Sunday, February 14, 2016

In Search of a Volcano, February 10th-14th

Villa La Angostura-Paso Cardenal Samoré-Anticura (Chile)-Entre Lagos-Puerto Klocker-Paso Desolación-Petrohue-Ensenada-Puerto Varas

We start the day with a productive stop at the YPF, my favorite Argentinian gas station. Here you can find clean bathrooms (with TP and soap!) use wi-fi, and fill up water. What more could you need?

We have a quiet and scenic morning ride until we see a sign indicating that we'll reach the Argentinian border control in one km. Immediately the road is blocked by a huge line of cars. The people in these cars are clearly not expecting to move anytime soon. They are all out, snacking and playing in the nearby river. We decide to bypass all of them. Seems like our bikes are actually the faster option in this case, and they let us through without issue. The border process is quite simple. We recieve a paper from an official in a booth, then get it stamped by both immigration and customs officials, and hand it to another official in a booth as we head out. No one asks us a single question.

A slow climb up the pass, and then a fast and fabulous downhill brings us into Chile. In fact, for one section we´re actually keeping up with a line of slow moving cars. Again, bikes for the win! At Chilean border control, proceedings are the mirror image of Argentina, except for the fact that we have to finish all of Chris and Hannah´s raisins before the SAG officer takes them away from us. 

I felt a little bad passing all these cars in line... but not that bad. Photo courtesy of Hannah
We spend a while scouting for a good campsite. All of our searching missions lead us to areas strewn with toilet paper. It´s so sad to see a National Park polluted this way, and I hope that one day things here will be improved by building toilets or providing education on how to go to the bathroom in the woods responsibly. Finally we find a good spot down by a river. The water is slow-moving and refreshing, and as we get ready for bed, the setting sun lights up a mountain in brilliant hues of pink. Welcome back to Chile.

Volcanic rocks float down the river by our campsite. Photo courtesy of Hannah
 The next morning, a smooth paved road brings us to the town of Entre Lagos. We are thinking about attempting a trail up and over Volcan Osorno, but we have very little information about it. Since this is the last big town we´re passing through we want to ask around for some local knowledge.

First stop: Tourist Information Center. The cheery lady there insists that there is no way to go around the volcano besides the main highway, and then marks this obvious route on three separate maps. When I ask her politely to stop drawing on the maps because we are not planning to take them, she insists indignantly that she needs to at least mark the town of Entre Lagos so we can see where we are. I'm not sure why people at tourism offices seem to be so determined to mark things on maps. I guess most of the people coming through here are extremely lost.

Second stop: the carabineros, the police. Danny goes to talk to these guys while I do some shopping. When he asks about the trail the officers say they know it but refuse to give him any information. It's simply not recommended; people get lost, then the police have to go look for them in helicopters. Danny explains his experience and skill with route finding, but they still refuse to help, calling after him to ¨please be careful¨ as he walks away, frustrated. After doing the trail, it`s clear that they had never actually been on the wide, well-maintained trail, as a blind person could probably follow it.

Third stop: fire station. Two nice older ladies open the door when we knock. They don´t look like firefighters, but they at least attempt to be helpful. They reassure us that there are trails on the volcano, but they're not sure where these trails go.

Fourth stop: wi-fi. Within an hour we have all the info we need. Sometimes local knowledge cannot compete with the internet.

For the night we find an amazing campsite on the edge of a huge lake that pours into a rushing river. Above us looms the snowy cone of Volcan Osorno. A challenge awaits us there. 

Looks like there are more than just those seven famous lakes...

Yeah bike lane! Volcan Osorno in the background, the last time we would see it before a three-day storm moved in

The rainy morning can't dampen our enthusiasm as we head towards the volcano. We're not the only enthusiastic cycle tourists out on the road. A French family with three kids cycling from Chile to Peru! Talk about inspiring!

The champion cycling family. The kids carry all their own gear, and they travel 30 km per day. There`s only so much time to cycle when you have to do school

Mid morning, we're turning onto a dirt track. A sign informs us that there is a cafeteria at the top of the climb, and immediately Chris begins to fantasize about mac and cheese, jello, and all our favorite cafeteria foods. (Cafeteria means cafe in Spanish)

As we climb we are welcomed into a gorgeous forest by large reddish ferns. Slowly the environment becomes more and more alpine until the ground is mossy and covered in delicate mounds of reindeer lichens.

