Date: 29th January – 5th February 2013
Where: Rio Tranquilo – Lago General Carrera Camp – Cochrane – Hotel camp – Caleta Tortel – Rio Bravo Heaven Hotel – Red roof refuge – Villa O’Higgins
Distance: 7374 to 7561 miles
It was early afternoon by the time we left Rio Tranquilo with our bikes in one piece again and the golden fleece safely stowed away to keep it out of trouble. We knew it was going to be difficult mentally to re-cycle the 30km we had done the previous day, before the fleece reared its fluffy head and gobbled Geoff’s frame. To begin with, all was fine, but as the headwind hit us again and bodies got tired, things got tough. Finally we reached yesterday’s most Southerly point, and began pedalling into the unknown. On the way we passed a thin cyclist throwing bags in all directions and obviously very unhappy. Federico is an experienced cyclist on his way to Mexico, but his Vaude panniers had broken once again. We left him slightly happier than we found him, but in all likelihood his problem will take more than one day to fix unlike any issue we’ve really had. We have been very lucky in that respect. Skirting past the blue Lago General Carrera on a fairly good surface (for a change), we reached the plug-hole of the lake. A bright orange bridge spans this gap between Lago G.C. and Lago Bertrand. The view from it was in both our opinions the most jaw-dropping thus far despite the bad positioning of the sun: turquoise, churning water with glacier-encrusted mountains behind. Every corner of this road has this ‘wow’ factor, quite unlike anywhere else we’ve found on this trip. By now we were tired and were glad to find a small set of cabañas that allowed camping down by the lake.
We made short work of the hill to get to the small village of Puerto Bertrand, stopping only briefly to try our fishing skills again. This time the devils were jumping out of the shalllows in front of us. We didn’t catch any of them as they literally danced around our hooks. The plug-hole saga continued as Lago General Carrera fell into Lago Bertrand which then drains into Chile’s biggest river: the Rio Baker. Popping down to the rapids near the ‘nacimiento’ (birth-place) was awe-inspiring. All that brilliant-coloured water was now frothing and bubbling as it hurled itself down the valley. It would have been a stunning camp-spot (others obviously had), but we wanted to make up the lost day and get to Cochrane. Four big hills stood between us and the town, we’d be lying to say it was easy, or that we didn’t push, but at 8pm we were in Cochrane and in a campsite with friends from Coyhaique.
Since we know the future, it is worth introducing these friends to you: Matthijs and Martine (M&M) are from Holland and by far and away the most generous cyclists we’ve been lucky enough to meet (firstly in Coyhaique, and then again in Cochrane). They were already cycling with a Chilean student called Ricardo who provided intelligent conversation and translation skills every now and then. We went to bed with the plan to leave together in the morning and head for a bridge 60km away.
Our best-laid plans went to waste, as we got out of bed late, so we set off seperately. 60km later and we found the ‘hotel’ campspot. Ricardo proudly demonstrated his firepit complete with benches, and M&M led us round the available rooms: The flat room, the sheltered room and the riverside room. We chose the riverside room given both of us love falling asleep to the sound of water, and after much food, a big fire and lovely conversation we did just that.
We slept a little too well, and once again left after the others. The road to the small sea-side port of Tortel was easy enough as it meandered alongside the now enormous Rio Baker, until 8km before the end when the road became incredibly bumpy. Padded shorts were no match for this track. The final uphill pushed us a little further than we wanted, but we perservered and made it to the top. M&M had become our hotel agents that day, booking us a room at the only hospedaje which is at the top of the boardwalks, thus saving us an incredible bag faff to go up and down flights of steps. Tortel has no roads save the one to arrive at the top of the hill. Countless flights of boardwalk steps cascade down the slopes to the fjord with houses built randomly in between. It is a beautiful place, very special for its location and unique lay-out. With a room booked and no tent to put up (first time since La Junta over two weeks ago) we could enjoy the village and its shops. We were all delighted to find reasonanbly–priced easter cake in one of the shops: tasty and energy-filled! Vegetables were a different matter though, and having paid an arm and a leg for three carrots and two avocados, we decided to rely on the easter cake.
With only one arm and one leg between us we left the next day for the final stretch of the Carretera Austral. Traffic was at a minimum by now in this remote part of the World and so it seems was sunshine. At long last, the rain caught up with us as we crossed the last big hill to Puerto Yungay obscuring what would have been some amazing views. The more lasting effect though was to render our brakes unusable, Geoff’s in particular. Descents were done with one foot down after a particularly scary bend was negotiated with gritted teeth and a lucky balancing act. At the port, the sun came out and things dried out nicely. The free ferry took us across and we arrived at the ‘heaven hotel’. The authorities have recently built a fully-enclosed waiting room (with toilet!) the other side of the fjord, thus making the perfect cyclist hang-out. Brakes fixed and mats inflated on the floor, all that was left was to have a good night’s sleep. Heaven indeed!
The next day summarises our Carretera Austral experience perfectly. Beautiful sunshine bathed us as we tracked yet another river (the Rio Bravo), ups followed by downs, huge dragonflies buzzed alongside, glaciers giving birth to rivers, even the odd horsefly came out to say goodbye. The crowning moment of the day however, was when a pair of condors swooped down the road and directly over us only twenty metres away. As ever M&M had prepared our evening stop-over, even going so far to make a grass-broom to sweep out the little red roofed refuge we’d been recommended to stay at. Mosquitos tried to spoil things, but we slept well. The short stretch remaining to Villa O’Higgins was tougher than expected, but we still arrived early to find many of our cycling friends already there. That night we had a box of red wine to reflect on our memorable experience.
So, the Carretera Austral: We’ll remember the cyclists we met, the ‘wow’ views, the kind people, the many rivers, the hanging glaciers, the swathes of grass, the deep forests, and of course the horseflies, for the rest of our lives. There is no rest for the wicked though, the Carretera Austral is finished, but tomorrow morning at 8am we get the boat to Argentina, where a steep uphill track followed by a footpath awaits us. Rumour has it, it is pretty tough…but with M&M for support, and the chance to see a mountain called Mt.Fitzroy, we reckon we’ll be ok!