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Defeated by the Dingle

On Saturday 21st May 1927 Charles Lindbergh peered down from the cockpit of the Spirit of St Louis on his historic solo transatlantic flight to see the Three Sisters, small coastal peaks at the end of the Dingle peninsula. At last had reached Europe!

The weather must have been better that day.

We pitched our tent in a full-on gale at Europe’s most westerly campsite, advertising a ‘view’ across to those same Sisters.

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Clouds obscuring the Three Sisters

We used to love camping and have many fond memories of family holidays under canvas when our children were small. Mostly in the warmth of France. But we hadn’t tried it for 10 years.

So why are we camping now?

Because real touring cyclists camp. Because we think it might be magical. Because it will certainly be cheaper.

Before investing in a super-lightweight-cycle-touring tent, we decided to give it a go in Ireland with some of our old, heavy gear.

We imagined waking to a beautiful, calm dawn in a gorgeous bay refreshed from a full night of sleep and listening only to the sea gently lapping against the shore.

The reality was that we woke to another wet and windy day in a field full of campervans, sleep broken by our air-mat deflating and listened to the kids next door squabbling over their Coco Pops.

We managed seven nights, but it wasn’t an unqualified success. Camping is not that popular in Ireland … probably because it can be a teeny bit wet.

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The Dingle Peninsula is said to be one of the most beautiful in Ireland. But we didn’t really see it.

Heavy cloud had settled languidly over this part of the country, putting its feet up and refusing to move on. And with the clouds came the gentle Irish rain that feels so soft and seeps into every fold of clothing.

Not the best weather for cycling.

So instead, we headed into the town of Dingle to see what it had to offer. It turned out to be a lot.

The Dingle regatta was in full swing, with rowers braving the rain to race naomhóg, traditional boats made of tarred canvas stretched over a wooden lattice.

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In the evening, we saw a one-man play about the life of a local fisherman and his deep connection to a dolphin that appeared off the coast and never left.

This is based on a truth … there is a bottlenose dolphin in Dingle harbour called Fungie who has been entertaining visitors for 32 years.

Fungie the Dolphin
Fungie      Photo Credit: Dingle Dolphin Boat Tours

The pubs of Dingle are famous for their music, their character and their window displays.

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Dick Macks: Probably the most famous pub in Dingle

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Foxy Johns is also a hardware & bicycle store

They were all full on this Saturday afternoon for one of the sporting occasions of the year – the All Ireland Hurling Final.

So we became sons and daughters of nearby Limerick for a day cheering on their team against Galway, the defending champions. Making the final was a very big deal for Limerick as it is 45 years since they last won.

Hurling players use a wooden stick called a hurley to hit a small ball called a sliotar between the opponents goal posts. These look like a football goal with two rugby posts on top. Hit it in the net for a 3 point goal, hit it over the bar for 1 point.

At the end of normal time Limerick were leading by 8 points, a huge margin. But as the referee indicated eight minutes of injury time, the green shirted fans around us started muttering about the curse of ’94 when they had lost to Offaly from just as strong a winning position.

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A Galway player lining up a free hit

Surely it couldn’t happen again!

It could … in injury time Galway roused themselves to score again and again and again. Limerick wobbled but to tears of relief all round, they managed to score the single point they needed to cling on and win.

Cue raucous celebrations!

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Limerick are Champions after 45 years

Hurling is an incredibly fast, tough and skilful sport. It’s a sport that almost makes us wish we were Irish.

Dingle

We only managed one 40km bike ride around the end of the peninsula but it was just as beautiful as we were promised with views out over the Blasket Islands and lots of fascinating local history to discover.

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Looking out to the Blasket Islands

We especially liked the moodiness of Brandon Creek where St Brendan and 14 monks are reputed to have set off in a small boat sometime around AD 535 to cross the Atlantic and eventually reach Newfoundland, stopping at islands along the way (Hebrides, Faroe Islands, Iceland etc.)

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Brandon Creek

This journey was repeated to prove it was possible in 1976 by Oxford graduate, Tim Severin, who made the journey in a replica boat made out of wood, flax, oak bark and wool grease.

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Tim Severin and his replica boat

Not made of such stern stuff, we have to admit we were defeated by the Dingle.

We drove more that we cycled. And we failed to ride over Conor Pass, Ireland’s highest, as it was blowing a gale in thick cloud at the time.

