We arrive in Coyhaique a few days before Christmas. The same Warm Showers host family where we stayed 1.5 months ago invited us to stay with them again. In fact, if they leave on holiday three days later, we can stay in the house as long as we want. We could use that! On an A4 sheet of paper we make a long to-do list in the categories: rest, act like a tourist (museum) and leave with clean clothes, checked bicycles, full panniers, posted blogs, full stomachs, supplemented vitamins and so on. . On day two, Paul isn’t feeling well. He is becoming increasingly miserable and it is clear that he has caught the prevailing stomach flu. For five days he moves between bed, couch and toilet. I cross a few things off our list, but I mainly use that time to devour books on the couch, watch cyclo-cross World Cup races (they are not exciting because Mathieu van der Poel wins them all by a large margin) and take care of Paul. But even my home-baked peanut cookies that he normally likes are not appealing to him these days. He’s really not well!
When Paul finally gets his appetite back, we make up for the missed Christmas holidays. I bake breads, cookies and pizzas and Paul cooks some delicious meals and puts together festive experimental desserts from cornmeal and cherries. He is a top chef! I have never eaten so well on a cycling trip!
On January 2 we will get on our bikes again. All items on our to-do list have been checked off! During our rest, the Patagonian summer seems to have really begun. In a t-shirt and shorts we cycle away from the house that was our home for a week and a half. We leave behind something tasty and a cleaned house as a thank you. And then, we are really ready for the second half of the Carretera Austral. New territory! Yoohoo!
The northern half of the Carretera Austral is largely asphalted. Yet we start, by choice, with a tough unpaved stage. In the relatively short time that we were away, nature blossomed. Seas of purple flowers cover hills and roadsides. It’s a beautiful sight. We camp in just the inner tent on a river and from a frog’s perspective we see the long purple and white flowers, the blue sky with a single cloud and hear the babbling of the river where our tent is located tonight.
This is the high season of the Carretera Austral and we will know that too! Every day we count the cyclists we encounter. At least 10 a day, once even more than 20! Some on rented bicycles, sometimes with far too tight a deadline for the distance they want to travel. They have often discovered this themselves and laugh like a farmer with a toothache when they tell them that their plane will depart from Puerto Natales, for example, in a week and a half. Our mouths then drop open. A mere 1300km? In some areas this may be feasible for the trained cyclist. But on the Carretera Austral? Because we have already cycled the route from Coyhaique in two directions, we can often provide them with advice. We also meet some seasoned cyclists who have been on their bikes for a lot longer than us. One of them recognizes me: ‘You’re Hera from Instagram, right?’
Day 4 back on the bike we arrive at Lago (lake) las Torres. There is a kind of parking / picnic area from where we can enter the water. We decide to pitch our tent on the edge of the site under some trees. Rain is forecast for that night and a canopy of leaves provides some shelter when going in and out of the tent. The tent is placed exactly in a shallow ‘hole’, but we haven’t had any heavy rain here in all this time, so don’t worry.
Until now I have always washed myself using a bottle of water or some splashing at the water’s edge. Paul has already gone under in a river several times. I don’t understand how he can stand the cold! Today, however, the sun is shining and the water is crystal clear. I would like to get over my fear and splash in the water too. Paul sets a good example, but from his reaction I can tell that the water is stone cold. A little later he is encouraging me like a real coach. I grit my teeth… and take a dip! Glowing glowing… how cold that is! Now back to shore, lather with nature-friendly soap and then take another dip to rinse off. The coach stands ready on the shore with a towel (and camera). Once dried off, I stand proudly on a large stone at the edge of the water. It is wonderful in the sun and gentle wind. And now I am really clean.
Three more campers stop at the ‘parking lot’ to spend the night. Everyone is assured of a high and dry stay. But we have the most beautiful spot! In the early morning hours I hear the rain tapping on the tent. I fall asleep again and then wake up every time Paul turns over. Is his mat pressed against mine? Every time he moves, my mat moves too. It seems more and more strange to me. It looks like a waterbed. Wait a second… I unzip the inner tent… and sure enough, we are standing in a puddle at least 10cm deep. My things float through the vestibule, my shoes, the bag with my guitalele. And we too float on our mats! In the tent, everything on the ‘ground’ appears to be soaked. I wake Paul. He too can suddenly explain the heaving sensation. There is little left to save, but at least we can move things. We wring out clothes, dry the mats and move the tent as a whole. I lift the bag with my guitalele, which feels way too heavy… I hold my breath as I open it. To my great relief, the guitalele itself turns out to be only slightly damp, thanks to the cover and lots of bubble wrap. However, a large splash of water comes out of the bag when I turn it over. It’s time for this bag to be retired. It has served me for a long time on my travels, but now it is gone!
