It seems to me that the patterns of all our lives are governed by cycles. The concept of seven year life cycles is a popular one and happens to be a philosophy I relate to. Within this grand concept I have also seen a series of less predictable cycles and rhythms that centre themselves on a whole variety of life forces. Some pass generally unnoticed and are as insignificant as skin blemishes or a stretching bike chain, whilst others harbour the power to throw life in joyously unpredictable directions. Two of these cycles have just colluded in my life to fish me out of my cycling shell and drop me into an unexpected adventure. In El Bolson I found myself uncharacteristically energized by the presence of some particularly fascinating and inspiring people as my need to be social resurfaced following a long hiatus (since La Paz, Bolivia). This social bent then followed me into Chile, helping me to capitalise on a potentially miserable bike issue. The inevitable cycle of mechanical mishap had swung around to crack my front rim and send me on a surprise journey in the ‘wrong’ direction, north to Puerto Montt.
This is a post of boats, trucks, cars, buses and of course bicycles
As sure as day follows night all touring gear will beg for repair eventually. Whether it be the replacing of bicycle tyres or the final frustrations of a failing tent zip, every cycle tourist knows the next gear repair saga is just around the corner. That corner for me was the Welsh Patagonian town of Trevelin. On my morning spin into the delightful little Brittonic anomaly I noticed a rhythmic pulsing in my front wheel and knew immediately the inevitable had happened. Over a year ago back in Loja, Ecuador my bike was run over by a car destroying the front rim and hub and twisting up the rack and fork. The guy who did it was extremely apologetic and miraculously able to source me a new wheel. It was as good as could be found at the time but I knew the Alex Rim was a ticking time bomb to failure. And that is what happened on the way in to Trevelin, the rim finally gave up, cracking along the side wall.
In Parque Nacional Los Alerces my old front rim was given a decent send off
On a quiet Sunday morning in Trevelin I tracked down the town bicycle mechanic, discovered the scarcity of 32-hole rims in Argentina and limped on into Chile. Bicycle parts are notoriously expensive in Argentina and my mechanic friend assured me Chile was the only place to find what I needed. After an evening search around Futaleufú for accommodation I wound up in a cheap campsite with a good bunch of people. For someone with an almost religious aversion to paying for camping this was peculiar but for some reason it happened and the ball started rolling on a grand adventure.
El Bolson to Futaleufú Route elevation profile
Puerto Montt doesn’t have much of a reputation as anything other than a place to pass through on the way somewhere else. But it has always held some allure for me. I am a fan of slightly industrial, tatty edged working towns and cities. I find these places to be real; living breathing homes to people and life. Cities like Puerto Montt represent normal life to me and I love them and the escape they give from the pretentious dichotomies of plastic tourism. Missing out on Puerto Montt had weighed a little heavy in my heart so it was easy to spin my mechanical disaster into a great opportunity to explore the northern Carretera Austral and pay that city a visit.
Taylor (left) and Marissa… two very powerful weapons in the hitch hiking game
Teaming up with two young Mainers, Taylor and Marissa I packed my tiny backpack with sleeping bag and a bar of soap and headed north. With smiles on our faces and Taylors heavenly singing voice in our ears we hitched north to Puerto Montt where I struck lucky on a number of accounts before voyaging back to my gear in Futaleufú. It was to be an eventful week and a fun little adventure for someone who no longer sees exploring gnarly backroads as anything other than ‘normal’. Here is that story…
Leaving El Bolson I say goodbye to Torre, a 42 year-old German with a fascinating life story and a genuine ability to inspire others (useful for a teacher!)
After a brief foray onto some dirt roads around El Bolson I’m soon gobbled up by the Ruta 40 monster…
… joining other cyclists and plenty of vehicles in the jostle for space on the narrow road
Thankfully my route eventually leaves Ruta 40 and all its traffic. The world quickly regains some tranquility and I stop for lunch
There is a forest fire raging nearby that has flooded the region with smoke. The further south I spin the thicker the smoke becomes…
… until it grows into a dense soup of lung busting, sun smothering carbon
A weird afternoons riding in the eerie twilight of smoke ends on a positive note as I finally reach the edge of the enormous cloud
Thankfully the next day is smoke free. A few kilometers out of camp I enter Parque Nacional Los Alerces…
… a beautiful area of stunning lakes…
… streams and mountains
The further south I travel through the park the wider the road becomes and the busier the traffic…
… making me glad to eventually reach the southern edge of Lago Futalaufquen and exit the park
It takes all my stealthy camp experience to find a nice sleeping spot before Trevelin. A victory that leads me into the new day in good spirits…
… until I discover this crack in my front rim
Reaching the Welsh speaking little town of Trevelin I make inquiries (in Spanish) that lead to the certain knowledge I’m best continuing on to Chile to fix the wheel
Fortunately the crack doesn’t appear to be spreading…
… so I’m able to enjoy the dusty ripio slog…
… through some eye-catching Patagonian countryside…
… to the international border between Argentina and Chile
Chile has come to feel like a second home so it feels good to be back.
