Rolling into Chile (our third country on the tour) and joining up with the famous Carretera Austral, our home for the next 800 kilometers.
Trevelin to Futaleufú
It was a typical morning (for having spent the night in a hosteria/hostel): woke up, crushed the buffet-style complimentary breakfast, gave the bikes a quick check, and hit the road. We knew we would be facing ripio1 today, and sure enough, we hit it just on the edge of town.
It was the worst ripio yet.
The Inuits2 have over a dozen words for snow — well, by the time we’re finished with this tour, I think we’ll have just as many for ripio.
Big rocks sealed in dirt, with a soft layer of (misshapen) golf ball sized stones spread generously throughout. The large rocks would give us a bounce and a jolt; the soft stuff would give out beneath us. Simply a pleasure to ride on, especially given we’re rocking a super skinny, made-for-pavement back tire (as a reminder, we were only able to find one girthier tire each while in the last “city”, Bariloche).
The road seemed mostly flat, with some small hills and descents throughout; yet even on the flat stuff, we were constantly losing control of our bikes. Early on in the ride, Kale yelped. A car (moving toward us) had somehow spit out a rock and it struck him right in the neck. Good thing he had a beard there for cushion.
As we approached the mountains and the Chilean border, the scenery changed from desert shrubs to woods — a welcome distraction from the terrible road conditions. Adding insult to injury, we were also riding directly into a headwind that was coming from the mountains.
By now, Kale has gotten pretty good at peeing without having to actually dismount from the bike. It’s quite a simple process, really: Stop moving, plant feet on either side of the bike (i.e. straddle the bike), twist, lean, aim and shoot (look casual). Perhaps it was exhaustion from the ripio; perhaps it was the strong headwind. But this was the day that Kale peed all over his feet and his bike.
After slippin’ and slidin’ for muchos y muchos kilometers, we were exhausted. Fortunately, we ran into a Brazilian tour biker who had been on the road for 10 months. It was strangely comforting to see him (a seasoned veteran) struggling with the road as well.
Just before the border, we crossed Rio Futaleufú. Gorgeous!
Crossing the Border into Chile
Finally, we reached the border. Entering Chile was a three step process: exit through Argentina customs, cross 500 meters of “no man’s land”, enter through Chilean customs.
Part one was easy. In fact, we could have (and almost did) bike right through, as there was hardly any indication that we were meant to stop. Since the bike of the Brazilian tour biker was parked out front, we decided to park up next to him and head inside. A stamp on our passports and we were on our way.
Part two was joyous. Not only were were in “international waters”, but also — asphalt! According to the Brazilian, the rest of the way to Futaleufú (12 kilometers or so) was paved — woooooo!
Part three was hectic. We approached Chilean customs, passing a huge line of cars (parked in the road), and were told to lean our bikes against a fence. From there, we joined a line of around 20 people, waiting to show their papers and gain entry into Chile. Amidst the line of cars was a tour bus — which explained the absurdly long line. Shoot.
We waited for about 30 minutes, got a stamp on our passports, then were told to fill out a form, indicating what we were bringing into Chile. We certainly weren’t carrying more than $10,000 USD in cash, nor did we have any firearms or drugs on us. We also didn’t have any meat or animal products on us (unless you count our awesome leather brooks saddles).
Fruits and veggies were also prohibited. Cat was carrying one potato and one onion. Amidst all our stuff, they’d never find those.
Cat was a little nervous: “I think we should just mark that we have vegetables,” she whispered to Kale, who immediately whispered back, “No way!”
Next step. We were told to bring our bikes to the front. By this point, the line of cars was gone, tour bus had moved on, and it was pretty much just us and two Chilean guards (with maybe too much time to spare)… Shit. “You go first,” Cat told Kale.
Kale led the way. The guard haphazardly looked through two of his panniers and his handlebar bag.
Cat’s guard, on the other hand, proceeded to ask Cat to remove all her bags and go through each and every pannier. Bugger. The guard confiscated our: sunflower seeds, chia mix, the aforementioned potato and onion, and a handful of carrots we had forgotten about. He even opened our salt and pepper and gave them a whiff. The guard didn’t seem mad at all. He simply asked Cat to discard the food and we were on our way. I guess that’s why they call them Chill-eans…
We apologized loaded everything back on Cat’s bike and pedalled away a bit annoyed. They certainly hadn’t been checking other travellers so closely…
The 12 kilometers into Futaleufú weren’t too bad — yet they contained a few short, sharp hills and some gradual nice descents.
We rolled into town and stumbled upon the turismo office, where we asked about cheap accommodations and restaurants. The third hosteria/hostel place we tried looked good (enough). After negotiating a price, we unloaded our packs and turned on the shower — ready to wash off the dust and sweat. Kale waited and waited but the icy cold water just didn’t want to warm up. Bugger.
