Saturday, December 20, 2008

Carretera Austral – 1,247kms through Chile’s remote fjords, lakes, and glaciers.

The end of the road… what a great destination! We’re in Villa O’Higgins, in the southern end of mainland Chile. The Carretera Austral stretches through this area of fjords and glaciers, and after more than 700 miles of sand, gravel, rocks, potholes, corrugation, a ferry, and some of the most stunning views, it comes to an end here.

Dec 11, 2008 - We entered Chile again near FutaleufĂș, a small town known around the world for its class 5+ rapids. Kayakers and rafters from all corners of the globe come to test their skills against the mighty FutaleufĂș. Unfortunately, a recent eruption of the volcano near Chaiten has blanketed the town in a thick layer of fine ash. The air has been tough to breath for several months, but these hardy folks are staying put, and the short tourist season is about to begin. As we rode along the bank of the Rio FutaleufĂș, the crushing sound of the waves reverberated off the canyon walls and up to the road.

We stopped at a small bridge where rafters unload, and ran into Josh, one of the tour operators. He looked at the bike and said, “, I remember you guys when you rafted here years ago”. The really bizarre thing is that he remembered our names (he’s an American), and we rafted with a different company nearly 7 years before. He said he had followed our journeys for years. Small world!

We arrived at the campground in the Parque Nacional Queulat a few hours before sunset, setup our tent, and after a simple dinner we had a pretty good sleep under a crystal clear sky loaded with stars. We had purchased a cheapo tent and air mattresses the week before in Bariloche, and the only problem was Erin’s pillow section lost air during the night. With no wind or rain and perfect temperature the equipment was OK. In the morning we took a walk to see the “hanging glacier” and the roaring rapids below it. Some 50 years ago the glacier’s edge was at the campground, but over the years it’s pulled back quite a long way and now hangs off a cliff spilling forth a spectacular waterfall.

Further south we stopped in Coyhaique for a couple of nights, the main city of the region. We remembered it as being a quaint place focused on adventure tourism. It has grown into a commercial city, the population bursting past the city’s edges. We stopped in to see our friends Santi and Chus, who own a popular hostel. While their hostel hasn’t changed much they are now separated and have different partners, but are still running the business together. It’s highly rated in all the guide books, has a steady stream of clients, and is up for sale if you are interested.

Lunch stop with another RTW traveler - a converted city bus with a great view of Cerro Castillo:

Dec 14 we arrived at the small village of Puerto Rio Tranquillo. There are 3 streets that run north-south; 4 more that run east-west, and it sits on the western edge of Lago General Carrera (Chile)/Lago Buenos Aires (Argentina). While it looks nothing like you might imagine from the name, it was an extremely relaxing place and we stayed several days in a great little cabana.

The first night we took a small launch (boat) out to an island to see the Marble Caves. This name makes sense as the caves look like chiseled marble, and the small launch maneuvered in and out of the many openings. The ride back had its own adventures with some strong winds and big waves, but the young captain managed the small vessel exceptionally well.

The next day we took yet another scenic ride out to a glacier field situated down a narrow, twisting valley with hanging glaciers at every turn and hundreds of waterfalls. Ice balls filled the river downstream, formed by the rapids. After a 20 minute hike through lush rain forest we came to the purpose-built viewpoint and took in its sheer size. Much like viewing the Grand Canyon, its hard to believe what you are seeing with your own eyes is really real.

Dec 17 we arrived in Coletta Tortel, a small village that first started seeing tourists a few years ago when a road was constructed to reach its inhabitants. Set on the edge of the fjords, there are no streets and all passageways are made using stairs and boardwalks at various levels, and it takes about 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other. Built into the side of small mountains, the walkways zig-zag in countless directions. Supposedly, if you stretch out the stairs/walkways, they would be some 15 miles long.

This was the other way around town. The boat we took to the glaciers was only slightly larger

Dec 18 we signed on with 5 other travelers to visit the Montt Glacier in the Southern Ice Field. The trip was 4.5 hours one way (11 hours total), and it was a boat without many comforts. That being said, we had a lot of fun, saw some amazing sites, and have some great memories. When we finally got to the glacier field, it was well worth it! The lagoon leading up to the glacier is filled with whimsically shaped ice bergs of all different sizes. The captain pulled along side one of the largest icebergs and one of the young travelers on the journey jumped on the ice. Unfortunately for him, one of the anchors slipped and the boat drifted away. He had to stand there, perfectly still so as not to slip and fall into the frigid water, until several minutes later when we were able to pull close again and re-anchor. One of the other young travelers brought a large bottle of whiskey aboard, and we retrieved a small iceberg to chill it and serve it over ancient ice cubes. Not a drop was left in the bottle, and the ride back was spent in the warmth of the crowded cabin below deck sharing travel stories and nibbling on Christmas fruit cake.

