Finally we have arrived in Patagonia! Only 10 hours later than advertised. Luckily sunset nowadays is well after 9pm, and we have nearly two hours to find somewhere to stay. We disembark the ferry in a flurry of great excitement. We and the bikes fly off the ramp with great aplomb, into...another sleepy village. Puerto Chacabuco, a mere 82km (we think) from joining the Carretera Austral – the road that I’ve heard so much about – the road that so many cyclists traverse. We cycle through the village and come out the other side rather rapidly whilst looking for a campsite. Oops. Oh well…carry on then, to the next town, where we find rather posh looking cabañas (cabins) and for a laugh ask to see how much it costs. Oh surprise. 100 US dollars. I tell you. A nice round number. That’s all it is.
We cycle on quickly and find an establishment for a mere 20pounds to settle down for the night. It also doubles as a laundrette. It’s the first time we decide to trust someone else with our precious clothes and I find it rather unsettling. Afterall, we need all of our clothes and if any come back spoiled then it would be a minor disaster.
The next day we are rewarded with beautifully clean and unspoiled clothes. Hooray! I must do this more often!
We continue southbound and the scenery is incredible. Alpine-like views of snowy peaks. The brilliant blue of the water. The lush greenery makes the colourful flowers lining the roadside stand out even more.
I am really enjoying cycling, and think how lucky we are compared to poor tourists in cars who miss out on all of this as the scenery flashes by before they get a chance to digest it. They also miss out on the smell of the flowers, the trees, the rotting fish (!), the sounds of the waterfalls…and GULP! – a bug flies straight into my pharynx. Great. Particularly good impact as I’m breathing in deeply at the time, enjoying the fresh air.
Just outside Coihaique where we finally join the Carretera Austral is a national park which we decide to hike around. Unfortunately the road up to the park is atrocious and although only less than 2km, it takes us an hour to cycle/push/swear uphill.
The walk is nice enough though and we finally get a chance to chat to each other. Silly as it is, normally it’s impossible to chat whilst dodging traffic on the bikes, and we are generally too busy doing something to speak to each other. There are just not enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do. Alex is supposed to be doing some deep thinking about life plans…hmmm, you ask him what the result is.
A few hours later we emerge to find a queue of workers for the park standing by our bikes – we’d managed to park them right next to where they stamp their time cards out, and wait for the bus. It’s the first time that we have had so much attention in Chile – mostly people just ignore our bikes and carry on as if it is an everyday sight but today they looked and I feel a bit embarrassed. We quickly run out of there and back down to the campsite where a hot shower awaits. This is three hot showers in three days – we are getting spoilt and soft!! But I have to say that before this trip I have never learnt to appreciate a hot shower…how wrong I was!
We shop at a big supermarket and are delighted to find Nutella – somehow the Chilean chocolates do not taste as good as the ones back home (and we have tasted a few!), but we can rely on Nutella. We buy two heavy jars (and many other bad things) and hightail it out of there.
The road is fairly reasonable but we have found our nemesis.
Flies!!! Huge great ugly horseflies as big as my thumbnail, attacking us from all directions. They are a complete menace and whilst swatting at them I manage to swat off my glasses! Luckily Alex stops before running them over and hands them back to me – delivering a lecture at the same time about how I should be more careful! These flies though, amazing skill - They circle the bikes as we ride – how do they do that?! We cannot escape them uphill, we’re going too slowly. I manage to chase one of them downhill at about 20km/hr to no avail. They are flying too fast for me to catch up. ARGH!!!
We thankfully arrive at the next stop – Reserve Nacional Cerro Castillo and go on to the campsite, where we find no less than seven cyclists already set up camp, gathering around a roaring campfire. I guess everyone else set out from Coihaique about 3 hours before we did! We’re back to the bad old days of getting up at 9am and leaving sometimes after noon. I am slightly ashamed and quickly set about looking efficient and busy (I'm good at that!). We are told there is only a cold shower, which we braved - as we were utterly drenched by our own sweat today - it was 32 degrees, as we were later told, and particularly unpleasant. With our usual speedy efficiency, we are the last to go to bed, and get up. In fact, the campsite is nearly empty. Oh well. Lucky we will never face them again - they'll all be days ahead of us!
We decide to do the recommended 4-day hike in this National Reserve (now mapped on OSM - Alex). We go back into Coihaique by bus (65km away) to buy some backpacks.
Alex is torn between a super-duper completely waterproof-with-suspension North Face sleek black model and a DeVoux. Heard of it? No, nor us. Being the cheapskates that we are we opt for the 50 pound traffic-light red DeVoux which Alex has subsequently fallen in love with. I can talk, I have ended up with a lime green *blink* glow-in-the-dark *blink* *blink* backpack. Stylish.
We are successful in our mission, and pick up other essentials for the Big Hike (the ice-cream is just to smooth things along during the day). At 7pm we wander back out of the heart of town to start getting a ride back to our tent. No buses come our way, and eventually we manage to get a lift for 10km away. Only 55km to go then. Oh good, another one, for 20km. We are still quite far away and traffic is slowing up. It's now 9.30pm, dark, and we are stuck in a tiny village. Funny how suddenly a lift from someone is no longer a favour, but we start feeling peeved when people ignore us and drive on, looking determinedly ahead. Surely it's our right to get a lift?!
