
The Carretera Austral proper begins at Puerto Montt and ends 7km south of Villa O’Higgins, a distance of 1,247 km. South of there we took a ferry along Lago O’Higgins and rode and pushed our bikes over a low bush-covered pass into Argentina.
You can follow the place names mentioned in this journal on the interactive map.
What follows are pages of our journey in sequential order.
The mountains above are Coast Mountains north of Vancouver. A day later we flew over the Andes which we also snow covered.
Our cycle tour began in Chillan, but first, how did we get there?
Here we are at YVR looking very pleased with ourselves with bikes tied down tight, glued with construction glue even, set to withstand any roiling or banging about in a plane. We are sent to a special area to check in the bikes to be met with a customs official wielding a small Stanley knife who is intent on opening these boxes.
Eventually even he found the funny side of this venture and at the end of the exercise the customs official was very impressed with this glue and wanted to know where to get some.
The journey was long and when we arrived in Santiago it was summer. The customs official at the airport that we checked in with was listening to the radio and singing. No questions, just a stamp in the passport and welcome to Chile.
The hotel was lovely and from the minute we met with the taxi driver and all the hotel staff were impressed with the courteousness and warmth of the people — not to mention my favourite observation that all the men wear perfume and smell great!
Alan assembled the bikes and we rode into Santiago to figure out directions to the train station.
It was about eleven kilometres from the hotel and we rode through some very poor areas. When I took the Spanish lessons the instructor said that one thing he noticed was that while South Americans are personally very clean and well turned out their public spaces can be very bad and that was instantly obvious as we saw great piles of garbage and many stray dogs, most of them friendly.
We also saw little dishes of water here and there and small structures like kennels in public areas so obviously some people look after the dogs.
We found the train station, bought our tickets for the next day, and on the way home found this amazing Argentinian restaurant that could probably seat 500 people. We had a delicious meal there.
After dinner we headed back to the hotel and five minutes later experienced our first flat! I must say I was impressed with the speed that Alan changed the tire and sent a message up to the god of tires to take it easy in that department.
Next morning we were up at the crack of dawn and headed off to the station to travel to Chillan. Fortunately we met a Chilean who lives in New York who wrangled with the train guards to put the bikes on the train without taking off the wheels and pedals. As it turns out my ten weeks of Spanish lessons have left me barely able to understand or be understood!
The 5-hour train ride was pleasant and we couldn’t believe how many officials there were on the train!
The toilets were cleaned twice that I saw, the floor swept and washed and three train officials dressed in military style paraded up and down the carriage. There was a man who brought coffee and sandwiches and even a small cafe.
Chillan is a small town, pleasant enough. We found a hotel in the centre of the town and this morning Alan is sorting out some tweaks on the bikes and we will do some banking and pick up some food and head off into the unknown.
Before leaving Chillan we visited a bank we recognized. We were aware that the Bank of Nova Scotia set up operations in much of the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Recent reports in Canadian business publications suggest that the bank may have moved a little too quickly.
We had no luck getting money from this bank which closed its doors early. We had better luck at a Chilean bank around the corner.
The name Bernardo O’Higgins is prominent in Chile. Every small town we passed through has an avienida named after him, a Chilean regional district bears his name as does the small town at the southern end of the Carretera Austral.
O’Higgins, of Irish descent, is considered to be the liberator of Chile and father of the nation having fought from 1810 to 1816 and gaining independence along the way.
This young dancer outside the open-air market in Chillan put on quite a show!
The old settlers criss-crossed Chile in wagons pulled by oxen.
This work was the centre-piece in a small town park south of Chillan
South of Chillan the land is fertile, generally flat and expansive.
Off to the west agriculture stretched as far as we could see. Chile grows everything! Off to the east the Andes border the landscape. We even saw an active volcano with its plume curling to the northerly wind.
Chileans are friendly people willing to help us along with our limited vocabulary.
We met this young Chilean outside our hotel. He was on his way to join a circus in Montreal. Of course we asked ‘The Cirque du Soleil’ ? He said, I wish, I wish!
