I suppose everyone is somewhat familiar with the term Patagonia, but there are obviously different interpretations of it. Just to make it a bit clearer, Patagonia is a geographical region shared by Argentina and Chile. It is neither a state, district or political area. The following map illustrates that quite well.
Previously, I had crossed through the Lake District of Northern Argentina, before I entered Chile for my third time on October 22. From the quiet mountain town of Futaleufú, I continued south through the northern parts of Chilean Patagonia.
For decades, that area was the most rugged and remote part of continental Chile, the place where pioneers quietly set forth a Wild West existence. Lush rainforest, scrubby steppe, and unclimbed peaks line up at the horizon, but the key element of this place has been, and continues to be, water, from the clear cascading rivers to the turquoise lakes, massive glaciers and snake-like fjords.
It was only in 1976 that the Chilean government started to improve the accessibility to this remote and sparsely populated region. Building the Carretera Austral (trans: Southern Road) was one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in Chile during the 20th century. The southernmost section was only opened in 2000. Today, the road runs about 1200 km from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins and has become known as one of the world’s top cycling destinations.
Although some sections north of the town of Coyhaique are now paved, the challenge of cycling still remains, as the hilly roads’ surfaces range from perfect hard-pack to sometimes horrible washboard. Nevertheless, the scenery totally makes up for all that effort and never lets you get bored.
I met many travelers who bypassed Chile’s Northern Patagonia on a sprint to Torres del Paine National Park in the south or who headed up to Argentina’s Bariloche. You could call it a shame that there is so little appreciation for this area since I consider the Carretera Austral as one of the most spectacular parts of my entire journey. But then again, a part of me thinks: let it be a hidden gem for a few more years. With improving infrastructure and more and more paved roads, tourist hoards will invade the remotest part at some point anyway.
Back to my journey: I left Futaleufú in order to join the Carretera Austral in Villa Santa Lucia. It was a pleasant ride along wild rivers which get to see quite a few kayakers and rafting tours from December to March. Although still unpaved, the road was so much better than in Argentina. Most of the time it drizzled, but I didn’t mind as it was an easy day with some smooth rolling hills. In Villa Santa Lucia, I indulged in some delicious empanadas and a few slices of Kuchen (the Chilean adoption of German cake). I felt comfortable in my little guesthouse while the rain continued outside.
Over night, the weather didn’t change much. It remained grey and rainy, but I made good progress on the relatively decent gravel road heading further south. This is where I met Bastian from the Netherlands, who was on his way from Bolivia to Southern Argentina. It was funny, because I had seen him on the streets in Villa Santa Lucia the previous night, and also in Futaleufú the day before, but I was not aware that he was a cyclist, otherwise we would have talked much earlier. Time talking flew by quickly, and soon I found out that he had also lived in Shanghai for a few years at the same time when I was based there.
The three days Bastian and I biked together were fun, but every night I could feel that the wet and cold weather really had an impact on my body. I was dead tired and certain muscles, which had been exposed to the cold more than others, ached as if they were sore. These days weren’t the coldest on my trip. In fact, the temperature ranged between 4-10 deg C, but due to the humidity, almost every lengthy climb made us sweat like pigs. In no time, the inner layers of our clothes were soaked as if our rain gear had leaked. So obviously, every downhill or short break made us freeze our butts off.
With most restaurants and cafes closed, summer season had still not started, but luckily, we found some really nice guest houses in Puyuhuapi and Villa Amengual. At both places, we could feel the Patagonian hospitality. The hosts encouraged us to use their kitchen, offered free pancakes and prepared “genuine” breakfasts. The latter, for example, included scrambled eggs, yoghurt and cheese, and not just dry bread, butter and instant coffee as in guest houses in other regions.
Eventually, we arrived in Coyhaique, the regional hub along the Carretera Austral, which even welcomed us with some blue sky. Weather in this part of Patagonia really is a phenomenon with extremes. Let me give you one example on annual precipitation which is insane. Coyhaique receives an average of 1300 mm/year, whereas the area we biked through a bit further Northwest (Puyuhuapi and Villa Amengual) faces up to 4000 mm/year. That’s three times as much. So no wonder that we got drenched. Nevertheless, it was a great experience through some mystique rainforests, but without a doubt, we preferred being at a drier place after all.
