Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Reaching the end of the Carretera Austral

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I set out from Caleta Tortel on a rainy day, not looking forward to having to retrace my tracks up the 26km of punishing gravel surface that I’d ridden up a couple of days before. Ironically though the rain seemed to help, highlighting the really bumpy bits and washboard sections with puddles, and holding the powdery surface together with the wet. I was feeling pretty happy when I got back to the junction and rejoined the Carretera Austral to make my way on the slower climb up and over the hill towards Puerto Yungay. From there I’d take a short ferry ride across to Rio Bravo. I was aiming for the 6pm boat, with time to spare (apparently there was a small kiosk with good empanadas at Puerto Yungay, and a pretty church). I’d heard I’d then be able to sleep in the refugio at the landing point of Rio Bravo on the other side.

It was still raining but the road over the hill was deserted and atmospheric in the mist.

When I reached Puerto Yungay it wasn’t the picturesque little village I’d imagined – a fire had damaged the few buildings and the church was hidden behind a pile of rubble.

I’d done the hill a lot more quickly than I thought, so was able to jump straight onto the 3pm ferry. I thought I could relax on the other side and write some blog posts. The lady in the kiosk hadn’t made empanadas due to lack of customers but we got chatting. She, and some cyclists I’d met coming in the opposite direction earlier on the road, told me that the subsequent ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ferry from Villa O’Higgins (where I was heading) which offers the only route down south, had broken down and wouldn’t be fixed until well into January. This was really bad news.

The Carretera Austral stops at Villa O’Higgins and there is no other road out of town. Without the ferry I would be stuck. It would be hundreds of miles to retrace my steps back to the nearest more northerly border crossing, and would mean a big delay to my trip. It would also mean I wouldn’t be able to visit the Bernard O’Higgins glacier, which I’d been saving myself for – putting off other glacier trips to visit this one which is supposed to be spectacular.

She then told me there was a small private boat that may be able to take me across, but it could only run on days when there was no wind (which is pretty rare in southern Patagonia!), and that there may be a waiting list due to the number of trekkers and cyclists now waiting to get across.

I decided to carry on pedalling in blind faith, and at least reach the end of the Carretera Austral given Villa OHiggins was now only 2 days away. As a worst case, perhaps I could take the bus back if I needed to.

I caught my first sight of Christmas decorations on the ferry – albeit looking a wee bit sorry for themselves! As a plus though, we were offered hot water and mugs to be able to make our own cups of tea. I was cold in my wet gear, and that along with some heating was a great pep-me-up.

Disembarking at the other end of the crossing I immediately saw the refugio I’d been told about. It was quite something. Built right next to the water, the refuge had windows with a view out to the lake, and even had a toilet and running water inside. Luxury! I pitched my tent inside purely for a bit of extra insulation in the night, and put it right in the corner so I could see the view from inside my sleeping bag. For the rest of the afternoon I sat on the benches inside, wrote my blog, made dinner and then settled in to a bit of Netflix. The only thing I was missing for a perfect lazy evening was a sofa!

The last ferry came and left at 6pm with just four cars onboard. I didn’t expect to see anyone else until the following morning. As it was though, a car pulled up in front at about 9pm. It was a couple who lived on an isolated farm a few kilometres down the road who were apparently paid to come and clean a couple of times a week. They stuck their head round the door and said that as I was all set up and comfortable inside, they’d come back in the morning to do it. Then they left me to my own devices ready to see the sun set.

I had quite a challenging ride to do that day, all on gravel roads and with three hills to climb. It poured with rain the entire day. I have good waterproofs but after about 2-3 hours of incessant and heavy rain, they finally succumbed to the downpour. I gobbled a dulce-de-leche sandwich for morning elevenses that I’d made back in Caleta Tortel and kept climbing. With all the water, it was amazing how fast the land at the side of the road was flooding. Huge waterfalls were also sprouting up all over the mountain sides, and more waterfalls were pouring through the gulleys at the sides of the road. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of these gravel roads on the Carretera Austral, you have to give it to the Chilean construction workers, who seem to figure out exactly where they need to put water tunnels under the road to channel all the water away and stop them eroding overnight.