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An optimistic ice-cream van at the top of Conor Pass

On the last morning the sun came out at last. We woke up to see the Three Sisters in all their glory through the flap of our tent. As we sat on the lush grass, drinking coffee and listening to birdsong it almost felt like a moment of magic.

So we hope to come back one day to see the Dingle properly in the sunshine.

And we might rediscover the joy of camping after all. The jury’s still out on that one.

Clare and Andy

Dingle Peninsula
By bike: 40km, 540m climbed
By car: 101km

Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 640km, 8878m climbed
By car: 287km

Inside the Ring of Kerry

Everyone warned us that the Ring of Kerry is far too commercial. Full of visitor attractions, souvenir shops, cafes, galleries, even pubs serving all-day breakfasts!

And the coaches! Scores of them carrying tourists anti-clockwise around the ring every day from Killarney. “They’ll knock you off your bikes, so they will!”

“If you must go by bicycle, go anti-clockwise but start in the afternoon when the coaches have gone.”

“You should always cycle clockwise, against the traffic. It’s for your own safety.”

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With these warnings ringing in our ears, we decided to drive around the peninsula by car before setting out on our bikes. We were especially curious to check out the mountainous middle, inside the famous ring.

It turned out to be spectacular.

Big country. Untamed. Full of lakes, woods, rugged mountain passes, hill farms and brightly coloured sheep. And it was empty – there were very few people and no coaches.

We couldn’t wait to cycle through it!

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We drove up to Moll’s Gap and ‘Ladies View’ which announces itself as ‘the finest view in Ireland’.

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The finest view in Ireland?

Feeling inspired, I thought it would be fun to cruise downhill on my bike to the quaint little village of Sneem, about 20km away, while Clare drove ahead in the car. I imagined freewheeling through beautiful countryside in golden early evening sunshine.

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

The wind was so strong that my bike almost stopped whenever I tried to freewheel and I ended up pedalling furiously however steep the descent. It was also a bit of a shock to come across a fairly substantial climb half way down.

This meant it was a red faced and bedraggled cyclist that limped into Sneem some time later to find Clare chuckling into her cappuccino.

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I wasn’t expecting the hill!

We left our car in Waterville, near the end of the peninsula, for the start of our three day tour around the Ring of Kerry. A small backroad took us (clockwise) across to Valentia Island in the far north-west.

Ring of Kerry

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Ferry to Valentia Island

Too small for coaches, this road featured several switchbacks that were so steep we both had to climb off and push our bikes.

But it was worth it. From the top of the ridges, there were great views out to the remote Skellig islands which have featured prominently in two Star Wars films (The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi) due to their other-worldly appearance.

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View out to the Skellig Islands

The human story of these islands is arguably more extraordinary than a Star Wars plot.

Monks arrived in the 7th century looking for places where they could get closer to God through isolation and extreme hardship. They built a church at the wild and windy summit and then cut 670 stone steps to scramble up to it. Sleeping in small stone beehive huts, they lived off fish, birds and rainwater. Despite being raided fairly regularly by Vikings, they continued in this way for about 600 years.

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Beehive huts on the Skellig Islands   Credit: Gettyimages

That evening we stayed at Kells House & Gardens, a botanical oasis nurtured by a succession of gardening enthusiasts for almost 200 years. It includes an extraordinary ‘Primeval Forest’ of huge tree ferns, mostly imported from Australia in the 19th century and still thriving today in the mild local micro-climate.

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Tree fern forest at Kells

Day two was the big one, venturing inside the ring to climb the Ballaghbeama Pass on our longest cycle so far at 82km with 855m of climbing.

Despite cloudy, mizzly weather it was one of the most memorable rides of this Irish carbike tour. The road snaked up through a narrow, rocky gorge then opened out into a much wider valley as we cruised down the other side. Wild and remote, yet still and peaceful.

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Climbing the Ballaghbeama Pass
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Cruising down the other side

This part of Kerry is an International Dark Sky Reserve as there is so little light pollution. Apparently, on clear moonless nights the sky is revealed in all its glory. (If there are any clear, cloudless nights that is!)

That means stricter controls on development, so the raw, untamed quality of the land inside the ring should never change.

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On the final morning, we only had 35km to ride back to Waterville over the Coomakista pass which has, yes … ‘the finest view in Ireland!’

But we couldn’t see a thing, as the cloud had come right down to kiss the sea, enveloping everything it touched in fog and drizzle.

