So we finally managed to tear ourselves away from our Warmshower host Miguel and the mountains and set of once again just the two of us. A few pit stops on the way out of town had us a chance meeting with a guy who had met the Brazilians 4 days previously, he told us how much progress they had made and put any false hope of us catching them soundly to bed. They were most definitely in Chile by now and a long way ahead of us.
It was nice to be riding as a twosome again but we did find ourselves wondering what the boys were up to on countless occasions, wondering where they had spent the night on this part of the trip and weather we would find any clues as to where they had ventured. Our route took us through the 7 lakes, a gem of Patagonia so it is described, and although is stunning it didn’t have the draw that the Carretera Austral had over us, maybe it was the perfectly smooth tarmac road that meant we were merely passing through the area rather than actively riding it as we had to do on the ripio. Still the riding was pleasant, almost easy, so much so that we reached our first nights camp spot without realising it.
The joy of this stretch of roads was the camping, like the riding it was super easy to find great spots to pitch the tent for the night, and with the first days great progress Jess almost committed to a full swim, instead she opted to a more hopping type stroke that as a swim teacher I could not count as legitimate swimming, sorry Jess you still haven’t had a wild swim in South America!
Our second night was at a couch surfer’s, this is like warm-showers but you don’t have to be a cyclist. Pedro was our host and he was gracious enough to give us a mattress in his amazing cabin in the woods. He even provided beer and a BBQ, perfect end to some great riding. The 7 lakes road wasn’t all easy going and it did throw some testy little climbs at us, couple this with the great weather we have been having and you have yourself two sweaty cyclists, luckily some road side streams made for a refreshing pit stop.
From here it was into San Martin and after two days of gradually going uphill we were rewarded with a nice 17km downhill where I didn’t need to touch the pedals, I did touch the pedals of course because faster is always better, but, if I had felt like it I could have free wheeled the entirety of it. Tonight also saw us bare witness to the less glamorous side of cycle touring. Rather than struggling with which idyllic spot to pitch our tent for the best views of the mountains for sunset or which spot offers the best view over the lake; today saw us trying to find a spot that smelt least of urine. It’s not all fun and games this cycling malarkey.
It was from here that our route came somewhat uncertain. Since dreaming up the trip I have always known roughly that I wanted to vaguely take the route we have, now though, now we are completely winging it. We heard that there was some pretty cool volcanoes in Chile so thought why not get another stamp in the passport and once again cross the Andes. We immediately regretted this decision after cycling for 75km into a head wind, the only silver lining being the impressive views we had of Volcan Lanin.
The trouble with active volcanoes is their habit to erupt, now this volcano didn’t erupt while we were cycling but evidence that it is very much still alive and kicking is all over the road, infact the road was like cycling through a sandpit, only cooler because instead of sand it was volcanic ash, cooler yes, but no easier to ride in. Luckily the ash road was only a mere 12km and being British we found a queue to get in about a km from the end. After spending a good hour in this queue it turned out as cyclist we were exempt form having to stand in this queue with the other road users, nice of them to tell us once we made it to the end. We quickly checked out of Argentina and rolled into Chile on a near perfect ribbon of tarmac, best of all it was all downhill. The damned headwind was still there but was now barely a problem.
We made it to Pucon today, the town famous for being able to climb the one of the many Volcanoes that are spread around the area. Upon further question we were unable to climb the volcano over the next few days for differing reasons, the most prevalent being that it was smoking more than usual so did not want to take tourists up, however they were confident that within a day or so it would be fine… I wasn’t convinced, no smoke without and fire and all that. We decided that rather than wait around at the foot of a volcano that was ‘smoking more than usual’ we would push on for the next town and check about hiking conditions when there, this would also fit in nicely with my Birthday, what cooler way to turn 28 than hiking on a volcano that could erupt. We left Pucon and cowboy camped by the lake, we thought this would be a safe place should molten magma come cascading down, our plan was to use our sleeping mats as lilos, to make our escape even more efficient we opted to sleep under the stars rather than pitch a tent!
We awoke to no magma and made it to Villarrica where we hoped to enquire about the Volcano. This town didn’t have the same motivation it seems to make the most of the towering Volcano and it took some effort to find any tour companies, never mind ones that offered volcano trekking. The ones that did offer trekking refused to take us, with limited Spanish we are still not sure why but it did put an end to my idea of spending my 28th looking into the crater of a bubbling volcano.
