Archives for category: South America 2013/2014

A long stretch of ripio and strong winds brought me to Tres Lagos- a brief stop to stock up on food and water. Cross winds gave way to a strong and persistent headwind as I pushed slowly west to El Chaltén, in the shadow of towering rocky peaks.

I met Sebastian and Candela in El Chaltén, and pitch my tent alongside a few others at Florencia’s place.. some more cyclists – and some already familiar faces. I’d heard from Pedro (from Brazil- headed north, last seen sitting on a gate miles from anywhere, eating biscuits) that Flor and her family were happy to accommodate cyclists.. we are amongst some of the last headed south, racing the rapidly approaching winter. Communal catering is the done thing in the evening, with each contributing something from home; with some searching I locate some raspberry jam and an approximation of whisky and knock out a passable approximation of cranachan. Cyclists are rarely picky eaters.


We are ten leaving El Chaltén – James & Sarah, Heidi & Lee, Candela & Tatan, Raul, Kurt, Mica, and me. Argentina, England, Guatemala, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, and the United States.
The first 90km back to Ruta 40 are almost all downwind, so take only three hours – turning south makes progress a little harder, but our scattered group is once again reunited at the pink house where we pass the night. The pink house was apparently accommodation for the next-door restaurant, though both are now abandoned. Being the only shelter for a considerable distance, four walls and a roof are a welcome respite from the wind. We make the place our own for the night, and fill it with good cheer, firelight, scattered kit, cooking smells, and the roar of many gasoline stoves. As I drift off to sleep, the paracord of my hammock proves less than the sharp brass door-hinge it is secured to, and I hit the floor with a loud thump – neither this nor my laughter wakes anyone. It’s hardly the first time I’ve had to stand outside in the howling wind trying to fix something, though I’m usually better dressed.

60km or so south brings us past Lago Argentino- Tatan and Candela have already visited Calefate, so continue towards Rio Gallegos and the Atlantic coast. The rest of us battle upwind the last miles to what turns out to be a surprisingly large town.

The bus fare up to the Perito Moreno glacier isn’t trivial – it turns out to be cheaper to hire a car and drive. It is possible, if not especially comfortable, to fit eight adults into a VW Polo- the exhaust pipe hit the ground a few times, though remained attached. Passing the guard post at the entrance to the national park involved certain shenanigans allowing the rangers to at least pretend to not know we had such an overloaded vehicle. The glacier itself – has to be seen to be believed. The photos do no justice at all to the vast scale of this frozen, yet visibly moving, almost living landscape. With great cracking and booming, pieces of ice tumble into the water below almost constantly, falling as if in slow motion. The glacier advances around two metres a day; it isn’t hard to imagine how the mountains and glens of Scotland were sculpted when faced with such a view.

I set off alone from El Calefate, but I catch James and Sarah at a junction some way east; we are eventually joined by Kurt and spend the night in a somewhat derelict metal shack. In the morning, Kurt heads for Rio Gallegos, and I head down the gravel road towards the Chileno frontier. I catch James and Sarah (who departed at dawn to beat a gale that didn’t materialise) at the police post at Tapi Aike. We make camp accompanied by the inevitable and unending thrumming of a diesel generator- the air is cold, though blissfully still.

Before the boat arrives at Chile Chico, I meet Sebastian and Candela – from Cordoba in Argentina. Sebastian had cycled all the way from Alaska- not unusually, there are a number of people we’ve both met along the way- not least Nico, who was one of his original group starting in Alaska ..and he’d heard of the Scot who spent weeks recovering from injury in Tumbaco. The road is long, but not very wide.

Somewhat on impulse, I joined in others and cycled east -across the border into Argentina- to Perito Moreno, and south on Ruta 40. (The first town, Los Antiguos, has a large mural dedicated to the issue of sovereignty of a certain archipelago in the South Atlantic – not unusual, I’m told – but not a subject I’ll comment on here)

The change in scenery is considerable – we leave behind snowy mountains (for now, at least) and into softly rolling countryside – the pampas.