I’d planned to wild camp that night, but as the roadside was either on a hill with no verge, or flatter and flooded out, I didn’t see a good space to spot. I’d read on the app iOverlander, where people mark their stopping spots, that there were two cabins close ahead that you could rent for a small amount, but that the owners were both drunks and lecherous. A third ‘refugio para ciclistas’ was marked another 15km or so ahead, which was apparently free and owned by a nice farmer called Jorge. Being cold and wet and not fancying having to fend off unwanted advances, I decided to press on to the refugio.

When I arrived I couldn’t see any sign of life at the farm. The refugio was really well built, with a fireplace, benches and drying lines inside, and with rotating slats to act like windows/blinds. It even had an outside long drop toilet with a fantastic view (i.e. missing a door!).

I hung up my wet stuff and got changed into some dry clothes. Kindly someone had left a couple of old fleece jumpers hanging up on the line, so I ‘borrowed’ one to wear as an extra layer to warm myself up. I tried to get the fire going, but water had been running down the inside of the chimney and all the wood, both inside and outside the refugio, was sopping wet. Even after pouring on some petrol from my fuel bottle, I still couldn’t get the fire to take. So I set about making dinner and a nice cup of tea.

Just as dinner was ready, I heard a horse outside. I stuck my head round the door to see the farmer approaching. He introduced himself as Jorge and came in for a chat. And chatty he was. He asked why I hadn’t been down to his farm, and said I should have come over to dry all my stuff over his fire. His name was Jorge and he invited me down to warm up and chat some more over a maté. I’d made a lot of pasta so offered him some of my dinner in exchange.

He lived in a pretty basic little wooden house, that wasn’t particularly clean, but had everything you’d need. And it was warm inside with the fire going in the stove. He had cows, sheep, horses, chickens, ducks and dogs. He also had three cats and two very young kittens who were running riot over the sofa. He told me I was the first solo female who had stayed in his refugio and was very impressed. He’d built it a couple of years ago for all the cyclists he saw passing by, to shelter from the wind and rain, and because living here on his own he appreciated the company. He thought he hosted at least 80 cyclists there a year. Given there isn’t much spaces for wild camping on this road, I can easily believe it.

Jorge’s farm

With Jorge in front of the refugio

He had a view from his window of a hanging glacier up in the mountains, and had a pair of binoculars to look out for huemuls (an endangered species of deer in Patagonia, also known as the Andean deer) and pumas. I asked him how many times he’d seen a puma, and he said the last time was about 4 years ago when he spotted one walking down the road looking for food. He told me they never usually approach humans, but a cyclist had been attacked by a puma on the road just the year before. They’d been stupid and tried to get closer to take a photo and the puma had bitten his arm. Still, I was glad I’d had a refugio to sleep in these two nights.

Jorge’s girlfriend arrived with another friend of theirs, so we all sat chatting in the warm cabin. The friend liked one of the kittens and took it away back to Villa O’Higgins with him, leaving the other one on its own. It was a bit sad, although the last remaining kitten seemed pretty oblivious.

Jorge offered to get a fire going in the refugio for me with some of his dry wood store. He said to stay put and he’d go and get it going. Then I spotted him with a huge wheelbarrow of wood heading up there. It would be great to have a warm refugio to sleep in and to dry off my clothes, but I also didn’t want a fire too big for risk of setting fire to my tent, which I’d pitch inside. I headed up there myself but by the time I’d got there, Jorge had already got a ginormous roaring fire going. The fire was so huge I knew it would keep burning for most of the night, so instead I decided to just put my sleeping mat and bag out on my ground mat and sleep on the floor.

