Carretera Austral

Published on 21 February 2020 at 02:52


We start in a windy, cold and rainy Villa O’Higgins, a village at the end of the Carretera Austral. The Carretera Austral is the name that Chile has given to the Ruta 7 road. It is built to connect a number of very remote places in the mountainous part of Patagonia. Before the Carretera, these areas could only be reached on foot or on horseback. Chile started construction in 1976 and the last section was finished in 2000. The road runs through one of the most beautiful areas on this globe with still largely untouched nature and is therefore a dream of many long-distance cyclists. We arrived at the end of it, or from our point of view, the beginning.



Several signs in the village indicate that we are in a capital, but all the usual features of a capital are missing. It is a sleepy village with a relatively large number of tourists and travelers. Something that disturbs the peace are the dogs in the village. Inimitable is their fanaticism to attack sporadic cars in which they seem willing to give their lives (or at least one leg). They leave us cyclists alone; it is the world upside down...


The other thing that disturbs the silence is a group of strangers at hostel Moscow. A Scotch, four New Zealanders, a Belgian, Frenchman and two Dutch are seated at a table full of beer, wine and chips, and people talk loudly and often laugh. One of the Dutch resembles actor Sam Neill, according to the Kiwis. They are jealous of that other Dutch, also the only lady in the company, who is then married to a real dinosaur hunter. The two Dutch recover a little less well from the pleasant evening and postpone cycling the Carretera Austral one more day.

With a somewhat heavy head, we realize that during our adventure in the past 18 months we twice before 'jumped out of the bicycle tire': once in Bursa, Turkey and once near Broome, Australia. We also think that we don't want to let it happen more often than once every six months. But men, we laughed with these guys!


Common here: dog with only three legs

Cameron, Patrick & Cristian from New Zealand


When we leave Villa O'Higgins, the wind has subsided and the sun shines on the white-frosted grass. On the first six kilometers an excessive thick layer of coarse gravel with many loose large stones makes cycling not very easy. We must constantly keep our eyes on the road and can only feel the wonderful mountains around us, in addition to the icy cold. After we cross a bridge the road suddenly becomes much and much better and we can look around. We cycle along streams, rivers and lakes. There are high snow-covered mountains everywhere and there are waterfalls everywhere. Oww, how fantastic it is this! We can enjoy it to the full and there is almost no traffic on this stretch of road. We do meet around 20 cyclists. We are still not used to the fact that a 'Hola' is all we share with other cyclist on the road. 

The road goes up and down and up and down. Today we can add a good number of altimeters, a bit over 1000, and finally hit almost 100 kilometers. Our goal today is Puerto Yungan, a hamlet on the other side of a fjord that can only be reached with a ferry. We are aware of the departure times of the ferry, we hope to get on the 4 pm, otherwise we have to wait until 7 pm. The last 20 kilometers are fairly flat but a shovel has literally made a mess of it in an attempt to smooth out the corrugation. We have to cycle on a kind of single track on the wrong (left) side of the road. We look at the time and see that we still have an hour to make it to the 4 pm ferry. Okay, a hour to the ferry 17 kilometers away. The average until then is around 13 km / h. We probably won't make it, but we may. We go for it! What follows is a real sprint race, in which Harry ultimately rushes forward for an extreme "all or nothing" action. After 17 kilometers we hit a hamlet called Rio Bravo. However, the pier turns out to be some more miles away and suddenly the road is not that flat anymore. When Harry arrives at the ferry, he is already lifting the tail lift. The crew sees Harry coming and lowers it again. Out of breath, Harry still manages to say "mi esposa ..., un minuto", while gesturing busy at the empty dusty road behind him. The crew understands and calls and laughs to Harry. He doesn't understand much of it, but thinks it mean something like "there is your chance to finally be free". The "un minuto" eventually became something more but not very much. If Roelie, too, breathless but with her characteristic radiant smile, shows up, it must have been immediately clear to the crew why Harry wanted to wait for his esposa.



