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

Chilean Curiosities

One of the great things about travelling slowly through a country for the first time is that there are always things about everyday life that are normal to locals but surprising to a visitor.

Here are a few of our favourite curiosities from Chile:

Making the most of every beach
On the cold Pacific Coast families played in the surf or sunbathed in coats and sleeping bags while further south in the mountains we were surprised to find a little piece of Rio. In Pucon thousands of holidaymakers flock each January and February to this beautiful black volcanic beach on the shores of Lake Villarrica. It isn’t a peaceful experience … hundreds of hawkers tramp up and down selling everything from rubber rings to that ideal beach snack, Mote con Huisillo.

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Shopping
Shopping in chain stores is the same here as anywhere else in the world but it’s a completely different experience in small local shops and bars.

Let’s say we’re buying some lunch in a Panaderia (bakery).

You start by telling the assistant what you want. She writes it down and gives it back to you. Then you take the order to a stern looking lady in the caja (cash booth), hand over your money and she gives you a different receipt. With this you return to the counter and give the receipt to the assistant. She studies it carefully, picks out what you want and eventually hands it over.

It’s a long process for a couple of empanadas!

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A caja or cash booth in a local supermarket

Nescafé is treated like gold
Whilst there are lots of lovely cafes in the more touristy towns, the rest of Chile has yet to fully embrace the global coffee culture.

Coffee here is usually made from weak instant powder but what it lacks in flavour is more than made up for by the ceremony. Powered Nescafé, milk power and liquid sugar are solemnly brought to the table so you can mix the ingredients exactly to your taste in tiny china cups. Only when you’re satisfied you have exactly the right combination will the waiter carefully add hot water.

In several supermarkets we’ve even found a locked cabinet containing ‘special goods’ … in this case bars of chocolate and yes, jars of Nescafé. Regular, not even Gold Blend!

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Check out the bottom shelf – too precious to sell?

Comfort Food
Whilst we’ve enjoyed lots of delicious fresh fish and meat, some Chilean food could be described as hearty or even stodgy. Many dishes are accompanied by large quantities of bread and rice and chips.

It seems to us that some popular foods simply remind people of a visit to their grandmother on a Sunday afternoon.

Two girls from Santiago told us about Manjar, a delicacy that no self-respecting Chilean would ever be without (they had a jar in their backpacks). “Have you tried Manjar yet? … No? … Well, have you eaten Nutella? … Yes? … Honestly, that stuff tastes like sh*t compared to Manjar!!”

With this glowing endorsement we rushed to a supermarket to find that whilst it’s not made from chocolate and hazelnuts, Manjar is indeed a sweet spread. The recipe is condensed milk and sugar so it’s basically a spreadable fudge. A delicious reminder of tea with Grannie!

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Sunday morning entertainment
Whilst the enjoyment of all this comfort food has become obvious in a few Chilean waistlines, we’ve found them to be really warm, friendly people. Sometimes a little shy and reserved to start with, they’re always polite and genuinely kind to strangers. We’re in no doubt that we’d get plenty of help should we get into any trouble on our bikes.

Chileans are rightly proud of their culture and heritage. This traditional dancing demonstration on a Sunday morning after church was not for tourists but for the sheer joy of it.

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Street Signs
Some of the street signs have kept us amused, perhaps because we’ve not been to parts of the world that need to advertise evacuation routes from volcanoes or tsunamis.

More confusing has been the absence of no-entry signs which has fooled us a few times. Instead there’s a polite arrow on the street sign indicating the direction of travel. Only in extreme examples do they feel the need to use a more forceful sign.

Street Dogs
Rubbish bins are placed on platforms all over Chile.

This was a mystery to us until we realised it was to keep the trash away from the enormous number of stray dogs (2.5 million by one estimate). Unlike street dogs we’ve seen in other countries they appear to be relatively healthy, well fed and docile. We understand this is because neighbourhoods feed and care for them as unofficial communal animals.

Cycling on Highways
There’s one big highway (Ruta 5) that runs from North to South as the main artery through the centre of Chile, traffic flowing at over 100kph. We were surprised to discover that it was both legal and common for cyclists to ride down the hard shoulder, sometimes for long distances.

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We were only brave enough to give it a go for a quick 20km dash when there was literally no other road. It was unsettling to have trucks and buses passing by at such high speed but good fun to go through the toll booths at no charge.

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How much for bikes?

