< Lakes District | Southern Patagonia >

Carretera Austral


Getting to the Carretera Austral was easy. Actually making any progress was very hard. Acting on some bad information that I got and had confirmed several times by independent sources, I rode my bicycle to the island of Chiloé. In Ancud, I found out that there were ferries from the island to Chaitén as I had hoped and was informed, but the first one left at the beginning of January. It was the beginning of December. Bust.

Then I decided to backtrack to Puerto Montt and take the Carretera Austral all the way. You’d think that the major route — in fact the only domestic land route — into the southern part of Chile would be passable in late spring. At least I thought so. I made my way across the first ferry, encouraged by reports that the ferry between Hornopirén and Puerto Gonzales (perhaps you should read this section with your southern Chile map at hand) ran Saturdays and Wednesdays. So I rode the rough dirt road all the way to Hornopirén and there was informed that it actually ran every day of the week — during the months of January and February. Outside of those months it didn’t run at all. I asked what my options were, and if there were any boats that took on pedestrian passengers. No boats. My only options were to return to Puerto Montt — again — and take a ferry to Chaitén or to return to Argentina via the same lake crossing route I used to enter Chile just a week prior and ride down Argentina to the next pass into Chile.

So I returned to Puerto Montt to wait for a ferry to Chaitén. This was actually the option I was least expecting to take, because just six months ago the city was destroyed by a lahar and until recently was completely evacuated. ¿Qué? But there it was. So at the time of this writing I’ve taken two infuriating detours and ridden over 200 miles south of Puerto Montt only to still be in the city. My own personal Groundhog Day.

Well, that boat did manage to arrive in Chaitén. While waiting for the boat I met an older Czech(!) couple and a Chilean father-son pair also traveling by bicycle. Between the two of them, the Czechs spoke no Spanish, very little English and about the same amount of German. So we communicated using the little Czech I still remembered, and the little German and English they still remembered. Good people though.

So, Chaitén. As the ferry started to approach the area, the ash cloud from the still-erupting volcano became visible, and all the foliage in the area took on a greyish tinge. It had rained the previous day and all through the night, so at least the air was pretty clear. The town was practically deserted except for a few basic services like a small food market, and ash lined the streets like two-day-old snow. After marveling at it all for a while, I shook my head and left. The city had learned disastrously what I have had beaten into me over the past year and a half: Nature is far stronger than man, and our cities and development only provide us with the sense of power, but not power itself.

That day, the combination of rain and fine grit from the dirt road caused my chain to snap again. I repaired it and spun on down the road. I finally stopped for the day when after descending most of the way down the other side of a pass I encountered another Czech couple, the man on bicycle and his girlfriend on motorcycle. They both spoke good Spanish and English, so we all kept switching between those two languages whenever we’d forget that we decided on one or the other. Being multi-lingual in a group of multi-lingual people can be extremely confusing sometimes… They were fresh from Argentina, so they were still very much into drinking mate, and in the tradition of that drink, offered to share with me. Two hours of that stopped me for the day.

The next morning it was still raining, and would rain the whole day through. My chain broke three times that day, and at that point I started to get very concerned. I looked more closely at the chain, and am now fairly convinced that I was sold a 7-speed chain in Bariloche. The increased width of the chain over 9-speed, plus all the grit from the dirt road was putting too much stress on the links in the chain. pop pop pop.

In the town of La Junta, I saw a group of five cyclists and asked where they were from…the Czech Republic! At this point my Czech was coming back to me enough to confuse them for a while about just how much I could speak. I took off to reconnoiter the town and score some bread and milk, and they took off further down the road.

Oh that milk! Earlier in the day they were doing some blasting, and the road was extremely rough. So when I finally finished for the day and went to savor some delicious milk I was horrified to discover that the carton had ruptured and a fifth of its contents had spilled into one of my panniers. WHY GOD, WHY? And adding to the misery of the situation, my prized jalepeño mustard had chosen that same stretch of road to burst open inside my food bag and deploy all over everything. Why does god delight in terrorizing me so much?

I did my best to clean everything, but the milk… oh the milk… Now that pannier smells awful.

I put it all behind me the next morning, and bolstered by a break in the rain, rode the remaining 8 miles to Puyuhuapi, hopeful of passing the road closure sign before the road was blockaded for several hours for more blasting. I got there a minute too late.

Back in the town, I met a Dutch couple on bicycle and we passed the three hours of road closure chatting and discovering that every single cafe or restaurant in town was mysteriously closed. Well, the road eventually opened again, and I rode along a much better quality road than I’d had the day before. Eventually I came to the entrance to a national park created to protect the area around a hanging glacier. I decided to give the glacier a gander, and am very glad to have done it.

