February 12, 2012 GMT
Episode XII: Carretera Austral proper

Leaving Cerro Castillo behind we enter the unpaved part of the Carretera Austral. 700km further South lies the end of the road, Villa O'Higgins. We have no idea what we'll do once we get there, but we have silently agreed to ride the length of the Carretera Austral. Not doing so would be unthinkable.

We finally enter the part of the Carretera Austral which looks like what we expected: An endless dirt road taking us through mountains, valleys, canyons, next to rivers, lakes and waterfalls, with limited traffic and stunning views.


We ride as much as we want and then find a clean, flat, removed from the road camping spot, always next to clean water. We set up camp, get the fire going, purify water, cook, write the diary, chat and sleep.


Then we do it all over again.


Every day for the next month will pretty much be like this. The Carretera Austral is sucking us in its magic, without us realizing the change. We relax, we slow down, we rest, even though we travel every single day. We are happy.


Sometimes we complain about the bad road surface...


...or the dreadful horseflies that prey on us all day long.

But the next wild camping spot is waiting for us wherever we want it. And its crystal clear river will be just there, for us to sit next to, read next to, munch next to.


The roads carries on South and so do we.


We visit the Catedral de Marmol caves close to Puerto Rio Tranquilo and marvel at how the lake's water has eaten into the soft stone to create otherworldly formations...

Catedral de Marmol caves near Puerto Rio Tranquilo

The entire cave looks as if it has been hand-chiseled as it has been slowly eaten away by the water.


What is left looks like a cathedral, hence the name.


On our way out we find these two obviously lost piglets standing right in the middle of the Carretera Austral. They are shaking... with fear? With cold? With both? In any case we dramatically increase their life expectancy by gently pushing them off the road.

Piglets on the Carretera Austral

Back on the (organized) campsite we find a small bug having rapelled from an impressive height down to our eye level, as if waiting for a chance to strike up a conversation with a human. It's dangling there from its single silk-like string, gently rocking back and forth with the wind.


After collecting wood we light the wood stove, wait for 15 minutes and then enjoy two brilliant hot showers.

The next day we leave Puerto Rio Tranquilo behind and hit the road again. Heading south.


It's a difficult day with suffocating heat, many horse flies, difficult uphills and dangerous traffic on the Carretera Austral. We stop at something that looks like a chalet to ask if we can camp on their extensive and unused grassy gardens but get "no" for an answer. They point us to the house of the caretaker next to the chalet. Don Victor beckons us to pitch our tent in his small yard before we even get the chance to ask. We are filthy and tired, with remains of horse flies all over our clothes. We can not be bothered too much with the chicken roaming all over the yard, or the cats looking at our tent in bemusement, or the dog that is trying to make friends by sticking its nose in everything we own. It's a Zen moment - a moment when a rational assessment of the difficulties and risks (animals tearing/peeing on our tent, being constantly chased by horse flies, having to camp in a yard covered with chicken/cat/dog poop) would not be acceptable. The warmth of hospitality gives us a good distraction and we try to focus on that and just get on with our usual tasks (cooking, purifying etc) when... the stove starts acting up.

Coleman Sportster II (533) Dual Fuel camping stove - problems with the pump again

The new stove. The one we waited ONE MONTH in San Pedro de Atacama for.

I understand things breaking after a lot of use and abuse. The previous stove had been to India and back, and taken two months of cooking in Chile as well. But this one was practically new! We have used it for less than two months and the pump is starting to act up... it proves difficult to get it to work at all. My morale takes an instant dive. I feel everything collapsing around me and a wave of anger taking me over. Don Victor helps us again by inviting us to cook using his gas stove, so we have a warm meal and then go to bed with dark thoughts.

The next day we formulate a plan. We will carry on pedalling until we reach a village. All villages have GSM coverage (for mobile phones), which means we can connect to the Internet using our Kindles. Which means we can order a new stove online from Andesgear in Santiago, as we should have done in the first place when the first stove broke.

Technological incompatibilities notwithstanding (Kindle's browser is too simple to deal with the poor webpage creation practices that are commonplace nowadays - a disregard for standards results in web pages that are only viewable with specific operating systems and browsers) we manage to order an MSR Whisperlite Internationale stove online, and ask for it to be delivered in Cochrane, a town we estimate we'll reach in 2-3 days.

We stay at an organized campsite that night that is so infested with horse flies...

...that we have to jump in the ice-cold Rio Baker to escape them for a little... of course screaming and jumping out as fast as possible before the freezing water makes our heart stop.