With the volcano trekking off we were once again at a loss of which way to go, knowing we need to start making some real headway through this continent it was becoming apparent that at some point we were going have to stop our aimless wandering and start putting some good KM in a straight line. My birthday was not to be that day though and I was adamant that we were not going to sit on a main highway so the back roads it was. Although more scenic and quieter than the main roads these back roads offered some of the toughest climbing to date. Long, steep and of horrendous quality we found our progress to be demoralising and slow. The next few days we did our upmost to make these roads work but slowly we were starting to realise that even with average days of 75km we were not making enough progress and the riding was brutal, we were running ourselves into the ground, something had to change and with this realisation we hopped on route 5, in the UK this would be called a motorway! Out here bicycles are allowed on these roads and the huge shoulder on the side in some ways makes it safer than the smaller roads we were negotiating earlier in the trip. For the next few dull days we sat and churned out some big miles in order to take us back to Argentina and onwards to Brazil, the highlight of our days being the service stations and the occasional piece of road kill we had to avoid!
We finally got off route 5 but the road still was not offering me any form of stimulation and I began asking myself what it was we were doing, we were cycling for cycling’s sake, the views are dull and the roads are full of lorries and busses. We have a big choice ahead of us regarding getting to Brazil, do we carry on, on these dull busy roads or do we try an alternative, hitch maybe, so that we can spend more time on scenic roads…
The visual stimulation I was after has been met. We left our nights accommodation and set out for the border crossing, our route took us through a national park and my god did it deliver on a non boring, challenging route. For the past few days I have been riding my bike on the moon. Ok so it wasn’t the moon but it damned sure looked like the pictures I’ve seen of the moon, all accept the giant lake we were riding around and the snow capped volcano that towered over our every pedal stroke, other than that I could have been on the moon. The road started with a challenging climb on deteriorating roads that on more than one occasion had my bike bucking me sideways as it lost traction on off camber washboard corners. We finally arrived at an out of season ski town at the foot of Volcano Antuco. The road, if you can call it that, followed a lake from this point, chance to get some good distance in before we set up camp.
We were wrong, so very, very wrong. The road deteriated into nothing more than car tracks through ankle deep volcanic ash, for the next 30km we fought for every meter, we would ride for maybe 50m before being engulfed in soft deep ash where we would push until firmer ground to repeat the ritual. As the day wore on the hills seemed to get steeper and the road softer, in section it took both of us to push one bike up a hill. By the time we could see border control we were finished, taking refuge from the wind in a forest by an army barracks, there we gave in for the night.
The next day the road seemed ridable, maybe tired legs had increased the overall difficulty towards the end of the yesterdays efforts. We managed to make it a whole KM with barely any steps, we had also finally been gifted the fabled tail wind. Four months we have been waiting for this and today we had it. We checked out of Chile and zipped along the next 15km of ups and downs, the wind making it a pleasure to ride. All to soon though our run of fortune with the wind was coming to an end, the road began a slow bend and before we knew it the wind was now pushing us into the soft verges that enjoyed eating bike tires for breakfast. From this point we also saw our challenge for the day. We knew at some point we had a climb, we knew the pass was 2000m and we knew we were nowhere near that. What we didn’t know was just how tough the climb would be. Loose rocks, volcanic ash and wind made for undesirable riding conditions to say the least, for over 4 hours we pushed, dragged, kicked, screamed and at times laughed our way to the top. We did it though, and although 2000m may not sound a lot for 4 hours it was our Everest, it consumed us and that was all that mattered, but we made it and we now had the decent to enjoy.
And enjoy it we did, not without a few squeaky bum moments though when the soft sand, that had plagued our accent, snook up on our high speed decent causing the wheels to take on a somewhat sideways manoeuvre. Still we made it down in one piece with smiles on our faces. It was at the bottom of this 10km decent that we came across a German cycle tourist napping on a bridge, our look of glee was enough to tell him what he had ahead, what we didn’t realise was how much climbing he had already done, no wonder he was napping, I would have pitched the tent and called it a day if it was me!
Our road continued downwards where thoroughly exhausted we camped by the river we were now following. The next day and we were ready for a rest day, the pass had taken more out of us than we had realised and we were dreaming of a supermarket and a day of nothing. We more crawled into El Cholar than rode, every hill hurt us and the ripio road slowed us to barely faster than walking pace. I wouldn’t say El Cholar should appear on everyone’s must visit places of South America, there is nothing here, not even a La Anonima that we love so much, but it does have an overpriced hostal and a distinctly average shower so for the next day we are going to do nothing but watch films and get some energy back into our legs.
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.