Some people at the trail entrance told me that the trail was “very hard”, and I can see how that might be the case for someone who doesn’t spend the majority of each day engaged in endurance exercise involving their legs. But I do spend each day so engaged, and ran up the trail. It was a lot of fun jumping over rocks and really pushing my legs as hard as they would go. I don’t think I’ve had so much fun running and jumping since I was five years old.

Well, it would’ve cost a fortune to actually camp in the park, so I left around 7pm, and blessed with another two and a half hours of useable daylight, I rode south until I found a suitable spot to set up camp and start cooking dinner. I did, and as I was eating, the group of five Czechs saw me (I was camped in plain sight of the road, I’ve long since stopped caring about hiding myself), and decided that where I was camped was a pretty great place for them to camp as well.

The next morning I was a bit faster getting ready than they were and so I started up the second big climb of the entire road alone (there are maybe only four in total along the entire Carretera Austral). Predictably, my chain snapped again, but after what has become a routine repair job, I made it to the summit. From there it was an unpleasant descent over a very rough road down the other side of the pass. I met an Austrailian riding on a bike named “Puyuhuapi” — after the town where he had an accident a few years before and broke his leg.

I used up way more energy climbing up to that pass than I expected to, and when I got to the town of Villa Amengual, I was tired and famished. So even though it was only 2pm, I called it quits and got a room in some hospedaje. Besides, I was soaked to the bone and the length of time since I last had sensation in my feet was starting to get worryingly long.

The next morning it was still raining. I rode out the randomly paved stretch that I was on, and onto the worst dirt of the entire trip. Just as I was wondering whether that pavement would ever return again, I encontered an older Brisith couple. Eight years ago they’d ridden the same trip that I’m now on, and we talked a good long while about that. They told me that the pavement started again in less than a mile, and lasted all the way to Chile Chico.


Finally able to use my large chainring again, I spun out 70 miles to Puerto Aysen. The highlight of that town was its massive supermarket and a storm so violent that some of my guy-lines actually ripped out of the ground. Man that was strong wind!

The wind was gone in the morning, but of course the rain wasn’t. So, reluctantly, I pulled my warm, dry body into wet, cold clothes and got back on the road to Coyhaique. I couldn’t physically warm up any faster than my body could pump heat out against 40 degree temperatures and light rain, but I could warm up my mood by singing every Christmas carol I knew at the top of my lungs while I rode. This did the trick nicely, and it also attracted several dogs. One of the lil’ fellas actually was able to keep up, and surprised me by following along for at least five miles before his pace slowed and he dropped out of sight. I was sort of sad to see him fall behind, but pirate rules applied (“If you fall behind, you’re left behind”).

Of the many Christmas carols that rotated through my head that day, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth” became corrupted into “All I want for Christmas is a new drive train”. That got me to thinking about what I could do to realize that Christmas wish, and a trip to a wonderfully stocked bicycle store made me 27,000 pesos poorer, but richer by a new 9-speed chain and two new pulleys for my rear derailleur. I didn’t feel like ponying up the dough for a new rear cassette or middle chainring, but even those replacements which I did buy made a world of difference. No more snap crackle pop of my chain? We’ll see!

But of course the excitment continued even after I replaced the chain and most of the rear derailleur. While cleaning off my rear wheel I noticed a fissure that ran nearly the entire circumference of one side of my rim. This is bad news. I was able to ride to Chile Chico on the wheel, but I’ll have to avoid all really bad roads (read: the rest of the Carretera Austral) until I can replace the wheel.

But replacing the wheel won’t really be a simple task either because out of ignorance, I built my bicycle with 28” wheels, and that size of wheel just doesn’t exist in Latin America (the size to get is 26”). Basically my only hope is to make the last 1000 miles to Ushuaia on this rim, and I really have no idea how much hope I have.

I got as far as Perito Moreno, Argentina on my old rim, and indeed arrived there without any issues on that front. In Chile Chico I met two French Cyclists and spent Christmas with them riding to and from Los Antiguos, Argentina. The first time we crossed the border, we somehow all missed the Chilean immigrations office. When we arrived at the Argetine customs office, it became apparent that we’d have to backtrack the 3 miles with a vicious gusting crosswind, get out exit stamps and then return with that same infernal wind. Luckily, that was a detour we didn’t have to make with all of our gear, since the Argentine customs folks allowed us to leave everything there.

So we spent Christmas in Los Antiguos, eating several pounds of cherries and not doing much of anything else. The next morning I headed with the wind to Perito Moreno and they stayed behind to catch a bus down to El Calafate. They’re smarter than I am.

I got to Perito Moreno, realized that I’d be spending the majority of the next 300 miles on dirt roads with a crosswind that regularly gusts up to 70 mph, and further realized that there was no way on earth that my cracked rear rim would survive the trip. And in a moment of weakness, I purchased a bus ticket across the dirt parts to El Chalten.

