Sorry this is such a long post but there is so much to tell…. like how I’m soooo sick of eating fresh trout …. not!
The Careterra Austral is a road (very loosely termed) that was built in Chile during the reign of General Pinochet to try to connect about 1200kms of small fishing and farming communities in the south of Chile to the populated areas to the north. It passes through the wettest area in the world outside of the tropìcs, through thickly forested, steep and mountanous terrain, around startling blue lakes and clear running rivers flush with trout and salmon. We have now completed 600kms of the road, from a little known Arg-Chile border crossing in the south involving 2 lake crossings and a thin hiking trail, to what seems like the thriving mertropolis of Coyhaique (a small town by any other standards but the biggest one we have seen in a while). Adventures along the way include…
- Getting stranded in the middle of no-mans-land between the Chilean and Argentine border for 4 days after missing an infrequent ferry.
- Fresh trout roasted on the fire for dinner with wildberry sauce- much better than the usual pasta!
- Getting a ride on a seriously dodgy south-asian style fishing boat for a 3.5 hour trip through the maze of fjords in southern Chile in the pitch dark.
- Refining the Patagonian howling monkey shower technique.
- Mick playing hairdresser by hacking into my hair with his leatherman
After the month break with the family we picked up our bikes again in El Chalten. Luckily the guy looking after them hadn’t sold them as he’d offerered to do, but our plans suffered a bit of a setback when we found out that the ferry which normally runs across Lago del Desierto, the first stage of a long border crossing between Argentina and Chile, was out of service. Actually as we found out, the boat was working just fine but the captain had decided to take a break from running this regular twice per day ferry and evidently there was no one else to drive the boat. Not as surprising as you might think in Argentina so we did the usual roll of the eyes, shrug and I spent the day trying to organise something or anyone else to take us across as we only had two days to meet a twice-per-week ferry on the Chilean side, but all without much luck except for the suggestion that maybe there would be a boat on Saturday (the same day as the other ferry that we had to meet was leaving). We figured it was defintely worth a try – it would be a long detour to the next border crossing north and we didn’t want to miss out on the scenery in the southern part of the Careterra. The chances of lugging our fully loaded bikes on a steep and tiny hiking track around the lake seemed to range from ‘impossible’ to ‘possible but extremely difficult’ but it was our last resort.
We set off on the road to Lago del Desierto feeling good to be back on the bike. For the first 10kms. After than we were cursing the break as our butts bounced against the seats and our legs started to burn. Where had all that muscle we’d built up gone?! Waay too many parrillas and cakes over christmas. Anyway, it was a good way to break the butts back in quickly on the 35 kms of deeply corrugated dirt road.
Setting off again from El Chaltén.
We arrived at about midday and had no luck trying to cajole the only person on the lake with a boat into giving us a lift. OK, it was a little inflatable boat for fly-fishing and it would have been a tight squeeze and I guess we weren’t anywhere near as lucrative a business as his overweight gringo fly fisherman he took out that day, but it was worth the try. We ended up camping there anyway and were just psyching ourselves up the next Saturday morning for some seriously hard work going around the lake when we had a stroke of luck - a tour boat was operating at 10.30am and they agreed to take us across. The day was absolutely beautiful, clear skies and we crossed the gorgeous deep green-blue waters of the lake with the striking view of Mount FitzRoy in the background.
Mick waiting on the litle dock for a boat.
View from the boat crossing the lake to FitzRoy and Cerro Torre.
The magnificent Cerro FitzRoy.
The awesome view as we finally arrived at the other side of the lake.
By the time we were stamped through at the Argentinian border post at the other side of the lake it was after midday and we were told the next ferry crossing could not wait for us past 5pm. So we had 5 hours to cover the approximately 20kms of no-mans-land between the Argentinian and Chilean border posts. Sounds easy? Unfortunately for us it took us 5 hours to cover the first 6 kilometers…. The track was just that, a thin hiking trail through the low mountain pass, but steep, rutted and rooted with many fallen trees and swamps which made pushing the fully loaded bikes almost impossible. Aparrently in German there is a word that means ‘bike-trekking’, well this was defintely that! In the end we happened upon a system of taking off the front panniers and loading them on the back of the bikes and using a rope like a harness to help eachother pull the bikes up the really steep parts. We realised we were never going to make the other ferry about half way through the track (only 3kms taken us 2 hours!) so we relaxed and had a bit of fun anyway. A bit of hairy single-track through the woods with some steep drop offs to the side saw me nearly go flying off a cliff and Micks encounter with a poorly placed stump saw one of his back panniers completely ripped off. But a quick fix with some zippy ties, which I might say are still holding today, and we were off again. In the end it was really fun, and we expected it anyway – that border crossing is pretty notorious for being challenging with the bikes, and we arrived at the edge of the huge Lago O’Higgins on the Chilean side at nearly 7pm, way after the ferry had departed.
