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Road through the wilderness

Posted: 2015-02-27 19:15:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Chile, Argentina, 1258 words (permalink)

Sandra cycling on the Carretera Austral towards Villa O'Higgins. After our hiking trip in National Reserve Cerro Castillo we continued cycling south on the Carretera Austral. There were no cities or major towns any more and even villages were further and further apart from each other. Especially the last 200 km stretch from Cochrane until Villa O'Higgins was a small road through the wilderness, with few houses and plenty of moors between the mountains, rivers and forests.

Inside a marble cave near Puerto Rio Tranquilo. After Villa Cerro Castillo the pavement ended and the road headed directly west for quite a while before turning south again. The next slightly bigger settlement was Puerto Rio Tranquilo, a touristy town famous for its marble cliffs and caves. Like most visitors, we took a boat tour to see them. The boat spent more than half an hour near the rock formations and went inside several of the caves, so we were quite satisfied with the tour. The way back was like a roller coaster ride, the small boat jumping up and down the waves on the windy lake.

Our camping place next to lake General Carrera. The road followed the coast of the lake General Carrera, at times high on top of the cliffs offering marvellous views of the lake. At the bridge over the narrow passage between lake General Carrera and lake Bertrand we stopped for a break. A Chilean family was enjoying the sunny afternoon and the father started fishing using a simple reel of line, a hook and baits. Within twenty minutes he had caught three trouts, one weighing a bit less than a kilo and two smaller ones, one of which he gave to us to cook for dinner.

Baker river just before joining the Nef. Following day we arrived to the southern end of lake Bertrand, where the water was flowing out forming the beginning of the Baker river. It was one of the most beautiful rivers on our route, with clear blue water rushing down the valley. Some 15 kilometers further south was the confluence of rivers Baker and Nef, where large masses of water joined each other with great force. The water from Nef was much more brown so Baker lost its superb colour at that point.

Horseman on the alternative route near Cochrane. Before arriving to Cochrane, we took an alternative route on the other side of the Baker river. In distance it was probably even a bit shorter than the main road, but included a very steep climb of 500 meters of altitude over a pass. We had to push our bikes several times, but enjoyed the views and the quietness of the route — during the whole 30 km we saw only one car and a horseman.

Cochrane was a slightly larger town than all others in the region with a couple of thousand inhabitants and a better than average selection of groceries. We bought food for a week knowing that there wouldn't be any shops during the next 230 kilometers, and headed out to the last section towards Villa O'Higgins, the southernmost point of the Carretera Austral.

Wetland by the side of the road towards Villa O'Higgins. The first 40 kilometers after Cochrane was very bad gravel with a lot of washboard, not the most enjoyable cycling experience. There was also still a significant amount of traffic, mostly cars and minivans heading to Caleta Tortel, a village famous of its wooden walkways by the sea. We were not willing to cycle 25 km there and the same way back to see the village so we skipped it and continued directly south from the Tortel crossing.

After the crossing of Caleta Tortel the number of cars reduced dramatically and the road became nicer and nicer. Water was flowing down from the mountains on both sides of the road in numerous small streams. There were many lakes and even more wetland, making us feel like being in Swedish or Norwegian Lapland. It was the only road through wilderness with only an occasional house every 10 or 20 kilometers, which contributed to the Lapland feeling. Although even here fences often separated the privately owned lands from the public road, there were plenty of wonderful places for wild camping.

Mountain lakes seen from a viewpoint near Villa O'Higgins. We came forwards a bit faster than we had anticipated and arrived in 4,5 days to Villa O'Higgins. It was a rather pleasant village or small town, mostly living from the tourism but featuring modest family-owned guesthouses and small grocery stores instead of hotels and fancy restaurants. It was a dead end for everybody coming by a motor vehicle, which meant that most didn't bother to drive that far. There was a general sense of calmness and we heard of many people who had stayed in the village longer than they had originally planned. We spent three days resting and going for a couple of short walks, and would have probably stayed for some days more if we didn't have a certain date to be in Ushuaia, still quite a long way further south.

