Pangiupulli to Puerto Natales. 16,010 miles. 17th January
Bought a butane gas cooker in a local hardware shop. It is the type where the burner fits directly to a canister and as gas canisters are easy to buy from now on, it will suffice for the rest of the trip.
A pleasant ride through rolling countryside somewhat like Yorkshire took us back to the main road south. The headwind started again, but not as bad as previously, and the road, although a major dual carriageway, had a wide shoulder, no traffic and pleasant rolling, wooded countryside. As we had camped for the previous six days, a small hotel was chosen in Paillaco, just off the main road.
More main road into the wind and our planned stop at a campsite in Osorno. They wanted 12 pounds for us to camp and so we carried on hoping to find another site. Eventually after 80 miles into the wind, we found a small opening in a field and camped wild. The main road and the wind made us decide to detour to Frutillar on the edge of Lake Llanquihue and to follow the lake edge on a gravel road. The gravel made cycling very difficult as in places it was quite deep. Traction uphill and stability downhill was again a problem. A very expensive hotel let us camp in the garden, and supplied us with an excellent fish dinner quite cheaply, as a treat Joan had bought a large pack of butter to put on our bread instead of the usual mayonnaise. She put it in a saucepan inside the tent to keep it cool, but when we came back to our tent after dinner, the hotel dog had just finished eating it. Back to mayonnaise.
The Chilean lake district north of Puerto Montt was a bit disappointing as it did not live up to the tourist hype. The whole area was somewhat like the British Lake District apart from a few volcanoes. Most of the lake edge was private and the surrounding country mostly cultivated farmland. The lakes were used for sailing and general holidaymaking. South of Puerto Montt is very different, being very wild and rugged and somewhat like Alaska. If we were to do a similar trip again, we would not enter Chile until the border at Bariloche thus avoiding the whole of the area between Santiago and Puerto Montt.
Eventually arrived at Puerto Montt. Our plans were to cycle down Chiloe to Quellon and catch a ferry to Chacabuco, but this ferry was no longer running direct. Instead of the scheduled 20 hours, it took 50 hours, called at every port on the way and most importantly had no restaurant or chairs or bunks to sleep in. Our change of plan was a ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten to continue cycling from there. "It leaves at 9 o'clock tomorrow", they said. Alarm clock set for seven, early breakfast, and arrived at the dock at 8.15. It was suspiciously quiet. Nobody was waiting, the office was closed and the real give-away was that there was no boat. "Nine o'clock in the evening!" a helpful ferry worker told us. So we passed the rest of the day wandering around the shops which seemed to be closed most of the time and treated ourselves to a seafood speciality in a harbour restaurant.
At the ferry, we found that our economy class did not entitle us to a reclining seat for the ten-hour night crossing, but only a plastic seat in the restaurant. They upgraded us for no charge and we both had a good sleep on the way across.
After breakfast in Chaiten we headed south on the famous (or infamous) Carettera Austral which General Pinochet had built in order to lay claim to the then inaccessible southern part of Chile. We were surprised to find that it was beautifully laid with tarmac, as we had been lead to believe that it was a terrible gravel road....... The gravel started after five miles. A short stop for elevenses and David found that he had left the Chile Rough Guide and the Chile camping book at the cafe in Chaiten. No way were we going back. The camping book was useless anyway as it listed many sites that did not exist. At least if he forgets his bike he won't get far.
The rain eventually started and a soaking wet pair of cyclists checked in at a small hostel in the tiny town of Villa Santa Lucia. Wet clothes were hung over a hot stove in the kitchen. This was the first time we had been really wet since Big Sur in California. We are expecting more.
The next day, soaking wet and cold again after only 25 miles, a cafe enticed us in. Several coffees and fresh hot bread took quite a while to go down and we really had had enough for the day. It was still pouring with rain. Across the road was a barn with a roof but no sides and we asked if we could camp there. No problem, but we had to clear a space of all the stuff that goats, sheep and cows leave behind before we dared put our ground sheet and tent up. The animals looked a bit disgruntled to lose some of their space and we soon got used to the smell. But, we were dry.