We know a few words of Spanish, Nancy more than me. Some of the locals know a little English and with the aid of the words we know and sign language, we get by.
Yesterday for lunch we ordered a chicken dish and water. We were served hamburgers and a bottle of orange fanta. As I say, we get by.
We began by going to the bank. The Chilean bank near our hotel could not communicate with our bank in Canada. We went around the corner to the Bank of Nova Scotia. Bingo!
Our GPS and computer stopped communicating. We were unable to transfer planned routes to Miss Garmin, our trusty navigational assistant. We call her that as the device in our car gives voice directions in a nice American accent.
Not to be daunted, we took the computer out of the loop and relied on our National Geographic maps and Miss Garmin in manual mode. Unfortunately we did not turn off the ‘Trail’ and ‘Unpaved Road’ toggles because I didn’t know they were there!
Miss Garmin then proceeded to take us into the back country west and south of Los Angeles. As the route degenerated from paved secondary roads to ‘rippio’, or gravel, to rough trails we started to have second thoughts about our assistant’s abilities. When confronted with a padlocked gate, we knew it was time to turn back. For Miss Garmin its back in the box she came in!
We rode east of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara where we had a restful night in a nice hostel. In the hostel I found Miss Garmin’s toggles that are now engaged. She remains handlebar mounted, a useful assistant
While on the rippio we saw rich farmland. We met nice older couple moving stock about their fields.
We camped by a large river. Shortly after turning in for the night we had three visitors.
They were curious and wanted to talk. Despite our language differences we seemed able to communicate with them and they us.
The next morning we rode south through a series of steep hills to the towns of Angol and Traiguen. We arrived in a small town called Galvarino where we had a delicious oxtail meal with vegetables and rice. We didn’t have the stamina to ride to Temuco and decided to stay the night.
We met two Seventh Day Adventists from Canada. Their mission in Galvarino was to show the way to the local Indians. They showed us the way to a local hostel.
While sitting in the local square Nancy called me to come and meet Miguel who spoke excellent English. He owned a small craft shop where he made leather products.
Nancy needed a new belt and commissioned Miguel to make her one as he told us his story.
During the regime of the dictator Pinochet from 1973 to 1989, times were tough for many Chileans. As a nineteen year old he saw his brother murdered by the oppressors. He fled Chile by stowing aboard a ship bound for Philadelphia.
He worked illegally as a house painter in the eastern United States, married and produced two sons and a daughter. But his being in the US did not sit well with the American immigration Service. He was deported thirteen times!
He made one entry into the US from Mexico. If Donald Trump has his way, a big high fence along the Mexican border would make it all the more difficult for Miguel to see his kids in the US. He knows that getting caught again would mean time in a US jail.
Miguel did many things with leather. Below is a stencil carving of the warrior chieftain, Galvarino whom the town was named after.
Galvarino fought the Spanish and was taken by Mendoza’s forces in 1557. As punishment the Spanish cut off both his hands and released him and his companions.
This incited the Mapuche Indians who rose against the Spanish, Galvarino with knives strapped to his wrists.
However, Mendoza’s command broke Galvarino’s divisions after an hour of combat and won the battle killing three thousand Indians and capturing eight thousand more, including Galvarino.
Mendoza ordered him executed and thrown to the dogs.
Before continuing south the next morning, we met Miguel to show him our loaded bikes. I commissioned him to make me a belt. He will post it to me in Canada. We committed to finding him some patterns he found in a well read and tattered magazine.
We left Galvarino with a wave from two new friends in their food cart. We’d just eaten two of their popular sopapillas. We were now ready for the long hill just south of town, the start of our ride to Temuco.
We arrived in Villarrica after quite the 60 kilometre hike over hill and dale, lots of it gravel.
Many neat sights such as this area with the apple tree which was providing treats for the sheep.
Villarrica is a tourist destination where people enjoy lying on the black volcanic sand and swimming in the lake over which towers the snow-covered Volcan Villarrica.
We had a couple of nights camping after we left Temuco, both very pleasant.
There are some lovely wild flowers along the roadsides.
The Lily of the Incas aka alstroemeria which struggles in our northern climate grows in abundance here.