For cyclists and backpackers, it was possible to continue further from Villa O'Higgins and to cross the border to Argentina. Actually there were even two alternatives, a road and hike over the mountains to the east and a more well known ferry crossing plus hike towards the south. We chose the latter, mainly because it brought us much more directly towards Puerto Natales, where we had sent a package at the beginning of our trip to pick up later.

The ice wall of the glacier O'Higgins. One of the two ships crossing the lake O'Higgins offers a half day side trip until the glacier carrying the same name. Compared to the steep fare of simply getting on the other side of the lake, the glacier tour was more reasonably priced so we decided to go for the full package. The tour brought us close to the impressive wall of ice several dozen meters high, with small icebergs breaking off and floating on the lake. We had never been so close to a big glacier before and with its various shades of blue it was more colourful than other glaciers we had seen on the trip. As a small surprise a glass of whisky with glacier ice was served to all passengers. We opted for the kids' version of juice and ice, adding alcohol to our already slightly upset stomachs after the trip on the windy lake didn't feel like a good idea.

At times, it was even possible to cycle on the hiking trail instead of pushing the bikes. The majority of passengers returned on the ship to Villa O'Higgins, we and a few others stepped out on the south side of the lake, where we camped for a night before continuing. The Chilean border control was only a few hundred meters further, the actual border with Argentina 15 kilometers away. Until that point there was a narrow gravel road, followed by a 6 km hiking trail leading to the Argentinian border post at Lago Desierto. It was a scenic but pretty strenous day, as our loaded bicycles were not the ideal vehicles for a narrow trail going over roots and stones. However, we got through with lots of time and patience, as all the other cyclists taking the same route.

Lake Desierto with the famous peak of Fitz Roy in the background. Lake Desierto was a beautiful place for a rest day. It was free to camp at the northern shore and during the first evening we had a great view to the Fitz Roy mountain and other high peaks over the lake. One day later we took another expensive ferry over to the southern shore to avoid another longer stretch on a hiking trail around the lake. Then it was only a 40 km easy ride to El Chalten, a touristy town and a hub of hiking trails near and around the famous mountains and glaciers. For us, it was the ending point of our bicycle tour, and the beginning of a new chapter in our travels.

Like a painted scenery

Posted: 2015-02-21 14:52:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Hiking, Chile, 1462 words (permalink)

Arto on the ridge, looking down from the high plateau near Cerro Castillo. Photo by Sandra Teräs. We cycle with backpacks on top of our panniers so we can stop, repack, leave the bicycles and proceed on foot whenever we want. In National Reserve Cerro Castillo we went hiking for half a week, mostly through valleys but also over two mountain passes, near sharp high peaks and glaciers. On the top of the second pass, we had a view towards the south over hills, valleys, rivers, lakes and forests, looking like a painting.

The road a few kilometers south of Coyhaique. After a couple of days in Coyhaique we continued further towards south on the Carretera Austral. On the first day we rode through a rather dry landscape with a strong tailwind pushing us forwards. In the best downhill I reached 76 km/h and Sandra 66 km/h. Late afternoon just before the village of El Blanco we stopped at a house which had chicken running around in the garden and a sign "Eggs for sale". We asked for six, the friendly old man packed us seven and didn't even want to accept any payment. On the opposite side of the road was a house selling home made cheese and we also went there to buy some. This time we paid but got a quiet wind protected place to camp behind the house for free.

Sandra crossing one of the small rivers. On the following day we continued towards National Reserve Cerro Castillo and soon crossed the border of the park. The road was a steady uphill, but paved and not too steep. A French couple in Coyhaique had given us a hiking map of the area which they didn't need. Around 2 pm we arrived at the starting point of one of the two longer trails crossing the park. We checked that we had enough food and made a rather spontaneous decision to go on the trail. We hid our bikes and panniers between bushes, packed everything we needed in two backpacks and started walking.

Valley of the river Turbio, with the mountain pass in the background. The first 15 km of the trail was relatively flat, following a river valley through a forest. It was fairly easy walking except for several small river crossings without bridges, which meant that we had to take off our shoes and walk through the cold water. Sandals would have been useful but we had left ours at the bikes to save weight. On the first evening we walked about two thirds of the flat part and set up our tent next to the river. Officially wild camping is not allowed in Chilean national parks and reserves, but in less frequented areas it is usually rather easy. We're not doing open fires and naturally not leaving any trash behind us.

