We love the lakes and the mountains, but it is quite similar to the panorama we have at home in the Alps in France, Switzerland and Austria. On this trip we are looking for the unknown, so we decided to leave the Andes for a while and drive along the Chilean coast to Santiago. And here is why we don’t regret our decision:
From Araucanía to Concepción
We were told about the Araucanía region, its volcanoes and lakes and the cities of Pucón and Villarrica. What we did not know was that this region is home to a large part of the Mapuche, the indigenous people of the country. On the coast we found ourselves in the center of this culture. We saw Ruka (oval straw houses) at the roadside, stalls with traditional food like Sopaipillas and Humitas, and carts pulled by oxen. In Cañete, we visited the Mapuche Museum, which gave us all the details about this culture unknown to us. We felt a little as if we had travelled back in time by a century. It was completely unexpected, but all the more beautiful.
We hardly saw any tourists, and the only people we met were not Europeans. We drove through small beach villages and only a few larger towns. In between we went up and down through quiet forests, only the trucks loaded with wood often scared us, because they passed by a bit too close. In the nights we were often near a water source, sometimes at the sea, sometimes at a lake or river. The most beautiful of them was certainly in Lebu, after a small detour we made to avoid the highway. We left the city late, we stayed there for a while to eat and recharge our batteries (our own energy as well as the energy of the telephones and other electronic devices). We didn’t want to stay on the huge beach that stretches over a few kilometers away from the city. So despite a steep gravel road that had to be overcome, we drove on to the next bay. When we reached the top, we saw a small, lonely bay below. The sun had just set and left a pink sky over the sea. We climbed over a small path onto a rock above the bay, from where we could see both the large beach that stretched as far as Lebu and the small bay where we pitched our tent. We will certainly never forget this panorama and the magic of the moment. The next day we got up early to discover the caves hidden in the rocks. We even discovered a tunnel that leads to the beach of Lebu. If we had seen it the day before, we wouldn’t have had to fight our way up the cliff…
We kept on going up and down through forests, during the descent always a nice view of the sea and another deserted beach. After a night near Arauco we unfortunately had to continue on the highway. Actually, there is no alternative, this whole coastal section from Arauco to Concepción can only be reached via the motorway. In the end it was almost better than on the main road because at least we had the emergency lane for us. On the main road the trucks sometimes drove up to only 30 cm from us. Nevertheless we left the highway at every opportunity because it is not a really nice environment for cycling. So we discovered the Cocinerías in Lota, a big coastal town south of Concepción, which is surrounded on all sides by the highway. When we arrived it was time to eat, but we were sick of the usual empanadas or sandwiches. So we asked a man for advice who started talking to us when he saw that we were tourists. He took us a few blocks away to a public parking lot where there was a small room with 3 tables in the corner. The man introduced us and we were welcomed like friends with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. There was a salad as a starter, 4 main courses to choose from and a fruit juice to go with it. We ordered fried fish with mayonnaise potatoes. Everything was delicious and freshly prepared. And all this for only 2500 CLP (a little less than 3 Euro) per person. When we left there was another hug and a lot of good advice before we went to Concepción.
From Concepción to Constitución
In Concepción we had the luck to be welcomed by the parents of our host in Coyhaique. They took the task very seriously and guided us through Concepción and Talcahue, the nearby port city. Afterwards they invited us to their favourite restaurant for fresh fish. On their recommendation we also tried a cocktail with seafood juice and cinnamon and seafood empanadas, in their opinion the best in all of Chile. The cocktail was a little strange, either one likes it or not, but with the empanadas we agreed that they were delicious. We were very spoiled by their attention, thank you very much!
After all these delicacies we had a lot of strength the next day. And this was necessary, because as to get into the city, there was only one highway to get out of the city. Besides, it was the first day (and luckily the only one during our whole stay on the coast) on which we didn’t get to see the sun. We drove through villages along the coast and later took a dirt road towards Coelemu, which took us a little further inland. We were hosted there by the volunteering fire department. We only asked for a quiet place to spread our mattresses on the ground. Finally we had super comfortable beds and access to kitchen and bathroom, shower included. We had often heard that bicycle travellers were hosted by the fire department, but we had not expected this comfort!
