"Wow! Amazing! You're cycling to the bottom of South America. Is it all downhill?". Alan and I looked at each other in amusement and suggested that we expected a few uphill sections.
Two years earlier, a good friend Paul had sent a bulk email after cycling the Carretera Austral through southern Chile to Argentina. "This cycle route is unbelievable. I recommend it 1000%. The roads are rough but the travel rewarding. The isolation is wonderful. The scenery so amazing that I just want to keep riding all day. Those of you who are into this sort of thing, get planning."
So plan we did. I put some effort into learning Spanish and Alan perfected "Hola". Then last December we found ourselves shunting bike boxes between Auckland airport terminals en route to South America. Our plan had a start and end point but was fuzzy in between. We aimed to cycle the length of the Patagonian Andes, including the middle section on the Carretera Austral.
The highway, also known as Route 7, traverses 1,240km of rural Patagonia from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O'Higgins in the south. The area is blessed with thick forests, fjords, glaciers, rivers and steep mountains.Construction of the road started in the mid 1970's during the Pinochet regime to assert Chilean political presence in the remote region. Previous attempts had been unsuccessful due to the difficult access and extreme weather. 10,000 soldiers worked on the project. Many lost their lives there. The last 100km to Villa O'Higgins was only completed in 1980 and the border crossing into Argentina is only possible by foot or bike.
The entire trip was 3400km with two thirds on tarmac, a third on gravel roads (ripio in local speak), and took us two and a half months. Our starting point was the small town of Villarica in Chile. We crossed the Patagonian Andes and cycled south through Argentina on the seductively named 'Route of Seven Lakes', through the ski and chocolate tourist resort of Bariloche and Los Alarces National Park. We then crossed back into Chile and joined Route 7, via a gravel road that followed the white water playground of the mighty Rio Futalefu. At the bottom end of the Carretera Austral we continued south to Puerto Natales, passing the spectacular spires of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and Torres Del Paine. South of Punta Arenas the continent runs out and we were blown the last 300km across the Island of Tierra Del Fuego to our end point in Ushuaia. Our passports had 12 new stamps from crossing in and out of Chile and Argentina so many times.
We flew into Santiago and took an overnight bus to our starting point of Villarica. We were warned about volcanoes and volcanic ash however they were a mere novelty during the first week. As we cycled into Villa Angostura though, ash from the nearby puffing Mt Puyehue was piled deep alongside the road. We wrapped scarves around our faces in defence against the ash filled air. The on-going eruptions had hit tourism there pretty hard with no flights in or out since the big blast six months prior to our arrival.
Travel in the Patagonian Andes is stunning - like New Zealand on steroids. Unlike at home though, we could spend lazy evenings at lake or riverside campsites without being tortured by sandflies and mosquitoes. It wasn't all rosy though. In the heat of the day we dodged the large, circling, biting tabonah flies, and sadly the recent arrival of didymo is impacting on the pristine environment.
We travelled light, with the approach of people who normally travel on foot in the mountains... one billy, a lightweight tent and no laptop. Luxury took the form of two fat, down filled sleeping mats. Our Kindles were loaded with reading material and we did not bother carrying a guide book. Tourism Information Offices and other travellers were the best source of local intelligence. We met cyclists whose bikes were barely visible under their loads, and they suffered accordingly.
The southern half of the Carretera Austral is even more mountainous, dramatic and remote. The landscape is on a grand scale and there are long sections between villages. Massive snowfields feed the glaciated valleys and network of lakesthat drain into the Rio Baker. We followed this mighty river for 200km from its source in Lago Betrand to the unique seaside village of Caletta Tortel that is built entirely on stilts.
The Rio Baker is Chile's largest river by volume. Sadly, in the 1970s the Pinochet Government sold the rights to dam many of Chile's rivers to multinational companies. Two dams are proposed on the Rio Baker, with further plans to clear-cut 1,600km of pristine old-growth forest to build the longest transmission line in the world. The majority of Chileans oppose the dams and numerous anti-dam billboards punctuate the roadside. With luck, grass root opposition, national awareness and education will stall and eventually halt many of the proposals.
From Villa O'Higgins, the last town on the Carratera Austral, motorised vehicles must return north. Cyclists and walkers take the ferry across Lago O'Higgins, with the option of a side trip to view the O'Higgins glacier as it slides into the lake. After a relaxing day playing tourists we arose early to wake the border guards and sign-out of Chile. It was a fun ride into Argentina with 20km of 4wd track, followed by 6kmof singletrack. With our light loads much of the trail was rideable. Cerro Fitz Roy beckoned us forward. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire trip.
A couple of days later we arrived at El Chalten in Los Glaciares National Park - the base for to trekking to Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We transformed our cycling shoes into walking shoes and were blessed with eight perfect days to enjoy the forested valleys, alpine lakes, glaciers and granite towers. A memorable night was spent at the paradoxically windless Paseo del Viento(Pass of the Wind) with expansive views across the glaciers of the Southern Patagonian ice field.
The final stages of the journey were characterised by open pampas and windy, cooler days. With the wind on our backs and mostly sealed roads under tread we clocked big distances. One outrageous day on Tierra del Fuego we covered 140km - hitting over 40kph on the flat with no pedalling! We met a stubborn Italian pushing hisheavily laden bike in the opposite direction - too windy to ride and too proud to hitch as many northbound cyclists resort to. The power of wind - why build these dams?
La Nina was in residence during our trip. It brought predominantly fine weather. Parkas were seldom required and we never had to pitch or pack away our tent in the rain. Unheard of good fortune over such a long period in New Zealand. The last day as we pedalled into the southern port of Ushuaia was noexception. We dallied over lunch, wanting to prolong the trip just a few more hours. But our heads were swimming with ideas for our return to this magical corner of the planet.
Chile and Argentina are clean and safe.
Costs are similar to NZ, however tourist towns and southern Patagonia are more expensive.
Invest in good tires (we used Schwalbe Marathons), panniers and best-quality racks. They all get a hammering. You'll find usefully tech tips on our blog 'Cycle Touring Kit'.
We used hardtail mountain bikes with front shocks. They worked well. Many cyclists we met were on touring bikes which looked less ideal to us.
Travel north to south as this takes advantage of the prevailing west/northwest winds.
Consider riding from Puerto Montt to El Calafate as a shorter itinerary (about 6 weeks).