39′s the Magic Number

February 1st, 2014

Since I was a child, every year I watched the chattering swallows which had nested in our barn gathering on the wires before their autumn migration in fascination. What must be going through their heads, I wondered? Fear? Anticipation? Excitement?

Now, as our own southerly migration neared its conclusion and thoughts turned to the approaching winter, my head was certainly awash with all those competing emotions. A trip whose end had always been studiously ignored had become reduced to a countdown of just a few short months. Like my swallows, we gathered with friends at Daniel’s impromptu casa de ciclistas in Talca to plot what really felt like the final leg.

Maps were pored over intently and marked with arrows, distances and strange symbols. Beards were stroked furiously. Tips from friends down the road and half-remembered anecdotes from other cyclists’ blogs were met with studious scribbling. The warm late summer sun shone outside, but inside the two Patagonian “W’s” loomed large: Winter, and Wind.

After carefully keeping winter at our backs for the last two and a half years, now for the first time winter would be creeping northwards to meet us. If we wanted to avoid the Patagonian winter, then we would have to get to Ushuaia before the snow did. And, if we wanted to do that, then for the first time in a very long time, we had a deadline.

According to cycle touring lore there is nothing to see in Chile’s central valley – the real action, it is said, doesn’t begin until you hit 39 degrees latitude, where the desert finally gives way to the green lushness of the Chilean and Argentine Lake Districts. And so plans were hatched to make rapid progress south. Some opted to hit fast-forward by pedaling the tarmac treadmill of Ruta 5, while others elected to jump ahead by bus as time pressures began to bite.

And yet as we gazed at the map of Chile, we couldn’t help thinking we were missing something. In fact, probably the most obvious thing about this long snake of a country: its coast, all 6,435km of it. Surely we couldn’t ride through Chile without at least a taste of one of its most prominent features? Added to that, we hadn’t seen the sea since the Colombian Caribbean 15 months earlier – probably the longest land-locked period of our lives. Deep down, our islander genes were undoubtedly craving the sight, sound and smell of the waves.

We also wanted to see something of everyday Chile and meet normal chilenos, conscious that our route further south would take us through some of the most tourist-saturated and uninhabited parts of the country. “They’re the British of South America” we had been told, conjuring up intriguing images of Neighbourhood Watch, orderly queues and fish and chips by the sea. And so off we headed on a less-than-direct route towards the magic 39th parallel, finding on our way a welcome dose of sea air and warm Chilean hospitality.

James

Sarah tucked up in bed

Leaving Talca, we head west towards Constitución. By late afternoon the rain has set in and we are soaked and searching for shelter. Rosa spots us from her doorway, and within minutes we are drinking hot tea and tucking into her pan amasado (homemade bread), while she insists on making us up beds for the night. As much as we love our tent, beds are wonderful things – especially when you aren’t expecting to sleep in one.

Chilean grapes in the sunshine

The next morning the sun is shining. We admire the grapes in the garden…

Tyre pumping

…help her grand-daughter Isidora pump up the tyres on her bike…

Staying with Rosa in Chile

…and gather for the obligatory pre-departure shot. Thank you Rosa, Soledad and family for making us so welcome!

Chilean woodyard

This coastal strip used to be covered in ancient forests, but sadly these are long gone and replaced by depressing stands of sterile conifers. Nevertheless, forestry brings much needed work for people like Rosa’s husband Elias, and we dodge the logging trucks as we roll on past sawmills.

Cycling the Chile coast, Constitucion

And then, finally, we emerge into brilliant sunshine to the sights…

Crashing waves, Chile coast

…sounds…

Fish drying on barbed wire, Chile coast

…and smells of the sea. We’ve missed them.

Camping by the beach, Chile coast

We find ourselves a secluded camp spot in earshot of the waves…

Chile coast sunset

…and settle back to enjoy the sunset.

Tusnami Evacuation route sign, Chile coast

Beneath the idyllic surface however, this is a a region still struggling with the aftermath of 2010′s earthquake. The resulting tsunami washed away whole villages, leaving many dead and even more homeless.

View of Chilean coast

It’s hard to imagine on this peaceful morning, but villages like Pellines were badly affected.

Houses on Chile coast covered in sheeting after tsunami

Many houses which survived remain covered in plastic sheeting, while new, blue homes have been built for some of those who were left homeless.

Ruta del Mar sign. Maule, Chile

We push on south, now following the Ruta del Mar…

Cow on Chile coast

…weaving through small villages and past farms – it could almost be the Suffolk coast back home.

