Saturday, March 26, 2016

Time to be Tourists: The Southern Carretera Austral, March 1st-20th

La Tapera-Villa Mañihuales-Coyhaique-El Blanco-Villa Cerro Castillo-Puerto Rio Tranquilo-Puerto Bertrand-Cochrane-Puerto Yungay-Rio Bravo-Villa O´Higgins-Candelario Mancilla-Lago del Desierto

The southern Carretera Austral: wild and scenic

As Chile narrows, there are fewer and fewer route choices.  Plus, the Carretera Austral is famous for a reason right? Here's our account of our last few weeks riding this scenic road, and of course, a few exciting excursions off of it...

We begin the month of March by returning from our explorations to the Austral. The 50 kilometers we have to ride to get there are bumpy and washboardy. It just so happens that there was a fair in the tiny town of La Tapera over the weekend, and now everyone is going home, hauling trailers filled with prize horses behind them in giant clouds of dust.
It suffices to say that by the time we reach the pavement of the main road, we are grateful for some smooth, dust-free riding.

It takes us another day and a half to reach the city of Coyhaique. Along the way we enjoy some wide glacial valleys, clear waterfalls, and the company of a French cyclist named David who started his trip in Vancouver, Canada! An upbeat and thoughtful guy, he keeps up with us just fine, even though he has an enormous trailer attached to his bike.  We can't believe all the stuff he's carrying; he can't believe all the stuff we're not carrying.

Upon arrival in Coyhaique, it takes a bit of shopping around to find a good place to stay; everything is expensive. Eventually, we decide to invest slightly more in a hostel with a comfy bed. After sleeping for multiple months now on de-laminating sleeping pads that deflate every hour or so during the night, we're eager to actually have a comfortable night of sleep. Our choice? Aire Patagon, an adorable, family-run place. As often happens at hostels we meet some wonderful other travelers and end up talking late into the night. It's always fun to share adventure stories.

Brrrr! Dropping temperatures necessitate functional sleeping pads

Errands always take longer than you might think. Here's my summary of our second day in Coyhaique:
The library computers are nice but log you out every 45 minutes; there's an internet cafe in the main square where we do our best to edit our resumes and apply for a summer job while five different musicians, a radio show, and a fair outside create total cacophony; and why does the airline website we're trying to buy plane tickets from keep glitching? The bike mechanic is still working on Danny's bike when we arrive, then we forget a backpack at the shop; the Patagonia store is always open, but today it's closed until late because of a cash register failure; the ATM in the supermarket isn't working so we need to search out another one; the lines to buy food are so long that they stretch way back into the aisles, and we still have to find the laundry place and pick up the laundry!

After our "rest days" we're exhausted when we finally bike out of town. Luckily, the wind is in our favor! A fabulous tailwind blows us 60 kilometers up into the Cerro Castillo Reserve where we find a beautiful camp spot.

March 6th! My birthday!
Growing up, I always looked forward to birthday parties with friends. This year the only guest who showed up was Danny, but we still had a great party! Here are my five highlights of the day:

1) Biking. We have a beautiful, smooth ride through a river valley then a HUGE, fast descent into the valley below the spectacular peak of Cerro Castillo (Castle Peak).

A local forest fire adds a bit of smoke to the ride

2) Hiking. We pack as much as we can in our tiny day packs and set off hiking to the laguna at the base of Cerro Castillo.  The hike is very steep and takes longer than we anticipated, but it's worth it. As we reach the top of the final ridge, Cerro Castillo looms close, and yet still high above us. Cradled in a bowl of rock is an immense glacier which sends waterfalls thundering down the mountain's sheer cliffs. The laguna sits below, remarkably calm, an unbelievable shade of pure azure blue. As we stumble down the cliffside of loose rocks to the camping area, the setting sun hits the left jagged peak and sends golden rays shooting off into the gentle sky. It's hard to explain how amazing this place is.

Cerro Castillo's beautiful, glacial laguna

Cerro Castillooooooooooooooooo!

