Puyuhuapi to Coyhaique
We spend a day mooching around Puyuhuapi, enjoying a well earned rest. We try and hitch to the local over-priced hot springs, but are denied because of a road closure. The road works block our recovery dip, so we buy some supplies and head back to the camp site to chill. Caroline heads into the fjord for a swim, while the rest of us hide from the sun in the campsite’s wooden eating hut. We dine on pizza in the evening from a little caravan shack in the village, which looks like it’s seen better days. The old caravan is surrounded by benches and fairy lights, and has a cool relaxed vibe. Bob Marley sings to us as I eat my tasty spicy pizza. It’s a fine way to finish the day drinking a couple of local beers with local street food.
We get on the road early the following day to avoid the first road closure which we do. All the work men stare at us as we ride past, like we are some sort of freak show, but they also wave and cheer us on, yelling and clapping as Karen cranks past them with her arms. It must look strange, Karen pedalling with her arms, and then I ride by with her wheel chair on the trailer, but pedalling with my legs. I often wonder if they put two and two together, as I smile and wave back, wobbling as I do with the weight of the trailer. We have been warned that there are two closures on this stunning road, which follows the deep blue fiord, but we are unable to make the second in time. We stop in the grounds of a friend of a friend’s house after only covering 35kms. It’s a short day but we have no choice - the road is closed until 5pm. After the closure, we know we will have a 12km, 500m gravel climb over the pass to Cisnes Junction. We camp on the bank of the fiord, and are told to watch the high tide and not camp too close to the water. After much debate we decide to risk it. This ends with all of us out of the tents at 2:30am, watching the tide rise to only 3 feet from the girl’s tent! The dark water reaches out like a pointy witch’s finger trying to lure the tent into the depths. It’s not long until we head back to bed as the tide luckily drains away, like someone removed the plug at just the right time.
After an eventful night we tackle the pass early, and the sun is already high and hot, making our job of helping Karen climb switchback after switchback a tough one. The corners are steep and rough with loose gravel, but we get small breaks inbetween them as the gradient backs off to about 5 degrees. It’s tough work, but after and hour and a half we past the summit sign. Not long after that, we stop for lunch with amazing views, making the hardship worth while. We are running low on food and end up with a bizarre lunch, which includes wraps of peanut butter, chorizo and mayo! Not recommended - let’s leave it at that. Patagonia is starting to open up to us now - in the early days, the mountains were off in the distance, hiding from us like a nervous child behind a parent’s leg. Now they show off, they are big and bold, and no longer afraid of us tiny wee cyclists passing through their remarkable landscape.
The tight wooded valleys have now opened into wide open spaces with green lush farmlands, back-dropped with snow-capped mountains. The last 15km of the day is hard, a steep, long, snaking concrete road carved out of the mountain side making us work to the bitter end. We arrive into the village of Villa Amengual where we camp on the village green.
The following morning we are met at the campsite by Steve and Andrea, the British couple we have been leap-frogging since Villa Santa Lucia. Karen had bought a part for their camera from home as Andrea is an old friend. We are then also joined by Jessie and Corrine, who are also travelling by bike. We sit in the square eating breakfast, trading stories of climbs in the sunshine, before riding out of town like a gang of tattoo-clad motorbikers. The day is a good one, and we cover 57kms before we stop for lunch. It’s tarmac all the way with lovely rolling roads, and the team eat up the miles. We stop for lunch and are joined by three youngsters who try and ride our bikes and eat our lunch…they are cheeky little monkeys, but provide some great entertainment. We collect custard buns from a roadside cafe for a treat later, and get back on the road heading to a secret wild campsite next to a river. The miles are easy and the campsite is not a disappointment. The large flowing river invites me in to freshen up, and I feel almost human again after our longest day on the bike. We dine on pasta again, before tucking into the custard buns, which taste as good as they look.