On the other side of the fjord we know from the app "iOverlander" that we can wild camp and we pitch our tent on the pebble beach. We make it easy for ourselves, unpack our lightweight chairs, make a campfire, enjoy the peace and the view and prepare a tasty pasta: life is a fire!


camp spot @ Puerto Yungan


The next morning we start with a slope of an estimated> 15%. In a section it is even provided with paving, probably to prevent the road from washing away in bad weather. But it's not bad weather, it's a beautiful day again.



On the other side of the hill is a turn to the village of Tortel. The houses are located on decks above the water and there is even an opportunity to camp in Tortel style. You'll then get nails and a hammer to attach the tent to a deck. We choose to ignore the village. We have heard that it is quite touristy and that it smells. Waste is simply thrown into the water and the sewerage simply discharges into the water. Oh yes, it is also 2 x 23 kilometers site tour.


Around lunchtime we drive into a farmyard where they sell freshly baked bread (and furthermore dismantle batteries or something). The farmer's wife speaks Spanish quickly and profoundly and we are quite proud that we have succeeded in buying pan off her. A little further on, we plump down the river along the dusty road to eat the sandwiches. We notice that there is quite a bit of traffic on this part. Probably they are all on their way to Tortel and back and every time they drive past a big dust cloud follows.


After the break with the dusted rolls and with another 30 kilometers to go, the cable of Roelie's gear breaks. That happened also in Australia, and despite the fact that we now carry spare cables with us, we know that we need internet to repair it. To replace the cables, the gears must be set to certain positions. How exactly, we don't recall. A video of Pinion on their websites tell how. But there is no internet here and we expect to find it in the village of Cochrane at about 60 kilometers. That is a long walk. When a passenger van arrives, Roelie puts a thumb up and the driver stops immediately. The man is willing to take us to the village for the amount of 8,000 pesos (just over € 9) and that's fine for us. The man points out that there will be no bike repair shop. They are some in the city of Coyhaique and that is a lot further, more than 300 kilometers away. He will drive to Coyhaique today, "if we want to go with him?" We make it clear to him that we can fix it ourselves if we only have internet. He drops us off at a campsite and a number of selfies and hugs follow and he continues his way to Coyhaique. Roelie hangs the bags on her bike again and jumps in to despair when one is missing. It probably is still on the van while we have looked so well whether we had taken everything out. In addition, that bag contains the spare cables that we need to repair. And other spare parts, and our down jackets, and the thick gloves, and the clothesline and pegs, and a toilet roll, oh no! Harry cycles quickly to the bus station to see if the driver picks up someone there for his ride to Coyhaique. He shows the photo and asks around if someone recognizes or knows the best man. But unfortunately nobody knows this guy with his cap and big sunglasses and Harry returns to the campsite disappointed. 


Wanted: who knows the man in the middle?


We encourage each other that it is a setback, but that worse things can happen, that we will find a solution and that we should not gloat. To add action to words, Harry proposes to get the groceries and get us a bottle of wine. And that's where the impossible happens. The driver of the van is at the cash register and indeed there is a pannier pushed under a bench in the bus. Harry is very happy to return to the campsite. 


The campsite is full of cyclists and hikers. We certainly count about 20 bicycles. Two nice German ladies have settled down next to us and they ask us if there is a bike repairman in the village. We tell them we heard not. They have a broken spoke. The cassette has to be removed from the wheel, so it is not the easiest repair. We do have spare spokes for her but don't dare to take on the job to replace the spoke. The ladies later hear that there is a repairman in the village. He had to go to the hospital today, but he will be working again tomorrow.


The next morning Roelie walks to the local hardware store to buy a pair of tongs. The cable can then be replaced. In the meantime, she wonders whether the outer cable should also be replaced. Perhaps the problem is that the cable can no longer move properly in its hollow housing. She walks once more to the center and takes the bike to identify which part is needed. Outside the store is a man who is very interested in the bicycle and the problem and who thinks he can help this foreign lady. He might be the towns repairman. His daughter speaks some English and asks about the housing in the store. It appears that it is not in stock. In the meantime, dad pulls out cables in no time and screws everything loosely and tightly without setting the gears with an Allen key in the right position, and that listens closely. "This can never go well!", Roelie thinks, and sweat breaks out. She uses her total but still limited Spanish vocabulary to explain to the man that it is not good and to tell the man to stop. She then quickly runs off to fix the gear with Harry; leaving the helpful gentleman with hurt pride.


