Carretera Austral, Chile

There is something mythical about it, because all cyclists in South America seem to use it (according to the blogs and forums we found on the net). So we can say that we were impatient to get there. Also because two German cyclists we met near El Calafate promised that there would be less wind. From El Chalten it is only a few kilometres to cycle, a ferry, a few more kilometres and a second ferry. It’s very simple… On the paper!!!

The arrival on the Carretera Austral

The first kilometres passed quickly in a beautiful environment. The next morning we took the first ferry at Lago del Desierto and crossed the Argentinean border on the other side of the lake. So far so good, after that it got complicated, that is to ride our bikes on a hiking trail… for 6 km we pushed and pulled our bikes, carried them over fallen tree trunks and crossed icy rivers and mud fields… 4h later we literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel in form of a road leading out of the forest, Chile here we are again! There remained 16 km through the forest and a nice descent to Lago O’Higgins. We weren’t in a hurry, the ferry should leave only at 2pm the next day. At the indicated time we reached the pier, but there was no boat in sight. We rode 300 m further to the camping site. There were some other travellers, but nobody really seemed to know anything. We waited… A few hours later we were informed: no ferry for the day, and no further information… This campsite became our home for 4 days, the time to wait for the ferry. We had not planned to spend so much time there, luckily the company was good. Every day new travellers arrived, in the end we were about 30 people! We improvised bicycle cleaning workshops, a soccer game on the field of the Chilean customs office, card games while it was raining… And luckily the owner of the campsite sold homemade bread, so we didn’t have to starve! On the 4th day the ferry finally arrived and despite the beautiful location of the campsite, everyone was happy to get away. Arrived in Villa O’Higgins at the other end of the lake, we were finally on the Carretera Austral. While most of our camping colleagues staid there for one night, we already sat on our bikes the same day after a little bit of shopping and a good meal in the restaurant.

Southern half of the Carretera Austral

The landscape has changed: It has become much greener, there are rivers, lakes and lush vegetation all around. During the first 200 km we were accompanied by rain for the most part. After a restless night (Katrin woke up with rain splashes on her face, the wind blew so hard that the rain came through under the roof…), we decided to wait for the rain and watch a movie instead in the warmth of our sleeping bags (thanks Netflix for the possibility of downloading movies…). Around noon we decided to eat on the spot, because it would make no sense to cycle for half an hour and then stop for lunch in the rain. So it was already 1pm when we finally packed our bags. Suddenly voices were mingled in the sound of the rain outside. We found two cyclist friends in front of the door who were with us at the notorious campground and left Villa O’Higgins the same morning. They had lunch while we packed up our things. It was still raining, but we now had new motivation by being able to ride on with our friends.

We continued the journey to Rio Bravo, where we took the last ferry at 7pm. We were already all on board when at 6.59pm another friend from the campground just arrived at full speed. Arriving on the other side, it was finally 5 of us settling down for the night in the ferry’s waiting room. Luckily the room was big enough so that we all had space on the floor with our mattresses and sleeping bags. Right across the street there was a small kiosk where we got a hot chocolate to warm up from this rainy day and empanadas and cocadas (delicious chocolate dumplings rolled in coconut, yummy) for dessert.

The next day we all set off at our own pace, but we were never far apart. We met for a picnic lunch and a break at 4 pm. A farmer at the roadside sold bread and homemade jam with coffee and tea. We set off for the last climb of the day in the sun. Our 3 companions stopped on top to sleep in the tent. We drove on (Matthieu wanted so much sleep in a bed and have a hot shower). Finally we covered 125km and 2020 m of altitude to arrive in Cochrane. We treated ourselves to a good pichanga for two people (a huge plate of French fries, garnished with different kinds of meat, tomatoes, onions and avocados) and even 3 pieces of cake (they were just too delicious). Junk food forever! For the night we found an Airbnb in the house of a super nice young couple.

We stayed one day in Cochrane to rest from the strains of the previous day and do some shopping. The second day we left the city under a grey sky. The landscapes were magnificent: we drove along the Rio Baker with incredible colours of blue and surrounded by mountains until Puerto Bertrand, where we slept in a bus shelter big enough for our two mattresses and our bikes.

