Peddalling in Patagonia part 1
12 Jan 2008
We have seen and done such a lot since flying in to Santiago 2 months ago (yes, it`s that long since we wrote an update, sorry!!). So we will do our best to give you an insight into our activities in this wonderful part of the world and give you a bit of a flavour of the scenery, culture, and people that we have encountered along the way. The plan is to give an update to Christmas in this instalment then do another one when we reach our southerly most point in Patagonia in a few weeks time. Even then I will struggle to do this bit justice without writing way too much so apologies in advance for skimming over some of the details and for writing too much!
We actually started at school! Yes, we decided that we really should attempt to speak some Spanish as we are going to be in predominantly Spanish speaking countires for the the next 8 months. So we signed up for 5 days of lessons. Well, talk about brain ache!! It was certainly a shock to our underused and underworked brains and was probably one of the most challenging things we have done on our trip so far! Starting from nothing and trying to learn all the grammar and enough vocabulary to back it up in 5 days was a tall order indeed. After 3 days Nick decided that the grammar was very much in his `too hard basket` so decided to forget the group sessions and just focus on learning useful phrases and words in some individual lessons. That left me on my tod feebly trying to master the finer points of Spanish grammar. The end result was that between us we have enough to get by and now have a good base from which we can only improve. Of course it doesn`t help that Chilean Spanish is probably the hardest to understand but we have heard it gets better as you go North in to Bolivia and Peru so things can only get better.
Santiago is an interesting city with a strong European feel. It sprawls for miles in every direction and has a real mix of old and new. Many beautiful big churches, lots of European architecture and enough parks and open spaces to make it feel quite green. Sadly it has more than it`s fair share of pollution so the beautiful Andean mountains that provide an impressive backdrop are usually shrowded with a haze that severely impedes visibility, depending on the weather. We spent longer in Santiago than we have in any other city due to our Spanish lessons, so by the end we felt like proper locals having mastered the very efficient underground train system, visited most of the major sights and of course found the best bars and cafes to sit and do our homework in. Yes, we really did do homework!
We also took our books for an overnight visit to Valparaiso the port city to the West of Santiago. It`s another interesting place with a good buzz about it and plenty to watch in the central plaza with Latin American dancing and singing and locals sitting enjoying the sunshine. The whole city is built on the hills right on the coast with many classic old funiculars that looked liked something from the good old days, providing an easy and cheap option for making your way to the upper streets. The weather in Santiago and Valparaiso was a very pleasant 22-26 degrees and mostly dry.
On the 15th November it was finally time for the off but rather than cycle from the city we decided to get the bus about 600kms south to a town called Victoria (near Temuco) to get to the good cycling straight away. We had it on good authority that the countryside just south of Santiago was mostly flat and not very interesting and it would have involved large sections of riding on the main Pan American highway, something we were in no rush to do. I should also explain that originally we had planned to take public transport to the very bottom of Patagonia and work our way north on the bikes. However, it was going to work out better in terms of weather for us to cycle south to the bottom and then we will take public transport back up to more or less where we started and head north. We wanted to be in the South in the height of summer and also the famous howling Patagonian winds are more often coming from the north, so in theory they should push us southwards. It hasn`t always worked that way so far but to be honest we have discovered that the winds are so affected by the mountains in any particular area that it is hard to say which is the prevailing direction sometimes. Overall it feels like going south is the right way to do it.
From Victoria we headed East towards the mountains and followed a route that took us through the Conguillo National Park. We had hoped to take a road that goes past the foot of the Volcano Llaima (which we just heard the other day has erupted recently!) but it was closed with snow so instead we did a loop that took us through the sleepy town of Curacautin heading towards Argentina then round the back of the park through lovely country to Icalma and Melipeuco (is that not a great name!).
It felt great to be back on the bikes and to finally be riding in Patagonia, something that we seem to have been talking about for years. The weather was mostly good and we went through wonderful monkey puzzle forests with regular views of the volcano through the trees. This is the North of what is known as the Lake District region of Patagonia and is famous for its beautiful lakes and many snow covered volcanoes, something that we were to see much more of in the next couple of weeks. We were also to see many more cycle tourists in this part of the world as we soon discovered it has become a very popular cycle touring area for people from all parts of the world. 7 in one day was our record!
