Iditabike Champion Rocky Riefenstul's 1,000 km cycling trip over the Andes
4: The horse trail over the pass to Chili
The next leg of the trip is a horse trail up and over a pass and across the border to Chile. This route is not for the feint of heart, but the only other option is a very long stretch of road through the pampas of Argentina which is apparently boring and interminable. The distance to the pass, the actual border, is 7.5 km and nothing more than a horse trail through woods and across un-bridged boggy streams. Across the border it turns into a cat-trail of a ‘road’ for 15 km to Chilean customs and the next ferry stop. This leg of the trip concerned us both, but turns into best part of the bike adventure. We help other more heavily loaded bikers across streams, and scout trails. It is possible to hire a gaucho and horses to take your packs if you are heavily loaded and don’t resemble Thor. This pass was one of the last border disputes between Argentina and Chile that has been settled just in our lifetimes. The final few miles down to Lago O’Higgins are stunningly beautiful. These fiords, fed by numerous glaciers, and their vivid turquoise water, steep slopes and pristine environment are glorious. We arrive with a day to wait for the twice weekly ferry and all camp right at the ferry terminal in sunny weather. Except for the Chilean customs crew, a handful of Carabineros, and a gaucho or two, no one else lives here. There are absolutely no services of any kind.
In our biker cadre is a motley crew of two Germans, two French, one Swiss, and us, the Americanos. Although we are the only native speakers, English is the common language among the group so we enjoy sharing stories and plans.
The ferry trip is another on-the-edge aquatic adventure. We wait on board for two hours for the local gaucho who is injured. Then we pound over swells the size you expect when boating the outside passage in Alaska. Chilean passengers seem to love it and go out on deck to watch and come back drenched and laughing. We arrive at the southern terminus of the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) in the dark and rain, and with no shelter for several miles down the rutted dirt road. We bikers don’t hesitate to make camp in the ferry terminal parking lot. No one could care less.
It is Election Day in Chili and a Sunday so nothing is open when we arrive in Villa O’Higgins, rather soggy and hungry (we have just traveled three days without a place to eat or re-supply). A town square has a covered picnic area and we hang out tents and sleeping bags to dry while we wait for something to open. Carabineros are everywhere. When asked they take us to fill up on drinking water. Chileans are fined if they do not vote in national elections, and this election was choosing a new president, serious business – everything closes. Feelings are strong here because the newly elected president, Pinera, is in favor of developing hydropower in Patagonia – many think they would be providing power for the big urban centers up north at their expense and that the development would change the wild Patagonia they love.
We find a hostel that allows camping with kitchen privileges and showers and internet access and decide to stay another day along with Peter and Anna. We take off the following morning in a light mist and plan to meet them about 60 km down the road to camp. We are now traveling through a coastal rainforest and water is everywhere- lakes, huge rivers and muskegs cover any low lying land and the melting glacial water splashes spectacularly down the mountains in waterfalls or seeps through the thin soil overlying the rocky slopes nourishing the lush vegetation and the nightmares of road engineers. Bridging all the flows and keeping the roads passable is a massive undertaking, especially considering that maybe 6 vehicles pass all day. This part of Chile was only connected by road in 2000 and the Carretera Austral is as hazardous to drive as it is scenic. It feels safe enough on bike due to the low traffic, but the difficulty level is high due to steep grades and very rough surfaces. Our mountain bikes and bodies are taking a beating, but the austere scenery and remoteness is well worth it. A biker from New Zealand who had just traveled the road we were embarking on said “it's OK, mostly flat with a couple of hills.” We still hope she was pulling our leg and not that we are wimps as we top the first of two passes after many miles of hilly coastal terrain. My altimeter logs 1,000 to 1,700 meters of climbing most days. Camping spots are difficult to find in this watery world and we overshoot the 60 km and lose contact with Peter and Anna for a few days. Seven vehicles passed today.
The next day we make a public ferry crossing – the first one that could carry motor vehicles – and then climb steeply up from lake level, sometimes exceeding 20% grade on a primitive, coarse-gravel ‘road’. This forces us to push our bikes at times. Riding down the other side we are thrilled (and confident) to have stout mountain bikes and powerful disc brakes! We catch our first view of Rio Baker which has the largest volume of water of any Chilean river, and is probably also the most varied in hues of stunningly impressive greens. We detour and follow the river to the seaport of Caleta Tortel. It has no roads, but boardwalks connecting businesses on the steep slopes above the bay. We refuel with a bowl of shellfish chowder to fortify us for the rainy ride back to the main road.
We continue north on the Carretera, pass some lovely estancias (ranches), climb another pass, eyeing recent bike tracks, while wondering if they are Peter and Anna's. Down the other side, and we are in the rain shadow and arrive in Cochrane after 4 nights of wilderness camping. Cochrane has paved roads and a library with a very slow internet connection and a store to resupply. We do the commercial-backyard camping thing and run into Peter and Anna who arrived the night before. They skipped the Caleta Tortel side trip. We share a “typical” Patagonian meal of chunked lamb, sausage, hot dog and French fries with lots of ketchup at a local eatery. The owner serves us and is thrilled when Gail shows him the write-up on his place in our guide book. I’m surprised that when in towns, the Bianchi celeste green and flashy decals seems to attract notice. And we have seen a surprising number and variety of Bianchi bikes in the larger towns.
We arrange again to meet Peter and Anna at about 60 km up the road (a good days ride on these roads!), and climb out of town with sunny skies, some >20% grades with tormenting horse flies common in Patagonia. First flat tire of the trip is well timed to be changed on a windy hill top away from the flies. The bikes hold up well on these incredibly rough roads and we are thankful for the fat tires and shocks. We follow the Rio Baker where it is narrower and almost emerald color, and pass some fancy fishing lodges before the last climb before Lago General Carrera, the source of Rio Baker. 60 km is on top of this head land where the wind is (again) brutal, and rain threatens, so we find a sheltered spot by a stream and make dinner as we wait for Peter and Anna. An hour later, through driving rain and massive head winds, Peter appears pulling his trailer, in bike shorts, and looking more like Thor than ever. A campground up a side road allows a bit of refuge. Very soon we are pounding our tent stakes hard and deep. The wind and rain pick up and flattens the tent of the only other camper there, but our tents hold and we revel in a hot shower. We wake to a beautiful morning.
The road drops down and follows the shoreline of Lago General Carrera all day and the weather is perfect. I get a flat right near a culvert where the road is being shored up by hand with large wire cages that are then filled with rock. It is Sunday and three men are working on it with radio playing. We meet up with Peter and Anna again at a campground just outside Rio Tranquillo – I had been hoping the name meant that the wind was calm here. No such luck. The campground is right on the lake and lovely, but each campsite had a large wall constructed to protect the tents from the fierce winds off the lake. The next morning we hire a boat to take the four of us to marble caverns that have been polished by the lake waters. The lake waters of crystalline aqua are the backdrop for the swirling bands of white, glistening marble.
Continue reading: 5: Back to the Buses