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.

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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Biologist who teaches. In 2018 I took time away from work to travel and world school my children. We travel by bike and try to treat life as the adventure that it is.

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