Approaching the pass. During the night and morning it was raining, but shortly before noon the rain stopped and there were more and more openings in the clouds. We came to the park rangers' hut and got some information about the route ahead of us. In Chile it's even more useful to talk to the rangers than in Europe because the maps are usually not very detailed and often outdated. Also in this case a couple of new campsites and one trail weren't marked on the map, and another trail which was on it didn't exist any more.

Glacier right after the pass. After a few more kilometers through the forest next to the river the path started climbing up towards a pass. It wasn't a very long climb, about 500 meters of ascent on a good trail brought us to 1300 meters of altitude. That doesn't sound very high, but it was comparable to trails a thousand meters higher in the Alps: above the treeline, windy and snow fields remaining in places where the sun didn't shine the whole day long. A nearby glacier reaching down to about 1500 meters of altitude was keeping the temperature lower than it otherwise would have been. We could see the glacier from just a couple of hundred meters away, with melting water flowing down in numerous small streams, joining each other further down to form a river.

Campsite in the forest. The crossing of the pass was easy, the descent on the other side rocky and steep. It probably took us more time to go down than we had needed to hike up. However, after an hour of carefully descending step by step we had the steep part behind us and the trail became easier again. It went still down for quite a while first through gravel and then through forest before reaching the campsite. The facilities were very basic as on every site in Cerro Castillo: some flat space to set up tents, a dry toilet, a table and a couple of wooden benches, drinking water from the river flowing by. We had the whole site for us, the park rangers at the hut had been the only people we met during the whole day.

The mountain lake being fed with glacier water. During the night and morning it was raining again but similarly to previous day the rain stopped before noon, with a mix of sunshine, clouds and a couple of short showers during the rest of the day. The trail led us up to a clear mountain lake with a small meadow of green grass on the eastern shore, gravel and rocks in all other directions. We had a picnic by the lake and then climbed the steep and rocky slope up to a ridge and a small highland plateau. There we met the first other hikers since the start of our walk. It was the most famous section of the park and there was also a shorter trail leading to the same point, starting directly from the town of Villa Cerro Castillo.

View down to the river Ibanez and the whole landscape below Cerro Castillo. On top of the ridge we could see down to the town and over the whole landscape towards the south. The valley of river Ibanez dominated the foreground, behind it were hills, lakes, other rivers, patches of forest and higher mountains in the background. The Carretera Austral road crossed through from north to south-west with a couple of tiny side roads starting from it. With the shadows of clouds over the land the scenery looked almost like a painting. We sat down and watched it for a while before continuing further on the trail.

On top of the shoulder. The trail went up on a shoulder of a mountain at about 1600 km of altitude, the highest point of the hike. On our right we could see the sharp peaks of the Cerro Castillo, partly hidden behind clouds. The wind was blowing hard and we had to watch our steps when coming down along the steep rocky slope on the other side. Then the trail went again inside the forest where it was easier to walk, but still quite a way until the campsite. Distance marked on the map was 1,4 km, which was apparently just the straight line between the two coordinates and had nothing to do with the actual walking distance on the path. On the way, we met Simon, Jose and Clara, three Chileans from Santiago, and walked together with them the last kilometers. Then it was time to set up the tent, cook dinner and go to sleep as usual.

Horses on the trail when hiking down. At the campsite there were a few more hikers going to different directions. We headed down towards Villa Cerro Castillo, again together with Simon, Jose and Clara. On the way we had a 1,5 hour break when Simon set up his equipment and made a multi-channel sound recording for his sound landscapes project. It was a sunny, hot day and we were all quite tired when finally arriving to the town. Next to the main road was a funny looking hamburger restaurant built into two old buses. We ordered a burger each and a plate of french fries to share. The service was slow but the burgers good and huge — I was satisfied with one and Sandra with a half, the rest we packed with us to eat later in the evening.