And this must be where the Scottish Thistle comes from!
We’re off again tomorrow and already know that there are many more hills. We definitely prefer this sign to the reverse one.
We left Villarrica after a couple of days of rest. We shared food and wine with two couples in camps next to ours. We had a neat time with Clair and Sam, an English couple who had been biking for nearly two years. They rode from Canada on the Central Divide Trail to Mexico. They began their South American odyssey in Buenos Airies and were on their way north to Columbia when we met them.
Another fun couple, Jorg from Germany and Ines, from Portugal, had been working at the University of Chile in Santiago.
Ines was taking time out to decide if she wanted to continue and earn a PhD or to enter the workforce and earn some money.
The next night we found a lovely campsite and were sitting watching the world go by when very casually this bird walked through.
It had a long beak and was poking it into the roots of trees unconcerned with us. We took a dip in the lake before retiring to our comfortable campsite.
We cycled through some of the seven lakes area of southern Chile. It’s a countryside with views of volcanoes, fields and farm scenes.
Our next night was in a campsite where we relaxed for the afternoon and read the popular travelogue written in 1977 by Bruce Chatwin, an English author.
The New York Times wrote that Chatwin’s work was the envy of many a travel writer. It seemed appropriate that we read ‘In Patagonia’ in Patagonia.
Later we found another English travel writer, Sara Wheeler. Nancy ordered her book ‘Travels in a Thin Country’.
We cycled for three days around the west side of Volcan Villarrica.
We camped above the lake in Lican Ray. Getting our bikes up to our campsite one hundred meters above the lake, was quite a shove.
We left very early in the morning to this beautiful sunrise.
We cycled on to the small town called Los Lagos. It was old and quite poor but had been prosperous in its day.
The one hotel was rundown but the two older ladies were very welcoming. We were their only guests. The hotel was decorated with really old plastic flowers but was clean, although it a little musty.
The one amazing thing about the hotel was its highly polished floors of old wood and tile.
After a ninety kilometer ride from Los Lagos, we arrived in Osorno, the start of Patagonia.
We were directed to a hostel which was comfortable. We met a few fellow travellers we enjoyed chatting with. We took a day out before heading east to Puerto Octay and a German beerfest.
The guy above was one of the patrons supervising the beer drinking race.
Our ride took us along the back roads to Puerto Octay on the north-west shore on Lago Llanquihue, the big lake north of Puerto Montt. My sights were on the German beer festival at Llanquihue. We then rode along Ruta 5, the highway backbone of Chile, to Puerto Montt.
We fare better down the ‘wheee!’ side of hills than up grunt side. To the good though, the grunt is trimming us and we feel good about that.
We were riding along in the countryside when we saw lots of activity amongst the cows.
A few farmhands came into an earth-filled field which had previously held turnips, turned off an electric fence, and moved the wire about a metre to allow the cows to enjoy a new set of turnips.
Boy, we had never seen cows move so fast. We stayed for quite a while enjoying the scene.
Many Germans settled in Southern Chile in the 1800s and their influence is everywhere.
We were looking for a reward lunch after a hard morning of hills and were directed to this heritage German hotel where we were first into the dining room with lovely starched white tablecloths.
The Chile we saw south of Santiago is very fertile. With a Mediterranean climate and plenty of water, the farms are luxuriant and stretch for mile after mile.
Large international conglomerates like Nestles are prominent, as is Coca Cola. Sugar water is a problem in Chile. It is everywhere as are spent plastic bottles.
An older Chilean we spoke to in Puerto Montt lamented that the best of Chile is leaving Chile. He has hopes for the recent Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with many Pacific countries, will be good for Chile.
Other dairy producing countries must be aware that Chile is growing fast and will be stiff competition in years to come.
Amazing lilies of various colours are all over.
No one has to lift them at the end of each summer and replant them, they just keep growing!
There are many examples of old German-style homes. This one could use some tender loving care.
We made it to the bierfest at Llanquihue and were glad to find that the venue was next door to our campsite.
We had a fun evening enjoying the music and the singing.