Hunger prevailed so we threw on some clothes (on the way out, we were assured the hot water would be turned on shortly) and walked about town, totally delirious as we were exhausted and only had some cookies for lunch that day. We stopped at the banco, picked up 100,000 fresh Chilean pesos from the ATM, and stumbled into a restaurant with artisanal beer.
It was after the second beer we decided we could do with a rest day. So ordered one more each and a tabla with meats, pizza, and bread. The check came — Crickey! We must have stumbled into the most expensive restaurant in town. 34,500 Chilean pesos ($51 USD) for 6 beers and a tabla.
Down to 65,000 Chilean pesos, we now had the drunchies so we headed to another restaurant for some pizza (so far in our journeys, pizza has consistently provided the most “bang for your buck”). We were escorted across town to the pizza joint by a local (super cute) dog.3
We crushed a pizza, made friends with a cat outside, then headed home. By now, our dog had wandered off, but luckily, the cat we’d befriended made sure we made it home safely 🙂
Futaleufú + day off!
Rest day! We slept in a little and zombied out to a breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, ham, eggs, and coffee. There, we met another guest, Julio, who operates a “outdoor activity” business in Futaleufú. Futaleufú is famous for the Rio Futaleufú which is ranked third best white water rafting spot in the world. Apparently, at least one tourist every year is killed while rafting — so, we opted for a hike near town instead.
Julio pointed us in the direction of some good “trekking” and we said goodbye, but not before explaining the difference between Trucha and Salmon (they’re different fish… duh) and gifting Kale a fine hook (which we’ll be putting to use soon, we hope!).
When we returned from the hike, we were pretty sore and tired — turns out we’d trekked a casual 15 kilometers. Gah, so much for resting on our rest day.
After a delicious (and cheap) sandwich at a cafe, Kilometro 0, we retreated back to our room to nap.
It was raining when we left for dinner.4 We had picked out a place on our prior walk about town (“Casa de mi Madre”) and it did not disappoint. We each had a delicious salmon meal with a side of french fries topped with two fried eggs. The meal cost 42,000 Chilean pesos and the restaurant only took cash — luckily, we had the perfect amount! Stoked and full, we decided we should head to the ATM to reload our cash supply as we were at zero and would be departing the next day.
But when we arrived…
It was Friday night. The bank would not open until Monday. And we were out of Chilean pesos. Too full and too tired to do anything, we went to slept and decided we would figure it out in the morning.
Chaos in Futaleufú
Time to get moving. At breakfast, we asked the hospedaje owner lady about paying with credit card. Nope. So we explained our situation. Turns out, there are no other ATMs (or banks) in Futaleufú. The closest one? Oh, some 422 kilometers away, in Coyhaique.
The hospedaje lady advised us to visit Caja Vecina — there, we could probably acquire some Chilean pesos. We scrounged up all our cash (a mix of Argentine pesos and some US dollars) and set out in search of the mysterious Caja Vecina — whatever the hell that is.
Two hours and too many grocery stores, markets, tiendas, hostels, later, we found the elusive Caja Vecina where we could exchange our Argentine pesos and US dollars for Chilean pesos. Or so we thought. The lady working there kindly told us “no Chilean pesos, only Argentina.”
Hmmm. Everywhere we turned, it looked like people were trying to sell their Argentine pesos. Some places accepted Argentine, but somewhat reluctantly — like our hospedaje.
Feeling defeated, we started to head back to our hospedaje when we ran into a French tour biking couple we had met at dinner the previous night. Since they were heading north to Argentina in the next week, they kindly exchanged some Argentine pesos for Chilean — woo hoo! So we had 10,000 Chilean pesos and owed our hospedaje another 38,000.
We presented her the full amount in a mix of Chilean, Argentine, and US currency. She would not accept the US dollars, which put us just a bit short again. Kale set back out one more time, back to the Caja Vecina where (through charm, he claims) he managed to persuade the Caja Vecina to exchange $50 USD for Chilean pesos.
We paid our hospedaje with all of our Argentine pesos and made up the difference with some of our Chilean pesos, keeping 20,000 (the equivalent of $29 USD) to keep us alive on the road until we can reach the next ATM in Coyhaique.
Feeling a bit guilty (though there was nothing we could really do about it) we pedalled away from Futaleufú ready to face the rain and happy to be back on the open road.
Futaleufú to Lago Yelcho
As promised,5 the ripio commenced as soon as we reached the outskirts of Futaleufú. We hoped to make it to Lago Yelcho by nightfall (where we planned to wild camp on the shores of the lake). Before that, we’d have to traverse ~70 kilometers of ripio.
The beginning (first 20 kilometers) were somewhat rough going. A couple ups and downs into the ride, we met a tour biker from Washington. She had started her solo tour in Puerto Natales and is getting as far north as she can in five months. The chat provided a timely break after a rough ascent.
The middle (next 30 kilometers) was good ripio. The rain had created nice tracks in the road and we had some nice long downhills. We were moving! On ripio! We passed a good amount of rafting coves and access points along the way.
