Goodbye Galway Girls & Danny Boys

The Irish have a great talent for making a lot out of a little.

As we drove to Rosslare to catch our ferry back home, we couldn’t help but smile at a sign announcing ‘President Obama’s Ancestral Village’. This is Moneygall where a young man called Falmouth Kearney lived before he emigrated to the United States in 1850. He was Obama’s maternal great-great-great-grandfather.

Now this might seem like a distant connection to you and me but for Moneygall it’s enough for a visitor centre called the Barack Obama Plaza and the preservation of a terraced house as his ancestral home.

We found a similar story when we stayed in New Ross on our first night in Ireland. Birthplace of John F Kennedy’s great-grandfather, it now boasts a Kennedy homestead, Kennedy museum, Kennedy arboretum, Kennedy summer school and Kennedy hotel.

As far as we know, there isn’t a Trump visitor centre in Ireland yet … just an ostentatious golf course and luxury hotel that took us a long time to cycle past.

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Kinvara

During our last two days on the Wild Atlantic Way, we cycled from Doolin to Galway, staying overnight in the lovely small town of Kinvara.

This took us through the Burren, one of the finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape in the world. Huge limestone sheets have been eroded by glaciers and then by rainwater which gets into any cracks and crevices.

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Limestone pavements

The effect is dramatic. Limestone pavements with perfect parallel lines sit beneath smooth hills that are strewn with so many rocks that they appear from a distance to be sugar coated with snow.

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A light covering of snow in August? 

The name Burren comes from the Gaelic Boíreann which simply means a rocky place. Many years ago, farmers cleared all the rocks from the fields, piling them into a striking mosaic of dry stone walls.

The walls go right down to sea, sometimes running across vast limestone pavements. Cattle were brought down onto the flat rocks for winterage, as they held onto the summer heat for longer encouraging the grass in the crevices to keep growing.

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Galway turned out to be a vibrant city with a lively centre full of small shops, restaurants and music bars, all buzzing with people chatting away in Gaelic. So much so that it’s often referred to as the bilingual capital of Ireland.

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There were lots of amusing shop signs, including a trading notice outside this jewellers…

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And a special offer from this café…

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To our surprise, the highlight of our visit to Galway was an extraordinary show that’s been entertaining tourists for the last fourteen summers.

Trad on the Prom is an evening of traditional Gaellic music and dance presented by some of the creators of big, famous shows such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. Despite taking place in the unlikely surroundings of a leisure centre sports hall, it was magical and captivating as the quality of the musicians and dancers was so high. Indeed, many of them were world champions.

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Credit: Trad on the Prom

As we caught the train back to Ennis to pick up our car, we added up the distance we’d cycled on the Wild Atlantic Way.

It came to 961km cycling and 438km driving*.

This means we did fulfil our carbiking promise to cycle more than we drove. But we missed our 1000km target … defeated by the weather on the Dingle.

Southern Route Full

So how was our first experience of carbiking?

There are lots of good things:

  • It’s really easy to get to the place you plan to cycle from. You don’t have cram your bikes onto public transport.
  • It’s more versatile. You can take a detour, stay in different places or get to a remote restaurant.
  • You can miss out those parts of the route with lots of main roads or boring scenery.
  • If you need to, you can check out a mountain pass in the car before you ride over it.
  • You can drive on rainy days.
  • For day rides, the panniers can stay in the car.
  • It means you can bring loads more stuff such as heavy camping gear, a box of food or even that all important hairdryer!

And a few less good things:

  • You always have to get back to your car, which can mean cycling in a circle.
  • The comfort of the car makes it feel less adventurous, less of a journey.
  • It makes it too easy to bring loads more stuff!

We thought it worked out surprisingly well especially as there were so many peninsulas to loop round on this trip. We’d definitely recommend it.

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Now … we’ve heard some people say that the Wild Atlantic Way is one example of the Irish making-a-lot-out-of-a-little.

It is a clever way of joining all the small roads together and claiming that it’s the longest coastal touring route in the world’.

But … the southern half is so beautiful, so varied and, yes, so wild that we think it’s actually making-a-lot-out-of-a-lot!

Now we can’t wait to return and explore the northern half from Galway to Malin Head.

Clare and Andy


Southern Half of the Wild Atlantic Way: Kinsale to Galway
By bike: 961km, 11825m climbed
By car: 438km*

* If we cycled and drove along the same roads, we only counted the cycling distance.
* We didn’t include driving to Ireland and back.
* Which is not cheating!

Clare goes to County Clare

Heritage is important to Irish people. They’re always proud to say which county they’re from whether it’s Wicklow, Cork, Kerry, Galway.

I don’t have any Irish heritage but I like it that my name is spelt the same way as County Clare, without the ‘i’.

Whilst cycling in Clare we came another way that the Irish celebrate their heritage. The final of the Rose of Tralee competition was broadcast live on RTE1 (the main TV channel) for two consecutive nights and attracts the biggest TV audience of the year.