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Anyone there?
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Where’s the view gone?

Luckily for us, we’d already seen this view in its full glory from the car a few days before!

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There it is … the finest view in Ireland?

Whilst not as authentic or untouched as the Beara peninsula, we didn’t find the Ring of Kerry as commercial as we’d been warned. It’s a lovely place and a great day out for all the people who jump in a coach in Killarney and then spend the day touring around it, enjoying the sights and the all-day breakfasts!

But we were grateful for the warnings. Without them, we would never have discovered the high country inside the ring.

If you’re seeking unspoilt beauty that’s different to the normal tourist routes, then this is the place for you. By bicycle or by car.

Just please don’t tell anybody …

Clare and Andy

Ring of Kerry
By bike: 197km, 2241m climbed
By car: 70km

Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 600km, 8338m climbed
By car: 186km

Great Beer on the Beara

In April 1999 the late Pete McCarthy, born in England but of Irish parents, visited the Beara peninsula as part of a quest to understand a country he found so familiar and at the same time so unfamiliar.

As he travelled through Ireland, he made a point of never passing a bar with his name on.

This led him through the door of Adrienne MacCarthys Bar in Castletownbere. It was her birthday and the celebrations slowly turned into one of those spontaneous nights that only finish with bacon sandwiches at dawn.

It was such a memorable evening that he put the pub on the cover of his funny, poignant and insightful book which went on to become a surprising best seller. I can vividly remember staring at this book cover dreaming of long evenings of Irish craic.

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This photo is a poor effort to replicate that cover. Those of you who are familiar with it will note that there are some vital elements missing from Pete’s version … no hat, no dog and no nun drinking a pint.

Today, there are few signs that this is the same bar. No neon signs or banners in the window. It was only when we spotted a small poster in the back room, that we realised it was the same pub.

Like many Irish bars, it’s a quirky place.

The front half is a grocer’s shop stocked with Weetabix, spam, baked beans and toilet roll although we didn’t notice a single purchase.

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Weetabix anyone?

The back half is more familiar as a bar and is decorated with a wide variety of memorabilia including a range of gifts from visiting European fisherman. It’s chaotic, homely, warm and welcoming.

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We spent two happy evenings there, singing along with the local folk club and chatting to Adrienne, listening to her tales of life in this small town which has grown to become the biggest white-fish port in Ireland.

She told us of the mobile cinema that came with the latest blockbusters complete with authentic faded red velvet seats; of Zumba dancing classes in the bar in the winter; of brides pouring pints for their wedding photos and of the homesick Spanish fishermen pouring out their hearts.

All this while drinking my favourite Irish beer … Murphy’s. It’s like Guinness, but silkier, lighter, smoother. Pure nectar! Only in Ireland though … I tried it once in London and it doesn’t travel well.

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As well as drinking we did manage some cycling.

Leaving our car in Kenmare, we took three days to pedal around the beautiful coastline, travelling about 60km each day.

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The Beara Peninsula was named for Princess Beara, Spanish wife of Eoghan Mor the legendary King of Munster. It has a wild, raw, authentic quality with less tourist trappings than its more commercial cousins further north.

We rode up and down to Dursey Island at the far end of the peninsula, where the narrow channel is too dangerous for boats to cross, so an ancient cable car takes visitors across. Once a Viking holding camp for slaves before they were shipped to Scandinavia, the island is now a gentler place, mainly attracting hikers.

Cable Car to Dursey Island

The Dzogchen Beara Buddhist meditation centre serves delicious coffee and apple pie to go with their many interesting retreats. They’re building Ireland’s biggest Buddhist temple at this beautiful site and hope the Dalai Lama himself will come to consecrate it.

A wonderful view for meditation

The beautiful, rugged stretch of road that links the colourful villages of Allihies and Eyeries was one of the most exciting rides we’ve ever had. It felt like being on a roller coaster, full of switchbacks and short sharp climbs.

The rugged coast around the tip of Beara

These two old copper mining villages really stand out (even in the mizzle) as most of the houses have recently been repainted in bold, vibrant colours. Once drab and ordinary, they now attract visitors to their coffee shops and bars. It’s a clever way to entice people to get out of their cars.

Colourful houses in Eyeries

To get back to our car we had to tackle our first serious Irish hill. At 320m high, the Caha pass isn’t as high as our rides through the Andes or Pyrenees but it offered some spectacular mountain views, an interesting tunnel and the thrill of an 18km descent down to Kenmare.