On our first attempt, an existing cable suddenly appears to be too short. We have also cut off the new one and therefore the repair has failed. We need an extra cable. The German ladies Jenny and Nici are happy when they return with a repaired rear wheel and offer a cable after some searching. In this way we can continue and with attempt two everything goes well.


Nici & Jenny from Berlin, Germany


Meanwhile, an English cyclist borrows needle and thread from us to do some repairs on her favorite pants. Everyone helps each other here and everyone chats a lot. Nate from the US gives us a tip for the next night. An English-speaking Chilean helps us to register our SIM cards. And we can go on for a while. In between, Harry goes to the supermarket. And again he meets someone there who makes him happy. It is the Italian Gianni. Gianni cycles on a real Brompton, the "Mercedes" under the folding bikes, and we met him earlier on the Mae Hong Son Loop in Northern Thailand. Harry and Gianni talk for a while, but Gianni has to keep going, because he lost quite some time on the gravel of the Carretera Austral. The Brompton has small wheels and thin tires, not really suitable for cycling over (or through) loose gravel. Very special to meet someone again on our trip (apart from of course the people you meet more often on the same route in the same direction). Gianni is the second. Earlier we met the American Scott, whom we had met on the same Loop in Northern Thailand, in Australia for the second time. We hope to meet some old acquaintances in South America. It's a small world, thanks to Instagram.


With a super smooth shifter on Roelie's bicycle, we continue our cycling journey the next day. The road is bad, no the road is lousy: lots of potholes, large stones, corrugation and heaps of grit and gravel. Unfortunately, the eyes are back on the road in full concentration. That is a shame because we cycle through the valley of the Rio Baker, a wonderfully beautiful turquoise and sometimes quite wild river. Luckily there is a short walk to a breathtaking rapids, where the smaller river Nef joins the turbulent stream of Rio Baker. The brown-gray water of Rio Nef seems to be completely swallowed up by the beautiful deep turquoise water of Rio Baker, to emerge in unexpected places in the swirling water and then fade away again. This again is so beautiful!!


Yeh, 200,000 altitude meters in total

Rapids where the Rio Nef flows into the Rio Baker


After more than 60 kilometers of struggle between concentrating on the road or enjoying all the beauty around us, we reach the nice campsite Cerro Color, the tip of Nate. This camping spot is quite typical of many camping spots along the Carretera Austral: run by an elderly couple, on a farm, with a new, but apparently (too) quickly built, "facilities" building. But the lovely older couple who run this campsite are heartwarming and - not unimportantly - the building with kitchen, toilets / showers and common area is relatively in picobello state and spotlessly clean. Unfortunately we are the only guests, where we actually expected quite a few other cyclists.


The next day the road to Villa Rio Tranquillo remains very bad and the washboard ripples in the road are getting worse. We change tracks all the time and usually in vain and remove any speed in a descent. Taking a photo while cycling is a flashy attempt to destroy our iPhone and a desire for self-destruction. We are happy when we finally reach the village of Puerto Rio Tranquillo that actually seems to be flooded by backpackers, so not very tranquillo.


At the campsite, the boss sends everyone to a place under a shelter along the edges of a lawn. Sometimes the tents are almost on top of each other and we do not understand why. According to the weather reports it will stay dry so what's the problem of standing on the lawn? Later in the evening when we want to go to sleep, we get the answer. The camping boss still expected a number of late arrivals: Chilean families with large tents and pick-up trucks and there is just enough room for them. There is not enough room for one of the children because he regularly falls over our line or just on our tent. It is a party in the village and the music continues as usual for a long time. It really isn't that tranquillo in Rio Tranquillo.



The road from this village is fortunately much and much better. It is still a gravel road, but then flat and hard. We fully enjoy. At roadworks we have to wait and there we meet the Italian cyclists Eleonora and Paolo. On the way to Tortel, Eleonora fell hard on bad gravel and she has a crusts of a the wound on her chin. We keep talking for a while. Eleonora becomes emotional when she hears that we have sold everything for this "journey of a lifetime." She has tears in her eyes. They would like to do that too, but for now they only have three weeks to get to Puerto Montt; the start / end of the Carretera Austral.


