It’s a 13-hour bus journey from Santiago to Puerto Montt, although the fare for the overnight journey is little more than the cost of a night’s accommodation at the Ibis in Santiago. The Chilean sitting in the next seat has his beady eye on me as he wants to practise his English, an admirable goal perhaps but less than endearing at 3am. I am avoiding eye-contact as we roll into another near-identical, cookie-cutter bus station somewhere between Chillan and Temuco; he jumps over me to join the driver outside for a cigarette. No food or drink here then! Later on, I consider chewing one of the armrests to relive the experience of breakfast the previous day, but the bus is already pulling into Puerto Montt so there is no time for that. I notice the Derek-shaped dent in the super-soft seat as I disembark.
I was in Puerto Montt briefly in 1992, just long enough to change planes on our journey south, and missed out on the city tour But the town itself looks grey and dismal under grey and dismal skies so I don’t hang around. I need chocolate and an outdoors shop I can get tape to plug some of the holes in my tent. After a fruitless climb to a non-existent shop at the top of a very much existent hill, I give up and roll out of town along the seafront. I will find something along the way and it’s not going to rain anyway, is it? I am vindicated 10km further down the road at a mini-mall where I feast on empanadas and parcel tape.
The Carretera Austral (Southern Way) is a 1,240km road winding its way south from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, connecting rural communities previously isolated from the rest of Chile. As there are only 100,000 people living in this coastal region, the investment building and maintaining the road (half of which is paved) is significant. But, while this may not have been in General Pinochet’s mind when he ordered the road to be built in the 1970s, the mountains, forests and lakes draw tourists from around the world to what is now one of the top cycling destinations in South America.
I am pondering Augusto’s contribution to my cycling pleasure as I pull into Caleta la Arena, a village where the first of the ferries I will need to take departs. I assume the coastline is, to use the technical term, too “wiggly” for a road here. A woman with a card machine, slung around her waist like a holster, relieves me of £2.80 and waves me onboard. An Austrian cyclist coming the other way looks at the size of my panniers dubiously and wishes me luck. He promises I will meet many more cyclists in the coming days and he is not wrong.
Later, as I disembark, I spot a sign telling me I am 55km into my journey. I don’t need a calculator to realise this is two-thirds of diddly squat when it comes to the distance I have to go. Someone has helpfully painted the distance covered on the road as well, in increments of 100m. I am in a state of panic, wondering how I am going to know when I have reached the 50-, 60- or 70-metre mark. How thoughtless of them!
At Contao, I knock on doors looking for a room but, even 6 weeks before Christmas, there is no room at the inn. I find a campsite and pitch my tent under a tree. I am sure it is going to rain and assume the tree will give me some protection. I am 50% correct. The following morning I am rolling up my sleeping pad and look over my shoulder. One of the owner’s dogs is helping itself to my porridge. Fortunately there is plenty left so I don’t starve. I am not proud…
The next two days are wet and I am testing my Gore-Tex rain-gear, and it is functioning perfectly. There is no way any of the sweat I am generating on the hills will be getting out anytime soon. I cast my mind back to the rainfall figures showing November to be one of the driest months here and wonder if I was holding the chart upside down. At the next ferry port, Hornopiren, I check into a hotel to dry my gear. I ask twice, and remove my shoes and socks to count toes, before concluding the hotel really is £15 per night including breakfast. How they make money at those rates is a mystery.
The ferry to Caleta Gonzalo is a 4-hour journey and, when I arrive at the port, I see a bunch of cyclists wheeling bikes down the slipway. The rain is merging with the sea, so we spend a convivial few hours comparing gear ratios, pannier set-ups and discussing other topics of significance. I am not the oldest cyclist here and purr appreciatively when described as “much younger” by a 60-something. For the most part, the cyclists are in their late 20s or 30s and have been on the road for 1 to 2 years covering some serious mileage. I am not envious.
