Operation Austral Avoidance Pt.2: Valle de la Luna

Despite my best efforts I could only avoid the Carretera Austral for so long. Without ceremony the first stage of my avoidance route dumped me onto the highway in La Junta on a miserable grey and rainy day. The ride to La Junta had been special and I was feeling great, determined to take a positive attitude onto the Carretera and enjoy the two days it was going to hold me before I could once again get down to the business of avoiding everything but the deserted little roads I love. All the realities and prejudices that had helped persuade me that avoiding as much of the over hyped Carretera Austral  as would be sensible got shelved as I set forth into its clutches. Over the next two days that shelf groaned, sagged and then eventually buckled as the realisation dawned that none of my negative assumptions and predictions had been short of the truth.

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The area around this central section of the Carretera Austral is a dramatic and seductive land of jagged snow-capped Patagonian peaks

The two day 170 km spurt on the Carretera Austral was neither miserable, nor pointless, it was just relentlessly bland. So many things about the highway colluded to numb me, prompting my dialing down of sensitivities and emotions in order to prevent a collapse into despondency. The most noticeable annoyance derives from  the Carretera Australs current evolution away from being a ‘ripio classic‘ and towards becoming a paved… something. For a large proportion of the time it felt more like I was riding through a construction site than along one of the world’s most famous bicycle touring routes. I wonder if the pavement will attract even more cyclists to the route than there currently are. My suggestion is that it may and that is a frightening thought for unsocial remotists like myself.

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The otherworldly humps and bumps of the Valle de la Luna

I have hit the Austral after its busy season but was still astounded by the number of other bicycle tourists I saw. I am sure that for some riders this is a positive: they feel as if they have found their people and place. For me it is a little frustrating and a massive culture shock. I have no problems or quarrels with other cyclists (so long as they tour responsibly and bury their shit) and think it is an overwhelmingly positive thing that so many people are choosing to embrace the lifestyle that brings me so much happiness. My issues with high numbers of cyclists is entirely personal and springs from two places; my preference for lonesome remote riding and a bored reluctance to tell my story. I like to ride solo most of the time and prefer to do so in places devoid of people, that is just how I roll. In fact I have to say that ‘find a bike buddy to ride with‘ sits so low on my list of things to do that it nestles only slightly above ‘slam genitals in a car door‘ in terms of priority. This is my choice and usually reflected in where I choose to ride.

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Wim and Els… a couple of smiling Belgian bicycle warriors

It is often very dull speaking with other cycle tourists but can also be incredibly enlightening. There are so many fascinating tourists out there with great stories that I love to hear. Riders such as Els and Wim who I met whilst riding the Austral. Having toured Africa they had some fascinating perspectives and have allied their cycling with a commitment to help disadvantaged children. On their website (www.cosmogolemcyclingproject.com) they describe their dream: “With our experiences we want to raise sympathy and raise a voice for the destiny of [child refugees, orphans, abused children, children soldiers and street children]. And maybe also raise a little bit of money.” Their mission is incredible, they are amazingly inspirational people and I regard it as a privilege to have had the chance to speak with them. So it is not other cyclists I resent, it is more the fact that every time I speak with a new one I find myself pedaling the same old crap I’ve been spouting for the past few years. I am beyond bored of listening to myself harp on about my trip, forever using the same one liners and throwing in well rehearsed tidbits of cycle touring philosophy. It has turned into an act for me, a well honed passionless and automated act. Thus I am motivated to avoid engaging with other cyclists to negate the tedium of regurgitating the ‘this is my story‘ story that seems to make me cringe more with every telling. Surely I have a blog for all that crap…

La Junta to Coyhaique Route elevation profile

It’ll be interesting to me to see how I feel about the Carretera Austral after riding it from here south for a slightly longer period than the two days I’ve had so far. South of Coyhaique there really aren’t any other sensible options so despite all that I’ve just been prattling on about, I shall be becoming one of the ants of the Austral. North of here there were  alternatives and some interesting backroads to be explored. This is why I have only had two days of experience on Ruta 7, I was able to make an escape east into the Valle de la Luna and get reacquainted with the windswept beauty and tranquility of the pampa. Here is the story of my Austral awakening and subsequent escape back into the solitary Patagonia I enjoy so much…

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The vista is grey in every way as I join the Carretera Austral in La Junta

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The road is quick, paved and boring for quite a way before heavy road works slow things down. Fortunately I hit the worst section of construction during lunch time and the worker are off eating…

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… allowing me a surprisingly easy ride to Puyuhuapi. I pick up supplies and chat with the myriad of other cyclists who have congregated in the town square…

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… before heading off along the shores of Seno Ventisquero

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I’m soon absorbed by more road works. Between dodging explosions and heavy construction vehicles I take a rare few seconds out to actually lift my head and enjoy where I am