Since Coyhaique is urbane enough to house well-stocked supermarkets, cafes, and restaurants and since my remaining cycling schedule was comfortable, I decided to take a couple of days break to get to know this place and to catch up with the usual things you do on non-cycling days: Reading, route planning, enjoying the limitless calorie intake, and talking to people in order to understand this part of Chile better. The latter was especially insightful while I stayed at the “Patagonia Hostel” which is run by Sandra and Thomas, a German couple, who moved here 16 years ago.
Bastian had to move on since his plane back to Europe was scheduled only four weeks later. It would have been great to continue together but there was no point for me to rush. So I hit the road again four days after him.
South of Coyhaique, I passed Cerro Castillo‘s basalt spires, the impressive centrepiece of the Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo (see pictures), before I entered some of the roughest unpaved sections on the entire Carretera Austral. To give you an idea about the speed I was able to maintain, that flat stretch of gravel and washboard only allowed me to cover 50 km in four hours. Even though the scenery was magnificent, at some point I really became impatient to make more progress. Luckily, the following four hours treated me with much better surfaces, so I was able to make it all the way to Rio Tranquilo. This little town is gaining popularity not only because of its proximity to San Rafael Glacier but also the nearby marble caves (Capilla de Mármol), which in fact is a very recommended boat trip.
I continued my ride, and the landscape became more and more impressive. On one of my warmest days in Patagonia, I passed one turquoise-blue lake after the other until I found one of the best camp spots next to Rio Baker just outside of the lovely town of Puerto Bertrand.
Although I was already close to Cochrane, the southern hub of the Carretera Austral, I decided to make a little detour into Valle Chacabuco in order to visit a recently reformed grazing ranch and now wildlife reserve, named Parque Patagonia.
Conservacion Patagonica, the NGO behind the project, began this initiative in 2004. It features Patagonian steppes, forests, mountains, lakes and plenty of native mammals such as guanacos, huemuls (the endangered Andean deer), pumas, foxes etc. It’s still a national park in the making, but combining this valley with two other neighbouring national reserves will eventually result in a 2400 sq km wildlife corridor that will reach all the way to the Argentinian border.
From Cochrane, where I refuelled with supplies, I had roughly 220 km with a ferry crossing in the middle ahead of me in order to complete my ride along the Carretera Austral. Gravel surfaces were relatively smooth, and the diverse landscape painted a constant smile on my face. 🙂
Initially, I considered camping along the river, but in the end, I biked to Puerto Yungay, where I had to take a ferry across Fjordo Mitchell in the morning. Pushing it through all the way was a good idea because I was able to have a 10-hour rest sleeping in the ferry waiting hall, before I sank my teeth into some nice empanadas, bananas, and drank a cup of instant coffee at the kiosk next door.
After the 50-minute ferry ride, I finally hit off for the last leg on the Carretera Austral: Exactly 100km through four seasons in one day. Patagonian summers aren’t exactly what Europeans call warm but, in fact, that day started with blue sky and pleasant sunshine. Two hours later, however, a growing curtain of clouds and increasing winds forced me into full rain gear. At its worst point, a ten minute hail storm was accompanied by a temperature drop from 20 to 5 deg C, followed again by sunshine and blue skies. All of that happened within one hour. Patagonian weather at its craziest. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Villa O’Higgins, I felt extremely happy and content. Riding on the Carretera Austral was probably the best continuous 1000+ km on my whole trip.
Villa O’Higgins is alluring in its isolation and, at this point, only sees few visitors in summer since there is no drivable connection to Argentina. Motorized vehicles have no choice but to turn around and go back since the road ends here. Hikers and cyclists, however, have an alternative to cross over to El Chalten, Argentina (see read line on the map above). You need to plan it well, but I was able to manage the crossing in one day. First, I biked 8 km to catch the 2.5-hour ferry to Candelario Mancilla. This is where you get your Chilean exit stamp. Then I biked 15 km on a wide dirt road to the border, where you only see two welcome signs in the middle of the forest, one Argentinian and one Chilean. This is also where the road seamlessly changes into a 7-km hiking trail, which is mostly ridable. However, it involves about a dozen creek/river crossings, i.e. quite a bit of lifting of your bike and gear. It was fun, but as you can imagine, cycling isn’t much of a biceps exercise, so dealing with the soreness in my arms was painful for the following three days. Eventually, I arrived at Lago Del Desierto, where I collected my Argentinian immigration stamp. Two hours later, I boarded the second ferry to the south shore of the lake. Then, I biked the last 37 km to El Chalten, a famous mountain town in Argentina, where I was looking forward to a few days of hiking.