I lay in my tent listening to the rain pattering on the fly and huge gusts of wind tearing through the forest like cannon balls… each one followed moments later by a violent shudder in my tent as it flexed heavily in the wind. I watched my breath mist in the cold air above my sleeping bag and thought “Why am I not in Costa Rica..?” It was the day before Christmas…
I did not leave Coyhaique until the morning of the 23rd, the fault of a pair of tall Australian girls that moved into my room on the evening of the 21st. I’d just polished off a number of late afternoon beers with my German friends & planned an early night ready to hit the road on the morning of the 22nd. It was not to be. They proved excellent company with tales of their visit to Antarctica and it was a late night. The necessary coffee the next morning lasted until midday so that was pretty much that for the day :-)
When I did get on my bike to leave my legs were feeling pretty dead… another late night and a number of Cerveza Australs in a bar in town. Christmas :-) My bike was heavy too, I had taken the opportunity of the last good supermarket for a long time to stock up for a few days. As we parted ways I distinctly remember saying “ah, should be an easy day – the road is surfaced for the next 100km (the last of the paving until beyond the end of the Carretera) and I don’t think there is too much in the way of climbing”… So at 3pm, legs complaining from having climbed for 15km into the teeth of a gale I’d had enough after just 63km.
I camped by a wild lake in the Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, not quite a national park but a protected region nevertheless.. probably just as well, south of Coyhaique the hillsides have undergone massive deforestation in the interests of cattle grazing… the giant bones of dead trees litter the hillsides slowly bleaching in the weather. The reserve however is quite beautiful with tall snow covered peaks, thick forest and rushing rivers.
I said “camped”.. “tried to camp” might have been more appropriate. The trees by the lake offered some reasonable shelter, certainly the best around, but not always enough for the heaviest gusts. As I carefully staked the flysheet out a great gust barrelled in, tore the tent out of my hands and wrapped it around a nearby barbed wire fence with predictably dire consequences… I swore… barbed wire.. Wilderness. The middle of nowhere.. and someone sees fit to stick a barbed bloody wire fence in. Stupid. I got the tent pitched eventually but not without it being flattened a couple of times while I got the extra guy lines in. I have since bent the poles back into shape best I can but they still look a bit funny… It took me an hour to patch the holes in the fly and it was not long before I had the chance to find out of my repairs were waterproof. I cooked dinner contendedly huddled in a lean-to provided by the forestry service watching raindrops hiss on the logs in my fire.
I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night and despite a couple of mugs of strong coffee with breakfast my legs felt utterly empty as I rolled away from my camp in a light rain shower. After an initial downhill I grovelled uphill for another 18km or so into storm force winds, being blown right off the road on a number of occasions, before the road finally turned downwards properly through spectacular scenery and some fun hairpins to the little pueblo of Cerro Castillo. I had only ridden 35km. It felt like 135.
One of the reasons I’m not in Costa Rica of course is that the intensity of life, the intensity of emotion that goes with difficult riding in wild places is addictive. I’d been feeling pretty low as I battled the gales but when a friendly chap in Cerro Castillo put a beer and a large plate of chicken and potatoes in front of me as I sat looking out at the snow covered peaks I could not have been happier. It is a marvellous and addictive drug. I felt fantastic.. ignoring the dull ache in my legs of course. I didn’t have it in me to continue fighting the winds with tired legs that afternoon so I decided to stick around, rest my legs and tidy up the repairs on my tent. I took a room in a bright green house with ceiling and doorways better suited to hobbits.. I have bruises.
Cerro Castillo was a terrific place… picturesquely ramshackle with streets a blend of rubble and wind-blown sand and a friendly bunch of locals. I chatted in chileno-spanglish to some guys on the highway for a while, they were trying to hitch with little success back to their homes for Christmas. Sensibly they had a box of wine to pass the time with.
For dinner I ate a burger with a huge mountain view from a joint on the highway fabricated from two old buses welded together with a grill and some seats installed.
