Near Coyhaige – Villa O’Higgins (223 miles 14 days)
Sunshine! Yes the rain had finally stopped and we woke to a very cold but gloriously sunny day. Cycling along quite roads with the scenery becoming more and more impressive we were feeling buoyant. It was around lunchtime when we passed a car with a flat tyre and a group of 4 standing looking at it. We stopped and asked if there was anything we could do. The Austrian couple explained that the car had already had one puncture earlier in the day so this punctured tyre was the spare! The van behind (a random extremely kind Chilean couple) had been following the car and every few miles would stop and re-inflate the tyre using an electric pump! Unfortunately the pump had given up the ghost and that was when we arrived.
Tim got out our little bike pump and offered to “give it a go” – the Austrian lady looked so grateful as he began to pump tiny amounts of air into the offending tyre. It was pretty evident this was not going to work but how could he give up. It was just as he was going purple with exertion that the Chilean man got his pump was working again – Tim looked so relieved it made me laugh. The Chilean lady gave me 3 avocados and a bottle of water for helping even though it was her husband that was helping the Austrians! Comradery on the road.
That evening we reached Puerto Rio Tranquilo – a lovely little town where we hoped to take a boat trip to see the infamous Marble Caves. We booked for 9am the following day and treated ourselves to a very posh salmon dinner washed down with beer. It was fabulously expensive (we really weren’t dressed for it) but just the treat we needed after our days in the rain with only pasta to keep us company.
The campsite was overcrowded with tents but we managed to squeeze ours in and settled down for the night. Unfortunately the only space had been next to the Common Room where groups gathered to gossip. I lay and watched the shadows of the people on our tent wall as they chatted and laughed until the early hours of the morning. The next day we made our way to the Marble Cave boat only to be told the wind was too strong and the trip had been cancelled. We were very disappointed and as no café’s open in Chile before 10am we headed back to the campsite.
Who should be putting their tent up next to ours but the girl with the guitar, camera etc… I’ve spoken about before. Her Dad had finished his 2 week holiday and, before flying home, had sold his budget Halford’s bike for as much as he had paid for it. He had also donated his sleeping mat, panniers and tent to his daughter for which she seemed very grateful. She explained to us that work was now a priority and set off to search for jobs. We didn’t hold out much hope but that evening were happy to hear she had successfully secured not one but three jobs. The first was in the campsite – helping out for free accommodation and meals, the second was with a Chilean family teaching English and the third was selling spaces for trips to the caves.
The scenery from here onwards just got better and better as we followed beautiful lakes and rivers all amazing blues.
The following night we spotted a sign to a campsite that looked as if it would be on the side of a lake. We followed the small path that wound its way along for about a mile before arriving at a small homestead. We were the only campers so had the large garden to ourselves. Apart from the farmhouse there was also a large hall which looked like it might be used for community gatherings – a bit out of place in the middle of nowhere. The elderly couple running the campsite were a delight – they understood no English but the man sat with Tim for a long time and they drew pictures to each other!
Following the wide, deep blue River Baker, we soon came to an area where it converged with the glacier River Neff. As both rivers are large and fast flowing the convergence is dramatic so we locked our bikes and walked the mile to see this popular sight. Tim wanted to walk further and climb some rocks hanging over the gushing water, so I found somewhere to sit in the sun and told him to pick me up on his way back. I could see him on the rocks in the distance and after a while began chatting to a French family who were interested in our trip. When I looked up I noticed Tim was not in sight but assumed he’d be back soon – time passed and I began to wonder where he was. I walked the track towards the rocks but there was no sign. I went back to where I had been waiting – no sign.
By now I was getting a bit concerned – I walked back again to the French family and asked if they had seen him come by whilst I was gone. Their concern fuelled mine as they started to spread out and search. Others asked to see a photo of him on my phone so they could help – it all got a bit out of hand and I was almost in tears with worry that he’d fallen in without being noticed. Of course, as I jogged back to the bikes to see if he was there he was running towards me – he had bypassed where I was waiting and looking back couldn’t see me so had assumed I’d gone back to the bikes. Although so glad to see him, I couldn’t help but yell my frustration and he was so embarrassed that there had been a search party!
The road surface deteriorated over the next few days and became very tiring, difficult gravel again. We had one particularly slow, hilly and exhausting day – struggling to keep the heavy bikes upright on some very difficult sections. During our lunch break that day, on a bridge eating our biscuits and tuna, a cyclist coming the other way stopped to chat (a bit embarrassing as I was under the bridge having a pee (not near the river!) I was aware he had to have known what I was doing as I climbed back up to the bridge). He told us about a new National Park that was worth a visit. Although the road was tricky – large stones and gravel – he guaranteed I would see my first Guanaco (Lama like mammals). So, although it was getting late in the day we took the excursion and turned off our difficult gravel road onto an even more difficult gravel road!
Although already exhausted we were really excited to see these animals along the roadside – two males began to fight, spitting and hissing at each other before nipping and biting, using their strong necks as weapons. It was quite a sight to see. There were herds of Guanacos many with their young and they weren’t worried by us at all, sometimes slowly crossing in front of our bikes. Eventually we reached a hotel where we expected to find our campsite. Unfortunately it was still another couple of miles over tracks and wooden bridges but well worth the effort.
After a fabulous night’s sleep in absolute darkness and quietness we made our way back through the National Park very early in the hope of seeing more animals. We were lucky to see a Chilean Skunk by the side of the road before it disappeared into the bushes and a hare that laid down, pinned its ears down its back camouflaging itself in the undergrowth. We were next headed towards a town called Cochrane where we were lucky enough to find a pub that not only sold good beer for Tim but also a national dish of different meats and chips piled high with fried eggs on top – looks gross but omg just what we needed!
