©2019 by Jelle.

Carretera Austral (Southern Highway)

7/2/2020

After cycling in the pouring rain for hours and hour, we finally reached the village of Villa Santa Lucía. The carretera austral passes through this village so this was the village where we could turn onto ths road that we’ve been looking forward to for a long time. We were soaking wet, but nevertheless happy to arrive and pose for the first sign where the route is mentioned. I have heard so many positive stories about this Southern route, so it was a quite memorable moment for us.

 

Happy!

 

The atmosphere in the village was special. A couple of years ago, a devastating mudslide took away the lives of twenty-two villagers. They were taken by surprise in the middle of the night and it was too late to flee. The damage was still clearly visible, as if it has happened only a couple of months ago. Some of the debris was left untouched, the mud was still there, and a painfully simple monument had been put in the middle of it all. It’s hard to comprehend the impact of such an event on the community of only a couple of hundred villagers.

 

The monument

 

Despite the small scale of this village, multiple hostels can be found. These hostels automatically fill up with wet cyclists on rainy days, as was the case when we arrived there. We were with six cyclist in a simple hostel but it was good enough. We could dry our clothes in the living room that was heated by a wood stove that everybody possesses in this region. This is a perfect way to check if there is anybody home, just check whether smoke comes out of the chimney. We left the following morning and did our first stretch on the Carretera austral. The weather forecast was positive, they showed that it should stay dry for the day with only some negligible showers every now and then.

 

Fresh fallen snow

 

The first couple of days on this austral route were not very sunny, but nevertheless very beautiful. We cycled through tropical environments in which rain cannot be absent. We passed through one or two tiny villages every day, so it was easy for us to stock up with the essentials. The only thing that is a bit harder to get, is fresh products. Many miles have to be covered to reach this region, so it’s hard to keep it fresh. Unless… the fresh product comes from the own region of course. For example, we cycled through a sleepy fishing village called Puyuhuapi, which borders a beautiful fjord. There is a small fishing industry here, so it’s not hard to get a fresh catch of the day, consisting of trout or salmon. The views were, once again, spectacular:

 

 

 

 

 

After twelve days of cycling, we arrived in the city of Coyhaique, the biggest city along the carretera austral.

 

Coyhaique in sight! What a huge city!

 

It’s strange to cycle on this remote road for days before arriving in this big city with 50.000 inhabitants. You wonder how this city is being supplied and where everybody comes from. We took two rest days here and used the opportunity to stock-up food for the next stretch. I also bought a rod, because the rivers and lakes are apparently full of fish. ‘You have to be extremely bad at fishing if you don’t catch anything’, is what I heard. Well… Let’s see about that. From Coyhaique, it’s about 550 kilometers more until the end of the route, of which the last 450 are unpaved.

 

We could enjoy the paved road for a tiny bit more before we had to cycle without it for a week and a half. Cycling on unpaved roads was not new for us. We gained quite some experience in the previous weeks, in which we have been unpleasantly surprised multiple times by paved roads that suddenly became unpaved. You just have to lower the tire pressure (which is easy to regulate with the giant pump that I’m carrying with me since Mexico) and change your mindset. Our bicycles and gear is not well suited for off-road cycling, so you’re not advancing much more than 10 km/hour (often less!), which can be quite frustrating.

 

The last day of asphalt!

 

Including a nice descent.

End of the pavement in 200...

100...

Game over! For the next 500 k's

 

We passed a big road construction area just after the section where the carretera austral became unpaved. This section was 15 kilometers and we read beforehand that it would close between 01:00 PM and 05:00 PM, we did not want to miss the boat so we left early to pass the entrance on time.

 

After cycling within this road construction Walhalla for about ten of the fifteen kilometers, we had to stop anyway. They are expanding the width of the road, and the only way of doing so on a road that bypasses huge rocks, is by blowing up the roads. The candy (dynamite) had been installed already, so there was no other option than to wait. We decided to have a big lunch to kill some time. We were wondering whether we could hear the explosion from where we were having lunch, and the answer was loud and clear. We heard an incredibly loud explosion, followed by a cloud of dust that arose in the air.

 

The risk had been blown up, so we could cycle a bit further until we reached the stretch where the explosion had taken place. Massive pieces of rock where still blocking the road, and big yellow shovels were already busy with clearing the road in order to open it again at 05:00 PM. We had the honor to be the first one to pass and to breath all the dust from the line of traffic coming from the other direction.

