If January is anything to go by, our 2011 promises to be full of adventure, amazing beauty and struggles against nature.
The New Year began with a stand-off against the dreaded RUTA 40. This desolate stretch of road is nothing short of infamous in these parts. Motorcyclists grumble about the loose gravel and corrugated driving surfaces, motorists worry about flying rocks and cracked windshields and cyclists, well sane cyclists avoid this stretch of road entirely. Cyclists possess a natural inclination to stay far away from RUTA 40. Like cats steering clear of ferocious dogs or school kids crossing the street to avoid an encounter with the class bully.
We were bouncing along RUTA 40 because my practical husband thought it was ridiculous to pay an ‘exorbitant’ $83 for a four- hour ferry ride in Chile. “They’re just ripping off tourists,” he exclaimed.
The ferry would have allowed us to cycle the entire length of the famous Carreterra Austral. Famous, you note, not infamous.
Famous for its beauty. Fast flowing rivers, incredible mountain vistas, glaciers, sleepy villages, fjords, shimmering lakes. In short, perfect cycling.
Instead, we started off the year struggling against RUTA 40. Eric tried hard to sell me on the idea. “It’s off-the-beaten-track. Everybody cycles the Carreterra Austral. We don’t just want to follow the masses. RUTA 40 is real adventure”
By real adventure I guess he meant a bone-jarring ride through a great windy expanse of nothingness. Personally, I’d had my fill of real adventure and was keen to tag along with the masses. Perhaps there was a sound reason behind the popularity of the Carreterra Austral. Maybe it was actually a fun place to ride a bike.
But Eric appealed to my sense of fearlessness. “You’re not a wimp, are you? RUTA 40 will be another kind of fun. Real fun. Real adventure.”
Fortunately, just as the really rough part of RUTA 40 appeared, a nice pick-up came along. Instead of spending a projected 5 or 6 days suffering out our ‘real adventure,’ we struggled a mere three days. For me, three days was more than enough of that type of fun.
Finally it was time for our long-awaited reward: riding the Carreterra Austral. We’d been hearing about it for years. On any list of Places you Must Ride, you’ll find the Carreterra Austral. Cyclists come from all over the world just to cycle this stretch of road. For bicycle touring enthusiasts, riding the Carreterra Austral is akin to visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. It’s a must do.
And it was perfect cycling. Well, at least for a few days until the rains kicked in. The landscapes in this part of Chile are truly jaw-dropping beautiful. Villages are conveniently spaced every 50 kilometers or so. There’s no need to stock up on supplies. You can just pop in to the tiny general story and pick up a pack of pasta and a can of tomato sauce. There’s even fresh bread along the way. Just ask around and someone will point you to a house which serves as the unofficial town bakery.
The Carreterra Austral is unbelievably popular. Every day we crossed paths with cyclists heading south to Ushuaia. One day we met a whopping 22 riders. All these encounters made for slow going, as we stopped to chat and exchange tips on good spots for wild camping and road conditions ahead.
This part of Southern Chile is perfect for wild camping (with just one caveat: the rains). It’s easy just to pull off the road and pitch your tent by the riverside. Patagonia is one of the least populated parts of the continent so there’s little worry of being bothered by locals. What’s more, Chile has a reputation for being one of the safest countries in South America.
Just one rather unpleasant camping experience marred our ride on the Carreterra Austral. Our grassy riverbank spot turned to marshland over night and we woke to a minor flood in the tent. Nothing that a little bailing didn’t solve. The sleeping bags are still a bit squishy, but I’m confident the fierce southern hemisphere sun will soon shine and we can dry things out properly.
The long, lonely roads and unrelenting winds are behind us now. The road north promises some wet riding days, but I’m sure the spectacular scenery of the Lake District will make up for the pain. At least I’m hoping it will.