 

The tunnel at the top

Overall, we really enjoyed the Beara – both for the cycling and for the beer!

Thank you for your thoughts on the best word to describe bicycle touring with a car. Bikedriving was popular but carbiking just came out on top.

So carbiking it is, except that we didn’t go carbiking around the Beara. We cycled all the way!

Clare and Andy

Beara Peninsula
By bike: 180km, 2634m climbed
By car: 0km

Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 403km, 6097m climbed
By car: 116km

Wild Atlantic Way

“Ahhh … don’t you be worrying yourself. This is Ireland … the sun will be out at five o’clock … you’ll see if it isn’t”

It was 4pm and this seemed a little optimistic, even for a local expert.

The three of us peered into the gloom from the top of a tower at Old Head, trying to catch a glimpse of the sea just 30 metres below. But it was impossible, the thick fog wasn’t going anywhere.

We were standing on one of 81 watch towers built between 1804 and 1806 to look out for Napoleons ships. It’s now a memorial to the 1198 people that sank with the Lusitania when it was torpedoed during the First World War.

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The Lusitania memorial shrouded in fog

Of course, our local weather expert was right. Just one hour later we found ourselves rolling into the pretty town of Kinsale in picture perfect evening sunshine.

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Kinsale in the evening sunshine

With a stroke of good fortune we arrived just in time for the final of the ladies pillow fighting competition. This major sporting event had drawn a big bank holiday crowd to cheer on the winner as she sent her unfortunate opponent plunging into the harbour.

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Battle about to commence … the lady in the pink shorts won

Kinsale is at the southern end of the Wild Atlantic Way, the longest coastal touring route in the world and well known as an epic bike ride. From Kinsale, it winds its way 2500km up the west coast of Ireland to Donegal in the far north.

Wild Atlantic Way Map

Our plan for the next 4 weeks is to cycle the southern half as far as Galway and hopefully come back to complete the northern section another time.

To be honest, we’re not only cycling this time. We have our car with us which means we can drive along the main roads and then cycle around each peninsula.

Is this cheating?

Well perhaps it is … a bit. But we will be cycling more kilometres than we drive. And we still have our panniers with us as some of the rides will last three days or more.

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The bikes get the best view

We’ve been searching for the name for this type of bicycle-touring-with-a-car but haven’t been able to find one. So here are a few suggestions:

Car-cycling as in “They really enjoyed their car-cycling holiday in Italy.”’

Bikedrive Touring “I’ve just come back from a great bikedrive across Canada.”

Or a French one: Velo-en-Voiture (bicycle by car) “He always goes for a long velo-en-voiture through France in August.”

What do you think? Which one works best? Does anyone have any other suggestions? Maybe this is a chance to create a new word.

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Heir Island

Before setting out we enjoyed three days on Heir Island near Skibbereen staying with some old friends, Helen and Dave, in their lovely cottage.

It’s a wonderful place to dinghy sail, walk, canoe, make music, drink wine and chat.

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Clare and Helen enjoying a chat in the evening sunshine

There was, however, one unfortunate incident while we were there!

On the first day Andy (who is not known for his agility) capsized this little yellow boat in just one foot of water, tipping Clare and more importantly her phone into the cold, murky sea. Clare survived but her phone was not so lucky. Despite leaving it in rice and blasting it with the hairdryer it has stubbornly refused to work.

Oops! This was not the best start to a few weeks cycling around Ireland as a happy couple!

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Scene of the crime

Since waving goodbye to Helen and Dave, we’ve enjoyed five delightful one-day circular rides around the Haven Coast, the most southerly section of the Wild Atlantic Way.

  1. Clonakilty to Kinsale (69km)
  2. Clonakilty to Union Hall (58km)
  3. Skibbereen to Castletownshend (29km)
  4. Crookhaven to Mizen Head (31km)
  5. Sheeps Head Peninsular (37km)
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Our route around the Haven Coast

There have been many highlights.

Pedalling around a corner to discover a remote, unspoilt cove. Learning about life as a lighthouse keeper on the Fastnet Rock. Visiting lively bars in quirky towns. Coffee and cake in beautiful places like this castle at Castletownshend.

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Getting ready for a fishing trip in Castletownshend

Most spectacular was our ride around Sheeps Head, the least visited of all the peninsula’s.