Are we back in the rainforest?
Unfortunately, our sun fades into the clouds and it begins to rain again. This time it's back to stay. We are delighted to finally spot a sign for the promised cafeteria, but our dreams of hot chocolate and treats are quickly lost when we arrive to find the building locked.
With no available shelter from the pouring rain, we decide to make our own. We find a big old blue tarp on the ground, and with some straps and a bit of creativity we manage to create a pretty good cover with it. Both tents can just fit under, and things look good until water starts draining from the tarp and our tent space starts to flood. An emergency tent moving leaves us and most of our stuff soaked, but at least we won't be sleeping in a lake for the night.

The morning dawns a bit cloudy but free of rain and we quickly begin to pack up of stuff with hopes of heading up to volcano. But more rain is on its way, and our already drenched clothing is getting wetter as we begin our trail. Hey, at least we have a big hill to warm up on!

The trail up the volcano is far better than we expected. It's wide, not too steep, and rideable for most of the way up. The top of the pass marks the clearing of some clouds and some of the best trail riding I've done in my life. The way down is a different story. A trail sandy with volcanic ash proves to be quite the challenge. We all appreciate the soft landing zone as we tumble off our bikes.

In the spirit of adventures, Chris tries a new riding strategy and falls off of his bike, slicing himself on his gears. The wound looks nasty, but he'll survive.

That's our trail 

Hannah and Chris making their way up the last bit of the ascent

What a team!

As the sun begins to emerge, finally we are rewarded with some views!

Mountain biking doesn´t get much better than this

Cover shot for Adventure Magazine?

Things get sandy, but Hannah is still determined to ride...

...until both feet come off the pedals...

...uh oh!

100 points for effort

Chris pulling rocks out of his leg

A last sandy/ashy bit.  That volcano is still hiding in the clouds!
Back among tourists and paved roads, we're happy to discover a rushing teal river and bike lane leading us into "town." The "town" of Ensenada is really a street full of cabañas and camping areas. Tonight we're happy to pay a bit for a covered campsite with wi-fi and hot showers. Finally our stuff has some time to dry!

Another rainy day sees us biking into the town of Puerto Varas, where we are welcomed by our fantastic warmshowers hosts Lucas, Paloma, and Paloma's mother Gabriela. We enjoy an amazing evening with them, poring over maps and enjoying some homemade, gourmet banana bread and pizza. How lucky we all are to have this wonderful place to rest! 

A hot cocoa and cookie stop is necessary to escape the cold rain. Plus, it is Valentines Day...

A cyclist`s favorite pastime: Chris and Hannah looking over maps with our host, Lucas

Route Notes:
- Villa La Angostura (Argentina) to Entre Lagos (Chile): All paved, beautiful through Parque Nacional Petrohue. Definitely not quiet, but traffic was never overwhelming until the last few kilometers. Entre Lagos has shops, restaurants, ATMs, internet, and extremely unhelpful police.
- Entre Lagos to Puerto Varas via Osorno: Great riding from Entre Lagos to the intersection with a larger road at Lago Llanquihue. All paved, including a bike path to Lago Rupanco ending in a great spot to camp anywhere at the lake and where it drains. The larger road heading east towards Ensenada is much more trafficked, definitely not an enjoyable stretch. We turned off at Puerto Clocker, 18km from there to Refugio La Picada, which was locked and seemed inhabited even though no one was there. The climb through the National Park is scenic, smooth, and gradual, a great ride that was probably helped by how rainy it was - fewer people heading to the park.
The trail we took is called Paso Desolacion, and it`s on Open Street Maps. The ascent to the pass was 99% rideable for us, all except for a few patches of deep sand. A strong rider on a fatbike could probably ride all of it, although the rain may have actually kept things firmer than usual, so I can`t be sure.
The descent was fantastic for the first few kilometers, only a few odd meters of pushing through deep sand, but the last eight km into Petrohue were all very deep sand, somewhat of a slog in parts. Fortunately it`s almost all downhill, so you can kind of slide down all except the last five km.
Petrohue has a little market, a cafe, and some very expensive-looking cabañas. About 8 km of ripio until pavement, then there`s a bike path all the way to Puerto Varas. Ensenada has a little market and lots of camping places.