Unfortunately this is where things then took a bit of a turn, when Jorge decided to take the opportunity to proposition me. I was a bit taken aback, especially given his girlfriend was sitting in the cabin just down the track! He was trying to get close to hug and ‘kiss me goodnight’, which of course I wasn’t having any of. I put him straight very firmly and directly, and made sure there was some distance between us, but still he kept trying to persuade me. “I have a boyfriend” would be answered with “Well, he doesn’t need to know (wink wink)”, and “I’m really not interested” with “Don’t you just want to have a little bit of fun?” (No, I really didn’t!!). In the end I told him that he was making me feel really uncomfortable now, I’d like to go to sleep, and he needed to leave. I half-jokingly mentioned the word ‘dangerous’ and that seemed to finally get the message across. But then he wouldn’t stop apologising and I still couldn’t get rid of him. Eventually I ended up physically pushing him out of the door, trying to do so in relatively good humour, but also getting a bit tired of having to deal with his remonstrations. I never felt seriously physically threatened and thought he was actually pretty harmless, just trying his luck, albeit persistently. Like many of us, I’ve dealt with situations like this perfectly safely before, but it was a shame that such a nice evening had to end in that way.

It was a relief to have the refugio to myself again. The fire was still roaring and my face was glowing in the fire light. The wind was howling outside and despite what had come before, I was still extremely grateful to have a roof over my head and a dry floor to sleep on.

The next morning I was awoken by a knock on the door and two fresh eggs appeared between the slats in the window. They’d come straight from the chicken coop and were still warm. I got yet another apology from Jorge and was invited down to the cabin to have breakfast with him and his girlfriend. I felt we had now reached a common understanding and went down to join them. I cooked the bright orange eggs on the stove under the watchful eye of one of the cats who kept popping in and out behind a giant tea pot.

I only had a short 35km to ride that day. They were really keen that I stayed on the farm for a few days. I wanted to get to Villa O’Higgins given the situation with the boat, so instead I opted to spend the morning helping out milking the cows and taking them out to graze in the woods. The milking was quite an interesting process as there was one calf who’s mother had recently died. This little calf, called ‘Pinta’ (meaning pint and/or spot) had to drink from each of the four cows to make sure it got its fill.

The cow is tied up with its own calf and the orphaned calf both just out of reach, to keep it calm whilst it’s milked. The back legs are tied together to stop the cow moving around too much.

About a third of the milk produced is milked for sale and personal use

The milk was incredibly creamy and frothy

Then the calves got their turn to drink the rest, before being taken out to the woods to graze.

The dogs enjoyed terrorising the cows from the side of the pen and had to be repeatedly shooed away

After milking we took the cows out to graze. Pinta seemed to be a bit of an outcast without a mum to look after her, and followed Jorge all the way back to the farm.

I said my farewells and made my way to Villa O’Higgins. The rain stopped and I got great views of Lago Cisnes along the way.

Villa O’Higgins was a small town with just a few hundred inhabitants. The mountains ran either side of the town and down along the lake. I arrived at the main hostal in town to find there were already 5 other cyclists there – an Italian couple, Peter and Leila from South Korea who I’d met previously on the road back near Coyhaique, and Rosanna from the UK. I was chuffed to learn that I was the only one of us who’d managed to cycle the whole length of the Carretera Austral, without taking a bus or needing to hitch a lift.

Hostal El Mosco – one of the nicest hostals I’ve ever stayed in and with a great group of people. There are certainly worse places to be stranded!

We headed over to the small boat company, Las Ruedas, and got our names on the waiting list to cross the lake. The boat could take about 12 people at a time, and 6-8 bikes. As the lady at Puerto Yungay had told me, it could only go on days with no wind. The captain told us we may sail tomorrow, and to come back at 8pm to check. Then he told us to come back at 2pm the following day, then at 8pm, and so this pattern continued as we waited for better weather. A few days passed and we wondered when we would be able to cross….

In the meantime, I started to catch up on the blog which was now nearly 2 months behind. Rosanna and a couple of the others went for a short trek and took these fantastic pictures of the views over the lake, where we all hoped to soon be going….

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