Mel working to get the bike up a steep ascent on the trail.
Mick pointing out the trail at the actual border. For some reason after the 6km of thin trail on the Argentine side it widens to a road (quite ridable!) on the Chilean side.
The bridge on this river was washed away so it was time to get the feet wet!
So we took account of our surroundings, our home for the next 4 days until the next ferry arrived. There wasn’t much there. A farmhouse with a few yards was the closest thing to civilisation (somewhat hopefully labeled a ‘Hosteria’ on maps and the few bits of information we could find). The family there was very nice – they let us camp on a lovely flat bit of grass near their little weather station above the house and yards and offered us water whenever we needed it. When we arrived the old lady of the house who lived with her son (who’s father for some strange reason lived about 10kms away up the side of the lake) gave us some tea and bread. They were the only people around besides 2 Caribineros (Chilean army police) at the tiny border post just up the road. But above all the scenery was absolutely spectacular – a huge turquoise lake where we looked over to the dry mountainous Argentine side on the east from our campsite while behind us and to the west there were steep craggy black snowcapped mountains in Chile. As we rode in we rode beside a beautiful powerful but clear running river that cut a big gorge through the mountain side and Micks eyes lit up at the thought of a few days trout fishing. In the end we were not too worried about being stuck for a few more days R and R!
The weather station/ clothesline tentsite next to the lake.
View from the campsite at sunset.
We celebrated my 27th birthday 2 days later and it would be hard to imagine a better one. We walked down to where the sweet river (called Rio Obstaculo due to its banks being cliffs) came into the lake and tried our luck at a bit of fishing – mick with his fly rod and me with a little hook, string and line. We turned up on the wrong side of the river and after seeing Mick struggle to get across the rapids I had no faith that I’d be able to cross without getting swept away into the lake. I decided that my only way to the other side was going to be swimming across one of the less turbulent pools which provided mick with lots of amusement as I gingerly slipped into the icy cold water and then made a mad dash for the other side in about 5 strokes and jumped out yelping. There is a video but it will not be posted! I must admit that I wasn’t particularly hopeful about the fishing, knowing micks past luck with trout fishing and with my lamentable lack of equipment but happily I was proved wrong almost immediately when Mick hooked a good sized rainbow trout, and then continued to reel them in through the afternoon. I even managed to catch a little one on my bit of string (so I don’t think they were the most wily fish around)! We were having a great time and we ended up throwing quite a few fish back and still taking 5 perfect sized trout back to the camp.
First fish of the day!
A nice spot to fish
That night we had a feast of fresh trout cooked on the fire with homemade butter (kindly donated by the old lady at the farmhouse) and lemon. I made a sauce from the abundant wild strawberries, calafate berries (strong and slightly sour local berries) and some other yummy berries that were conveniently scatterred all around the campsite. It was delicious. All I can say is, wow, what a birthday.
On the second day of us being stuck the most random guy walked into our camp with nothing but a tiny backpack. Now that might not seem so strange anywhere else but here we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere somewhere between Chile and Argentina, not exactly a place you can just turn up to. He was a chilean guy who for lack of funds decided to try to cross the border ‘home’ since he didn’t have enough money to catch a bus the other way. I gave him full credit for travelling so light at first, until it became apparent that he was really quite a silly bugger and also never stopped talking. Somehow he thought that he’d be able to ‘catch a ride’ to Chile across the lake even though everyone had told him that the ferry only ran twice per week. He became our ever present ‘Chilean Chimer’. I mean the guy had nothing, luckily he was able to borrow a tent from the kind people at the house. We ended up feeding him every night as obviously the wild berries were not going to be enough for 3 days. Crazy crazy bastard.
So we spent the other days in much the same fashion – reading, fishing, walking around, picking berries and eating fresh trout. Mick helped out the guys on the farm mark a few calves which he found were pretty much bulls and it was all very messy and disorganised but really quite amusing with the old father who could hardly walk with his slightly fitter son and mick trying to wrestle the poor animal down.
Mick catching some more trout from the lake…. yummmm
Mick and our chilean chimer.
