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

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