3) Eating. We carried up a special Mexican dinner for tonight. Tortillas filled with perfectly seasoned guacamole, cheddar cheese, and a colorful veggie salad. Who says you need a stove for amazing food?

4) Surprise dessert. Way back in Pucón, a month ago, we bought two large chocolate bars, and then they mysteriously went missing. We checked all of our bags, asked our friends if they stole them (haha, but seriously, give them back), and finally decided that we must have left them accidentally at the supermarket. Not so! Today Danny is surprised to discover them at the bottom of the rear pocket of his backpack! They're a bit mangled, but still taste really good. Looks like we're going to have to eat a lot of chocolate tonight...

5) So many people sent texts, e-mails, and facebook messages to wish me a happy birthday. Thank you to my parents and to my friends half a world away who took time today to think about me. I appreciate it and love you all!

A clear birthday night (birth-night?) in the tent

We spend the next morning descending slowly back into town (cycling muscles are not made for walking downhill) and then chatting to other travelers in town.  We're lucky enough to run into our two Belgian friends we met in Coyhaique, an adventurous couple from Malaysia, and a couple from the U.S. down here for a climbing trip. We see very few travelers from our country, and it's no surprise to us that they're from northern California.

The stretch of road south of Cerro Castillo is under construction, and the road is completely closed all afternoon. Since it's already late in the day when we leave, we are unable to ride on the Austral, but we can take an adventurous detour! As we turn onto a little-used 4x4 road, the wind whips the clouds above us into dragons that fly around the glaciated peaks above us. Our track is interesting, rocky, technical in places, and there's not a person or animal in sight. Below we hear the rumble of contruction trucks and blasts of dynamite. We're both certain that we made the right road choice.

Unused track > trafficked construction zone

Unfortunately, out here there is a surprising amount of private land. To reach our next road we have to lift the bikes over numerous fences, and when it comes time to camp, we have no choice but to go through someone's gate. We would ask for permisssion, but we haven't seen a single house. Luckily, with no traffic and no one around, there is no one to care about our trespassing.

Yup, that´s our road ending in a fence. Without a gate around, we get an arm workout.

The next morning dawns windy and bright. I never know how to predict when these Patagonia winds are going to be howling. The scenery is beautiful. We pass by multiple lakes, and as I peer through openings in the trees down at thier tranquil, brilliant, blue waters, I feel as if we are the first people to discover them. These lakes are still secret wonderlands free from houses, cabañas, and campgrounds.

Beautiful riding

Wild lakes

But fortunately not too wild... good thing there´s a bridge!

We're back on the Austral just before lunch, and a short bit of riding frees us from the contruction zone. Now that we're past the road work, it's actually a blessing. All traffic is stopped on the other side, and we have the road to oursleves. Huge, glaciated mountains have become an ordinary, everyday occurrence in the landscape.  We're spoiled.

The Austral is scenic, there´s no denying that

The following day, we pedal our way to the largest lake in Chile, Lago General Carrera. Where the river we've been following joins it, there is a beautiful burst of light teal into the darker turquoise of the lake. The water features around here all seem to be in a battle to create my favorite color.

The gorgeous Rio Murta

In the afternoon we reach Puerto Rio Tranquilo and are seduced into signing up for the touristy trip out to the marble caves on the lake. We're not entirely sure what to expect, but it sounds interesting enough that we're willing to spend $10 on it.

The light is best in the morning for observing the mable formations, so at 9:30 am the guide for our 9:00 trip shows up and tosses us some life vests.  Here we go! I'll let the pictures tell the story from here.

A calm morning on the lake...

...takes us to striking marble formations...

...this geological phenomenon that looks like a dog...

...and this one that looks like a tree, the roots reaching deep underwater.

More marble caves, this time with color...

...and views through the rock to the other side, lit up by the sun.

After visiting the exquisite ¨Capilla de Mármol¨ - the marble chapel - ...

