Tuesday, March 1, 2016

It´s Raining Cyclists: The Northern Carretera Austral. February 17th-21st

Puerto Montt-Hornopiren-Caleta Gonzalo-Chaitén-Puerto Cárdenas-Villa Santa Lucia

We first heard about the Carretera Austral in Canada, when someone told us that it was like the Icefields Parkway through Jasper and Banff, except far longer. It's been in our minds since then, and it's hard to believe that now we are actually here. The road was built under Pinochet in the 1970s in an effort to connect the isolated small towns of southern Chile, and it now has become known to backpackers, cyclists, and other travelers as one of the most scenic routes in the world. Below is the story of our ride through the northern section.

The northern Carretera Austral, surrounded by greenery

There are plenty of small towns along the route but we know that the Puerto Varas - Puerto Montt area would be our last chance for a while to tune up bikes, do some shopping, and cook up some healthful delicious food. None of this would have been possible without our warmshowers hosts Lucas, Paloma, and Gabriela. So many thanks to you all!

Finally, from the streets of Puerto Varas, we see Volcan Osorno! We were up there...

Some hilarious graffiti around the city

Our gear getting some waterproofing. Here we´re painting Chris´s gloves with a mix of silicone and turpentine...

...and later we apply a similar mixture to the seams of our tent. Fortunately it later rains, offering a chance to test out our DIY handiwork.

Some colorful landscaping in Puerto Varas

Our travel guide describes Puerto Montt as a city with many exit points, whether it be by bus, bike, or boat. Our big exit will be along the Carretera Austral, which officially starts here.
Unfortunately, the only way to get there is to take the main highway south from Puerto Varas. Yes, there's another road but apparently that road has even more traffic (because there's no toll) and no shoulder. So, the day begins with us racing alongside great tractor trailers and other speeding traffic as we all rush to reach Puerto Montt as quickly as possible.

Puerto Montt: our first time cycling at sea level since Cartagena, Colombia, near the northern tip of South America.

The weather rages on outside as climate-controlled life continues in swanky department stores

Relieved to finally be outside of the madness of the big city of Puerto Montt, we leave the traffic of the main carretera and take a smaller road along the coast. Out here it's quiet and the mist makes everything a bit mysterious. We ride along coastal mud flats, passing by fisherman´s shacks and wooden rowboats. It feels good to be in a place where locals are living and working, and out of cottage country. Plus, there happen to be lots of ripe blackberries along the road, and that means snack time...

Outside of the city, it´s not long before we start seeing wildlife: here, a black-necked swan...

...and here, a snail taking the fastest ride of its life on Danny´s helmet.

Back on the main road, we make good progress to La Arena where the pavement ends and we need to catch a short ferry. Just our luck, a ferry is in the process of loading as we arrive, and we cruise right onboard! The second we're on, the ramp lifts and we're motoring away. That's our James Bond moment for the day.

As we stand on deck admiring the rugged green hills and pouring waterfalls, something in the water catches our attention. Penguins! Our first of hopefully many sightings.

A ferry similar to ours

Our bikes on board

It seems that the sky here is determined to be grey and rainy. Luckily, when you're cycling, every day has sunny surprises, regardless of the weather. These are my top three for Day 2 on the Austral.

1) We stop to talk to a loaded-down cyclist making his way in the opposite direction. Alex, from France, started in Ushuia and is hoping to reach Alaska! How amazing to talk to someone at the beginning of their journey as we are nearing the end of ours. I am so excited for him.

2) When we reach the town of Hornopiren we stop at a small local, log-cabin style restaurant to get out of the cold rain. We're planning on just getting hot drinks, but soon the lure of hot food wins us over and we're chowing down on fresh fries, eggs, and spicy merken (pronounced mare-KEN).
For those of you unfamiliar with merken, it's a local specialty of southern Chile, a delicious spice made from smoked peppers.

3) Around 5 pm, the drunken men outside the supermarket are replaced with cute old ladies selling cakes and pies. Looks like dessert is going to be before dinner tonight.

We're up early the following morning to catch a ferry. There's no road through this section, so a long ferry is the only option. It's a big, industrial boat loaded full with cars and people. When we arrive at the loading dock, a guy asks us for our tickets. As Hannah fishes through her jacket to find them in an inner pocket, he asks again and again, "los boletos, los boletos!" As soon as the tickets are out, he tells us to head on board. "Adelante! Adelante! Adelante!" This guy, who is in such a ridiculous hurry to load the ferry even when there's still half an hour before we leave, makes us laugh.  Remember all the other over-anxious men who have loaded our bikes onto various forms of public transit in Central and South America? Chile is still part of Latin America, no matter how hard they try to pretend otherwise. 

Morning dew in Hornopiren

Steaming south

There are 5 other cyclists on our ferry, and we've seen others on the road. It is unbelievable how many cyclists are out here! Part of me is really happy to see so many people out here using bikes to explore and travel, and another part of me is sad to see the cycling culture change. For every other section of our trip, every time we saw another cyclist, we would stop to exchange stories and info. Here, with so many people on the road, that's simply impractical if you don't want to spend all day chatting. So now we just ride by and wave. It's different.

