The Carretera Austral is a (mostly) gravel road extending into Chilean Patagonia. Construction of the road began in 1976, but didn’t reach the southern terminus in Villa O’Higgins until 2000. The road reaches into vast, untouched, and pristine lands of fjords, glaciers, forests, and mountains. Since it was opened it has gained fame as one of the world’s classic cycling routes, so of course we have to ride it. In fact, this route was a main motivating factor in our decision to fly south and ride north, since otherwise it wouldn’t be open when we finally reached the southern extreme. Enough preamble though – we are finally here and it is wonderful!
The first 100 km were some of the best of the trip so far. The traffic was almost non-existent and the road surface was pleasant despite being dirt. There were mountains everywhere, and we constantly were crossing streams from glacial run-off. In the afternoon the first day the weather took a turn for the rainy, and we decided to call it a short day. The road ahead seemed to lead straight into a nasty looking cloud. We found a great spot next to a clear, still pool and set up camp. It started to drizzle as we cooked dinner, so we retreated to the tent quite early. Out of boredom we ate too much chocolate and ended up being as giddy and silly as small children right around bedtime. Oops! Eventually we finished our sugar-high and fell asleep to the light sound of rain.
The next day we continued on this beautiful stretch of road, and finished off the day by taking a ferry across a wide river. This ferry was free, and there were beautiful waiting rooms on either side where many cyclists have spent nights. We had planned to spend the night in one of these shelters, but just as we were settling in an extremely chatty hitchhiker showed up to spend the night too. We decided that we wanted to actually sleep that night, so we rode out of town to find a wild campsite. In the end we slept on a gravel terrace with an amazing overlook at the river valley below. We’ve really slept in some wild places on this trip!
Next we took a side trip to the charming town of Caleta Tortel, which is famous for being a truly car-free community. It was founded in 1955 at the outlet of the untamed Baker River, its existence owed to the harvest of cypress trees. The town is built entirely of wood, and houses are suspended on stilts on the steep hills overlooking the glacial water. The buildings are all connected via an extensive system of wooden boardwalks. It was only in 2003 that the town became accessible by road, and all traffic stops at a parking lot above town. We loved wandering this town on foot!
The final leg from Caleta Tortel to where we are now (the big city of Cochrane: population 3,000) took 2 days over rough gravel roads. We got jostled, bumped, and jarred for hours, but luckily the scenery was enough to make up for it. There was rain, too, but we’ve got plenty of raingear and perseverance. We even got to sleep in a wonderful protected bit of woods with some other cyclists. Actually, we’ve been seeing 6-10 or more southbound cyclists each day. That is very “busy” in cycling terms, and reminds us of the California coast. The difference is only in the scale – we are in remote country here!
When we finally reached the town of Cochrane it was with great excitement and relief. We had just endured five shower-free days, and were ready for a good wash, a good dinner, and some electricity for our many gadgets. This town is like an oasis for us! A lovely camping area is a mere block from the central square, there is reasonably fast Wifi, and a large supermarket. Oh, and it’s cheaper than camping at many state parks with no services whatsoever. Win for Patagonia!
That night in camp we undertook a major project: cleaning our camping stove. Over the course of the last eight months its flame has gotten gradually weaker, until it was finally taking up to half an hour to get a liter of water boiling. In order to clean it we had to yank a cable out of a fuel line, swish it back and forth many times, and eventually flush the whole thing out with clean gas. Needless to say, it was not as simple as it sounds. It took about 40 minutes of yanking on that cable with all our strength before it was finally convinced to emerge from the fuel line! We persevered, and now our stove is back to sounding like a jet engine.
We took a full rest day in Cochrane, mostly charging devices and updating this blog. It was heaven to just sit around drinking tea all day. Tomorrow we head out onto the open road again, where we’ve been warned of the road surface, the wind, the steep grades… pretty much everything. These southbound cyclists can sure be full of gloom and doom! We know the truth though: we’ll be fine. We might be slower if the road is rough, the wind is bad, and the hills are steep… but we’ll get there!
Now, a couple bonus photos that didn’t make it into the narrative above.