The Carratera Austral part 6 – to the end of the road.

The climb out of the Rio Baker valley was steep and had several switch backs but the gravel was firm and not to rutted meaning that we were able to make the climb without too many issues.

Having left Tortel early we knew we would easily make the ferry from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo at 1800 and consequently we could relax and try to enjoy the riding. This was not quiet so easy for me as I was on my last set of brake pads and was therefore having to brake conservatively on the down hills. Despite this we were able to take in the dramatic scenery. We were now in true wilderness territory with inaccessible high pastures, forests clinging to steep slopes and waterfalls cascading from glaciers a few hundred metres above the road.

The Puerto Yungay ferry runs several times a day in the summer to connect the ruta 7 with its free service. We areived at the tiny port and its scruffy houses, some now abandonned and went straight to the small cafe for an instant Nescafe fix. The boat was scheduled for 1800 but we were taken by surprise when the boat arrived early and even more shockingly, left early.

Alone as the ferry steams off.

Izzy riding off on the last stretch.

We had chosen to wild camp on the other side of the crossing but Joquim, a young Argentine cyclist we had met chose not to board the ferry but to sleep in the ‘terminal’ and take the first boat the next day.

Always looking forward to a ferry ride we enjoyed the 30 minute crossing – the views and remote nature of the crossing appealling to us. Landing at the other side we rolled our bikes offthe ferry and made our way along a very quiet road to the wild camp spot we had previously selected. Not far from the road it was nonetheless idylic. Clean, well grassed, protected from the wind – everything we could want. We fell onto our normal camp routine of cooking, tent pitching and as much school work as we could persuade the kids to do. The moon rose slowly and shed some light on the tent without obscuring the stars and we took the opportunity to wake Izzy up at 1am to lie on the ground and marvel at the scale of the Universe. She lasted about 5 minutes before falling asleep again and being lifted back into the tent but Charly loved every minute of stargazing and has relished the dark skies this trip.

Collecting drinking water from a stream.

The next day gave is a simple ride, 60 km to a ‘refugio de cyclist’ built by a local farmer as a free place for cyclists to be able to stay. Joquim overtook us at about lunchtime and pedalled off into the distance as we kept churning onwards at about 10 kmh. Late in the afternoon we stopped to fill water bottles and the rain started. By the time we reached to cabin we were soaking (except Izzy and Will in their Spotty Otter waterproofs). Joquim was inside, fire kit and kettle on and it was great to be out of the wind for a few hours. We camped just behind the cabin as it was a little cramped for 5 and Izzy and Will make lots of noise and wriggle alot. The fire dried most of our wet kit and it was a joy to put warm, non soaking wet socks on and to enjoy a coffee.

A bijou hut in the patagonian mountains…..

We had let ourselves relax a little with Villa O’Higgins only being 35km down the road but alas this was a mistake and the next day was as hard as any other on the Carretera Austral. The surface was OK but still the washboard and potholes appeared and the ripio seemed to stretch out infront of us. Will asked several times how far it was to go and each answer I gave sounded hollow and evasive. Eventually, at the top of a rise above Lago Cisnes, we had our first sight of the southern most town on the Ruta 7. By a cruel twist, probably envisaged by someone who enjoyed mocking tired cyclists, the crow fly distance was about 5 km but the road still had 15 km of love to give us. A sharp descent and then a long ride across a spit of land exposed to the brutal wind vlowing off the lake took most of what we had to give. By the time we areived in Villa O’Higgins we were spent. Despite being pleased to have arrived celebrating felt like it would take too much energy. The supermarket was our first port of call and our spirits lifted when we saw that they had avacados, apples and fresh salad. Lunch bought and consumed (on the town square obviously) we did the unthinkable and turned north again. Our chosen camp site, a few hundred metres north of town, was perhaps not where many would choose to camp. It has no electricity (a solar panel charges a car battery during the day to allow phone charging) and composting toilets (if you need an explanation google it) but the focus was on low environmental impact so we were happy.

Fairly normal….

Villa O’Higgins is not a big town and options for entertainment are somewhat limited. Our first priority was to sort out our ferry across Lago O’Higgins, this can be difficult as in high winds the boat can’t sail and a backlog of passangers builds up. The ferry had just been repaired and the wimd had lessened meaning that we were likely to be able to get a boat fairly quickly. Walking into town the next day we pottered around and did some odd jobs before beating a retreat to the shelter of our campsites quincho to shelter from some awful weather and freezing temperatures. The kids worked, Charly and I read the selection of architecture books and ecology based sci-fi, fired up the wood stove and we all relaxed. It was great to be warm and to have no real pressure to ride. The realisation of what we had done slowly washed over us; we had set an ambitious goal to reach the southern point of the Carretera Austral and we had made it. Stopping our ride here though was not really an option, we did not want to ride north again so the road south – in its very basic form would be our path. We had to get the boat.

As with many places in Patagonia long lunch breaks abound in Villa O’Higgins and with the ticket office closed we enjoyed the culinary highlights the local restaurants had to offer. Burger and chips with no a green leaf in sight but it was served by a friendly french lady who was happy to chat so it could have been worse. It also killed enough time before the supermarket and boat ticket office reopened.

Our tickets were fairly easy to secure with the company running the boat. They were called Robinson Crusoe Expeditions which, to be honest did not fill us with confidence but there was not much choice. We still had one more day to spend here so we resolved to hike up to the series of miradors overlooking the town and the surrounding glaciers. Of course this meant that it rained the next day. Cold rain and low cloud made the decision to stay warm for a bit longer much easier and it was not until late afternoon that we climbed to the first view point. Interesting but not at all picturesque we walked on to the others enjoying the time spent in the forest more than the views. Rerurning to the campaite we were chuffed to bits to learn that the ferry had been delayed the next day until midday. This meant no early start for us and a much easier morning.

We took full advantage of the kitchen that night, drying our wet clothes and cooking a meal for ourselves and two other travellers. Going to super markets everyday is something that the kids put up with but sometimes they come in handy like when Will reminded me that we had not eaten squash risotto for a while. Conversation flowed in english and faltered a little in Spanish but we had a great evening. The atmosphere at the campsite was one of mutual trust and shared ideals – why else would you want to use a composting toilet…..

