A Chilean interlude

October 31st, 2013

Joined by our friend Anna – who we have repeatedly bumped into over the last year but had never quite managed to cycle with so far – we set off together from La Paz. The aim was to leave Bolivia briefly and enter Chile, hunting for volcanoes, salars and thermal baths through the Vicuñas and Isluga national parks .

Two weeks of riding in little-visited corners of Bolivia and Chile covered a wide spectrum of physical discomforts and absolute pleasures. Scraped, chafed, burned, steamed, scratched, sore, parched, blistered, windswept – and yet at the same time mud-bathed, elated, relaxed and awed; we enjoyed every minute of cycling in this remote and epic landscape.

Sarah

Sarah and James with Mabel, Pablo and Yolanda at the casa de ciclistas in La Paz, Bolivia

The ‘overflow’ Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz is at Mabel’s house; Mabel, stepmother to indefatigable casa host Cristian, also hosts cyclists in her very comfortable basement. We are received as family and really hope to see Mabel, Pablo and Yolita again.

Max, Kanaan and Andy in the kitchen at Mabel's house, La Paz, Bolivia

Before leaving, we are lucky to spend time with some very hairy Alaskans. Max, Kanaan and Andy of “A Trip South” introduce us to Russian dumplings, excessive egg eating and the finer points of taming facial hair that is over a year old.

Rock formations on the road out of La Paz, Bolivia

After the frantic road out of La Paz, we welcome the solitude that the desert brings on the second day.

Anna wild camping outside of La Paz, Bolivia

Wild camping with Anna, we begin cooking together. Travelling with other cyclists obviously requires a certain amount of adapting to each others’ ways. We soon find though that on the most important topic (food) Anna’s appetite and hunger for good camp food matches ours and a beautiful new cooking team is born.

Poster of Pedro Fernandez in a shop-restaurant in Curahuara, La Paz

Just one of an eclectic mix of tasteful posters we get to peruse while having lunch in a shop in Curahuara.

Sarah and Anna drinking cups of tea by the roadside near Sajama, Bolivia

An icy downpour forces us off the road and into a disused shelter. The stove comes out and in a flash we are huddled over cups of tea until the weather clears…

Sarah and the two tents, wild camping near Sajama, Bolivia

…and a few kms later, we are settling into another idyllic camp site…

View of Volcan Sajama, Bolivia

…with beautiful views of Volcan Sajama – Bolivia’s highest peak at 6542m.

Anna and Sarah cycling through the dust near Sajama, Bolivia

A day’s very dusty and windy riding…

View of Volcan Sajama from the town square in Sajama village, Bolivia

…blows us into the sleepy village of Sajama, in the shadow of the mighty volcano.

Sarah eating breakfast with Volcan Sajama in the background, Sajama, Bolivia

From our humble lodgings we have a majestic view to enjoy with our breakfast…

Sarah washing clothes in front of Volcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

…and it follows us around all day – even scrubbing clothes becomes enjoyable with this backdrop.

Anna having her photo taken by a little girl from Sajama, Bolivia

No photos please! Anna gets ‘papped’ with her own camera in the hands of Maria Luz, one of the residents of Sajama with a keen eye for photography.

Sarah knocking on the door of a closed shop in Sajama, Bolivia

There’s not much going on in Sajama, and the handful of village shops are rarely open. We patiently knock, and wait, and hope…

James and Anna cooking dinner in the hotel room in Sajama, Bolivia

…supplies are short and we have to improvise but there’s still sufficient food to throw three cyclists into a cooking frenzy back in our hotel room…

Breakfast plate of eggs, bread and chorizo in Sajama, Bolivia

…which provides a sumptuous chorizo dinner and leftovers for a decadent breakfast.

Anna and Sarah cycle out of Sajama, Bolivia

Leaving Sajama behind, we ride towards two more epic peaks…

View of James' bike in front of Volcan Sajama, Bolivia

…pausing to look back at their imposing neighbour…

Anna and Sarah outside a tiny stone chapel near Sajama, Bolivia

…and stopping to explore clusters of houses with their own tiny stone chapels…

Yellow and orange banners inside a chapel near Sajama, Bolivia

…tattered and a bit worn inside, but definitely still used and loved.

