We left Coyahaique after getting turned down by four different barbershops. No one wanted to tackle the gringo’s beard. So it survived another 400 km of the Carreterra Austral, both growing more beastly by the day.
Roads got rougher, winds stronger, and food scarcer as we pedaled farther away from the little island of civilization that is Coyahaique. Outside of Villa Cerro Castillo, we looked up at a mountain draped with glaciers and tall rock spires, like some kind of weird castle formation. This part of the Carreterra has a drier climate, with mountains more similar to the central Rockies. We followed a huge river valley to the windy shores of Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America that straddles the border between Chile and Argentina. From Puerto Rio Tranquilo, we headed into an area marked by aquamarine lakes and glacier fed rivers – and hydroelectric companies desperate to sink their teeth into these untapped energy reserves. Billboards with “Patagonia Sin Represas” are everywhere, reminding us that dams threaten many of these pristine rivers. It’s a controversial issue given Chile’s chronic energy shortage, but if you ask most Chileans whether they’re in favor of damming their rivers, they say no. Big mining companies are driving the demand and the biggest one of all is Canadian. So for once I can’t proudly announce my nationality (usually when people ask where we’re from, the Canadian part of the equation gets a more enthusiastic response).
According to a trio of kayakers we shared a campsite with in Puerto Bertrand, plans are already underway to dam the Rio Baker, Chile’s most voluminous river.
Our original planned was to bike the whole Carreterra Austral to Villa O’Higgins where the road ends. From there it’s a somewhat adventurous crossing into Argentina that involves a couple boat rides across two lakes, a sketchy trail through the woods over fallen trees and across a few streams (some people rent mules for this part). Somehow you pop out on a gravel road just north of El Chalten, a town at the base of some of Patagonia’s most famous peaks, the spires of Mount Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. But this late in the season, the boat runs only once per week and with the protests and accompanying fuel shortages, potentially not at all. There were stories of people getting stuck for days or weeks at a time and with time running out for us, we decided to look into other options.
This far south, however, there aren’t many. On the other side of the border in Argentinian Patagonia, the steppe stretches for thousands of kilometers alongside the Andes. Towns are almost nonexistent and the one road – Ruta 40 – has brutal stretches of loose gravel. In other words, it’s not ideal for bicycle touring, so taking a bus is necessary. There was a border crossing just south of Coyahaique that was paved and well traveled (i.e. this would have been the reasonable route to take)
but then we’d miss out on more of the
southern section of the Carreterra. We looked at the map again and found the smallest road possible leading to the “Paso Roballo”, which led to a town called Bajo Caracoles. 200km separated the last town we would pass through in Chile and the nearest town across the border, but this was a minor issue. We had met some Dutch people farther north who had biked that way and decided it was doable based on the rationale that “they didn’t look too hardcore.”
A few days later, we arrived in Puerto Bertrand, a sleepy village at the confluence of the Rio Baker and Lago Bertrand, ready to stock up on food for the three days it would take us to reach the closest town in Argentina. But we pedaled into the town on Sunday and found only one of two grocery stores open. Calling either of these places a “Grocery store” is a bit of a stretch. There were about three mostly empty shelves and a freezer with a few items inside. No vegetables except for onions, no fruit, no cereal, no milk, no chocolate, no cheese – nothing in fact, that would sufficiently fuel two people for three days of hard biking. At least they had bread. So we bought three giant loaves, lots of butter, some canned peaches, and a lot of cookies, and walked out. After a few minutes of calculating how much we would actually need to eat, we realized this was definitely not enough, but by that time, the store had closed up. We camped out in town, hoping we’d have better luck with the other store in the morning. This was not to be, but we did find some chocolate and dulce de leche (or manajar as it’s called in Chile) to add to our highly nutritious supply of carbs, sugar, and fat. At least there was plenty of water (for now).
Pictures from top to bottom: Alejandro celebrating (or not) the two month anniversary of his ManBeard, crossing the Rio Baker, a good section of road along Lago General Carrera