When our ferry arrives we have a 10 kilometer section of road to bike to the loading ramp of the next ferry. When I ask a ferry attendant how much time we will have before the next ferry leaves, he tells me 40 minutes. Not sure if we can make 10 kilometers in that time, I inquire, "what happens if we don't make it?" In response he shrugs. "Make a fire?"
Not reassured by this, we bike as quickly as possible, and as we arrive, the next ferry is just pulling away. Noooo!

There it goes. So close!

Luckily, things are not as bad as they seem. Another ferry is coming in half an hour or so (why couldn't the first guy have told me that?) and since not a single cyclist of the nine made the first ferry, we all sit around and share snacks before boarding the last boat.

Finally done with ferry rides, we arrive in Parque Pumalin. In an effort to conserve some of the last temperate rainforest in the region, American businessman Doug Tompkins simply bought a whole bunch of land and made it into a park. Chile, apparently, was originally very suspicious of his motives, and the whole thing was rather controversial. Regardless, now it is open to public visitation, and we are excited to explore it!

We ride a bit and then stop to walk the Sendero de Los Alerces. The path takes us through a stand of old-growth forest, the kind of forest where it's easy to believe in magic. The Alerce trees are thousands of years old, rare, huge, and majestic. Ferns and mosses grow from every surface, and strange insects dance around us. We see a neon orange bumblebee and an iridescent beetle that looks like it just emerged from Pan's Labyrinth. We're all happy we took a bit of time to wander out here; sometimes even biking is too fast.

Don´t get caught in those pincers

Textured, cedar-like bark of the alerce

Everything growing seems to be growing from everything else. Even the dead trunks have multiple trees growing out of them, not to mention the countless ferns, lichens, mosses, and fungi.

And we get to be a part of it! Here´s the four of us coming together to form an alerce tree.

In the park it's required to stay in campgrounds. It would be almost impossible to wild camp anyway: the vegetation is simply too dense! When we arrive at the campground we want to stay at, it's completely full. Luckily, one of the parked RVs does not have a tent in its tent site, and the two friendly Swiss inside the RV say we can camp there, for free! Even better, we have a private, covered picnic area that is a fantastic refuge from the relentless rain. It´s all very North American in style.

Volcan Chaiten, the nearby volcano, had some nasty eruptions from 2008-2011, and we can still see the destruction it wreaked on the park. As we ride we pass huge rivers strewn with dead trees, and hillsides of blackened vegetation. It's a stark reminder of the power stored within the earth.

Regrowing forest

It takes rain - a lot of rain - to make a rainforest.

We do one more hike before leaving Pumalin. My favorite part? The chucao tapaculos. These birds are small, but quite loud and extremely curious. When we stop and wait quietly, they approach, getting within inches of our feet! I feel lucky to be able to share a small moment with these delicate creatures.

A curious chucao tapaculo. This photo was actually taken far south of Parque Pumalin; the forest in Pumalin is simply too dense to let enough light through to allow a quality photo of these energetic little birds.

Leaving the park, we arrive in the strange town of Chaiten. The whole place is rather run down and feels almost deserted, except for the hordes of backpackers and cyclists. The place was hit hard by the volcanic eruption, and it seems clear that it has only survived due to its location on the Carretera Austral.

Continuing south, the sky begins to clear a bit and our road winds through a crazy mix of jungle and glaciers that make up the unique scenery.

And lakes. Don´t forget lakes. There are tons of them dotting the landscape along the Austral

Descending to Villa Santa Lucia

No one can deny that the Austral is beautiful, but Danny and I haven't been enjoying it as much as we would have at the beginning of our trip. We've learned and changed a lot throughout the last 20 months, and right now the Austral isn't the challenge we're looking for. Annoyed with tourist traffic, we want to find our own road less traveled. Hannah and Chris aren't in the same headspace. They are enjoying the Austral and excited to make some progress south. We talk about it and decide that it would be best to split ways for a bit. We'll miss our wonderful friends, but we'll catch them down the road.

Don´t drive too fast, folks.

Hannah and Chris: a portrait.

Route Notes:
Puerto Montt-Villa Sta Lucia (Carretera Austral): Make sure you buy your ticket ahead of time for the Hornopiren-Caleta Gonzalo ferry! There are shops in Hornopiren, Chaiten, and Villa Sta Lucia. Free wi-fi in the plazas of Hornopiren and Chaiten. About half of this stretch is currently paved, and they're hard at work on the ripio around Lago Yelcho. No fee for Parque Pumalin trails, but camping in the park sites is 2500 pesos p/p or 7500 for a "modulo," your own covered picnic area. Camping outside of the campgrounds would be difficult, as the forest is continuous and dense. It's also prohibited. There's an info center in Caleta Gonzalo.

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