Cycling the Carretera Austral

The Carreterra Austral is the southern-most section of road in Chile, approximately 1,200 kilometres of Highway 7, much of it unpaved and heavily corrugated. The brainchild of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, construction of the road commenced in 1976, finishing 14 years later. Pinochet felt the CA to be a testament to his power to create such a difficult road through a jigsaw puzzle of alpine mountain ranges, yawning fjords, and rugged forest-lined valleys. The road was designed to link towns where no town should probably ever exist – with no connection to the outside world and few natural advantages – they only had one real advantage: they were strategically located to prevent Argentina from claiming the land.

The CA has become something of a pilgrimage for cycle tourists – who come especially, we were told to our amazement, to ride the route before it is fully paved.

Starting Out – Chaiten to La Junta (2 days, 165km, 2,800m uphill)

Bleary eyed, we wrestled our rented bikes off the overnight ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten along with a handful of other cycle tourers. Our panniers were weighed down with about eight days worth of food that we’d brought down from Canada in anticipation of highly limited options in the small towns along the way, but as we struggled to get forward momentum even on paved, flat surfaces and looked at the elevation profile for the day, lentils and rice for three-weeks straight suddenly seemed much more appealing…

We had met Jens, a Norwegian hand surgeon, at our hostel in Puerto Montt the previous evening as we were all putting our bikes together for the ride, and immediately clicked with his enthusiasm and good sense of humour. We then met Jessica, a keen bike-tourer from San Francisco, as we were leaving the ferry. She was keen to join our small posse too, so the four of us set off together under bright sunshine, the (mercifully) flat road flanked with forested mountains.

After an hour of easy cycling, the road began to climb and after 50km we reached the gravel. It would be several days before we would see asphalt again. The steep elevation profile of the road, combined with the loose gravel, corrugations and our heavy bikes was punishing. If you skidded out in the gravel and put your foot down, you couldn’t get started again. So, for much of the next 12 or so kilometers, we were pushing our bikes on foot as we sweated and swore our way up the never-ending hill.

Despite rain being forecast the following day, the clouds did little more than threaten. Our ragtag ensemble grew as we joined a couple of Swedish cyclists, Stella and Wilfried, and their German friend Sebastian.

Although we were hampered by several punctures to Angie’s bike and several screws falling off Jonno’s, we made steady progress south, navigating a series of muddy road works to arrive at the township of La Junta late in the afternoon. Ravenous, we stocked up on alfajores and other goodies from a bakery near the main plaza and enjoyed a beer at La Casa de Te with Jens and Jessica, before rejoining Stella, Wilfried and Sebastian to cook dinner in the main plaza. As a group we decided to continue biking south , hoping to find a wild campsite along the way. No sooner had we left the sanctuary of La Junta than the skies opened up – at first a faint drizzle but slowly growing stronger. By dusk we had travelled 20km south of La Junta and reached a private campsite. Lured in by the promise of hot showers we negotiated hard for a spot for the night. By then the rain was bucketing down, and we were grateful for the warmth of a roaring fire and some dry shelter.

 

Wet, wet, wet – La Junta to Coyhaique (3.5 days, 277km, 4,800m uphill)

The following morning was grey cloud and drizzle. Nevertheless we were starting to get into our groove and made good progress on hilly terrain.

By the time we arrived at the village of Puyuhuapi at noon we were hungry. Clad in sweaty, mud-splattered cycling attire we settled down to a plate of delicious kuchen at the rather upmarket Hospedaje Alemania. As we sat around the fireplace warming ourselves with hot chocolate the cold drizzle persisted outside. Enthusiasm for continuing was, not unsurprisingly, low. Eventually our ambition overcame our procrastination and we cycled out of town about 4pm.

The road leading south from Puyuhuapi was a veritable construction site – heavy earthmoving equipment slowed our progress as we navigated our way around muddy potholes and trenches. About 25km from Puyuhuapi we finally selected a roadside site to wild camp. It was a raised patch of grass on the edge of a lake, and protected from the strong westerly wind.

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Roadworks, gravel and mud out of Puyuhuapi

After dinner we settled into what had become our routine of listening to a podcast. Following the podcast Jonno unzipped the tent and was surprised to see his and Angie’s shoes wobbling. Rubbing his eyes, his brain cells in overdrive, he noticed bags and other things bobbing about in front of him. A few seconds later he came to a startling realization…”We’re under water!” he yelled. Disbelieving grumbles followed.

What we had mistakenly thought was a lake had actually been a tidal fjord and the tide had come in fast – very fast. It was now 10cm up on the sides of the tent and rising at a rate of 2cm each minute!

Never has a campsite been dismantled so quickly. Within five minutes we had moved our bikes, tent and the rest of our gear to higher ground about 50m away. Fortunately for us we had managed to collect everything in time, and the waterproof underside of the tent had prevented a thorough soaking.