Our route very quickly took us on the infamous South American dirt roads or ripio as they call them in Spanish. Anyone who has ridden a bike on dirt roads will know there are dirt roads and........... there are dirt roads. Some that are relatively smooth and straightforward and others that are rough, rocky, corrugated and can only be described as s**t!! And believe me we have had them all!
From Melipeuco we joined a wonderful smooth tarmac road to Cunco then it was back on the dirt heading South to Villarica. This time we had views of the continually smoking Volcano Villarica. This road was hillier and rougher than we expected and we had one of our hottest days so we were delighted to stop by the beautiful Lago Villarica for a late lunch and a swim in the cold but very refreshing water. We stopped for a day in Villarica which is a typical friendly busy wee Chilean town, a bit rough round the edges but with a good mix of local life and tourist services. We then carried on East through the tourist town of Pucon which has a real ski resort feel about it. They do ski on the volcano here in winter but there are only 2 lifts. A more popular activity seems to be to walk or ski tour on the volcano at this time of year. We resisted the temptation as you had to do it as part of a tourist group and pay lots of money but it did have an appeal. We then headed over the Paso Mamul Malal on a rough but beautiful road to cross between the 2 Patagonian countries for the first of many times. The crossing is very straightforward as long as you don`t take any fresh food so we had a huge lunch about 3kms before the border finishing all of our fresh fruit and veg. As it turns out we have discovered that the Argentinians are far more relaxed about the whole process than their Chilean neighbours and nobody asked or checked what we were carrying. It was then downhill through a beautiful valley for about 80kms to Junin de los Andes. This time under volcano Lanin and through more Monkey puzzle trees near the top of the pass. As we descended the country changed quickly to follow a pattern that we have since seen many times. Everything is drier and browner with very few trees on the eastern side of the Andean range and the lush forests give way to the Argentinian pampa. It has a very different beauty and lends itself to wondeful changes in colour, mood and fantastic sky scapes. Of course it also lends itself to winds blowing completely unobstructed and blowing dust in to everything. Patagonian dust can definitely reach parts that no other dust can reach!
We finished that day in San Martin de los Andes, another ski resort town but with a much wealthier feel than Chile; designer shops, fancy hotels and restaurants were on every street. As you can imagine we blended in beautifully. From here we headed south in Argentina and went through some breathtaking country that included the 7 lakes road to Villa Angostura on the huge Lago Nahuel Huapi, the largest natural lake in Argentina. One thing about travelling along a mountain range like the Andes is that sometimes you can get a bit blase about yet another snow capped mountain vista, you start to take them for granted and get quite miffed if you have to go more than an hour without a spectacular view!! The incredible blue green crystal clear lakes or rushing river just complete the picture.
Our next stop was San Carlos de Bariloche another big town with an impressive location right on the lake. It was here that we had our first invitation from one of the locals to stay in their house. We were sitting in an internet cafe when Nick was tapped on the shoulder and asked "are they your bikes" pointing at our bikes against the window. When he heard they were the guy said "you must come stay in my house" in his wonderful pigeon English. Not known for turning down such offers we learned that Baldy (as he calls himself) is a local guy who cycled from Patagonia to Alaska about 7 years ago and just loves to help out fellow cyclists when he can. He lived in a lovely house about 8kms out of town with his partner and they gave us such a warm reception. They fed and watered us and included us in an evening with some German friends who had arrived in their campervan. Another lovely couple who have lived in South America for 6 years mostly in their van and who speak fluent Spanish and English, so they were also great interpreters for the evening. Another example of amazing generosity and kindness from a fellow traveller and as we have said before another memory for us that goes right up there as a highlight.
