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.