The wind pretty strong. Varying between the northeast and southeast, it renders progress a little difficult at times. The spaces between settlements here are quite large – interestingly the distances between reliable water sources has so far been larger than I encountered even in the desert. The road embankment (or the pipes beneath) are frequently the only shelter to be found from the wind.

Just north of Bajo Caracoles (a few houses, a shop, and petrol station) Sebastian and Candela encounter a friend and hitch a lift south- their timetable is a little stricter than mine. I find myself alone for the first time in quite a while – since the first day out from Puerto Montt, in fact.

It takes me three days to cover the 225km between Bajo Caracoles and Gobernador Gregores. At one stage battling into the wind saw me averaging around 9km/h for five hours .. only to round a bend and double that day’s distance in around an hour with the wind at my back. Access to the Internet is a little scarce even in towns. A hundred miles from anywhere (in any direction) it occurs to me that I’m overdue for a check-in; I flag down one of the few passing cars. The driver, Santiago, is very understanding and kindly sends an email homeward on my behalf.

It’s still too early for freezing temperatures at low altitudes, but even when (if!) the wind drops, it is cold at night. My tent has thus far weathered the conditions well, and still keeps the rain out. Spirits are always raised by hot food and drink, and there is no refuge like my bag of silk, nylon, and feathers.

Next objective is Tres Lagos – the road runs broadly southwest, so some hard miles lie ahead – ripio if not upwind as well.

The campsite in the Queulat National park has the option of bedding down in an old bus- it has seen better days, but offers some protection from the cool night air. Better still, the luggage rack proves equal to the task of supporting my hammock. References to ‘Into the Wild’ are scrawled on the walls in a variety of languages.
‘Piedra del Gato’ turns out not to be a town at all, so it is in darkness that we roll into Villa Amengual, and camp in the churchyard.

Somewhere close to Mañihuales, we pass 45º South – the climate is still relatively mild, but there is ice on mountaintops not very high above. Mañihuales is small, but sports a small bicicleteria and a casa de ciclistas- both run by Jorge, whose generous hospitality and washing machine are extremely welcome.

The main road runs south west to Puerto Aysén, but we leave the tarmac and take the shorter ripio road to Coyhaique, climbing gently to 750m along the way. Coyhaique is the regional capital- so the biggest town on the carretera austral. We are put up by Boris – I don’t think he intended to set up a casa de ciclistas as such, but I it seems that his house and garden are never empty of cyclists during the summer months. As ever, I am indebted to those offering refuge so willingly to passing travellers.

Francisco and Gonzalo turn for home, so heading south again we are three- Felipe and Mauricio are still game. Relatively good roads take us up to the highest point on the the carretera austral at 1100m, before descending fairly steeply to Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez, on the shore of Lago General Carrera (South America’s second largest lake). From above, the town is all but obscured by the tall shelter-belts of trees that seem to surround even the most modest property. Evidently the wind is strong here..

Faced with having to wait more than a day for the boat across to Chile Chico on the other side, Felipe and Mauricio opt to hitch north.

I boarded the ferry southward- Chile Chico is a modest town, and sits all but on the frontier with Argentina..

Camping on the edge of a farm, we built a not so stealthy fire to cook Longanizas – traditional chileno sausages, and all the better with homemade bread.

Parts of the Carretera Austral are being prepared for tarmac – one consequence of which is surprisingly deep gravel of rounded fluvial pebbles. This can be difficult on the flat, but makes climbing and descending the sometimes steep undulations quite difficult. I managed to only fall over only once, much to the amusement of the occupants of an adjacent house, but damaged only pride. Most of the time there isn’t a great deal of traffic, but that which there is raises an awful lot of dust.. most of which seems to land on my face.

Waking up in La Junta, Nicolas, Ricardo, and I all had different plans and destinations, so I packed up and prepared to head south alone. None of the towns on this road are very big, however – if there are people you know, you’re bound to bump into them. Felipe (last seen in Hornopirén) was leaving just as I was – along with Francisco and Gonzalo. I’ve spent the last few days in bilingual company, but for now at least I have no opportunity for such laziness.