Life inside the boat:

Back in town, the owner of our hospedaje shared a bit of his story. He was born in 1962 in a tent into a family of 13 children in what was then a small logging camp in Caleta Tortel. The local industry was until recently wood, cutting down by hand and dragging to the shore to be shipped further south to the large port of Puerto Arenas. Houses and shops appeared about 25 years ago, and they had no power and no running water until only a few years ago. Even today local kids still have to go to high school/boarding school 300 miles away in Coyhaique.

Dec 20 – We arrived in Villa O’Higgins yesterday, to an awesome little guest house at the very end of the Carratera Austral, the southern-most town in mainland Chile, and it feels like the bottom of the world! Glaciers, icebergs, fjords, clouds, rain, sunshine, lakes, mountains, rivers, warm, cold, etc... If you don't like the weather, just wait a few minutes.

The new road, along with a newly opened pedestrian passage to Argentina will see this sleepy little village transform in the coming years. In the past, travelers had to back-track from here, up to the north a couple of days journey, cross into Argentina, then take the famous Ruta 40 down to Tierra del Fuego. Now, with a passenger boat from Villa O’Higgins across the lake, the journey includes a ferry ride to a hiking trail (or horse ride) to another ferry to a small bus into El Chalten, Argentina and the famous Mount Fitzroy, high on any international trekker’s “to do” list. Unfortunately the boats won’t take the motorcycle (or any cars for that matter) across on the passenger ferry nor are we allowed to ride the small trail.

Some of you may be wondering how one gets gas in these remote areas – it is simple, they take gas from large barrels (imagine 55 gallon drums) and pour into 2 liter coke bottles. To fill our bike, it’s 22 liters (5.8 gallons), so they refill the bottles a whole bunch of times!

So, tomorrow we will mark the longest day of the year in the southern hemisphere by turning the bike around and heading north.

Safety first?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Northern Patagonia resort towns in Chile & Argentina

Often times people stop and take pictures next to the bike, often when we are in restaurants or simply not around. In this case, two bus loads of travelers from Buenos Aires stopped just to chat with us. They asked what the cost for a photo on the bike would be, and Chris, always trying to enhance international relations, told them a kiss would suffice. We're not sure if these seniors were happier to sit on the bike or share a kiss....

After two restful days in Pucon we were on the road again to cross the border into Argentina and to San Martin de Bariloche at the end of the day. Rather than take the paved, beautiful pass we had taken several times the last time we were here, we decided to take a different, more interesting route south through the Chilean lake district and east to the Chilean border at Puerto Fuy. The ride started out as a welcome cool, foggy day with the roads rising and falling through green pastures and around beautiful lakes.

We got to the quiet village of Pt. Fuy and the waiting ferry around mid-day. There we found 5 drunk, wealthy Chileanos on fishing holiday and two Dutch bicyclists on a long holiday. Paul quickly investigated the options at the small restaurant and treated us to a dozen delicious empanadas for lunch. While we waited to board the ferry (there is only one a day each way, 1pm departure from Chile and 4pm departure from Argentina) we got to know the Dutch couple and hear about their travels.

Here is a video approaching the ferry:

The ferry ride took about 2 hours and we landed in the wonderfully forrested Lanin National Park on the Argentine side. From there it was rough dirt road until we hit pavement just before the quaint town of San Martin de Los Andes.

One of the many narrow bridge crossings:

SM de Los Andes is at one end of the famous 7 lakes drive down to Bariloche. When we were here 6 years ago most of this road was still dirt. Now we were surprised at how much it had been paved (about 50% and the rest in being prepared to be paved). Much has been done in the past decade to pave the popular and scenic routes in Patagonian Argentina, and it appears that for many motorcyclists that the dream of conquering many of these storied, challenging dirt roads will evaporate within the next 10 years at the current pace. On the other hand, it will open up opportunity for those who prefer to stay on the pavement.

We stayed in Bariloche for the last 4 days. Our friend Paul left on Friday for Santiago and his flight home. At our hotel we met a German couple on 2 motorcycles and a Dutch couple with a 2 yr old son riding a tandem bike and pulling a trailer. Can you imagine how difficult that must be?! The German couple is in their 50’s with grown children and traveling for the first time outside of Europe. We meet the most interesting and intrepid people on the road!