...the ride back is a bit like whitewater rafting.

Back in Puerto Rio Tranquilo we learn that both of our new sleeping mats should be in Coyhaique tomorrow!
A bit of background here: We've been coordinating logistics for a couple months now, trying to figure out the arrival of new mats to replace our old, deflating ones. You can imagine our excitement when we realize that they had finally arrived! No more cold nights! We abandon all plans of biking and set about finding a place to leave the bikes before hitching a ride back to the big city.

No cars passing means plenty of time for artsy photography!

The saddest dog ever joins us by the side of the road

After a few hours of no traffic and no rides, a bus comes by and we hop on. Unfortunately, the construction zone that we mostly avoided with our bikes stops the bus for hours. It's a long trip.

Happily, our sunny, productive day in Coyhaique is worth the long journey back north. The best part is meeting up with Paloma! (One of our amazing warm showers hosts from Puerto Varas.) She grew up here in this town and has an interesting local perspective. Not to mention, she delivers one of our new mats! Our other mat comes in a package from Dan and Gina. Our wonderful friends have also included lens caps for Danny's camera and all natural, organic, peanut butter!! It seems that they know us quite well.

Another good reason to regress to Coyhaique: the trusty Brooks saddle I´ve ridden since Alaska split near the nose, leaving a floppy piece of rubber. At the bike shop I find...

The Velo Senso! Somewhat of a gamble putting it on my bike and hoping to ride a few thousand kilometers, but it´s been working well so far.

Late in the day we head out of town to try and get a ride back in the direction of Rio Tranquilo. We're lucky to get picked up by a happy crew of young folks going our way. They drop us off 10 kilometers or so out of town and we set up camp in a friendly farmer's field.

A total of four more hitches gets us to Rio Tranquilo. It's still a long ride back, but hitching is far more interesting than the bus. We meet all sorts of characters, including construction workers, an agronomist, and some guys going to a rodeo specifically to eat lots of grilled meat. As vegetarians, that's not really our thing, but they're still interesting to talk to!

Feeling stiff after all our time in the car, we're excited to get back onto our preferred form of transportation. This time with our bags packed with new thermarests! We roll out of Rio Tranquilo late in the day and enjoy some ups and downs by the lake. As we start searching for a camp spot, an enormous white mountain appears on the horizon. Our first sighting of the northern icefield! I can't help but feel inspired as we stop to stare out at the expansive landscape.

Peaks at the edge of the northern icefield under a stormy sky

The morning is clear and beautiful. As Danny cycles over a bridge, I stop to talk to five motorcyclists from Indonesia traveling along the Carretera Austral.  When I tell them that we cycled from Alaska they are so impressed that they all start bowing to me. I start to laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Five burly motorcycle guys bowing to a skinny, dirty girl on a pedal bike; it's a sight you don't often see.

A nice morning ride brings us to the town of Puerto Bertrand around lunch time.  It's a small place, just a handful of houses perched on the shore of a brilliant turquoise lake. We ask at one of the local business to fill our bottles with water. The guy who comes to the door is rather beady eyed and his belly fat sags out of the bottom of his plaid shirt. I can tell that he has a big personality even before he speaks. "How many liters you got?" he asks us. "Why?" we inquire. He informs us that he charges 1,000 pesos (about $1.50) per liter; this is water that you need to pay for. Then he launches into a lecture about how the water from the lake is clean and free, but the water from this spigot is expensive and the tank it comes from is dirty; it has never been cleaned and there are probably dead animals in it!
We're both a bit amused about how vehemently this guy dislikes the public water system which was probably established to improve local santitation. We thank him politely and go to fill our bottles from the lake, noting this as the most interesting response we've ever gotten when asking for water.

Filling water from the otherworldly waters of Lago Bertrand

A slower pace of life here...

