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Chile’s Lost highway

Describing northern Patagonia in an email to a friend, I would rack my brain for alternatives to “magnificent snow-capped mountains,” “pristine turquoise lakes,” “sparkling sapphire skies” and all the other phrases that evoke a postcard-cliché. I gave up “” such beauty was almost embarrassing to describe. You just have to be here, I wrote, and see for yourself.

In January 2007, my husband and I cycled part of southern Chile’s lost highway, the Carretera Austral. Construction of the 1,300-kilometre road began in 1976 for the purpose of linking the isolated communities of Chile’s Lagos and Aisén regions. It was a herculean project: roads are never easy to build, but the topography and remoteness of Southern Chile made it especially difficult. The final sections of the road were only completed in 2000.

The highway is a veritable mecca for bike-travelers. It is wilderness in the most rugged and sublime sense, reminiscent of Montana, British Columbia or Alaska “” only without the grizzly bears and blackflies.

The road begins in the town of Puerto Montt. From there, it doggedly pushes south, weaving between the fjords of Chile’s Pacific coast and the Andes mountains to the east, ending at the far-flung outpost of Villa O’Higgins. There are ferries at three points along the Carretera; December through February is the only time the road can be traveled along its entire length, due to severe weather conditions the rest of the year.

The Carretera Austral took us through a stunning variety of climates and landscapes. The dense temperate rainforest along the northern section, where it rains most of the year, gradually opened up to a vista of mountains, lakes, glaciers and ice fields of the south, with the occasional semi-desert along the way. At every turn, the beauty of northern Patagonia was beyond words.

We only had a couple of weeks, which is not enough time to bike the entire highway. By the time we got to Chile, we still hadn’t decided which section of the road we would travel. We arrived by ferry to the sleepy hamlet of Chaitén; there we met Nicolas, an American who has been a tour operator in Chaitén for the past 10 years. We asked him which part of the road he would recommend. The question seemed to trouble him, as though suggesting one section over the others was somehow callous, like having a favourite child. “Well, it’s all beautiful,” he said. “All of it. Whichever part you do, just be present and enjoy it.”

Chaitén, though gorgeous and with an assortment of recreational activities to choose from, was a damp and rainy place. (We also learned, later, that it was a particularly bad year for rain.) In the end, we decided to cycle the southern section of the route, where our chances of dry weather were better. We strapped our bikes to the roof of an ancient bus headed 420 kilometres south to Coyhaique, the capital of the Aisén region. The road twisted and lunged through thick emerald forest, occasionally opening up to reveal snowy mountain peaks and tumbling waterfalls. At a pit stop in Santa Lucia, we met the second group of bike-packers we’d seen so far: three Germans, splattered with mud and grinning with good-natured exhaustion.

Coyhaique is the last town of any significant size along the Carretera. We raided its two supermarkets for provisions, and loaded up our panniers with canned tuna, pasta, granola, chocolate and, of course, wine. We set out on the southern half of the Carretera Austral on the last day of 2006. We would be spending New Year’s Eve on a mountain pass in Cerro Castillo National Park.

The road would be paved for the first two days of our ride, and cycling out from Coyhaique went smoothly. The scenery was gorgeous, or so we assumed: it was still raining relentlessly, the surrounding fields and mountains shrouded in fog. By the time we reached the pass that evening, we were soaked to the bone and freezing. We’d had visions of a cozy New Year’s Eve in the woods, enjoying our Chilean Merlot by a crackling campfire, roasting the chorizo sausages we’d bought specially for the occasion. Instead, we spent the night shivering in the park warden’s tool shed, trying to block out the snow that whistled in through holes in the roof. We built a small fire in one corner and quickly stamped it out as the room filled with smoke. Feral cats made off with our sausages and cheese. I howled at the injustice. But at least we had the wine.

The sun was shining the next morning, and melted most of the previous night’s snow off the trees and our bicycles. The wind was fierce and cold at this altitude, but the scenery sparkled splendidly under a clear sky. Once we cleared the pass and reached the other side of the mountain, a vista of inconceivable beauty stretched out before us: the Cerro Castillo valley and the icicle peaks of Cerro Castillo itself “” a mountain named after a castle, which one cyclist accurately described as “gothic.”

The village of Cerro Castillo marks the end of this brief section of paved road: from then on, it’s ripio, or gravel. Although there are few high mountain passes along the Carretera, it isn’t an easy ride by any stretch of the imagination. Cycling toward Cochrane, high above the turquoise rapids of Rio Baker, we could barely push our bikes around the bends of steep switchbacks. At one point, we came across an abandoned truck that had slid backward into a ravine, which, sadly, had been carrying horses.

Bone-rattling washboard is almost constant, and it will do a number on your bike. By the end of the day, the bolts you thought couldn’t be screwed any tighter will have flown off. Your stalwart bike will encounter any number of problems, from broken spokes to shattered racks to warped rims. Even the frame of my husband’s bike snapped like a twig after only a few days. A certain desperate ingenuity and a collection of miscellaneous material (metal wire, duct tape, steel clamps, rope, etc.) will provide temporary solutions, but if you haven’t thought of absolutely everything that could possibly go wrong, the Carretera will be pleased to remind you.
But this kind of challenge is part of the reason bike-travelers are irresistibly drawn to the Carretera. Were the road entirely paved (which it will one day be), this Patagonian wilderness would be dotted with high-end fishing lodges, tourist complexes and settlements sprouting like weeds along the road. And who would blame anyone for wanting to settle here?
As it stands, the road is too rough for heavy traffic. The Aisén region of Chile remains one of the world’s most remote and untouched places. There is no hiss of distant traffic or of airplanes overhead; not even telephone wires, so ubiquitous in most parts of the world, thread across your vision here. You struggle and grind along this highway leading to the end of the earth, but you do so to your own rhythm.

There is a handful of villages strung out along the road, most of them offering basic accommodation. Still, we camped wild nearly every night. Our campsites were idyllic: fields of purple lupines, spectacular river valleys, the spotless shores of Lake General Carrera. We built fires when it wasn’t too windy, and bathed as often as we dared in glacial blue-green waters. Unfortunately, we didn’t think of bringing anything to fish with, but anyone equipped with a line and a pole could enjoy a fresh catch at the end of the day.
Ten days before the end of our trip, we were joined unexpectedly by a traveling companion: part golden retriever and part mystery, we found him sleeping outside our tent one morning near Bahia Murta. We’d heard stories about dogs accompanying cyclists along the Carretera; we humoured him for a while, expecting him to turn back after a few tiring kilometres. But Philips (as we eventually named him) trotted alongside us and slept outside our tent every night until we reached Caleta Tortel, our final destination. We were lucky enough to find a farmer there who needed a dog, and we delivered Philips into his good hands. But it was a tough goodbye.

Caleta Tortel is not the end of the Carretera Austral “” in fact, it is 20 kilometres off that road, on the Pacific coast. It’s a town of modest cottages and fishing boats, with a network of stairs and boardwalks instead of streets. There are no cars, no bicycles and no telephones “” unless you count the single public phone in the town square. From here, we would make our long trip by bus all the way back to the capital, Santiago, and fly home. Most of the cyclists we met along the way had more time: they were heading, each at their own speed, to the end of the line at Villa O’Higgins. From there, many of them would do a three-day overland trek into Argentina, strapping their bikes to horses as they made their way over the Andes.

Though we lived an unforgettable experience, three weeks was not enough time for the Carretera Austral. If you’re planning to cycle this route, come equipped with a sturdy bike, solid panniers, a creative repair kit, camping gear, warm and waterproof clothing and lots of food. But most importantly, be sure to take your time.

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