A composting toilet.

Rolling away from the campsite the next day a little later than hoped due to a flat tyre we made our way down the now very rough and rutted road to Peurto Bahamondes, the true end of the Carretera Austral but the begining of another series of adventures for us….

Finally at the end (sort of)…

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The Carretera Austral part 5 – from bad ripio to worse…

Two days in Cochrane was enough to make sure we saw all of its sights even though we barely left our cabaña during our pyjama day. We read, watched a movie and caught up on happenings at home as the wifi was the best we had had access to since Coyhaique. The weather continued to be warm and sunny but the occaisional rain shower was welcomed by all, not least by the locals who were fighting the wild fires.

With our panniers restocked we were able to start the journey south towards the most remote part of the Carratera Austral and it’s ‘dead end’. To say dead end is a little bit misleading but more on this in a later post. For now our plan was simply to ride onwards towards Villa O’Higgins but with a diversion to Caletta Tortel, a town we had heard so much about from other travellers that we felt a visit was almost obligatory.

Before reading more it is worth my pointing out that the southern section of the road was not built until the late 1990s with Villa O’Higgins gaining its road connection to the rest of Chile in 1999. This part of the country is remote, has little infrastructure and it can be cut off very quickly by land slides, fires or ferry breakdowns. Between Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins lies 200 kms of road with the only shops being in the village of Caleta Tortel, itself located at the end of a 20 km branch off the main road.

With only one main road in and out of Cohrane it was easy to find our way onwards but at this point we could probably have found our way blindfolded by following the smell of burning trees. The fires burning south of Cochrane gave off smoke that hung in the air giving every view a faint blue tinge. There were no road closures in place so we we able to make good progress along what was, on the Charly March-Shawcross gravel road gravel scale, good gravel.

Izzy and Will spent the morning perfecting their bandit look by placing their buffs over their faces to try to lessen the effects of both the dust thrown up by passing vehicles and the smoke. The fires turned out to be only 20 or so kms south of town and with great relief we noticed the smoke thinning and the blue sky ahead of us. A look back across the valley we had come from made it easy to see where the fire burned the most but it was still too far away to see the flame.

Spot the forest fire…

After clearing most of the smoke we took an earlyish lunch stop at a great spot next to the Rio Salto precipitated by Izzy’s hunger pangs brought on by her claim that the air smelled of smoked bacon. This section of the road though remote carries a lot of tourist traffic and we were being passed by a few vehicles an hour which was not much fun. Just when we were beginning to think that the narrowness of the road and the traffic might be too much we stumbled on our camp spot. Not initially a planned stop we saw another family of cycle tourists cooking a few metres off the gravel in a well used camp spot. Cycle touring with kids is not a usual thing to do and we are concious that it can be isolating for Izzy and Will; an opportunity to play with other kids who are both English speaking and taking a similar trip meant an immediate stop. Sam, Krista, Banjo and Daisy are riding the Carretera in the opposite direction to us. We had heard about them and they us before our meeting and it was satisfying to finally meet them. The campsite they had chosen was pleasent and had plenty of room for us as well. Charly and I chatted to Sam and Krista for a long time while the kids splashed in the shallows of the river and played together. It was a exercise in anthropology to watch how the children played and how easily they made friends based on their shared experiances of cycling and the hardships they faced (mainly the lack of peanut butter it would seem). I realise the term hardships is relative but to oits of kids in the western world the discomfort and uncertainty that extended cycle touring can being at times is one of the most difficult things they have to deal with. Meeting another English speaking family had an additional, unexpected, benefit; an exchange of books. We have been reading together as a family at bed time; tackling classics like ‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘The Secret Garden’ and, ‘Black Beauty’. We had just finished the books given to Izzy and Will at Christmas and were trying to decide what to do qith them. Banjo and Daisy were as keen as us to get some new reading material so a quick swap was done. Everyone was happy with no extra mass being gained!

Lord of the Flies?…

Reading each night has been an important part of a routine for us and happens regardless of weather and what has happened that day. Food too helps to make uncertain situations seem better. Bread is really important to us on the road. Its significance is beyond calorific as buying fresh bread shows we are near a town or village. Bread for lunch – near a settlement, biscuits for lunch – the middle of nowhere. Beyond Cochrane can seem like the middle of nowhere but passing a tiny homestead the next morning we stopped for breakfast. Run by an old couple who had eked out a living here since before the road was built we drank instant coffee and ate homemade bread with home made jam. I was frustrated by my basic Spanish language skills; I would have loved to talk to them about life before the road and how they survived the long winters. I did manage to ask how long the old man had lived here and he gave the simple answer “Siempre” – always.

With Will and Izzy’s inner savages civilised by the bread and jam (or perhaps just entering a hyperglycemic coma due to the amount of sugar and white bread) we made our way further south. Passed by a few trucks and cars we didn’t see anyone to speak to until the next day. Our camp site that night was another wild one next to the Rio Baker. We cooked with water drawn from the river and on descending to it the next morning to fetch more water for porridge saw the hood prints of the endangered huemal deer. We were all excited by this as it showed that a few of the 2000 or so deer left in the world had been within a few metres of our tent. The wildlife of Patagonia is fascinating and it has been a privalidge to have glimpses of many species but we still hope that we might see a huemal deer in the flesh and not just it scat and prints.

Deer prints (top) and deer (bottom – obviously not our photo).

Continually looking out for birds and the enormous wealth of insect life we headed onwards and at the first major road junction broke from the Ruta 7 and headed towards Caletta Tortel. The road was truely awful. It was fairly flat and ran along the Rio Baker valley but the worst washboard we have yet encountered alternaging with sections of deep potholes. Its flatness was physcologically tortuous as we could see on and on and the headwind just added to the ‘fun’. On this road though we met Rob, a native of San Francisco on a Salsa Fargo, he was quick to smile and stop to chat. Our reputation had preceded us and, having heard of us had lots of tips and advice. We wouldn’t see him again for a fortnight but when we did it was nice to see his ready smile.

