Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

An unintended adventure

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I didn’t take that many photos heading further south as the Ruta de la Madera was all within forests. I reached the town of Angol – the administrative centre of the region – and found a place to stay for the night. It was an odd town. This wasn’t on the tourist trail so the accommodation and eating options were a bit bleak and even though the town was surprisingly large, it was pretty characterless. Maybe it’s just because the sun wasn’t shining but I was glad to be moving on the next morning.

I’d reached the point where I’d need to start cycling inland and to cross the Ruta 5 (a motorway which runs much of the length of Chile, connecting north and south) to get to the ‘Los Lagos’ (The Lakes) region and eventually meet with my parents. I saw there was an option to ride down the busy Ruta 182 to get there, a single lane road with lots of lorries and no hard shoulder, or I could veer off onto what looked like it should be a pretty and undulating gravel road, winding past farms and small villages. The gravel section was only 35km so I thought it would be good practice in advance of reaching the Carretera Austral later on.

View from the top of one of the hills on the gravel back road, which I would later find out was not quite what it seemed…

It was a damp and cloudy day, and my progress was a lot slower than I’d anticipated/been used to. The road had a lot of steep and unrideable ups and downs, so I sometimes found myself pushing both up and down hill. I also encountered two bulls loose and right in the middle of the road. I deliberated briefly what do do, tried waving my arms and shouting at them to get them to move but they wouldn’t budge. In the end I just had to take a deep breath and ride towards them, hoping that my red panniers wouldn’t cause a reaction. They just stood and watched me, but I was still relieved to get past and pedal away at the other side.

I passed a few farms and smallholdings. These didn’t seem to be the affluent farms I’d seen alongside the Ruta de la Fruta, and were in various states of (dis)repair. I waved to a few people as I passed through small towns, and got a few beeps from the odd person passing me in their clapped out bangers as they rattled away along the corrugated surface into the distance. I saw a few ladies with long dark braided hair and wearing felt black hats in more traditional dress. I gave a smile and a wave, which was sometimes returned and sometimes not.

Eventually I reached the small town of Pidima, where I would briefly join the Ruta 5 motorway. It was a funny place, with a wide central street with just two shops that gave it the feel of a semi-deserted frontier town. There were a few abandoned buildings but a large school which suggested there must be a lot more houses hidden away nearby. It was raining and I took shelter in a bus stop to eat my sandwiches before heading to the main road.

I bombed it down the main road for another 30km. It was still raining and not particularly pleasant riding, but the main road had a huge hard shoulder, the width of a whole extra lane, so I felt completely safe riding there. Many cyclists just take this Ruta 5 from Santiago down to Los Lagos, and try to do it as quickly as possible (or even by bus). I can see it would be a good quick option if you’re short on time, but I was glad I’d had the experience of seeing the coastal roads, winelands and strawberry-lined Ruta de la Fruta for a less touristy aspect of Chile, rather than just looking at the same boring main road for days on end.

I reached the town of Victoria where I’d booked ahead to stay in a small B&B. I got to the house and rang the bell. No answer. I looked round the back and tried ringing again. There was no-one there. I was soaked through and starting to get cold. I was not amused. I tried calling the phone number provided with the booking. Still no answer. As I was jumping up and down to warm myself up, the next door neighbour appeared to ask if I was ok. She said she knew the owner, and I should come and get warm and dry in their house whilst I wait. She and her husband were both working at home that day, and had their two small children and dog with them. I was so grateful to get out of the rain.

The lovely family who sheltered me in their warm home

They took my wet rain clothes and hung them on the boiler to dry and then plied me with tea and biscuits. I was busy trying not to drip rain water on their sofa but they didn’t seem to care. The husband was enjoying practicing his english and we muddled through some conversation. Whilst they contacted the lady who owned the B&B, they asked me where I’d been riding that day. They looked dumbstruck. Apparently I’d managed to ride straight through the centre of a FARC stronghold. I thought FARC was only active in Colombia and Venezuela but apparently they’d trained Chileans a few years ago and now had a centre here too.

The Mapuche people (indigenous to Chile) who had allegedly been trained by FARC were protesting against the government and forestry companies to give them their lands back, which had presumably been illegally taken many years ago. As this was the heart of forestry in Chile, it was at the centre of the protests. The vast majority of Mapuche protested peacefully and were strongly against the FARC activities, but the family told me there was an active ‘terrorist’ cell working from Pidima, the place I’d just ridden through. Apparently they regularly robbed and beat lorry drivers taking lumber out of the area and had also burnt down some of the ranches – an old couple had been burnt alive trying to protect their home. The police would not enter the area.

I couldn’t relate this to where I’d just been. The people I’d seen seemed perhaps slightly less cheery than usual, but they certainly didn’t appear to be militant. The father told me that opposite a junction where I’d turned left was the house of the FARC leader and that I was lucky he hadn’t seen me.

I thought a lot of what they were saying was probably tinged with exaggeration, propaganda and a certain degree of racism to the local Mapuche community, although a quick google did produce a BBC article about it. It said that some of these incidents did take place, but there was also suspicion that the government had exaggerated the links to FARC for their own purposes, to justify implementing harsh anti-terrorism and detention laws. I’d planned to ride gravel roads skirting the Ruta 5 the following day, but the family told me I’d be far better off riding the 70km directly down the motorway.

Still feeling rather taken aback, they told me the lady who owned next door already had quite a few construction workers staying in all the rooms there and had said it wouldn’t be a good place for me to stay. She’d told them I should go and stay with her in her house, which was just round the corner. I thought it was a bit odd being asked to stay in the daughter’s bedroom (apparently) rather than in the B&B itself, but in the meantime Samanta, the owner, had messaged me to say the same thing. I was a bit confused but the neighbours and the owner seemed to know exactly what was going on. Once I’d warmed up the father walked me round the corner in the rain to show me where to go.

Arriving at Samanta’s house, she had a huge fire roaring in the front room and, despite having been pretty fed up at waiting, my annoyance evaporated within minutes. She insisted I join her, her daughter and a family friend for dinner in front of the fire, then insisted I kept my rather dirty bike inside the house to dry off, and gave me yet more hot tea and cake. She wouldn’t accept any money for the dinner despite my protests (I hid some before I left), and went on to produce an amazing breakfast the following morning. Samanta and her daughter shared a bed for the night so I could have a private room, rather than sharing a dorm with the construction guys back at the B&B (who I’m sure really wouldn’t have been all that bad!). Hospitality ran through her veins. It also turned out she was the sister of the family who’d taken me in. Now it all made a lot more sense!

I slept so well there in her roasty-toasty house. Six weeks on and she still messages me every now and then to check if I’m still in Chile and if there’s anything she can help with. I’m just sad I forgot to take a photo.

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