Well finally the boat to Chile did arrive and we were almost sad to leave but excited to finally get to the Careterra also, as well as leave our friendly chimer who was also understandably excited to be finally leaving. A whole bunch of people arrived during the day to our formerly deserted site who were actually organised enough to make the ferry, including a bunch of bike tourists who we were to see frequently along the Careterra. We met a british couple who were doing a bunch of hiking along the same route as us that we talked with most of the hours it took the ferry to get to Villa O’Higgins. In the spirit of all of his previous craziness our chilean chimer sold his camera to someone else on the boat which still had all of his photos on it and then asked me if I could send him my photos of Torres del Paine….weird!!
We were finally on the bike again the next morning, slightly hungover from a little red wine binge with our new british friends the night before, but excited to be underway again nonetheless. The first few days were all everyone says of the road – almost no cars, no people and very very beautiful. It was a pretty good road, with some steep hills but gorgeous views and 2 perfect sunny days. Waterfalls constantly gushed above us and under the road, some so big they sprayed us with mist as we rode past . We camped the night in a mosquito ridden but pretty spot in the rainforest near a perfectly clear deep stream. We also saw huemel (an endangered Patagonian deer) and a huge condor flew so close to us as we came to the top of one of the hills, amazing.
Mick loving the Careterra.
We arrived at the ferry crossing to Puerto Yungay but found that unfortunately the ferry was out of service due to the fact that one of the crew was on strike. How typical. So we waited around until finally a whole bunch of locals in a minibus turned up who’d organised some transport in a very decrepid looking fishing boat. This seemed very lucky for us until we also found that somehow our chilean chimer had found his way onto the minibus also and he promptly came bounding over with kisses and hugs and asking us for some food since apparently he hadn’t eaten since 2pm! Well neither had we but being nice we gave him the last of our cookies which he gobbled down in front of us while talking excitedly…. as always.
Unfortunately the boat wasn’t big enough for everybody but they did offer to come back for us which was nice, especially considering they were doing it for free. We waited with 2 other bike tourists from Switzerland and of course our chimer who also offerred to wait for the second trip (big sigh). When the boat finally returned it was almost 9pm. The crossing to Puerto Yungay took almost an hour and then the boat crew offerred to take us to Caleta Tortel, which we wanted to go to anyway, meaning that we wouldn’t have to double back on the road and it would save us a day. Perfect. Except of course that chimer also thought this was a good idea.
Well it all seemed like a good idea at the time but darkness fell quickly after and we realised that we were stuck on a very rickety fishing boat for 2 more hours on the ocean with no lights at all and a crew drinking wine out of a skin goon bag. Well there was really nothing for it but to try to go to sleep on the damp benches, dinnerless and cookieless (the chimer was having a grand old time drinking up the front with the crew, but at least leaving us alone!) and hope that the guys knew the narrow waterways pretty well. It was pitch black.
The boat, chimer in foreground.
Caleta Tortel is a little fishing village that has only had road access for 2 years. Due to this there are no streets, only wooden boardwalks winding around the bays and through the (steep) hills at the edge of the water where the town is. It is famous (in Chile…) for this and also the wet climate and flora and fauna in the lush rainforest surrounding it. We had heard that it was a really cool place, but somehow not really asked any more about it so we knew nothing of this before we arrived. We finally made it to Calita Tortel alive and well, but then we began to realise the extent of our mistake when we asked one of the guys on the boat where we could camp and he looked at us strangely and said ‘You could camp at the beach around the side of town but the tide comes up a lot, and there are a lot of stairs to get there’. Ouch, stairs, a loaded-up touring bikers’ nightmare! This was obviously not feasible at 12.30am. We couldn’t see a lot when we arrived, (funny about that in the middle of the night) so it was all a bit silly as we lugged our bikes up and around the boardwalks and over lots of stairs while one of the guys from the boat kindly tried to find accommodation for us in some sort of hostal or hospedaje but everything was full. This was not turning out to be a good night. Finally we had to camp on the only small flat piece of ground in the whole town, just near where we had docked at the main plaza. We were just happy to have a few sardines on crackers and crawl into the tent at last. Our luck was really down that night though since almost as soon as we had finally crashed out we found that this spot was obviously the hangout for all the youngsters after the bars closed. We huddled in the tent while all around us was the sounds of drunken partying (who would have thought this quiet little town would be hopping at this hour?!), too tired to care too much and at last falling asleep.
We took a rest day to see the town the next day which was very pretty. It rained a bit and we decided to get a room in a hospedaje and save ourselves another sleepless night. It was a much needed relax and the place was certainly very cool with all the boardwalks. Trouble was it was full of stairs, lots and lots. The next morning it took us over 2 hours just to get our bikes and all our gear out to the road since unfortunately we had been dropped off on the other side of the rather spread-out town, carring the bikes up over what seemed like thousands of stairs to get out. Oh well, it was a lesson learnt (maybe a little more research on some of these places first?!) and a nice place to visit anyway.