The only real problem we have had so far is that Karen has a filling that has fallen out of a tooth, so we need to find a dentist in Coyhaique. This sets the goal for today, and we are rolling by 9:20am on a mission to get to the the hospital before it closes. After a tough day of long drags on the concrete roads, we hit a 400m climb, and strike lucky. A third of the way up, a man stops in a pick up, and produces a rope. Before we know it, Karen is sailing off in the distance, tied behind the large red pick up, as we push on together up the climb. My knees feel the weight as I rotate my 180mm cranks, with cars whizzing by tooting and waving out of the windows cheering us on. We are met at the top by Karen with two bottles of Coke for our troubles, which we down and hit the road for the final 10kms of the day. It’s far from uneventful as we are stopped by two policemen for a reason unknown to us, and after a few questions are sent on our way, but not before a quick photo opportunity with one of the officials. Only 30 metres after leaving them, Karen’s bump bar on which she is carrying her dry bag, falls off into the road leaving bag, bar, water bottle, and bits all over the road. Rattled loose from the rough roads, the police are not impressed, and want us moved on quickly, to find a better spot to make the repairs.
Coyhaique has grown in size over the past few years, and it’s a bit overwhelming to be in what seems like a small city. Busy with cars, we navigate the one-way streets tired and in the rain, trying to find somewhere to stay, and a hospital for Karen. We split up, arranging to met back at a hostel we have previously passed. I go with Karen, following a local’s directions, and before I know it, I’m helping Karen into the back of a police car outside A and E. They are kindly taking her across town to a dentist. I wave good bye, before strapping her 2 metre-long handbike onto the back of my trailer, and attempting to find my way back to Jaco and Caroline at the hostel. I negotiate the one way streets, which turns peoples heads with such a strange-looking contraption, and after a bit of fallowing my nose, find the hostel. I have a proper shower for the first time since leaving Puerto Montt, instead of a bowl of hot water. I want to stand there for hours. Karen returns, tooth filled and impressed with the dental care she’s received. We all head into the town square, where there’s a live band and a party atmosphere - it seems so far away from the lonely dusty gravel roads we have travelled. It quickly slips my mind as we roll through the doors of a local steak house, and tuck into a piece of steak the size of a mini cooper!
4. Coyhaique - Puerto Rio Tranquilo
We stock up on supplies during a wet morning, before leaving Coyhaique. As we ride out of town, we talk about what it will be like to come back here in two weeks time, to get a flight from Balmaceda, the local airpot, back to Puerto Montt and home in time for Christmas. We are wrapped in waterproofs as we negotiate our way along the wet RUTA 7. My bike weights a tonne. It’s loaded with 3-days worth of food, and we spend most of the day climbing in the rain. By late afternoon the rain has disappeared, but the climbing and head winds are still very much against us. The road is tarmac and busy, as this road leads to the airport. Buses fly past tooting their horns, with passengers waving and laughing at our craziness. We meet Steve and Andrea again as they are trying to find a camping spot, so we join them and the search. We cycle far longer than we hope for, before camping in a gated field after lifting Karen through the bars of the locked gate. It’s perfectly flat and has lush soft grass for the tents. We cook left over steak from the pervious night’s feast in the rain, then all quickly retire to the tents. I feel in need of recovery after pulling the trailer and pushing Karen up the 860m of ascent.
The following day we wake and hit the road, knowing it will be a tough day as we enter Reserva Nacional Cerro Casttillo. This holds the highest pass we will cycle over on this trip. Sitting high in the clouds at 1100m, it’s not the gradient that gives us difficulty today but the persistent head wind. It feels as if the gusts are pushing on our chests, and the harder I drive my pedals, the harder it pushes against me. It’s a gruelling day’s riding, and progress is very slow with us fully-loaded and helping Karen, but the views are simply incredible. I have to keep reminding myself to look around, and not just at the handle bars and the ground three feet in front of my fat front tyre, as this sort of scenery is what we came here for - it’s world class. As we cross the top of the pass, surrounded by mountainous peaks on either side, we come across a sweeping descent, worthy of the Tour de France. The ribbon of switch backs would have been an invitation to freewheel all the way down to Villa Cerro Castillo, had there not been the headwind to constantly buffet us. We set camp up for the night in the blazing sunshine, in a dry dusty field surrounded by mountains and hanging glaziers.
