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  • Writer's pictureToby Elliott

Carretera Cruising

I awoke to the sound of birds chirping and a wide, fast flowing river charging by. Unzipping my tent I was greeted by lush green mountainsides, their snowcapped peaks dappled in candyfloss clouds. As I watched the sun creep from behind a glaciated summit I realised, for the first time in a while, there was no wind. Here I was, at the start of the famous Carretera Austral, a sinuous road running for over 1200KM through some of Patagonias most beautiful country. The road was constructed back in 1976 under the orders of dictator Augusto Pinochet in order to provide links to this remote part of Chile, but primarily for military strategy to combat the threat of an Argentine invasion in the South. Nowadays the road provides an exceptional and convenient route through the region. As I cycled the first few kilometres with Emma and Julian, it was immediately striking how fertile and green the area was, but also abundantly clear that for those few that choose to live this far south year round, life would not be easy.

The first settlement you come to heading north is the tiny town of Villa O’Higgins. We rolled through in the morning, finding supplies in basic and overpriced stores. Then we checked into a campsite for the night, still feeling physically exhausted from our lengthy border crossing. Our campsite El Mosco had a wonderful laidback atmosphere. A large wooden cabin provided an area for travellers to congregate, here we met Jamie the British climber once more and relaxed with a few other travellers. A fireplace and wood stove warmed the cosy room. We had a fun night playing a childhood favourite game of Uno, drinking wine and cooking my favourite dish Huevos Rancheros. In the morning we bid farewell to our new friends and carried on North.

The first days on the Carretera Austral were spellbinding riding. The gravel road proved almost devoid of motorised traffic, twisting and turning, undulating past lakes like mirrors, azure rivers and climbing or plunging into one green valley after another. Wildcamping spots were everywhere, and the water running off the mountains was some of the freshest I’ve ever had. One lunchtime we paused by a roadside waterfall, enjoying the views and strong sunshine and swimming in the icy pool below the falls. The road also gave us some of the longest climbs of the trip so far, and whilst they were never further than a few kilometres, some sections were steep, but we enjoyed the challenge and the descents were always worth sweating up the hills.

The puma is perhaps one of Patagonia’s most notorious residents. It’s an apex predator that’s highly elusive. Whilst I knew of their presence in the area, I thought that my chances of seeing one were slim at best. I was in for a shock one sunny afternoon following a long days riding. Flying down a fast and dusty descent, I came around a hairpin bend to see a strange shape moving along the road in front of me. Something told me to slow down and I rolled to a halt. I squinted and strained to see what the creature was. Too large for a dog, perhaps a donkey? It was then that I noticed the cat like slink it walked with and the long tail reaching the ground. “Puma!” My heart raced and palms begun to sweat. The puma didn’t know I was behind and carried on around the next bend at a leisurely pace. Moments later Julian and Emma caught me up. I waved and made exaggerated gestures to stop and be quiet. When they reached me I explained what had unfolded. They looked at me with no small degree of skepticism. After a few reassurances I wasn’t lying we resolved to slowly round the corner together.

Apprehensively following the road we entered the bend, each slow pedal forward revealing more of the next stretch of road. And there, sure enough was the puma, still sauntering along. Emma and Julian were just as shocked as I was moments before. The puma was still blissfully unaware of us. I jumped off my bike and camera in hand begun to creep after the cat. I got closer and closer, pausing every so often to take a picture. Nearing the puma I realised just how large this animal was, pure muscle and as tall as my bicycle, a truly marvellous creature. Then when I was about 30 meters away the puma stopped, I halted, my heartbeat racing again. I hadn’t considered what could happen. The puma turned sideways and sniffed the ground, I snapped another photo. Then it raised its head and looked directly at me. For an instant that lingered on we locked eyes. Then, calm as anything the puma turned and slipped off the road, disappearing into the undergrowth without a trace.

Later that same day we pulled up by a river to camp and surprisingly bumped into two other cyclists camped here. A couple, Vera from Russia and Shan from England, they both instantly made us three welcome, and after pitching our tents we joined them around a fire to eat and become acquainted over cups of warm camomile tea. They could hardly believe our puma encounter and frankly, neither could we, but they shared some incredible stories about Siberia and the wildlife there; stoking a desire within me to visit a part of the world I had barely considered.

