The Carretera Austral

Eventually, after a three-day wait, the ferry came and took us to Villa O’Higgins at the bottom of the Chile’s Route 7. This road, known as the Carretera Austral and completed as late as 2000 in its southern parts, was the project of Chilean dictator General Augustus Pinochet. Primarily a geopolitical project, the road was constructed in order to connect the smaller remote settlements in the south of Chile whilst providing military access to the region as the fear of an Argentinian land grab loomed over the general’s head. Now it is seen as a bike touring paradise, over 1200km of narrow gravel road that snakes its way northwards through forests, over passes, and past snow covered mountains.

“over 1200km of narrow gravel road that snakes its way northwards through forests, over passes, and past snow covered mountains”

Our four man team had become a six man outfit with the addition of Warrick and Bryce Hamilton, two bearded Kiwi twins who were heading north from Ushuaia on their own bike tour. Similarly minded in almost all aspects to ourselves we quickly became a tight group with the adopted mantra of “one queen one dream”.

Cooking n a wood burning stove in a refugio

Rainy days on the Carretera

Photo: Robbie Coates

This region of Patagonia is famously wet, jokingly having 370 days of rain a year, and so it was a surprise to be slapping the sun cream and sunglasses on as we cycled out of town. Unfortunately our luck only ran so far and the heavens opened in the late afternoon, forcing us to dart into a small wooden lodge that we happened upon on the side of the road. With the front door locked Warrick and I headed round the back to find whether there was some way we could get inside. With a small pane of glass removed, Warrick jumped inside and opened the main door. We’d landed on our feet, with a large kitchen complete with table and chairs, a wood burning stove and a few mattresses scattered on the floor. From what we could piece together of the place it was a refugio for the gauchos of the area but looked like it had been little used. So a the rain lashed against the windows and the wind whipped up a frenzy the cartons of cheap wine came out we toasted these gauchos for their unknown hospitality and settled into a night of cards by candlelight.

“ in these conditions it felt as though we were travelling through a great rainforest rather than the southern Andes”

The next day the rain was horizontal, and leaving the warmth of the cabin was no easy task. Up and over mountain passes, into headwind and always being bumped around by the conditions of the gravel we battled against the elements with the sole aim of reaching a small little hut from where we could get a boat across a fjord. With no easing of the rain the boat came and dropped us off on the otherside of the water where we slept once more in a small hut. The next day our hearts sank as the sky was still emptying and beyond our belief it had gotten heavier. The monsoon-esque downpour had now totalled over 36 hours which by all accounts is an anomaly for the region! We cycled along the gravel road with water erupting from the hillsides around us turning the road into a small river in places. In these conditions it felt as though we were travelling through a great rainforest rather than the southern Andes. To our relief late in the afternoon on the third day of the rain the sun started to creep out from behind the clouds. Spirits rejuvenated we rode late into the evening, and once more we were treated to another not-so-abandoned building with a wood burning stove and a wood store.

Our second hut

The days passed by with late starts, long lunches and sunset cycling. Glaciers became commonplace, tumbling from the valley sides, their brilliant white and blue colours standing in contrast with the deep green of the forested hillsides. All the while the ripio wound its way around lake shores, over small passes and through the remote estancias that scattered themselves through this edenic region. Despite the rivers being alive with fish, our attempts at catching them with a tin can and fishing line were without success and we were resigned to our standard diet of rice or pasta flavoured with a stock cube.

The Carretera winds its way through some spectacular forests

Wooden bridges, mountains and glaciers – the southern Carretera delivering

“with the sunshine still in our favour each passing car and truck conjured a cloud of dust behind it that covered us from head to toe”

Camping on Glacier Exploradores

Upon reaching the small town of Rio Tranquilo we headed off on a three day detour up a magnificent valley to reach Glacier Exploradores where we planned on pitching our tents on the enormous glacier tongue. With the sun beginning to dip behind the silhouetted skyline we locked the bikes in the trees and walked over the moraines to reach the glacier. Tents pitched on the ice with a few rocks for pegs we stood marvelling at our location and the enormity of the glacier that stretched out ahead of us. Needless to say it wasn’t the warmest or most comfortable night’s sleep, but it has certainly got to sit up their as one of the most unique camping spots I’ve ever had.

Dust clouds through the evening light

Thankfully after a further week and a half of bone jarring ripio the road turned to tarmac and we headed to the halfway point of Coyhaique with our wheels rolling smoothly forwards. Here we resupplied on food, recharged our cameras and our bodies and I even bought a small cheap guitar to make the evening chills all the more musical. A couple more days of tarmac went by before the road once more turned to gravel and we seemed to be passing more and more tourers. In the southern section we would see maybe a couple of other cyclists each day and would always stop for the obligatory conversation of where they’d come from and how bad the road was ahead. However, now there were tens of cyclists each day and we felt like we were no longer a novelty. The landscape was changing too, fewer glaciers, more farms and large open valleys without the towering Andean summits above them. Traffic was also becoming an issue as the road was getting busier and busier, and with the sunshine still in our favour each passing car and truck conjured a cloud of dust behind it that covered us from head to toe. The northern Carretera felt as though it had lost the charm that the south had had in abundance, no longer instilling a sense of remoteness. Perhaps, given the length of the road, it was that we were starting to get bored, wanting new scenery and a new purpose again, the feeling of entering a region for the first time and being overwhelmed by the land around you. The northern Carretera was all a little too accessible and a little too easy. And so with that feeling hanging over us we headed off Route 7 and towards the bottom of the Argentinian lake district.

No towns means for some spectacular starry skies