We continued in Argentina to El Bolson and then through the Los Allerces National park to the little town of Trevelin, a town originally inhabited by the Welsh and one that still hangs on to its Welsh history. Patagonian souvenirs with the welsh flag on them somehow doesn`t seem quite right but each to their own! It was then back over the border in to Chile at Futaleufu and on to some of the roughest most corrugated road we`d been on so far. (Apart from the other 20kms in the los allerces National Park where the road was so horrible we hitched a ride on the back of a pick up!!!) Another 90kms further on and we joined the famous Carretera Austral at Santa Lucia. The Carretera Austral is the stretch of road that officially starts in Chaiten south of Puerto Montt for about 1200kms to where the road ends in the sleepy backwater village of Villa O`higgins. It is predominantly dirt road through some rough and ready towns and villages with classic wee shops and restaurants. It feels very remote and rugged and goes through a lovely mix of countryside with some of the most challenging riding we`ve done so far. When you reach Villa O`higgins you really are at the end of the road and have to get a boat that goes once a week at this time of year across Lago O`Higgins, a lovely trip complete with our first ice berg. The boat leaves you at a point in the middle of nowhere which was the start of our most amazing border crossing so far. There is a very rough 4 wheel drive track for 14kms with no vehicles so the only way to travel is on foot, by bicycle or by horse. Even then, for those of us taking the bike option we still had to do sections on foot where it was just too steep or rough. You leave Chile at a border post about 1km along the track and then reach a sign at the end of the track that says welcome to Argentina. This is where it gets interesting........the track disappears and becomes nothing more than a footpath through the forest, thanks Argentina! Again some of it is rideable but for most of it you have to walk and lift or push your bike. The whole thing felt more like a smugglers route than an official crossing except for the border posts at either end. We used pack horses to carry our bags across for us, a service that is provided with a smile and was 15 pounds well spent as far as we were concerned. At the end of the track you come out above the beautiful Lago Desierto with the Argentinian border post in a lovely setting at the head of the lake. We had our passports duly stamped by some very friendly border guards who are obviously very used to the crazy cyclists who visit them on a regular basis. It's then on to another boat across the lake to finally reach a dirt road that leads the 37kms to the tourist town of El Chalten in the Los Glaciars National Park. What an adventure and a great way to make our way through some great country in one of the most remote areas we have been in. The whole journey has become quite a thing to do amongst cycle tourists so there were 10 of us altogether on the boat including 3 Germans whose company we then had the pleasure of over Christmas.
As we wrote in our Christmas message we had a wonderful time in this area with great weather and lovely walks to the Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy mountains. A very different and far more sociable Christmas than last year. As we walked up to the Fitzroy lookout we had Christmas cake and carols followed by more Christmas and whisky at the top. We couldn't let our German friends have Christmas with a Scot without a wee dram!
We have probably done more wild camping in Patagonia than on any other stretch of our trip so far with the distances between places being so big and the countryside so remote. So we have to be quite organised with planning how much food we will need to last us to the next shop. This of course means that we end up camping in some wonderful places and some not so wonderful ones depending on what's available. It also means that we get to see wildlife that you would never see from a hostel window. The bird life has been particularly good and we have been accompanied along the route and at our camp sites by a wonderful variety of birds of all shapes and sizes. A couple of highlights include sharing a camp spot by a river with a pair of kingfishers that were apparently completely unpurterbed by our presence as they continued with their fishing, a woodpecker pecking at a tree by the side of the road until he had found his meal despite his audience of 2 cycle tourists and of course the wonderful condors that soar above the mountains moving just too fast to ever get a decent photograph but commanding your attention until they disappear. Another wildlife highlight was watching 4 dolphins, a seal and 2 otters from a campsite by a fiord whilst we ate our porridge! All before 8 am, it was just incredible.
When we are not camping we treat ourselves to clean sheets and a hot shower and usually stay in a hospedaje, basically a local house that has been converted with rooms for the tourists. They are usually run by lovely local ladies who speak no English but who are very happy to listen to our pigeon Spanish and help us in any way they can. Overall as far as the people are concerned we have experienced only friendly, helpful and patient people. They are very tolerant of our lack of Spanish and just seem grateful that we try. They are also very generous with a good sense of humour and a laid back approach to most things in life.
The food is the one thing that lacks imagination in Patagonia. If you're happy to eat steak and chips for every meal then you`re in heaven. Finding quality fresh fruit and veg is a challenge and restaurants just don`t seem to do anything creative with them. In fact they rarely even have them on the menu. A salad is the best you can do. However most of the time we cook for ourselves in the tent and manage as best we can to come up with different gourmet delights, as far as 2 cooking pots and a few tired looking veg will allow. As most of you know we love our food and whatever else we never go hungry!
On that note I'll finish there and leave other information for the next update. As I said it has been very hard to summarise everything that we've done but that's what we get for leaving it so long. So hopefully it wont be so long until the next time.
Until then we hope you are all very well, very happy and you are having a wonderful 2008 so far.
Love and best wishes
Vicky and Nick