As soon as the rain starts to drizzle, we pack up and cycle to the next village. When we arrive there the sun breaks through. We display all our wet belongings on the village square and fill the playground equipment with clothing. It looks like a flea market for outdoor sports equipment. On the square we meet two French women who are also on their bikes. They started in the south and have a similar route planned as us. Just like us, they want to deviate from the Austral and take the boat in Puerto Cisnes for an 8-hour trip to Puerto Raoul Marin Balmaceda. When it starts to drizzle again, our things are squeaky clean. We quickly pack them up and roll to a coffee shop with WiFi that the ladies recommend to us. We want to look up some things online for our planning. I give Paul the (too) expensive coffee and don’t take anything myself. Only then does the Wi-Fi appear not to work. “Did we buy that expensive coffee for nothing?”… It is not the first time this has happened. Fortunately, it is tasty and the Wi-Fi comes back to life in the nick of time.
It turns out that we are well in advance of the next boat. That is why we decide to have a rest day in nature. Just before our intended wild camping spot, however, we pass an eco-campsite with a cozy general area / restaurant and canopies to place the tent. I inquire about the price, 9000 pesos per person. When I say that it is too pricey for us, the best man makes an offer: cyclists are 2 for the price of 1!! Paul immediately turns around and I go to find a nice dry spot for the tent while he continues to chat with three other bicycle travelers about derailleur, hubs and frame stiffness in the warm refuge. The next day it is dry and Paul and I decide to stay and take the planned walk. We follow the yellow paint dots into the forest while we hear a river rushing nearby. Every now and then we can take a look at it. The camping dog, Negra, has joined us.
Paul wins the heart of every dog we meet. Unlike me, they are allowed to walk right through his outdoor kitchen and squeeze onto his lap while he tries to cut vegetables. Paul himself almost starts wagging his tail.
My walking sticks (also in my bag) help me get on and off to take the strain off my knees. I love being able to ‘hike’ once in a while. We follow the beautiful route for an hour. I enjoy it to the fullest. Away from the road, away from any traffic. Only when we arrive do we know what the end point of this walk is, a beautiful sandy beach on a calm ‘bay’ of the river. We imagine ourselves in the earthly paradise and moments later jump completely naked into the cold water like a real Adam and Eve. While we let ourselves air dry, Negra also plays along and imagines herself in a paradise where every stick belongs to her. She retrieves the sticks from the water like a mad dog. In her vain attempts to bury them she manages to splash us with mud again and again. It doesn’t matter. What a wonderful outing, just unexpected!
Two days later our alarm goes off in Puerto Cisnes. We are looking forward to the boat trip, it should be beautiful! However, when we arrive at the strangely deserted jetty, the French people walk towards us. They look dejected. ‘The ferry is late’ they say… ‘8 hours’! I place at 9am the ferry will leave at 5pm. There goes our beautiful boat trip in broad daylight. With this departure time we will arrive at Puerto Raoul Marin Balmaceda around 2am. Hey, what a shame! We kill time in the library and the park.
Around 6:00 PM the anchor is finally lifted and we can enjoy the trip on the water for a while. While Spanish-language science fiction films continue to blare from the big screens and speakers even after sunset, I try to stretch out and rest on some chairs. I put in my wax earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones over them and a sleeping mask over my eyes (I’m quite sensitive to stimuli…). When I get over the overstimulation around 0:00 and I don’t know what to do anymore, I ask a ‘sailor’ if I can please turn off the lights and turn the TV down a bit, por favor! That turns out to be no problem at all and he resolutely pulls the plug. Apparently the asking customer is king here. I exhale with relief.
At night we moor in PRMB. The French and we cycle directly from the jetty onto a path towards the beach. Paul and I set up our tent at the first beach entrance, the ladies cycle a bit further. I sleep a lot in the morning and when I wake up Paul already has breakfast ready. I can easily sit down on the yoga mat on the beach for a pan of delicious oatmeal porridge with fruit and a cup of tea. We are pleasantly surprised now that we see the area in daylight. It is a beautiful bay! During breakfast we see seals surfacing and blowing. Their long wet whiskers twitch. When we walk on the beach a little later we see some dolphins diving and little penguins swimming. Another earthly paradise! How spoiled we are.
That afternoon we rent a canoe. We paddle through the large bay for three hours. Most marine animals are found on the islands. Compared to the show that the penguins, seals and dolphins gave us this morning, it was a bit disappointing. Then suddenly we hear a roar coming from some distance away. I have little confidence in it anymore and I paddled tired, but Paul wants to go. We’re in a two-person canoe… so I’m coming along. When we get close to the rock we suddenly see them. A group of seals… small, large and very large. We can admire them up close without disturbing them, it seems. After our second passage, however, the ‘man of the rock’ straightens up and looks at us. His imposing stature quickly makes us decide to take some distance again. What a meeting! After paddling tired, we moor again a little later and hand in our canoe.