Milking a cow, Chile

Pausing in a gateway for a mid-morning snack, we are beckoned over by a friendly farmer who offers us a supplement…

Sarah drinks fresh milk, Chile

…fresh milk, straight from the cow. “Don’t forget to stop in Chanco to try the cheese!” she says.

Chanco cheese, Chile

Never ones to miss a food recommendation, we duly oblige…

Chanco square, Chile

…enjoying it in the square in the company of some Chilean OAPs.

Riding Chile coast

Beyond Cobquecura, the road turns to dirt and the traffic slows to a trickle, putting a smile on our faces. This is rural Chile: forgotten back roads…

Tregualemu, Chile coast

…abandoned outposts…

Lone horse rider on beach, Chile

…lonely beaches… 

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…splashes of late summer colour… 

Sheaves of corn, Chile coast

…and smallholdings where the wheat is still harvested by hand. It feels a world away from the gleaming, mechanised agrobusiness of the Central Valley just an hour inland.

Strawberries, Chile

We camp on a beach with some chilenos, and in what we are fast-learning is the Chilean way, within minutes food appears – delicious strawberries…

Golden sunset, Chile coast

…best enjoyed with another sunset. Strangely, all thoughts of Patagonian winter seem to have vanished.

Cycling dirt rollercoaster, Chile coast

The next morning the rollercoaster continues, eventually bringing us to the Itata river. Keen to avoid a 40km detour inland to the nearest bridge, we try our luck in finding a boat to take us across. We stop at a house, where we meet Raúl. A quick dash around the village and he finds a boatman who will take us across. “But first,” he says, “why don’t you have lunch with us?”

Family lunch in Chile

Of course, it would be rude to refuse, and soon we find ourselves sitting down to lunch with 12 members of a Chilean family we have never met…

Fredy and James, Chile

…including Freddy, a Chilean vet who incredibly studied at the same college as me back home.

Pushing bikes on a sandy beach in Chile

Of course, one hour turns into two, and then three – and by the time we finally drag ourselves away we have long missed our lift across the river. We push our bikes along the beach towards the river mouth anyway, hoping to get lucky…

Rowing cyclists across the river, Chile

…which we do. Alejandro, a fisherman who is drag netting at the river mouth cheerfully rows us across, explaining that he has done the same for a few cyclists before us.

Riding the Chile coast

We enjoy our final few kilometres of dirt road, up and over headlands…

Tranquil bay, Chile coast

…and around tranquil bays to the small seaside town of Dichato.

Stranded rowing boat, Dichato

Here, the fishing boat marooned in a sea of construction says it all – Dichato was one of the villages worst affected by the tsunami.

Parasol bike on the beach, Chile

On busy roads now, we hit a string of seaside towns, such as Tomé…

Tusnami warning on the beach, Chile

…where people soak up the last of the summer sun.

Bonito the cat, Chile

Evening finds us in Penco, where we go in search of the bomberos (firemen), who invite us to camp in their garage and make a fuss of their cat Bonito – which we duly do.

Logging trucks, cycling Chile coast

After navigating the sprawl of Concepción, we find ourselves back amongst the logging trucks.

Sopaipillas on the beach in Chile

One final beach camp brings some respite, along with a delivery of deliciously artery-clogging sopaipillas (fried bread) from friendly camping neighbours.

Chilean cottage

We cut inland towards Temuco, another step back in time past timber-clad cottages…

Classic Mercedes truck, Chile

…and classic Mercedes trucks…

Woods camp, cycling Chile

…and sneaking into the woods at dusk for peaceful camping spots.

Sleeping with the bomberos, Pillanlelblum

Our last night before the Lakes is again spent dry and warm…

Pillanlelbleum bomberos roll call

…thanks to the bomberos of the welcoming yet unpronouncable Pillanlelbun.

Wet cycling in Villarrica, Chile

And then the latitude ticks over the magic 39 degrees as we finally reach Villarrica and the Chilean Lake District. Our excitement is short-lived however, as childhood memories of holidays in the English Lake District come flooding back. Green, lush…and very, very wet. Looks like the waterproofs will be seeing a lot more action from here to Ushuaia.

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Lakes & Gates

February 24th, 2014

In my experience, when given the choice between a lake and a gate, cyclists would normally always opt for the lake. Throughout our trip, pedalling past beautiful lakes has brought us peace and contentment. The two mighty lakes of Atitlán in Guatemala and Titicaca in Bolivia spring immediately to mind, but there have been countless lakes along our route to relax by and enjoy.