Sarah cycling alongside a queue of trucks waiting to get across the border from Bolivia to Chuile at Tambo Quemado

We jump the queue in front of the many trucks also waiting to cross the border at Tambo Quemado…

Chilean flag in the desert near the Bolivian/Chilean border

…and then we are into Chile for a few days of detouring in the desert.

James eating an egg sandwich near Guallatiri, Chile

We are forbidden from carrying fruit, vegetables, dairy or meat into Chile and not expecting to encounter shops or restaurants on the Chilean side, we have prepared reluctantly for a five day stint of dried foods and basic meals. We strike gold however on the first morning – a roadside café offering delicious fried egg sandwiches…

A vicuña skeleton on the road near Guallatiri, Chile

…but clearly not everyone is as lucky with their access to food out here.

Sarah being covered in dust by a passing lorry, near Guallatiri, Chile

We share the road with a procession of trucks on their way to Arica on the Chilean coast. Despite being very courteous, the lorry drivers can’t avoid covering us in layer after layer of dust.

Anna and Sarah riding along a dirt road near Guallatiri, Chile

Most of the time though, we have the road to ourselves…

Sarah looking out onto a valley near Guallatiri, Chile

…and can take time to watch the landscape open up in front of us.

Bike flags blowing in the afternoon wind near Guallatiri, Chile

Afternoon winds are brutal…

Sarah pushing her bike through sand near Guallatiri

…and finding ourselves on a wide empty plateau in the early evening, we have to push 3km through sand and wind to find some shelter for camping.

Sarah and Anna sheltering in a corral out of the wind near Guallatiri, Chile

We find ready-made shelter in a corral which is perfect for cooking our dinner out of the wind.

Vicuña and flamingos on the Salar de Surire, Chile.

After a silent night of tranquil camping, we are just a short hop away from the edge of Chile’s Salar de Surire. A wide, bright, sparkling, deserted expanse of salt and a haven for vicuña and flamingos.

Sarah standing on the Salar de Surire, Chile

Tentative steps out onto the salar thankfully reveal that it’s spongy but not a complete bog.

A spongy green plant on the Salar de Surire, Chile

Flashes of green from quirky local plant life…

of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…contrast with the dazzling white salt and turquoise thermal pools. We arrive at the thermal waters at Polloquere…

James covered in mud at the thermal pools of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and jump in. James quickly returns to his “creature from the deep” incarnation, last seen on Lake Tititaca…

Sarah covered in mud at the thermal pools of Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and I scoop up the silky mud for a face pack. In the cold afternoon winds, the warm waters at around 45°C are bliss…

Sarah snuggled in her down jacket on the Salar de Surire, Chile

… but it’s a very different story out of the water. Getting straight into warm clothes is a race as the temperatures plummet. We layer up to keep warm…

Sun setting over Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…as the sun goes down.

The thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

Waking to towers of rising steam and with no wind, the waters are hotter than the night before…

James and Anna sitting on an island at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…nothing for it but to get back in…

Anna and Sarah apply mud all over their bodies at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…and enjoy an all over body pack…

James, Sarah and Anna covered in mud with their backs to the camera at the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…thankfully, there’s enough mud to cover everyone!

Roadsign near the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

Dragging ourselves away from a luxurious morning of mud wallowing, we begin our journey back towards the Bolivian border. With barely anything marked on our map and only having seen a handful of lorry drivers for days, we are surprised to find so many place names marked on this road sign…

Three bikes laid in the road near the thermal pools at Pollequere, Salar de Surire, Chile

…but there’s definitely no one around…

Anna and Sarah riding away from the Salar de Surire, Chile

…as we climb away from the salar…

James cycling across the pass between the Salar de Surire and Colchane, Chile

…and onto a lunar landscape.

Blue church door in Isluga, Chile

Signs of life return as we descend towards Bolivia and reach another pretty church in Isluga…

Detail of flowers and lock on blue church door in Isluga, Chile

…with delicate details.

