Getting to the heart of the Carretera Austral: Puyuhuapi to el fin de asfalto and beyond.
Road Works Leaving Puyuhuapi
In the morning, we took our time (as we do) leaving the hosteria. Breakfast was portioned and set on the table, making it slightly awkward when we asked for more. The owner gave us a look before mumbling a disgruntled, “yes,” then reluctantly served us another round of bread, sliced deli meats and cheese. Honestly, we had been expecting more considering the price of the hosteria and the fact that the hosteria also operated as a German cafe.
We happily pedaled onto the ripio and out of Puyuhuapi; alas, less than two kilometers in we joined a line of stopped traffic… road works.
The Austral after Puyuhuapi is undergoing heavy construction.1 We had read about this, so we weren’t totally surprised when we came to a halt. Additionally, we had heard that one section of the upcoming route was completely closed between 1pm and 5pm. We were unsure exactly where this was, but we hoped that (a) we would pass through it before 1pm; or (b) our information was out of date and there wouldn’t be a road closure.
We pedaled to the front of the line and passed the time by conversing with a trio of Argentinian motorcyclists and a retired man from Austria, on week three of a five-year trip around the world. Check out his blog: www.oskarlehnertravel.news.
After about 20 minutes, it was our turn to continue.
The next 40 kilometers followed a scenic, windy road along a fjord with slight inclines and steady drops. The ripio wasn’t bad and, despite the overcast skies, we weren’t rained on.
Crossing the Queulet Pass
Our sources (crazyguyonabike) had informed us about the drastic climb we were approaching — the steepest on the entire Austral. The Queulet Pass: 800 meters up in just over 8 kilometers. It was in the back of our minds all day, and by 2pm, we figured we must be close.
Until… roadworks! Again!
Two cars were already waiting when we rolled up: the drone-wielding German lads we had met at the scenic turn-off a few kilometers back and two Uruguayos whom we had briefly met and chatted with in Villa Santa Lucia, 4 days prior — what are the chances!2
Turns out the rumors were true. Here, the road was completely closed until 5pm. We had 3 hours to kill.
First thought — maybe we can get by the closure since we are on bikes. All smiles and in our best Spanish, we asked the lone construction-worker-lady about passing. Immediately, we received a firm, “No”.
So we cooked up some rice (carbs for the climb), enjoyed intermittent sunshine, and shared some mate with our Uruguayo friends (the Germans had opted to back track to a more scenic place to, no doubt, play with their drone).
At 4:59pm, the construction-worker-lady gave us leave to continue (a minute early, woo!) and we slowly pedaled toward the mountain. The first twenty minutes were trafficky. Everyone who had been waiting was now anxious to get through. The motorheads zoomed by us until, once again, we had the torn and muddy road to ourselves.
Then the real fun began.
Up We Go
We rounded a corner and there she was: a ridiculously steep hill and the first hairpin turn. This was it, we’d reached the switchbacks!
But before we could get in a rhythm, there they were again — our Uruguayo friends frantically waving us down. There was a waterfall that we just had to see. Five minutes, a few pictures, and a pee later, we remounted, dropped into granny gears, and pressed on. The ripio was in good condition so it was just a matter of grinding it out.
Five (or was it six?) switchback curves later, we took our first break — the construction-worker-lady had informed us there were 20 curves to the top of the pass. A few turns later, we lost count.
At 7pm, we reached the top and enjoyed a mostly flat road for about one kilometer.
Sure enough, in that kilometer, we bumped into (not literally, thankfully) our Austrian friend from that morning and then a little later, the three Argentinian motorcyclists, too.3
We reapplied the layers that had been shed on the ascent, put on our gloves, and apologized (in advance) to our brake pads. We were ready for the downhill.
When we reached the bottom, the asphalt resumed and we began looking for a place to camp. After a few tiny, but brutal, hills (our muscles had stiffened on the downhill), we rolled over a bridge with a grassy area below — a perfect spot for our tent.
With daylight fading, we quickly pitched and whipped up a pasta dinner, with grilled onions. Yum!
Most of our wild camp finds have been alongside rivers. The babble of rushing water seems to provide great ambience for a good night’s rest. Thus, we were well rested when we awoke and in good spirits despite the pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof of our tent.
