Monthly Archives: March 2012

Carreterra Austral Part II

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

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Coyahaique

More protests last night in Coyahaique with rioters and policemen spraying tear gas in the central plaza. Despite the civil unrest, the overwhelmingly well stocked grocery store convinced us to stay the night. Sometimes the prospect of food – and eating food –  eclipses all other potentially interesting facets of the trip.
For evidence of this see the first picture below. Yes, Nutella is like crack. That’s Alex’s jar after less than 12 hours (I think he might have a problem…)

On another note, we met two Americans, Christi and Tauru, who are stuck in Coyahaique for two weeks waiting for a bike part to arrive. They’re riding from Ushuaia to Alaska and if you thought riding 16,000 miles was a crazy undertaking, try doing it legally blind. They planned their trip as a way to raise awareness for blindness. This video gives you an idea of what it’s like to ride with zero peripheral vision. It’s a terrifying prospect given the number of sketchy gravel roads in southern Patagonia where I can barely stay on my bike with two fully functional eyes.

“The Beard” is getting shaved. Very sad, but maybe now we’ll get fewer strange looks.

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Cholila to Coyahaique

From Trevelin we rode back into Chile, crossing the border near Futaleufu. Our route took us onto a road as infamous as Argentina’s Ruta Quarenta, the Careterra Austral. There were stories of biblical rains and food shortages from the protests that have spread throughout the Aysen region of southern Chile, but luck was on our side. We entered Chilean Patagonia under clear skies (and I managed to not fall my bike for a whole day).

Once again, the landscape changed dramatically within the span of a few miles. Past the border we were looking up at glaciated mountains descending into deep river valleys flanked by black cliffs. We arrived in Futaleufu, a world famous whitewater kayaking and rafting destination on the banks of a frothing turquoise river with class IV and V whitewater. A chance encounter with a guy from Nebraska waiting to pick up some kayakers had us reconsidering – once again – the whole biking thing. He had sailed to southern Chile from New Zealand and almost convinced us to take a bus to Ushuaia and get on a boat bound for South Africa. This was a short lived fantasy on my end, but Alex seriously considered it.

I think it was the Lord of the Rings landscape that kept him on the bike with New Zealand, Switzerland, and British Columbia all crammed into one stretch of road. We pedaled through green valleys suspended between mountains, tiny farms, and herds of cows walking down the middle of the road. Animals always have the right of way, especially when two Chilean cowboys are in charge. Later, Alejandro spied the perfect riverside campsite through a gap in the trees. Dinner, however, failed to live up to our scenic campsite. All the stores in Futaleufu were closed so we made do with instant soup, which I over peppered, rendering it almost inedible. Luckily we had a giant chocolate bar to compensate.

At Villa Sainta Lucia, we started south on the Carreterra Austral, a 1,200 km mostly gravel road running from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins through rural Patagonia. It was General Pinochet’s idea to build what sometimes felt like the highway to hell –  a fitting tribute to his brutal military dictatorship. Construction on the road started in the late 1970’s as a way to access the most isolated settlements in southern Chile. But with the harsh climate and impenetrable wilderness, the last 100km section to Villa O’Higgins was only just completed in 2000.

As we pedaled south, it quickly became apparent just how remote this road was. We were alone except for the occasional car (maybe 2 per hour at most) and a few other cyclists. Most are headed north but apparently there’s a Japanese guy biking in our direction ahead of us. We’ve been following him for days now and  can’t seem to catch him.

At some points the road is hardly more than a cart track winding through mountainous wilderness. In Parque National Quelat, we enter the rainforest. Giant ferns spill over the road as we rode deeper into mist soaked mountains and we emerged briefly  in Puuyuhuapi, a tiny fishing village at the end of a long arm of the sea. Here the ocean travels way inland through a network of fjords. The fishy smell of the sea followed us for awhile before we started climbing up into a cloud forest. And we kept climbing; pedaling through eerie silence and a foggy grey drizzle that clung to the mountainside so all we could see we’re the tops of the trees below and above us. With no end in sight and darkness approaching we pitched our tent directly beside the road near a waterfall. We didn’t worry about cars seeing us because there weren’t any.

This fact, however, did not imply the wild tranquility we expected. The whole area is currently in the midst of political turmoil with protests that began with the fishermen in the Aysen region of Patagonia. The unrest has spread throughout Chilean Patagonia, due in part to long simmering grievances tied to Chile’s overly centralized government. Chile is the longest country in the world but the vast majority of economic and political power  are concentrated in Santiago, almost 2000 km away. People in Patagonia feel like the government is ignoring their needs and have created a coalition they call the Social Movement for the Aysen Region to send right-wing President, Sebastien Pinera, a clear message. Their list of demands include subsidies to help compensate for the higher cost of fuel and food, a free regional university, a higher minimum wage to reflect the higher cost of living, and a greater say in the controversial hydroelectric dam projects.