Lorries queued up outside customs in Pisigia, Bolivia

Crossing back into Bolivia is quick and easy and soon we are back amongst the truckers as the sun sets over the border town of Pisiga.

Llamas looking through the door into our camp area in Pisiga, Bolivia

Keen to camp, we accept an invitation from friendly Miguel (who owns the local grocery shop in town) to camp with his baby llamas. They insist on overseeing every aspect of our routine, and welcome us appropriately back to Bolivia.

Anna also blogged about this section of our trip and you can read it here.

Route notes:

Bolivia:

Route: La Paz – Patacamaya – Sajama – Tambo Quemado
- Reached Sajama via unpaved back road which loops to north of Volcán Sajama via Ojsani and Tomarapi – recommended. Turn off level with telecom towers on hill, towards rock forest.
- Last shopping opportunity in Tambo Quemado on Bolivian side – we didn’t see a shop again until we crossed back into Bolivia at Pisiga, 5 days later.
- No fresh fruit, veg, meat or dairy products into Chile – they scan your bags to check. Peanut butter OK, honey and jam not!

Chile:

Route: Guallatire – Chilcaya – Enquelga – Isluga – Colchane
- From customs and immigration, back track a few hundred metres and take the turn on the bend signed to Guallatire – an unpaved, sandy road which climbs to a pass. 10km from customs to Chirigualla hot springs – we slept cosily inside the hut.
- Polloquere hot springs – approx 32km from Chilcaya. Follow dirt road around the east side of the Salar de Surire. At junction in corner of salar, keep right (left turn, uphill, goes back to Bolivia) – springs are on right after a couple of km.
- After springs, continue on this road to a well-signed junction – turn left towards Colchane.
- Food: roadside comedor 10km before Guallatire – also sells biscuits. Other than that, we saw no shops in Chile.
- Water: never carried more than a day’s supply – available from Customs post at border, carabinieri (police) at Guallatire and Chilcaya, and some freshwater springs on the pampa after the Cerro Capitán pass.

See our map for a route overview.

Share

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… 

P1420357

…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.

Share

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.

Share

La Carretera Austral

March 15th, 2014

 

Gateway on the Carretera Austral, Chile

La Carretera Austral: undeniably beautiful but – to coin an Al Humphreys’ book title – “There are Other Dirt Roads”… 

It’s almost impossible to write anything about the Carretera Austral without lapsing into full-blown cliché. This, after all, is another of South America’s iconic rides, the much-touted “best dirt road” on the continent, stretching 1000km into the wild heart of Chilean Patagonia (see, I’ve done it already). And on paper, it had all the ingredients we love rolled into one: dirt, isolation and unspoiled natural beauty. So why then did I ride into Villa O’Higgins at the far end of the Austral feeling, well…slightly anti-climaxed? Relieved to have got it out of the way rather than re-invigorated and inspired?

At the time I put it down to a simple case of travel fatigue, as my gaze inevitably turned inwards and the senses began to shut down towards the end of a long trip. After all, the Austral did have some undeniably special moments: our first glimpse of the turquoise Lago General Carrera in the morning sun, following the roar of the Rio Baker towards Cochrane, or simply camping wild night after night in perfect silence. But still, as beautiful as it was, something was missing.

I thought back to some of the dirt roads we had ridden further north in South America, in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; the ones we already talk about as the “golden days” of this trip. What made them so special? I realised that a large part of it was the lack of hype factor. If we had stumbled across the Carretera Austral in the way we stumbled across many of our favourite roads, then it would have been a different experience. Instead, we already had a clear idea of what the Austral was going to be like in our heads before we set foot on it – and that’s pretty much how it was: predictably beautiful. No surprises, good or bad.

Of course, that’s no fault of the Carretera Austral. It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise that riding one of the most hyped routes in the world, along with half the cycle-touring population of South America, would be something of an anti-climax. You’d have thought that we’d have worked out what makes us tick by now. And I think we have – but the trouble is, it’s actually quite hard to swim against the current and completely turn your back on these “must-see” routes. Try telling another cyclist that you’re not going to bother with the Carretera Austral because “it’s a bit clichéd” and watch their eyebrows go skywards.

