To say I was grateful for the shade of the forests in Chiles Araucanía region would be an understatement. Cycling whilst sheltered under the eaves of the trees offered some relief from the searing hot sun and was a true pleasure.
At the Chilean border I received the most thorough customs check so far. They confiscated several vegetables and my beloved breakfast raisins, but after a short while Nathan and myself were back on the road down into Chile. After a brake pad burning downhill we reached the first village of Liquine. Pausing for a rest at a casa de comida we were overjoyed to discover how cheap the empanadas and completos (a type of hot dog with tomato, avocado and plenty of sauce) were. We promptly ordered another round!
Cycling onwards the horizon was dotted with volcanos peering through the dense clouds. Their forested sides and snowcapped peaks beckoned us higher. A long climb on a tarmac road suddenly gave way to a gravel road. This was the entrance to Parque National Villarica. Whilst Nathan and myself cooked up a quick lunch at the parks entrance a lone motorcyclist pulled up. It was immediately obvious he was a character! Oozing enthusiasm and a lust for life Igaldan regaled us with stories of travel, Chile and the region. He stoked our enthusiasm for the trip North, especially Bolivia. Speeding off in a cloud of dust he left us with smiles on our faces and quotes to keep us laughing for days to come; “Ahhh you mutha f*****s are taking this road?!”
Deeper into the park we got our first glimpses of Chiles national tree the Araucaria (or Monkey Puzzle tree). Pedaling up through the increasingly dense and prehistoric looking forest, these bizarre looking giants started to appear. Tall beyond their neighbours, their long, straight and narrow trunks craned skywards. Up there above the canopy the branches splayed out in wild and unique forms. Unlike any other tree I’d ever seen these things looked like they'd come from Jurassic times and indeed they had. By the days end my neck ached from constantly staring up at the fascinating trees. But this was a small price to pay to cycle the quiet, loamy and twisty trail under the watchful gaze of these giants.
On the edge of the park we set off on a small side mission. The goal; the summit of Volcan Quetrupillan and a night spent sleeping up there above the clouds. We cycled up through the trees as far as our steeds would carry us, when the track became too steep and littered with tree trunks we stashed the bikes in the undergrowth, shouldered backpacks with the essentials for a night on a volcano and continued on foot. It was peaceful hiking through the woodlands. The hike was divided into two sections. Below the treeline we marvelled at the flora and fauna. In particular a couple of flashy lizards grabbed our attention. The trees steady thinned out and we broke through the treeline. The volcano summit stood defiantly above us. We hid under a few sparse bushes, waiting for the heat of the sun to diminish.
Soon though, the anticipation got the best of us and we found ourselves charging up the mountainside. Luckily we found a stream of fresh snowmelt, pausing to brew coffee and fill our dwindling bottles. After a couple of hours slogging over a steep snowfield and loose scree I suddenly found myself emerging onto the summit. I was breathless. A deep, snow filled crater stretched away before us, the scale of it was humbling. I pondered the forces beneath our feet and felt very small and insignificant. Surveying the skyline it was a stunning vista in all directions. The kind of view that gives you goosebumps and will remain with you for life. It was late in the day and shadows were growing long, we settled in for the sunset show, building a rather comprehensive bivvy wall to stave off the fierce Westerly wind. A hastily cooked dinner and we tucked into our sleeping bags to enjoy the sunset.
As the sun sunk towards the horizon, the world turned golden, perched up high, we stared out across the haze, valleys below filled up with shadow and we gazed in wonder at the surrounding peaks in the clouds. The rays of light illuminated Volcan Villarica in spectacular fashion, its summit still gently puffing out a stream of simmering smoke. As the sunset progressed our excitement increased and a stream of expletives left our mouths as we gawped in disbelief. Looking off to the North the chain of mountains seemed never-ending, this was to be our route; the Andes stretching out in front of us. The enormity of my journey was laid starkly before me; cycling the longest mountain range on the planet.
When the sun vanished the temperature dropped sharply off. Laying warm in my bags embrace I took many hours to drift off to sleep. Watching the clear night sky, the stars, satellites drifting by in space and the occasional shooting star fizzing through the atmosphere. My mind raced with all manner of thoughts, but I felt happy and content and grateful for such an experience.
When first light struck the volcano top things were just as wondrous; albeit a little colder. We watched as the higher Volcan Lanin in Argentina was now treated to the sunlight. Little by little the sun warmed us and after a coffee we slid and skipped our way back down the volcano to our bikes. We then ripped a twisty singletrack descent, whooping and hollering with each turn and steep section. Our return track took us through a houses garden. An old lady came rushing out, making a fuss that we were crossing her property and demanding a small payment. Not wanting hassle, we agreed to pay up. On hearing her fee I was shocked, several thousand pesos to pass 20 meters of land. I told her it was expensive and managed to haggle her down a little. We were both left a little shocked and angered by the interaction as she had also made an anti Semitic comment during our chat.