I Challenge You... to Ride the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, February 7th-9th

San Martín de los Andes-Villa La Angostura

Lake and bikes - life is good

Hannah and Chris's wheels are old and not totally straight, and we can't do anything about it because our spoke tool is broken! I'm worried that if we don't true them soon the increased weight on the back wheel might be a bit too much for the spokes to handle. Thus begins a search in San Martin de Los Andes for a spoke wrench. The first two shops I go to tell me that they only have them for their mechanics and they can't sell one. The lady at the third shop tells me the same. But then, in steps Taku, an extremely friendly bike mechanic who tells me, hold on, I think I might know where you can get one. We whiz off, biking fast together across town. The first shop is closed, but the second is open. We stoop low to enter a cave full of bike tools and a rather large bearded man working on a bike. The bearded guy is clearly a bit feisty. He has three spoke tools but insists that he needs all of them for maintenance. When Taku offers to buy him a new one tomorrow when a different shop is open, he turns to me. "What do you know about spoke maintenance? It's difficult adjusting a wheel." When I explain that I built the wheels on my bike, he tromps outside to take a look at them himself, then goes on a rant about how expensive spoke tools are. Mid rant, he turns and walks into the back of the shop, returning a few minutes later with a gleaming new spoke tool which he sells to me at a reasonable price. Got to love shopping in Latin America.

Cheers to Taku - I couldn't have completed this errand without his help and generosity!

It's a solid start to the famous Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of the Seven Lakes). It's quite late when we finally bike out of town, but we have enough daylight to find a cute campsite at a very reasonable price. We don't usually like to pay for camping, but due to some stomach problems, certain group members are grateful for a bathroom. Plus, we have a whole area to ourselves, including a beautiful bubbling stream.

Chris, Tam, Danny and Dan chatting and taking in the views of Party Lake (no, that`s not its real name... read on). Photo courtesy of Hannah

We know that the Ruta de los Siete Lagos is paved and touristy, which means that it's going to lack a certain charm that less traveled routes tend to hold. But we're determined to enjoy it as much as possible, and this leads to the creation of a game. There are seven lakes and six of us. That means that there's a lake for each of us, plus a party lake. At our lake we get to create a challenge for the other members of the group. We also develop some challenges that we can attempt at any point during the day. These include things such as:

- Get a tourist to share mate with you (easily achieved at the first viewpoint we reach)

- Convince a tourist that you've just seen a condor (attempted many times with limited success)

-Get in tourist photos (too easy! Everyone wants to take pictures of our bikes!)

-Make a grumpy-looking tourist smile. (Great success with this all day!)

-Accidentally confuse Argentina with Chile in conversation with a tourist. (I think they were just as confused as we were...)

Some stretching warmups at... uhh... one of the lakes. Dan`s not really stretching, but we`ll let it slide

Our day is filled with beautiful lakes, lots of laughter and singing along the way. Dan's lake is somehow combined with the party lake and we sit around for a good while reflecting on the values of a good boxed wine and the animals it reminds us of (cockroach, jellyfish, raccoon, etc).

Only the finest of wines for us. Photo courtesy of Hannah

Riding along Gina's lake we all switch bikes, and I get to have some fun on one of the fatties!

Bike switching: Tam on Dan`s, Dan on Tam`s, Hannah on Gina`s, Chris on mine... Photo courtesy of Gina
And for the perfect finale we find a fantastic, free, grassy camp spot on a lake where Hannah and Chris attempt to teach us how to do acro-yoga (aka we end up in a pile on the ground).

Danny being an unstable ¨flyer¨. Photo courtesy of Gina

Beautiful views of Lago... ummm...

Digitalis (Foxglove), a colorful flower known for its medicinal uses

The next day is just as fun, more beautiful weather and blue lakes, and more challenges. We take funny group photos, write haikus, and create interpretive dances. Check out the results below...

Peeking out from behind the bikes, photo courtesy of Gina. We attempted to get a finger in the photo in all the remaining group shots by picking the person least likely to know how to operate a camera

Can you guess who wrote which one?

Video credit: Gina

Only the end of the day is sad. We are splitting ways with Dan and Gina. They're heading south on a trail and us on roads for the moment. Safe and happy travels, dear friends!

One of the best parts of La Ruta de los Siete Lagos?


Route Notes:
The Ruta de los Siete Lagos is now all paved, 110 km. Free, legal camping at Lago Villarina about halfway. See our previous post for info on San Martin de los Andes and camping there.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

20 Months: Just the Numbers

We`ve been on the road for 20 months! Here`s our trip in a nutshell:

Distance bicycled:
16,334 miles (26,288 kilometers), approximately
National Parks visited: 27, plus countless other types of reserves
Bird species positively identified: 523
4,000-meter (13,100-foot) passes ascended: 47
Highest altitude bicycled (loaded): 16,325 feet (4,976 meters), Punta Pumacocha, Peru
Highest altitude bicycled (unloaded): 18,900 feet (5,760 meters), Cerro Uturuncu, Bolivia
Highest altitude attained on foot: 20,144 feet (6,140 meters), Volcan Queva, Argentina
Stamps from Argentina and Chile in our passports: 29 (they made a mistake at one entry and gave Tam two stamps)
Touring cyclists seen on the Ruta de Siete Lagos: 43