The next day in Cobquecura we saw seals on a rock in the sea. A little further on we pitched our tent in front of the Iglesia de Piedra, a huge rock on the beach hollowed out by the water, which was considered a sacred place in earlier times. Even today people still bring flowers and say their prayers. The further we went north, the more impressive the waves became and we saw the first surfers in Curanipe, where we stopped for lunch the next day. Also the villages gradually became more touristy, but we were still the only Europeans. In the evening we pitched our tent on the beach of Chanco, where we saw a group of men riding horses on the beach, while we enjoyed a beer at sunset.
When we returned to the village of Chanco the next day, we could understand why the riders of the previous day trained their horses with different exercises: It was the rodeo weekend in the village. When we passed by the arena we heard the music and curious as we are, we asked what was going on. We paid the 2.000 CLP entrance fee, because an opportunity like this might not come back. You could see riders in the arena circling around a calf without touching it. We didn’t understand the point of it, so we asked another visitor to explain the rules to us. Proud of the sport, he told us that 2 minutes on the horse was much more exhausting than a whole football match. We are not sure if this is true and we still did not understand the rules exactly. But it was a nice morning that brought us a little closer to the Chilean culture. When the lunch break for the riders and spectators came, we settled down in the cafeteria among the other spectators. The menu of the day: a good piece of beef in juice and Papas-Mayo (potato salad with mayonnaise). Saturated, we set off for Constitución.
From Constitución to the Valparaíso region
Constitución is not very big, so we just did a morning tour along the coast. The rock formations, especially the white Iglesia de Piedra, fascinated us. Until we learned that the white colour comes from the excrements of the birds that fly over these rocks all day long. We preferred to continue our way instead of approaching the rocks further. In the afternoon we continued north through the dunes and lagoons that separated us from the beach. At the end of the day we came across a small free camping site at the beach La Trinchera. There were a few brand new cabins, which unfortunately were all occupied. We inspected the place before we asked the caretaker if we could put up the tent somewhere nearby and use the toilets. As an answer he showed us one of the huts that was supposed to be free in the evening, we only had to wait until the people left. So we waited and talked to the Chileans who were just packing their stuff. In the end, they left us the rest of their meal: several pieces of Cordero asado (lamb cooked for a long time on the grill), potatoes and charcoal to warm up the legs of lamb and cook the potatoes. What a feast, this Cordero, we plastered everything and left only the bones to the stray dogs!
In the morning we had difficulties to leave this beautiful hut, only 2 weeks old. We made up many excuses to stay longer: repairing and cleaning the bikes, cleaning the tent, lunch… In the afternoon we had nothing more to do, so we sat back in the saddle. We drove comfortably along the beach to Iloca, where we sat down on a terrace by the sea for a freshly squeezed juice and ice cream. It was definitely a nice day to enjoy life without hurrying. Only in the evening we found ourselves in front of a huge cliff with a sandy gravel road. After a few kilometers of difficult uphill and a downhill that was as steep as the climb, we found ourselves in front of Lago Vichuquén. At the lake there were only big villas and pensioners. At the public beach of Paula, a small village, we pitched our tent between the reeds. We hoped we could hide a little, but the grandmothers, who were having their aperitif and midnight bath on the beach, surely noticed us. Fortunately they didn’t say anything and let us sleep peacefully.
After an exhausting morning of driving up and down a gravel road, we had our picnic break in Boyeruca. On the way we passed the salt works of Lo Valdivia. We stopped for a while to watch the workers, the salt ponds in the different stadiums and the salt mountains drying at the roadside. In Bucalemu we reached the sea again and we took a coffee break in a bakery. The owners seemed to have gone on holiday, as only young people were taking care of the shop. Matthieu started chatting with them, and while they served other customers, they even let us use the remote control of the TV. In the end, we stayed for more than an hour, and when we left, the waitress brought us a bag of fresh bread for the onward journey, and the baker gave us Cocadas (delicious chocolate and coconut balls) as dessert for dinner. Long live the Chilean hospitality!