The energy expended to reach Caletta Tortel was worth it. The town has no roads and is built on boardwalks and stilts on the steep sided valleys at the outflow of the Rio Baker. Originally supported by wood export it now relies heavily on tourism with bus loads arriving from Coygaique and Cochrane. Our advantage was that after the buses had gone in the evenings we were left in the village with its inhabitants and a few backpackers. The views were fascinating and the next day gave Izzy, Will and I time explore while Charly had a well earned couple of extra hours in her sleeping bag.

As we strolled we spotted several delapidated boats. The name of one caught my eye as ironic – Invinceble 2. Was it really? It did not look so in it’s rotting state and the burning question – what happened to Invincible 1?

Both Izzy and Will enjoyed running along the boardwalks; the lack of cars was refreshing and gave a break from being constantly wary of them and the smell of diesel fumes. We stopped to play on the swings and slide which amounted to the play park and I enjoyed having not to hurry them, the only time limit being empty tummies. Eventually we continued to the ‘supermarket’ to buy food only to discover that it was not very well stocked. Fresh food arrives in the town once a month and given its lack of roads it is not easy to get the deliveries to the shops. We managed to buy pasta, tinned vegetables, a few very sorry looking carrots and an onion that had seen better days – not what we had hoped for but as Izzy optimisticly pointed out more than some people would get to eat that day. We were also breadless – something rectified when we spotted a sign in the window of a small house. In remote regions it seems that somebody in each village makes a few pesos from selling bread and we were able to buy 12 breadrolls and 4 sopapilla (bread dough that has been fried) from the living room of the house. Like with most of these ‘panadarias’ the wood stove was on and the temperature in the house was about 30 degrees – no mean feat given the wood and corrugated iron nature of most buildings that we had seen in Patagonia. With our bread in hand we returned to the tent and a slightly more rested Charly.

We were also lucky to be here for a local fair celebrating the role of wood in the community here. To be honest it was just an excuse for a gossip, food and drink – we loved it! There were stalls selling local foods and lots of beer but also mulled wine. Being as Charly and I missed out on this at Christmas in the in the UK we felt we had to try it to compare them. It was delicous and a pleasent warming drink given the wind that blew in from the coast and the cool summer temperatures here. We mooched around the stalls, listened to the local musicians and (to Charly’s ‘delight’) their accordians, enjoyed a collection of photos of the town in the days before the road (from the cut of the clothes these were taken in the 1970’s) and, watched the local men gamble as they played a game involving threwing a weight and getting it to land in a certain way. We felt a little out of place but not unwelcome however it was not really a place to take photographs. After a couple of hours we strolled back along the boardwalks and attempted to find a reknowned micro-brewery and pub. After quite some time walking up and down wooden steps and weaving in and out of houses we had to give up. We later found out it had closed for good, much to Will’s dissappointment as he had been promised fruit juice if we went there.

Mobile band saw and beer – a perfect combination?

With not much food available and the boardwalks walked we decided to return to the main road and keep heading south. Our ride out from Caletta Tortel was no where near as bad as we had thought it would be due to a strong tail wind, fresh legs and encouragement given from another Chilean family befriended by Will and Izzy in the campsite. They stopped and took some great photos of all of us and we enjoyed a quick roadside chat At the junction with the ruta 7 we turned right and began our very steep ascent and subsequent descent to Puerto Yungay and the ferry to the last leg of the road to Villa O’Higgins. The road was steep but both of us kept riding to the first switch back only stopping out of breath and with lactic acid burning in our thighs when we were out of sight of the group of bikepackers who had gathered at the junction on their way north.

A single track road with steep drop offs – we were very careful riding this section.

With no road beyond Villa O’Higgins some 120 kms to the south the traffic thinned alot and we were passed by only a slack handful of vehicles. We were on the final stretch of the Carretera…

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The Carretera Austral part 4 – Where there is smoke there is fire….

Timing they tell me is everything and the timing of our arrival at camping Bella Vista in Puerto Rio Tranquillo was perfect. Within seconds of arriving Will had run to the toilet and had a very squirty bum; a theme that would continue for a few days for both Will and myself.

The camp site was full of cycle tourists and backpackers with most northern european languages being heard within minutes of our arrival. The atmosphere was beautiful and a little like an EU summit with the sharing of food, drink and information, luckily we were still included and the actions of our countrymen were glossed over (after some initial teasing). The main attractions of the town are a supermarket, a brew pub and the marble caves. We had stopped here for the last but benefitted hugely from the first two.

Will did not feel well.

Poor Will spent a good portion of the first evening sleeping fitfully and shivering (between hurried visits to the bathroom) and we took the opportunity to rest and chat to the other cycle tourists who were passing through the town.

Lago General Carrera.

The campsite was popular with other cyclist too.

The day time temperatures were high and this made the extra washing that we needed to do much quicker to dry. In the afternoon though we ventured out into town to do some shopping, swim in the lake and sample the craft beers (it was a hardship I was willing to endure in the name of travel journalism). The Lago General Carerra was clear with a pale blue colour reminicant of the cote d’azure but the water was chilly and made more than a quick duck under a feat of daring. After our swim and with Will feeling much happier (but still needing to be in dashing distance of the bathroom) we headed to the pub to try their wheat beer, brewed on site and very refreshing.

Our next trip out was to the marble caves. We had not booked our trip but, given the number of boats offering excursions, were confident that we could find a tour early in the day. Pre breakfast we strolled to the quayside, found an outfitter, donned our bouyancy aids and were whisked off towards the caves.

The marble caves are impossible to describe but have essentially been carved out of the rock by the actions of wind and water over hundreds of thousands of years. They are almost impossible to discern from a distance as the marble forms only the lowest layer of the rocks but up close they display sculpted land forms that are incredibly beautiful, especially early in the day as the incident rays of sun light reflect off the still waters of the lake. I hope the photos here give you some idea.

On our boat was Matt, a chap from the UK who worked as a fly fishing guide in Argentina. He was commited to conservation of freshwater catchments and was really interesting to chat to, so much so that after the tour we found a french run coffee trailer and had what seemed to be the best coffee we had drunk for many weeks.

