Monthly Archives: February 2012

Back to Argentina

Spontaneous change of plans: we’re back in Argentina. In Pucon we heard that the “ash” situation wasn’t as bad as we’d heard (basically it’s only a problem when the wind blows from the south) so we decided to take the risk and cross the Andes. Full disclosure: we missed Argentininan ice cream (i.e. Grido) and comprehensible Spanish. Not to mention it rained for three days in Pucon so we were ready for some drier weather. Update: I’m writing this from Junin de Los Andes, Argentina and it’s still raining.

We rode into the mist and mountains towards the border, heading into the national park around the region’s largest volcano. But Volcano Lanin remained hidden due to the inclement weather, a common occurrence thanks to a phenomenon known as the “rain shadow effect.” The Chilean side of the Andes receives a lot more rain than the Argentinian side from the Pacific storms slamming into the mountains and releasing their precipitation on the western slopes.

Crossing the Andes for the second time felt like a joke. The pass was 2,000 m lower and there was no headwind. The road, however, was unpaved and it was 40 degrees and raining.

We crossed the rain shadow, pedaling hard through a downpour, to patches of blue sky and glimmers of sunlight just over the border.

After the lush forested mountains of Chile we re emerged in the rolling emptiness of Argentina with a sky so big it threatened to swallow us whole. Within 10 km the landscape went from dense rainforest to dry plains. No farms or orchards here, only cattle ranches and sage brush. But the rivers are full of trout and we pedaled through a rainbow that arched across the entire sky. We race the gathering storm clouds until we decide to stop at the side of the road and make tea because our feet are still numb. And the next town is still 40 km away.

From here, we’re headed through the Argentinian Lakes District to Bariloche. Then south to El Bolson and Butch Cassidy’s cabin near Cholilla.

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New pictures up

We posted more pictures but didn’t have time to organize them so sorry for the jumbled order.

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Back Roads of Chile: Part II

Somewhere south of Lipimavida, the coastal route started living up to our fishing village and empty beach fantasies. For awhile at least. The road was smooth and flat and paved. In other words, it felt like heaven after rough gravel and hellishly steep hills. We rode through beach towns along a rugged coastline looking down at black sand beaches and crashing waves. Tiny villages blast music in the streets and roadside stalls plaster their walls with commercial logos. Everyone walks around drinking coke out of 2 L bottles (Chile may be famous for its wine, but the whole country is addicted to soda) and eating jumbo hotdogs called “completos” slathered in mayo and avocado. This part of Chile seems swept up in a consumer culture frenzy, a strange contradiction in a country with such a chronic energy shortage that many middle class people can’t afford electricity.

Woke up to grey drizzle on the beach and a man inviting us into his house for coffee and warm bread. Arrive in Constitucion in the pouring rain, a town devastated by the 2010 earthquake. Crumbling buildings and rubble still piled in the streets.

Past Curanripe and its upscale beach houses, the coastline becomes wilder. High cliffs dropping down to the sea and fields of waving grass.
Suddenly the road becomes dirt and once again we’re riding into the sunset with no water and no real idea where the next town is. I’ll skip over the part where I fall off my bike trying to ride up a steep hill to where we pitch our tent on the porch of a 200 year old farm house, eating fresh cheese the farmer brings us and drinking wine under the stars. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in a month and a half of bike touring it’s this: after a rough day there’s nothing like opening a nice bottle of wine to enhance an often mediocre dinner. Even if we’ve had to drag it up a few mountains.

Camping gets even more interesting in Conguillo National Park. We start off by sneaking under barbed wire and pitching our tent in a farmer’s field outside Victoria (it was dark so we had no other option). The next day we ride upwards through a green jungle filled with the strange looking araucaria trees, tall and spiky, they make the whole place feel like Jurassic Park. The forest opens up into a black desert – volcanic sand and rock fill the plateau at the base of the park’s most active volcano, Llaima. (Though apparently it’s not active enough to prevent people skiing it’s slopes in the winter.) We pass a sign marking the entrance to the “volcanic risk area.” According to the sign, the risk was low so we dodged the rangers and camped illegally below the snow capped volcano. We fall asleep listening for distant rumblings, hoping we wouldn’t breathe in any noxious fumes spewing out the top. Definitely one of our more epic camps.

After eight days without showers, we made it to Pucon, the center of the Chilean Lake District and the adventure tourism capital of South America. The town sits on the edge of Lago Villarica below a giant volcano. We’re resting up before heading south into Patagonia and although the region officially begins when you cross the Rio Negro, we’ve definitely entered the southern part of our journey. Lush forests and lakes have replaced the arid, barren landscape of the north. The rivers are clear not brown and cacti have disappeared. There’s a distinctly European feel, like the Alps with a latin flare. Houses are made of wood not adobe and restaurants sell German style cakes called “kuchen” which no one has bothered to translate into Spanish. This is Mapuche land, the one tribe of South American indigenous people’s that resisted Spanish conquest. We even fly fished for the first time in Lago Colico – after carrying the rod for 2,000 km passed hundreds of dry river beds. Actually Alex fished and I just drank coffee.