The road south from La Junta is tarmac for a reasonable distance, and the gravel parts weren’t so bad, making for a relatively easy day to the small coastal town that is Puyuhuapi. From here the road will turn east a little, climbing through the Queulat National Park.

Crossing the Chilean frontier twice in one day was a time consuming business, and caused a certain amount of confusion as to why I would endure the queueing and hassle .. only to immediately about-face and go through the same border control again. (Not least as entering Chile is harder than leaving) However – soon enough I was on my way back towards the PanAm highway, armed with an extended stay in Chile.

Puerto Montt is a big town in a small area- it has a relatively busy port, with ferries departing for the islands and fjords of southern Chile, and cruise ships stopping by, perhaps on their way to or from Antarctica. More importantly, it is the gateway to Ruta 7 – the Carretera Austral.

Some parts of the highway are asphalt, the rest being gravel (‘Ripio’) of widely varying quality. On the road to Caleta La Arena, I bumped into Cesár (who I’d in fact met the previous day in Puerto Montt) and we picked up Felipe as well waiting for the short ferry across to Caleta Puelche. I didn’t get a good photo, but several dolphins chased and played around the boat as we departed.

We cycled together as far as Hornopirén- the others heading for the Hornopirén national park, and I for the boat south down the Fiordo Comau. Camping overnight in a garden on the waterfront, I met Mika- a fellow panamericanista from Argentina, last seen in Tumbaco. There was much amusement that the these two bearded foreign cyclists had not only cycled from much further afield, but in fact knew each other..

Two ferries with 10km of gravel in between took us to Caleta Gonzalo – the landscape is of densely forested hills rising sharply out of the sea, snowy peaks often visible too.

Many cyclists and hitchhikers make their way to the south of Chile to travel this highway, and visit the many national parks along the way. For the first time I found myself amongst not only lots of other cyclists, but mostly Chilenos.
One night a little south of Caleta Gonzalo nine of us camped together – all Chileno save for Mika and myself. Different paces, objectives, and mechanical problems thinned the numbers; by Chaitén we are three – Nicolas, Ricardo and me.

Chaitén has a strange atmosphere – much of it was buried by ash a few years ago, and the population has only relatively recently returned. The main square seems to be that of a rather larger settlement, and much of the eastern part still lies in ruins. To the south however, there is a reasonable stretch of excellent asphalt– with a good tailwind we made good speed to Puerto Cárdenas, and made camp on the shore of Lago Yelcho.

While this road doesn’t climb particularly high, the very variable surface and weather will both be significant trails, I think; it’s a long way yet to Villa O-Higgins.

South of Santiago, Ruta 5 is all autopista – excellent surface with a broad hard shoulder .. good for rapid progress, but not always that interesting. I followed parallel roads wherever practical, and at times what remains of the old road.

Another cyclist I encountered briefly introduced me to the fact that the autopista service stations are not averse to campers- excellent as there are usually hot showers and sometimes wifi. (Certainly more of an attraction than dubious looking and expensive hotdogs)

Immediately to the south of Santiago is wine country – huge vineyards stretch out on both sides of the road. The terrain is very flat for a large distance. Further on, the soft rolling hills, forests (still some eucalyptus, but more and more pine), Friesan cows .. the landscape is almost familiar. Every night has been a little chillier than the last, and it clearly rains here quite a lot.

The day I cycled into Rio Bueno it rained persistently all day – and it was cold enough to warrant waterproof trousers. It was only the second time I’ve cycled in the rain in Chile. The lush, green countryside makes it hard to believe there is such a vast and harsh desert only a few hundred miles away. Evidently this is typical for summertime, so I expect there will be some damp and chilly days ahead on the gravel roads of Patagonia.