We cycle another round through the calm, atmospheric village, made up of weathered low wooden houses. We have now understood that camping on the beach is prohibited… so we look for a slightly more sheltered spot for this evening at what appears to be a rarely used beach entrance. We only hear voices once that evening, when we are already in the tent. The next day it turns out to have been the French women who took a late walk to see the sunset. It is sparsely littered here with freebooters like us.
We say hello to the ladies at the supermarket in the village. Perhaps we will meet each other along the way in the coming days. When we arrive half an hour later at the ferry that will take us across the river, the ladies are sitting there on the beach. The ferryman has a break between 12:00 and 15:00, more than two hours. It is a beautiful spot, but we would have preferred to cycle further. It is only a narrow river, we can ‘almost touch’ the other side, but we will still have to wait. We have lunch on the beach and practice killing horseflies, those nasty gray gadflies. A technique that we better refine down to the last detail remains to be seen. They also buzz around you endlessly and crawl under your sunglasses. Their sting is nasty, but fortunately not itchy.
Normally I don’t like killing insects, but I’ve lowered my bar for now. I am currently reading the book ‘Animal Liberation NOW’. The 2023 revised version of the 1975 book by Australian philosopher Peter Singer. The book was soon seen as ‘the bible of the animal rights movement’. The basic idea is that animals, based on their ability to experience and feel (pain, desire, pleasure, etc.), also have the right to have those feelings taken into account (very briefly summarized). Although you could say that this book aims to treat animals more respectfully, it has actually given me some space to kill nasty biting flies. Research shows that (most) insects have no feeling. That’s a relief… because the gadflies are falling in droves here! Still, a fly helplessly kicking on its back remains an unpleasant sight… I’d rather not make a habit of it.
In the days that follow, rain and sun alternate. In a village we take refuge in a nice local coffee and eatery. It is cozy and homely furnished. The coffee only costs 1000 pesos (one euro), so we order two this time. For me one with powdered milk. I put the phone on the charger next to the table. Then the woman shouts ‘Use electricity: 500 pesos per fifteen minutes!’ Disappointed, I unplug again. When Paul walks to the toilet, he is also shouted at: ‘Toilet use 500 pesos!’ He has to be needed, so alla. When we pay a little later, the two scoops of powdered milk in my coffee appear to double the price. What seemed to us to be a nice local restaurant ‘finally’ turns out to be a trap where you have to pay for every fart. Then give us a coffee twice as expensive with friendly staff and the toilet included.
We set off again with our rain gear on. A long climb lies ahead of us. Almost at the top it suddenly starts to look really bad. We take refuge under the roof of a hotel. Now I really need to pee. That doesn’t seem appropriate here next to the building, so I knock and ask the owner. He looks at my wet clothes for a moment but then kindly shows me the toilet. ‘Look, it can be done this way!’ I think. When I walk back and thank him, his response is: ‘1000 pesos’. My jaw drops. If my Spanish had been better I might have given him a subtle retort for this sour mustard after the meal. Now I just walk to Paul to get a 1000 note from his wallet. We are done with this money grab for a while. Even if it only concerns ‘little bits’ financially, the way things are going doesn’t feel good.
When the rain subsides a bit, we cycle the last meters to the top. We have already dressed warmly for the descent that is to come. At the bottom of the slope I see the French bicycles standing at a bus shelter. They have decided to pitch their tent there tonight. We drive a little further and stop at a shelter at the start of a walking route. The start of the route runs over ramps and looks beautiful. Like walking through a dense rainforest, but fresher. Paul and I curiously cycle onto the ramps. When this turns into a forest path, we decide to continue on foot. It is so beautiful. We walk in our cycling shoes, still in cycling and rain gear. The path becomes increasingly difficult to navigate and our cycling shoes get soaked, but our curiosity about the destination grows. Especially when a number of oncoming drivers tell us that the view of a beautiful glacier awaits us. So we continue walking, over fallen trees, slippery roots and large boulders. Suddenly there is an open plain in front of us with a river meandering through it. High above we see the source, a beautiful gray-blue glacier. What a luck! Two beautiful walks in a few days!
By now our stomachs are growling and our legs are starting to wobble a bit. We take it easy, so as not to make a mistake, we walk back to the bikes. We hang our wet clothes to dry under the roof in vain, but luckily we are dry ourselves.
