31 January 2015

Chillan to Villarrica: Lava rubble and monkey puzzles

With the decision made to try to make it to Tierra del Fuego before the Patagonian winter sets in, we again found ourselves on a bus, as the roads we would have liked to take south of Santiago were too slow and we were unwilling to go on the main Panamerican highway. We arrived in Chillan in the mid-afternoon, marvelling at how much the landscape had changed since we were last on the bikes in Copiapo. 

Our route South kept us off of the main roads and took us through forests, past rivers, lakes, and volcanoes. Surely there are flatter routes, but we were purposely trying to go above 1,000m to catch a glimpse of the famous monkey puzzle trees, or araucarias, which give their name to this region of Chile. We expected things to be easier in Chile, riding in a so-called more ´developed´ country where the altitudes were not as extreme, ripio roads would be better, good maps, food and wine available everywhere. However, we found more of the contrary - unpaved roads were among the worst of our journey, the hills steeper than ever before, and most low land was fenced off (making wild camping a bit more difficult). The people became more distant. Here, in the lakes region, tourism is quite developed, so you get funny looks if asking for free camping. Oh, and the heat...which rockets up to 40C and higher at this time of the year.

But, on the plus side, the scenery is incredible and new to us: snow-capped volcanoes, lakes and rivers, all in one shot, is something that got us very excited. We have also met some very generous people, who have invited us for some delicious asados (yes, they do have them here in Chile also), beer, wine and given us places to pitch our tent. It seems true that, like most Chilenos say, the South is different.

Leaving Chillán on the N59 to Santa Bárbara, we realise that this road is busy, has no shoulder, and traffic is nuts. It turns out is the old Panamerican and avoids the fees of the faster route 5...so it wasn´t a great idea. At least we had the nevados de Chillán for company...

We have grown accustomed to crosses on the side of the road in South America but Chile is the first country in which we have seen ghost bikes. It was especially upsetting to see this one in a non-urban setting along the road we were riding.

But we were finally in the lakes district, and with that, a daily river swim...
...then moved on to celebrating our anniversary of one year on the road with some cheap boxed wine (which wasn´t that bad actually, for $1!)

The following day we arrive early at Santa Bárbara, and are pointed towards Juanita´s shop...
...who serves up the yuummiest emapanadas we´ve tried in Chile
The road to Ralco was paved and with the help of a light tailwind we made quick progress and arrived in town early. Then carried on to camp by the river
Our route to Chenqueco follows the Rio Bio Bio.

In Chenqueco we stock up with some more food, camp by the pasarela that takes you on a shortcut to Lonquimay, and go to sleep...

...not knowing what awaited for us the following day. A rough singletrack that was so steep/rocky/sandy that required both of us working together to push the bikes up once at a time...for long periods of time, in pretty hot conditions

Every time there was a hill we hoped to be able to ride it...but never materialised. It was so hot and our progress was so slow that we worried about water...
But luckily, just as we were wondering whether to turn around to the nearest river, we found a small stream and loaded up. One of the things we take for granted at home is water availability...On this trip we´ve come to appreciate how lucky we are to have a running tap of potable water back home

It took us more than half day to climb 500 m. The descent was dusty and so had to be taken carefully...Alberto had a fall as with our worn out marathons having some decent grip was sometimes a problem

Finally, 9 hours after we set off, we saw the light at the end of this tunnel, indicating the end of the 17 km section that had taken us the whole day. This was the slowest and toughest day of our journey - even the high Peruvian Andes and the Puna were far far easier than this section!
After much debate about leaving the route here in favour of  a shorter and flatter route via Troyo, (all this in a totally shattered state) we decide to woman up and carry on on the original route past Volcan Lonquimay. We hoped the road would be better....

...and for the most part, it was, although the dirt tracks still required pushing some of the time. The cattle grids were pretty cool though!

...with plenty of loose powdery dirt to navigate.

Fortunately after a brutal climb in the heat of the day, we reach pine plantations which provide some much-needed shade.

...and finally, after far too long, the monkey puzzle trees!

Having officially entered the Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas, the scenery improves even more. It´s late, we´re tired, and luckily we find an area practically begging us to camp. ´You cyclist. Me picnic area. You sleep here.´

Our camp spot overlooks a gorgeous green lake. 