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illegal camping beneath Volcano Llaima

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Back Roads of Chile: Part I

On the road from Mendoza to Upsallata it became apparent that the “adventurous route” is usually synonymous with the “hardest route.” Luckily that generally translates to “most scenic” and “less traffic” also. With that in mind, we decided not to take Route 5 south, the highway that most long distance cyclists heading to Patagonia choose because it’s flat and it’s the quickest way through the “boring” middle section of Chile. But we had no interest in riding on a busy four lane highway for a week straight so we looked at a map and chose smaller roads that followed the coast for a few hundred kilometers.

Sometimes though, even the best roads turn bad, or so it seemed after repeatedly encountering sections of impossible to ride sandy gravel and surprise mountain ranges in the back stretches of mid-coast Chile.

The first of these little surprises came on the day we left Castillo Verde. One minute we were riding past farms and fruit stands on a flat road, the next minute the pavement turned to sandy gravel and the flat road was suddenly a brutally steep incline periodically hit with ferocious wind gusts blowing clouds of dirt in our eyes. After a few grueling minutes of this we realize it’s already 6 o’clock and have no idea how long this hill will last or where we can camp. The smart decision would be to turn around and camp at the campground a few miles back down the road. But there’s still at least 2.5 hours of daylight, plenty of time to make it over this mountain – we hope. So we go for it. We wobble upwards, struggling to maintain a 3 km per hour pace. Actually I remember looking down at my odometer at one point and seeing 0 km/hr on the screen. My speed wasn’t even registering I was pedaling so slowly. So there wasn’t much difference when, a few minutes later, we resorted to pushing our bikes uphill because the road was too steep and sandy even for our fat tires.

A sketchy descent on a bumpy narrow dirt road led us through what we were sure was puma territory (later disproven by the friendly locals who take us in for the night). Densely forested hills dumped us into an agricultural zone. Eager to get out of this eerily empty industrial farmland, we pedaled frantically, racing the fading daylight and wondering where the hell we would camp in this place.

We ended up in the yard of a local farming family. They invited us to eat with them so we sat down with the entire extended family, two crazy gringos at Sunday dinner. Trying to understand Chilean Spanish is like trying to understand gibberish. They’re always using slang and dropping consonants and endings off of words. But we somehow manage to carry on a semi articulate conversation for a few hours before realizing that they already ate their big meal earlier and this was just the nighttime snack. So the huge feast we were expecting never materialized and we went to bed wishing we had eaten more of the avocados and bread that were on the table.

Since then we’ve become experts at “yard camping”, often the only alternative in a country where barbed wire fences line every road and property owners all have a pack of dogs for security purposes.

After Pichilemu, we pedaled past Punto de Lobos, the famous surf break where the real surfers go. After having failed miserably in the baby waves, we happily kept pedaling. From the map, it looked like the highway followed the coast and we envisioned biking on a mellow road, eating ceviche, and camping on the beach. The short unpaved section curving inland for a bit looked relatively minor.

Or so we thought. It was pretty tame at first. Flat dirt farm roads leading into rolling hills. When the cypress trees started casting long shadows across our path we started thinking about where we could pitch our tent. A sign says, “camping Lago Vichuquen.” It’s 20 km away and we’re pretty sure we can make it before dark. At the turnoff, it’s another 8 km so we start pedaling faster, but the road gets hillier and hillier. We pedal up one false summit after another and no Lake materializes. The sun is rapidly sinking behind the hills when we see another sign for this mysterious camping place. We take it, neither of us saying what we know is the case: that this probably won’t be the tranquil, free, lakeside campground we had in mind. But at this point, we’ve been following the stupid camping signs for hours along a bumpy road and up mountains, so we need to get to this lake. Even if common sense says it’s probably not worth it.

Sure enough, we arrive at the bottom of the steepest sandiest road yet (So now we have to go back up it. Great decision.) It’s as bad as we expected. Swarming with people, loud, some kind of concert going on. Actually it’s worse. They’re charging twice what it would cost to stay in a hostel to pitch our tent in some lousy spot right next to all these people. So we make the somewhat questionable decision to ditch the place and head back up the road. It’s 930 pm and pitch dark.

We camp in some dusty bonfire clearing, praying the concert goers don’t move up to this spot. Our prayers do not pay off. At 1 AM a group of drunk teenagers show up wondering what the hell two gringos are doing camping in their favorite party spot. A few of them come over to investigate and Alex is awoken by a face leering into the tent. Like a large bear disturbed from his slumber he reaches out to swat at the disturbance. Turns out it was a girl’s face on the other side of the tent. Next morning we awake to find my backpack and water carrier gone. Apparently the kids were not pleased.