It’s a competition to crown a young lady who embodies the qualities set out in the famous Victorian poem and becomes an ambassador for Ireland.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer,
Yet ’twas not her beauty alone that won me;
Oh no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning,
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

Definitely not a beauty pageant, it’s open to all young women of Irish heritage from home and abroad. They might be a nurse, teacher or lawyer but to the girls lining the streets of Tralee for the annual parade, they’re rock stars!

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The 2018 winner from Waterford    Credit: Stay in Kerry

Defeated by the Dingle and with wet camping gear happily packed away, we left the Southern Peninsulas, parked our car in the medieval town of Ennis and set off with our panniers for a week. It felt good to be back on our bikes.

Andy wanted to see the Shannon, Ireland’s longest and widest river, which meant pedalling an additional 50kms away from the Wild Atlantic Way.

It wasn’t worth it!

The views of the muddy estuary were unremarkable and long stretches of undulating country roads were unrelenting. I’m sure other parts of the 360km long Shannon are far more beautiful.

County Clare Full

Re-joining the Wild Atlantic Way at Kilrush, the scenery became more interesting again but strong headwinds were now the challenge.

This part of Clare is notorious for wind as it faces the open Atlantic and there are no trees to break it up. We quickly learnt that the local rule is ‘whichever way you go, the wind will always be ahead of you!’

As we cycled towards Loop Head Lighthouse the gusts increased to over 40mph. When I stopped pedalling, I was quickly forced to a standstill or even sent backwards!

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Built in 1845 the lighthouse was the first of many interesting sights along the Clare coastline. In World War II a big ‘EIRE’ sign was laid out in stones on the headland, to warn Allied and German pilots that this was a neutral country.

Thankfully we left the lighthouse with the wind behind us so enjoyed the luxurious feeling of being pushed along. For those of you familiar with sailing, it was like being on a broad reach.

The Bridges of Ross were originally a trio of natural sea arches until two of them fell in to the sea, leaving just one remaining arch today. As we peered over the cliff ledge we saw a very amusing sight – over 20 photographers huddled together, all pointing huge lenses out to sea.

Perched on stools, clothed in waterproofs with flasks at their sides they seemed to be waiting for something special to happen. Whales, dolphins, seals? No, they were a group of birdwatchers trying to capture the ultimate photo of a puffin, guillemot or kittiwake!

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Continuing northwards we were suddenly surrounded by a flurry of coaches all heading to the Cliffs of Moher, a major tourist attraction.

The climb up Moher Hill was both steep and again into a headwind. As we fought our way up we were drenched by a sudden downpour which meant we arrived at the Visitor Centre looking like drowned rats.

We were rewarded with some early evening sunshine and free entry (8 Euro’s each), offered to all cyclists for the making the effort to climb up the hill.

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By contrast to the crowds at Moher, the major attraction on the Aran Islands was understated but seemed to us to be even more dramatic.

Dun Aonghasa is a spectacular pre-historic stone fort on Inishmore, the largest of the 3 Aran Islands. It stands in a semi-circle on the highest point of the cliffs facing directly out to the Atlantic beyond.

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No-one is quite sure why it is there.

There was no guard rail to protect you from the sheer drop 100m down to the waves crashing below. I felt terrified, staying well away from the edge, not looking as Andy leant over the side to take photos!

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After listening to lots of accordions, Andy was desperate to find an Irish band with a good fiddle player. In Jack’s Bar that evening his wish came true.

We were listening to a dreary male singer when a young mum and her small daughter suddenly got up from their dinner and pulled out their fiddles. She was fabulous and got the whole bar clapping along to her traditional jigs and reels.

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Leaving the island the following morning we had an amusing incident as we patiently joined the queue for our ferry. This is the boat we thought we were getting.

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But our ticket was the wrong colour. Green, not pink. That meant we had to get this ferry instead!

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Despite being called the ‘Happy Hooker’ (a hooker is a traditional West Ireland fishing boat), the passage back wasn’t a happy one as she rolled heavily from side to side in the huge swell.

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There are highs and lows with every cycling trip.

From a female perspective cycling in Ireland is lots of fun. Distances are manageable, there are lots of comfortable places to stay and the food is great.

The fish and seafood are particularly good, served in generous portions. Seafood Chowder is on every menu, taken so seriously that an All-Ireland Seafood Chowder competition is held every year.

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Credit: Good Food Ireland

The delicious cakes at every coffee stop haven’t helped reduce our waistlines but then cakes are one of the great pleasures of cycling touring. And pedalling into a headwind doubles the amount of energy you use, so why hold back?

The biggest challenge in Ireland is the weather although we have probably had just as much sunshine as rain and wind.

It changes so often, we now call it ‘on-again-off-again-weather’.

No sooner do I stop to take a top off, I needed to put it on again. My rain jacket is continually kept at the ready and my glasses are always being swapped for sunglasses … and back again.

So if you do come to Ireland, my advice is to leave your hairdryer at home and bring an umbrella … and some sunscreen!

Clare

County Clare
By bike: 237km, 2316m climbed
By car: 95km

Wild Atlantic Way (so far)
By bike: 877km, 11194m climbed
By car: 382km

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.

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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

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