As we settled down, a group of 22 Italian Mountain bikers also found the cafe. They also intended to go further but had had enough. It was an organised group with a back-up vehicle carrying all their baggage, and they elected to sleep on the floor in the cafe.
The Carettera Austral is nearly all unpaved and varies in surface from coarse loose gravel to fairly firm gravel with large watery potholes. David thinks that the spacing of the potholes is not random, but carefully planned using a fiendish computer program that makes it impossible for cyclists to avoid one without hitting another. All the bends are steeply banked so that cyclists slide down into the gravel at the edge and cannot get up again. It rains most of the time because it goes through rainforest. Where there is no gravel, there are large smooth stones embedded in the road using the same computer program as for the potholes. Having said all this, the scenery is not to be missed and it is second only to Alaska in its ruggedness. If it was dry and sunny, the cycling would be perfect, but we can't have everything can we.
Some technical bits. First, pannier racks. For anybody taking on bad roads with a touring load, a good steel rack is essential. Some cyclists we have met have even broken a steel rack. All those we have met agree, some with bitter experience, that the aluminium Blackburn - type rack would not survive. Secondly, waterproof gear. If it rains all day and a cyclist exerts some effort, no waterproof gear will keep him dry. If the water does not get through from the outside, the perspiration will soak you from the inside. In our experience and that of many we have met, breathable materials such as Gore-Tex seem to offer no advantage to cyclists over the cheaper materials. When it is raining, the outside gets wet and prevents moisture escaping so negating any breathability claims. It is important to keep warm when you are wet. We have found that a dustbin bag with suitably cut holes for head and arms, when worn under your jacket can keep you warm on the chilling descents. Plastic bags over socks and under shoes also do the same.
We had two burst tyres in two days and used up both our spares. Luckily, the Italian Mountain bike group gave us another used but perfectly OK tyre so that we had a spare. There is nowhere for hundreds of miles to buy one.
There are more cyclists on this road than we have seen since Oregon. On the shores of an isolated lake, we camped with a German couple who we had never met, but who had heard of us. They were cycling from Ushuaia to Santiago and had many tips about the route ahead of us. They convinced us that we should take a ferry though the ice fields from Chacabuco to Puerto Natales thereby avoiding the boring parts of Patagonia and being able to explore Torres de Paine National Park, which we would otherwise not be able to do in the time remaining.
The vegetation along the Carettera Austral is a mix of oak, beech and conifer forest, and grassy plains. Along the sides of the road grow wild roses, lupins, fuchsias, foxgloves and lots of giant rhubarb with leaves 10ft across. Apart from many birds and stag beetles, the only wildlife we have seen has been rabbits.
Puerto Aisen is a town full of wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs. We stayed here and rode the 10 miles to Chacabuco next morning to check out the ferry. The ferry goes once a week on Tuesdays (tomorrow), but the office at the dock could not get us tickets due to computer problems. "Come back tomorrow at 3 o'clock" they said. As the ferry was due to sail at 5p.m it was cutting it a bit fine and so we took a bus to Coihaique, 40 miles away, to book tickets there. The cost was 120 pounds each for a two day - two-night trip including all meals and bunk-bed accommodation.
David bought a small fishing rod, reel and licence. At the quayside he caught a dozen Pejerry (fish) which he gave to a local lad as we were soon to board the boat and could not cook them.
By now the weather had improved dramatically, and we boarded the boat in hot sunshine. The first night took us out into the south pacific in heavy seas and very surprisingly David was ok, but Joan had to take a seasick pill. Food on board was not Cruise ship quality, but quite ok, although we did once have pasta for lunch.
Scenery on the journey was through sea channels and round many forested islands and snow-capped mountains. Weather was overcast but bright. We spotted dolphins, seals, sea lions and a whale nose-diving with its tail out of the water.
Arrived at Puerto Natales at 9 in the morning and decided to stay in town for a day before doing a bike tour of the Torres del Paine National Park. This should involve a 200-mile circuit on gravel roads and we intend to spend about a week in the area before returning to Puerto Natales to continue south.
Dave and Joan