Even though it was still early we could feel the heat rising (and we had more washing to do as a result of a not quiet successful ‘baño run’ by Will) so we made our way back to the camp site to relax in the shade and tackle some more school work.

The heatwave continued as we rode south towards Puerto Bertrand and Cochrane. Behind us a plume of what I thought to be dust rose into the air but Charly pointed out that it was more likely to be a forest fire. She was right and it was the first of two large wild fires (started by humans) that would cause us some problems (not serious) in the coming days. As we continued on the road we realised that I had forgotten our two plastic pots in the kitchen at our last campsite; appalled at the thought of them being consigned to landfill and Charly and I’s loss of our ‘crockery’. I resolved to hitch hike back from that night’s campsite and retrieve them.

Lunch was in the shade of a bush after a Dutch couple (also cycle tourists) made room for us and shared their nutella with the kids but it wasn’t long before we need to stop again after a section if really bad gravel. A small farm served cold drinks which was a welcome relief and they also had shady camping run by a friendly french couple volunteering their in exchange for free food and a spot for their van. While Charly made camp I walked back to the main road and hopefully stuck out my thumb. Within minutes I was picked up and 45 minutes later was back in Rio Tranquillo picking up our plastic pots and buying more ‘poo tokens’ aka toilet paper. One problem on the ruta 7 is the number of backpackers trying to find a ride and a queue of twenty or so had built up at the last bridge out of town. Remembering a conversation with Matt the previous day and tips he gave for hitching I decided to start walking and chance a lift further down the road. After 5 or so kms of walking in the hot late afternoon sun and dust (I was glad of my shemagh for shade and a makeshift dust mask) I was picked up by a Chilean Mum and son on holiday. They loved the idea of our trip and we chatted all the way back to my drop off point by the camping. It was to turn out to be another lucky meeting (more on this later).

Izzy and Will’s art installation made from things found on the campsite.

After dinner (eaten from our plastic pots) Izzy and Will had the opportunity to be led around the campsite on horseback. Both loved it and the smiles didn’t leave their faces for days as they talked about it – these are exactly the opportunities that we wanted them to have and hope that these memories eclipse the ones of the harder times.

Self explanatory photo…

Harder times continued the next morning with a return to the ripio but thankfully it was a little cooler than previous days. We crossed the magnificent bridge between lago General Carerra and Lago Bertrand and a steady ride beyond this brought us to the town of Puerto Bertrand, a tiny place offering a myriad of rafting and kayaking trip down the Rio Baker. The Rio Baker is the biggest (in terms of flow) river in Chile. It drains Lago Bertrand and it’s clear blue colour looked, on the day we crossed it like a blend of molten sapphire and emerald. The town did not have much to offer us but with recurrent bathroom issues we decided that an organised campsite would be better than a wild one. We were proven correct once more…

Riding towards Puerto Bertrand

Lago Bertand

Rio Baker

The Rio Baker merges with several other more minor rivers with the blending of colour and clarity each time. As we rode towards the Rio Baker and Rio Neff confluence we met the mum and son combo who had so kindly given my a lift the previous day. They were delighted to meet the kids and offered us fresh fruit and a top of water – both gratefully recieved. The fresh fruit gave a boost to our meagre lunch as we strolled towards the ‘confluencia’. The flow of water was deafening and, as I am increasingly aware that photgraphing theses landscape features is very hard indeed so rather than try too hard I sat, watched and listened. Izzy, Will and Charly did the same and the moments spent as a family watching the water cascade over the short drop was magical.

We continued our theme of following natural wonders as we headed into the Patagonia National Park later that afternoon. A former overgrazed sheep ranch it’s spectacular landscapes now house increasing vegetation cover, huge numbers of guanaco (Llama guanaco), puma and smaller (but increasing numbers) of the endangerd huemal deer. The park, ironically given its stance on fossil fuel use, is not easy to reach in anything other than a pick up truck but we persevered with the rough road, wind and rain to reach the campsite.

That evening walking to the washing area without my glasses on I saw what I thought was a big dog strolling across the grassy campsite. Izzy who was by my side corected me and identified the puma. Less than one hundred metres away it was a rare site and a reminder to keep the kids close to us at all times. Will did not like this and refused to comply earning him the new nickname Puma Snacks…..

Warning signs for Puma encounters.

Beautiful but tinder dry alpine meadows.

Llama guanaco

Puma scat

Guanaco print

The park originally bought by the Tompkins Foundation and now donated to the people of Chile is very little developed for hiking but a couple easyish trails do exist. We walked parts of these with the kid and enjoyed the amazing views and close ups on guanaco, often having to wait for them to move off the paths in front of us. We found puma prints and scat on the trails – a constant reminder of their presesnce and watched andean condors sore above the cliffs. The new visitors centre held exhibits on human impact on the environment and the history of the park and surroundings. The kids loved it and it made explaining why Charly and I do certain things like buy second hand clothes, limit our car travel and meat comsumption much easier. There was also a restaurant with the salads and vegetables being grown on site in big, well hidden, greenhouse. It was an interesting idea but as we walked back to the campsite past them we heard the unmistakeable hum of a diesel generator and our unfortunate relience on fossil fuels was brought back to us.

While eating lunch we chatted to one of the waitresses who warned us about the poor air quality in Cochrane (the nearest town and our next stop). We explained that we had no choice but to move on as we were short of food and she very kindly offerred to buy supplies for us and bring them back when she returned to work the next day. This kind offer was typical of the Patagonian people and has made our trip so much easier. The extra day in the park was appreciated and the air qualiy there remained high and we were glad that we did not have to ride through the smoke.

Counting down the kilometres.