Jess had not been so lucky – a hole in her tent meant that it was soaked, along with many of her belongings, and one of her bike shoes had floated away in the flood frenzy. Angie’s notes from that day read simply “Beside lake windy and exposed. Previous campsites shit. Got flooded and had to move!!”

We woke early the following day, mindful of the steep climb ahead of us. By 9am we had set off into the mountains under an overcast, drizzly sky. The morning consisted of riding a lumpy, occasionally washed out road alongside the Quelat river, and was punctuated by several bike mishaps, from screws falling off to panniers falling off, as we bumped along the ripio. And I found a lone shoe lying in the middle of the road – size 7.5, right foot – which Jess was most grateful for.

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Late in the morning we switched into granny gear to begin a steady, switch-backed climb of 500m to a high pass carved into the cloudforest. It was slow, cold and gruelling work in the rain. After an hour or two we eventually crested the range and rattled downhill at a frightening speed all the way to the pretty village of Amengual, arriving at the town’s ‘sandwich bus’ in late afternoon sunshine.

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Lunch on the sandwich bus

We set off from Villa Amengual after a relaxed breakfast, with sealed road and a gentle downhill most of the way until our salubrious lunch spot at the Copec petrol station, 58km later at Villa Manihuales. Manihuales is actually a cute little town with many supermarkets and some nice cafes, but our group-think mentality overcame common sense and we nonetheless dined beside the petrol bowsers with a killer view of all the cars coming and going.

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We set off again after lunch and were treated to epic views of rivers and mountains as we rode on for another 56km through the afternoon.

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As the sun began to ride low in the sky we looked in earnest for a good campsite, finding what we thought was an excellent, hidden spot by the Rio Simpson in a seemingly disused CONAF reserve. We set out tents and pulled out our food and cookers, and just as we were nearly set to appease our rumbling stomachs, a ranger appeared and in very clear terms told us to move on. We quickly ate our food, repacked our tents and loaded the bikes, and in the darkness rode on several more kilometers to finally find a CONAF campsite where we could stay for the night.

We woke the next morning to the pouring rain and after waiting a couple of hours to see if it would pass, we decided to head out into it regardless. We soon hit a steep uphill, the road grinding its way through a nerve-wracking tunnel that we shared with several large lorries and not much shoulder room. The hill climb seemed to keep going and going, around numerous bends and up teasing false summits. Finally, we hit the downhill and coasted into the large town of Coyhaique with enormous relief. Just before lunchtime we rolled into the Patagonia Hostel, where Jonno had stayed after his Ice Cap Crossing expedition (and ever since had not been able to stop thinking about the mountain of pancakes drenched in real maple syrup). We stripped off our sodden clothes and tried to thaw out our frozen fingers and toes in hot showers. Angie swore she wouldn’t pedal one meter more until she’d found some thermal covers for her cycling shoes.

We enjoyed a great lunch and afternoon in Coyhaique with the sun coming out, as we gorged ourselves on cake, good coffee and a fresh salmon dinner that evening.

Time for some R&R – Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquilo (2.5 days, 210km, 4,500m uphill)

We left Coyhaique on a sealed road in bright sunshine, and for a couple of hours enjoyed the easiest riding to date. Like riding a rollercoaster we zoomed up and down the low gradient hills, easily doing 20km per hour. Then followed several hours of sluggish grinding up the Ruta 7 to the head of a valley surrounded by the picturesque Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo.

The final half hour of the day was a real highlight – perhaps the highlight of the entire CA. A beautifully crafted road (whoever knew there was such a thing) slithered down a valley nestled amidst cloud-draped mountains. The smooth downhill gradient and gentle curves of the road allowed the kilometres to fly by. At one point we covered 8km in about 10 minutes – a far cry from earlier in the afternoon. After 100km – some hard and some easy – we arrived at Villa CC on dusk and settled on a ramshackle private campsite, where we soon had a wood fire going and a bowl of lentil soup in our hands (except for Jens who continued his habit of eating cereal and milk for most meals).

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Our eighth day of riding, from Villa CC to the head of Rio Murta, proved to be our most challenging day yet.

Immediately upon leaving Villa CC we were confronted with very testing road conditions. The paved road had ended (we would be riding on gravel for the remainder of our ride) and within half an hour we were struggling up steep, corrugated ripio much worse than we had encountered before. Reaching a crest Jens and Jonno stopped next to a couple of female British cyclists who were less than amused that it had taken them 23 minutes to cover the previous 2km.

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We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon pedalling hard along the Ibanez valley, dominated by a stiff headwind. Making less than 10km per hour facing into the dusty westerly was soul-destroying stuff, and we were pleased to finally turn the corner and head south alongside the Rio Cajon.