On the downside, we can´t actually reach it to swim. After some tough days fighting the polvo the technical term to describe our state is ´gross´.
The next day features more tough climbs, but the views are spectacular, climbing up through the lava field of Volcan Longquimay´s past eruption. Volcano Tolhuaca is on the right (2806 m, and nowadays an inactive volcano)

Monkey puzzles up close, and the volcano Lonquimay in the background

We are glad to be tackling this unforgiving landscape in the morning, before the worst of the heat sets in.
Before we know it, we reach the top of the pass at almost 1900 m. Lonquimay vs. Lucy

We take the halfway-paved descent to Malalcahuello where the CONAF (National Parks) guys tell us they saw us struggling up the climb as they drove past this morning. They kindly let us camp in the boss´ yard and make use of all their facilities in their office. 
The next day we take a small diversion to pass the Salto de la Princesa on our way to Curacautin

and then begin to make our way towards Conguillio national park. A kind local paramedic lets us camp behind the Posta de Salud on the roadside. 

The road to the park is busy with traffic on this summer weekend, so at the last minute we decide to divert and go around the West side of Volcan Longquimay rather than the East. Meters after the turnoff we are immediately rewarded with this view of Longquimay and its lava flow from a past eruption in the 1980s.

Longquimay is one of Chile´s most active volcanoes. Currently on yellow alert. 

We climb back up into monkey puzzle territory. I don´t know if we´ll ever get tired of these guys. 

We pass briefly through Conguillio National Park, though not on the main route, and a park ranger lets us know about a river where people sometimes camp for free. We head there and meet some Chilenos on vacation making an asado, who offer us some pork, homemade bread, and drinks. We could get used to touring in Chilean vacation spots!

The next day we face more crazy heat and steep hills, but we are glad to be on quiet gravel roads so can´t really complain. 
We look for every opportunity to take a dip in the (usually freezing) rivers to refresh ourselves and clean the dust off our legs. 

Another riverside camp, another Chileno family feeding us food, and another short day´s ride and we arrive in Villarrica, a touristy town that has absolutely zero charm, lots of US-style cars and 4x4s, but at least has awesome views of Volcan Villarrica. 

The truth is, after a tough route we did need a rest day, even if it was an expensive and pretty bland place to take it. Then got some yummy empanadas, of the fried variety...

Route notes:

- Chillan to Ralco: The road from Chillan to Quilleco was busier than we hoped, but we found Chilean drivers to be more respectful than other countries. The road is paved to Quilleco, after which a good ripio road takes you to Santa Barbara (there is a good free river camping spot at the bridge crossing the river about 10-15km out of Quilleco). There is free wifi in the plaza in Santa Barbara. From Santa Barbara to Ralco we followed the main paved road, although we believe there is a dirt alternative on the other side of the river. Traffic levels were acceptable though not truly low.

- Ralco to Malalcahuello: We followed the  GPS track and route info from Pedalling Nowhere. We have left detailed comments on the route page, but suffice to say this route is more recommended for people with a lighter-weight setup than us, or potentially with our setup if going South to North. On the descent from Volcan Lonquimay we diverted from the route, turning left to Malalcahuello. Paving starts halfway down the descent and continues to Malalcahuello.  The CONAF office is located on the right just before you reach the town of Malalcahuello, and staff there are often happy to let you camp if you have been or are going to the Reserva.

- Malalcahuello to Villarrica: There is a traffic free bike path from Malalcahuello to Manzanar, although at some point it starts to criss cross the road through a lot of gates so we gave up and went onto the road. Traffic was not too bad and again, generally respectful. From Curacautin, pavement lasts another 10km or so. We found the road to be quite busy with cars heading to Conguillio National Park.

A signed turnoff for the Ruta Interlagos takes you on the much quieter Western side of the Volcano. There is one steep section of loose rocks which required pushing but otherwise the road is okay ripio. This road does enter the national park for about 5km and there is a park ranger stationed as you exit the park (if coming from the North). We were informed that no one, bicycle or car, has to pay the entrance fee if they are just using the road to transit through. On the main road through the park (which has controls at both sides) cars are given one hour to traverse the park without paying. The ranger we spoke to said that if a cyclist said they just wanted to pass though to Melipeuco then a more reasonable time limit would be given.

This road is unpaved until you hit the more main road heading to Cunco. From Cunco we took a route via Lago Colico hoping to avoid the main traffic, which worked pretty well. It is paved for about 10km until a signed turnoff for Villarrica. The route thereafter is unpaved until Pedregoso (a small town with just a basic snack shop), where it is paved again but still not too busy until Villarrica.


  1. Cheers Tim! I take it you are getting ready for PBP? We´ll be sad to miss it, but I guess touring in South America isn´t that bad of an excuse either :)

  2. Enjoyed reading and viewing as always! It's 12 degrees in Cleveland presently, so this really warmed me up...
    What camera(s) are you using?