But ultimately I’m glad we rode the Austral. Partly because it showed us an undeniably beautiful part of Chilean Patagonia. But also because it re-affirmed to me everything we’ve learned about how and why we love to travel. Our best moments on this trip have been the least-expected ones, not the “don’t miss” ones. That doesn’t mean we deliberately side-step the “must-see” sites – in fact, we’ve seen almost all of them along our route. It’s just that, on their own, they leave us unfulfilled.

We’ve realised that for us, surprise is the magical travel ingredient. The best part of travelling is to be surprised – and definitely not just by landscapes, but also by people and places. Take away this element of surprise and travel becomes little more than a predictable tick-list. Does X Wonder of the World look like the photo? Yes, tick. Next…

So where does that leave us as travellers? In a clique of tedious traveller-types obsessed with a quest for “authenticity”? Maybe, but I hope not. The world might be becoming more homogeneous by the day, but surely it remains too diverse, too rich in these moments of surprise and discovery to be reduced to a list of “1000 places to see before you die”? By all means go and see them. Ride the Austral. But then throw away the guidebook, pick a place you’ve never heard of, and go and explore.

And the best thing about travelling by bike? That it makes it so easy to break free from the tick-list approach to travelling, to just throw a dart at a map and go. Because for every Carretera Austral, I guarantee there are a hundred other dirt roads out there waiting to surprise you.

James

Carretera Austral road sign, Chile

We join the Austral at La Junta, after a beautiful and remote border crossing from Argentina via Las Pampas and Lago Verde (highly recommended). After two days in which we’d seen less than five cars…

Cyclist covered in dust on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…the Austral is a shock to the system: racing, honking traffic which leaves us caked in dust. This is definitely not the dirt road of our dreams; this is a dirt highway where it seems that goodwill and patience towards the streams of pilgrim cyclists has run out long ago.

Sign with construction notes on the Carretera Austral, Chile

In fact, much of the middle section of the Austral around Coyhaique is now paved, and undoubtedly all of it will be before too long. Until then, meticulous roadside notes detail the never-ending task of keeping the road passable – or maybe lay the blueprint for the asphalt to come.

Pulled up fishing boats at Puyuhuapi on the Carretera Austral, Chile

After Puyuhuapi, thankfully the road quietens. We scout the edges of the loch for a camping spot…

Barnacles on the sea loch at Puyuhuapi, Carretera Austral, Chile

…duly noting the clues that this is actually a sea loch and so tidal. We pick a grassy ledge set back above the beach, and watch the dolphins swimming in the bay while we cook dinner. Idyllic. As we drift off to sleep, I utter the immortal line: “Listen to the dolphins, they sound so close”. Which is because they were – in fact they were probably swimming laps around the tent by this point…

Cyclist with flooded tent on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…because by 2am, we awake to find our sleeping mats (and all our other possessions) bobbing gently in 20cm of rapidly rising salt water. It seems we might have mis-judged the tides. Luckily, we manage to rescue everything before it floats off into the Pacific and re-pitch our tent on higher ground. We shiver into our soaked sleeping bags and hope for a sunny morning.

Fuscias on the Carretera Austral, Chile

Of course, we wake to lashing rain. A tough climb up and over the Cuesta Quelat keeps us warm though, and finally the rain stops and the fuchsias come out in all their magnificence.

Cyclists drying clothes at a bus stop, Carretera Austral, Chile

Next morning the sun peeks out, the wind blows, and we convert a bus shelter into an impromptu laundry.

Casa de Ciclistas in Villa Mañihaules, Carretera Austral, Chile

Jorge’s Casa de ciclistas in Villa Mañihuales provides a welcome rest stop …

Cyclists asado at Casa de Ciclistas, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and a fun reunion with friends from the road. Argentine Nico takes charge of the asado…

Cyclists birthday cake at casa de cilistas, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and Stephanie from Quebec bakes a delicious cake in anticipation of the arrival of the Alaskan posse. Eventually birthday boy Andrew and Kanaan roll in – apparently after a rare interlude on bikes. It’s been a long time since we saw them back in La Paz, and we catch up on all things eggs and check on progress with their English pronunciation lessons (conclusion: a hopeless cause).