Clearly not. We finally manage to persuade a hotel personnel to give us a lift back, if we paid him the price of a room. Outrageous. But OK...and we want to get back. It's 11pm by the time we arrive at the campsite again and we are tired and hungry. A guy comes out from the surrounding darkness, carrying a hot, burning log. He's about to go to bed and thought we would like a hot fire. Hooray! He has restored our faith in Chilean kindness.
A lift to the beginning of the trail on the back of a pickup.
Before Chile we were always a little astonished at people who loll about at the back of trucks like this...not particularly safe. For me it's the same category as hitch-hiking. But we're fast learning that it is a necessity - either that or grow some wings!
The first day of the trek is not particularly exciting. We follow vehicle tracks and swat flies. I manage to kill 27 by lunchtime. The trail is spiced up by a few river crossings that we were not expecting to do...I get in a little too deep and my trousers are completely soaked. The water is absolutely freezing and by the time I'm out the other side my feet are like ice blocks.
Being true adventurers we fill our bottles from the streams and rivers...and then filter to make the water totally bug-free. So the advertising on our filter says. Other people are not so cautious and will drink straight from the flowing water. It is from mountain springs after all.
At our first campsite we are tired and cold. I've never built a fire by myself before - someone has always been around to help, but here I try my luck and what do you know, with a single strike of the matchstick, it catches and we warm our cold fingers and toes around it.
Day two - we come across some rocky terrain...that's ok. We're explorers, you know. And then some snow. That's ok too. The ranger assured us that our hiking shoes are enough and we need no special equipment. Only 300m of snow, honest!
A kilometre later our feet are soaked through and I slide my way to the bottom of the hill.
By day three the weather is starting to close in and we have a more difficult river crossing. I throw some rocks in to make it easier - only resulted in a slightly unhappy Alex as I misjudged the splash. Twice!
Nope, got my feet wet.
Getting higher and higher in altitude at Laguna Castillo. An exhilarating view of the glacier, the lake, and the way we'd come already. The rocks are not fun, but nothing compared to what we are about to go through.
The lack of signage is a big problem. A little splash of red and white paint is all very well if you can see it. Some kind helpers have piled up rocks to show the way. We decide to lend a hand and help out the rangers too...I'm trying to increase the size of the pile of rocks to make it more obvious from more than 10 yards away! It gets addictive and we start to spend more than a couple of minutes piling up the rocks. The weather behind us is getting rapidly and very noticeably worse.
We see a hiker illuminated in all colours highly visible bounce over the rocks down to us. He is one of those fit, cheery people who clearly loves this. He has the proper equipment and we sigh after him as he bounds away downhill. We are struggling to climb over the large rocks in our way, and our newly-found walking sticks (broken off branches) are helping a bit. We go over the top of the mountain and then the wind hits us. And the rain. Then the hailstones. And finally snow. It was NOT amusing. I was NOT impressed. I would NOT like to do it again. The weather was, as you will have gathered, atrocious. We fight to keep the rubbishy raincovers on our backpacks...ah-ha, the 250 pounds difference in backpacks is significant afterall. Everything is wet anyway and we start to give up. Visibility is appalling. We can barely see what next signs there are. I slipperly-slide my way down the rocks and my stick breaks. Fantastic.
We have no photos of this episode. It was a fight just to stay alive.
Imagine the relief when we finally find some shelter amongst some trees. I can´t imagine what the rangers are thinking of, sending us off with little directions (could be our poor Spanish...) and pitiful signage. We wonder whether the people behind us make it...we only see one of two groups the next day. We meet some people coming the other way, who say, "You went through that? We gave up and turned back."
As we patted ourselves gratifyingly on the back, we try to dry off our stuff at the lovely roaring campfire they had stoked up. We are intermittently successful, before the constant drizzle also intermittently intensifies.
Waking up the next day, we wonder at the snow on the mountain...will we have a white Christmas after all?! It is FREEZING! The views are unfortunately non-existent and we gratefully make our way down the mountain for the final day.
At the official trail exit at Villa Cerro Castillo the rain starts in earnest. Thanks. We say this because we cannot work out why it seems to lead to a locked gate. We wander along the hopelessly signed path hoping to find another way out for at least half an hour in the pouring rain. Another group comes along, having entered that way the previous day, and we figure the best way is to just get on with it...
Arriving at the Villa Cerro Castillo, the village at the end of the trail we slosh our way through the rain into a restaurant for a well-earned meal and hot drink. We meet more cyclists who opened our eyes to this...For all you smokers out there, this is what the Chileans have to say...
Our not-particularly-helpful rain covers for the rucksacks spectacularly failed in their jobs. We arrived back at camp and built the now obligatory campfire, to dry our sleeping bags over the fire.
Some more cycle-tourers tell us about the wood burner which heats the water for a fantastic hot shower. We will be grateful until the end of time!!
We need a rest day after all this hiking. Although the distances were not far our muscles are not used to this. We also need more time to dry out the damp equipment. Our adventurous spirit only slightly dampened, it will dry out quickly and we will be ready to tackle the Carretera Austral. Hooray!
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