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.