We were now accustomed to knocking on doors for drinks if we saw a house and the next day was no exception. The house stood alone with a pretty garden and goats wondering around. The lady and her husband had been living in the house their whole lives and long before the road we were cycling on had been built. For most of their lives they had to use horses or walk to go to town for food. The whole area we were cycling through was so remote I couldn’t begin to think what it must have been like to live there, especially in the winter when temperature plummet to well below freezing. She now had a nice little business offering hot drinks with homemade bread and jam (served from an old squash bottle) to the many cyclists knocking at her door.
It took a couple of days to get to Caleta Tortel (fishing village on stilts). This was another excursion that Tim had planned before leaving. The entire town is built on stilts with boardwalks and long flights of steep wooden stairs connecting them. By the time we arrived in the town it was, once again, raining hard. I was really fed up, very wet and extremely cold. We stood where the road ended and surveyed the steep, slippery wooden steps that seemed to go down forever. How would we get our bikes down them, it seemed impossible. We were so tired that decisions took forever and we wasted a lot of time looking for a Cabana or some other place to stay but everywhere was full.
Eventually we decided to lock the bikes up at the top and just take our panniers down. We could see a campsite sign and began to make our way there. Unfortunately all the spaces under cover were gone, so we had no option but to put the tent up on a wooden platform. We were handed a hammer and nails and whilst Tim nailed the tent (which didn’t even fit) to the platform I had to walk up and down the hundreds of steps collecting our luggage.
Once the tent was up we set off to explore and try to find an open café where we could warm up. We carefully walked down the remaining steps to a long boardwalk (over 1 and ½ miles) which followed the sea around and had some amazing wooden carvings along the way.
Eventually we found a lovely snug B&B serving dinner. We were so cold and wet I was tempted to get Tim to un-nail the tent and move there for the night but it was getting late so we made do with dinner and decided to treat ourselves to a room the following night. Here we met two lovely Dutch ladies we’d camped with twice previously. Janine and Villie were good company and we stayed up chatting until late.
During the evening I managed to call a company whose boat went to a nearby glacier once a day but was told they would not be running for 3 days due to bad weather conditions. The following morning we awoke to sunshine and little wind. I rang again and asked if they would reconsider but still had a negative answer. At the tourist office we found the real reason the boat was not going was due to a family emergency, however an alternative driver had been found and we were to meet at the pier later that day.
The boat trip to the Glacier was an adventure in itself. The boat was smaller than I’d expected and we were all asked to wear life jackets. The boat went really fast and we bumped along, hanging onto our seats that ran along the inside of boat facing each other. The sea was getting rougher and soon our bottoms would leave our seats as it crashed over yet another wave. Suddenly one of the engines stopped. The driver put the boat into neutral and went to have a look – apparently it was leaking oil! He did something with spanners and a hammer and we were off again only to stop again a few minutes later. I was sure that had we been in the UK the driver would have realised it was late in the day, the engine was poorly and we would probably have turned around but not in Chile. We kept going and eventually began to weave in and out of increasingly big icebergs.
It was really exciting to see them and despite the cold and cloudy weather we all crammed outside to watch them pass by. Eventually we arrived at the glacier itself and we were able to leave the boat and walk along the shoreline to get a better picture of it. It really was majestic.
The driver of the boat had filled the engine with oil whilst we were there and as we set off on the return journey we were all given a glass of whisky with Glacier Ice. It turned out that it was the driver’s birthday and he was given a tumbler or three filled to the top!!
After saying goodbye to Janine and Villie we were back on the road. We had a ferry to catch (which we only just made with seconds to spare) before making our way to Villa O’Higgins – a frontier town that was a dead-end to all traffic except cyclists and walkers. In fact the town had only had road access at all since 1999. The only way out of the town (if you didn’t want to do a u turn) was a small ferry.
We had heard that people could spend a couple of days in Villa O’Higgins because the ferries could only run when the wind wasn’t too strong. We arrived and after setting up camp went straight to book the next available ferry. We were told that two out of the three ferries were not working and the third was fully booked for the following five days. We had no choice but to sit it out.
When I say frontier town I mean it was virtually dead most of the time. There were a few shops and café’s that seemed to open when they felt like it and never until the afternoon. We did find one nice place that was warm and sold great food but we mainly cooked in the campsite. It was here we met Hannah – a girl from Hackney who was travelling alone and had been in South America for over a year (she is still stuck in Argentina – she didn’t managed to get out in time when the borders closed because of the Corona Virus). She told us she’d bought a bag of lentils, beans and various other vegan foods that would be too much for her to eat alone. She asked us if we would share her casserole but didn’t want any help cooking it. This was great for us but I felt guilty that she wanted nothing in return. That night we had a feast.
The following day we were wandering around town when we heard about a climb up to a flag pole set high up in the mountain. Tim was thrilled and set off determinedly. I was less sure – I had all my valuables in my bar bag and a wet bag full of books, puzzles, cards and all the things needed for a relaxing afternoon in a café!
As we climbed higher and higher on slippery rocks I began my usual rantings. My bag kept falling forwards and I had trouble using the climbing rope put out to help us because of holding my wet bag. “This is ridiculous! Why couldn’t we have done this tomorrow? Why do I follow you when you are so stupid?” you get the picture! Luckily Tim was so far ahead he couldn’t hear me. Eventually we could hear the tapping of the flagpole and I concede it was a spectacular view from the top.
Eventually we were on our way again, leaving in the dark to get to the ferry on time. The ferry also marked the end of the Carretera Austral – we had made the 500km on dirt road and had completed over 1500 miles of our journey. But, the final and most glorious part of the journey was still to come.
Next time: How we coped on 5km of muddy footpath, friendly border guard who ordered us to eat, fabulous mountains, the most impressive bird I will ever see and how we got home just in time.