Two other cyclists we had met (Jerry and Carolyn) rode on to Cochrane that day and sent a message to say that the air was actually OK due to a change in wind direction. We made plans to ride into Cochrane the following day. The ride was not too difficult as most of the gravel was good and it was a relief to have a supermarket with some fresh produce and a cold beers. Having not slept in a bed for a while we set our hearts on a cabaña. We eventually found one that slept three and the owner was happy to let us squeeze in. It was cozy, had hot water and a comfy bed so we were super happy. I popped out to the supermarket and while I was gone the cabaña owner reappeared and warned Charly that there may be a need to evacuate the town due to the forest fire. Izzy was a little upset and the owner quickly reassured us that she would find a truck that could take us and our kit if it came to it. We spent that night on tenter hooks and barely unpacked just in case. Rain in the night and a drop in the wind speeds lessened the probability of evacuation and on the second day we relaxed into a pyjama day. The smell of smoke and the constant buzz of helicopters carrying water to drop onto the fires never let us forget that they were there and they would continue to impact on us for the next section on the road south.

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The Carratera Austral part 3 – Supposedly the ‘worst’ gravel of the road, Coyhaique to Puerto Rio Tranquillo.

Coyhaique came as a welcome break but also as a shock. We had spent nearly 3 weeks away from big town, supermarkets and lots of people so to sit in shade of the trees in the Plaza de Armas and just relax was serene.

My first priority when we hit a town is accomadation but tonight we were staying with a warmshowers host so my thoughts turned to food. I sought out the biggest supermarket and immediately fell upon the fruit selection like a UK citizen post Brexit will do on a new shipment of bananas…. Fruit and chocolate milk in hand I returned to Charly, Izzy and Will to find them deep in conversation with Mariana, a delightful woman who had returned to Coyhaique on her university vacation and was keen to practise her already good English. Time passed pleasently until our host, Nicolas met us to lead the way to his house. As soon as he said that there was little uphill we knew we would be hurting. Indeed both of our legs felt empty as we struggled to keep up with Nicolas and to top it all Charly was reversed into! Luckily her front rack was undamaged and the car came off worse. A little shaken we continued and arrived at Nicolas, Flo and their son Samuel’s home. Once again it felt great to be able to relax and sit inside in a house for a little while and gather our thoughts. Nicolas worked for the Chilean environment ministry and Flo for the agriculture ministry and both were interested in sustainable living so while Izzy and Wil played with toys for the for the first time in what must have seemed like ages we talked about the work they were doing to make Chile more environmentally sustainable. It was interesting to learn that they thought the same about the lack of double glazing and the reliance on old stoves burning fresh cut wood….

Our first day in Coyhaique was spent shopping for new kids shoes, sunglassess, replacements for various bits of worn out kit, fuel for the stove and, having Charly’s rear wheel rebuilt after the free hub had begun to grind horrendously.

Luckily our second day was far more fun and after picking up our replacement credit cards from the post office we were able to eat out at the fantastic ‘Basilac’ a french bistro served amazing vegeterian food made from produce sourced as locally as possible. We all had a fantastic meal with lots of fresh vegetables, local beer and decent coffee.

Sorry but gratuitous food shots were needed – it was really that good.

The next evening we slept in our tent to free the bed room for friends of our hosts and enjoyed a late meal while the six children played. We all enjoyed a laye meal and at the mention of scotch a bottle of blended whisky appeared, much to my happiness. We sat and talked late onto the evening feeling at home with our generous hosts.

Izzy, Will and the other children all slept on the living room floor giving Charly and I more room in the tent than ever before!

What felt like only a few hours later we said fairwell and headed back into town for a frustrating last attempt at few jobs. Frustrating because it was Sunday and we had failed to learn from our experiance that not much opens – even in such a big regional centre. Finally at 4 pm we pointed our bikes back down the Ruta 7 and pedalled away towards El Blanco 40 km away. The ride followed its normal trend of beauty and climbing but was tinged with traffic, close passes and a meloncholy that strikes after a goal has been reached. We had set our minds to reaching Coyhaique and had not looked much beyond it. I felt a little deflated and unsure of myself, our trip and what it was we actually hoped to achieve. The road was still tarmac which made chatting to Charly about how I was feeling easier. We have both had mentally hard days but thankfully not on the same day and our ability to talk to each other about it is enough to drive the thoughts away.

An English country cottage in the heart of Patagonia – the sight cheered me up greatly.

The camping at El Blanco was friendly and had a huge ‘Quincho’ or kitchen where we were able to cook. It also provided shelter from the incessent wind which had picked up as we climbed out of the river valley and into the mountains. One of our favourite things about rural Chilean camp sites is the fact that there are nearly always fresh eggs and bread available. Being invited to sit in a warm kitchen and watching as the farmer’s wife (please forgive my pajoritive wording, the small farms here are very much joint ventures with both people taking a vital role, I just could not think of another way of expressing it) takes a tray of hot bread rolls out of the oven has a way of making me feel involved in what is happening even though I can only understand snippits of the conversation. The kitchen remind me of my grandmother’s at her house ‘The Old Dairy’ where it seemed the whole of life revolved around the kitchen where the bubbling of the ever boiling kettle mixed with the babble of conversation.

The chickens peck around constantly and the knowledge that the eggs are truely free range is satisfying and there availability certainly supplements a diet that is currently made up of rice, pasta, bread and beans. As we move further south the availabilty of vegetables has diminished and the tiny shop in El Blanco reflected this with its rack of withered peppers and just begining to rot carrots. Potatoes and onions always seem to be in sacks leaning against the freezer with its indistinct joints of meat and occaisional packets of frozen vegetables.

We took an enforced rest day at El Blanco as the wind had become too strong to cycle safely with gusts of about 120 km per hour. A rest day meant a chance to clean bikes and for the children to spend a couple of hours doing some school work. Will continued with his phonics and Izzy has been using her Beaver scout badges a little like a curriculum. They have been superb at allowing her to focus and tick off achievements as she works through them. Repton Beavers have been supportive and she looks forward to an armful of badges on her return.

Later in the afternoon two American cycle tourists arrived and it was great to talk and share our stories of the road. Mike and Kris were teachers from Oregan and having ridden south down the Ruta 7 decided the did not like the winds in Argentina so turned around and rode north again.