Rio Baker

The next day we move on and as we are negotiating the ups and downs of the Carretera Austral, disaster (almost) strikes. I am leading at this point with Ping closely following, but after a series of sharp downhill corners I lose her. I reckon she's just taking it easy and wait for her by the side of the road. It's the days between Christmas and New Year's Eve, and the road is busier than normal. As I ponder all that, Ping is having an accident.

She has just entered a sharp right downhill turn with slippery gravel. She is fighting to keep control of the bike as the centrifugal force is pushing her to the left, in the way of oncoming traffic. It slides sideways, making it a struggle just to stay on the bike. At that exact moment, a couple of German tourists enter the corner from the opposite direction. They have rented a red 4x4 pickup truck for the holidays and are driving it back to Coyhaique.

They see each other at the last moment, swerve, and scrape each other with their right sides. Ping comes off the bike, somersaults and lands on her bum, out of the road. With nothing broken. The car stops, one of its mirrors hanging from a cable. Ping's bike doesn't appear to be damaged in any way.

After waiting for a few minutes I backtrack to the scene of the accident, get told the news and we agree to go to Cochrane together to file a report with the police for insurance purposes. So we get a lift, me on the pickup truck that could have been the end of Ping, and her with a Swiss couple who have appeared with their campervan.

Getting a lift with the injured pickup truck

Thus we arrive in cosmopolitan Cochrane, rival (as it should be obvious) to Hollywood a few miles north.

Cochrane, like Holywood

After sorting out the paperwork, sharing lunch and greeting our strangely acquired new acquaintances, we move into Cochrane's lovely little camping site and take the rest of the day off. We rest, wash, eat and chat with other travellers, like the Sri-Lankan-born Australian who is just back from a 6-week trek on the Campo de Hielo Sur which sounded not fun at all... 4 hours' sleep every day, lugging around 60kg of equipment per person, being pinned in their tents for two weeks in a row due to bad weather... some people really are adventurous!

The next day we explore Reserva Nacional Tamango just outside Cochrane - supposedly the prime location to see the elusive Huemul deer. We don't.

We also do not get lost, despite the best efforts of the local CONAF office (the national park authority of Chile) who have provided us with the GPS track data that you see in the photo...

Walking trails of Tamango National Reserve: CONAF data vs reality

The white line is what CONAF's data says the trail is.
The black wiggly line is where the trail actually is.
So much for my grand scheme to get CONAF data for Chilean national parks into OSM.

What we *do* find, instead of cute Huemul deer, are thousands and thousands of tabanos (horse flies).

Tabanos (horse flies) in Reserva Nacional Tamango

They make walking around the otherwise pretty park exhausting, since they force us to constantly move our arms around us, trying to make it difficult for the flies to land on us.

Once more (as in Cerro Castillo earlier - see previous blog post) we marvel at the uselessness of the signs in the hiking trails. Here, a fine specimen of a sign, expertly positioned.


(yes, Ping is pointing at it)

(no, you can't see it but it's there)

(yes, utterly useless)

We return to our camping site in Cochrane to meet a new challenge: The frozen salmon we found during our standard round of grocery shopping is too big for our largest pot! What now?

A piece of salmon too big for our big pot? Oh no!

Luckily the chef (Ping) figures something out and we eat a splendid, mouth-watering salmon and rice dish.

In a dramatic turn of events, our new stove gets delivered on the 31st of December!

Receiving the MSR Whisperlite in Cochrane

Amazing stuff! We managed to order it from Santiago on the 28th and it's already in our hands. Feeling liberated from the whims of the still-functioning-but-not-to-be-trusted Coleman 533, we overcome the initial confusion about how the damn thing works...

Wiping soot off an MSR Whisperlite Internationale

...and embark on a cooking frenzy for the next 2-3 days. We spend time around the campsite chilling out, getting to meet some very pleasant cycling tourers who have shown up, fighting to fix my air mattress that's leaking down feather all over the place...

Exped DownMat 7 DLX - down feather escaping from the air valve

...but mostly socialising with our partners in the cherry-picking-from-the-camping-sites-trees crime:

With Andi, Anita, Cathy and John in Cochrane camping

Andi & Anita and Cathy & John

And with that, the year is over.

We manage to stay awake with everyone else until 00:30. The lady of the camping site comes out of her house and kisses every one of us on the cheek. We tourists, confused, mostly shake hands and hug among us, our heart warmed by the local traditions.

2011 is over. 2012 is ahead of us. We have less than a month until the end of our trip but are relaxed about it. We enjoy sneaking through the mini adventures of the Carretera Austral as its magic pulls us further south.

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Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at February 12, 2012 07:09 PM GMT

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