Bariloche is very touristy and quite expensive overall, but a good place to relax for a few days. We were a bit disappointed by the graffiti in the central square and all the rowdy teenagers playing loud rap music (in Spanish of course!) and basically taking over the place for themselves. It’s a real shame because the last time we were here 6 years ago, the square was a beautiful place with a lovely statue in the middle (now covered in graffiti) and old people and families enjoying the view over the lake towards the Andes. I guess the financial crisis since we were here is partly to blame.

We did have a wonderful day however riding out to Hotel Llao Llao (one of the nicest/fanciest hotels in Argentina) and the circuit around the peninsula. We had a very expensive fruit smoothie on the patio and walked around the beautiful grounds. There is nice trekking on the peninsula and beautiful beaches to take a swim. Hopefully the photos will do it justice.

We left yesterday and are now in the town of Esquel a little further south in Patagonia. Of our two options riding south after El Bolson we took the rough dirt road through the Parque National Los Alerces which was very well worth the bumpy/dusty ride to see it. The lakes are beautiful and the forest is filled with huge alerce trees, some as old as 2000 years. There is a lot of fine dirt on the road around the lake and in the air around here. The locals told us that it is from the recent volcanic eruption which wiped out the village of Chaiten in Chile, just over the Andes from where we are now. The volcano dirt/dust is all over our motorcycle and riding gear. Just 5km before reaching the pavement, we got our first (and hopefully last) flat tire. Normally a simple routine, the process took a bit longer with all the dust spewing up from the traffic.

We are now staying in a wonderful cabana for about $35/nt and it is nice to cook our own meals again. It’s like a mini version of our Winter Park townhouse. We will stay here until Wednesday so that we can take the famous Patagonia Express narrow-gauge train tomorrow (it only runs a few times a week). After that we don’t know where we are going. If the weather forecast looks good for heading south on the Argentine side of the Andes we will go to the layover town of Perito Morreno and then El Chalten for Mt Fitzroy. If not, we will probably cross back into Chile at Futeleufu (not too far from here) and head south down the Carraterra Austral to Cohaique.

There is a lot of free-ranging cattle on the roads, and they don't always want to get out of the way:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

San Rafael to Pucon (Start of Patagonia)

It was around the crack of 10am when we rode off John & Annette's finca, heading south for a 300 mile ride. We had a fantastic time on their finca and vowed to return in early January to see the Dakar pass through.

The first 1.5 hours was on a well paved road as we slid southwest back towards the mountains. The road then became a mix of pavement and dirt, and we opted to get off the main road and take the less-used route 221. We zigged and zagged, slipped and slided, and danced the bikes over some pretty technical sections. Although we spent many hours in the countryside, we only saw one shepherd the entire day!

Erin took the pilot seat (it's her bike too!) while Chris sat behind taking some of the video...

There were also a few un-posted detours which were slightly challenging...

Late in the day we reached the main road again, and arrived in Chos Malal, exhausted. As we took a break in the small town centre, a few local kids directed us to a hospedaje with basic amenities. It was Saturday night and the small town was hopping, we struggle to get a good night's sleep.

Sunday, the last day of the month as we entered Patagonia. We opted to stay on the pavement for the first 100 miles, then tucked up into the mountains for some great, rarely used dirt roads along a river.
The region is full of rare Arucaria trees:

The last part of the day included another mountain pass, a national park, and a border crossing at the peak. The area is rich with lakes, mountains, and volcanoes, so the scenery was spectacular! The crossing took a little longer than in the past, as customs recently acquired an x-ray machine and all of our stuff had to be pulled off the bikes and put through -- I think if the guy wasn't so bored he wouldn't have bothered.

We arrived in the tourist town of Pucon, Chile around 7pm, which is fairly early for us. We found a cute hospedaje with views of the active volcano Villarica. Monday was spent hanging out, wandering around town, taking a dip in the frigid lake, and chatting with other travelers. As you might imagine, the view from our bed could have been a little better.

Tuesday, Dec 2 was another mellow day with late breakfast and lunch. In the afternoon we took a rafting trip and the run-off easily made the rapids a class 4+. One girl fell out, but the rest of the trip was filled with "Hang On" and "Wahhoooo". Tomorrow we head back over the Andes, back into Argentina, to the famous resort town of Bariloche (similar to Aspen or St. Moritz).