The following morning the sun comes out and I am working my way down to Chaiten, a town of around 3,000 inhabitants and the biggest place this side of the halfway point at Coyhaique. When I say “down to Chaiten” I mean down, up, down, up, down (and repeat). This is a theme whether you are going up, down or along the flat. There is something like 50,000m of ascent in total, with most of it being between the passes rather than over them.
Chicken stew and a slice of apple tart soothe my tired legs before I head out on the (relatively) flat road to Lago Yelcho. Tommaso from Milan is with me now and a westerly breeze carries us effortlessly to a camping spot 40km down the road. The campsite is part of a lodge that is, frankly, too good for riff-raff like us, but it is early in the season and we don’t smell too much, so they allow us to drink their over-priced beer before supper.
The next day is nice too, although there is a bit of a climb up and over to Villa Santa Lucia where we stock up on snacks. We are eating a lot of junk food at the moment – I blame Tommaso, he blames me. In the afternoon it clouds over but there is no rain until the following day. We are putting in the miles when the weather is good and have managed 190km or so over 2 days by the time we roll into La Junta. As I had originally expected to average 60km a day, I am well ahead of schedule and should be able to work in a rest day later if I need one.
Our decision not to camp proves to be a wise one, as we wake up to the sound of “lluvia” drumming on the roof. Tommaso assures me “lluvia” is the Spanish for rain and not some lunatic drummer with a head for heights. I add this word to my store of 50 Spanish words, as I suspect it will come in useful later. As I am riding out of town, I point at the sky and shout “lluvia” to a few of the locals. They don’t seem all that impressed.
It is a day for a couple of photos and wet feet but little else. We meet a Canadian in Puyuhuapi with no tent and a sleeping bag made from ducks with alopecia. He sleeps in bus shelters and cycles in sandals. I offer him some of my chips and assure him that tents and warm sleeping bags are overrated. We agree to meet up later and share a culvert but we end up somewhere dry and warm instead. Having given up my chips, I feel I have suffered enough.
I am repaid for my hubris the next day as the rain lashes down on us once again. I have plastic bags on my feet held in place with rubber bands. This provides some protection as my feet are now warm and wet. I eke such enjoyment as I can from the climb over to Villa Amengual (not much) but the rivers look ready to burst their banks and the road is gravel most of the way. It is a shortish day though, and we are soon hanging up our gear at the appropriately named Refugio Por Ciclista, where we discover our Canadian friend has arrived already and is showing no signs of hypothermia.
The pattern repeats itself as we wake up to sunny skies once more. It is freezing cold when we leave the refuge but the inevitable up, down, up warms the blood and loosens the clothing. The gradients are kind and the fields are full of lupins. The rain is forgotten and the sheer awesome brilliance of riding this road is once more at the front, back and middle of my mind. Take a large bowl and add some Alpine peaks, mix in Norwegian fjords and waterfalls, add a smattering of Alaskan wildflowers and a dollop of New Zealand remoteness and hey presto! All the ingredients you need to create this part of Chilean Patagonia.
As we have started early (one of the benefits of not camping) and the forecast the following day is for rain once again, we decide to push the full 135km to Coyhaique in 1 day. We can then bank a day of rest, wash our clothes and, er, relax in the nearest thing to a proper city on this route. The prospect of 1,750m of climbing and an 11-hour day does not seem as daunting when the living is easy and the cotton is high.
We are now just over halfway after 7 days of cycling which is waaaay further than I expected. But our tactic of putting in the long days when the sun is shining is paying dividends. If I had longer, I would probably only cycle on sunny days, but things seems to be working well at the moment and the forecast for the second half is more settled, so onwards and downwards.
The southern section has more gravel and is one of the reasons for the road being dubbed the “Carretera Dustral”. At this point, I would describe it as the Aquaterra Austral or perhaps the Carretera Gustral because of the rain and the wind, but I will reserve judgment on that. Whatever it is called, the first half, at least, has to go on any cycle tourist’s bucket list. It’s just awesome… (to be continued)