By mid-morning, the pitter-patter had become a steady downpour, and we sought coverage under the bridge.
We considered waiting out the rain from under the bridge, but realized that could mean waiting for days. Clad in full rain gear, we loaded up and pedaled on.
It was a wet one, with a few surprise climbs.
We rolled into Villa Amengual and enjoyed a late lunch in a bus that had been converted into a cozy restaurant. Three avo4 + carne sandwiches later, we emerged and after a stop at the local mercado (to stock up on pasta and cookies), we pedaled out of town. The stop in Villa Amengual had halved our cash supplies — we were now down to 9,650 Chilean pesos (approx. $14.62 USD). But we felt confident this would sustain us for the next 2 ½ days on the road, until we could get to an ATM in Coyhaique.
Thankfully, the rain subsided and Mr. Sun peeked his smiling face through the clouds. Glorious! Unfortunately, at some point during the afternoon, Kale lost his make-shift water bottle lid (a jam jar lid + rubber band contraption).
At around 6pm we discovered a suitable place to set up camp — next to a river and out of sight from the road and passing vehicles. Since we knew that we’d be riding on asphalt for a few days, we decided to switch out our front, mountain bike tires for our OG road-specific tires. During the process, an impatient Kale managed to pop his front tube — his second puncture of the trip.
We dined on, guess what, pasta then retired to our mats and bags.
It felt great to be back on our skinny tires and we enjoyed a slight tailwind and an epic downhill into Villa Mañihuales.
For lunch we found a restaurant that accepted credit card — good for our cash situation.
The afternoon session was a tough one. We were 75 kilometers outside of Coyhaique. Since we had booked accommodation in Coyhaique for the next day, we wanted to churn out as many kilometers as possible that afternoon. This would leave us with a (relatively) short ride for the next day and enable us to get to Coyhaique earlier in the day (more time to enjoy our paid-for accommodation).
About 10 kilometers after Villa Mañihuales, the road split. With both paths leading us to Coyhaique, we had a choice. Option 1: continue on the Austral on ripio). Option 2: take route 240, which is 20 kilometers longer but on asphalt.
Because we’re not crazy (and rocking our OG, asphalt-loving tires), we opted for option 2. A headwind, plus some climbs made for some tough riding. But worst of all, the road was shoulderless. As it turns out, cars also opt for the asphalt option, and we had an annoyingly high frequency of passing vehicles and trucks to watch out for.
At about 4:30, we passed a suitable camp spot along the Rio Mañihuales; however, we pressed on, hopeful we would find something similar later down the road.5
Just after the next junction (the turn-off to Puerto Aysen), we hit the river and found a nice camp spot nestled in some bushes along the rocky shore. We were out of pasta (sad panda), so were forced to settle for a dinner of rice + soup mix… aka the poor man’s risotto.
Home Stretch to Coyhaique
Next morning and we had to crack open a fresh bag of coffee, which we’d been hauling since Puyuhuapi. Well, it was more like a brick of coffee. It was rock-hard and perfectly formed to the shape of the box it had come in. We wondered how many years it had been sitting on the shelf, but we were pleasantly surprised when it instantly softened up after Cat cut it open. Phew!
Today, rather than our usual coffee routine — pour boiling water through the coffee-filled MSR filter6 and into our mug, then waiting for it to brew (repeating the process for the next cup) — we realized we could mix and brew the coffee directly in our pot as it sat on the stove. From there, we could filter the potion into the mugs using the MSR filter. Brilliant! Now we could enjoy our coffees simultaneously. Plus, the pot makes at least four cups which means we’re especially wired for the next hour or so.
The coffee in Chile is… meh. Here, it is difficult to find anything that isn’t Nescafe instant coffee. And when we do find ground coffee, it almost always has sugar mixed in already. Now, when we have coffee without azucar, we can immediately notice the difference. #sugarcrack
Two cups of coffee (each) later, we were ready to charge to Coyhaique.
Like the day before, the route was very busy with cars (likely heading between Puerto Aysen and Coyhaique). Most vehicles gave us space — the ones that didn’t received un poco verbal abuse. Grrr!
The first part of the ride was rolling (mostly down) hills through a valley. Around 15 kilometers out of Coyhaique (and just before we would meet back up with the Carretera Austral)7 we hit a massive uphill and a tunnel. Our first tunnel!