Gates on the other hand have always represented a temporary or permanent obstacle in our path; an annoyance. Either we have been completely unable to pass or, in deciding to tackle the gate, we have had the onerous task of unloading our bikes, heaving them over the gate and loading them back up again – not much fun with two bikes and ten bags between us.

On this leg of the journey however, it was to be the reverse. The lakes, although pretty, were hidden from us behind a succession of wet and grey days and instead it was the series of gates that were the real pleasure along the road, tempting us along towards the Carretera Austral.

Sarah

Sarah outside the tent near Villarica, Chile

Leaving the northern Chilean coast behind, we are off to a bad start, arriving at Villarrica, portal to the Chilean lake district in the middle of torrential downpour. Unlike our beloved English Lakes, there isn’t even a fascinating pencil museum to shelter in and so we pitch a soggy tent in a soggy field…

Building a beach near the lake in Villarica, Chile

…and wake up to breakfast on a building site. Villarrica sees the potential in tourism and is in the midst of building an artificial beach for its visitors.

A view of Volcan Coñaripe over the lake of the same name, Chile

Things improve when we reach Coñaripe and camp next to the mystical lake…

View of volcan Coñaripe, Chile

…before a beautiful ride, climbing up towards the volcano of the same name.

James picking blackberries in the Lake District, Chile

We are racing against time but the change in the seasons means we can enjoy the blackberries…

James picking blackberries in Chile's lake district

…picking juicy ripe berries as we go is one of the highlights of travelling by bike in the autumn.

Pan amasado, local honey and a flask of tea in the Chilean Lake District

Another highlight of bike travel in Chile is stopping for warm bread straight from someone’s oven. Pan amasado can be found in nearly every village in Chilean Patagonia and this particularly warm, fluffy and comforting batch couldn’t have come at a more welcome time. Straight from the oven with fresh local honey and a cuppa from the flask. Perfect.

Fire station at Puerto Fuy, Chile

Rain again stops play. We are forced to postpone our ferry crossing at Puerto Fuy because the weather is so bad but it leads us to ask for shelter at the cosy new fire station in the village.

Wooden stair rail in the fire station at Puerto Fuy, Chile

Beautifully constructed from local pine, it’s not quite finished yet, but the attention to detail and craftsmanship are evident.

Wood panelled room in the fire station

We stretch out in a warm dry room, listening to the rain hammer outside.

Sarah pulling into the port at Puerto Fuy, Chile, on her bike

By the morning, nothing has changed and it’s a damp journey to the port…

James and Sarah on the ferry across Lago Pirihueico, Chile to Argentina

…reminiscent of soggy days in Alaska at the very beginning of our trip.

Two bikes leaning against a tree at Lago Nonthué , Argentina

The ferry takes us from Puerto Fuy across Lago Pirihueico and back into Argentina. When we arrive at idyllic Lago Nonthué just across the border, the sun finally shows itself…

Rainbow over Lago Nonthué, Argentina

…and we hang around the campsite to watch the rainbows.

View of the lake near San martin de los Andes

No visit to the Argentine lake district is complete without a stop at San Martín de los Andes…

Picture of Sarah's Ecuadorian hat at a campsite in San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina

…where it is time to say goodbye to my faithful but battered old hat, with me all the way from Cuenca in Ecuador (May 2013).

One of the lakes in the Argentine Lake District

The Argentine lake district seems distinctly more attractive to us than its Chilean counterpart…

Light shining on a meadow near San martin de Los Andes, Argentina

…but perhaps that is because the sun shines on this side a great deal more.

Russian style church in a meadow near San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina

Pretty churches with a Russian feel hide behind trees…

A rule measure sticking out of a lkae in the Argentine Lake District

…we ride quietly past…

Lago Espejo, Argentina

…until crystal clear Lago Espejo (Mirror Lake) convinces us to stop riding early and jump into the water.

Man fishing near Bariloche, Argentina

It’s hard not to fall in love with Patagonia…

River near Lago Espejo, Argentina

…really hard.

Shop window of a chocolate shop in Bariloche, Argentina

But there is an uglier side to this area – chocolate shop Swiss-style towns like Bariloche sometimes make the lake district feel like it’s a bit of a circus…

Two circus performers in Bariloche, Argentina

…especially when the circus does in fact roll into town and add to the mayhem.