Cyclists wild camp on the Carretera Austral, Chile

In Coyhaique, we camp on the lawn of Jeff and Loreta, new friends we met up at Lago Verde. They receive us with open arms and hot food, and it’s hard to tear ourselves away…but eventually we do, and it’s back to more rustic camp spots in the bushes like this one.

Cerro Castillo, Carretera Austral, Chile

Here the Austral is paved as far as the looming Cerro Castillo…

Valley near Cerro Castillo, Carretera Austral, Chile

…then back to dirt through the valley with a vicious headwind.

Refugio on the Carretera Austral, Chile

The Carretera Austral is littered with abandoned houses and sheds like this one, many of which have been adopted by cyclists and walkers in dire need of a roof for the night. I like the fact that in Patagonia, these places are self-maintaining, cared for and respected by the people that use them: “If you use this refuge, please don’t leave it dirty” is inscribed on the gate.

Yellow flower and shingle clad house on the Carretera Austral, Chile

The walls are clad in typical Patagonian wooden “shingle”…

Guacho sticker in refugio, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and inside a faded sticker of a gaucho from a local rodeo competition alludes to its past life as a home.

Shimmering islands on Lago General Carrera, Chile

For us, Lago General Carrera is the highlight of the Austral: an enormous, shimmering lake…

Turquoise Lago General Carrera, Chile

…which comes to life in shades of turquoise when the sun shines.

A Frame house by Lago General Carrera, Chile

Not a bad place to build yourself a classic A-frame…

Cyclist scouting for camp spot, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…but if that’s not yours, then just head down to the nearest bay for a picture-perfect camping spot.

Mountains surrounding Lago General Carrera, Chile

The next morning is a beauty…

Cycling towards mountains surrounding Lago General Carrera, Chile

…and we head briefly towards the mountains…

Friendly dog meets cyclist, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…and then back to the lake via an extremely excitable four-legged friend.

Cyclists tea stop on Lago General Carrera, Chile

An idyllic spot for a mid-morning cuppa…

Bees on purple flower, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…while the bees work away in the last of the summer sun.

View from river bridge, Lago General Carrera, Chile

This is the pristine Patagonia I always dreamed of; turquoise rivers and snowy peaks. Maybe only its remoteness has kept it this way for so long…

Patagonia sin represas sign, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…although of course, it’s only superficial perfection. Patagonia is an immense store of natural resources, not least of all water, and there have been long-standing efforts to dam Patagonia’s rivers and create a series of hydroelectric plants. Thanks to the efforts of pressure groups like Patagonia Sin Represas, the latest proposal was recently thrown out…

Patagonia sin Tompkins sign, Carretera Austral, Chile

…but no doubt there will be many more to come. It’s become a classic battle of locals against outsiders, with the conservation efforts of North American millionaires such as Doug Tompkins (founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands) viewed with intense suspicion.

Worn road sign near Cochrane, Carretera Austral, Chile

Finally we head away from Lago General Carrera towards Cochrane…

Cycling past lake, Carretera Austral, Chile

…past more picture-postcard lakes…

Rosehip with lake and mountains, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and with hints of autumn around the corner.

Turquoise Rio Baker through the trees, Carretera Austral, Chile

We follow the impossibly turquoise Río Baker…

Cyclists camping along the Rio Baker, Carretera Austral, Chile

…another riverside camp spot…

Rio Baker confluence, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and a last view back over the confluence of the Baker and the Nef.

Abandoned bicycle tyre hanging on sign, Carretera Austral, Chile

From Cochrane, the traffic slows to a trickle. This is the true dead end of the Austral, with exit only really possible by a combination of boat plus bike/foot/horse. Signs of cyclists are everywhere – from roadside fire rings to discarded spare tyres, left hanging optimistically on road signs.