The next morning, just as we push our bikes onto the road, the French pass by. It’s rainy weather. We decide to drive towards our destination in train information against the rain and wind. We take turns doing a few kilometers of head work. In places three and four you zoom along almost effortlessly. I love how you can cycle the same pace with much less effort. I can often take advantage of it behind Paul’s broad back. I also enjoy doing head work myself. The rest will have to accept that we may go a little slower. However, what can frustrate me extremely is doing head work for someone who does not benefit from it. If you leave a distance of one meter between the rear and front wheels, there will be little gain left and you will both have to brave the wind. Then I think: ‘I’m not cycling here for Jan Snot the leplazarus!’ But of course, not everyone is comfortable with almost hitting the wheel of the vehicle in front…
Ultimately we drive into Chaiten in a relatively short time. The ladies take refuge in a warm hostel. Paul and I move into a camping field with a messy refugio with a wood stove. We heat it up a lot and hang all our wet goods to dry on the already stretched lines. We chat with Alex, a geography student, who asks us about Europe. He is particularly interested in the East because, he says, he sees enough about the West on TV and online. His eagerness to learn is infectious and a fun conversation ensues full of mutual questions and answers.
The next morning we have tea with the French people in the hostel. They stay there another night. We cycle away in the afternoon for a short ride so that we can camp right in front of a National Park. Wild camping is prohibited in the parks and a campsite costs 16,000 pesos per person. More than 16 euros. Since we left Coyhaique 13 days earlier, we have been wild camping at a lake or river every night. However, we were unable to find a nice spot today. So we cycle into the park and hide well. If we climb a bit up an old neglected path, we find a spot where something can be made of it. Meanwhile, the afternoon has arrived and the mosquito population is increasing. Paul cooks, sitting in the tent on the stove outside the tent. Open the zipper, close the zipper, open the zipper, close the zipper. When we then lie in the tent and listen to an audio book, we see through the gauze how the mosquito army is steadily expanding. In the end there are so incredibly many that it makes us both feel somewhat claustrophobic. Suppose we had to leave the tent now!!! They would suck the life out of us, there are so many of them! We hold our pee until it feels safe to go outside in the middle of the night. Still, I can’t get away without a mosquito bite in my behind.
The next morning we ride with a time limit. Another ferry leaves at 1:00 PM. This boat is mandatory for anyone who rides the Carretera Austral. There is no alternative. When we arrive, there are about 15 cars waiting and one other cyclist is waiting on the quay. His name is Greg and he is from Montana. He is clearly several years older than us, but I am surprised when he says he is almost 70. He is such a man with many stories, who has already lived several lives in this one life. He was a ranger in Glacier National Park, built a house for the king of Bhutan in Bhutan and travels through the United States to tell children in primary schools stories about ‘things he finds important’. He tells one story dressed as a character and it is about the extermination of an indigenous tribe. When I ask him about the content, he treats us on the spot to an interpretation of the story, in character! As can be expected from a colorful man like him, he falls head over heels for Giraf. When we get off the boat in Hornopiren we part ways. We go to a Casa de Ciclistas, he to a ‘bike friendly’ hostel. What that means is still a mystery to us. Double portion of breakfast? Bicycle cleaning service? A bicycle rack? A coffee date with Greg the next morning unfortunately falls through… he is not completely up to date when it comes to mobile communications, he already warned. We hope to meet him during our drive north. We have already heard via email that he is now also traveling with a plush traveling companion: ‘Bunny’.
When we leave Hornopiren, only one more day of cycling awaits us on the Austral. Still, we decide to take an alternative route. The Austral has become a bit too busy for our taste and there seems to be a much more interesting road along the coast. 52km with the promise of authentic fishing villages and boat building. We will not be disappointed! Fishing village after fishing village follows one another. When we buy two Chilean flags for our bicycles at a shop (the Argentinian one has been hanging on it for a long time), the owner offers us raspberries and berries from his own garden to taste. He ducks inside and grabs some delicious broad beans and peas (capuchins?) for us from his wife’s pan. I’m screaming with excitement! It is all delicious and even more wonderful is the cordiality of this gentleman who wants us to taste it all. As we cycle further, a little later his daughter is standing next to the road with a whole bag of berries from her garden and a few branches of delicious fresh mint for us.
We camp on the beach, sheltered behind a few bushes. The next day we indeed pass yards and backyards, where boats in all stages of construction can be found. Impressive to see how such a large object full of curves is built of wood. What craftsmanship! We often see the colorful end products lying on dry land, waiting for high tide to go out with their captain.
We continue on the Austral for another 12km. However, we do not take the ferry to La Arena from where the last 50km of the Austral unfurls. We don’t feel the need to end this one in the city, Puerto Montt. Instead we turn right onto the gravel. We leave the iconic road that was our guide for more than 1.5 months behind us. It’s been nice. Together we have already looked over the map and made plans for what comes next. But I’ll write about that next time…