The next day the sun finally came out, which made the landscapes even more beautiful (yes, it is possible). We cycled between lakes, rivers and mountains. We were impressed by the incredible blue of the water and the flowers in all colours. In the evening we arrived in Puerto Rio Tranquilo, where we wanted to stay for the night. We did not know yet where to sleep, so we first looked for a restaurant with internet, so we could search for hotels and Airbnb. Even before we had decided where to go, a man introduced himself as Patricio and asked us if we were the two Swiss cyclists who wrote him via Couchsurfing. We answered no, but that we were also looking for a place to sleep. He immediately invited us to his house as he has a big garden. When we arrived, we noticed that there were already about 15 other travellers in his house. He welcomed everyone with open arms, no matter if they were travellers by bike, motorbike or hitchhikers. The house was very rustic (no electricity, so no light, no running water, dry toilets and a shower outside, where the water is heated in a big barrel over a fire and you have to take a bucket and pour it into the shower = another bucket with an improvised showerhead). Nevertheless, we were very happy that we could wash ourselves and meet travellers from all over the world. Patricio cooked for everyone (everyone contributed a few euros) while the rest of the people chatted, drank wine, played guitar and sang. We ate at Chilean time (at 1am) a tomato stuffed with tuna fish as a starter and homemade gnocchi bolognese as a main course. It was delicious, but finally we fell asleep on the couch, the day was very long for us.

After a short night on the couch (we still got out the sleeping bags and Patricio said good night to everyone like the father of a big family), we got up early for a kayak trip to the marble cathedral at Lago General Carrera. Thanks to Patricio’s connections we were picked up by car right in front of the house. We were given all the neoprene equipment so that we would not get wet as well as the life jacket. After some theoretical explanations we were all put into a kayak. For 3 hours we paddled along the shore of the lake to see the Capilla de Marmol, the Catedral de Marmol and the Tunel de Marmol. We received many explanations about the geology, the extraordinary blue colour of the lake etc. and enjoyed this morning on the lake in the sun. We were happy to have had this unique experience in a kayak, unlike others who took a boat trip and only stayed 5 minutes to visit the stone formations.

At the beginning of the afternoon we continued our way by bike, and unfortunately it was the first flat tire for Matthieu. After a night in an abandoned house next to the road we headed towards Cerro Castillo. We rode through all seasons, started with winter weather, had a picnic under the spring sun, made a nice descent to Cerro Castillo in summer weather and ended the day with autumn rain, so we improvised a night under the eaves of an unfinished kiosk. The next day was not much better. We had a nice descent in the Cerro Castillo National Park, but we couldn’t really enjoy it because it was too windy and we were frozen to the bones. Around noon we couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to hitchhike, but unfortunately no car stopped. After an hour we gave up and went on by bike. We spent some more difficult hours on the bike, but finally we reached Coyhaique, the capital of the region and the end of our day. We met Nico, Flo and their son Samuel, our hosts for the night (and eventually the following), who welcomed us like old friends.

Finally we stayed in Coyhaique for several days, we were tired from the last days and had to rest. Besides, there were only a few days left until Christmas, and the great distance to our respective families put quite a strain on our morale. Luckily our hosts gave us back some motivation by integrating us into their family life and telling us about the beautiful landscapes we should see on the next days of our trip.

Northern half of the Carretera Austral

After the stories of our hosts in Coyhaique we thought we would see great landscapes, national parks, briefly the dream of cycletravellers like us. But in the end we didn’t see much of it, because it rained almost continuously during the whole week.

On the first day we only covered 30 km before we found refuge from the rain in a small café. We stayed 2 hours to dry ourselves and hope that the rain would stop. In the end we didn’t have the strength to drive on, luckily the owners of the café had huts to rent in their garden. The next day it rained only temporarily, which meant a lot of luck for us. So we even dared to sleep in the tent at the edge of Lago Las Torres. The night was humid, but except for the tent everything staied dry. For December 24th we wanted to reach Puerto Cisnes, a nice little village at the edge of one of the many fjords. The journey was very wet again, but when we arrived in Puerto Cisnes the rain finally stopped. We stayed in a comfortable hotel (our present to ourselves for Christmas) and in the evening we went for a walk in the village. At that moment the sun finally came out through the clouds and offered us wonderful views of the sea and the colorful boats in the bay. Enthusiastic about this natural spectacle we found a restaurant (the only one that was open that evening, lucky us!) where we could eat fresh salmon. It was hard to celebrate Christmas away from the family, but we made the most out of it, with the only sunshine of the week and good salmon!

We had three more rainy days where we only saw rain clouds sticking to the mountain slopes. For the night we first found a small hotel in Puyuhuapi and then a bus shelter in the countryside, just big enough for our two mattresses and our bikes to stay dry. Finally we arrived in Chaiten, where we left the Carretera Austral to cross over to the island of Chiloé. We were fed up with the rainy mountains, we preferred to go to the beach!

See the photos here:

Carretera Austral

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