Cyclists passing messages, Carretera Austral, Chile

There’s still a trickle of northbound cyclists coming the other way. We meet Mark and Katia halfway up a pass, bearing messages from our friends further along the road (“Hurry up!” was the general gist) in a kind of cyclist pigeon post. As always, we compare notes and swap tips on camping spots and where the next meal might come from – and then it’s onwards, the cycling version of ships passing in the night. 

Cyclist cresting hill, Carretera Austral, Chile

One final hill to crest…

Ferry crossing the River ??, Carretera Austral, Chile

…before a ferry across the river at Puerto Fuy.

Abandoned cab of truck in forest, Carretera Austral, Chile

This final section is the Austral at its wildest, and feels like a glimpse into its early pioneer days.

Dense trees on the Carretera Austral, Chile

It’s a sparse landscape of dense vegetation…

Moss on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…deep greens and browns…

Waterfall on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…and water, trickling everywhere…

Cyclist shelters from rain, Carretera Austral, Chile

…including onto us. Our lucky run of good weather finally comes to an end, and we are treated to some more typical Patagonian days: grey skies, hanging clouds and driving rain. We ride heads down, stopping when we find shelter to make hot drinks and food.

Lago Cisnes with low cloud, Carretera Austral, Chile

Just as we reach Lago Cisnes, the rain eases. We stop on impulse, just a few kilometres short of Villa O’Higgins…

Cyclists campfire on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…but lured by the prospect of a final night’s wild camp and a roaring fire.

Kitchen stove at Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins, Chile

The next day we reach O’Higgins, where we swap the open fire for a stove at the excellent Tsonek Eco-Camp. This is how organised campsites should be: a cosy communal kitchen…

Indigenous postcard in the window, Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins

…secluded camping on raised platforms in the woods, friendly hosts with an environmental conscience…

Bookshelf at Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins

…intriguing bookshelves…

Cyclist postcard at Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins

..and plenty of inspiration: “Ride as if life was going to last forever”. 

Share

Band of bikers

April 5th, 2014

For the stretch between the end of the Carretera Austral in Chile, all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego (some 500kms) we barely ever cycled alone. Part of a merry band of bikers, we enjoyed the social riding – the endless banter, the clash and blend of personalities, and of course the food…always the food.

Sarah

Bikes alongside the ferry in Villa O Higgins, Chile

The end of the Carretera Austral is in reality a very dead end, exit to Argentina only being achievable for cyclists and pedestrians. Even for them it’s a bit of a challenge: first a ferry across Lago O’Higgins, then a hike and bike for around 25kms, then another ferry across Lago Desierto and finally you’re in Argentina. We are two of ten cyclists on one of the final ferries of the season.

Nando Padros, cyclist from Cataluna

Joined, amongst others, by the inimitable Nando – otherwise known as el abuelito (grandpa)…

Anthony pushing his bikeup a steep hill with Lago O Higgins behind, Chile

…and Anthony, a Frenchman on a trip from Quito to Ushuaia.

Sarah cycling through the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

Another low-key border crossing… 

Sarah cycling through the woods at the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

…which winds through beautiful woods…

Autumn leaves and calafate berries near El Chaltén, Argentina

…with autumn in bloom…

James pushing his bike through a narrow section at the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

…and as the track narrows…

Sarah pushing her bike through a narrow stretch at the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

…it turns into a tricky boggy battle, that takes us to another boat across another lake.

A lamb on a roasting cross in the fogon at El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

All tired out, we reach El Chaltén and Flor’s amazing casa de ciclistas. Luck would have it that they’re roasting a whole lamb on a traditional Patagonian asador that very night, and so we feast unexpectedly and catch up with old friends – Anna…

Lee with four kittens on his head at Flor's house in El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…Lee (plus a few very cute accessories)…

Raul chopping cabbage in the garden at Flor's house El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…and Raul. So begins a cooking frenzy that will go on for a whole week – at any one time ten cyclists gather in Flor’s tiny kitchen trying to outdo one another with fresh gnocchi, Argentine buñuelos, stuffed apples, flapjack, Scottish cranachan and more.

Fitz Roy range, Argentina

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from the cozy house but the Fitz Roy range, looming directly over town is a good distraction…

Drinking mate by Fitz Roy, Argentina

…and we wander with Lee to find a good spot to drink maté and ponder both the past and the future.

