< Central Chile | Carretera Austral >

Lakes District

Nov. 24, 2008

I spent a few days cruising down the Panamerican highway through more pine and eucalyptus plantations on luxuriously wide and well paved shoulders. Every day a new snow-capped volcano would appear on the southern horizon as the one on the northern horizon dipped below view, and every day was filled by staring in amazement as another perfectly formed volcano resolved itself.

Eventually I came to a junction where I had the opportunity to head towards Conguillío National Park and ride a circuit road around the base of Mt. LLaima. And I eagerly took that opportunity, since Mt. LLaima was one of the most beautifully formed volcanoes I’d yet seen. The park was every bit as gorgeous as I’d expected, but the roads were the worst I’d ridden on the entire trip. about five miles before I arrived at the park boundary the pavement gave out and the road deteriorated into a riverbed-like surface, and it only got worse when I actually entered the park and the large stones were supplemented with coarse volcanic sand that sucked my wheels down to the spokes and filled my shoes and infiltrated my socks.

I had intended on making the loop around the park in one day, but my average speed fell down to three miles an hour, and the ratio of words I’d use on a sailing vessel to words I’d use around small children became the highest it’s ever been in my life. In fact, on that account I felt that my vocabulary in English wasn’t rich enough to convey my distress, so I incorporated all the German, French and Spanish vulgarities I could muster.

Of course, every so often as I sat on the side of the “road” to empty my shoes of small rocks, I’d take a look around in wonder at the manificent beauty that surrounded me, and ask god to absolve me of all of the sins and evil thoughts that had just filled my mind. Never before in my life has my mood swung so sharply so often.

And to be honest, it was a fortunate thing to stop where I did in the park. The lake I camped by was spectacular (I have a photo of it), and I met a Swiss family who’ve been traveling with their (now) four year old son by bicycle. If you think that what I’ve been doing is in any way amazing, I feel the same way about their tour, but more so about their dedication to their child while they travel.

The following morning we ate breakfast together, and then rode at our seperate paces with a promise to reunite in Villarrica at La Torre Suiza, a hostel run by a Swiss couple who, after riding their bicycles around the world, decided to settle down there. As the day progressed I started to think that I had a reasonable chance of reaching Villarrica before nightfall.

But then I hit the dirt roads again. They were so bad and so steep that when I tried to ride uphill I’d hit a large loose rock, spin out and be unable to start riding again. So I’d push the bike up the remainder of the hill. And then at the summit, I’d have a steep downhill which I couldn’t zoom down for fear of hitting a large rock and cracking my rims, and couldn’t ride down slowly because I’d start to skid and be unable to stop. So the road was slow both going uphill and going downhill, and there was no flat to take advantage of at all. After another hour and a half of this I came to a small stream with a perfect spot to camp, knew that this was as good as it was going to get, and then threw in the towel for the day.

It was a good choice. I sat by the stream under a thicket of bamboo, and listened to the water run over the rocks. Eventually I dug into my food bag, prepared some concoction for dinner, and then retired to my tent to let the song “Unchained Melody”, which had been stuck in my head for the past several days, work itself out.

It rained that evening, but I stayed dry and slept the best I had in a long while. I took my time getting ready to go in the morning, dreading what lay ahead. Eventually there was no more delaying, and I pushed or rode the rest of the way to the town, and into the view of another spectacular volcano. Time for a break!

Break time ended after four days, and it was well-spent doing nothing, unless stuffing my face with fresh home-baked swiss bread is something, then it was spent doing that. After break time, I headed south via Lincan Ray to a few other lakes of the famous seven lakes area. I spent a night in the awfully unscenic town Los Lagos, and then headed back to make a quick loop around Lago Ranco.

The area around the seven lakes, and further south to Puerto Montt was heavily settled by German immigrants about 100 years ago, and this influence could be seen in German style barns and farms, and more importantly eaten in a German style cake called Kuchen. Deliciously, I pedaled from one Kuchen peddling establishment to the next from lake to lake, and as an added bonus occasionally bought cheese. As any bicycle tourist knows, actually seeing the sights and riding the roads is of secondary importance to eating, and in the seven lakes region eating could be done frequently.

From Lago Ranco, I came back briefly to the Panamericana and to the city of Osorno. Nothing doing there, I left the next day for the Argentine border. That day I got as far as Puyehue National Park, and when I came to the campground and saw what they were charging to camp, I got a bit further.

And this was excellent. I found a service entrance to the Sendero de Chile (a trans-Chile hiking trail which is under contruction), and about a mile down this road, I came to a wide field bordering a small creek. I immediately recognized this as one of those rare perfect free-camping sites that the bicycle tourist dreams about, and set about bathing in the icy water, washing my underpants, and lying out in the sun to dry. The only way it might have been improved is if the Chilean Bikini Team had also decided to make camp there the same night. But I was happy what with I got…

Coming into Chile they were extremely anal about fruit and vegetables, and I figured that leaving Chile for Argentina would give me some tit-for-tat treatment at the Argentine border. For that reason, I’d let my stock of vegetables and various other snacking products run empty. Well, the border was a 20 mile climb in the heat, and my meager breakfast of spaghetti didn’t last the distance. My chain also snapped again, and I had to cobble in the spare links I got a few weeks ago. These worked imperfectly, and in fact the chain snapped again before I figured out a method of making the transplant last. So with low blood sugar and greasy hands and face, I approached Argentine customs. And passed through without any hassle.