The following day we reach the town of Cochrane. Another town! The people who told us that the Carretera Austral was remote were wrong! We've passed through tons of small towns, and Cochrane in particular has everything that we could need, including a huge grocery store and functional wifi! Although, I should note that it's all about perspective. When you've cycled through Alaskan tundra, northern Argentina's Puna, and the altiplano of Bolivia, everything seems developed. 
We roll out of town late and quickly spot a beautiful campsite next to a lake. Yea, we haven't ridden much today but this place is just too beautiful to pass up. Plus, we deserve an easy day once in a while. 

Things are changing as we head south. Fewer cows and more sheep, fewer fences and houses and more wild land, less traffic and more glaciers! We're both happy to finally be getting into the Patagonia that we've imagined and dreamed about.

Fewer cars mean less dust... thank goodness

The Baker River, Chile´s mightiest, matching the sky hue for hue

The scenery keeps getting better..

...and better.

Th only complication is that southern Patagonia also comes with more lakes, and lakes mean ferries. When we arrive in Puerto Yungay we learn that what we read online was wrong and we'll have to wait numerous hours for the ferry to leave. There's not much at the port, just a small waiting area and a tiny cafe. The lady who runs the cafe is rather sullen but makes some delicious raspberry cake.  I can't really fault her for the sour attitude, she lives all alone out here. There's not even a town, just tourists and the occasional local passing through.

By the time we arrive on the other side of the lake it's getting late and threatening rain. We decide to stay in the waiting shelter, a well-designed, enclosed space. There is something so wonderful about being inside, cozy and warm, while the rain drums on the roof outside.

Fortunately we have lots of windows so we don´t feel too cooped up

During a rainstorm, welcome to heaven.

The last part of the Carretera austral from Puerto Yungay to Villa O´Higgins is undoubtedly our favorite. Traffic has reached a new low, and every mountain seems to have a glacier with countless waterfalls descending from it in white tendrils. The sky is threatening rain, but a roaring tailwind keeps us mostly ahead of it as we ride.

One of the countless crystal-clear rivers

As we pedal through a hilly section I look to my left and spot a condor rising from the valley next to us, just feet away and exactly at eye level. He swivels his wrinkly head to look at us before rising to soar on the updrafts. We've never been so close to one of these magnificent birds. It certainly gives you a sense of how big they are!

The Carretera Austral officially ends at the port a few kilometers south of Villa O'Higgins, a cozy little town with lots of small houses and a beautiful public library. To continue onwards to Argentina, cyclists and backpackers (this crossing isn't transitable by vehicle) must take a boat across Lake O'Higgins, which isn't as simple as it sounds. Due to inclement weather and infrequent boats, travelers often get stuck here for weeks or days waiting for passage.

We're far luckier than most. After a frustrating day asking everyone who knows anything about boats, we convince a local captain that he should organize a trip for tomorrow. Captain Toto, as he is known by the locals, is a member of a family that had been here since the beginning of things in this remote town, transporting construction materials and supplies across the lake. He's also supremely nice. When he spots us biking out to sleep at the dock, he throws us the keys to his boat, "sleep on board tonight!"

Thus, we're warm and sleepy below deck when the boat sets out into the lake at 6 am. We wake up for a moment to feel bad for the other passengers who had to wake up so early to get here. When the sun starts to rise, we emerge to check out the views. Sunrise on sparkling glaciers and cold spray from waves on the lake leave me feeling a bit giddy with the excitement of the morning and what's ahead.

Lago O´Higgins in the morning light

Our boat. Not the newest, nor the shiniest or most comfortable, but the one that´s running, and that´s what counts!

The Soberania on its return trip, a tiny blip on the massive lake

There's chaos at the dock when we arrive. Everyone's unloading from our boat, and a huge group of others cyclists and backpackers anxiously waits to load on. I imagine that it would be much harder getting stuck on this side because there are no grocery stores! How would you plan how much food to bring when the boat schedule is so erratic?
We head up the hill and get stamped out of Chile at border control, then ride on up into the mountains. Our light set-ups really pay off in this kind of terrain; we soon outdistance everyone else. The biking is beautiful and fun; the 4x4 track in Chile turns into a mostly rideable trail in Argentina. As we near the end of the trail we crest a hill and are rewarded with an incredible view of the turquoise Lago del Desierto and Fitzroy in the distance! The mountain is unmistakable due to its shape and splendor, and we're psyched to see it!

