22 April 2015

Coyhaique to Villa O´Higgins: Riding the carretera austral (part 2)

Our time on the famed Carretera Austral until Coyhaique had been pleasant, uncomplicated, and sunny. But with the casa de ciclistas closing on the First of March, it was time to head South again into Autumn on the Austral. Grayer skies accompanied us for most of the way now, but with the end of the high season also came quieter roads, and as we moved further away from Coyhaique, the Austral began to take on a more remote feeling. We really felt privileged to ride through such a special landscape and, as the weather deteriorated, grateful for the small bits of infrastructure that do exist to make things a bit easier for cyclists.

We pass through Cerro Castillo in the late afternoon and start looking for a place to camp-- it proves surpisingly hard as there are plenty of fences all around, and the unfenced land is filled with spiky plants that are the enemy of bike tires, inflatable mattresses, tent floors, and of course legs. Finally, we find a spot and set up camp just as the sun is going down...

...and in the morning we enjoy breakfast with a view of the Cerro Castillo

Then keep pedalling into greener and lumpier terrain

Also the rivers are getting big now...Here with Lucas and Martina taking in the views of the emerald waters that would accompany us for the remainder of the Austral

The number of cyclists on the road went down dramatically after Coyhaique, but still we met a few more. These two gringos were full of enthusiasm for the road ahead, even though they had had pouring rain in the last few days.

The dramatic scenery increased the further south we got..

... especially as we join Lago General Carrera

...the second largest lake in South America (we have already pedalled past the largest, Lake Titicaca).

Its waters shine turquoise even with quite a bit of clouds in the sky!
Getting closer to Puerto Rio Tranquilo we find more evidence of the local backlash against Douglas Tompkins, who has created several parks in the area. While an avid environmentalist, his way of dealing with locals has won him quite a bit of animosity.

We camp just outside of town under a gorgeous full moon.

In the morning, we say goodbye to Martina and Lucas to take a side trip to the Valle Exploradores, passing the village's cemetery on the way out.

Although we might normally shy away from an out-and-back route like this, a few different locals told us it was one of the most beautiful roads in the area, so we just had to check it out.
It certainly was impressive, with a new glaciar appearing at every bend in the road.
Coupled with almost zero traffic and pretty respectable ripio quality, we were in heaven.

In the afternoon, the skies opened up in a cold, drenching rain. We backtracked one kilometer to a roadside shack we had passed and pitched our tent nearby, grateful for the covered area to cook under.

In the morning, we finish the few kilometers to the Glaciar Exploradores lookout under gray but thankfully dry skies.

It's a short 15 minute walk to the viewpoint for the glaciar, an impressive sight even in such low visibility.
As always, riding the same road in the opposite direction feels like a totally different road altogether. On our way back the sun made a brief appearance, lifting our moods and making us scramble for the camera.

We just can't get enough of the glaciar views

And the beautiful green lakes

The next day, we ride to Fred and Tomoko's house, friends of a friend of Lucy's mom who live on the Austral. We spend a few days resting in their amazingly comfortable cabin, eating delicious food and learning about life in this part of the world.

But before long, it's time to head off again, helped by the delicious local cheese and homemade bread and corn muffins we are sent off with.
This section of the Austral is never far from a beautful lake or river.

We camp by the Rio Baker, Chile's biggest river, and Alberto has a go with his newly purchased fishing rod from Coyhaique. Spoiler alert - he doesn't catch anything.
The next day, we arrive in Cochrane, the second biggest town on the Austral, which with around 3,000 people feels like a big metropolis to us.
In Cochrane, Alvaro, from Vittoria (Spanish Basque Country) catches up to us, and we ride on South with him. A tip off from an unknown cyclist on an email chain takes us on a two minute diversion to see this impressive waterfall south of Cochrane.

We camp by a river with a French family headed in the opposite direction. A three year old and an eight year old  on a six month cycle tour, and both girls might we add -- what an inspiration!

The next few days are filled with green trees...
...snowy mountain peaks...

...and quiet roads...

..not to mention great camp spots.

Knowing that we have a five day stretch from Cochrane to Villa O'Higgins without supplies, we take advantage of the Austral's many fire pits to cook with, saving fuel.

It also keeps us warm and toasty as we chat into the night.

The dreaded rain of the Austral finally arrives just in time for our climb up and over to Puerto Yungay.

...where luckily, we are able to take refuge for the night in the waiting room of the free ferry we need to catch the following morning to continue on the Austral. Here, bikepacking Brits Mackenzie and Laura catch up to us too.

As the ferry pulls away from the dock in the rain, three brightly colored blobs on bicycles come speeding down the hill. Amazingly, the captain actually turns the boat back to pick them up! We can't really imagine that happening in Europe!

The weather is pretty miserable the next day, so we are very excited when in the early afternoon we arrive to the next refugio, not visible from the road but marked by a handy bicycle tire and drawing.

With eight of us heading south and six heading north converging in the refugio that night...

..the area around the refugio turns into somewhat of a basecamp, which turns out not to be ideal as high winds overnight lead to one broken tent pole (not ours thankfully, although Alberto did have to get out of the tent at 3am to re-peg the guy-lines as they had all come free).

At least there was somewhere warm to sit, cook, and most importantly dry the shoes and socks of fourteen cyclists.

It's still raining and windy the next day, but we know we only have about 50km to Villa O'Higgins and the end of the Carretera Austral so we push on in high spirits regardless

...leapfrogging with other cyclists throughout the day.

As we approach Villa O'Higgins, the weather clears a bit giving us a great celebratory rainbow to say goodbye to the Carretera Austral

And in Villa O'Higgins, the band is out to welcome us to town!

Route notes:
We won't go into too much detail as again, there is plenty of information available.

Valle Exploradores:
The road is only about five years old so not much information is available, but we highly recommend this beautiful side trip. The path to the Glaciar Exploradores viewpoint is located at km 52 which is comfortably achievable in a day's ride from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. There is a park ranger station there (water available) and technically the viewpoint path (about 20 minutes walking) has a fee of CHP 3500 per person. We were curious about continuing all the way to Bahia Exploradores but were told that there is an unfinished bridge further down the road, but it might be possible for the man who lives by the crossing to take a person and bike across in his boat (for a fee) - we didn't try.

- In Puerto Yungay it is possible to sleep in the ferry waiting room, which has electricity but no bathrooms. On the other side of the fjord the waiting room has bathrooms but no electricity.

- The refugio with the bike tire marking the entrance is located 47km from the ferry terminal. There is a second identical refugio clearly visible from the road 21km further on.

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