Friday, February 5, 2016

Bicycle Touring Chilean Patagonia

I spent the past 3 weeks or so bicycle touring through Chilean Patagonia along the Caretera Austral. The Caretera Austral is a mostly gravel road that is the only link from around the middle of Chile down to the south.

This was the first time I'd bike toured for more than 2 nights and it was filled with magical moments as well as a lot of sweat and dust and one stinky cyclist.

The trip began in El Chalten, Argentina which is where I purchased this bike from a Spanish gentleman who had been cycling around South America for more than a year. The Casa de Ciclistas you see in this photo is part of a network of people around the world who open their home or backyard to touring cyclists for merely a donation.

This next photo is typical of the route. Gorgeous scenery -- mountains, rivers, waterfalls, forests, lakes, glaciers. Patagonia. It looks like I'm on a fairly decent stretch of gravel here. No washboards and it isn't too loose. Many parts of the road involved very steep hills, soft gravel, washboards or buses kicking up lots of dust.


The first few days were quite difficult riding and also involved a couple ferry crossings and a remote border crossing from Argentina to Chile where I pushed the bike uphill for 6km through some steep and deeply gorged singletrack. This campsite was while waiting for a thrice weekly ferry across Lago O'Higgins. When I put up the tent I didn't realize that there were horses around who like to nuzzle there.


Doug Tompkins is the founder of The North Face and he and his wife are great conservationists in Patagonia. They have been buying up land, building infrastructure, and then donating it back to Chile as new national parks. The first one they did is called Parque Pumalin and it is quite gorgeous. Like many places around the globe, large resource extraction companies would love to get their hands on this land to strip it of minerals and build dams. The Tompkins' are heroes of conservation.

Unfortunately, but also somewhat heroically, Mr. Tompkins died a few months ago at age 77 while kayaking on a lake in Patagonia when large waves capsized his boat and he became hypothermic. But what a way to go: kayaking in Patagonia at age 77 amidst beautiful land that you preserved for future generations. The nice campsite pictured to the right in Parque Pumalin cost me $3 for the night.

Earlier that day I had the pleasure of one of the coolest hikes of my life. The luscious flora in this region is like nothing I've seen before. Some of the trees are massive 1,000-year old redwoods that are clothed in all sorts of mosses and lichens and ferns growing on their trunk and branches. And the trail itself, less than 2 miles long, is made mostly of wooden boardwalks and stair/ladders that make every step a grand adventure.

In the leftmost photo in this first collage, the left part of the photo is a tree.

It felt like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark and you can bet your bottom dollar I was keeping my eyes peeled for massive, perfectly spherical, rolling boulders.

The next day was partially spent at this gorgeous black sand beach that seriously had dolphins flipping and playing not 100' offshore. It was just me and the dolphins with no other people in sight. Heavenly...except...it was also swarming with these demon-red horseflies. I took out a squadron or two, but they just kept coming. This whole area is full of volcanoes and in 2008 one about 10km from this beach (and inside Parque Pumalin) erupted and covered the area in ash. The local port town of Chaiten had 4,000 residents before the blast and less than 1,000 today, 90% of whom seem to own hostels or travel guide agencies for travelers like me.


A few days later on the island of Chiloe, I encountered another of the reasons that I love travel -- the surprise community event of personal interest. I turned off the main (recently paved) road back onto gravel to access a small town and a place to throw down my tent for the night. Down the road a piece and across a field I spied a collection of about 100 people, a number of pick'em up trucks and some horses. As I got closer I realized there was a horse race going on tonight. The track was 3 lanes wide and about 100m long. The sun was setting and photos were difficult, but these two turned out pretty well.

This is the championship race and the only race I caught. Apparently there were 3 or 4 more qualifying heats earlier in the evening. The jockeys are young men and they're essentially bareback, using only a thin foam pad and no stirrups. I had a couple beers and by far the best empanadas I've had on this trip. Stumbling upon situations like this is one of the things I absolutely love about travel.

My bike trip wound down in the town of Castro. Castro is a charming seaside village full of houses built right on the water and a number of nice wooden churches.

I've decided that this was a great bike adventure but that I do not wish to continue by bike all over South America. Not that I'm in a rush or anything, but the travel is quite slow and Chile is such a long nation that it really takes awhile to travel between sights of interest. Now I've settled down in a nice little hostel in Puerto Montt and I'm trying to sell the bicycle. I wish it were easy to just take the bike with me and ride it or not whenever I please, but the logistics of bus travel with bicycle make that difficult. I do love bicycles, though, and expect to do more bicycle touring elsewhere in my travels.

2 comments:

wotboy said...

Kirk,
I had the same feeling about travel last year when we were in Normandy and stumbled across a local rallycross race in a very hilly little spot full of French rednecks thrashing beat-up Renaults.

Kirk Ahlberg said...

Sweet. You might be a French redneck if your corkscrew doubles as a toothpick.