A huemul looking at us on the roadside. After eating we bought fresh fruits and other food at the minimarket on the opposite side of the street, said good bye to the Chileans and started hitchhiking back to our bikes. There were no buses any more, only a few cars and some competition from other hitchhikers so we had to wait for some time. Finally we managed to convince a pickup driver that there was enough space for us at the back and got a ride. It was a cool ride through mountain landscape in the evening light. And we were specially lucky because two huemules (a Chilean species of deer) were next to the road and the family in the pickup was also enthusiastic to see them. They stopped and we got good photos.

Back at the starting point of the trail our bikes were where we had left them behind a bush. We camped for a night, repacked our gear for cycling and continued further south along the Carretera Austral.

Sandra waiting for a permission to ride forwards. We spent 2,5 weeks in January cycling from Puerto Montt to Coyhaique on the road number 7, better known as the Carretera Austral. It is the main and only road leading south in this part of Chile. Most of the villages and towns on the way are small so the traffic wasn't heavy, and the road surface was in many parts still gravel. However, as the only land route south it is becoming increasingly important, and there is a big effort going on to make it paved at least for the complete northern half until Coyhaique.

Fishing boats next to the Carretera Austral. The first 60 km from Puerto Montt the road followed the seaside, a relatively narrow passage between the island of Chiloe and the mainland. The coast was lined with small fishing villages which looked pretty in the late afternoon and evening sun. We camped on a small grass field facing the sea and could see the sun setting behind Chiloe.

Arto playing with cats at the guesthouse. The next day we left the sea for a while and hit the first section of roadworks: 20 km of bad gravel, dust, trucks and other machines preparing the road for pavement, which unfortunately wasn't ready yet. The day was saved by a very nice guesthouse where we stayed with eleven cats, other animals including dogs, ducks and goats, and a nice family taking care of all of them and us as guests of course. We even got homemade bread and duck eggs to complement our dinner which we cooked ourselves in the kitchen.

Huge wild rhubarb leaves in the Pumalin Nature Park. From Hornopiren there was a 5 hour passage by two ferries until Caleta Gonzalo, where we entered the Pumalin Nature Park. It is private land but maintained in a similar way than national parks, with marked hiking trails, campsites and information services. The park was full with lush vegetation, in particular large ferns and huge wild rhubarb leaves (nalca in spanish), some of them more than two meters across. It was clearly a region with lots of rain and we also had our share, but luckily also a few sunny moments between the clouds. The campsites were beautifully arranged and the same aesthetic appearance was carried out throughout the park, including every sign and information board. Unlike national parks, there were no entrance fees to access the trails, and the campsites were very modestly priced at 2500 CLP (about 3,5€) per person.

Glacier at Ventisquero Yelcho. From Pumalin we came to Chaiten, where we stayed one night in a guesthouse and refilled our food reserves in a supermarket. After Chaiten the road was paved, relatively flat and we even had a good tailwind for the next 40 km so it was easy cycling for a while. Then it was gravel again, but a fairly pleasant and smooth one this time. At Ventisquero Yelcho there was a free camping and a walking trail leading to a glacier hanging down from the mountains.

Small road in a mountain valley leading towards lake Claro Solar. We started meeting more and more cyclists on the way, most of them travelling south as we did. The majority were Chileans, but there were many from other parts of the world as well. One of them, Alex from Australia, joined us for a few days. Together we did a very nice detour in a small quiet valley leading to lake Claro Solar. With the mountains in the background and a couple of farms with cows on the fields it looked a lot like German or Austrian Alps.

A bird in front of the mountains coloured by the sunset. Photo by Sandra Teräs. We passed the town La Junta and about 40 km later stopped in another called Puyuhuapi, where we stayed mostly inside because of the rain and had a rest day. The Internet was good enough to call our families, catch up a bit on what's happening in the world (which we rarely do on the road) and search for information about the areas coming up. In the night there were fireworks and a dance party to celebrate the foundation of the town about 80 years ago.

Bosque Encantada trail in the Queulat National Park. After Puyuhuapi we came to the Queulat National Park, where we saw another glacier and had a relaxed evening with our own small campfire at the park campground. The next day we cycled further and walked the "Bosque encantada" (enchanted forest) trail through a beautiful moss-covered old forest until a laguna up in the mountains. Sandra dipping in the laguna at the end of the Bosque Encantada trail. About 20 other people had also found their way there — surprisingly many considering that the beginning of the trail was poorly marked, and it wasn't one of the shortest nor easiest walks either.

