The moment we joined the Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) in Caleta Puelche it began to pour with rain. Five days later it was still raining. Cycling was miserable. Our so-called impermeable panniers were in fact permeable. The spectacular scenery we were expecting was shrouded in cloud. Morale was low.
Then I was reminded of the age-old saying in this part of the world: “Quien se apura en Patagonia pierde su tiempo” (“Those who hurry in Patagonia waste their time”). It would be about taking the rough with the smooth, trying to look on the bright side of life when the weather was foul and savouring the beautiful long summer days when they came our way.
Work started on the Carretera in 1976 during General Pinochet’s military dictatorship. The original intention was to name the road after him but thankfully he’s been denied that legacy. The aim was to connect the towns and villages in Chile’s remote Aysen region which at the time were only accessible by horse, boat or from Argentina. It came at a time when Chile wanted to strengthen its presence in the south of the country following border disputes with Argentina. It took 12 years to complete – 24 years if you take into account that the final 100kms were only finished in 2000 – and it now winds 1,240km (770 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins and includes three ferry crossings.
The Carretera exudes adventure and host all types: hikers, cyclists, hitchhikers, road trippers and even the odd conventional traveller. We were fortunate to meet many cyclists along the way. Sometimes it was just a quick roadside chat to pass on tips and recommendations for the next section ahead. On other occasions we would team up and ride together for several days or weeks. Some people were squeezing riding the Carretera into their Christmas holidays. For others it was a small stage of a much longer journey. But everyone had been lured in by its promise of adventure.
We met French couple Marion and Jeremy at the ferry terminal in Hornopiren. They must have thought I was a complete and utter idiot when I fell off my bike while standing still in the queue. And there I had been telling them all about how we had cycled from Peru! Ad and Charlotte from Belgium appeared next to us on one particular climb and before we knew it we had spent three weeks together. When we realised they were younger than us and at the beginning of their own South America epic, we thought we’d take them under our wings. It soon became apparent that they were the ones looking after us, stoking campfires, providing medical assistance for my gammy knee and supplying us with chocolate biscuits.
There was also Dutch couple (Uncle) Jaan and Jehonne on their blue tandem and Czech ultra-cyclist Martin who was planning to cover 325km the following day so he could be in Ushuaia by Christmas. And lo and behold, who should come charging up behind us to greet me with a slap on the backside, but Kiwi Jay! He was now cycling faster and living even more feral than when we’d last shared the road back in Argentina. We quickly realised he was far too speedy for us – he’s already made it to Ushuaia and is now venturing back north.
After four months cycling through Bolivia’s high-altitude altiplano and northern Argentina’s semi-arid dessert, the Carretera’s scenery was invigorating: thick verdant forest, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, fjords, cascading waterfalls, gushing rivers and vast lakes. Forget Fifty Shades of Grey, it was Fifty Shades of Blue: Rivers and Lakes on the Carretera Austral. Deep sapphire, electric blue, aqua marine, milky turquoise, clear peppermint – the other 45 are a work in progress! It was like flicking through a Pantone colour chart before painting your kitchen. And did I mention the purple and yellow lupins that lined the side of the road? It was a riot of colour. Condors soared high above and when we cycled through Parque Patagonia we saw hundreds of guanacos. Pumas remained elusive but, as the park rangers pointed out, they probably saw us.
Towns and villages, with their shabby-looking cabins after many harsh Patagonian winters, were few and far between. They became pit stops – not the seven-second Formula One kind, more the multiple-day one – a place to find a bed, a hot shower and food. If we were cold and wet then sitting in front of a wood burner was one of the Carretera’s greatest pleasures. At this time of year there was a (relatively) lively atmosphere, but I wondered what they would be like in winter when the tourists are long gone and snow begins to fall.