Eleonora & Paolo from Italy


Today we pass all the intended camp spots. The road cycles like asphalt. A little further on are large-scale road works and the road is closed every day between 1:00 pm and 5:00 pm. Therefore, there is just about no traffic (and no dust showers) in the afternoon. We still want to do a climb and that turns out to be quite tough: a super short steep stretch a few times and after an hour we are 400 meters higher up the hill. It is then just 5:00 pm and time to find a place for the tent. There is a shed next to a small river and behind a fence and around it there is enough space for a tent, for four tents actually when more cyclists arrive. We finally camp with four other cyclists around the shed and the Texan Kent comes to sit down to drink his beer and eat his breakfast the next morning.


Kent from Texas, USA


We somehow falsely informed ourselves. We expect that after the road section of about 15 kilometers that is closed every afternoon for extensive road works, we end up on asphalt. The Carretera Austral is hardened from north to south is what we thought and then it would be logical that a road section that is now being tackled will be delivered asphalted. After the road section, however, we are treated again to a very worst piece of gravel. The road is very wide and has a thick layer of coarse stones on it. It cycles incredibly rotten and because we did not expect it, we feel misled. Well by ourselves then. And we can't really complain, because the wind is giving us a helping hand today. After another 15 kilometers of struggling and dusting, the release of fresh and perfect asphalt, or better concrete, finally comes. It is then only a short distance to the village of Villa Cerra Castillo.



Immediately after the village we find a nice campsite with a large cozy conservatory with a view of the mountains that are unfortunately swallowed by the clouds. Mario, the owner speaks perfect English. He talks about the current problems in Chile. Far too much is in private hands and the prices of "goods and services of general interest" are systematically increased by private owners. Previous generations have accepted that, but today's pupils do not. They have begun to take action and something other than vandalism is unfortunately not available. In fact, it is apparently the way in South America to let the political rulers listen to you. The people are of course against vandalism, and Mario is quite worried of the consequences for the still young tourist industry, but in general the pupils and students are widely supported in the desire to change the constitution.

In the guestbook of Mario’s Glamping Okau Patagonia we see a lot of Dutch people. We realize once again how well The Netherlands and the Dutch are doing, even though we are absolutely masters in complaining.


Best view of the Cerro Castillo mountain from the Okau Patagonia campsite


The next morning we climb from a height of 400 meters to the highest point of the Carretera Austral, at 1,100 meters. The climb is long but not as steep as previous parts. On the other side, we cycle into full headwind, and so damn little remains of the descent that was in the profile. It might just as well have been part of the climb. But the sun is shining and in a small shop in the village of El Blanco, wonderfully scented fresh rolls are waiting for us. We also buy cheese, salami and an avocado and Roelie nominates the sandwich as the tastiest ever.


Fortunately, the wind then moderated somewhat and we are determined to cycle the last kilometers to Coyhaique, the largest city on the Carretera Austral. Again, a lot of vandalism is done, tiles are missing from the sidewalk and graffiti is everywhere.

The registration of our SIM cards has been rejected and we look for a cafe with WiFi to find a place to spend the night on internet. Our to-do list has become quite long so we want a little more time. There is no airbnb or cabaña and after hours of whapping and an address book filled with cabaña owners we book a night in a hostel and reserve a cabaña for two extra nights. The hostel turns out to be a guest house, run by two incredibly treasures of ladies. They put our frozen pizzas in the oven late in the evening, serve them and do the dishes and the next morning they treat us to a lavish and delicious breakfast. We move to the cabaña Los Tienes to wash, brush, arrange things, repair, buy and in the evening we flop on the couch to watch the real Sam Neill in Peaky Blinders (nice Netflix!) .


It would rain for three days and it does at night, but during the day it is actually pretty sunny. Unfortunately not on the day of departure. It rains that day. At first only a drizzly rain that doesn't really get us wet, but further out of the city it starts to look like rain and the wind blows it in our face. It is also cold.