Black flags fly everywhere, a sign of solidarity with the protesters, and we arrive at a roadblock just outside of Villa Amengual. There’s a line of tires blocking the road, fires burning, and cars backed up on either side. “Tu problema es mi problema” is scrawled on the windows of homes and businesses. “Your problem is my problem” takes on  new significance when we discover the road blocks have prevented food and other basic supplies from reaching the the stores. But at least we’re allowed through – thank god we’re biking. Those traveling by car or bus aren’t so lucky and we hear about people stuck in little villages on the Carreterra for days.

We arrived in Villa Manihuales last night after hearing rumors from other cyclists about the “Casa di cyclista” here. We asked around and found the green house that doubles as an evangelical church where Jorge hosts people traveling by bicycle for free. The hot showers and washing machine were particularly necessary. It had been awhile since we showered – as in over a week – and the odor situation in the tent was getting dire. We did try and clean ourselves Patagonia-style in a lake, but that was at least 5 days ago.

Sunday night was a big night at Don Tito’s bar – the only place open in Villa Manihuales when we showed up looking for somewhere to eat dinner. Instead we gave in to demands of “mas cerveza antes de comer” (more beers before dinner) which resulted in some impromptu dancing with the locals. We left before things got too out of hand.

Heading for Coyahaique now, probably the only town with a population greater than a thousand on the Carreterra Austral.

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Beastmode: Part II

Getting more rugged by the day…

More updates to come from Chile and the Careterra Austral.

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Back in action

Impatient to get moving again, I decided my arm had healed enough to ride after 3 days of rest. So I left Cholila armed with drugs and a new fear of loose gravel roads. We headed into Parque National Los Alerces where a dirt road lead through a series of interconnected lakes backed by (more!) mountains. The park protects some of the last groves of Alerce trees, similar to California’s Sequoias.

After 3 days of hot sun, it was raining as we rode out of Cholila and ominous clouds hung over the horizon. But the rain stopped by midday and we were treated to the famous Patagonia sky at our windy lakeside camp- clouds scraping across mountains illuminated with late afternoon sunlight. We even managed to make our second successful campfire of the trip.

But in other ways we’ve been less successful of late. There must be something about these southern latitudes because although we’ve now been on the road for over two months, I can’t seem to stay on my bike anymore and Alex is accumulating a long list of lost items. My current tally is 7 falls in almost as many days – all on loose gravel roads – so I now have a nice collection of bruises and bloody scrapes. And since I ran out of painkillers my new strategy for dealing with the pain and frustration of yet another fall is kicking the back of my bike. I’m well aware this is probably not advisable. Just ask Alex how that worked out for me today. I ended up flat on my butt yet again, but at least it provided us with some entertainment. Clearly my athletic days are far behind me.

Not to be outdone, Alex has managed to lose the following items.  Correction: they were “stolen”:
– 2 knives
– 1 helmet
– 1 camping towel
– 1 pair of gloves
– 1 pair of socks

Losses aside, he has an epic Patagonian beard to match the epic scenery. And in Trevelin we drink tea like sophisticated people. It’s is a little windswept town in the middle of the Argentinian steppe that was originally inhabited by Welsh colonists. Now it’s famous mostly for its Welsh tea houses and a brief mention in Chatwin’s book.

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Butch Cassidy’s cabin (the real one)

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Stranded in Cholila

Instead of falling off my bike near Mendoza, or Santiago, or even Bariloche, I chose to hurt myself in Cholila, a dusty town in a remote mountain valley. This corner of Chubut province feels far removed from the Patagonia we left a few days ago with its ritzy lakeside towns, fancy shops, five-star hotels, and ski resorts. Cholila’s only real attraction is Butch Cassidy’s famed cabin 8 km outside town down a dirt road. According to reputable sources (in this case the Lonely Planet guidebook), Butch and Sundance arrived here in 1902 with every intention of giving up their delinquent ways and settling down to a quiet life as ranchers.

In some ways I actually chose the perfect place to take an unplanned stop. We’re getting a feel for the “real” Patagonia – a place where dogs and horses roam freely, where people sit around sipping mate, a place that, in 2012, feels much like how I imagine Butch found it in 1902 and how Bruce Chatwin found it again in 1977.

We’re staying at the one hostel in town, Piuke Mapu, a little two roomed cabin on the edge of town overlooking the mountains. Dario, the owner, is keeping us entertained while we wait for my arm to heal up. He’s a climbing and skiing guide, eager to bring attention to Cholila’s world class backcountry terrain. Last night we went up to the house he built himself for an asado dinner that involved a pot of chicken and vegetables cooked over the open fire.

Dinner was delicious, although I was dismayed (and slightly embarrassed) to learn that my 16 km walk to Butch Cassidy’s cabin was all for nought. Turns out, I only went to the entrance. The real cabin is 1 km further down the road. In my defense, it was an easy mistake to make – the so-called “entrance cabin” was an old wooden building with a sign outside that read “Butch Cassidy.” I’m somewhat tempted to walk back there, but for now, drinking mate and reading is more appealing. Today Dario is hosting some sort of herbal medicine retreat up at his house, so I’m considering ditching the pain killers and steroids that I’m currently taking in favor of some natural remedies. Just kidding, the drugs are working wonders – hopefully enough to allow us back on the bikes tomorrow.

In the meantime, here are some pictures of Cholila and the (false) cabin.

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