The road from hell continues over another mountain range back to the coast. Actually they were more like hills, but so steep and sandy that we had to push our bikes up the worst of them. The Andes were nothing in comparison and by the time we see the ocean again, we (mostly me) feel a bit “crushed”.

We descend into Lipimavida and the name just about sums it up – waves and beaches and an ocean breeze that still can’t blow away the dirt caked to our skin. Riding past fishing villages blasting music and smelly open air fish markets, we finally find a huge empty beach and pitch our tent in the black sand. Best campsite in Chile.

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Alejandro’s new look

In Constitucion, a city on the Pacific coast somewhere in Chile. It’s raining and he’s looking fine.

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Leaving Argentina

Rumors of volcanic activity inspired us to change our route. The original plan was to head south of Santiago and cross back into Argentina just north of Bariloche, biking through the Argentinian lakes district, and then crossing back into Chile until Ushuaia. But we heard from a number of people that the volcano currently erupting somewhere in southeastern Chile is spewing a lot of ash that’s getting blown into the lakes region of Argentina. Unfortunately for Argentina the prevailing winds blow west to east and maybe this is behind some of the animosity Argentinians feel towards the Chileans.

Stories of roads covered in feet of ash, forcing people to ride with swim goggles and face masks made us look into other options. We’re now going to stay in Chile practically the entire way south. From Pichilemu we’re biking south along the coast until the road goes inland to the Chilean lakes district. From there we’ll head to the island of Chiloe (rumored to look like Ireland) before rejoining our original route south on the Carreterra Austral – Chile’s famous bike touring road through Patagonia.

Some things we won’t miss about Argentina:
-7 hour siestas: not ideal when you have no food and still have to bike 70 km
-The desert: it was really hot. And there were thorns. Even 500 km later they still show up in the tent.

What we will miss:
-7 hour siestas: quiet towns and forced nap time.
-The Desert: wildcamping was easy and 120 km days felt effortless on a flat road.
-Grido: an ice cream chain that got us through the desert. Literally.
Every time we saw one we had to go in and buy at least two, but usually three, huge scoops (which only cost about $1.75). I think there was a ten day stretch when we went every day. I really can’t stress enough the importance of this ice cream. Picture arriving in a deserted town in the middle of the afternoon, hot and hungry because you ran out of food and still had to bike 50km. All the stores are closed because it’s siesta time. Except for Grido. Just the fact that Chile doesn’t have Grido made us seriously wonder whether we wanted to cross the border at all.
-Argentinian women: They are beautiful. Alex has not been as impressed with the Chilean selection.

After less than inspiring surfing performances yesterday in Pichilemu, we decided to stick with biking. But as per usual, it’s past noon and we still haven’t left the hostel.

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Castillo Verde

After the Andes, it was time for another extended holiday from the bikes. We stayed with some Canadian friends, David, Karen, and Jordan Mills at “Castillo Verde”, their house southeast of Santiago in the Maipo River valley. We showed up covered in five days of road grime and bike grease and smelling like two bums. After a few very long showers and clean clothes, we almost looked like normal people – except for the horrendous tan lines, which at this point might be permanent.

After living in Castillo Verde paradise, getting back into the biking routine has come as a bit of a shock. We might have to blow our budget and stay at some 5 star hotels to ease the transition. I guess four days of delicious food, fine wine, real beds, and reading/napping on a shady patio has made us weak.

Thanks to the Mills’ art world connections, we ate dinner (twice) with two of Chile’s most famous artists, Fransisco and Angela. Francisco Gazitua
has done large scale public art projects in major cities around the world. Angela is a painter and according to a reputable source , she occasionally disappears
into the mountains and breaks wild horses, horse whisperer style.

We saw a more “rustic” Chile up in the mountains at Carlitos’s place. Drove
past a military checkpoint (the proximity to a hydroelectric plant and the argentinian border means security is tight) and arrived in a hidden valley with a few tin sheds and lots of goats. Carlitos lives at this camp during the summer with his family, their herd of goats and at least five dogs. We waited for a freshly slaughtered goat to materialize for dinner, but I guess he didn’t want to offend the gringos. Instead, we ate steak grilled on the open fire with our hands. Not a bad compromise.

It wasn’t all a holiday though.
We did some serious work like cleaning our bikes and planning the rest of our route (more on that soon). One of us spent slightly more time scrubbing every speck of dirt from the chain than the other…that person was not me. Apparently I should have also checked my bike for loose bolts.
Oops.

Arrived in Pichilemu today, Chile’s surfing capital. We originally planned on only staying one night, but after a lying on the beach for a few hours, drinking wine (obviously) and looking at the giant waves breaking for miles along the beach, we might ditch our bikes for surf boards.

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