Carmenere and Pisco Sour
Carmenere red wine has been a pleasure to drink. This was a grape variety from Bordeaux that was wiped out by the 1867 phylloxera plague and thought to be extinct. As it happened, cuttings had already been brought to Chile but they were mistaken for Merlot for over a century. Carmenere was only ‘rediscovered’ in 1994 and is now the darling of the Chilean wine industry.

Our favourite drink in Chile is fast becoming Pisco Sour, a cocktail made from pisco (a type of grape brandy), lemon juice, syrup and ice. The stronger Peruvian version adds egg white and Angostura bitters and is also very popular here. We think both are delicious … especially as a sundowner after another cloudless day.

So raising a glass of Pisco Sour we say salud to Chile and its many curiosities.

Clare and Andy

Confessions of a Touring Cyclist

In the end Clare didn’t have to throw her toys out the pram!

She didn’t even have to resort to the advice our good friend Maria gave her before we left … “you’re a strong girl, Clare, but remember if it ever gets too tough … just cry!”

The charms of the Casa Chueca (the wobbly house) seduced Andy to stay for another day and then another and then another. We used the time to plan our ride through the agricultural belt of mid-Chile and realised that the distances between accommodation would become even bigger – one day topped 150km.

Maybe it was time to jump on a bus?

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Talca bus station

We’d always understood that buses in Chile were happy to accommodate cyclists, especially if the bikes were carefully packed in cardboard boxes.

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But as soon as our bus arrived, it was clear there was going to be a problem!

Many Chilean buses are double deckers with first class downstairs, standard class up top. The space for those luxury first class seats is taken from the luggage compartment which is squeezed into a high, small trunk at the rear. It’s tight, even for normal suitcases.

To be fair, the driver and his helpers did their best to get our bikes on but it soon became obvious they simply weren’t going to fit. As the other passengers started to glare in our direction, he decided to do the right thing and dumped both us and our oversized boxes by the roadside before disappearing off in a trail of dust.

Now what??

A taxi? A rental car? Hitchhiking?

In the end, the best option was to ship the bikes as cargo and get ourselves onto another bus. As it was one of the busiest holiday weekends of the year this was easier said than done but we did manage to grab the last two seats on the last bus out of town, arriving in Temuco at 2am.

The problem was that the bikes would take a bit longer to make the same trip … not arriving for another 5 days.

So here is our confession …

We haven’t ridden our bicycles anywhere at all for ten days!

Nothing. Nada. Not a single pedal stroke.

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Anyone for biscuits? Anyone?

Our journey by bus proved to be interesting. As the main form of public transport, bus stations are jam packed with travellers, stalls and mayhem. They have the feel of a busy airport with buses gliding in and out every few minutes, transporting people and goods to every corner of the country.

Although the route is only advertised between major cities, the driver will happily pull over in the middle of nowhere to drop passengers off or to welcome waitresses laden with pre-ordered food and drinks.

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This enforced lack of cycling has meant we’ve been free to explore the country in a different way.

We took a trip from Talca up to the Laguna del Maule near the Argentine border. A large magma bubble is lifting this lake and the volcanoes around it by 2.5cm every month which means we’d be nearly 1 metre higher if we were to come back in three years time. Mind you, in three years time we wouldn’t be able to enjoy watching condors soar above the magnificent waterfalls that tumble out of the lake. Chile’s biggest hydro-electric project is going to turn the tap off and redirect the water down some huge pipes instead.

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Laguna del Maule
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Waterfall
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Back massage

To reward ourselves at the end of a long dusty ride across the middle of Chile, we had booked a couple of nights at La Baita Ecolodge in Conguillío National Park as a special treat. Now bike-less, we rented a car in Temuco, changed the dates and went anyway.

This proved to be a blessing in disguise as the car meant we could explore more of the park and were fresh enough to tackle two of its iconic hikes. Set around the still active Llaima volcano (it last erupted in 2008), the huge larva fields, glaciers, crystal clear lakes and ancient forests of Conguillío are achingly beautiful.

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Llaima Volcano, Conguillío National Park

It was the trees that really took our breath away. Araucaria (Monkey Puzzle trees) and Southern Beech competed for domination 40-50 metres above our heads as we strolled through a soft low canopy of Chilean Bamboo. Often described as a living fossil most of the Araucaria we walked past were over 1000 years old.