A walkers paradise, it has a raw, rugged beauty especially on the north coast which has a spectacular view of Bantry Bay.

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Sheeps Head

But beauty always comes with a price and we paid ours on the way back over a big hill to our car. The road went in a straight line up a series of steep ramps with brief flat sections in between. It was like interval training!

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Lunch stop overlooking Bantry Bay

So far, cycling in Ireland is even better than we thought it would be.

The scenery literally takes your breath away at times. From soft pastural farmland and gentle rolling hills, to rough craggy heaths and rugged coastline. From wide estuaries full of wading birds to azure blue harbours dotted with colourful dinghies.

At this time of year, the hedgerows form long avenues of wild flowers. Orange montbretia, red fuchsia, purple loosestrife all set against a backdrop of lush, green ferns.

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Montbretia
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Loosestrife

We’ve had the normal mixed bag of weather with lots of cloudy days but also plenty of sunshine. The wind has often been brisk but it blows in fresh Atlantic air that cleans our lungs. On a well-planned route it also blows us home at the end of the day.

It is quite hilly. We always seem to be going up or down, but they are not too steep nor too long. This is fortunate as we were very unfit when we arrived. It turns out you can’t get fit for cycling simply by lying on the sofa and cheering on Geraint Thomas to win the Tour de France!

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The quality of the backroads is very good and there aren’t too many potholes to avoid. Less than England, more than France. Irish drivers are particularly considerate to cyclists, hanging some distance behind and being very patient about overtaking. I guess Irish people are famous for never being in a hurry!

They’re also famous for their friendliness and we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy the soft embrace of Irish hospitality on many an evening.

We’re now looking forward to exploring more of the Wild Atlantic Way over the next few weeks.

Clare and Andy

By bike:  223km
By car: 116km

 

Following Che across the Andes

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.

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A replica of La Ponderosa II – Che and Alberto’s motorcycle

We followed their route back across the Andes from Bariloche in Argentina to Puerto Varas in Chile.

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Bikes strapped to the front of the first ferry it felt as if we were about to travel into much more remote terrain.

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Nahuel Huapi Ferry

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.

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Lago Frias

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.

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Cruising slowly down

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.

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Mount Tronador

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!

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The original Peulla Hotel, now closed

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.

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Only the ghosts are checking in …
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… or drinking in the bar

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.

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Commuting from work – this lady had just hopped 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.

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Before the storm … celebrating the end of the ripio!

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:

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Santiago to Talca
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Temuco to Puerto Montt

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.

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Statue in Puerto Montt – Clare sometimes looked as worried as these two

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

Camino de los Siete Lagos

Sometimes the intense joy that comes from bicycle touring can be almost too much to bear.

Last Sunday was such a day, riding down the magnificent Camino de los Siete Lagos (Road of the Seven Lakes) in Argentina between San Martin de los Andes and Villa la Angostura.

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Known as one of the most scenic bikes rides in the world, we were fortunate to enjoy it on a calm clear day beneath a cloudless sky. It began with a long climb out of San Martin, winding up the mountain for over 10km. Full of energy, we would have made it to the top in one go had it not been for a beautiful Mirador (lookout) looking back down the valley.

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At the top it felt like being launched into the high Andes as we swooped across mountain plateaus, down through dark ancient forests and past lake after lake of breathtaking beauty and crystal clear purity.

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We paused at the Arroyo Partido (the divided stream) where a few innocent rocks have caused the stream to split into two separate channels, one flowing to the Atlantic the other to the Pacific. It’s an important moment … if you’re a drop of water!

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There was an old mountain restaurant for coffee, the only one we saw all day. Then a picnic lunch next to the still waters of Lago Villarino. It was perfect!

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Lunch stop at Lago Villarino

After 78km we arrived at a junction leading to Lago Traful, reputed to be the most stunning lake of all, where we had booked a hostel. A paved road led invitingly up the hill that guards the entrance to the lake. Unfortunately it soon turned into the dreaded ripio!

Having now spent several hours bumping along the infamous South American gravel tracks, here’s our guide to the 4 different types of ripio we’ve experienced:

  1. Good Ripio  Hard packed mud, often kept damp under trees with just an occasional stone. A slightly bumpy but pleasant ride.
  2. Bad Ripio  Fairly hard packed gravel and stones, like a good farm track. Feels like being shaken around on a fruit sorting machine.
  3. Very Bad Ripio  Corrugated and full of ruts, huge stones and sand, like a very rough farm track. Feels like riding through a minor earthquake.
  4. Impossible (sometimes hilarious) Ripio  Deep sand or stones, as on a dry, soft beach. Causes the rider to grind to a halt and walk, or to catapult over the handlebars.