So after a descent that felt more like climbing than descending with my dead legs, I finally arrived at a supermarket in Villa La Angostura, Argentina. I let my purchasing impulses have free reign, and as soon as I got outside with my loot, I stuffed my face with chocolate sandwiches, milk, and peanuts.

Sometime during the milk drinking phase, I noticed that just next door to the supermarket was a campground, and realized that I would be going no further that day.

At the campground I met my second family on bicycle. This family was from the Netherlands, and were out for a ten week tour with their two and a half year old son. I entertained him with what little Dutch I still remembered, and he entertained me by pointing out the resemblance between the eletrical socket at my campsite and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

The next morning I took my sweet time getting ready, figuring on making maybe 30 of the 60 miles remaining to Bariloche that day. But I found out once I started riding that my strength had returned, and in fact had returned to a level that I hadn’t remembered since — maybe — Panamá. I spun out the entire distance, including several breaks for banana and chocolate eating, in something like four and a half hours.

When I came back to Argentina, I was reminded of the difference between the two countries. Chile is naturally gorgeous, there is no question about that. They also sell ginger ale. But Argentina has a culture that Chile seems to lack. They have the folklore of Difunta Correa and Gauchito Gil, they have a strong camping culture — stronger, I think, than in the American West. I’d forgotten about that leaving Argentina the first time, and I’m delighting in it again in Bariloche. I think I’ll spend a few days here…

My residency in Bariloche ended after several bottles of wine, a few forays down a natural waterslide, finally buying and replacing my worn out chain and most excitingly: cutting the sleeves off of one of my extremely worn-out shirts. This last bit was a major win for me, since my mind has been the battleground for an ongoing battle between hippiedom and normalicy, and doing something so redneck as turning a t-shirt sleeveless is a sure blow against hippiedom.

Heading back to Chile this time involved three ferries across as many lakes with short stretches of dirt trail riding in between. Like in Juneau, Alaska, the ferry terminal was placed 15 miles outside the city and the only ferry that would allow me to make this trip all the way into Chile in one push left at 8:30am. So I rode over to the port to see if I could camp somewhere in the vicinity in order to catch the ferry on time the next morning.

I got to the terminal just fine, and went to to inquire about purchasing tickets. After some confusion about just what I wanted to do, the folks working at the port told me that I couldn’t actually buy tickets there, but would have to go back to the city and buy them from the office there. Hunh…

I wasn’t about to ride another fifteen miles there and fifteen back with my new chain skipping every time the connecting pin passed through the derailleur, so I left my bike at the terminal and caught a ride. When I arrived back in town, I eventually found the ticket office, and also found out that they wouldn’t open back up after siesta for another hour and a half. Ah yes, Argentine siestas…

So I sat in the park for a while drinking a soda I bought from the gas station until the office opened back up, and then mosied on back. I finally got the ticket, found the bus going back towards the port and rode on back. Unexpectedly, the folks working at the port wouldn’t allow me to camp there, but they suggested a place about two minutes walk along the beach. That worked great.

The next morning the ferry took off on schedule, and I started some luxury cruising through gorgeous scenery. The first stretch of riding between lago Nahuel Huapi (“Puma Island” in Mupudugun) and lago Frias was only 2 miles long and flat, and I arrived at the next port before the buses. That ferry was uneventful, and on the other side of the lake I cleared argentine customs before heading up and over the pass that separates the two countries. Then it was a mad dash down the other side to customs. There was no stopping on this entire stretch for two reasons. The first was that I thought I was under time pressure to catch the next ferry (I found out later that I wasn’t at all), and the second was that these giant flies would land on me and start carving out chunks of my skin every time I stopped. They were easy to kill, but often the only time I knew they were on me was after they’d already struck. It was truly horrible.

But I made it after hopelessly tearing my tar-stained riding pants, and eventually the next ferry left for a spectacular cruise down lago Todos Santos. This part of the crossing was so beautiful that it justified the cost of the entire thing. Sheer cliffs on either side of the river would occasionally yield views of several tall peaks and volcanoes, and the ferry eventually docked on the skirt of Mt. Osorno, a nearly perfect cone volcano.

It also happened to be a national park with a campground. I was pretty sleepy from not exercising very much the past several days, and thought I might just call it a day there. But when I found out that they wanted something like $15, I just said “no gracias, voy a buscar un sitio gratis mas adelante en el campo. Es una locura cobrar tanto para acampar” and took off. You have to like the argentine camping culture, they’d never think of trying to charge so much…

So, after filling my water bottles up from their clean water supply, I took off into the country to find somewhere to camp. They really shouldn’t expect people to pay their prices when it’s so easy to find a free spot a half mile down the road. At any rate, that worked out fine and I woke up the next morning still feeling pretty lazy. As I was debating whether to stop in Puerto Varas, further on in Puerto Montt, or to try all the way for the ferry crossing to Chiloé, a headwind built up to the point where the answer became easy and obvious: Puerto Varas.

< Central Chile | Carretera Austral >