Rivers and Roads: A Surprise Visit to Argentina. January 30th-February 6th

Pucón-Parque Nacional Villarrica-Coñaripe-Choshuenco-Enco-Neltume-Puerto Fuy-Paso Hua Hum-San Martín de los Andes (Argentina)

Aaand we're on the road, all four of us together! Funny how life can change so quickly when you leave yourself open to spontaneity. Pavement turns to dusty dirt as we head up around Volcan Villarrica, and seeing no need to push ourselves hard on Chris and Hannah's first cycling day, we stop after a few hours of slow, steady climbing at a nice spot by a river. 

Hu-man-o-rama; a special technique for capturing everyone in a panorama

Over the river and through the woods...

As we're preparing dinner, a car going by sees us and stops. I (Danny) walk out to the road to chat. A lady wearing a blazer from the 1970s slams her door, having gone from zero to irate in an instant. "You're on our land!" she screams. "There are animals coming; you'll block their access to the river! And you're killing the grass! Leave immediately or we'll call the police!" All this accompanied by wild, exaggerated gesticulations which only add to the show. Her temper is beyond lost, like that of an inconsolable toddler, and she's wrong; there's no river access near our tents and we're not on the grass. But we are on their land. I politely mention that we'll be leaving immediately, which only makes her angrier. Clearly she wants a reaction, and as she starts yelling again, her husband calls her off. They move on, and we shuttle our tents 50 feet to the other side of the road. We're laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole situation but are still a little bit shaken up, simply because this woman was so insanely angry over such a seemingly insignificant issue. I don't want to cause anyone such stress.

After yesterday's dusty ride and private property altercation, we are eager to come across the first signs for Villarrica National Park. Even better, our fears that the road through the park had been "improved" are immediately dispelled. The top few kilometers are still considered intransitable, meaning that, although we have to push a bit up some steep sections, there is plenty of fun, technical riding with no traffic! A perfect cycling route through shady, old-growth, monkey puzzle tree forest, aka food for the soul.

Chris and Hannah doing some great cycling

Tam tearin` it up

Pushing on their first full day of cycle touring. These guys are champs!

This is how we know we`re in the right place

Riding hard, Hannah took a tumble but popped right back up
Shady forest riding

Thousand-year-old trees line the path

Unfortunately the descent on the other side passes by some hot springs, and we quickly learn that Chileans on summer vacation love their hot springs. In fact, all of Santiago seems to be here showering us with dust as they speed by. We turn onto pavement at Coñaripe and speed out of town. At least on pavement we won't be getting asthma from the dust.

A few flat, paved kilometers take us to a bridge, and we decide to stop for the night. Hannah's knee has been bothering her since she took a tumble this morning, and there's no reason to push it. Especially because some friendly ladies are selling Chile's version of fried dough right next to our secret campsite! We can't resist trying a few calzones rotos and sopaipillas: delicious sugary, fried appetizers to dinner. Even better is our campsite. Although we are surrounded by private property, we traverse a small offshoot of a raging river and find a flat, untouched island perfect for a good night's rest. We all head to the river to wash off, and as Chris sits down in the glacial water with an agonized shout, a car stops on the nearby bridge, a window rolls down, and a smartphone camera comes out. Tourists, huh? There's no escaping them.

A sopaipilla, delicious fried calories heading straight to the legs

If this were a comprehension quiz, I would have correctly gotten 1 out of 3

Chris and Tam traversing a river to our secret campsite

Our pavement ends soon the next morning, so we spend some more time acquiring free layers of dirt sunscreen from passing cars. At least we have a nice lunch spot...

Volcan Mocho Choshuenco providing a gorgeous backdrop
And as we're finishing up eating, who comes by but Dan and Gina! They headed out of Pucon when we met up with Chris and Hannah. I am so excited to see us all roll off together, one big biker gang rolling six deep.

In the afternoon we reach our destination, Choshuenco, which is only really a destination because it marks the beginning of a trail. No traffic there, surely! Apparently there's no trail either, say multiple sources in town, but we decide to give it a shot anyway. The next morning sees us on a barely visible track ripping our way through thickets of blackberries, the spiky devils of the plant world. Somewhat demoralized by how impassable it is, we all powwow for a bit and decide that it's not worth continuing. I might have sacrificed my epidermis for ripe blackberries, but unripe, no way!