I wake to a strong wind and wall to wall sunshine above a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. We pack up dry tents and hit the road. After 3 days of riding tarmac, today we kiss that riding surface goodbye for the rest of the trip. From now to Villa O’Higgins, we will be at the mercy of the gravel roads, and over the day we find just how bad they can get. After 20 minutes, Karen is talking about getting only as far as Cochrane and reassessing her plans for the trip. We push her up the smallest of inclines as the surface is so bad, with even my fat bike tyres struggling to find traction. The head winds are aggressive, and slow our progress to a crawl. I spend most of the day riding in my 22 tooth granny ring. The roads are badly wash-boarded, making the trailer I tow bounce around, even with the heavy load sitting on top. This makes controlling the bike a real challenge. I fight with the handle bars and the winds, trying to avoid the pot holes on the loose pebbled surface, the whole time getting an all over body workout. Putting my bike down to then push Karen, walking back to my bike, picking it up, catching back up, and repeating the process countless times slowly takes it toll on my tiring body.
We find a concrete bus shelter at the side of the road, which we stop in for lunch. It feels so good to be out of the wind and dust. We eat dry, two day old bread rolls, filled with cheese, tomatoes and avocado, which makes life a little better before getting back onto the bikes, and into the wind. We climb over a small climb, to find the valley opening out below us. There’s a joining of two rivers here, one, a clear fresh water river, with the other running from the high mountain glacier which is bluey green in colour. The two run together but struggle to mix, and the colours are something special - I’ve never seen anything like this before. The roads get better as we go on, but we finish the day having our slowest yet with only 46kms covered. We camp road side again, as there is nowhere else available. I set up a tarp as a wind break to try and escape cooking in the gusty wind. We decide that evening to get up earlier the next morning to try and get some gravel under the tyres before the wind picks up again. As I lay in the tent, I tell Jaco I have spent all day riding in my tiny 22 tooth granny ring again, fighting the world famous, Patagonian head wind.
We got away by 9am, set for a big day which turned out to be our longest on gravel - 75km with the surface always changing. From good to bad, then bad to worse and back to good again. After lunch we picked up a tail wind, which helped us push on all the way into Puerto Rio Tranquilo. The views along the way are becoming super charged as Patagonia is really starting to show off. We ride through lush green farmlands, scattered with sheep, turquoise blue glacier rivers and ice capped mountainous backdrops. Everywhere you look is like a picture postcard. We leave the mountain valleys and ride the lumpy shore line road of the Lago General Carrera, the second biggest lake in South America. The colour of the water, for such a big lake is mind blowing, and so is the road. It’s not easy, getting into the small town where we will spent a rest day, exploring the famous marble caves of Lago General Carrera. It’s a long day by the time we find a Cabana for the night. The team all look tired after a 9 hour day. We get a quick wash before heading out for food in a local microbrewery, something I was really looking forward to, and giving the tinned tuna and pasta a miss for the next couple of days.
At 10:30am we lift Karen and wheelchair into the boat that with take us to see the caves. It’s a short 10 minute trip around to the next bay, before we come across the hollow, rounded, cave formations. The reflections of the lake make the pale marble caves flash greens and blues. After a bumpy ride back across the lake, we head back to the Cabana to chill out. People go their own ways and do their own thing. I have bikes to wash and clean up, tents to dry, washing to do. Then I catch up on writing and downloading film footage, before charging all the film equipment, ready for another 3 day stretch to Cochrane. Not so restful, but a very enjoyable afternoon pottering.
Thanks to my sponsors, BioCare and the badass Dirty Dog Eyewear.