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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The Joy of Messed up Hair

Tumbling down precipitous mountain slopes to the sea in a mass of uncontrolled curls, it’s fair to say that the city of Valparaíso has never needed a hairdryer.

“Valparaíso, how absurd you are … you haven’t combed your hair, you never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.”
Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and Nobel prize winner

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View of Valparaisa from Pablo Neruda’s bed

Valpo is one of the most extraordinary places we have ever visited.

It grew as a welcome rest stop for 19th century steamers on their way to the California Gold Rush and was built by the passengers that loved it so much, they decided to stay. But the boom was short lived as it was almost destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1906 and worse, by the opening of the Panama Canal.

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Houses hanging to the cliff face

Today the good times are back with the city regenerated into a bohemian tourist destination and a major port once again, exporting fruit from Chile’s fertile agricultural interior.

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A maze of steep sinuous streets, escalares (stairways) and ascensors (short funicular railways) connect crumbling mansions to shanty dwellings in a chaotic, democratic jumble. In technicolor too, for Valpo has embraced the Latin American passion for street art and graffiti more that any other city. Few buildings are spared a vibrant mural.

To be honest, cycling the route from Santiago to Valparaíso was a little tougher that we expected.

Cruising out of the city was easy and pleasant as we negotiated several cycle paths all the way out to the industrial outskirts. Here we were pleasantly surprised to find it a bike repair shop to tighten Andy’s back axle that had come loose on the flight.

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Then came a steep 300m climb in the searing midday heat. At over 12% gradient in parts we were both forced to walk, watching our arms turn red as the sun burned down on us through the Antarctic ozone hole.

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We were very relieved to reach our Cabinas (cabins) set amongst gorgeous orange groves and run by an eccentric French chef. The only accommodation for 20 miles, and the best meal for 50!

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A lovely Cabinas

Sorting out the axle had put the gears totally out of sync. Tuning them the next morning took a lot longer than expected and this meant we had to tackle the two climbs that act as a gateway to the Casablanca wine valley in the hottest part of the day yet again.

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But it was OK as we had an incentive. We’d booked a wine tasting at a small family vineyard and even had time to check into our Hostal (B&B) first.

Unfortunately when we arrived in Casablanca, the Hostal didn’t exist. The address was correct (Chacabuco Street), the Google blue dot was exactly where we were standing but there was no hostel, no welcoming shower.

It turned out there are several Chacabuco streets. This one was actually in Valparaíso, 40km away and the little blue dot was simply in the wrong place. In a car this would be fine, a small mistake … but on bikes, in 35 degrees heat, hot and bothered after a long day it was definitely, unquestionably, 100% NOT fine!!

The only alternative accommodation was 10km away. Typically, the winery was 5km in the opposite direction. It was a tough decision.

Of course the prospect of a chilled glass of fine Chilean Sauvignon followed by a spicy Syrah won the day. This meant it was much, much later in the day that we peddled the 15km to our new hostel, both a little wobbly!

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Keep Pouring!

The early Sunday morning ride across to Valparaíso was lovely, gently pedalling along quiet country roads in the cool morning air. We bumped into Raphael and Emilie, two young French cyclists who had ridden all the way from Ushuaia (near Cape Horn) and are now on their way to Lima in Peru. It was fun to share the ride down through the vertiginous cobbled streets all the way to the port … but genuinely scary!

As Emilie said halfway down … “this is nice, but how are we going to get back up?!” A problem for another day.

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Raphael and Emilie loaded up for a long trip

Valporaisa does not need a hairdryer and neither does Clare.

The small hotels and hostels we’re staying in are not the sort of places that supply one, so she’s been making good use of her pink roller instead.

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And just like Valpo, it’s liberating!

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Clare and Andy

On the Road Again

 

As we shared a Mote con Huesillo at a street cafe beneath a beautiful warm blue sky, it finally sunk in that we’re back on the road again ready to set off for another adventure.

We enjoyed this popular summertime dessert yesterday at a cafe in Santiago, Chile. Made by soaking peaches and fresh husked wheat in a sweet nectar of water, honey and cinnamon, it’s unique to this country.

Mote con Huesillo

Our plan is to cycle south from Santiago through Chile, then climb over the Andes into Argentina and back again finishing in Puerto Varas in the Chilean Lake District.

Over the next 6 weeks our route will take us roughly 1900 km (1200 miles) through wine country, down the wild Pacific Coast, past snow-capped volcanoes and along the Camino de los Siete Lagos (Road of the Seven Lakes) considered to be one of the great bike rides of the world.

We’re a bit nervous to be honest … the more research we do, the more we realise how bike touring in South America will be different compared to Europe. Big distances between places, big changes in climate, lots of rough gravel tracks.

Our bikes have come with us packed safely in proper bike bags. Andy has spent many hours giving them new tyres, new brake pads, new chains, new sprockets (back gears) and new cables. After lots of swear words and as many cut fingers, they now look ready for whatever Chile might throw at them.

The bike bags arriving together at Santiago airport

This time, we’ve cut out the luxury items making our panniers several kilos lighter. Those of you that followed our blog to Barcelona might be surprised to hear that this time there’s no pillow, no pilates ball and most controversially of all, no hairdryer! Our good friend, Ginny, lent Clare the perfect alternative – a pink hair roller for her fringe!

Here are our clothes for the trip. Can anyone spot the difference?

 

 

 

A few days acclimatising in Santiago has helped to ease our nerves a little. Not known as a great tourist destination but it does seem to be a lovely city to live in. Spotlessly clean, lots of trees and parks, easy to get around, plentiful bars and restaurants and full of friendly people.

View across Santiago
Fish and chips in the middle of the fish market
Leafy streets

Now it’s time to climb on our bikes and pedal off, starting with the Casablanca wine valley and the vibrant old port town of Valparaiso.

Clare and Andy


“On the road again

Goin’ places that I’ve never been

Seein’ things that I may never see again

And I can’t wait to get on the road again”

Willie Nelson