For some days we wound our way through this beautifully green part of Chile. Camping under the tall araucarias, being refreshed with fresh water swims and the smiles of friendly locals. Stopping cycling one evening we found an idyllic glade amongst the araucarias, a small stream running by and a thick grass carpet for the tents. In the middle of setting up my tent I glanced up, there right in front of me was a majestic looking Gaucho on horseback with his dogs just a few meters away. How he approached so stealthily I'll never know, but he offered a warm smile and after speaking for a few minutes we learned this was his land and he was driving his cows home for the evening, he was happy for us to camp here for the night. Then with a "Ciao" and a "Suerte" he drifted off just as silently down the mountainside.
We developed a routine in an attempt to try and beat the heat, rising early to cycle in the cool morning air, we would then take ever longer lunch breaks and siestas, extended late into the afternoon when we would finally clamber back into the saddle. While resupplying with basics at a village shop the owner suggested we take a cold shower underneath his garden hose; we jumped at the opportunity. I'm not sure wether it was our stench or flushed red faces that prompted the offer, but either way we were grateful for the relief.
Day by day it seemed to get hotter. Cycling up around Volcan Lonquimay it felt as though the heat was emanating from the volcano itself. The climb however was rewarded with a fun downhill along the edge of the 15KM lava field. On Christmas Day 1988 the volcano had erupted, spewing a colossal ash cloud into the sky and continuing for 13 months. The scale of the remaining lava field was another poignant reminder of the powerful and untameable forces governing our planet.
Going North we entered Mapuche territory; a proud and noble indigenous community in this region of Chile. It was nice to see a glimpse of their culture and knowledge of the area, however in places it felt as though they were being neglected by the rest of the country and government. Several times we ran into harmless but irritating drunks, they would often ask for money. After negotiating a steep pass in the midday heat we managed to sneak our way through a blockade and territory dispute through some blind luck, thus avoiding a lengthy detour.
Stopping in the tiny mountain village of Trapa Trapa we rested in the shade of the community centre, locals fed us crisps and refilled our water. Pushing on we were faced with this stretches biggest challenge; a sheer hikeabike up and over a pass, more than 1000M vertical elevation in just a few short kilometres. Cycling at first, we felt optimistic about the gradient. Before long though the trail kicked up and we were high up a loose, earthy mountainside. Sweat dripped from my brow, dust clouds scuffed up from underfoot as we grunted and hauled the bikes higher.
Coming around a bend in the trail a wide scree sloped squared up to us, halting any progress. The ground was stupidly loose, we poked and probed the slope, any significant weight would cause the whole precarious mass to go, dropping a good 20 to 30 meters into a rocky ravine. It wasn't worth risking serious injury or worse just to complete a route, we considered dropping down into the ravine and scaling back up to the path, and even thought about making a rope to haul the bikes. Eventually after much debate and pondering we decided to backtrack. There had to be anther way.
We had previously seen a woman with a young child on a horse riding the trail, no way had she come across this steep scree. After some backtracking and scouting around we found another trail. It dropped sharply downwards into the valley, we lost much of the altitude we had struggled all afternoon to gain. Exhausted, we set up camp in a flowery meadow, after a wash in the stream and dinner I fell into a deep and restful slumber.
The following morning our new trail continued, we climbed once more, soon realising we were back on track. High fives were exchanged and we continued with grins on our faces; we wouldn't have to backtrack several days. Switching between a rocky riverbed and twisting up steep off camber slopes we finally arrived at the top of the pass. The downhill over the passes Northern side was a worthy reward for our efforts. We snaked down the mountainside on a dreamy ribbon of earthy singketrack. It eventually turned into doubletrack, tracing a route around Volcan Antuco.
The road that skirted the volcano was an impressive one. Crusing towards the volcano we disturbed a large group of Andean Condors. They must have been feasting on a carcass somewhere. They buzzed right over our heads. You could hear the wings beat and almost feel the air pushed down by their plane like wings. I stood frozen, mouth agape, Nathan fumbled for his camera and got off a few shots. Their wingspan was enormous. This was the closest I had been to these incredible birds and to finally see them so close really helped to comprehend their scale.
The sparse, grey landscape around the volcano conjured up images of Tolkiens Mordor. Across a rocky plane jagged grey peaks formed a high blockade, they held a sinister almost evil atmosphere. The winds here whipped across the surface of Lago Laja and blasted us in the face. After struggling against the wind for sometime, we reached a point where the road dramatically steepened.
Now able to roll, we lost altitude for the whole afternoon. Coming down from the mountains our plan was to hightail it to the Pacific Coast and on to Santiago where we had to replace some gear and resupply before returning to the high Andes. Dropping down into a warm river valley, the road transformed to smooth tarmac for the first time in days and with smiles on our faces we freewheeled down to the Chilean lowlands.