The last 180 km until Coyhaique the road was paved and not too hilly, following river valleys between the mountains. It was sunny again and one of the days was so hot that we had a long afternoon break cooking in the shade and swimming in the Maniguales river. Lake view on a windstill day on the road towards Coyhaique. Traffic became heavier as we approached the city and the road was narrow so it was probably one of the most dangerous sections of the whole trip. Still, almost all the passing cars left us plenty of space and we arrived safely to Coyhaique. That was a perfect place to have a break, take a nice warm shower, get our clothes washed, communicate with our WarmShowers hosts and prepare for the way further south.

Camping up in the mountains between border controls

Posted: 2015-01-17 05:47:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Hiking, Chile, Argentina, 592 words (permalink)

Cooking in front of the tent near the Antonio Samore pass. Our most spectacular campsite on this trip so far was near the Antonio Samore mountain pass, right on the Argentinian-Chilean border. We set up our tent on the plateau facing the Puyehue volcano with a panoramic view of other volcanoes and mountains in every direction. The sunset coloured the sky first orange and red, later violet, followed by a clear full moon night.

In Argentina we cycled the classic "seven lakes" route from San Martin de Los Andes until Villa la Angostura. It was a pretty road, but the weather was cloudy and rainy so we didn't spend much time at the lakes. In Villa la Angostura we stayed in a hostel and celebrated New Year with other travellers, mostly Argentinians on their holidays. On New Year's day we already headed back towards Chile.

Sandra enjoying the view on top of the mountain. We camped one day at a river still on Argentinian side, and reached the border at the top of the Antonio Samore pass on the second day. The Argentinian customs and passport control had been already 20 km before and the Chilean ones were 20 km further ahead. It seems to be pretty common here that the border area is dozens of kilometers wide, and it's not a problem to spend even several days between the control points.

Our campsite with Volcano Puyehue in the background. Only a few hundred meters after the pass on the right hand side was a small jeep track leading up towards the nearby peaks. We followed that and were soon like in a different world: sand everywhere, small streams in deep canyons and a view towards all directions. We could see the Puyuhue and Casablanca volcanoes, various other mountains and also Puntiagido and Osorno volcanoes further away.

After about a kilometer we left most of our bags on the side of the track and continued further up with a lighter load. Then we left the bikes behind as well and climbed on top of the nearest peak. In the loose sand we got our shoes full of sand and small stones, but otherwise it was quite easy to climb. On the top we had a picnic and enjoyed the sunny afternoon.

Volcanoes Puntiagudo and Osorno during the sunset. We descended on the north side and were directly on the border, indicated by an old metal sign saying "Chile" on one side and "Argentina" on the other. The track ended there but some footsteps were going forwards. We followed them and climbed still the next, slightly higher peak before coming back and picking up our stuff.

The tent under the full moon. It was surprisingly windstill so we chose to set up the tent directly on the open plateau at 1500 meters of altitude. It was a rare place, with so much sand around and looking very dry, but still having water available in several small streams. We cooked dinner and prepared tea while admiring the sunset. Then we had a rest in the tent, but came later out for a while to watch the moon and the stars before going to bed. The temperature dropped below zero during the night, but our sleeping bags were warm enough to sleep comfortably.

In the morning we had breakfast, packed our things, cycled back to the main road and further down to the valley towards Entre Lagos and Osorno. On the good paved road it was a fast ride through a quite strange landscape of dead trees. Later a park ranger explained us that it was a result of an eruption at one of the Puyuhue volcano side craters just a few years ago. The grey scenery lasted for about 10 kilometers, down in the valley everything was green again.

Hot springs and strawberries for Christmas

Posted: 2014-12-29 16:13:00, Categories: Travel, Cycling, Chile, Argentina, 930 words (permalink)

Our plate of delicacies for Christmas eve. This year we spent an alternative Christmas by camping and visiting thermal baths along a small road crossing the Andes between Coñaripe, Chile and San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina. In the morning of Christmas eve we were the last time within the reach of mobile networks and sent some "Merry Christmas" messages to our family and friends, before being unreachable for several days.