Puerto Montt is a little more than 100km from here- which marks the start of the Carretera Austral. I’m going to detour on the way, however – my allotted 90 days in Chile will be up before I’ll have time to reach my planned exit. The road due east from Osorno will take me to the Argentino frontier; I’ll cross over and back before heading south again in Chile.

The landscape of southern Chile perhaps couldn’t be more different from the desert of the north- while in some senses I’m more used to that sort of climate, I think my mettle will be more severely tested.

Cycling south from Vallenar, the desert grows less severe, though the midday temperature is rather higher. There are posadas and other sources of supplies far more frequently, so it is no longer necessary to carry so much water.

The steepest and highest I had to climb was only to around 1200m, though with the temperature approaching 40ºC, this was a little harder than I’ve become accustomed to. I chatted to a passing road maintenance crew at the bottom of the hill -they were sympathetic to someone else also being out in the sun all day- who gave me some of their water, and told me to drop past their shack at the top for some more. (It made a huge difference being able to drink what I had and know some more awaited me).

I camped one night on a broad dry riverbed – the scattered but relatively tall vegetation hiding me well, to the point that a desert fox approaching from downwind all but blundered into my tent. I don’t know which one of us got more of a fright. I also discovered that my stove pump had begun to leak petrol copiously. The twigs and leaf litter made for an effective if not pleasantly fragrant fire. I chose better the following nights and sought eucalyptus to burn. It’s fun cooking with a fire, but makes camping discreetly almost impossible.

Once more there were roadside stalls with good local produce- Avocado (‘Palta’ in Chile), papaya, and cheese, amongst other things.

I had planned to skirt round the sprawl of Santiago to the west – but the stove leak and the fact that one of my brakes needed attention – necessitated a visit to Chile’s largest city. (While clearing dust from a jammed brake piston, I managed to allow a good quantity of fluid out and air in to the brake line- not easily fixable at the roadside)

The last few days to Santiago were along a fairly straight road- many short climbs and descents along the coast, before turning inland and crossing the last of the low hills before the capital. A short section at the top is still under construction – or rather the second carriageway is. As a result of the works, for around 5km the road southward is barely two lanes wide- scarcely room for the overtaking competition in constant progress, and certainly no room for me.
Being the weekend, there were only security staff on site- they allowed me to proceed up the unfinished side as far as it went. As the sun went down, there was little option – the security crew were welcoming- fed me, let me use their shower (the plastic tank of water more than adequately heated by the sun) and let me string up my hammock outside their cabin. The following morning the crew-change truck gave me a lift the short distance to the end of the roadworks.

Descending into the large flat plain that accommodates Santiago, another shift is evident – it’s still hot, but enormously greener. Gone are the cacti and thorny bushes- replaced by fields of cereals, mature trees, and viniculture.

I stayed rather longer in Santiago than planned- resting, sampling a cross section of Chileno wines (and a certain amount of rum) – and getting my mechanical woes corrected. The boys and girls at Una Velocidad were full of useful advice about the road south, and my rear brake was restored to working order by one of the Chileno national MTB team mechanics at Dr Bike. I also met Bruce – the only other Scot I’ve so far met in South America; you can follow his adventures at

Thus with difficulties culinary and hydraulic behind me, I ran out of excuses and headed south.

A steady climb south from Antofagasta (the tropic of Capricorn now behind me) – up beyond 2000m. The wind varies in direction and strength, pace of progress varying with it.

On the way up, I passed El Mano del Desierto – an impressive concrete sculpture of a human hand reaching out (or sinking into?) the desert floor. I chatted to a Brasiliano couple- themselves on a long motorcycle trip. They were suprised that I was cycling across such a lonely place by myself..
Just then, a landrover discovery with British plates barrelled up from the highway – Naomi leaning out and shouting my name. I haven’t seen Naomi for 23 years; little has changed it seems, as back then I was also often to be seen cycling around wearing a silly hat (albeit in a rather different dusty and warm place)

A journey is made by all the many encounters along the way- bizarre and wonderful to bump into someone I actually knew in the midst of the Atacama’s sterile vastness.
Naomi & Liam headed north, bound for Peru and Bolivia – theirs is another story.