Tam navigating the singletrack on the Argentine side

Can´t ride through this, unfortunately

Lago del Desierto and its treasure at the end: Cerro Fitzroy! 

At the shore of Lago del Desierto we officially enter Argentina and decide how to best cross the lake. There are three options:
1) Take a boat with our bikes.
2) Put the bikes on the boat then hike a trail around the lake.
3) Hike with the bikes on the trail around the lake.

We decide on option 3: it's cheapest (the boat is super expensive and we have hardly any Argentinian money) and we can start early tomorrow morning on our own schedule.

I wouldn't recommend this to any other cyclist. It takes us six hours to do twelve kilometers around the lake, carrying our bikes over logs and creeks, and pushing up and down extremely steep, slippery trails. As Danny puts it, it seems like someone made this trail specifically to be as difficult as possible to traverse on bike.

Things are made a bit better by the spectacular scenery. We pass through lots of old growth forest, and the mountain on the other side of the lake is dripping with glaciers.

The end of the trail presents a final challenge. There's a large river we must cross to get to the road. There's a bridge, but it looks like it's going to collapse with both of us and a bike going across. There are no stairs leading up to it, just a steep ramp make from two wobbly, slippery wooden planks. The "railings" are made from fraying rope and many planks are missing. The whole thing sways when you step onto it. Good thing Danny and I are a good team. It takes both of us working creatively to get the bikes up and safely across. Then, finally, we're on the road and heading to El Chalten!

The trail around the Lago del Desierto was, let´s just say, less rideable than we had hoped


Tough enough just walking down

Plenty of natural beauty along the way, though

Including a huemúl (way-MOOL), the endangered andean deer...

...and a juvenile black-crowned night-heron which surprises us from its perch

We've spent a lot of time along the Austral talking to cyclists from all over the world. When you see another traveler pedaling hard out here, it's hard not to stop and exchange a few stories. It's wonderful to see so many people enjoying and exploring.
Best of luck and safe travels to you all!

A wonderfully old-fashioned, color-coordinated bicycle belonging to a friendly Chilean cyclist

Complete with homemade panniers made from soy sauce cartons and decorated with Patagonia stickers, just in case you forget where you are

These Italian superheroes were traveling with two young children. Check out their journey at

Cyclist artwork at a roadside shelter

Route Notes:
Coyhaique: We stayed at the cheapest hospedaje, Aire Patagon, near Colon and Bilbao. For 9,000 per person including use of the kitchen and wi-fi, we were pleased. The friendly, homey atmosphere helps, too. Both of the camping places in/near town cost 5,000; we camped one night at Natti, a few blocks up Simpson from the Unimarc. Although it had a basic kitchen and wi-fi, the site was no more than the cramped front lawn, all the tents packed in as tightly as possible. When we were there a different lady was offering a basic room - just four walls, a roof, a floor, and a bathroom - for 5,000 pesos. Just after the Sodimac heading out of town, turn right on tiny Pasaje No. 8. Ask around at the third or fourth house (sorry, can´t remember which) on the right.
There are three bike shops in Coyhaique. The largest and best-stocked is Figon, found a few blocks up Simpson from the Unimarc (past Hospedaje Natti). We heard from a few sources that their mechanics have a history of subpar work, so for that we went to Patagonia Cycles on Moraleda, a few blocks north of the plaza. Miguel, the owner and mechanic, is friendly and helpful. The third shop is at Cochrane and Freire and is little more than a workshop; they have weird work hours but have basic parts in stock and seemed nice enough when we stopped in.