Pedaling on to Futaleufu I find a cheap campsite and some new friends. When the next mornings investigations draw a blank on bike parts in the town I hatch a plan with two young Americans Taylor and Marissa (pictured) to hitch up to the bike shops in Puerto Montt
The next day we saunter out of Futaleufu, stick out our thumbs and find a ride to Chaiten. Sharing the bed of a truck with a motorcycle and Gabrialle the adventurous Chilean we’re bounced mercilessly around for a few hours…
… but do eventually make it Chaiten in one piece
Chaiten is a town in recovery. In May 2008 the Chaiten volcano which had been presumed dormant, dramatically erupted prompting an evacuation of the town. It was a lucky escape for many as a lahar ripped through the settlement virtually destroying it. Residents have been slowly drifting back to Chaiten in a move that is stoking a hotbed of controversy
After a night in Chaiten we hit the road early determined to hitch all the way up to Puerto Montt in one day. Things start off slowly…
… but come good when we’re offered a ride in a very plush Audi. It feels like riding a space ship as we glide north to the first of the days three ferry crossings
The first ferry crossing is a short one. I’m surprised we make it across as the crew seem unable to take their eyes off my travelling companions When Taylor takes out her ukulele and starts to sing I fear the sailors are going to lose control!
A short bus ride links the first ferry to the second, longer ride…
… where we find ourselves reunited with Forrest,a climber from Oregon we’d been camping with in Futaleufu
After a few hours we arrive in Hornopirén. Pablo, whose spaceship we had ridden in earlier, was due on a later boat so we decided to rest up, get some food and wait for him
Thankfully Pablo arrives as expected and takes us to the final ferry. It’s past 11 pm by the time we disembark the ferry. Despite lengthy inquiries on the boat, Taylor has been unable to find us a ride the remaining hour to Puerto Montt and we’re a little concerned
In a huge stroke of luck the only other foot passenger on the ferry, Fabian, is picked up by a friend who has space in his truck for us. Better still Fabian offers us hospitality at his home in Puerto Montt. The next day we buy him lunch in an attempt to say thank you
Once Fabian has taken me to Oxford cycles where I find a suitable rim he goes home to work as Taylor, Marissa and I wonder around town. My fondness for Puerto Montt grows; it is tatty and real, and unlike the rest of Chile, it feels like Latin America…
… but still with a particularly Chilean edge
When my lady companions visit the bus terminal to book their bus north to Santiago I run into more friendly faces from the campsite in Futaleufu. Luke and Ian deserve mention not because they are English, but because they are northern English. Their accents, linguistic nuances and humor remind me that despite its many problems the small island I herald from is actually quite special
After saying goodbye to Taylor and Marissa, Fabian and I enjoy a night in drinking beer and watching football. The next morning he has to head out on his travels again and drops me in the centre of town. It’s a long wait for my ferry to Chaiten that is supposed to leave at 2:30 the next morning, but I use the time well. In Puerto Montt I am able to find everything I couldn’t in Santiago including the tent waterproofing spray I’ve been after for months.
I arrive at the Puerto Montt ferry terminal at 9 pm having killed the best part of the evening in the cinema. By close to 5 am we finally leave port. The delay means when we do eventually dock in Chaiten 9 hours later the daily bus has long gone and there are no rides to be snagged. Accompanied by Australian raft guide Michelle, I settle in for a night of beer and pizza in Chaiten
The next day I am thanking my lucky stars I don’t travel by bus regularly. The three-hour journey back to Futaleufu is uncomfortable to say the least. But we make it and I’m reunited with Shermy and the rest of my gear. Mission accomplished!
Arriving back in Futeulafu with a new front wheel (built well and for free by the good folks of Oxford cycles), several dry bags and various other goodies I had never expected to find, I felt blessed to have been so lucky. The journey up to Pureto Montt and back had been an exciting adventure and allowed me to dip into the world of the backpacker, a completely different breed of traveler. It was fun but exhausting, much more so than travelling by bicycle. I was glad to have traveled the northern part of the famous Carretera Austral and extremely relieved that I had chosen not to ride it, I think it would have made me miserable. Although I lost over a week to winter through the inconvenience of this side trip it was immensely valuable for countless reasons. Now I’m ready and excited for my next route, a winding course I’ve named ‘Operation Austral Avoidance‘. I start this new route with the lingering thought that maybe I can have my cake and eat it after all.
3 days, 244 km (152 miles), 2,185 m (7,170 ft.) of climbing
This was only ever supposed to be the start of a longer route that was cut short by a cracked rim and the subsequent adventure north. Despite just being a short burst there are a few things to note:
Always keen to avoid busy paved highways I started the journey out of El Bolson with a little bit of dirt road riding that slightly delayed the inevitable introduction to Ruta 40. Take the road towards Lago Puelo before turning left as obvious on my map.
The route is paved from El Bolson to Cholila, from the southern edge of Lago Futalaufquen to Trevelin and then from the international border to Futaleufú. The rest of the time it is ripio.
Parque Nacional Los Alerces costs ARG$80 to enter. The northern part of the road is quiet and a delight but the southern half busy and tedious. It is beautiful but it seems mighty expensive for less than a days riding.
Despite my cracked rim I elected to take the ripio route out of Trevelin. It was boring, dusty and a bit rubbish so I’d advise taking the pavement towards Aldea Escolar before turning south to join up with the RN259.