During the several hour wait, I had a crisis of conscience and realized that I didn’t want to finish my trip having to avoid all the best scenery and taking buses, just because of a component failure. I realized that my best option would be to return to Coyhaique, some two days away by bus and ferry, and go to the well-stocked and hopefully 700cc rim-having bicycle shop to build a completely new wheel. But for now I still had to wait for the half day Argentine siesta to end at 5pm before I could cancel my ticket.

At 5pm the office reopened and I went to cancel my 6pm bus ride, but since there was less than an hour remaining before the bus left the station, their system refused to grant me a refund (it was a costly ticket, and I was very keen on getting that refund). My only remaining hope was that the bus would be too full to accept my bike, and they’d be forced to give me my money back. So I waited. And god be praised for continually denying me the easy way out, the bus was too full (four other cyclists also wanted to avoid the same road).

But now it was just past 6pm, the Patagonian wind machine was in full effect, and even standing upright while exposed to the wind was a challenge. There was no way to get back to the border that day by bicycle, and following the precident set by flying from Panama to Colombia, I justified backtracking by bus. That bus left at 10pm, so I had some four more hours to wait. I got drunk.

10pm rolled around, I loaded on the bike, got into my seat and successfully fought car sickness the entire way back. I hate bus travel so much. Arriving in Los Antiguos at 11pm, I headed the campground I’d stayed at the night before, pitched my tent in the dark and passed out. The next morning I made my way back to the border, got my Argentine exit stamp, and fought that infernal crosswind once again back to the Chilean border (this was the fourth time I’d ridden this same stretch of road). I arrived in Chile Chico early, hopeful of catching the ferry back to Puerto Ibañez that same day.

No dice. The next ferry left the following day at noon. So, faced with time to kill in a wind-swept desert town with nothing to do, I spent the better part of the morning drinking mate and chatting up the girls who worked in the bus office. Around 1pm my natural inclination to flirt was overpowered by my desperate need to catch up on sleep, and I passed the entire afternoon dreaming about worst-case senarios for changing my rim.

Maybe I’d have to do some welding work on my bike to take 26” wheels, maybe — just maybe — they’d have a 700cc rim that would work for my bike, maybe I’d be able to put on disc brakes and 26” rims and thereby avoid the welding work, maybe I could even weld the rim back together. Who knew? I had nothing but time to think about it, and my mind ran wild.

Well, the next day I got on the ferry, again, and crossed the lake, again. I got on a bus back to Coyhaique and arrived at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon. No way the bike shop would be open, so more time to kill.

I scored a six-pack of beer and followed the tradition I’d started in that bus terminal in Perito Moreno, and suddenly Sunday afternoon became Monday morning. I headed on over to the bike shop and waited to see what sentence would be pronouced upon me. 26” wheels? No, no, no, they said, that wouldn’t work. Maybe we have a 700cc rim that will serve your purpose.


Well, this one is a bit thin, but it should take your tires. The problem is that your hub is drilled for 48 spokes (when it was new, this was a monster of a wheel), and this rim is drilled for 36 spokes, we’ll have to change the hub or the wheel will be really weak.


Look, I said, you do whatever will work, and as long as I can ride on it, I don’t care at all. I only have 2000km left to the end, and I’ll be damned if I take the bus. So they did, and I came away a few hours later with a new wheel that fit everything perfectly. We (you, the reading public, and me) can now optimistically hope that this new rim will withstand the horrendous abuse I plan give it between Coyhaique and Ushuaia.

With my new rim and a fully working bicycle I set out once again on the road from Coyhaique south. the wind was worse than the last time over the summit, but it was consistent instead of gusty and I could ride against it. When I finally got over the pass again, I realized that all the mountains I saw the first time through were actually much higher than I’d thought, and their now unobscured peaks were spetacularly gorgeous.

Immediately after the town of Villa Cerro Castillo the pavement ended, and the the road turned to complete crap. I found myself pushing uphill for the better part of an hour, and when I finally got back into ridable territory, the wind came blasting through the valley. Oh well, I thought, that’s just how it goes down here. That is how it goes down here. You trade wind for rain, and you consider yourself lucky if you can ride faster than 8 mph on the terrible flat roads.

Anyway, after about 40 miles of abuse, and about 3 miles of chasing a surprisingly fast full-grown cow down the road (the dumb beast couldn’t figure out that all it had to do to avoid me was get off the road), I found a good campsite by the river and settled in for the rest of the day. That day was New Year’s Eve, and I went to bed at 9:30 after stuffing my face with pasta and watching that cow run back and forth on the other side of the river. It was past midnight somewhere in the world, so I guess that counts… This year my resolutions are to learn Spanish guitar and survive the rest of my bicycle trip.