Back on the road the sky was suddenly covered and as we got a little higher we could feel icy raindrops on our cheeks. The rain came rather from the side, between the trees, with quite strong gusts of wind. 5 minutes later it was all over and the sky opened up again. Was this a bad dream? Anyway, everything turned into a nice dream when the clouds opened the view to the downhill in front of us and the sea below. Down below we arrived in Cáhuil, where a big beach was waiting for us. We drank an aperitif by the water before settling down in a small restaurant in the village to try Pastel de Jaiba, a kind of seafood stew covered with melted cheese. We could not imagine that seafood and melted cheese are good together, but it was a pure treat!
After another quiet night on the beach we arrived in Pichilemu, the surfing capital of the world (at least there was a sign saying so). We ate fried fish in a small Cocinería before watching the surfers on the beach. But there were only 2-3 of them in the waves, and they didn’t stay very long. Maybe it was not the right time of day? In any case we didn’t have time to wait, we still had a long route and a small mountain pass ahead of us. As we went further inland, we discovered huge canyons on both sides of the road (a little taste of the national parks of the USA). After a nice descent to Rapel de Navidad (yes, it reminded us of Christmas and yes, we made some not funny jokes…), we settled down at the edge of the Rio Rapel.
In the morning we dared to swim in the river, despite the huge fish that approached us at less than a meter. Too bad we didn’t have a fishing rod in our luggage, that would have made a good lunch. Instead we had to be content with a little picnic on the roadside in the middle of nowhere. In the afternoon we arrived in San Antonio, the biggest harbour in Chile. We did not like this city at all, luckily we only had to cross it. The villages afterwards were more beautiful and quiet. We could pitch our tent on a piece of sand hidden between rocks in El Tabo to enjoy a last sunset at the sea (and it was probably the most beautiful of the journey so far). The next day we wanted to arrive in Valparaíso!
Valparaíso and its surroundings
In a small village shortly before Valparaíso we wanted to rest a little before we took the motorway for the last kilometres to the city. We were still looking for the ideal place when a man approached us and asked us if we were the French cyclists who had contacted him through Couchsurfing. We replied that we were in contact with someone from Couchsurfing, but in Valparaíso. So we sat down with our drinks in the main square while we discussed where exactly our host from Couchsurfing lived. When we checked the profile again we found out that the host had mentioned Valparaíso in his profile, but further down he had noted that he lived in Placilla, 15 km from Valparaíso. “Oh dear, 15 km is a long way to visit the city… And where is Placilla?” Actually, it was the town we were in… But the man who spoke to us before didn’t fit at all to the photo, it couldn’t be him, but the coincidence that he also expected a couple of cyclists, even from France (the profile of Matthieu indicates France) was just crazy. When we later arrived at our host’s house, we found out that it was really him: on Couchsurfing it was the picture of the son, but he lived with his parents, and we had already met the father! They scoffed us for quite a long time at the beginning, but they still gave us a warm welcome, so we even stayed longer than planned. We hadn’t had a day off for a long time, so we slept late, watched the many pets of the family (a dog, a cat and even a pair of peacocks) and went for a walk at Tranque de la Luz, a small lake in the forest near the village.
After a well-deserved break, we finally set off to explore Valparaíso. The city is built on the mountains by the sea, so we decided to visit it on foot to avoid the super steep slopes and stairs by bike. We strolled through the Cerros (the mountains of the city), which are covered with houses up to the tops, to discover the colorful murals on every corner and enjoy the different views of the city and the sea. We passed the main square with the magnificent building of the Armada de Chile to finish our sightseeing tour in the harbour. We rested our legs a little, we were not used anymore to walk so far before we returned home. On the second day we visited the cultural center of Valparaíso, which is located within the walls of a former prison. There we ate some delicious tortillas for lunch before we got on our bikes and drove to Viña del Mar, a coastal town a little further north of Valparaíso. Already from the distance we saw the big hotels at the sea, the umbrellas and towels that did not leave a single square centimeter free at the beach. This is not our style at all, so we only stayed there for a few minutes before we drove further into the heartland. As we drove through the city, we came across the museum of decorative arts in a small palace. It was free, so we did a short tour before we enjoyed some delicious pieces of cake in the museum’s café. This reconciled us a little with Viña del Mar before we left the coast towards the capital Santiago de Chile.
What we liked:
- Learning about the life of the native people, the Mapuche
- The authenticity of the country and the few European tourists
- The aperitifs and nights on the beach
- The sun that accompanied us every day
- The colourful city of Valparaíso
To see the photos: