The Carretera Austral

Tea Break

The Carretera Austral is a road that is famous among cyclists. It was built in the 70’s and 80’s under General Augusto Pinochet in the context of a growing conflict with Argentina. Prior to the existence of the road to access this region of Chile you had to cross into Argentina before crossing back into Chile. As such it was strategically important for Chile to be able to independently access this vital portion of its southern territory. Construction of the road was a logistical nightmare as the area is made up of dense forests, fjords, glaciers, canals and mountains – but this is exactly what gives it its majestic beauty. The route runs almost 1,000 miles through rural, southern, Chilean Patagonia. There is much hype about it being one of the best roads in the world to cycle and yet, when expectations are set so high, it’s so easy to be disappointed. Thankfully, as you will read,  this was never the case with the Carretera Austral.

Hobo Dan and I spent a rainy couple of days in Cochrane, a quaint little town of 3,000 people. It is the kind of place people leave their cars and houses unlocked. The Carretera Austral winds its way around glaciers and over mountains to Villa O’Higgins 150 miles south of Cochrane. Unfortunately with winter setting in and hugely swollen rivers, the international borders to the south were closed so Dan and I began our ride from Cochrane.

It was mid-May when we left Cochrane. The morning we set off it was -4°C and puddles that had collected from previous days of rain had turned into hard ice. The road undulated, often at severe acute angles and on the sodden mud and gravel this made for strenous  going. Adding to my enjoyment was the fact that the clamp for my gear shifter on my handlebars was broken. This may sound innocuous but it meant changing gears was a two handed mission leaving me unable to steer. Struggling to change gears I often had to push up the hills.

Autumn Colours

Thankfully the ride was every bit as stunning as we had heard. What was unheard was the six days of bright blue skies with not a drop of rain that we enjoyed. This allowed us to take in and fully appreciate our surroundings, which were, quite simply, stunning. A blindingly white glacier here. A pure turquoise river there. A waterfall cascading onto the road ahead. A forest in full autumn colours of green, yellow and red in the valley to our left. Mountains peppered with snow on our right. Dan and I rode slowly, no more than 50 miles a day. Although the track sometimes made progress difficult it was mostly just to marvel at the spell binding scenery.

Puerto Bertrand - one of the small villages on the Carretera Austral

The population in this region is sparse but we always received help when we asked for it and sometimes when we didn’t. We camped in people’s sheds or slept on the floor of their kitchens. One night we were high in the mountains, with no houses around and few options for camping, wondering what the night held for us. Marcello, a road worker, pulled over and told us about a refugio (a shelter similar to a shed)  a couple of kilometers away. He then waited for us at the refugio just to show us exactly where it was. This act typified the kindness we continuously received in this remote part of Chile.

After nine days of riding on gravel – in both Chile and Argentina – we came to paved road (just 300km of the Carretera Austral is asphalt). It was simply bliss. Cycling felt effortless, despite the immense climb we made coming out of Villa Cerro Castillo. This marked the beginning of the next section of the Carretera. With paved roads and ports it is more populated and developed. Dan and I left behind the glaciers and mountains for rolling grasslands.

Having enjoyed six days of stunning ridding we reached Coyhaique, the only sizable town on the Carretera Austral. Dan and I spent almost a week here eating well and resting – including an tasty pre-birthday BBQ. Speaking exclusively in Spanish with our Couch Surfing hosts I finally began to make sense of the language putting words together and forming legible sentences. Though it was very draining and required tremendous concentration it felt great to make this breakthrough and open the window of possibility.

Birthday BBQ

Our luck had to end at some point. The moment came the day before we got back on the bikes. It began to snow. Dan was nervous that day before we set off – something I had not seen from him previously. As he reminded me, he is Australian, and of Singaporean descent, as such snow is something quite alien to him. He’s at home in sweltering heat.

The temperature did rise, but only enough to melt the snow, and for the next seven days we cycled through torrential rain. I don’t remember ever experiencing such horrific constant rain before in my entire life (and I’m from England!). It didn’t relent or ease for the remainder of our time on the Carretera Austral. This made the cycling difficult: the dirt track, numerous landslides on the road and road works. All day, every day, we were thoroughly soaked to the bone. Each night we would vainly attempt to dry our clothes but each morning we would soon be drenched again. Unable to enjoy the views I didn’t take one photo in that week. I just rode with my head down inside my jacket hood. Thankfully Dan did take some…of me on my birthday. He surprised me with a cake and candles. What a great touch.

I found myself facing a moral dilemma. After days of rain the chain on Dan’s bike was constantly clogged and he could sometimes neither pedal nor change gear. We decided to hitch a ride. It was only 20 miles, I could have ridden it and met Dan at the next village but I didn’t want to. I was seriously unhappy. Having ridden through several days of relentless rain the mere thought of facing another five days had eroded my will to cycle. For the first time in 22 months I felt trapped rather than liberated by the ride. Spending eight hours a day cold, wet, soaked and miserable just did not appeal. The very reason I set off in the first place was to be happy, to enjoy each day and look forward to the next. Perhaps after almost two years my priorities had changed or perhaps I had proved enough to myself. All I can say is that I was very low, not achieving what I set out to and I didn’t see the need to suffer. I made the decision that if I ever felt that low again I would take a lift.

Dan and I spent a day trying to hitch another ride but ironically were unable to. So the following day we got back on the bikes and braved another few days of pouring rain. I don’t remember much about those days save the cold, the feel of being wet and all the treacherous landslides on the road. When we finally made and crossed the border at Paso Fululeufu we left the grey and rain behind. Literally, as we crossed the border back into Argentina, we found ourselves under clear blue skies and sunshine. Combined with a tarmac road this was enough to put the huge smile back on my face.

Trevelin - Welsh town in Patagonia

We passed through Trevelin, a small Welsh town in Patagonian Argentina. To our dismay Maggie Nairns was closed and so we were denied the best cream teas in the southern hemisphere. Thankfully we had a wonderfully warm reception in nearby Esquel. A family on Couch Surfing put us up and took wonderful care of us. Only meaning to stay a couple of days somehow, after all that had happened, managed to suffer a deep gash on my leg by dropping a plate whilst washing up. It took more than two weeks to heal but Maria and her family insisted on looking after me until I was back to full health. Dan, who was short on time, sold his bike and took a plane to Bolivia to catch up with a friend. I was very sad to say goodbye to Dan. Despite facing some of the toughest challenges on my whole ride Dan amazed me with how well he coped, often better than me. It was time to face the road alone again.

One Response to “The Carretera Austral”

  1. […] kind and had given me a home away from home whilst I recuperated. My partner in crime on the Carretera Austral, Hobo Dan, had traded his bike in and taken a plane to Bolivia so it was time to set off alone. […]

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