Santuario San Sebastian

Cascada La Virgen


In a small village we are tipped off by a motorist to go to a restaurant. It is wonderfully warm inside and it is almost completely full of lunch guests. The scents make us hungry and luckily a table is just available. We order something to drink and eat in our best Spanish: an empanada and a bowl of fries. Instead of fries, we get a bowl of savory potato puree and a bowl of cooked potato wedges. Both look just as tasty as they taste. We discuss our options and decide to go to the campsite in this village. We will stop today. Too wet and too cold. With only 40 kilometers on the clock, we are very pleased with our decision to call it a day.


The campsite gets very good reviews and when we arrive we are somewhat disappointed by the high expectations. It all looks a bit desolate and deserted in the rain and the cold; we are the only guests, but it is still early. We take a nice hot shower, put the tent up and take a seat in the common room. Shortly thereafter, more guests arrive and the host gives an entertaining mate lesson to his foreign guests, a traditional tea ceremony as gauchos do between 5 and 6 in the afternoon. Later in the evening he picks up his guitar and also gives a Chilean guest one, his wife and an American get their ukuleles and together they play and sing Chilean folklore.


Host, fly fisherman and mate teacher Nacho on guitar


At breakfast we talk a little longer with the American. He and his Japanese wife are in Chile to document the demonstrations in Santiago. They are actually makers of architectural videos and are now taking a side trip to the demonstrators' graffiti. The graffiti is usually quickly removed and made more permanent by photographing it. The perishable art of the street, the art of protest. The couple ended up in stuffy situations in Santiago and have since become somewhat immune to tear gas. It is an extraordinary couple, and they think we are (really) crazy because we travel around the world on bicycles. When we arrive in the US we should not hesitate to ask for advice about the route. Most importantly, we include Lake Taupo, Yosemite, Red Woods and Oregon Coast and skip Nevada. Just before he leaves to drive back to Santiago, he will come to overhear whether we know the four must-sees. Hahaha we have already forgotten the Oregon Coast, let's just record the list in our blog.


When we leave it is still raining lightly, but slowly the sun shines brighter. Like every other day, we are amazed by the views from the Carretera Austral. That alone is unique compared to any other route in the world. What is also unique is the clarity of the sky: thanks to the strong westerly winds and the location of this sparsely populated, narrow piece of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, the sky here is really clean. We can look so far and everything is so sharp. Wherever in the world the air is polluted and hazy due to forest fires, wood-burning stoves, waste incineration, industry, traffic, dust, etc. but not here.
We cycle the 50 kilometers we wanted to do yesterday and stop at a hostel. We take a room with the knowledge of the predicted rain tonight and tomorrow morning. We take it easy. Nice weather is coming up and we want to enjoy the last part of the Carretera Austral before we head towards hopefully drier Argentina.


The day stage is again incredibly beautiful. When we start around noon, it rains a bit, but the sun breaks through more and more often. We cycle along high wet erect rock walls where probably only experienced climbers (and Silvester Stalone of course) dare to venture. Above a steep rock face we see a family of condors circling. The view is completely different after every turn. Well that is not true, they are always snowy peaks but always different ones.



Day goal is a campsite where Pim and Nienke (#outdoorroamers on Instagram) have a rest day and sit out the rain. To our horror, a large sign hangs on the fence with: "Closed :-(". What's this? After we are bewildered for a while a lady emerges from the house. She says the cafeteria is closed, but the campsite is not. She shows us the options: camping under a roof or a mini room in a container with a made-up double bed. With regard to the cold, wind and more rain predicted, the choice is not very difficult: we'll go for the container and again we find out that choices based on “emotion” are often not the right ones. What soon turns out is that for almost 30 euros we have a bed without linen (the made-up bed was apparently used and the linen was removed after which it was indicated that it is rented without linen), without electricity, without WiFi and without space for cooking. And shortly after feeling ripped off Nienke is knocking on the door to invite us to eat with them. There is a house at the bottom of the river and are in a room there. When we step inside, we see a large living room with fully equipped kitchen, electricity, WiFi, atmospheric lighting, a place to dry laundry and a particularly cozy atmosphere and not only the interior, but especially Pim, Nienke and a British cycling couple ensure that. Pim and Kevin bake potatoes and sausages and there is a large tomato-onion salad. Thanks to them we have a wonderful evening and return for the night to our container. The next morning we can have breakfast with our new friends at their nice house. They all cycle southbound and so we already need to say goodbye to them.



