10 April 2015

Chaiten to Coyhaique: Riding the Carretera Austral (part 1)

After our stint on the Island of Chiloé it was time to join the famous Carretera Austral.  It´s sort of a to-do ride if you are cycle touring in the Andes of South America, linking previously isolated communities with a (mostly) dirt road which sweeps past some of Chile´s most impressive lakes, rivers, and mountains. 

As much as we love Argentina, Chile has so far offered much better cycling, or rather, the kind of cycling we know we enjoy. Some may argue that the Austral is no longer what it used to be: remote, authentic, and wild. And sure, in recent years it has become busier with all sorts of tourism, including short-term cycle tourists and plenty of hitchhiking backpackers. Wild it is not either, as much of the carretera is either fenced, farmed or both. The further you ride on the Austral, the more remote it feels though, and we certainly never felt it was anything but authentic. The ripio is also of excellent quality by Chilean standards, and as you progress South, the scenery stunning. 

Riding the Austral was a unique experience and one we were glad to be able to have enjoyed. As probably the most famous road for cycle touring in South America, it is a social event, even if like us you do it late in the season. Every day we waved and talked to many cyclists, and nearly every town had an area where free camping was tolerated. The terrain was not at all challenging, with a few hills but nothing to plan your day around, and in general we found it a relaxing and pleasant ride. Of course, it helped that the famous rains of the Austral did not make much of an appearance!

A 5 hours ferry ride and we arrive in El Chaitén, where we settled down for the night
Riding on the Austral we really feel we have reached Patagonia.

 We pedal briefly North instead of South for a hike up the Volcan Chaiten, now a part of  the controversial Pumalin National Park (owned by gringo Douglas Tompkins)  which erupted in 2008 leaving a crater which you can now easily access in a day hike.
We are joined by Martina and Lucas, an Italian-Spanish couple cycling from Santiago, who would be our great compañeros for almost the whole Austral.                       

On our way back South, we camp by the beach in Santa Barbara, enjoying a great Pacific sunset.

After doubling back through Chaiten on our way South now, our stint on the Austral is finally truly underway.

More and more sections of the Austral are being paved, but the nice views remain.
Although we do generally prefer dirt, quiet pavement can make for quite an enjoyable ride as well.

Passing through towns everyday it is easy to get creative with the camp cooking. We cook up all kinds of dishes like this potato stew. 
With camping so popular on the austral, there are plenty of free camp spots with fire pits, making for really pleasant camping.
Although we think it is a great feat of road engineering, we learn that because the Austral was built by the military (during Pinochet´s reign) it is actually relatively badly designed. Aerial photos of the austral showed the mess it left....

Riding the Austral relatively late in the season we expected plenty of wet weather. But we only got a few light showers - and usually the sun came out soon enough!

Camped after the Cuesta del Quelat, disaster strikes. An O-ring on our stove has broken and the stove leaks gasoline and then ignites the dry grass around us! Fortunately we are able to put it out, and in the light of day the next morning we quickly locate the problem. Guess the stove´s field maintenance kit wasn´t dead weight after all!
We arrive in Villa Amengual on the day of its fiesta costumbrista, featuring a rodeo amongst other delights.

We like the feel of the place, but decide to carry on rather than try to sleep through the party that is sure to follow the rodeo.

We find a great lakeside campsite, although later the lady from the campsite a few km´s away showed up to try and charge us as we were technically inside a national reserve. Oops.

One of the best parts of the austral is that you never have to worry about where your water will come from. Glacial streams are around every bend!

From Villa Mañihuales we divert off of the Austral for a bit of dirt....up a killer of a hill and through Ñirehuao.
Just one valley over, the rivers and humidity are gone and the land is much drier. 
Our diversion takes us past a small Valle de la Luna,  although it doesn´t look too lunar to us.

Our last day into Coyhaique from Villa Ortega is delayed by Alberto and Lucas getting roped into running a ´5k` (actually more like 2k) race in honor of the town´s anniversary. 

Despite their poor performance, Alberto won the international divison! (There were only two participants and both came near the back of the pack...)

Arriving into Coyhaique, we are fortunate enough to be intercepted by Boris, who runs the casa de ciclistas in Coyhaique, who shows us the way..

... and we set up the tent for a few days in the super-busy casa for a few days of errands in the biggest towm on the Austral.

Route notes:

There is an abundance of information online about the Austral so we won't go into detail. The wikitravel entry was particularly useful. For our diversion via Ñirehuao, we followed route notes from While Out Riding. 

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