Group of ten cyclists with Flor at her house in El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

The party gathers for a final group photo (courtesy of Tatan) before thanking Flor profusely for her boundless hospitality…

Tatan and Candela cycling away from the Fitzroy range near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…and we zoom out of town with a delicious tailwind. Tatan and Candela (from Argentina) lead the way…

Sarah, Lee and Heidi cycling away from the Fitzroy range near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…followed by myself Lee and Heidi, loving the effortless cycling and chatting away. There’s a distinct air that everybody (all ten of these southbound cyclists leaving Flor’s at least) is coming to the end of their trip…

Seven cyclists in front of the Fitzroy range near cycling away from the Fitzroy range near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…we can’t help stopping for group photos and babbling on with excitement, mixed with anxiety, anticipation and lots of in-jokes.

Abandoned Pink House near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

A day’s ride from El Chalten with that favourable tailwind (we covered 90km in just under four hours) brings us to the fabled “Pink House”…

Cyclists' register on the wall at the Pink House, near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…an abandoned hotel, where hundreds of cyclists have stopped before us and signed the wall of fame.

Signing the cyclist register in the Pink House near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

I duly add our details – is it a sign of a good trip that I have completely lost track of the year?

Raul lighting a fire in the Pink House near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

Raul stokes up a roaring fire and we huddle around the warmth, happy to be out of the wind for the night.

Road sign of a tree being blown in the wind on the way to Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Because when it blows here, it really blows…

Sarah, Lee, Heidi and Kurt stopping for a snack on the way to Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…making roadside snacks challenging. We take refuge, using each other as windbreaks…

Perito Moreno glaciar near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…on our way to El Calafate and the mighty Perito Moreno glacier.

Lineup of seven cyclists in front of Perito Moreno glaciar near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Believe it or not, all these cyclists (plus one who didn’t make it into the photo) managed to fit into just one hired VW Golf to get to the national park…

Wide shot of Perito Moreno glacier near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…but the uncomfortable journey was worth it – watching the stunning glacier calve into the lake below…

Chunks of ice in the lake at Perito Moreno glaciar near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…seeing the chilly details up close…

Perito Moreno glacier

…and marvelling at the overall spectacular. Pictures just don’t do it justice.

Sarah cycling away from Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Another tasty tailwind leaving Calafate…

Sarah cycling through the pampa near Tapi Aike, Patagonia, Argentina

…and we practically fly into the pampa…

Sunrise at El Cerrito, Patagonia, Argentina

…with its breathtaking skies…

Pink clouds of sunrise at El Cerrito, Patagonia, Argentina

…every morning a new show…

Sarah cycling past a roadside scarecrow near El Cerrito, Patagonia, Argentina

…and its assortment of roadside characters – some less inquisitive…

Grey fox in the bushes near Tapi Aike, Patagonia, Argentina

…than others.

Sarah and Andy cycle past a road sign on the way to Puerto Natales, Chile

Back into Chile and we feel the end is near – even the road signs say so: we are now following the “Route to the End of the World”.

Andy eating crackers in a bus stop on the way to Puerto Natales, Chile

We ride with Andy – fellow Brit and self-confessed hot chocolate addict. Lunching in bus stops we appreciate them anew, as things of beauty: well built, warm and better than most of the Central American hotels we stayed in.

Frozen eggs at Cerro Castillo, Chile

We camp in a playground at Cerro Castillo where it’s so cold overnight, Andy’s eggs are frozen in the morning.

Entrance gate to an estancia near Puerto Natales, Chile

Fighting sidewinds, we pass grand entrances to estancias we cannot see…

Shack in a field on the way to Puerto Natales, Chile

…and humble shacks battened down against the weather.

Two dogs behind a fence in Puerto Natales, Chile

In Puerto Natales, the welcoming party pops up to say hello…

Old boat in the yard at Puerto Natales, Chile

…and we wander through the run-down shipyards…

Close up of abandoned boat in Puerto Natales, Chile

…admiring old hulking ruins…

Hip hop graffiti in Puerto Natales, Chile

…alongside graffiti (you are the hip to my hop)…

Mapuche graffiti in Puerto Natales, Chile

…Resist brother Mapuche! (indigenous people of Patagonia).