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Finding a camp spot proves difficult as thick vegetation borders the road. Patience is always rewarded though and good camping can always be found, on this occasion by the Rio Queulat

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Next morning I’m blessed with a section of unadulterated original ripio…

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… and even start to enjoy myself…

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… on the climb up Cuesta Queulat

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The fun soon evaporates as the descent is plagued with more construction

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A stretch of scenic put unremarkable riding delivers me into a resupply in Villa Amengual…

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… and then on…

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… into the evening

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The next day my life restarts. Within a couple of kilometers of camp I turn off the Austral. leave the pavement…

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… and start to smile again

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For the first 20 km I’m joined by some reasonably heavy mine traffic , but even that can’t blunt my good/silly mood

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Up and down, side to side… the road burrows through the mountains towards pampa

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A couple of mine vehicle stop to chat with me as they assume I must have taken a wrong turn. When I explain to them where I’m heading and what I’m doing they’re seemingly shocked that life continues beyond Mina el Toqui

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Once I pass the mine all traffic completely disappears and a duvet of tranquility descends on the land

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Aside from the odd church or farm building…

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… the world has been distilled down to just me, the road and rain clouds

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Even the road signs make me laugh… this confusing sign trying to direct me towards El Gato

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The riding is mellow with only the occasional pond sized puddle able to break my flow

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Mid afternoon the heavens open and a heavy deluge sends me running to the forest for shelter. In the process I manage to miss my planned turning up and over to El Risco. This is undoubtedly a blessing as instead of climbing a further 300 metres into thick rain cloud I descend down into the calmer climes of El Gato

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Cold and wet I get seduced by a hospedaje sign and soon find myself in the warm and homely kitchen of Rosa Vargas enjoying her homemade bread with jam and sipping on steaming coffee. Her and her husband have been living in the house since they got married 50 years ago. Kind, warm and good fun to talk Spanish with I decide to take a day off to enjoy their company. We work out a deal that means I spend the next 24 hours doing little other than editing photos and eating… and then eating some more and drinking wine

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After the most restful of days I say goodbye to the lovely Rosa…

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… and head down valley…

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… to the Valle de la Luna. It’s easy to see where the name comes from…

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… and thankfully there is only as much traffic as on the moon too. After turning onto the Cerro Mirador road after Nirehuao I see nobody for hours apart from one friendly farmer on his tractor

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It’s a beautiful land to be alone in as I climb up…

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… out of the Valle de la Luna…

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… and over to…

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… Coyhaique Alto which consists of nothing more than an Estancia and the immigration buildings servicing the Paso Coihayqye border crossing 5 kms away

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Resisting a slight urge to return to Argentina I head west on the undulating 240 to Coyhaique

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As the city comes into view below me…

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… I pitch up and enjoy an evening watching the Saturday night Coyhaique lights dance 20 kms away

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From camp it’s just a short roll into Coyhaique, the finishing point of ‘Operation Austral avoidance’ and starting point for the next leg of my journey.

Route Tips

5.25 days, 330 km (205 miles), 5,180 m (17,000 ft.) of climbing

The detour options away from the Carretera Austral south of Villa Amengual are obvious. I elected to leave Ruta 7 as soon as possible on X-421 and in doing so had to share the road for 20 km with the large trucks that service Mina El Toqui. This wasn’t too bad, I was just happy to be off the Austral and enjoying the change in riding. Take the public road past the mine, cross the river and then follow the sign to ‘El Gato’. Note that the distances on the Chiletur Copec Mapa Turistico (7) are incorrect. The mine is 20 km from Ruta 7 but way before the turn to Rio Norte marked on the map. Add about another 10 km onto any route estimations taken from this map.

I had planned to turn off X-421 onto the X-431 to El Risco but missed the turning. This may have been due to a rain storm but I am sure if the turning were at all obvious I would have found it. Instead I descended to join the road from Villa Manihuales in El Gato. About 3 km east from the El Gato junction is Campo Lindo where I stayed a couple of nights:

Camping & Hospedaje Campo Lindo run by Rosa Vargas Cofre Arroyo El Gato, Region de Aysen Tel.: 91555376, Email: campingcamplindo@yahoo.com http://campingcampolindo.cl/

From Campo Lindo I continued on towards Nirehuao taking the X-469 Cerro Mirador road over to X-565. From Nirehuao to when the X-565 joins the 240 at Coyhaique Alto I had no traffic and a lot of fun. Rosa recommended taking the X-425 up around the northern edge of the Valle de la Luna. I abandoned that route option at the final moment as it would have involved a slog back from the Argentinean border into a heavy headwind to Bano Nuevo.

For more information and another take on a similar route check out what Cass had to say here: www.whileoutriding.com/south-america/chile/carretera-austral-segunda-parte

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