The food was excellent, especially the beautiful German torta. And the wine and beer were top quality and cool.
The people were welcoming and interested in what we were doing. We didn’t expect to see Germany in Chile.
They even had a beer competition for the ladies! I resisted entering ...
We enjoyed a comfortable hotel in Puerto Montt for two days getting ready for the Carretera Austral, a 1,240 km section mostly of ‘rippio’ or gravel road.
Food restocking points south of Puerto Montt are at most four days apart. Nonetheless, we stocked up with as much as we could carry in Puerto Montt.
This sign was not far from our hotel in Puerto Montt. We were about to begin our ride proper.
We came to Chile to ride the Carretera Austral. We rode over smooth pavement and rough gravel roads.
We rode is sunshine, rain and through dust. We saw high mountains, big glaciers and river valleys.
We met cyclists from all over. Given the speed we’re traveling at we get to meet most of them. They have younger legs and things like that.
The first rain we struck was on the short leg from Puerto Montt to the first ferry.
Our gear stood up well although we will change or front bags to the superior German Ortliebs when we get back to Vancouver.
In the ‘waiting room’ on a short ferry ride about 40 km south of Puerto Montt. Things got pretty wet!
Two Chilean cyclists told us about this little cabin. We were glad to find it. Our hostess lit a wood fire for us to dry our gear out.
The Carretera Austral has several ferries. This was took us 4-1/2 hours south from Hornopiren.
We passed through the small town of Chaiten. Volcan Chaiten erupted in May 2008 burying much of the town.
The population is slowly moving back.
This is typical of the mountain and river scenery along the Carretera Austral and there is lots of it!
We camped close to a fishing resort by a lake south of La Junta. Clearly we like Chilean wine! Reds and whites both are excellent and cost less than the same volume of milk.
Bread was available in unlikely places.
This lady baked ‘pan’ in her house.
We stayed in small cabins whenever rain threatened. And the weather got cooler and wetter as we moved south from the northern Mediterranean climate.
Nancy riding on ‘rippio’. We rode hundreds of kilometres on wash-board like this. We also breathed in a lot of road dust!
The dictator Pinochet ruled Chile for 19 years. He named the road from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins the ‘Carretera General Augusto Pinochet’.
When he was ousted from power in 1989, the new road became the ‘Carretera Austral’.
American fly-fishers we had pizza with in Coyhaique. Brent, the cameraman, owns a fishing lodge in Montana. He invited us to join him and his guests in his Patagonian camp a little south of Coyhaique for a traditional lamb asado. Lambs are splayed and attached to a metal cross, dressed in oil and herbs and roasted on front of an open fireplace. Unfortunately we needed to move on.
Above is a series of switchback north of Villa Cerro Castillo. We did a fast downhill ride in wind and rain into the village 11km distant.
The end of the paved road at Villa Cerro Castillo.
Ahead lay 470km of ‘ripio’ south to Villa O’Higgins. This day we made only 13km into 35 knot winds and blinding dust through major road works. The Chilean government has undertaken a massive road building program to develop Southern Chile.
We were glad to find this sanctuary from the wind. We shared the kitchen with our hostess who baked fresh warm bread to take with us.
The mountains here are jagged and foreboding. Many cyclists take time out to hike in country like this.
We camped just below the bush line near the highest point of the Carretera Austral. The trees protected us from the high winds passing overhead.
Wood carving in Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Note the Yerba Mate cup in his hand. Yerba Mate is a tea like drink promoted by the Jesuits in Patagonia. Many Chileans drink it through a metal straw.
We pushed our bikes up many hills like this!
Foal on the north shore of Lago General Carrera. This is Nancy’s favourite lake.
Mineral seams like this were common. Chile is a major copper producer.
From Puerto Rio Tranquilo we took a boat tour to see the marble caves on the west side of Lago Genaral Carrera.
Lago General Carrera is a big lake. We rode along the west side of it for two days. We spent a night in a cabana at Bahia Catalina. We lit the wood stove and spent a pleasant night here.
Our hostess talking about development in Patagonia. Many Chileans know that progress can’t be held back. They are concerned that mining and construction companies will pollute and mark this unspoiled landscape.