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Araucaria (monkey puzzle) trees
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This mama is 1800 years old!
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Trekking through a bamboo canopy

We met a wonderful group of Canadian women from Kingston Ontario, one of whom was Jenica Rayne, a professional musician and singer songwriter who was able to conjure up any song on her guitar. It turned out that Isobel, the owner of La Baita, was also a well know singer in her youth so whilst she entertained us with some haunting Chilean love songs, the rest of us tried to remember the words of songs ranging from Dylan classics to Jason Mraz.

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One of those unforgettable, unexpected evenings …

Perhaps the moral of our story is that sometimes it can be better for touring cyclists to get off their saddles and explore the world in a different way. We would have missed the wonderful hiking and the even more wonderful sing-a-long if that driver in Talca had let us squeeze our bikes onto his bus.

“Well open up your mind and see like me.

Open up your plans and damn you’re free”

Jason Mraz, from I’m Yours

We’re pleased to say that this story does have a happy ending … our bikes have arrived on time and intact!

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The bikes are back in town

This morning we’re back in the saddle, heading towards the Andes and the famous Chilean lakes. There are some challenging rides ahead but we’re really, really, really looking forward to it!

Clare and Andy

The Long and Winding Road

Hurtling down steep cobbled streets and stairways, the world’s best mountain bike racers will compete for the Redbull Valparaíso Cerro Abajo this Sunday 11th February, leaping over obstacles in their race against the clock.

We faced the problem of climbing the 20-25% gradient up those very same streets with our fully loaded touring bikes. Of course we cheated and found a very nice taxi with a bike rack.

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This made for a very pleasant 70km cycling day down the coast to the small seaside town of El Quisco.

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Our bikes are thrilled to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time

Refreshed from a fish supper straight out of the sea, we cruised through several more seaside towns the next day, watching families enjoy all the traditional activities. With cool air temperatures from the cold sea and a rocky coastline it felt a bit like Whitby!

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Playing dare with waves

From the port of San Antonio we climbed slowly up the brilliantly named Ruta de la Fruta (Fruit Road) which brings a procession of fruit trucks from the interior to the ports laden with all our winter strawberries and blueberries.

These trucks are huge. Fortunately we could hear them coming from a long way off, roaring like dragons until they showered us with dust as they whooshed past. After an hour we were glad to turn off onto a side road and head back to the coast.

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At the top of the Ruta de la Fruta (the wrist protectors are for sunburn)

I’d warned Clare that this would be a long and winding 100km day. I hadn’t warned her about the sting in the tail … mainly because I didn’t have a clue it was coming.

Needing to recharge for the final 20km, we stopped for peaches, bananas and yoga in a shady bus stop. There are lots of these in Chile, all identical and they are fast becoming our favourite picnic spots. As Clare completed her sun salutations to help ease her back, I studied the map and elevation charts … and almost choked on my lemon soda!

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Yoga in a bus shelter

Ahead of us were 7 … SEVEN!!! … Bath sized hills to climb before we got to our destination, the surf village of Matanzas.

I decided to soften the blow a little so told her there were “just a few small hills” ahead. At the bottom of the second hill I then pretended to look hard at the map before announcing there might be a “few more”. I only admitted to the full horror of the situation at the 5th peak.

To be fair, Clare was an absolute trooper even as we pushed our bikes up the 10% gradient into a strong headwind on the last climb … well and truly knackered.

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Reaching 101.6km just ahead of the last climb

Looking again at the map that evening it seemed that the terrain for the rest of the coastroad was going to be much the same … lots and lots of ups and downs. Time for a) an unscheduled rest day and b) a new plan.

After a very pleasant day on this strange, wild, foggy coast we decided to head inland through what looked like wide undulating valleys. The only problem was that there were hardly any hotels or casas on the way … so the daily mileage was still going to be big.

Passing lots of signs for rodeos, we were clearly in cowboy country as we wound our way past small wooden homesteads each with a tiny field overflowing with produce.

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Can we hitch a ride?

The smooth paved road then abruptly ended and we had our first taste of the legendary Camino de Ripio (gravel roads) that criss-cross Chile. These become corrugated on the flat, loose and sandy uphill so they are not at all the ideal cycle path. Not bad on a mountain bike, impossible on a road bike they were just about manageable on our touring bikes.

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Two hours and 30km later, we were very relieved to get back to a normal road at Litueche.

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“As God looked at the world he had created in seven days, he realised that there were still some things left over: volcanoes, virgin forests, deserts, fjords, rivers and ice. So he ordered the angels to dump all these things behind a long mountain range. The mountains were the Andes and so Chile was born. The most diversified country in the world!”