Exhausted, we ground our way slowly up the ripio toward the head of the Cajon valley, finally reaching a wild campsite as the road began to flatten out. We had reached the plateau between the Cajon and Murta valleys and were grateful that the following morning’s short ride mostly consisted of coasting downhill alongside the brilliant turquoise of Lago General Carrera, all the way to Puerto Rio Tranquilo.

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At Rio Tranquilo we allowed ourselves a ‘¾ rest day’, and booked onto a tour of the Marble Caves. They were fascinating and beautiful. At the local cerveceria we also enjoyed some of the best craft beer anywhere.

 

The real Wild West – Puerto Rio Tranquilo to Cochrane (2 days, 150km, 3,000m uphill)

The jagged snow capped peaks on the eastern side of the Patagonian ice cap dominated the valleys to the south of Rio Tranquilo. The landscape was much drier and sunnier than we had experienced previously on our journey, the constant rain and drizzle of our first five days a distant memory.

Here, abutting the dusty carretera, the lakes and rivers were emerald and jade, turquoise and sapphire. Things had changed. The traffic was far less, the sense of wilderness much greater, and the scenery the most impressive yet.

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Just before dusk we entered the picturesque hamlet of Puerto Bertrand, arriving immediately afterward at undoubtedly the best campsite to date – a beautiful cleared site in the forest alongside the cobalt blue rapids of the upper Rio Baker. A couple of Belgian cyclists, Wim and Ramon (who has began their ride in Lima some months before) had already set up camp, so our crew joined them in front of a great log fire for some convivial conversation over a few glasses of château cardboard.

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We continued to follow the Rio Baker the following morning, past a number of cabanas and great wild campsites. Why were there no other tourists on such a beautiful stretch of river?

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The confluence of Rio Baker with the Rio Nef is an impressive site – just below is a narrow canyon of churning water fierce enough to scare the boldest of whitewater addicts.

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In the afternoon a ‘shortcut’ became a major detour, with a long, gruelling climb (under an even more gruelling sun) being followed by a hair-raising descent on a newly graded stretch of gravel. We woke the ferry master up from his afternoon siesta to convey us across Balseo Baker, and within an hour we had arrived in the frontier town of Cochrane (it felt like real cowboy country) keeping an eye out for a good saloon with cold beer.

Jens, Jessica and us enjoyed pizzas in town, while Stella and Wilfried, Wim and Ramon opted to wild camp further down the road.

The home straight – Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins via Caleta Tortel (4 days, 275km, 4,700m uphill)

After a morning spent foraging raspberries and cherries from the backyards of Cochrane locals, we followed the meander of the Rio de los Nadis, cycling through pleasant rolling countryside interspersed with dark, cool forest. We camped on the banks of the mighty river.

Although flat and straight, the road was shockingly corrugated from the Puerto Yungay junction to Tortel, with Jonno acquiring his first puncture of the trip. Quickly fixed, we continued our 22km ass-pounding to Tortel.

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Caleta Tortel is a cluster of houses squeezed into an alcove on the edge of the Baker Channel, linked together by a series of boardwalks. There are many, many stairs.

After an hour of huffing and puffing we found ourselves a cabana for four, and cooked up as finer meal as we could put together from the supplies squished into our panniers. And plenty more châteaux cardboard. At Tortel we farewelled our friends Jens and Jessica. They had decided to spend their first proper rest day of the trip in Tortel, while we continued on to Puerto Yungay (where we had to catch a ferry) and then on to Villa O’Higgins.

The following morning we managed to hitch a ride 15km back to the Yungay junction, before spending a couple of hours on another ‘gravel roller coaster’. After two weeks on our saddles the riding had become much easier. We arrived at Puerto Yungay literally seconds before the infrequent ferry departed, clouds now blotting out the sky and rain beginning to fall heavily. Wim and Ramon had arrived there two hours ahead of us. We huddled inside the ferry cabin drinking cups of tea and eating biscuits with the Belgians as the rain poured down outside.

The remainder of the afternoon ebbed away in a shelter set up for waiting ferry passengers. Outside it rained cats and dogs. Needless to say, our plans of cycling an extra 50km were soon discarded and we spent the night in the shelter enjoying the company of the Belgians, three other cyclists, and part of a family of five that had missed the last ferry of the day. It was cosy.

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On our fifteenth day we were finally on the home straight – well, on the home run as the road could hardly be called straight. Snaking its way through the valleys and mountains, climbing and dropping steeply numerous times, it was a challenging ride of 101km for exhausted legs. Gasping for air after the steepest of the climbs, eagles soared in thermals high above us. With the weather holding and the finish line in sight, we pedalled strongly across the windswept mouth of Lago Cisnes and into the township of Villa O’Higgins. After nearly 1,200km this was the end of the line. We found beds in a wonderful hostel, El Mosco, and spent some time relaxing, socialising with other cyclists, and pondering how we might retrace our way back to Puerto Montt.

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