In 1952 a 23 year old Che Guevara crossed the Andes with his friend Alberto Granado on a Norton 500 motorbike by taking 3 ferries and riding over 50km on rough tracks.
It was the beginning of a voyage of discovery across South America that was to heavily influence Guevara’s revolutionary spirit. His account of the journey was published posthumously in ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ that were also brought to life in a 2004 film of the same name.
We followed their route back across the Andes from Bariloche in Argentina to Puerto Varas in Chile.
Bikes strapped to the front of the first ferry it felt as if we were about to travel into much more remote terrain.
Before that we had a short ride to the next ferry that took us across the emerald green waters of Lago Frías. Then we passed through Argentine customs and the real cycling began.
We’d been told that mountain bikes were needed for these tracks, advice that proved to be right as the first 4km climb was too steep for our tyres to get enough grip on the sandy surface.
The only other cyclists we met did have mountain bikes so we were secretly pleased to discover that they also had to push their bikes up the hill. With her zig-zag pushing technique now honed on many ripio climbs, Clare easily beat these three strong young men to the top. Andy won a consolation prize for attempting to cycle the most, but he still finished in a distant last place … mainly because it takes him so long to get on and off his bike!
The actual border between the two countries was at the top of the pass although it was still some 30km down to Chilean customs, sensibly situated in the valley at Peulla.
The three mountain bikers soon sped off down the hill and from that moment we had the trail to ourselves. There were no cars, just an occasional 4-wheel drive bus taking tourists to the next lake crossing.
We took our time, cruising slowly down a good ripio track, stopping frequently to sit by a mountain stream, watch a pair of condors lazily circling overhead or simply to enjoy the near silence of the forest.
It was a real wilderness experience with moments of sheer elation and wonder, especially when we rounded a corner to gaze up at the hanging glaciers and waterfalls that tumbled off Mount Tronador, the highest mountain in the region by far.
As the path flattened and the valley widened out into a riverbed, the track deteriorated into bad then impossible ripio so we found ourselves walking once again. This meant that we were extremely late arriving at the customs buildings, long after everyone else and after the officers had clocked off for the day.
Summoned from their houses, they stamped our passports and directed us to a small white bungalow “por los bicicletas.” A little confused, we rang the doorbell and waited for several minutes until a cheery official emerged looking as though he’d just been woken from a late afternoon nap.
He asked to see our bicycle documents. We had none, we had never heard of any bicycle documents. Oh dear … big problema!
Bemused and clearly worried that he might have to impound our bikes, his smile faded into a frown as he asked us where we had come from.
Telling him we’d cycled from Bariloche that day clearly wasn’t enough … he wanted to understand our whole journey. So with lots of actions and even a few vehicle noises we took him through our trip:
Londres to Santiago (plane noises, arms out) … Talca (pedalling motion) … Temuco (bus noises) … over the border to San Martin (more pedalling) … Bariloche (pedalling and puffing) … across Lago Frias (boat noises) … aqui (here)
“Ahora? he asked.
Guessing that he hadn’t understood, Andy went through the whole pantomime again. He waited patiently, then repeated a bit more insistently “Ahora? Ahora?”
“He means now,” said Clare, “I think he’s asking where we’re going next.”
OK … Petrohue (boat noises) … Puerto Montt (pedalling) … Santiago (plane) … Londres (plane)
With a big smile he sighed “Ahhhh … Bueno. No problema! No problema! Adios.” Then he shrugged, waved us off and shut the door.
We’re not sure who was more relieved. And we still don’t know what those pesky bicycle documents are for!
We stayed the night in a large hotel by the edge of the lake at Peulla. It was actually a little sad … only 10 years ago demand for rooms was such that a spanking new building was built to complement the faded old hotel that had been serving travellers for just under 100 years. More recently the number of people staying in Peulla has declined dramatically and the old hotel has been forced to close.
It was like wandering into the set of a Hitchcock movie.
The third and final boat crossing was at 4.30pm the following day, arriving at Petrohue two hours later. As well as ferrying tourists, it’s a lifeline for the 30 or so families that live around Lago Todos los Santos. There are no roads, so their only access is from the water. They simply motor out on a small boat to the middle of the lake and jump on or off the ferry.
Arriving at 6.30pm was a bit late for our 60km ride to Puerto Varas but we thought we’d enjoy an evening ride along the promised ‘luxury cycle path’, anticipating only an hour or so in darkness.
It didn’t turn out like that!
As the sun set around 8.30pm a freak storm suddenly blew up out of nowhere. It wasn’t in any forecast. We scrambled into our rain jackets, put our heads down and rode into the darkness, only stopping for a much needed banana boost. The rain was so hard that drivers had to slow to a crawl, peering cautiously through their windscreens. We just hoped they would see these two bedraggled cyclists!
The cycle path turned out to be excellent, a real godsend. But progress in these conditions was still painfully slow and it was well after 11pm when we eventually arrived, dripping onto the steps of our guest house.
Over the next few days we completed our journey with a short 20km ride to Puerto Montt, a flight to Santiago and then to London.
In 6 weeks we’ve cycled 1,478 km or 918 miles in 105 hours, significantly less than our journey to Barcelona. But we’ve climbed up 22,260 metres which is a lot, lot more. That’s two and a half Everests!
Despite all the ripio, all the potholes, all the broken glass on the side of the road we haven’t had a single puncture. Not one! We’ve only had to cope with one broken chain (Andy) and one broken spoke (Clare).
Here’s some final maps showing where we’ve been:
We’ve had a truly wonderful experience … from the craziness of Valparaíso to the big skies of the Colchagua wine valley to the raw beauty of the Andes and their many lakes. It turned out to be a bit more adventurous than we expected but the extra challenge has started to make us better touring cyclists.
One of our lasting impressions of Chile will be the people, amongst the gentlest and kindest folk we’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
Thank you for following us on this journey. Until next time…
Clare and Andy