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.


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


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… 


…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.


2 Responses to “39′s the Magic Number”

  1. Carol Moncrieff Says:

    Just brilliant….yet again! Give Sarah my love, was great to catch up with her in Newcastle in November. Hope it goes well in London if you’re both still going,
    love Carol, Alan and Olive xxx


  2. ma and pa Says:

    As always a delight to read and lovely seaside pics. It’s been lovely having you with us and we are going to miss you while you are in London. We love you loads!


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