In much need of a rest, we decided to spend a lazy day on the banks of Rio Jeinemeni. It felt great to wake up to sun shining, a soothing breeze and to just be able to snuggle back into my sleeping bag and snooze. The day passed surprisingly fast, we mended bikes, read and drank coffee. Gradually the shadows on the hills around us lengthened and the sun dropped below the horizon. The next morning we rode the remaining distance into Chile Chico. There was a short climb followed by a boneshaking downhill into town. This was the first chance we had to resupply in several days and the route had been demanding; so naturally I went crazy in the supermarket and came out with a small mountain of food. New Years Eve was also just around the corner, so we stocked up on a few beverages too.
We cycled down to the ferry port and tried to discover when our next opportunity to cross Lago Buenos Aires might be. Fortunately there was one leaving shortly, and before we knew it we were disembarking on the lakes northern shore. Here the wind seemed to be blowing all the stronger and we spent the remainder of the day battling headwind before pitching camp sheltered by some bushes. Whilst making breakfast the following day I think Nathan might have thought I was trying to poison him. I made us both coffee with a new pack I had picked up in town, I poured him a mug and returned to my tent to eat breakfast as it had started to rain. This was the most foul tasting coffee I had ever experienced, one sip and I was almost sick! I immediately poured away the cup. “Eugh! This coffee is rancid!” I exclaimed. “Thank god!” Came the response from Nathans tent. He confessed he had poured his away too, and was very relieved that I didn’t think that was good coffee. It’s surprisingly hard to procure decent coffee in this area of South America. Safe to say I steered well clear of that brand in future.
Rain drizzled as we meandered along quiet gravel roads. In the afternoon as the rain intensified we started to scour the roadsides for an epic campsite to see in the New Year. We passed up a few spots, hoping to find something better. Soon there was a full on downpour and we didn’t feel like cycling anymore. Things were starting to look desperate, but just then Nathan spotted a downtrodden fence with a promising looking area the other side. There was a well sheltered spot and we pitched our tents just in time. These are two valuable and somewhat contradictory lessons when wild camping. Firstly be careful about passing up a good spot as you never know when another decent one will come along. Secondly, something will always come along; if you search long and hard enough you will find somewhere to spend the night, try not to panic as the light fades, stay rational and keep looking, you’ll find somewhere, it may not always be the most scenic spot ever, but there will be something.
We saw in the New Year sheltered from the rain and wind under the broad branches of two huge trees. I huddled in close to the fire for warmth and enjoyed the fuzzy glow the two cans of beer and half a bottle of wine had given me. As the night wore on though the temperature dropped off, eventually we were both forced to retreat to our tents just before midnight. Definitely not the most rowdy new years celebrations; but as I closed my eyes on 2018 I could think of nowhere I’d rather be, and I wondered about what experiences await in the year ahead. As we cycled down to Cerro Castillo the following morning we marvelled at the jagged mountains behind the village. We ate lunch in the village and saw the same dog that had followed us out of Cochrane more than a week ago and over 100km south! There was a climb out of the village and over a pass. Atop the pass it began to snow quite heavily, however we were able to whizz down the other side and out of the snowstorm.
The next few days cycling past in a leisurely rhythm. We wound North along the Carretera, the road randomly changed surface between rutted gravel and smoothly paved tarmac, we occasionally passed through some small village or even the larger town of Coyhaique. The riding was easy and we often stopped for long lunch breaks, taking siestas in the shade, swimming in rivers and Nathan trying his luck fishing. Coming through the small village of Villa Manihuales our progress was suddenly halted. Whilst buying groceries in a supermercado the woman owner begun excitedly telling us that there was a fire and the bridge was closed. She made it clear we wouldn’t be getting anywhere in a hurry. A little puzzled we decided to take a quick break in the park and then head to the bridge and see if the commotion had passed. After drinking some Mate and refuelling on snacks we rolled down to the bridge.
A trail of parked up cars and tucks lead us there. We saw dense black smoke billowing across the sky. As we reached the bridge it was clear a protest was in progress and that the bridge was closed. A local mine had recently been closed and it seemed the miners were making a stand. The whole town was out watching, including the police. There was almost a carnival atmosphere. An exciting happening in an otherwise sleepy and stagnant village. The miners had set up barricades and were busy throwing more tyres onto a large fire in the bridges centre. This was our only real route option and the blockade presented a real obstacle. It didn’t look like things were going to ease up anytime soon either. After standing around gawping and wondering what to do, we decided we may as well try to pass, there was nothing to be lost.
We pedalled tentatively up to the blockade. I approached a stern looking man in red overalls who seemed in some kind of authority. “Hola amigo. Puedo pasar por favour?” He looked at us skeptically for a moment before rapidly saying something to his companions. Before we knew it the tape was being lifted for us and he beckoned us under and across the bridge. We quickly passed through, before anyone could change their mind. There were more than a few disgruntled faces around. We wished them luck with their protest and sped on through the black smoke and out the other side of town.
Coming closer to the town of Puyuhuapi there were several days of heavy rain and the dampest riding conditions of my journey so far. The rain lashed down relentlessly. It was the kind of rain that after riding in if for half an hour it feels as though you have been totally submerged in a lake. Everything was sodden. In the town itself we paused to try and dry off and eat lunch. But when we stopped moving the cold started to seep in. We must have made quite a spectacle; standing there drenched under a flimsy shelter in the plaza, jumping up and down for warmth and donning extra layers, all whilst trying to make coffee and sandwiches for lunch.
Eventually we decided it wasn’t worth riding any further in these miserable conditions. We slowly peddled through the puddle strewn streets, searching for a place to camp. On the outskirts of Puyuhuapi we came across a rundown football ground, complete with changing rooms and grandstand. Without hesitation we sought cover in the grandstand and within the hour we were both relaxing in dry clothes, with steaming coffee and fresh smiles on our faces. Things always work out.
We had a couple of more damp days cycling. But we still managed to cover some good distances and always found shelter. One especially rainy night we camped under a bridge. As the rain started to clear up, we once more saw other cyclists on the road. One morning we met Arnold from the Netherlands. I was riding ahead for a while and when Nathan caught up to me he was with Arnold. We all stopped for lunch together by a river and whilst we battled to cook our lunches with wet firewood, Arnold made himself a couple of sandwiches, polished them off and took a nap. It was great to hear his stories from cycling around the world and his positive outlook on life “My favourite moment is right now”. Nevertheless after his nap he pushed on ahead of us, I still wanted to swim in the river and Nathan had to fix a puncture.
Some hours later as we rolled through Villa Santa Lucia we heard a friendly shout, and sure enough there was Arnold again. He invited us to join him for empanadas in a little Casa de Comida. I have to say they were some of the better empanadas I’d eaten on the continent and I greedily wolfed them down, shamelessly going back for seconds. We bid Arnold farewell after our snack and turned East off of the Carretera Austral for one final time. This road had been a truly spectacular route and had taken us through some of Patagonias most stunning and lush landscapes. It had been a joy to drink and swim in some of the purest water I’d ever seen, and to let my mind wander as I gazed out over dense green forest canopy and the thick clouds, heavy with moisture that drifted overhead.
The road East pointed us towards Argentina once more. Our remaining days in Chile we rode the gravel towards the border. Some wildcamping spots are just so spectacular that you never want to leave, that’s why we spent two nights camped on the tranquil shores of Lago Yelcho. Sleepy days resting, then when the evenings rolled round we would slow cook our dinners over the open fire and settle down to watch the sky turn funny colours over the mountains.