We had equipped our bike lights earlier that morning (overcast and dreary + muchos vehiculos) so we charged on through. The first part of the tunnel was exposed to the valley and a harsh bit of wind caught Kale who toppled (nothing but his ego was injured in the topple).
The tunnel spat us out and we were met by another 4 kilometers of treacherous and trafficky uphill. At the top, we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Coyhaique.
The descent into Coyhaique was a bumpy one. The road was comprised of old asphalt, patches of ripio and even some brick portions. Then, just when we thought we were in the city, we faced one last massive uphill.
Coyhaique is the most populated city along the Austral and, for many travelers, serves as a launching pad for their Patagonian adventures. On our shopping list: white gas (gotta eat), mountain bike tires (for our back wheels), and bungee cords (to keep things tight).
Our Airbnb/hostel in Coyhaique, Aumkenk Aike, was awesome so we extended our stay for one extra night. We cooked dinners, relaxed, and played with their gatito, Pumi.
The two and a half days in Coyhaique were great — we accomplished our primary goal of eating a bunch of empanadas, plus, we were able to acquire the stuff on our shopping list. After three nights, we were ready to get back on the bikes. As we packed up, some fellow American travelers (shout out to Brian and Bridgette from Moab!) gave us a fancy chocolate bar from Seattle. Salted almond dark chocolate — simply devine.
Climbing into Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo
We pedaled out of town — we’d barely gone one kilometer when Cat stopped (suddenly) for a taxi that wanted to pull out into the road. Kale, on her tail, didn’t have time to stop. Boom, crash. Cat pedaled away unscathed (#bumpercarchamp), but Kale was left to pick up his bike and a few items that had fallen out of his handlebar bag including the precious chocolate. Luckily, the bungee cords kept everything else tight. And Cat promised to use her words/hand signals in the future.
Today was the windiest day we’d faced. Fortunately, it was blowing in our favor. A tailwind is a wondrous thing. Most of the day we were heading slightly uphill, but, with the help of Señor T’wind, it was hardly noticeable.
At the city of Balmaceda, the Austral changed direction and we began pedaling southwest (we had been traveling southeast since Coyhaique). The wind, however, did not change its direction, and we faced a brutal cross/headwind as we ascended into the mountains of the Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo.
There are huemules (South Andean deer) in these mountains. However, the only ones we saw were on the many gorey billboards along the road instructing drivers to slow down. Not applicable to us given we were tackling a headwind. Later, we learned there are only about 1,500 huemul remaining in the wild. Slow down for deer and tour bikers!
Our accommodation: A beautiful wild camp along a river high in the mountains.
Our dinner: Pasta!
It was one of the coldest nights thus far — which makes sense, since we were up in the mountains!
Villa Cerro Castillo
The next morning’s breakfast was extra special: we had potatoes. Cat had lugged them from Coyhaique and was eager to get rid of the weight. Satisfied, we hit the road.
The route through the rest of the reserve took us through some towering mountains, interesting rock formations, and the highest point on the Austral (which we passed without noticing).
Cat, focused on the road, charged the switchbacks, unknowing blowing by the nice lookout point (whoops!); fortunately, Kale stopped and snapped some pics.
Customarily, upon arriving in Villa Cerro Castillo, (Cat almost went right by that, too) we scouted for a place to eat. At the advice of a fellow tour biker, we avoided the cute, but pricey little converted bus/restaurant, and headed to an inconspicuous joint a few blocks away. There, we crushed two massive carne y palta sandwich-burger-things.
The afternoon was waning and we had reached el fin de asphalto (the end of asphalt) on the Austral. It was time to try out our new tires. We looked around for a place to stay, settling upon a small hospedaje where a French tour biking couple was also crashing.
In the process of switching our tires, we both encountered flats. Presumably, we were a little rough in handling the tubes. A few patches later, our bikes were looking fresh (and mountainous). The hospedaje was cozy and we enjoyed sharing stories by the fire with Tomas and Matild, who had begun their journey in Bolivia a few months prior.
Morning in Villa Cerro Castillo
Nothing really compares to the amazing rest we get when we’re wild camping. The hum of the river, our beloved Hilleberg tent — it’s home for us, at least for now.