The spaces between water sources thus far haven’t been too large- the biggest has been a little more than 100km. On the way I passed both a pedestrian (who was glad to learn of more closely spaced posadas in front) and a gentleman selling ice cream from a polystyrene icebox. At least one of my photos bears more than a passing resemblance to the surface of Mars- I’m told that NASA’s rovers were indeed tested not far away.

The effects of the dryness are certainly exacerbated by the altitude- my experiences climbing higher than that were no doubt of great help. Fine dust invades everything- one of my brake pistons and the cylinders of both my stove pump and bicycle pump failed as the dust scoured out all the grease. (The latter two were easily fixable – I’ll need to find a good bike shop to get my rear brake back in working order)
This is one of the driest parts of the Atacama- some of the hillsides bear the marks of water having flowed at some point- but most don’t.

I turned of Ruta 5 at Las Bombas after a long and gradual descent back to almost sea level- along a hard packed dirt road into the Pan de Azucar national park. (So named for the shape of a close by island, home to a colony of penguins). The road descends to the coast along a river valley-no water on the surface, but a reasonable amount of vegetation on the surface providing a welcome change from the bleakness of the desert.

I arrived in a picturesque fishing village shortly before sunset- introducing myself to a French couple camped nearby by misjudging the sand yet again and clattering to the ground in less than dignified fashion. I welcomed the new year with Muriel and Jerome – they kindly shared their wine and shellfish with weary and bruised cyclist.
I awoke to the first sunrise of 2014 in my hammock- a quieter Hogmanay than usual, but not so bad at all.

I rejoined route 5 at Chañaral – the road follows the coast again as far as Caldera before turning sharply inland again for Copiapó. I was well stocked with food and water, so opted to turn south and bypass the town.

Proceeding south, a little water is evident- scrubby plants and cacti, but no longer restricted to the lowest ground. As if to remind me that we’re not out of the desert just yet, a dust storm blew up- visibility reduced to around 100m, and progress remaining possible mostly as the wind was mercifully at my back.

Vallenar lies in another river valley- this is by far the lushest place I’ve been in Chile, and is a product of the different topography of the mountains east of here. Further north, almost all of the plentiful rain that falls flows downhill to the east into Bolivia or Argentina, but here is relatively verdant- a pleasant place to recover and attend to the urgent issue of laundry.

It’s only 650km to Santiago- I don’t know if I’ll actually go there, but I’m on my way southward once again.

Ruta 1 gently undulates as it winds it’s way south, hugging the Pacific coast. The hills to the east seem to form a wall separating the narrow stripe of low lying coast from the rest of the Atacama.

There is still almost no fresh water – I did cross a bridge at one point that had a river actually flowing beneath it, but it was hardly more than a trickle.

Nevertheless – there is plenty of life. Shellfish abound in the sea, a variety of birds wheel overhead, and enormous sealions laze in the sun, bellowing at one another. Crabs scuttle amongst the rock pools which teem with small fish, anemones, and lots of things I don’t have names for. There are small iguana-like reptiles too- one was curious enough to come very close to my tent, and seemed to enjoy nibbling scraps of pasta left over from my evening meal.

Scattered along the coast are small villages- people come here to surf and swim, though fishing and gathering of seaweed are important as well, perhaps more so. (The latter – I’m not sure for what purpose)

There is an airport just south of Iquique, which apparently has a military purpose as well – civilian airliners climb rapidly away, while smaller jets patrol a little closer to the earth.

The wind is strong here sometimes- but the variability makes it so much more bearable than the coastal deserts of Perú. It is even possible to play golf here – I didn’t see anyone actually playing, though there is a choice of venues, one even describing iself as a ‘country club’.

Tocopilla us dominated by it’s large electric plant and port facilities – such saltpeter that is still extracted is transported from here, as is the (nowadays) more profitable copper. Heavily damaged by an earthquake seven years ago, the town is nonetheless cheerful and busy.