At night it was still haunted by heavy gusts of wind and rain showers and in the morning it is still cold but the sun is shining and the wind has subsided. In fact, it is the ideal conditions to start the climb that is scheduled for today. But first we celebrate a small party: we reach 30,000 kilometers.



On the other side of the pass is the sea and the hanging glacier. The climb is not very long and not too steep. We are suddenly back on ripio (gravel). If we descend on the other side, we suspect that the people who cycle southbound have it much, much harder. The road is worse, narrower and steeper and quite technical to descend.



Long before we reach the hanging glacier, we see the deep blue ice river hanging on a mountain. Wow! But we are not going to make any effort to get closer and cycle along the fjords to the village of Puyuhuapi, known for its thermal baths, hot springs, spa or whatever name it may have. At a small campsite we pitch our tent and cook a pot of pasta (what else ..?). Only two other cyclists camp at this place. They are from Canada and lost half of their luggage in Santiago when they briefly looked the other way at a bus stop. To make the malaise complete, the Canadian woman went down hard on the Carretera Austral. She has a black eye, a broken lip and her hands and knees are planed. At night it remains restless for a long time. Chileans, and certainly the younger ones who enjoy a long summer holiday, love the nocturnal hours and are not worried that their chatter and music might disturb other campers. Fortunately Harry has good earplugs and Roelie always sleeps through everything easily.


We have planned a short stage. The weather is going to be very nice and we have a load of washing to do after four days of cycling. It needs to be washed and dried and that could just happen in La Junta, a village that celebrates its birthday (as young as Harry). We are expecting another noisy night due to the celebrations. In any case, it is possible to wash and dry. The weather is incredibly beautiful and for the first time since Buenos Aires we are wering shorts again. It is a wonderfully relaxed afternoon and we agree that we should do this more often: arrive earlier at the place of destination. To our surprise, the campsite remains very quiet, or rather empty. Only the Austrian Suzanne and the Chilean Vicente, a couple who are madly in love for about a week now, pitch their tent. They quickly withdraw for a 'siesta', but later in the afternoon we get to talk to them: a nice couple, we hope they stay together!


And then our last day on the Carretera Austral is there. Today at Villa Santa Lucia we turn east to the rafting village of Feutelefú, and then cross the border with Argentina. When we reach Villa Santa Lucia after 70 kilometers and a lot of altimeters, we say goodbye to the Carretera Austral. Off the 1240 kilometer long road we have done about 925. And now? To Feutelefú is another 77 kilometers on a gravel road. To a nice wild camping spot on a lake called Beach Paradise is 15 kilometers. But we are still thinking about the wish expressed yesterday to set up the tent a bit more often in the early afternoon and we want to publish this blog. We therefore visit the only campsite in the village (half of which was swept away in December 2017 by a flood and avalanche). We pitch our tent on the deserted terrain and only then we discover some negatives at this campsite: there is no mobile internet to be received, no wifi (so no upload to our blog), there is no electricity (the laptop is empty), the toilets are public toilets (and apparently the only ones in the wide area, because they are constantly for a long time occupied) and around the picnic tables next to the campsite people are gathering and chatting on this Friday afternoon. This is not what we had in mind! We decide to ask our money back, to break down the tent and to continue cycling. It is 4 p.m. and in addition to the intended wild camping spot, Harry suggests another possible place to stay with electricity, wifi, hot shower. After 15 kilometers we arrive at the wild camping spot; it's beautiful there! But we are now completely covered in sweat, sun cream and dust and we expect that it can be very cozy here tonight with weekend Chileans. So we decide to continue cycling to the place that Harry found on iOverlander. Covered with more dust we reach Puerto Raminez where they rent out rooms and it is almost un-Chilean good: neat room, nicely finished, kitchen with fridge and a great bathroom and all for very little! We immediately move into the room, finish this blog and enjoy the night's rest here in 'the-middle-of-nowhere' after 100 kilometers.


That was it, the famous Carretera Austral. It is already over. The next destination is Los 7 Lagos, the region around Bariloche with much more than 7 lakes and whether they are as beautiful as those on the Carretera Austral? We will have to find out!