In the morning we parted ways as they headed off south and we rushed to catch a ferry. After crossing a large inlet we arrived in the hamlet of Puerto Yungay, from here we slogged up a steep climb before turning off the main Carretera for a diversion to the costal village of Caleta Tortel. We didn’t know what to expect from this settlement, but it was a unique experience. A ramshackle collection of colourful wooden houses, in various states of decay or development seemed to rise up out of the sea, they clung like limpets to the steep green cliffside, connected not by roads but instead a multitude of maze like boardwalks. It was easy to spend an afternoon here, wandering these wooden walkways and marvelling at the slow pace of life as the water gently lapped beneath us. I think the place had a higher cat and dog population than humans and as we explored whilst drinking mate we soon amassed a following of fury friends. The place held a surreal and dreamlike quality, reminding me of somewhere out of a fantasy novel or from a Wes Anderson film.

Before leaving the town we bumped into Hermano and Guille, the two Chilean climbers we had met back in Argentina, after a brief chat we made plans to celebrate Christmas with them and a few other travellers in Cochrane. I was constantly forgetting it was the festive season, as being from the Northern hemisphere these long, sunny days in December just felt wrong. Over the next couple of day as we neared Cochrane we started to run into an increasingly high number of cyclists heading South. These interactions became so frequent that sometimes we didn’t even stop to chat, just exchanging a knowing smile, enthusiastic wave and “Holaaaa!!’. The Carretera has evidently become a hugely popular cycling route, I found myself wondering if Pinochet would have ever imagined that when he ordered the roads construction over 40 years ago. We ran into one lone Northbound cyclist, Bryan from the USA, and he joined us for the couple of days ride into Cochrane. After we climbed up into the sleepy town itself we promptly raided the local supermercado and found a nice looking campsite to spend Christmas.

We met up again with Hermano and Guille and a selection of other travellers getting into the festive spirit. Christmas passed by in a bit of a strange blur, being my first Christmas away from home it was weird celebrating the main event on the 24th, in blazing sun and by having an asado (bbq)! We passed the evening by eating copious amounts of food and slurping pungent mulled wine that Emma brewed up. Welcoming in Christmas Day at midnight dancing and singing “Feliz Navidad” with a ragtag bunch of international travellers was sure one to remember. Waking late on the 25th itself, Christmas Day was a supremely chilled affair. I spent the day lazing in the sun, making a nice call home, listening to music and fixing my bike. In the afternoon Hermano, Guille and myself spent an insanely long time trying and failing to make tortillas for lunch. We ended up with a pile of roundish things somewhere between pancakes and pita breads, it was an amusing Christmas lunch!

Emma and myself were wandering the plaza the next day, enjoying local ice cream. We met Julian here too, and then the three of us noticed two other bikes and their riders parked up across the plaza. We headed over to say hello, the cyclists were Nathan and Clayton, two Aussies. They perched on a bench, contentedly scoffing giant sandwiches, an assortment of gear strewn around them, their bikes were similar in style to mine. Large tyres, lightly loaded and designed for offroad. I was instantly curious about their route. It turned out they were Northbound too, although Clayton was planning on flying to Australia the following day. After chatting and hearing about each others journeys to this point we exchanged details and made loose plans to meet further North. That evening I told Emma and Julian that I would be splitting off from them for a while, whilst they both wanted to continue along the Carretera Austral, I had seen a more remote route North through Parque Patagonia on a selection of small hiking trails that I wanted to explore.

In the morning whilst slowly preparing to leave town I received a message. It was from Nathan, he had been thinking and felt like he should join me in Parque Patagonia, he didn’t want to miss the opportunity to ride the route. I was chuffed. It sounded like it could be challenging, and it would be good to have company, Nathan seeming like a pretty awesome dude. We left town in a literal biker gang! A group of seven of us riding out in convoy across the dusty gravel road, we also picked up another member of the gang. A slender street dog that had been lurking the plaza ran after us, keeping pace with the bikes he followed us out of town for many kilometres. The road climbed steeply up, we sweated in the midday sun, then it plateaued out and ran along a valley side for some distance. Eventually we reached a fork in the road, here we bid farewell to our companions and headed off towards Parque Patagonia. It was emotional saying goodbye to Emma and Julian, we had ridden together for a long while, sharing some incredible experiences, facing tough challenges with laughter and making memories for a lifetime. But as Nathan and myself rolled East towards a new horizon and the beige, hazy peaks in the national park, I had a feeling that a whole new chapter lay ahead.


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