The next morning the winds had abated slightly and for the first 15 or so kms we would have a tail wind (and 500 m of height to gain) so we decided to try to head to Villa Cerro Castillo, about 50 km further south. We felt safe to do this despite the winds as Mike had kindly pointed out a camping spot in the Cerro Castillo national reserve that we could use to break the journey. As it was this was needed! After 15 kms we crested the first of two climbs for the day and turned into a new valley and an aggressive head wind. Both Charly and I struggled to control the bikes and by the time we reached the campground at Laguna Chiguay we were ready to take a break. Izzy and Will were also ready and with the ability to stop at a nice campaite and allow them time and space again we called it a day at just 26 km but with 879 metres of climbing.

This may seem like a short day and it was but it meant we were a few kms further down the road and the town of Villa Cerro Castillo was easily reachable. Another day of climbing followed by a glorious descent and a section of fine switch backs took us under the towering, fortress like peak of Cerro Castillo (and yes we do know what the name means).

Sheltering from the wind and trying to keep warm.

Cerro Castillo

Despite its February climbing festival there is little to this sleepy town and no reason for us to stay beyond a night before we moved on to a section of road we had not been looking forward to. Just after the town the tarmac ended and the gravel began. Not ordinary gravel though, loose, washboard ripio that made your sholders ache and gave you a headache to ride. A chat with Charly, Izzy and Will about the option of taking a pick up truck instead was immediately dismissed. ‘It seems wrong to get a lift before we have even tried’ was the opinion given by Charly. I was relieved – we came to ride the Carretera Austral and the ripio ahead was part of it so ride it we should. Soon after the tarmac ended though this felt like a mistake and we took a break in a riverside stand of trees that was an excellent camping spot. Just as we were deciding if we should press on for a few more kms three more cyclists arrived and our plan was made – we would camp here. Izzy and Will reluctantly helped with the tent before scampering off with the other three cyclists to go fishing. They were still in sight but 300 metres away across a windy flood plain. It was bliss to watch them playing and trying to fish but eventually we felt we should retrieve them so coffees in hand we strolled across to get them back for supper.

Just about discernable – Izzy and Will heaaading off to fish.

After supper Will deployed his super power of finding anyone within 3 km who was toasting marshmellows and while he and Izzy ambushed a Chilean family who had brought their children camping we hadtime to sit by a campfire and chat to the other cyclists. They were a belgian, a peruvian and Illy, a frenchman who had been on the road since 2012 and towed his kit in a fibre glass monocoque trailer and wore jeans and a plaid shirt. I had admiration for anyone who can ride for that long especially in denim!

As dusk darkened the sky and a few drops of rain fell we retrived Izzy and Will and retired to our tent.

Another day of gravel followed but this time some of it was almost like tarmac. We made great time and distance and the road noise was decreased enough that Will and I sang ‘The Wild Rover’ while Izzy and Charly learnt their times tables. It was not all plain riding though and the loose stuff returned along with the head wind. The last 10 or so kms before our campsite were monotonous and rough and I began to feel sorry for Will bouncing around behind me.

Camping Doña Dora gave us two great opportunities;

1. A tiny, cosy cabin to sleep in

2. A beautiful view of life on a Patagonian farm. Early the next morning we were able to watch the farmer saddle and mount his horse and drive his cattle to graze followed by another horse and several dogs. Set agaist the mountains it seemed to fit beaurifully.

Will awoke complaining of a tummy ache and being hot. He did indeed have a temperature but he perked up when we stopped at a roadside ‘case de comida’ for a sandwhich. We chatted to another cyclist covering the Ruta 7 in a fast and light style who had ridden from the 800 or so KMs from Puerto Montt in just 12 days.

My sandwich was a carnivores dream but as usual the only veggies on it were fried onions and the coffee was instant made with hot water. We had a long break but we needed to make it to Rio Tranquillo that evening so had to press on along the washboard gravel and hills that brought back memories (nightmares?) of Chiloe. After a particularly rough section about 5 KMs out of town I called a stop for some emergency sweets. Will had been groaning a bit with his sore tummy but the moment his first sweet touched his tongue he projectile vomitted over himself. Dodging further cascades we freed him from his seat belts and he was able to deposit the rest of his lunch onto the road side (luckily loose gravel is very absorbent). The first case of a tummy upset had hit our trip and it would not prove to be fun for anyone except the manufacturers of washing soap…

We limped (metaphorically) into town but we did have to push up a couple of really steep climbs along the side of Lago General Carrera.

Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile and the second largest in South America. It’s scale was breath taking.

We reached Puerto Rio Tranquillo but the six days of riding from Coyhaique had left us battered and worn out. It was time for a rest.

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It is amazing who you meet in a bus stop…

Another lunch time and another bus stop. We sit slicing stale bread rolls and seperating sliced cheese between mouthfuls of water to stop us choking on the crumbs. A man, about 30, pushes his stroller towards the bus stop.

‘How odd’ I think as there aren’t really any houses nearby and the stoller is a european model. We make room for him out of the wind and he greats us in English. Opening his stroller reveals no child but a host of backpacking kit and food – not what we expected if we are honest.

Oliver is walking from Ushuia to Alaska, he expects it to take 3 years. He was an unassuming guy who was just going for a walk – a really long walk. This was not his first rodeo either; twice he has walked across his home country of Slovenia and he has crossed the USA on foot too. We chatted for about half an hour and really enjoyed the brief time we spent together and it reminded me of something we were told by another traveling family, ‘There is always someone doing it crazier than you’. My hope is he remembers the encounter with the same fondness and that maybe, with our two kids and huge panniers, he saw us in the same light.

Later that day we met Sprout. Sprout is a terrier who is touring Sourh America with her owners in tow. On long hills she gets out to walk alongside them but for the most part rides up front in a basket. Lou and Robin, Sprout’s owners, are from Lincoln and like us wanted to take some time out. We met them in a bus stop just outside Villa ********** (another Chilean village with a closed supermarket) and talked about the road ahead until both Sprout and our kids became restless and we bid our goodbyes.

