…Plan A is to complete the Carretera Austral in 20-25 days. This will ensure I am in Puerto Natales in good time for Cathy and Adam’s arrival on 17 December, while preserving my ageing legs with a modest 50-60kms of cycling a day. Plan B is to ignore Plan A altogether, as the roads from Puerto Montt are pretty good and, with a little encouragement from Tommaso (my cycling companion since Hornopiren), we have completed the first half of the journey in an unseemly 7 days. While God may have created the Earth and all living things in 6 days, I am not that quick and have to rest on day 8 instead. It is a brief but welcome break and the burgers and beer rarely tasted better.
We still have 630km to go, and most of that is on gravel. Tommaso has an app telling him there are fewer high passes in the second half but, unhelpfully, more climbing. He informs me that, while the first half was up, down, up, down, up, down, the second half is down, up, down, up, down, up. I am not reassured but, as the forecast for the next week is good, I am pleased to be able to cycle in a t-shirt for the first time in 3 months.
The cars are whistling past on their way to the northern side of Lago General Carrera, and the road to Argentina, and we are counting the miles to where Route 7 branches off to continue its southward journey in relative peace. The cars honk appreciatively as they skim within a viscacha’s whisker of our overloaded bikes. I make a note to install rotating blades and rocket launchers should I be cycling this road again.
A couple of hours later, we are hauling ourselves over an 1,100m pass in the Cerro Castillo National Park. A bunch of Chilean tourists pile out of taxis and insist on taking pictures of us from every angle. I practise my vacuous grin before heading down the hairpins to Villa Cerro Castillo. The views are simply stunning.
The next day starts with a climb and the tarmac runs out after 15km. We have entered the blood-sucking-horsefly belt and I am soon waving my arms around like a rotavator. “Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman” they cry as they launch their attacks on the climbs. After an hour or so I resemble a pin-cushion, but my aim is improving, and the wind is picking up, which helps reduce the onslaught.
We are now back in the valley, following a bright-green river flowing out of a bright-green lake, wondering if a truck carrying food-colouring has crashed further upstream. We conclude this is unlikely, although this section of road is in pretty poor condition. Using the internationally recognised unit of measurement for bad roads, this one is around 7.4 on the Richter scale and the springs in my saddle are working overtime. The wind is in our faces and thoughts of reaching Puerto Rio Tranquilo that day are shelved in favour of an empty campsite with hot showers. We pay the princely sum of £5 each, and get views of the mountains and electricity for our power-banks thrown in at no extra cost.
It’s Monday and the forecast is for a week of rain starting on Friday afternoon. We still have 360km to go to Villa O’Higgins but are making good progress and the wind is turning in our favour. The lupins are back (yellows and whites this time, instead of blues and pinks) and the air is filled with their fragrance. Lago General Carrera, an expanse of cobalt blue, stretches out to our left and disappears around the corner towards Argentina. This is the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca although, confusingly, it is marked on maps as Lago Buenos Aires on the Argentinian side. There seems to be very little the two countries can agree on.
We feel a few spots of rain as we hop over the pass to Puerto Bertrand, where we bed down for the night in a pink house, run by a peculiar woman with a permanent look of disapproval on her face. The rain passes but the winds are changing again, first coming from the north and later from the east. We are following Rio Baker (Chile’s largest river) which winds its way through a gorge, merging with other rivers as it goes. Predictably, the road is going up and down and our progress slows to a crawl. It is 2.30pm before we reach Cochrane; our plan to get near Puerto Yungay that day is looking hopelessly optimistic. We eat empanadas and cake, and drink powdered cappuccino, until our disappointment passes. It has been a tough day and we limp a further 15km before a farmer offers us a wooded area to camp in.
There are four ferries a day from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo, and we are aiming to get one at 10am on Thursday. Another long day lies ahead, although not as long as it is for the dog that follows us for the first 30 miles before (we assume) heading back to where it started. The sun puts in an occasional appearance before giving up altogether for the final (predictable) climb of the day, which takes us up the pleasingly named Vagabundo river valley, and through the rain, dumping us on the other side, wetter and colder. Puerto Yungay turns out to be an unprepossessing place with no accommodation to speak of. A grumpy woman directs us to the ferry’s waiting room which we convert into a campsite. The hot shower will have to wait another day.
The ferry is on time and we arrive in Rio Bravo just before 11am. Villa O’Higgins is 100km away, a bit too far given the late start, so we plan to stop short and complete the journey on Friday morning. As we have not stuck to our plans once on the entire trip, and we have gale-force winds on our backs, we are soon flying up the hills and down the dales. It is starting to rain and the forecast for Friday is now looking wet all day. We don’t fancy packing up wet tents in the morning and the thought of a hot shower and a warm bed is enough to get us through the last 20km.
The sign for Villa O’Higgins and the end of the Carretera Austral looms, and we are soon high-fiving, taking photos and generally feeling smug. We check into El Mosco, the best (and only) hostel in town, 100m further down the road. Fittingly, it’s one of the nicest places we have stayed, with hot showers, hot tub and hot sauna. There is a local brewery serving IPA around the corner and the tastiest Chorillana in the Western Spiral Galaxy. For dessert, it is a large plate of pancakes, bananas and ice-cream. Shamelessly, I order two.
In conclusion, the Carretera Austral is one of the most popular cycle tours in South America and it’s pretty obvious why. It’s challenging rather than punishing, accessible while having a wilderness feel and, when the sun shines and the wind is blowing the right way, has mile after mile of the most stunning scenery imaginable. Rivers, mountains, forests, lakes, glaciers, flowers and wildlife in abundance, and with towns spaced out at somewhat convenient intervals.
It has taken us 2 weeks to get from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, which is certainly on the fast side, although it did not feel rushed. For those of a more relaxed disposition, there are plenty of side trips for hiking, caves, glacier walks and the like and, with these “extras” and a sunny-days-only travel policy, a visitor can happily spend a month here.
By all accounts, the weather has been a little wetter and windier than usual for this time of year. But 4 days of rain in 2 weeks is about what I was expecting and the rainy days are soon forgotten.
The journey is not over yet, as the road ends in Villa O’Higgins and travellers must choose to retrace their steps, get a series of boats to Argentina or don crampons and head over the Chilean ice-cap. Option 1 is undesirable and option 3 impossible, leaving the boat-hike-boat to Argentina as the most viable choice, at least when the wind isn’t blowing. The forecast for Monday is ok, failing which there is always Wednesday, although which Wednesday I am not sure. 😤. More on this later.