Andy brushing teeth in Puerto Natales, Chile

When does the constant movement of cycle touring become normal? Perhaps when brushing your teeth astride your bike in the middle of a busy shopping street doesn’t seem at all strange…

Bus shelter and three bikes by the side of the road on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

…or when sleeping in a bus shelter feels like a luxurious treat. This architectural gem is our home for the night.

Andy and Sarah waking up in a bus shelter on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

The three of us squeeze in, make hot chocolate and even watch a film on the laptop. The next morning we drag ourselves away from our cozy spot…

Tree mishapen by the wind on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

…back into the Patagonian wind…

Andy and his cycling goggles on the road to Punta Arenas, Chile

…and it’s “goggles down chaps” for our final ride into Punta Arenas and the end of mainland South America.

Minefield on the roadside on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

Past forgotten mine fields…

Boy cycling along the front in Punta Arenas, Chile

…into a port city with a laidback feel…

Large group of imperial cormorants on a pier in Punta Arenas

…a hoarde of resident cormorants…

A wall in the cemetery at Punta Arenas, Chile

…and a fascinating cemetery to mooch around.

A plate of cakes in El Immigrante cafe, Punta Arenas, Chile

And this particular leg of the journey ends as all good journeys should…

Andy with a big slab of cake in El Immigrante cafe, Punta Arenas, Chile

…with fellow cyclists and with cake.

Share

“Whatever a penguin does has individuality, and he lays bare his whole life for all to see…sometimes solemn, sometimes humorous, enterprising, chivalrous, cheeky – and always a welcome and, in some ways, an almost human friend.”
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard

 

For me, a visit to Tierra del Fuego – the island nestled at the foot of South America – wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to the recently re-established King Penguin colony between Porvenir and Camerón. As a long-time admirer of this funny little waddle machine, I was looking forward to the visit with great expectations. (And it would take all of my self-control not to sneak one of them into my panniers before leaving).

Second only in size to the Emperor Penguin, the King is usually found in the much more southerly regions of South Georgia and Antarctica. As these areas are only accessible by long and expensive boat trips, we were keen and privileged to be able to access their colony by bike.

We were also lucky to have the place to ourselves. Camping there with three other cyclists, we had the last of the evening’s sun to nip down and pay them a visit and then the following morning, we returned to watch them stretch, wake and explore – a little more closely than we could ever have anticipated…

Sarah

Penguins territory on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magical Patagonian evening light is the perfect time for viewing…

Penguins preening themselves on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…as the penguins busy themselves with preening…

Calling penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…calling to one another, and not-so-gracefully flopping down on the grass.

Penguin standing alone on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

These are the penguins that grace the cover of well-loved paperback books…

Penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…or the shiny red packets of school-day chocolate bar snacks.

Penguins walking across the pampa in Tierra del Fuego, Chile

There’s something about the way they move that seems so human. Perhaps they feel the same – that we seem so ‘penguin’, and so over they come to investigate.

Two penguins approaching Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Karen is the first target. Once one has decided to check her out…

Penguins lining up to meet Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…the others soon follow…

Penguins gather around Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chil

…and before long it’s a veritable penguin party.

Penguins approach James on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Then they’re headed James’ way.

Penguins bowing in front of James on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

First, they respectfully bow…

Close up of penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…before they invade his space. “Does he have a beak like us?…

Close up of king penguin feathers, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…Are his feathers as beautiful and smooth as ours?…

Close up of two king penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…and can he carry off ‘regal’ like we do?”

Penguins approaching Sarah on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

“How about the female over there…

Penguins appraoching in a line, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…let’s check her out!

Penguin feet close up, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Are her feet like ours?…

Penguin biting a shoe Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…hmmm, clearly no good for Antarctic swimming.” 

Penguins with Sarah on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

And finally they decide we are no longer interesting…

Four king penguins, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…and off they waddle…

Three king penguins standing together, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…to discuss more pressing things.

Share