Anon

From Litueche the cycling was magnificent as we swept through the wide Colchagua Valley on the smoothest of roads. This is big, beautiful, earthy country with wide horizons across farms and scrubland dotted with rocky outcrops.

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It seems that Chile is adopting all the best trees from across the world. Australian eucalypts, American giant cacti, Scandinavian pine, Caribbean palms, European poplars make for an eclectic mix. We often looked out at beautifully nurtured vineyards on one side of the road, acacia bushes on the other. France to the left, Africa to the right.

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France to the left, Africa to the right

One night we stayed in an old Jesuit Hacienda (estate) at Marchigue. The next in a glamping pod set high above vineyards south of the old colonial village of Lolol. Both were the only accommodation within a 50 mile radius, both lovely in very different ways.

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Hacienda
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Glamping

Now we’re further inland the days are hotter. On the day we reached Talca, we both drank seven litres of water … and it was still a long time until we needed to pee!

Perhaps it was heat and dehydration, perhaps it was the last steep hill or perhaps it was the stress of having to use the main highway to cross two rivers … but we were both very, very tired when we staggered into the city. Consecutive days of 90km across hill country had proved too much for us.

Fortunately we found a lovely German oasis, Casa Chueca (the wobbly house), set in beautiful grounds with many quirky features that include an outdoor bath, a go karting track and an arboretum. A bell is rung at 7pm each night for delicious vegetarian meals that are served at a communal table.

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Casa Chueca

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It really is an outdoor bath!

“I don’t want to leave” says Clare, “I’m not ready to get back on my bike.”

Perhaps we’ll stay an extra night … or two?

Andy

 

Our route so far …

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Ups and Downs

What do you pack in only two panniers?

That was the most difficult task I had before we left for Chile. The main difference between my kit and Andy’s (apart from a lot of pink & purple) is that a woman does actually need more clothes and toiletries than a man.

So far everything I packed has been used many times but that extra warm top that Andy wouldn’t let me sneak in at the last minute has been sorely missed!

The most useful bits of clothing have been my fleece, jeggings and a multi-purpose sarong. Surprisingly my most useful piece of bike kit has been a red bungee. It makes a great washing line!

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Bungee washing line

The weather here has been one of real extremes.

Inland temperatures regularly reach 38 degrees and the UV rays are so powerful that we’ve already run out of suncream.

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Hot but not bothered

In contrast, the Pacific coast was surprisingly chilly and windy for high summer. The cold Humboldt current which surges up from Antarctica dramatically reduces both land and sea temperatures.

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A good catch

The coastline south of Valparaiso is rough and raw with huge Pacific rollers attracting more surfers than sunbathers. Some local women even lie on the beach in sleeping bags!

Sitting on a foggy black sand beach a few days ago looking out over the rough Pacific Ocean I realised that New Zealand is the next nearest landmass. Physically, culturally and mentally I felt a long way from home.

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Cycling has been a real challenge, especially on hot days. Big distances between accommodation have meant that we’re doing a lot more miles than we normally ride at home. But we’ve enjoyed both the physical challenge (well … most of the time) and the beautiful scenery.

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Near the top of a long, hot hill

However, Andy has really helped me by carrying all the spare bike parts and other heavy stuff so my panniers weigh in at just under 10kg.

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Maybe that spare bike chain was a mistake?

We’ve also enjoyed the simple, fresh food of Chile.

Ceviche is a delicious local speciality made with raw fish marinated in citrus juices and spiced with chilli peppers, onions, salt and coriander. Fish along the coast is plentiful, served in big portions, simply fried or grilled.

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Ceviche … yum!

We really like a local white fish called Reineta that often features on a Menu del Dias (daily lunch menu). Our favourite meal was in a small family cafe on the beach where reineta, chips and salad together with a bottle of good Chilean Sauvignon set us back only £10 each.

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A very popular cafe

Every roadside stall we cycle past sell Empanadas (pastie style pies) and Pan Amasado (homemade bread), staple foods in Chile. And that Mote con Huesillo (peach and husked wheat drink) we tried in Santiago is everywhere!

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The two essentials for a Chilean road trip
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Empanadas
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Mote con Huisillo in the beer fridge

Fresh fruit is so plentiful. Look at the label on your blueberries, strawberries and avocados and there’s a very good chance they’ll be imported from Chile at this time of year.

Adios
Clare

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