So the next day the road wasn’t any better than before, and after another 40 miles I came to a small town and decided that it was time for a shower. I checked into the local hospedaje and washed off some accumulated filth, and then checked into the local supermarket and nearly bought out the entire store.

Later in the evening, I noticed that the bus of a group of supported Swiss bicycle tourists had pulled into town, so I went on over to have a chat. They mentioned that the 60 mile roundtrip down Valle Exploradores was scenically wonderful, and that it was something that I should consider doing. So I considered it, and surprising myself, decided to do it.

The next morning I took my unloaded bike down the road in search of some glaciers and other scenic wonders. I found them in their multitude, but I also found a road that was worse than any I’ve ever ridden on in my life. And really, it has no right to be so bad. It’s a deadend road with nothing on the other end, and it’s three years old. You tell me how something that bares no heavy vehicle traffic can get that bad in three years…

Anyway, about 15 miles down the road the swiss tour bus pulled up along side of me, and asked if I wanted a ride to the end. Absolutely yes. Not even a question. I threw my bike on board, and set about decompressing my neck and spine while the bus rumbled down the remaining 15 miles.

We got to the end, took a short hike up to a lookout of Mt. St. Valentine and its many breathtaking glaciers. That view made the detour entirely worth all the effort I’d already expended and the effort that I’d be expending in the very immediate future as I rode back.

So back in Rio Traquilo I spent the rest of the day stuffing my face (standard protocol, of course), and set off the next morning further south. And surprising me greatly I came across a stretch of dirt road that was hard pack and nearly as smooth as pavement. Of course, this stretch was just put there so I could lament about the lack of it later on when the road took sharp turn back to crapsville.

It took that turn after the junction to the road to Chile Chico. Seeing no need to ride to that town again, I pressed on over some very steep hills, and passed out in the small town of Puerto Bertrand. The next morning, the lady that ran the house whose yard I was camping in told me that the road from there to Cochrane wasn’t as steep as the road I’d just ridden, and that it’d only take a couple hours to ride the 30 miles there. That lying bitch. In fact it was the steepest road I’d encountered in an incredibly long time, and as I rode up it, I actually thought that my front wheel might come up off the ground and that I’d fall off my bicycle backwards. It took nearly five hours to ride those 30 miles.

So I arrived in Cochrane, met a belgian cyclist and together we found a campground with — wait for it — cherry trees, raspberry bushes and other more exotic berries, all ripe and all we could eat. I climbed up into that tree faster than anything, and spent the next two hours picking and eating until I felt sick. Then I crawled into my tent and passed out. I’d need a rest day here to pick more fruit for sure.

I took that rest day, picked over 3 pounds of cherries and slept away half the day. An ideal rest day. The rest of the time I chatted with northbound cyclists about how bad the road was in our respective directions, and got pretty drunk.

After the rest day, the belgian cyclist and I decided to see how far we could get that first day, and battling the wind and endless washboard we actually managed 65 miles. We surprised even ourselves. We finally stopped for the day when I spotted an abandoned shelter along the side of the road, and since it was threatening rain, I climbed in through a window and set up camp. Well along came a kid saying we had to pay 2000 pesos to say there, and since he had a key to the locked door I couldn’t previously use, I figured he had some authority over the building. Well, we haggled it down to 1000 pesos, and discovered a wood stove that we could cook on. All in all a pretty good value, I guess.

So the next day, we had another monster pass with stupidly steep climbs and then back down to a ferry crossing. We crossed, and rode the remaining 60 miles into Villa O’Higgins and the end of the Carretera Austral. So from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins in two days. Everyone seemed surprised at that, but could have been just because we arrived on a Wednesday evening and the next ferry south from there didn’t leave until Saturday morning. Well, I needed the rest, and I had to retrue the new wheel after the thrashing it took over the past week.

Finally from Villa O’Higgins there were only 4 miles left of the Carretera Austral to the ferry port south across the lake. Luc and I, along with 4 other dutch-speaking people rode most of that small distance the day before the ferry left, stopping for the night on a small beach.

The beach wasn’t blessed with a lot of dry ground, but it did have a spectacular view of a glacier, as well as abundant dry and rotting wood. The wood was quickly converted into fire, and I cooked some of the delicious red lentils that I’d scored in Coyhaique over the coals.

The next morning we rode the remaining distance to the ferry and sailed off the end of the Carretera Austral. People talk about this road as being a major cycle touring destination, but if you’re new to it, the fiendish washboard, leg-busting climbs and your choice of endless rain or giant horseflies might give you pause. And because for all that (except the flies), I loved every minute of it.

< Lakes District | Southern Patagonia >