Coyhaique to Rio Tranquilo: The road is paved to Villa Cerro Castillo. The 7 km hike from there up to the laguna was moderately difficult and somewhat boring, but the spectacular scenery at the top made it 100% worth it. Wouldn't try to bikepack it, nor the popular hiking trail that connects to it from Las Horquetas; very steep and sandy in most parts, and jumbles of boulders in others.
After Villa Cerro Castillo was a 30 km construction zone that was closing the road completely from 1:30-6:30 Mon-Fri. We were able to avoid 20 km of it by taking the track that runs south of the main road between Laguna Alta and Laguna Verde. It's on OpenCycleMaps. The 4WD shortcut out of Villa Cerro Castillo clearly had not been used for a long time, and fences, four in total, had been built across it. The rest of the road involves horrendously bumpy surfaces and steep undulations, though the section near Laguna Alta is nice. Despite the difficulty, it was definitely more enjoyable than the narrow, trafficked construction zone on the carretera. The detour is all fenced until the descent back to the carretera, where some nice camp spots can be found.

Cochrane to Villa O´Higgins: The last stretch of road is more remote and scenic and improved after the Tortel junction. Three refugios: 1) 10 km before the turnoff to Tortel, pass a green bus stop and see a sign, "Acceso A Muelle." Take the gravel road on the right a few hundred meters to the river. We didn't see this one but it was recommended, apparently even has electricity. 2) 47 km after Rio Bravo, just after hitting the flats and circling a small lake, there's a yellow pole on the left about 6 feet high with a bike tire at the bottom. Follow the gravel back a few meters to find a tin-roofed hut with a wood stove, benches, and a table. 3) 21 km farther. See comments below for info on the third shelter.
Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo ferry is free, takes about an hour. December-March runs Yungay-Bravo at 10 am, 12 pm, and 6 pm. Bravo-Yungay at 11 am, 1 pm, and 7 pm.
April-November runs Yungay-Bravo at 12 pm and 3 pm, other way at 1 pm and 4 pm.
Both sides have a waiting room that can make provide shelter for the night. Yungay has electricity but no bathroom, Bravo has bathrooms but no electricity. At Puerto Yungay there is also a lady selling empanadas and other goodies.

Villa O´Higgins Border Crossing: Cochrane has wi-fi in the main plaza, and Villa O'Higgins has wi-fi and computers at the library. When we were in Villa O'Higgins, Robinson Crusoe was running the only tourist ferry once a week to Candelario Mancilla for 44,000 pesos. Asking around led us to Capitan Rafael "Toto" and his boat, the Soberania, a cargo ship that occasionally takes tourists. He charged 30,000. His business is run by Blanca and her mother, who live in the first red house behind the library. Capitan Lorenzo also occasionally takes tourists; his phone number is on the info board next to the tourist info kiosk in the plaza. Or just ask around. It's a very small town.
In Villa O'Higgins it's possible to go just out of town and wild camp anywhere. The ferry leaves from Bahia Bahamondez, 7 km south of town. It's possible to wild camp at the port too.
The Chilean carabineros border control is located 1 km south of Candelario Mancilla on the main (and only) road. The Argentine gendarmeria is at the north end of Lago del Desierto, and they allow camping there for free. The ferry on Lago del Desierto runs north-south at 11 am and 5 pm, and south-north at 10 am and 4 pm. It costs $30 if you pay in US dollars, or 480 Argentine pesos (equivalent to $33), or 30,000 Chilean pesos (equivalent to $42). Bikes are included in the passage or half price if sending just the bike and hiking the scenic 12 km trail; they'll unload it on the other side, where there is a gendarmeria post. We hike-a-biked, avoiding the boat altogether. Not worth it. It was quite a struggle, took us over five hours.


  1. Reg the third hut: it is indeed 21k after the second, but it's on the left side (going south). It's in front of a farm. Has a wee bike on the door. Exactly as the previous shelter.

    1. No idea how I'm logged in here but this is Gina BTW ;)

    2. Ha, thanks for the info, Gina!