Lying in the bath tub in Termas Trafipan, Liquiñe, Chile. On December 23rd we cycled from Coñaripe on the shore of Lake Calafquén further south-east to Liquiñe, the last village before the climb up to the Carririñe mountain pass and the Chilean-Argentinian border. There were several thermal baths in the village and nearby. We followed the suggestion of the tourist info and chose a modest one called Termas Trafipan where it was also possible to camp. It had one bigger pool with warm water, perhaps around 35 degrees, and a separate building with small private rooms, each containing a bath tub. Nothing fancy, but a good place to wash out the dust of the road.

Being used to Europe it was a little funny to have Christmas in the summer, in the middle of strawberry and raspberry season. The shops in Liquiñe didn't have a very large selection of fruits, but we did find strawberries in one of them. Knowing that it would be the last chance of shopping before over 100 km of slow mountain roads, we also bought some apples and bananas before heading forwards. A sufficient stock of rice, pasta and other dry foods we had already acquired a couple of days earlier.

Bathing in the hot pool of Termas Hipolito Muñoz. After 10 km of up and downhills we came to Termas Hipolito Muñoz. After a short look around it was clear that we'd stop there for the rest of the Christmas eve. It had an idyllic setting in the river valley, plenty of trees to provide shade from the afternoon sun and good, clean sanitary facilities. For bathing, there was one warm pool and another hot one with clearly over 40 degrees, plus showers and the river providing for cold water. All of them were outside, open day and night so it was possible to take a bath under the stars too. It was peaceful and quiet, simply a wonderful place. There was also a small rustic steam sauna, which looked interesting but the smell of sulfur was so strong that we came out after a few seconds.

There would have been cabins to rent but the weather was constantly sunny so we didn't see any need for one and set up our tent. We were the only ones camping, in addition to us there were just one family in a cabin and a couple of day guests who didn't stay overnight. We spent a relaxed afternoon in and outside the pools before preparing dinner. It consisted of spaghetti with tomato sauce, followed by tea, strawberries and a selection of cookies for dessert. We invited a Chilean couple to share the cookies with us and they brought us orange juice and avocadoes, which we had for breakfast next morning. After the sunset we had a night bath before going to sleep.

Road towards the Chilean-Argentinian border. We thought of staying a second day but decided to continue towards the border on the following day. The road became smaller and smaller but at the same time easier to cycle, because the surface was smoother than on most gravel roads which are covered with a layer of small stones. Traffic was non-existant, so we also didn't have any dust to worry about. In the afternoon we reached the Chilean border post, which was manned but closed. The suprised border guards had a short negotiation between them about whether we could stay at the border, but decided to send us away. We pedaled about a kilometer back, camped in the forest out of sight of the guards and came back the next morning.

This time we had better luck, there had been a change of shift and the new guards were ready to open the border. We were apparently the first ones wanting to cross, as it took a bit of time before they started their computer, examined our documents, took a photo of us with a mobile phone (!), and adjusted the right date in the stamp after first stamping our passports with completely wrong date. All of that was carried out in a very friendly manner and then we were off towards Argentina.

A natural hot spring in National Park Lanin, Argentina. The last three kilometers before the highest point of the pass were very steep and we had to push our bikes at least half of the way. After that it was almost as steep downhill on the Argentinian side, descending to the Lanin National Park. There we had one more visit to thermal pools, this time free ones next to a trail in the park. However, those pools had more murky water and were in general less attractive so we didn't spend too much time there.

Dry mountain scenery in Argentina. It took us two days to cycle through the park. It had less trails and facilities than the parks we had been visiting in Chile, but a similar mix of forest, lakes, rivers and mountains. When moving more east the terrain became slowly more and more dry, opening a whole new type of scenery in front of us. Eventually we also reached the Argentinian border control post, which was more than 50 km away from the actual border. Again stamps in the passports and we were officially in a new country. One more day of cycling brought us to San Martin de Los Andes, the biggest town of the region with about 24000 inhabitants.

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