When riding uphill they adjust by one category (good becomes bad etc.). There’s no such thing as good uphill ripio. The volume of traffic is also a factor as each passing car creates a unpleasant dust storm.

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Walking through Impossible Ripio

The road to Lago Traful started out as good ripio but quickly deteriorated into bad, then very bad ripio with an unhealthy dose of traffic. We managed just 3km in half an hour with another 20km still to go. As Andy paused for a drink to sooth his parched throat an anguished howl rose up from the dust 50m behind him.

I … AM … NOT … RIDING … ON … THIS … RIPIO … ANYMORE

(Actually there was a more descriptive word between THIS and RIPIO. We’ll leave you to fill in the gap!)

The decision was made … we turned around and started hauling our bikes back over the hill. After all, it was only another lake!

There was still 35km to reach Villa Angostura for two now-very-tired cyclists. But there was a silver lining ahead … an extra rest day!

It didn’t spoil a wonderful bicycle touring day which included three new personal bests:

  • 115km cycled
  • 2040m climbed
  • 78 lake views

 

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A taste of the steppe

Two days later we cycled a mere 84km along the shores of the vast Lago Nahuel Huapi to the town of Bariloche, the centre of the Argentine Lake District. This included a brief introduction to the steppe, a windswept barren land of vast distances and big skies that stretches from the mountains to the coast.

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Mmm … where shall we go today?

Deciding that you can never see enough lakes we then spent a scheduled day off riding around some small but very pretty lakes near Bariloche on the Circuito Chico (small circuit) with time for both a long lunch and a little canoeing.

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Bariloche itself was something of a surprise. Built by Swiss and German immigrants it’s Argentina’s chocolate capital and is the base for one of the countries most popular skiing areas. There’s certainly no shortage of chocolate shops but instead of alpine quaintness we found a working town with some interesting rough edges.

We thought the town planners must have gone for a long Argentine lunch instead of working on a few architectural guidelines!

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Why build that monstrosity behind the pretty town hall?

After just one week in the country we’re not really qualified to comment on Argentina … but here are a few observations anyway.

It’s very different to Chile, partly because it attracted a lot of Italian as well as Spanish migrants. This is evident in great coffee and pasta, even better gelato but also in more aggressive drivers that are noticeably less tolerant of cyclists. Several times we’ve been angrily hooted off the narrow roads onto the gravel hard shoulder.

Supermarkets are dominated by three things – beef, beer and red wine – all vital ingredients for asados (big family barbecues) that are seen, smelt and heard across the country.

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Lots of red, hardly any white!

We’ve now travelled on both the Seven Lakes Road in Argentina and the Seven Lakes Circuit in Chile. We’re not sure if the names are just a coincidence or a bit of rivalry between neighbours?

Whichever it is, the Chilean lake circuit is smaller, gentler, more peaceful. The Argentine version is bigger, bolder and more dramatic. Perhaps this is a little like the psyche of the two countries?

Clare and Andy

The Chilean Lake District

Sitting under the smouldering eye of Volcan Villarrica, Pucon is a South American mecca for adventure sport junkies. Here you can climb the volcano with crampons and an ice axe, raft down white water rapids, skydive or ride horses into the outback.

We left all these activities to more adventurous types and went for a bike ride instead, up to some beautiful waterfalls and on to explore Lago Caburga. Much of the ride was on ripio (gravel tracks) where predictably Andy went too fast down a slope, skidded in some loose sand and catapulted off his bike. Maybe a more extreme sport would have been safer after all!

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February in Pucon is peak holiday season when this small town of 20,000 welcomes over 180,000 visitors. Full of life and great restaurants we loved it, especially as our visit coincided with an excellent Jazz and Blues Festival which entertained us late into the night.

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No idea who they are, but they were great!

After leaving Pucon we slowly cycled around part of the Circuito de Siete Lagos (seven lakes circuit) managing to visit five of them and staying in some interesting small towns on the way, each very different in character.

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Our route from Temuco to San Martin de los Andes

Lican Ray is a small lakeside resort full of young working families. We stayed right on the beach and enjoyed both an extraordinary sunset and a chilly morning swim.