James and Sarah in front of a distance sign on Route 40, Patagonia, Argentina

Back on the road, we are heading for the less-visited towns of Esquel and El Bolson, stopping along the way to “create” a birthday card for James’ brother Ed. A handily placed road sign with the year of his birth, a hastily prepared poster, a tripod and hey presto we’ve got ourselves a card!

Sarah and James in a bus shelter, near El Bolson, Argentina

Map check in a lovely log bus stop. I could happily live in something like this one day I think.

Road sign for Route 40 into Esquel, Argentina

Unbelievably, we are still on Route 40! It brings us to Esquel where…

A tray of facturas from Esquel, Argentina

…true to form, we seek out the bakery. Facturas are mini pastries to be found in every Argentine bakery in Patagonia. The quality varies but in Esquel we hit the jackpot.

View of the river valley from Corcovado, Argentina

Time for another detour and we choose a route to avoid roadworks at Futaleufu, the traditional border crossing for the Carretera Austral which takes you back into Chile. Keen to avoid the gravel, dumper truck mayhem we have been hearing about we used Skyler’s Off Route blog to plan a more picturesque and fun-filled route.

Road sign from Corcovado to Lago Vintter, Argentina

It’s a route that takes us along dirt roads, past forgotten lakes and through plenty of gates to our destination of the Chilean border crossing at Lago Verde, just a day’s ride from the fabled Carretera Austral at La Junta.

Tree branch hanging over river near Lago Vintter, Argentina

Idyllic camp spots…

A stone through crystal clear water near Lago Vintter, Argentina

…with crystal waters…

Small daisies in a field near Lago Vintter, Argentina

…and pretty little daisies which, I learned after all this time in Latin America are called margaritas. I will never look at a tequila cocktail in the same way again.

View of a windy day at Lago Vintter, Argentina

We reach Lago Vintter on a stormy day. The wind blows caps onto the lake and all of sudden we feel we are by the sea.

Pushing through the wind to Las Pampas near Lago Verde, Argentina

Ploughing through that wind, we head for the hills…

View of the zig zag in the road on the way to Las Pampas near Lago Verde, Argentina

…I love the zig-zag at the end of this dead straight stretch of road.

Picture of policeman Aldo in Las Pampas or Doctor Atilio Oscar Viglione, Argentina

At the end of that zig-zag lies a village that used to be known as Las Pampas and is now called Doctor Atilio Oscar Viglione. Thankfully our generous host that evening has a much more manageable name: Aldo. Head of the local police Aldo wastes no time in taking us in, giving us a bed, plying us with tea and then providing the tastiest indoor bbq I think we will ever eat.

Sign pointing to lake Number 5 on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

Saying goodbye to Aldo, we start on one of the most enjoyable days we’ve had in a long time. We only clock up 30km, slipping and sliding across rivers and through gates but it’s challenging, remote and beautiful…in all the right doses.

Sarah pushing her bike across a river on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

We start the morning with a push across the icy river outside Las Pampas…

James standing at a gate on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…and encounter our first gate…

A gate  on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…and then another.

Sarah on her bike riding a pebbly path on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

I lose count of them eventually, all linked together with pretty, pebbly tracks…

View of Sarah cycling through a gate near Las Pampas, Argentina

…all beautifully engineered…

Gateway on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…leading us to…

Argentine border post at Las Pampas / Lago Verde, Argentina

…perhaps the most pristinely cared for border post in the world. Even the dog is immaculate.

Sarah pushing her bike through a high river on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

I rashly opt to push through the next river fully loaded…

James lifting his bike across the river on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…while James sensibly lifts his across.

Yellow eggs for lunch on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

We fire up the stove for a delicious lunch made with Aldo’s sunshine yellow free range eggs.

Burned trees on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

Post lunch sees us weaving through a fantasmical ghost-wood.

Sarah crosses the gate at the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

One final gate marks another humble international border…

Welcome sign at the on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…and we are in Chile.

View of Lago Verde from the border, Chile

The stunning Lago Verde awaits with a prime camp spot but before we get there, refuelling is needed…

Dog sniffing cake at Lago Verde, Chile

…Aldo has slipped a homemade cake into our panniers and this local hound knows just as well as we do that it’s a tasty snack. What he realises much later to his dismay is that cyclists don’t share!

River near Lago Verde, Chile

We soak up the sights on the Chilean side…

Lancha on the lake at Lago Roosevelt near La Junta, Chile

…and our final camp spot before we hit the Carretera Austral? Why at a lake of course: this time, the serene Lago Roosevelt.

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