The end (last 20 kilometers) was unexpectedly brutal. The good ripio gave way to shit ripio… Shripio. The middle portion of the road was hard-packed but covered with giant potholes and large rocks embedded in, and loose upon, the surface the “road”. The outside track was soft and unstable, perilously close to the super loose gravel/sand mound which lined the side of the road — if your wheel touches this, you’re sure to slide.
Kale opted for the outside track, Cat the middle.
Kale slipped off and into the side gravel about once every kilometer (after which he would dismount the bike and heave it back onto the road). Cat was so shaken up by the bumpy middle track that she felt queasy and concussed.
Eventually, we spotted the lake. After biking alongside it for a kilometer or so, we located an unmarked (but locked) gate. Surely, this was the entrance to the super sneaky free camping spot we’d read about on crazyguyonabike. Kale investigated. Thumbs up!
We managed to get lift our bikes around the side of the gate (over some lumber), and we rolled into the abandoned campsite. It was glorious — right on the beach, great shelter from the wind, a place for a fire, and plenty of stumps for seats. All to ourselves.
A slow start, even for our standards. But it wasn’t raining and the sun was even poking through. Cat cleaned our stove (we finally ran out of the kerosene we had purchased in Uruguay, which meant we could start using our white gas, thank god!) and Kale played a little guitar and took some photos.
Villa Santa Lucia and the beginning of our journey on the Carretera Austral was about 20 kilometers away. The Carretera Austral is a famous route that runs north to south in the Patagonia region of Chile. It is about 1,300 kilometers long with sparsely populated towns along the route (the population of all the town along the route is ~100,000). The construction of the route began in the 1970s under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Today, we are finding that more and more ripio is being replaced with asphalt. It is bittersweet for us. We loathe the ripio, but all asphalt means more cars and traffic. Less fun for tour bikers.
The Carretera Austral will be the road south for us for about 800 kilometers. It abruptly ends at Villa O’Higgins, where we will need to take a boat across Lago O’Higgins and then trek (yes, there isn’t a road so it’s necessary to trek) back into Argentina. But you’ll hear all about that later 🙂
We made good time to Villa Santa Lucia and grabbed a few things from the grocery store before heading on the Austral. The 32 kilometers of asphalt leading out of Villa Santa Lucia was fantastic.
Alas, the pavement came and went too quickly… At about 6pm, we turned a corner and bam. Ripio. And double bam. An uphill. For the previous 10 kilometers or so, we had been searching the roadside for a good, hidden camp spot. Cat found a pretty shitty (but workable) spot, right where the ripio began. After a quick debate, we pressed onward and tackled the ripio in search for somewhere to camp.
About 6 kilometers into the ripio section, we came across a bridge. Kale had read on crazyguyonabike about bridge-camping along the Austral. Sure enough, we checked out down below and there was a spot for a tent, a couple log seats, and fire pit. And we had a roof!
That night’s sleep was magical (thanks to the white noise of the river, Kale thinks). We took our time the next morning and even debated on staying another night under the bridge, as it was rainy and for the first time we were legitimately chilled; but we were running low on food, so we decided to head out and try to make it to Puyuhuapi, about 60-something kilometers down the way.
Bridge Doña Blanca to La Junta
An hour into the day’s ride we came across a surprise: asphalt! This was unexpected and we had a leisurely ride in the drizzle.
When we reached La Junta (about half way to Puyuhuapi) it was starting to get chillier and we decided to stay in the pueblito for a night.
We got into town, and did the usual: turismo center (not helpful), visit the hostels and ask about: (a) price and credit card option6; (b) wifi; and (c) free breakfast. Again, the third place we visited matched our criteria (more or less). And it also came with a kitten, Munchu! Win.
We found a nice little restaurante, La Casita de Te, and had “our meal”7 for the day.
Rest. Recover. Netflix. With some cerveza.8
La Junta to Puyuhuapi
Typical morning: breakfast, bike check, go.
We were energized and ready to tackle the relatively short day’s ride of 44 kilometers. And we were starting on asphalt. Brilliant.
Unfortunately, we felt a little slow and sluggish. As we rode, we blamed the rain and the wet road for slowing us down (Cat claims the ride felt slightly uphill the whole way). Realistically, it was probably the cervezas from the night before 😉
The scenery was lush — it turns out we were pedaling through a national park.
About 15 kilometers outside of Puyuhuapi, we hit ripio (commencing with a steep uphill, of course). Energized and ready to make ripio our bitch, we tackled the route with a vengeance. Yew!
Great ripio! Hard packed dirt sprinkled with small-to-medium sized stones, but had a track most of the way. We passed three groups of tour bikers (impressive, eh?) on the ripio and zoomed into Puyuhuapi.
Another semi-unwanted tour of the hostels later, we found a room, settled in and grabbed some food. We’ll be wild camping for the next three nights along the Austral as we head to Coyhaique, which lies 233 kilometers south of Puyuhuapi. We’re hoping the rain subsides and the ripio stays kind.