Unfortunately, this has made us (especially Kale) more sensitive to the everyday noises that accompany sleeping in civilization. This particular morning, the perpetrator was one confident, yet tone-deaf, rooster.
Sidenote: these days Kale is a bit of a wild-snob. Not only must he have a babbling brook ambient backdrop whilst he sleeps, he now only drinks Patagonian-river water, once-filtered (via our handy-dandy 5L LifeStraw) at the source. Lately, he has been turning his nose to Chilean-tap water. The taste of freshly gathered and filtered Patagonian-river water, he says, is a revelation.
Reluctantly awake, we were devastated to find that overnight both of our back tires had deflated. WTF! The Frenchies consoled our sorrows as they pedaled away on their Moonlander Surlys,8 southbound — we would hopefully catch them on the road a little later.
Two more patch jobs later, our bikes were ready to tackle the ripio. But were we?
Gross and Dusty Ripio
As we rode out of Villa Cerro Castillo, we said goodbye to asphalt. Today’s special: Loose, dusty ripio sprinkled with large stones.
Perhaps it wasn’t the worst ripio we had faced, but the dust brought up by passing vehicles made the going 10x more difficult. We quickly realized what an investment our new tires were — no longer were we feeling a jolt from every bump in the road. The shock was well absorbed by our thicker, softer new tires. Compared to our skinnies, it felt like riding on pillows.
Just after the second hill of the day (we had learned from Tomas that we’d be climbing three big ones before a nice descent along the Rio Murta), we found ourselves heading into the wind… again. We had reached one of the few points on Austral where the southbound route turns (slightly) north. This gave us a little taste of the conditions that the northbound peeps must be suffering through. We’re not jealous.
We rode and we rode and we pushed and we rode. The route turned southwest and the wind eased. We climbed. The ripio improved. And then we rode a bit more. Kale says it was the toughest day yet.
Eventually, we spotted a rickety old bridge about 50 meters off the road (thanks to the app, iOverlander, we’d been keeping an eye out for this landmark). We crossed the bridge and met a different french couple who had beat us to the spot. We chatted9 and enviously eyed their roaring fire. They pointed us to an almost-as-good spot, about 10 meters down the river, and invited us to share the fire 🙂 By the time we’d set up camp and crushed some pasta, the sun had disappeared behind some mountains and it was time to hit the sack.
The morning brought overcast skies, but no rain (woohoo! — having a dry tent makes the morning routine much easier). The frenchies stopped by on their way out and we bonded — they were riding Long Haul Truckers, too. And like us, they aren’t sure what life will have in store when they stop pedaling.
With the super-awesome camping spot now open, we reassessed the day’s goals over some oatmeal and fruit. Kale wanted to McGyver a fishing device (he’d been gifted a hook from Julio, a Chilean we’d met back in Futaleufu) and go fishing; Cat, who’s favorite TV show is Survivor, wanted to start a campfire.
With these lofty ambitions, we decided to take the day off. We picked up our tent and waddled it over to the super-awesome spot, left vacant by the departing frenchies.
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, No Fish.
Kale grabbed one of his old nylon guitar strings — he’d been (perhaps, stupidly) carrying these in his guitar case since changing strings back in La Paloma, Uruguay — tied it to the hook and tied the other end to a spare tent peg. Viox la! A fishing device.
Kale knows the shallows of these rivers quite well: he is chief water-fetcher (a title which he honors) and, since Cat cooks, he cleans the dishes after each meal. Thus, by now Kale has spent a fair amount of time crouched at the rocky shores of Patagonian rivers. So far, he hasn’t seen any fishes in the shallows. Obviously, the fishes must be swimming in the deeper portions of these rivers. Right?
Unfortunately, Kale’s fishing device has quite a limited range (approx. 1 meter).
Wading into the water (to “cast” the fishing device in deeper currents) isn’t really an option. As you can imagine, the river water down here is glacially cold.10 And Kale doesn’t own a pair of badass fishing pants.
Remember the old rickety bridge? Clearly too high off the water to “cast” from. But, how about it’s supporting foundation (an assortment of wood and rocks, held together by mesh steel netting)?
Kale monkeyed his way down to the water level and cast his line. Then he waited.. And he waited… 10 minutes felt like an hour, especially given the awkward crouching position and focus required in order maintain balance on his perch. Kale’s arm/rod was tired. After 15 minutes, he put a piece of pear core (leftover from breakfast) on the hook. Nada.