We rode for two days alongside the Rio Baker. The Chilean government has many hydro-electric power schemes on the drawing boards. Needless to say, there is local resistance.
This young Guanaco was entangled in a wire fence. We were able to free it but it was bleeding badly and in shock.
Dogs are everywhere in Chile. This one attached itself to Terry and Chris, fellow cyclists from France.
The dog trotted alongside them from Chile Chico to Cochrane, some 220 km. When we arrived in Cochrane we saw that the dog had abandoned Terry and Chris and became the companion of a solo hitchhiker who was heading back north.
Perhaps Disney could do something with this story?
The road was sometimes well packed and smooth, sometimes wash-boarded and sometimes more like river bed.
Our installing 50 mm tires on our front wheels turned out to be a good move. Losing steering traction in loose gravel on loaded bikes is disconcerting. Nancy came off her bike in loose gravel north of Coyhaique.
The small grocery stores in all the small towns we passed through carried the label ‘supermercado’. This one is in Cochrane. South of here the grocery stores became smaller and smaller yet they were still called ‘supermarkets’..
At this ‘camp site’ our landlord provided some wood. We had a pleasant night eating camp food washed down with our remaining Heineken.
The landscape become more foreboding the further south we went and the weather wetter and colder.
The road was sometimes heavily wash-boarded, sometimes well packed and smooth and sometimes more like river bed. Our installing 50 mm tires on our front wheels turned out to be a good move. Losing steering traction in loose gravel with loaded bikes is disconcerting.
The ferry at Puerto Yungay. This ferry carried us to the road head at Rio Bravo which was wet and cold.
We spent a fun night in the ferry terminal building along with a dozen other riders from all over the world.
Water, water everywhere!
Nancy commented more than once that she’d never seen so much water.
Streams began in the glaciers high above us and crossed the Carretera Austral at many a damaged culvert.
A Spanish rider ahead of us found this little ‘refugio’ just off the side of the road.
He lit a fire and walked back to guide is in. Nine of us prepared our dinners in front of the fire.
We set up our capable Hilleberg tent and slept soundly as some wild weather passed through.
The next day we had a fast run along the remaining 53 km south to Villa O’Higgins.
The wind was strong and at our backs. It’s a great feeling getting blown uphill moving our elbows like sails to control forward thrust!
This gaucho passed through our campsite at the ‘refugio’. He was herding stray cattle.
He relayed to our Spanish friend that some time ago he killed a puma that attacked a young female rider.
He then had a lot of explaining to do to the Chilean authorities.
Our cabana in Villa O’Higgins. We stayed here three nights drying our gear and enjoying home cooked meals. We put our name on the waiting list for the ferry along Lago O’Higgins to Argentina.
This was the final section of our ride.
We rode 7 km south of Villa O’Higgins to the end of the Carretera Austral. We then boarded a small ferry along with twenty other riders for a 3-1/2 hour ferry ride south along Lago O’Higgins.
There is an imaginary line running north/south along the centre of the lake.
On the west side of the line is Lago O’Higgins, in Chile.
On the east side of the line is Lago San Martin, in Argentina. The setting of the international border was not easy and many died in skirmishes between the two nations.
On the ferry on Lago O’Higgins. Raymond, from Spain, has been cycling for many years. He made the refugio warm and cozy on the stormy last night before Villa O’Higgins
Chilean flag at the border outpost on the south side of Lago O’Higgins.
The gravel road deteriorated before we crossed into Argentina. It became a muddy road and then a goat track not wide enough for our bikes and saddle bags.
We ferried our bikes and equipment with many gasps and grunts along this track across the low pass below the bush line into Argentina.
The trail into Argentina was more like a goat track that passed through creeks and up and down steep hills.
Border with Chile and Argentina. We officially entered Argentina the next day at the manned outpost on the north shore of Lago del Desierto.
Behind Nancy is Lago del Desierto and behind it is Mt Fitz Roy. Climbers from the world over set up base in El Chalten to play in these mountains.
We both lost a pound or two!!
The end of our trip through Chile and into Argentina.