And it’s so very nearly Christmas! The supermarket in Iquique was blaring out a terrible version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ while I was there, and the coffee I had at the Rio Loa customs post came in a mug decorated with festive snowmen. “Es Navidad!” the girl cheerfully explained, as we both looked out at the pitiless sun beating down on the Atacama desert outside. Claro que si.

Leaving Perú took but a moment- I even stopped and had a leisurely breakfast at one of the stalls nearby.
Entering Chile took five hours of queueing- evidently as a consequence of industrial action on the part of the Chileno border staff.

Peru and Chile have been to war over the Atacama- but not in living memory. Nevertheless- Chile seems prepared to defends itself. Bunkers close to the border (‘Ventanas en la tierra!’ I was told), mines, and a military presence that .. while not excessive, can hardly be with any other purpose. Mining is a massive industry- nitrate and iodine extraction having been consigned to history, huge copper mines seem to supply much of Chile’s wealth.

I stocked up on food and water in Arica, and cycled off for my first experience of the Atacama desert.

A gentle climb, passing the largest coca-cola logo in the world (a geoglyph in itself- I can’t decide if putting it there us an abomination or a good place to hide such a thing) and descent into Chaca canyon. The canyon floor looks almost lush and verdant from above – it is so only by comparison; the vegetation is sparse and thorny. The posada in the canyon was closed- I’m not sure if permanently or not.

A long climb from the bottom of the canyon up to 1600m- by halfway up, I was nursing a slow puncture on my front wheel (not surprising given the ragged state of that tyre after Peru) and my rear tyre was again trying to escape through the spoke holes. My front tyre was easily patchable, but the combination of tyre patches and rim tape on the rear was proving unequal to the task. I limped up to the km2008 posada at the top of the hill- daylight, food, and coffee would help.

The next day, I wasn’t able to fix whatever ailed my rear wheel- I think the particular combination of that narrow rim and relatively wide tyre was the problem, amd was causing it to burst with monotonous regularity. It seemed foolish to press on further into the desert this way, not least as the new rim, spokes and tyres I had ordered from the UK would be arriving with Olivia soon enough.

I met Aldo and Nico- two Chileno lads who’d also had tyre trouble with their camioneta. They weren’t going to Calama, but were able to drop me at the Marie Elena crossroads where I camped overnight, and and got another lift the rest of the way. So in the end I reached Calama a couple of days early- met Olivia (our adventures are the subject of a guest entry), rebuilt my wheel, and eventually got the bus back to the km2008 posada to start again.

The Atacama desert has in theory at least a much harsher climate than the Sechura- most of it has an all but unmeasurable amount of rainfall, and no useful groundwater. There are places where water is evident, but they are rare indeed. It is a bleak and forbidding landscape- even cooled by a breeze, it’s hard to describe just how strong the sun is. That said- cycling through it not unpleasant. Hay paz en el desierto.

Cycling past the posada at Cuya, the road runs next to a riverbed – the wind has carved the sediment into bizarre shapes clearly untouched by water. I was flagged down by Ignacio – he was driving in the other direction, but had cycled this way before. ‘The real desert starts here! ‘ he warned, and gave me some water.

I continued south – camping in the desert us unproblematic, save for the need to be careful about water. Thus far, this hasn’t been that difficult, with sufficiently frequent truckstops. Sometimes there is a haar – a gentle mist apparently drifting from the sea (the closest to rain that ever happens) – but most of the time the stars at night are clear in a way I’ve rarely seen.
The air at night is cool and dry, and there are no animals evident, not even insects.

I passed the oasis town of Huara, and turned for the coast at Humberstone. (abandoned nitrate mining town- home to 3700 people as recently as 1960, now a faintly spooky museum)

Cycling directly westward was a little harder- the wind coming from the Pacific can be quite strong. Nestled into a small strip of low lying coast is Iquique- a good place for paragliding and surfing it seems, and quite a large town.

My route is directly south for now, along the Pacific coast – bound for Antofagasta.