On one of the many boardwalks at Caleta Tortel
We continued on up the Careterra, it continued to be spectacular and we got some good kilometers on the clock so that we arrived in Cochrane, the next ‘major’ town a couple of days later feeling good. We met up with our british friends there for a bit of an asado and some more vino of course but decided to continue riding the next day since we were feeling so good.
Drinking water is not hard to find around here.
Typical view on the Careterra Austral.
A nice camp site.
In the next few days we camped in beautiful spots by clear blue rivers and rode past amazing turquoise lakes. We had some pretty funny moments like when we developed the Patagonian Howling Monkey Shower technique which consists of the following steps…
1. get naked
2. other person tips bucket full of freezing cold glacial meltwater over your head and you howl, a lot.
3. very quickly lather up all over your body and hair with soap
4. other person tips another bucket of extremely cold water over your head to wash off the suds and you howl again.
5. run over to the fire and try to warm shivering frozen body back up.
Sounds like fun huh?! I must admit that Mick didn’t really howl as much as me, luckily there is no one around for kms. And actually we are starting to get used to it now.
Another inspired moment Mick decided that the haircut I had got in Buenos Aires by some ‘stylist’ really was looking like a mullet so he started snipping bits off with his scissors on his leatherman. I wasn’t really taking too much notice until he kept on going and I said ‘well mick if you are going to cut my hair at least don’t cut above the hairline’ but it was too late…. Mick started making little ‘hmmm’ noises of concern as he realised that he was actually not too good at cutting hair and I put my hand up to the back of my head to feel some rather large chunks of hair missing. Uh oh, not good. I started to get a bit upset now and Mick started to try to repair the back of my hair but it was really not working and he decided to leave it for the proffessionals to try to fix when we arrived at the next major town…. in 5 days time! His assurances of ‘don’t worry sweetie it doesn’t look that bad, I like it better’ and ‘it just looks like you have a really bad haircut at the back’ didn’t really help much, nor the thought that I am suppossed to be getting married in 3 months time! Sorry mum! Oh well I got over it and a nice old lady hairdresser fixed it up in Coyhaique (amongst much tut tutting about how I let my boyfriend go anywhere near my head with a pair of scissors!).
2 awesome rivers combining into one.
Mel holding her head after the cut, lucky it was a beautiful day to make things better!
Mel on the gravelly Careterra
We spent another rest day in a little town called Puerto Tranquilo on the stunning Lago Carerra where we took a tour out to see a huge glacier. It in a beautiful, lush green valley surrounded by craggy mountains and hanging glaciers, spectacular!
Then Mick went down for a spot of fishing on the lake and came back with this sweet rainbow trout for dinner!
Yes I am covering my hair.
We continued on north to Coyhaique with some wickedly steep road but almost 100kms of smooth pavement, our bums were loving it.
Climbing up to a pass near Cerro Castillo.
Mick with the end of the beautiful blue Lago General Carerra in the background.
We finally arrived in Coyhaique after battling some tough headwinds which almost made me nostalgic for Tierra del Fuego, but not quite. It seemed like a huge city after all the time in the sticks, we were quite blown away by the selection of food in the supermarkets and all the people. We have decided to continue camping in the towns also which is much better value and its been really good weather (sooo lucky) up to this point.
A few other tips from the road:
Best fire-up song to listen to while hill climbing - ‘Storm Coming’ by Gnarls Barkley (man you can’t stop me with that on!).
Best meal on the road – Potato and Carrot Stew, made from stock cube, taters, carrots, onions (where available) and garlic with my special blend of spices from my little ‘spice wheel’ including chilean aliño (mixed spices and herbs) with a handful of rice cooked in the stew. Sooo much better than the previous pasta and tomato staple!
Priorities for places to camp (prority 1 and any other combination is enough) -
1. ground big enough for tent.
3. water source.
4. out of sight of the road (most difficult, usually not achieved).
5. sheltered area for wind protection, or in the case of much of the careterra, enough wind so that there are not so many bugs.
6. something to sit on.
7. place and wood for fire
8. Toilet and shower (hot is very very good)
8. Some sort of roof, tables etc like proper camping site.
Anyway, hope that gives you a bit more insight into our life over the past month or so. Will update again soon. Chao!
Tags: Argentina, Bike touring, Chile, Patagonia, South America, The Big Bike Trip, Travel Destinations