 

 

 

The days that followed were challenging and stunning. We cycled passed Chile’s biggest lake, Lago General Carera. If you’re cycling there, you have no idea about the size of everything around you. It was not uncommon to see mountains on the other side of the lake that were sixty kilometers away. For someone from the Netherland, that is pretty amazing. We camping right next to this lake and I immediately tried my rod. Apparently, I’m extremely bad a fishing. The next day, we camped next to another lake that is in direct connection with that big lake. For my father and me, this was one of the most incredible camp spots that we ever had, right next to a turquoise blue lake with glaciars and snow-peaked mountains in the background. Insane.

 

Lago General Carera in the background

 

 Which we passed earlier

Fishing with a view

 

A couple of days later, we reached the village of Cochrane, the last place with good facilities before the stretch to the final destination, Villa O’Higgins. We treated ourselves with an ice-cold beer from a local brewery, and we ate something else than the pasta with tomato sauce that we have every day. We lack some inspiration and/or creativity when it comes to camp meals, so suggestions are definitely welcome.

 

We piled up for the last stretch

 

It was about three-and-a-half days more to Villa O’Higgins. We started early on the second day, in order to arrive on time for the ferry that leaves from Puerto Yungay. There is currently no road connection from this place (there will be one by 2028!), so the ferry is the only option that we had. This ferry is operated by the Chilean army and is free. We arrived on time, but soaking wet again. It has been a very tough day again, especially for my father. He has a strong mindsett, but rain is not his thing. Especially when it comes hand in hand with a steep, unpaved, climb. It felt like we were climbing our ways through a rain forest, it was actually pretty cool if you think about it in hindsight.  

 

Who'll stop the rain?

 

We arrived way too early in the harbor, so we turned the waiting room into our temporal living room. We put on some dry clothes and we made a nice hot cup of coffee. We were later joined by two cyclists that arrived after us, a couple from Sweden and France.

 

It started raining heavily again when we were on the ferry, but we could luckily sit inside a taxi van. It was really warm and comfortable inside, but it was time to get out again once we reached the other side of the fjord at Rio Bravo. There was another waiting room on this side. Like many cyclist before us, we could use this waiting room as a refuge for the night, there was even a toilet inside! Besides the Swedish-French couple, we were joined by a Chilean duo coming from the South. Pretty cosy to sleep in this small waiting room with six people.

 

 

 

 

 

What followed was a very tough day with many climbs, often steep. My father can do almost all the climbs on his bicycle, but he had to get off many times that day. His legs felt tired and his energy level was not the same as a couple of days ago. Continuously getting off the bike to push it is both frustrating and costs a lot of energy. Tears filled up his eyes when he reached the top of the last one of the day, what a relieve! As if we were being rewarded for the accomplishment of this mission, the clouds disappeared, the sun came out, we had the wind from behind and the road became flat. We ended that day in hut that was built especially for passing cyclists as a refuge. The stove was already on when we arrived, so we had a comfortable hut for ourselves! From here, there were only 32 kilometers to go until the end.

 

Nice and comfortable in our hut

 

The first 25 kilometers went pretty smooth, but the road became pretty shitty during the last seven. We couldn’t be bothered, we were excited about reaching Villa O’Higgins. The ambiance in this village is unique and it felt like we arrived at the end of the world.

 

Welcome in Villa O'Higgins!

 

We camped out many times again, so we treated ourselves with a bed in a hostel. We also ate too much pasta again, so we treated ourselves with fries and a fresh piece of salmon (still didn’t catch it myself).

 

The official end point of the carretera austral is actually not in Villa O’Higgins, but eight kilometers further ahead at Puerto Bahamóndez. You have to take another ferry from here if you want to return to Argentina, there are no road connections so this ferry is the only option. These connections are provided by two companies and it occurs frequently that the boat trip has to bee postponed or canceled due to heavy winds. This was the case for us, too. We had a reservation for a Monday morning, but this was delayed by one day because of the wind. We didn’t really mind. This gave us an extra day to rest (which we really appreciated).  

 

The ferry left at 08:00 AM on a Tuesday morning, but we cycled to the dock of the bay on Monday evening already, as we didn’t want to miss the boat. The last eight kilometers were very easy and beautiful, mother nature treated us with rainbows. We finally reached the official end of the carretera austral here, and we proudly posed in front of the two sings that mark the end of the route. The route has been incredibly beautiful, in which we cycled passed lakes, snow-peaked mountians and/or glaciars on a daily basis. We will probably be spoiled for the rest of our lives! It has been really challenging, but it’s been worth the effort. I didn’t discuss this opinion with my father but I’m sure that he thinks the same. I think that the pictures provide enough evidence.

 

 

 Another bucket list item completed!

 

In my next blog, I will write about the (logistically) complicated way of getting back to Argentina and the beautiful continuation. Too many adventures in too little time!

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