These are two examples of meeting strangers who were on similar journeys to us (both literal and metaphorical) and they show how following three rules when touring can reap rewards. The rules have been adapted from our close friend Mad Court’s ‘Three rules of D of E’. Both Charly and I have huge respect for Mad and she is a beautiful person. Her rules are:

1. Be good

2. Talk to strangers

3. Don’t die

Rule number two has given us some amazing experienced this trip and a couple of times has helped us immensely. For example being offered a roof for the night on a wet windy day in Sweeden, having our panniers carried over a tough section if gravel in Chile, managing to get our bikes on a bus to Ancud from Puerto Montt. I could go on but without the kindness of strangers our trip would be more difficult and certainly less enjoyable.

Thank you does not quite cover our gratitude to all of our new friends but your help was important to us and showed our children that the eorld can be a kind place.

If you are reading this blog then you are interested in what we are doing; we have been helped by strangers ask you, should you see someone like us, have a chat and see if you can help them – it makes the world a nicer place.

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The Caratera Austral Part 2 – With a little help from our friends.

Patagonia continues to challenge and reward in equal measure with stunning landscapes, coastal climate weather, companionship with other cycle tourists and welcoming patagonians.

We have covered approximately 325 kms from Chaiten to Villa Mañihueles including some ‘awesome’ gravel (Ed’s opinion) and ‘f***ing gravel again, f**k off with this sh*t already! I want a divorce’ (Charly’s opinion).

In my last blog post I mentioned a French family we met who were cycling as well. We shared an meal with them and enjoyed and chatting about our experiances of South America. The next day we met Alejandro and Yazmin, an Argentinian dad and 10 year old daughter on a home built e-cargo bike resplendent in blue hammeright paint and complete with 3 solar panels….

We loved overlapping with them for several days and it was beautiful to watch the children play together around the campsites.

From Chaiten we rode south and the flat terrain created by the volcanic erruption in 2008 and new tarmac gave us type 1 fun all the way to Lago Yelcho.

Chile has some very rustic campsites which charge a small amount for a pitch and some times even hot water and a dry place to cook. At Lago Yelcho we paid for our most expensive campsite yet, $30000 CLP. What does one get for such a price (I have paid less on Europe)? The answer – scalding hot water for both showers and washing up and soft toilet paper! We took full advantage by taking a 10 minute shower before dinner and feeling properly clean for the first time since Ancud.

The next morning was dry so we made an early start. We planned a short day as we had to climb over a pass and into Villa Santa Lucia. I was so glad that my plan worked (for a change) and Charly had been appropriately briefed so when the climb came we were able to make our way up without time pressure. Izzy and Will peddled hard and Will delighted in pointing out every water fall, bird and, most usefully, the huge horseflies that landed on me intent on their next meal. With a hundred or so metres of climbing left it began to rain. Izzy and Will were already dressed in head to foot in their Spotty Otter water proofs but Charly and I had to press on to the top – we were working so hard that had we stopped we would have been soaked inside due to the sweat anyway. At the first chance after summiting we donned our jackets and gloves and descended through the bleak aftermath of a 2016 land slide that had destroyed the road and cut off Villa Santa Lucia for weeks. The road was gravel here and had been quickly built but was a lifeline for the town and those beyond.

Villa Santa Lucia still suffers from the effects of the land slide and there was little to keep us their but we did stop at a ‘Casa de comida’ for coffee, cake and a rest from the rain. The owners were friendly and took the kids into the kitchen to warm their hands while Charly and I sat and watched the rain fall. The moment there was the hint of a break in the weather we gathered our kit and continued to our camp site. In contrast from last night this was to be our cheapest at $2000 per person. There was a water tap and a toilet flushed with a bucket but we were happy enough. We put up a tarp as a cooking shelter and Izzy, Will and Yazmin (who had just arrived with her Dad) played a game only they were able to understand.

We explored a delapidated chapel in the same field that had an atmosphere more suited to October 31st than January but decided that we were safe from the ghosts and retired.

The next day to La Junta gave us no problems and the rain passed us by with a few showers. La Junta was definately a town to stop for a very short time but again we met some great characters including Sprout the dog from Lincoln, touring Chile and Argentina with her owners Lou and Robin.

The next day gave us one of the most fortuitous meetings of our trip so far.

On the road between La Junta and Puyuhuapi we were passed by a white pick up truck with its occupant waving and honking the horn with gusto. We thought no more of it until we rolled into our camping and were given a pitch next to the pick up. We had just decided to sit for a few minutes and gather our thoughts while Will and Izzy explored when we were interupted by the guy who had been driving the truck.

‘Did we want some food?’ and before we could say anything we were given a sausage on a fork and an ice cold beer.

Several more beers and an invite to share there campfire followed.

Miguel (an agricultural elecrical engineer), Nati (a dress designer) and their son Matias were so kind to us it was hard to believe; sharing their food and drinks and chatting late into the evening. The next day we all rode in the truck (much to Will’s excitement) to the Quelat National Park. They decided not to join us hiking up to the view point for the glacier so we bid a temporary good bye as we set off on the 3.3 km walk. The view of the glacier and the melt water run off driven waterfall was wonderful and gave a talking point for us to discuss climate change with the kids – helped by pictures of the glacier and its changing position through the years.

Returning to the camping (after being picked up by Miguel) we ate together and they offered to take us south to Coyhaique. Explaining, over a scotch, that we wanted to ride brought puzzled looks but complete acceptance of our choice. Instead they carried our bags the 60 km to the next campsite. This was such a kind jesture as it meant a change of plan for them but an easier day for us as the road through the national park was notoriously steep and poor quality. The day was memorable for its difficulty and the joy we found at spotting a dolphin in the inlet as we rode towards the mountains. Our new friends passed us early in the day with cold water and a can of Red Bull and again later in the day with same. We arrived at the campsite not far apart and set up camp together.

The warning sign at the start of the climb through the Quelat Park.

Camping Rio Grande was nestled in the mountains and the lack of hot water was made up for by the views, the star gazing around the campfire and the breakfast we had the next morning. Coffee, fresh eggs, homemade rasberry jam, honey from the farm, fresh bread rolls on which to spread them and all rounded off with rasberry cake. We bought more eggs and bread to take with us and bid our farewell to Miguel, Nati and Matias and headed for Villa Amengual 15 km away.

Camping Rio Grande in the Rio Cisnes valley.

Refugio para cicliste gave us a roof over our heads as the rain started and we enjoyed lounging on a mattress on the floor in a room with a hot stove as we (i.e. the kids) caught up on some school work and Izzy completed some of her Beaver scout badges. I inflicted my bad Spanish on the north bound cyclists to glean any information I could about the south bound road as the refugio filled to bursting in the inclement weather. Counting the names in the guest book the next morning gave a total of 13 cyclists of 4 nationalities sheltering from the rain.

A weather forcast sent from home (thanks Rachel) due to a lack of wifi or reliable info gave us a window of just a few hours to make it south to Villa Mañihueles. We made it with not much time to spare and I am writing this from the fogon of our camp site as the rain falls outside. Today We have ridden down a huge U shaped valley and despite it seeming mostly down hill we still managed to gain 650 m of height through the day.

I love a U shaped valley! This one was huge….

The riding is slowly feeling easier; hopefully a good omen as we ride towards Coyhaique tomorrow and the half way point of the Ruta 7.

Nearly half way!

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The Caratera Austral part 1

The Caratera Austral is a draw for any would be adventurer. It is 1200 km of road from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Started in the 1976 the road finally reached Villa O’Higgins in 2000.

We joined the Ruta 7 in Chaiten, about 200 km south of Puerto Montt, after a ferry ride from Quellon. Chaiten is a fascinating town – relocated en mass in 2010 after the evacuation of the orginal town after a volcanic erruption. The town is on a grid system so our campsite was easy to find. While Charly, Will and Izzy put up the tent I went in search of the laundrette. Again this was not difficult to find and was simply a house with a sign outside, a family providing a service needed by tourists and travellers for an extra income.

Boarding the ferry in Quellon.

Patagonia’s mountains looking daunting from the sea.

Our clothes in the wash, our tent up, provisions bought, supper eaten our discussion fell to plans for the short term. Every cyclist who was here had different goals, daily distances and styles but we all had a common goal – to ride to Villa O’Higgins.

Romain (a genial French bike shop owner from near Lille), Mike and Maria (a friendly couple from Dijon who humoured our kids as we overlapped with them at several campsites) and Allesandra (a multi lingual Italian from Briancon who seemed fluent in French, English and Spanish) were all planning to use the good weather forcast to their advantage to ride the 75 km south to the next ‘town’. Two delightful Chilean cyclist who endured my poor Spanish as I explained our trip to them and chatted about Chile in general were heading North to hike at Volcan Chaiten. Charly and I also wanted to ride north into the Pumalin National park but had more modest goals of hiking to the ‘Cascadas Enscondidas’ or hidden water falls.

The follwing morning we bid goodbye to our ‘travelling’ friends (a term we use to help Will cope with the fact that we may never see them again) and cycled to the super market only to meet them all again as they all stopped for supplies. We bought food for the next two nights and some spare for another day at least (you never know), tracked down fuel for the stove and withdrew some cash (there are only a handful of cash machines on the route and it is almost the only way to pay). It was passed 1pm when we rolled out of town in what definately felt like the wrong direction. Within a few minutes we passed the first of several cycle tourists heading south. We exchanged waves and carried on our way. The road was beautiful new tarmac and despite the rolling hills the going was easy enough. We stopped for lunch at a black sand beach and the kids played out of our sight in complete safety.

The beach at Santa Barbara – as good as a play park.

Lunch over we started north again and all was going well until the dreaded ‘Fin de asphelto’ sign…. Any readers of the blog will know that Charly is not a fan of gravel and her mood changed as soon as her front wheel rolled off the tarmac.

Fortunately ‘camping al volcan’ was only 10 or so km up the road and came with running water and views of glaciers and a smoking volcanic crator (google Chaiten, volcano erruptuon 2008 for an idea). The view and quality of camping was probably the best we had had since Bariloche and we settled in for the night happily.

Friday dawned with the predicted rain starting soon after 8 am. It didn’t stop for another 24 hours and we were confined to the tent and the cooking shelter. It was a great opportunity for some school work for Izzy and Will took his first steps in reading for himself by sounding out the initial pages of his new book. This filled about 2 hours of our day but for those who think that we are on a jolly the next 24 hours were certainly not. In the end we resorted to a film on Charly’s phone (downloaded for emergencies) and the last bar of Christmas chocolate, saved for such a occaision. During the evening we noticed dripping showing that a seam on the tent had failed so we had to lash our tarpaulin over the top of the tent to stop the rain soaking us – all we now had to worry about was drowning due to the raising water table…..

Our main reason for riding ‘the wrong way’ for a day was to hike in the Pumalin national park and this we managed to do on Saturday. We fought through drizzle and wet gravel to make the 34 km (and 700 m of height gain) round trip to Las Cascadas Escondidas. The effort was worth it as the rain the previous day had swelled the rivers and the falls were spectacular. The trail up to them was muddy and challenging, especially for the kids, they began to tire on the way down but there was little moaning and, astonishment at the size of some of the larch trees was a welcome distraction.

Will exploring the trail.

Back at our campsite the sun was shining once more and we were glad to have a chance to spread out our wet kit to dry. The night was cold and clear and the sunshine returned the next day and gave a very warm ride back, now the right way down the Caratera, to Chaiten.

The view from the campground shelter.

The smouldering Chaiten volcano

A note to aspiring riders of the Ruta 7: Chaiten is closed on Sunday. We found one open shop and managed to buy pasta and soup but had to resort to our luxuries fund for a lunch out. While in the restaurant another cycle touring family arrived! This was the first family we have met on bikes during our travels and we immediately started to chat and compare set ups before deciding to camp at the same place. For the first time since leaving the UK in November we were cooked for and all of us sat down to a meal together. They are from Toulose and have made a really interesting trip in the America’s (http://roulonspourvoir.blog).

Tomorrow we head south to try to ride some of the 422 kms to Coyhaique and luckily most of this has now been tarmaced. Hopefully the shops will be open to allow us to buy supplies as the next shop is in 70 km (or so we are told). I have my fingers crossed for good weather and a tail wind…..

If you like what I have written about our trip then consider clicking the following link to ‘buy me a coffee’ – essentially this means more cake for the kids……

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