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No filter … honest

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Staying in a cabina meant we could prepare our own food. As Clare shopped for a rotisserie chicken, Andy watched a family set up stall to sell their homemade sopaipillas (fried bread topped with mustard or ketchup). So popular, they sold out in just 10 minutes but not before we’d grabbed one … it was not the healthiest snack in the world but was absolutely delicious.

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Sopaipillas, selling like hot cakes

Only 20km down the road was Conaripe, home to Termas Geometricas the most authentic hot springs in the area with 21 pools all at different temperature (35 to 45 degrees celsius) and set in a beautiful, narrow gorge.

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Panguipulli, the last stop on our mini lake tour was full of weather board houses that gave it the feel of an America frontier town. Here we enjoyed huge rainbow trout straight out of the lake.

Some of you have have been asking about a few bits of Andy’s kit that we’ve mentioned in previous posts. He’s still wearing his favourite cycling shorts, now sporting a shiny new button but still with the French safety pins holding up the fly. The fishnet undershorts have also made the trip but now have too many holes for a photo!

Unfortunately, Andy’s super-expensive-imported-from-America leather saddle stretched and sagged so he needed a new one. After trying out lots of uncomfortable saddles in different shapes and sizes, he remembered his Dad’s old one gathering cobwebs in the corner of the shed.

Instantly it felt like sinking into a favourite armchair.

OK, it looks a little ridiculous with it’s two layers of padding and attracts many derogatory comments from real touring cyclists. But with a comfy bum after 6 hours riding, who cares!

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Clare’s authentic Brooks leather saddle, Andy’s old armchair

From Panguipulli our gentle cycle around the lakes came to an abrupt end as it was now time for two days of serious riding up into the Andes. It turned out to be a bleak introduction to this famous mountain range.

We set off on a beautiful new road along the lake with lots of viewpoints to enjoy. A feature of new roads in Chile is that the distance from the start of the road is recorded every 100 metres. Unfortunately, different surveyors measure the road slightly differently making the distances more of an approximation than an exact measure.

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Here the yellow and white surveyors disagree by more than a kilometre!

It wasn’t the road, nor our legs, nor the many hills that marred this first day … it was the relentless rain and cold. By the end of the day Clare had hit the wall and even our bikes were complaining about the grit that had built up under their brake pads.

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After 40km we came across the first sign of life and stopped at a tiny shop hoping for a hot cup of coffee. Even though they weren’t a cafe, the family took pity on these wet and bedraggled strangers and invited us to sit in their front room for a very welcome cup of Nescafé.

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Still raining, we arrived at our destination – the wonderfully named Huilo Huilo (pronounced WEEL-oh-WEEL-oh and always with a smile) a private bio-reserve. Too exhausted and too wet to explore the spectacular waterfalls, volcanic museum and extraordinary hobbit inspired hotels it will be worth coming back on a sunny day (in a car!)

Early the next morning we caught the Hua Hum ferry (pronounced WAH-oom and always with a whoop) across Lagos Pirihueico and into the wilderness.

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Crossing the border meant for an early lunch as we were not allowed to bring any fresh food into Argentina. They were clearly worried our tuna sandwiches, tomatoes and bananas would import some deadly disease.

It was then a tough 55km ride along a ripio track through a lakeside forest, followed by a two hour climb up to the tree line until we eventually dropped down into San Martin de los Andes. With very few lake views, it became a bit of a grind.

However, yesterdays pain was todays gain – the rain had made the track firmer and prevented dust clouds blowing up from the occasional passing car.

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We were grateful for the company of the only two other cyclists crazy enough to tackle this challenge on this particular day. Pierre and Alex are two dashing young French touring cyclists, both seasoned adventurers who have already clocked 9000km on their journey from Bolivia.

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This is what real touring cyclists look like

Following his crash, Andy was a lot more careful on ripio, staying unclipped and in the granny ring for the whole day. Clare impressively ground her way up the hills by listening to Spanish-for-Beginners on a loop. Despite the improvement in her language skills, she’s decided that cycling on motorways is much more preferable to cycling on ripio!

Today the sun has come out and having enjoyed several beers by the lake we’re now looking forward to cycling further into the mountains and exploring more of Argentina.

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Seems the standard beer bottle in Argentina is a litre. We’re not complaining!

Clare and Andy