Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Carretera Austral

By Sanne

We waited until the early afternoon before we finally left El Chalten. Guess we were waiting for the wind to stop, well that never really happened. It did die down a bit though, enough for us to consider it ‘safe’ to be on the bikes. We pulled over in the town of Tres Lagos to top up our fuel tank but were informed that there would be no fuel for another three days. Lucky for us we had filled up in Chalten but we met a couple of people in Landrovers who had no other choice but to bunk down in a local estancia until the fuel arrived. There was also another biker who had put his tent up next to the petrol station. People were really stuck there (and it really was a bit of a sh*thole to be stuck in). So we did have fuel but not enough to go our planned route. We now had to do a 70km detour into a town called Gobernador Gregores to get fuel there.  To get there we had to go through about a 100kms of roadwork (as part of the project to seal all of Ruta 40, a bit of a shame if you ask me but you can’t stop progress right?). The landscape along the road to Gobernador was very barren and dry but even this had a strange beauty to it. Our eyes locked themselves onto the wide horizon spreading out in front of us and the guanacos and nandus running across the pampas. 

Once in Gobernador we rode straight to the petrol station to fill up as we had been told that also here the fuel situation is irregular at best. And we didn’t want to be caught out and be stuck here for any longer than we needed to. We asked for directions to a campsite and were told where it was but the sentence was delivered with the punchline: ‘pero esta cerrado’ = ‘but it’s closed’. We were then told that we could just go to the fire station and camp there, I don’t know where they were thinking we would be sleeping, next to the firetrucks? If a fire breaks out somewhere in town we’ll pitch in? Anyway, we couldn’t find the bloody fire station anyway so we decided instead to look for this closed campsite. We found it almost immediately and saw that the boomgate was indeed down and it looked very much closed. But then we spotted this guy wandering around in there, gringo for sure, and we asked him what the deal was. Turns out he was Aussie and touring South America on a bicycle. He was camping there for the night and as we found out we could open the gate, soon so were we! With John the Aussie cyclist we sat around the table eating our sorry excuse for a dinner - we were on a mission to clear out our bag of old food and the result was cheesy minute noodles, how appetizing does that sound? By now the three of us were no longer alone in this supposedly very closed campsite. Since we had arrived, every 30 minutes or so after that another car would turn up, and other one, and the time we went to bed there must have been about 8 vehicles in this tiny campsite. But we had a quiet night’s sleep and woke up the next morning to set sails for Los Antiguos over 400kms away, usually a bit more than we like to do, but there really is not much in between these places so we decided to push it all the way. Most of the way we had nice riding weather, a little cool but no wind (note: when there is no wind one must remain suspicious at all times, there is no such thing as ‘no wind’ in these parts, it is merely silence before the storm). And it was. We turned a corner and there it was, waiting to greet us like an old friend, only this friend greets you by punching you right in the face. Not a nice friend really. 

With sore necks and arms we arrived in Los Antiguos and set up tent in the municipal campground which was pretty shitty and expensive. The only good thing about camping there was that in the evening a woman walked around selling freshly picked cherries (which is what this town is famous for). Oh the cherries! They were sooo good! And at $2 a kilo quite the bargain. We bought a kilo, then realised as we were mowing down on them that we would be crossing the border into Chile the very next day and Chile is notoriously tough with their restrictions not to bring in any fresh produce such as fruits and vegetables. We had just stocked up on those things so we would now have to be creative in hiding it so the officials wouldn’t find it when they would check our bags. The next morning we began our concealment mission. The various products of fruits, veg and cheese got stuffed in between the tent and sleeping bag and in the bottom of Mark’s pannier under some dirty undies (surely no one would be game enough to go beyond those).  At the border we met an Aussie couple from WA and chatted for a bit with them before it was time for the customs officer to have a rummage through our bags. We had on purpose declared one apple, hoping that would throw him off the scent of the other stuff we had stashed. The officer was very thorough and he got dangerously close to the stuff hidden away in Mark’s panniers, but thanks to the before mentioned undies that’s about as far as he was willing to go. Result: we got to keep all our fruit! (except of course for that one apple). 

Chile Chico was a much nicer town to look at than Los Antiguos but we weren’t staying here, just getting money out of the atm before continuing. But as we rode up in front of the bank, we saw the WA couple who told us that the atm didn’t accept foreign cards. We tried with ours but they were right, we couldn’t get any cash out. Lucky for us we still had about $100 in Chilean pesos left, which would probably last us until we got to Coyhaique, a few days ride away. For them it was worse, they didn’t have any pesos and were planning on catching the ferry across the lake the same day. They were going to try to exchange some dollars so we said goodbye to them and wished them good luck. 

