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.