A cool insect we found

With no better route presenting itself in Chile and the traffic becoming unbearable (well, there was one route on trails, but it was too illegal), we decide to head east through an interesting border crossing requiring a ferry. Although all the ferries are booked when we arrive, because we have bikes, we are somehow prioritized over the many backpackers yearning for a spot. Just a few hours into our supposed all-day wait, and there we are, boating east towards Argentina!

Mmm... dust

Campsites next to rivers every night is one benefit of cycling through the Los Rios region. Our biker gang from left to right: Danny, Tam, Gina, Chris, Hannah, and Dan

Hannah finding peace in the river


Crammed onto the ferry among automobiles parked carefully just inches apart

Chile's border processes are organized and efficient, the guards businesslike, and we're happy to take advantage of the free wi-fi. On the contrary, Argentina's processes take ages. But we hardly notice because we're having a ball laughing and taking pictures with the border guards. I look out the window at one point and see one of the officials taking a spin on Gina's fat tire bike. For all we love about developed Chile, this unguarded, relaxed moment would never happen there (or in the US, France, Japan, etc). This moment, whatever it is, is the price of progress.

A treat in Argentina: new birds! Here, an ashy-headed goose

Great spot for a campsite! At Parque Nacional Lanin, photo courtesy of Hannah

And our favorite thing about Argentina: inexpensive and delicious ice cream! 

Though we almost get run over by an out-of-control VW hatchback, we cruise happily the next afternoon into the relaxed town of San Martin de los Andes, the northern terminus of the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Route of Seven Lakes), one of the most popular and scenic routes anywhere in Argentina. Look for stories and photos in the next post!

Route Notes:
- Pucon to Coñaripe: Though the main road east out of Pucon is heavily trafficked, there is a bike path for a good ways. We headed south to Coñaripe through Villarrica National Park, a route praised highly and with route notes here. A few hundred meters of pushing are involved in the 4 km "intransitable" section, though I bet a strong rider on a light bike could ride all of it. Riding through the park was incredible - a smooth dirt track winding through dense, old-growth forest - but the 35 km to get there and the 25 or so on the other side were less enjoyable due to insane amounts of tourist traffic. Lots of washboard and dust. Outside of mid-summer (January and February) I would highly recommend this ride; during January and February, it still seems like the best option in the area. You can't escape the tourists.
Coñaripe is basically an extended strip mall with shops, restaurants, accommodation, and probably an ATM and internet somewhere... I don't know, we left as fast as we could. About 5 km east of town the road crosses the Rio Llancahue. On the right, just before the bridge, there's a small path leading down. Follow it for a few meters then cross the stream on your left to find a perfect island campsite.

- Coñaripe to Choshuenco: Ripio begins just after the Rio Llancahue and continues all the way until a few km before Choshuenco. As before, tons of traffic and dust. Choshuenco has shops, restaurants, accommodation, and internet: slow wi-fi that you can pay for or free time on the computers at the hexagonal building on the left as you enter town. No ATM.
The route from Enco to Riñihue along the southern shore of Lago Riñihue was followable, at least for a kilometer, but turned out to be too overgrown for us to pass. It also is apparently missing numerous large bridges, though none of the rivers appeared on the satellite imagery to be wide enough to be impassable.
There is another, more direct route south that goes straight up the mountainside and also apparently involves a lot of bushwhacking; for route info, find Raúl, the guy who charges for parking at the beach. He knows the area well, and his brother has GPS points. We met some backpackers doing that route, so it's probably easy enough to follow without losing the trail.

- Choshuenco to San Martin de los Andes (Argentina): All unpaved, dusty, and trafficked, although slightly fewer cars in the first Argentine kilometers. Neltume has all services except an ATM. Great camp spot by the river about 3 km after Neltume; look for a small road on your right. There are 2-4 ferries a day from Puerto Fuy depending on time of year and day of the week. Cost is 900 pesos (~US$1.30) per person and 4000 (~US$5.70) for each bike. Be aware, they fill up fast in the high season (January-March). Pedestrians have to book the day of - no reservations - and the office opens at 6 am. Tickets go fast, the guy told us, so probably be there at 5 to assure you will get a spot on the first ferry of the day. When we rolled up just after 7 am, all four departures of the day were completely sold out.
There is a free campsite 2 km off the road at Parque Nacional Lanín just after entering Argentina.
San Martin de los Andes is a nice town with a great supermarket, but prepare for very high prices. We happened to be there on a long weekend, so that certainly didn't help. 120-170 pesos (~US$9-12) per person to camp, 330 (~$US23) for a dorm in a hostel. We found the cheapest and quietest campsite by far, 25 pesos (~US$1.50) per person, located 6 km south of town and 100 meters down the road to Quila Quina on the right at the river.