Lazy mornings – I take full responsibility – were followed by several hours of challenging cycling due to the ripio (gravel) road, the short steep climbs, and, at times, the weather. If possible, we would stop for lunch in a bus shelter out of the wind: salami, cheese and avo sandwiches using freshly baked pan amasado (OMG), or the healthier option of peanut butter, cucumber and carrot wraps. Would you believe it that in Unimarc supermarket in Coyhaique we managed to buy essential Waitrose crunchy peanut butter! While it was dark by 4pm in the UK, we would cycle late into the evening before finding a quiet spot to wild camp, the highlight of which was on Christmas Eve when we put up our tent on a cliff top overlooking the confluence of the turquoise blue Rio Baker and the milky mint Rio Nef.
The Carretera wasn’t all peace and tranquility though. Arriving in Coyhaique, the capital of Aysen region, we were again confronted with protests, graffiti, and boarded up banks and shops, albeit on a much smaller scale to what we witnessed in Santiago. With days spent disconnected it was easy to forget about what was going on in the real world.
There was also a chance encounter with local farmer Vicente who lived in a remote cabin in the woods with smoke billowing from its chimney. It seemed an idyllic life to two people fed up with the London rat race but he quickly rebuffed Milla’s suggestion that life here was ‘muy tranquila’ and went on to explain how people from Caleta Tortel had stolen some of his cows. We weren’t sure how this was really feasible: Caleta Tortel is a village 80km away, set between a swamp and the sea, entirely built on stilts and walkways!
A pristine environment is often a precarious one and there were constant reminders along the Carretera. Off the coast of Chaiten is an ash-like delta, the result of a pyroclastic flow which ripped through the heart of this small town following the eruption of Chaiten Volcano on 2 May 2008. Fortunately everyone had been evacuated in time.
Descending into Villa Santa Lucia it quickly became apparent that something devastating had happened as dense forest turned apocalyptic. Once in the village we saw submerged and abandoned buildings that had been caught in the path of a mud slide on 16 December 2017. There was less fortune here and dozens of people tragically lost their lives. The large green signs on the side of the road declaring ‘altos incendios forestales’ showed how susceptible this region is to forest fires during a dry summer (December – February) with strong winds.
And a pristine environment is often an exploited one. Case in point was the attempt by Hidroaysen to build five massive hydroelectric dams along the Baker and Pascua rivers. The power generated would flow north towards Chile’s main population centres requiring a 1,400 mile-long, high voltage transmission corridor. An environmental catastrophe was on the cards until support for ‘PATAGONIA CHILENA ¡SIN REPRESAS!’ (‘Chilean Patagonia Without Dams’) gained so much momentum nationally and internationally that the project was eventually rejected (for the time being that is).
The final stretch on the Carretera was a four-day ride from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins via Caleta Tortel. The further south we cycled the more remote and eerily beautiful the landscape became. A few isolated farmsteads, with a Chilean flag flying proudly in the front garden, were the only signs of civilisation.
This stretch involved a government subsidised 45-minute ferry ride from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo and we spent our penultimate night sleeping on the floor of the waiting room on the Rio Bravo side with Argentinian motorcyclist Diego and Italian – Chilean cycling couple Alessandro and Constanza who lived in Ibiza. We started talking to them about life on Ibiza and how tourism had shaped the island over the years. When I told them that my parents had met on Ibiza almost 50 years ago, Constanza asked, “are they hippies?” I went to bed that night trying to imagine Chris and Hilary with tinted glasses, purple flares and flowers in their hair, strumming Bob Dylan on the beach with a joint in hand.
Our final night before Villa O’Higgins was spent in a refugio built by the local gauchos to provide shelter to travellers – mainly cyclists. As we arrived smelt wafts of smoke and followed our noses to find a solid fire burning inside. In a true show of solidarity, Diego had stopped by on his motorbike, gathered and chopped wood, and got the fire going so we’d have somewhere warm and dry to welcome us.
I do like symmetry, but it wasn’t to be. By the time we cycled into Villa O’Higgins the rain we’d endured the past three days stopped and clear blue skies greeted us. Villa O’Higgins was another landmark on our journey to reach Ushuaia, but we didn’t see it as just another town to tick off. In many ways, reaching the end of this magnificent road felt like preparation for when we reach the end of the world. The sense of achievement was huge, and at the same time we still knew we had a long way to go. A hug, a classic photo-by-the-sign, and off we went into town for our final pitstop.