Many people seem to catch the ferry across Lago General Carrera but we wanted to follow the road around it. We didn’t know what to expect as no one had told us anything about this route, whether it was scenic or not, so our expectations weren’t that high. Were we in for a surprise. Outside Chile Chico the road started ascending into a spectacular roller coaster road, winding through a dry and arid mountain landscape. To our right was Lago General Carrera, the second-biggest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. A massive 224,000 hectares of wind-stirred blue-green sea in the middle of Patagonian steppe. The dirt road was squeezed in between rock cliffs to our left and sheer drop-offs to our right. Several times we had to weave around fallen rocks - this was definitely landslide territory. The best part of this road was that we had it almost all to ourselves. We barely saw another vehicle during the 100kms we did that first day. 

Late afternoon we pulled off the road onto a track leading into an open field. A few hundred metres down we found a lovely little camp spot, completely hidden away from the road, sheltered by pine trees and with a view to the snow-capped Andes range. It was about time we did a bush camp again. We went to bed that night with the clouds closing in and the sky a dark blue colour. It looked like we might wake up to rain the next day, so we braced ourselves for that. But the next morning the sun was shining brightly down on our tent and barely a cloud in the sky. No wind either – bonus! We packed up and headed into Puerto Guadal where we stocked up on water and bread and were going to top up with fuel as well if it hadn’t been for a power outage. Never mind, we had enough fuel anyway to keep us going, we just always try to be opportunistic when it comes to fuel. From here the road leads along the western edge of the lake and here we joined the famous Carretera Austral, built in the 1980s on the orders of Pinochet and the first road to effectively link these remote regions.
This is where I turned and said to Mark: ‘we are here, we are really here in the wilds of Patagonia’. I don’t know what came over me, maybe it was the feeling of remoteness, the contrasting colours of the incredible milky turquoise coloured lake to the blue skies, white topped mountains and green forests. This is rugged beauty at its best. We passed an incredible number of cyclists that day riding the opposite way to us, a few motorcyclists but they too were riding south. I for one was glad we weren’t heading south, remembering just how cold it was down there. I was about ready for some sunshine and warm weather and today we had that in bucket loads. It was also a welcome relief not to have the deafening roar of wind in my helmet anymore. I could just sit back and enjoy the beautiful surroundings and just have the feeling of being in the now. When the road is straight and boring your mind tends to drift and meditate on all kinds of things, which every motorbiker will tell you is part of the beauty of motorcycling. But when the road is so overwhelmingly beautiful and picture perfect and the weather is great, your mind focuses only on these things and a wonderful feeling appears, the feeling of being not in the past nor in the future, but right now. 

For lunch we kind of trespassed into a private property. There was a fence surrounding a protected little beach but as there was no one around we opened the gate and entered. If it hadn’t been so visible from the road we would have probably camped there but we didn’t feel like getting caught out by the farmer so when our bellies were full we continued. We didn’t have to go very far to find our next camp spot. A sign by the side of the road advertised for camping and as we thought 80kms was enough for the day we decided to check it out. A steep dirt road led down to a little sheltered bay where there was a little timber hut and a few boats. An old man came out to greet us and told us that camping was free if we did the boat tour to the nearby Marble Caves. We had never heard of these caves before but the photos he showed us looked nice so we decided to do it, even though the price wasn’t that cheap at 25,000 pesos (about $50). The small motorboat took us out on the lake and around these marble cliffs and caves. The Marble Caves is an unusual geological formation located at the centre of the lake and represents a group of caverns, columns and tunnels formed in monoliths of marble. They have been formed by wave action over the last 6,200 years. Being on a boat in the lake was cool too. The lake which is of glacial origin is 586 metres deep at its deepest point! Some nutters were swimming in the water when we were there. They must have a massochistic streak because this water was like ice. The colour might have looked mediterranean but the temperature sure wasn’t!

The next day our intentions were to find another bushcamp for the night but as it was Sunday we couldn’t get provisions from anywhere and we didn’t have any food left. So we ended up riding all the way to Coyhaique, a small city of 50,000 inhabitants. The first part of the ride was lovely, but as we headed out of the shelter of the mountains the wind picked up again and the last 50kms into Coyhaique were tough going. Guess we were still on the wrong side of the Andes to be out of those winds completely. Dammit.

Ruta 40 between Tres Lagos and Gobernador Gregores

 Dry and flat but beautiful nevertheless

Just outside Chile Chico

We looked to camp here but the ground was too wet, beautiful spot though

Stunning ride on this hilly road with Lago General Carrera to our right

All roads lead to the Andes

Bush camp at last!

Love riding in this landscape

I mean, what can you say apart from: stunning

The water was so clear, but crazy cold unfortunately

The colour of that water...

Carretera Austral wows you around every corner

River water running into the lake creates this impressive vision

The Marble Caves

First time I've worn shorts in over a month

Impressive formations

A dog's head

This dog decided I was his new best friend

No, this isn't an island in Thailand - it's southern Chile

Big leaves 'round here

The landscape merged into green forest the further north we went

Lunch break next to a river, we would have camped here had we had the provisions

Dead forests can be quite the vision


  1. Imagens inesquecíveis! somente que viu sabe a maravilha que isso tudo é.

  2. Amazing....Amazing....Amazing....congrats !!!!