Conclusion: there must not be any fish in this particular river.
Please leave any and all fishing tips in the comment section below. If Kale catches a fish as a result of your tip, he will name the fish after you, sacrifice it in your honor, and then eat it.
We had attempted to start a fire once before on this trip.11 Half a pack of matches, a bunch of sheets of paper, a dab of gas blanco and a bit of Kale’s hand/arm hair later, we threw in the towel, blaming the lack of dry wood for our failure.
This time, things were different. We knew it could be done — we’d seen the frenchies rocking an awesome flame the night before. Next to the firepit (read: stone ring), they’d even left us some wood.
We imitated what we’d seen on Survivor. When that failed, we added some gas blanco. Alas, no luck.
Determined, Cat made a torch contraption: take a piece of rag, wrap it around a medium size stick, dab the rag with gas, and plant in the middle of a teepee of the driest wood available. For good measure, sprinkle with paper shreds.
It worked! ‘Twas as smokey as a Santa Cruz basement on 4/20, but she was a beaut and we cherished every flicker.
As we finished dinner (veggie noodle soup and cookies), it began to rain. With our clothes stanking of smoke, we retreated to our tent feeling accomplished. There, Cat read Game of Thrones aloud… a rainy night tradition.
Cat Takes a Tumble
The next morning, Kale stepped out to pee12 and discovered there was not a cloud in the sky. Though our tent was wet from the rain, everything inside remained dry. We got dressed and relocated to the other side of the old rickety bridge, where our tent could dry in the sun.
Sure enough, she was dry in a jiff. We lingered and enjoyed a nice oatmeal + fruit breakfast with coffee (duh) before heading back to the ripio.
Picking up where we had left off, the route continued to climb slightly for about ten kilometers. Then we turned due south and descended quickly into Valle Murta.
We followed the Rio Murta south, mostly descending, but occasionally climbing — using the speed gathered on the downhills to shorten the uphill climbs.
We reached the peak of a short climb and were cruising downhill on rough ripio — Cat in front, Kale following. All of a sudden, a large pothole emerged in Cat’s path. She gingerly adjusted her course to avoid the hole; however, with her focus one obstacle, she directly hit a large boulder, protruding from the road. This triggered a series of wobbles from which she couldn’t recover. Kale watched as Cat’s wheel skid out from under her and she fell into the deep ripio on the side of the road, landing 3-4 meters ahead of her bike.
Ooof. This one hurt.
Kale, who was following quite closely, jammed on his brakes. His momentum carried him into Cat’s bike, but he was able to dismount as the bike’s collided. Heart pounding, he approached Cat and asked, “Are you OK?”. Cat was clearly shaken up, but responded affirmatively. As Kale rushed to get the first aid kit, a car pulled up. Then another. Then another. Soon, a small crowd had gathered, eager to help.
Amongst the people who had assembled was Angie, a Chilean medical student from outside of Santiago. She took control and quickly began tending to Cat’s wounds (bleeding at the elbows). Two men helped Kale load the bikes into a truck (presumably Cat’s bike was unrideable), and, since we were near the top of a hill, another man stood at the top of the hill and slowed oncoming traffic. In the midst of such a hectic situation, it was a beautiful symphony of cooperation… Thank you, Chile.
A few blurry (for both Cat and Kale) moments later, Cat’s bloodied elbows were cleaned and bandaged and we were sitting in the back of Angie’s jeep, en route to the closest medical clinic in Puerto Tranquilo (approx. 40 kilometers away). Angie was at the wheel. In the front seat sat Angie’s boyfriend, Diego — with a smile so infectious, he was somehow able to distract us from our present crisis for much of the 30 minute drive.
Diego informed us that our bikes were also en route to Puerto Tranquilo.
Experiencing the Austral from the backseat of a car was certainly different than from the saddle. Despite being behind glass, the idyllic turquoise of Lago General Carrera was still breathtaking.
We arrived in Puerto Tranquilo — both of us feeling a little queasy from the windy road (we hadn’t been in a car in weeks). We met up with our bikes outside the tiny town’s medical clinic (which was closed) and Kale gave the truck driver who’d transported them a giant hug. Angie took another look at Cat and decided she should see a doctor for a second opinion. She made a call and a few minutes later, a doctor arrived.
Cat was cleaned and bandaged up — she even ended up getting two stitches in her elbow. In total, the visit cost 29,700 Chilean pesos ($45). Since we have insurance through worldnomads.com, we’ll attempt to get this reimbursed.
As expected, Cat’s bike suffered some injuries as well. It seems that the handlebars took the brunt of the fall, as both were bent inward. Cat was able to readjust them back to their proper position; however, the rear brake lever is still a little wobbly. Temporary solution: duct tape. Our plan is to get ‘er fixed up in Cochrane (where there is supposedly a bike shop).
Exhausted and Cat slightly dazed, we decided to join Angie and Diego in the search for a suitable camping spot for the night. Cat drove with Angie, while Diego drove Kale’s steed (Kale took the reigns of Cat’s). After a much needed meal (and a beer), we went straight to sleep.
The next morning we wandered the streets of Puerto Tranquilo and found a hospedaje to stay in that night. Then, we drank some beers and blogged. Cat was able to rest and start the healing process.
Puerto Tranquilo to Epic Bridge Camp
Bandaged and ready to get the hell out of Puerto Tranquilo (despite it’s name, the tiny town is swarming with tourists, lacking the charm of other pueblitos along the Austral), we hit the road, following along the west coast of Lago General Carrera. Our goal was to make it to where Lago General Carrera meets Lago Bertrand (approx. 50 kilometers) — where there is supposedly some good camping options. Within an hour, it began to rain. Kale slapped on his $1 rubber gloves, which worked like a charm. The rain clouds obstructed our view of the lake so for the next few hours we pedalled in a cloud.
After a quick chat with a Aussie biker that looked a lot like Santa Claus (#beardgoals), the road cut inland and away from the lake. Kale reached into his handlebar bag for his iPhone (to film some of the scenery). Uh oh. Not there.
He’d used it about 5 kilometers back, for sure. So, we turned around and with eyes scanning the road, backtracked.
Nada. Perhaps Santa Claus had picked it up?
We’d almost given up searching when a car pulled up — it was the Uruguayo couple who we’d bumped into twice before on the Austral. They were headed north, but promised to ask Santa Claus about the phone when they passed him. If they found the phone, they said, they would drive it to the bridge where we planned on camping that night. A sliver of hope remained! Fast forward to that evening: the Uruguayos were a no show. RIP Kale’s iPhone.
The phone search had set us back two hours. The good news? The sun was out and the landscape was stunning.
We reached the bridge and scouted potential camp spots. A few fisherman had set up camp directly under the bridge — but there was a spot with our name on it nearby, directly next to a campervan sporting an awesome paint mural which read “Bad Girl”.
The Bad Girl turned out to be two Australians: Will and Ella, who are exploring Patagonia by van. They offered us a couple of “cold ones” and invited us to join them for dinner — steak and stir-fry veggies. Exceptional. Our karma was turning around! Then they offered us some wine and we partied fireside until the wee hours of the night, under a blanket of some of the brightest stars any of us had ever seen.
The next day was a beauty. Since we’d made friends and were lovin’ our camp spot, we (and our Aussie neighbors) decided to take the day off… And we were just a teeny bit hungover 😉 We lounged, played music and played with the local cat, which we named Michael Jackson.
Lowlight of the day: Kale’s feet got a little bit sun burnt (sandal tan).
Highlight of the day: Will caught a fish, which we threw on the frying pan and devoured.
That night, Kale was up late, pottering around with his tripod when he noticed that Michael Jackson was acting a bit weird. “Maust not like the light from the headlamp,” he thought. Just then, a tan colored, four legged, golden labrador-sized creature, strutted through the headlamp’s light beam and bounded up a steep hill. Kale didn’t think twice. A dog, clearly.
A few seconds later it clicked. “We haven’t seen a dog here (and we’ve been here for 30 hours now)… Climbing that hill was a pretty athletic maneuver for a dog… Holy shit, that may have been a mountain lion!”
Kale crawled into the tent and excitedly explained what he’d seen to a half-asleep Cat.
That night, we were happy to share the vestibule with Michael Jackson.
Chau! Besos! xox