Christmas morning.. as hoped for I had an awesome sleep and felt much refreshed but sadly my other Christmas wish was not granted, the wind was still raging outside. At breakfast my host told me what I already knew.. I had 70km of dirt road directly into the wind before the road turned south towards Bahia Murta at 100km.. Happy Christmas he said :-)
Rolling west out of Cerro Castillo at 9.30, tyre pressures dropped for the dirt, I mentally prepared for a tough day. I figured if I could make 60km I would be happy.. either that or simply stop around 4pm. The first few km were very difficult, uphill on a heavily cambered surface so loose and corrugated as to resemble a beach. The wind was so fierce and traction so lacking that gusts simply blew me sideways, tyres skidding in the dirt. I made 6km in the first hour… but knowing that even the shittiest road has to get better at some point I simply got my head down and kept the pedals spinning as best I could… The scenery was fabulous.
My average speed just about sneaked into double figures (km/hr) for the day mainly due to the forested sections offering some respite from the wind and later on as the weather became damp the surface changed from loose corrugations to a nice hardpacked damp clay along the Rio Ibanez valley.
After lunch the road climbed for hours away from the valley, high into the clouds just below the lying snow.. it was a wild and lonely stretch, all day I had seen just two pickups and woken an old sheperd dozing by the side of the track :-)
From the top of the pass I enjoyed a fast and winding descent into the brooding Rio Murta valley… it is the kind of place that feels as if the sun never shines. By 4pm I had just about made 70km so stopped and made camp on the banks of the Rio Murta.
A stunning spot I was briefly tempted to camp out on the gravel flood plain itself in full view of the mist covered mountains.. but thought better of it and instead chose the shelter of the trees. With tent up and tea brewing it was time to open my Christmas present… all the way from home, thanks Mum :-)
I dozed for an hour in my tent before dinner.. with iPod on shuffle the first track was Apertura from the Motorcycle Diaries.. highly appropriate, gives me goosebumps.
An awesome day of riding and an awesome way to spend Christmas. No turkey or xmas pud for dinner sadly but I was quite proud of my cheese risotto followed by oranges, chocolate and another mug of tea that I enjoyed sitting in a light rain on a great old tree trunk by the river :-)
It rained heavily all night.. the flood plain was under an inch of water when I crawled out of my tent. Good decision ;-)
It was just 38km along the river to the tiny village of Bahia Murta on the shores of Lago General Carrera, at 1000sq.km I think the second largest lake in South America. The village was dead.
I knocked on the door of a place with a sign saying “comida”. The lady looked surprised to see me but said if I was happy to wait she could cook lunch for me. So I sat with a beer watching a tethered horse eating one of her rosebushes from across the fence. Lunch was awesome, a great slab of fried meat with chips, salad and bread all swimming in oil, salt and chilli sauce :-) Yum.
So it was thus fuelled, perhaps inappropriately for cycling, that I headed back out to the Carretera from Bahia Murta only to spot a pair of familiar German bicycles in the garden of a little hosteria…
We rode just another 12km before pitching tents in a stunning wild spot on the shores of the lake with a great waterfall cascading off the cliffs behind. Here it was possible to enjoy the novel sensation of being rained upon without getting wet. The rain swept down off the mountains all afternoon but the combined sun and wind evaporated the moisture at such a rate we were never more than slightly damp.
That changed once the sun went down behind the mountains and we ate dinner by a fire on the beach with our backs to the rain and wind. “It’s an awesome life” I thought as I crawled into my sleeping bag at 9 “good job I didn’t go to Costa Rica instead”. It would not be Patagonia without the wind, the rain and the cold. ;-)
Feeling somewhat buggered by the hard riding from Cerro Castillo the onwards plan was simply to break camp late and cruise the 20km along the lakeshore as slowly as possible to the pueblo of Rio Tranquilo. This stretch I think was the most stunning stretch of riding I have enjoyed anywhere. Ever. The layers of blues in the lake, distant mountains and sky and, where sheltered from the omnipresent gales, the air thick with the scent of the abundant wildflowers. The microclimate here on the western edge of the lake is much drier than in the surrounding mountains and valleys. The sun shone all day, I grabbed the opportunity for some context riding pics :-)
Rio Tranquilo lives up to it’s a name, a small grid of houses by a beach with a great wall of snowcapped peaks all around. Something like 500 people live here, the remoteness means everything costs the proverbial limb or two, certainly pricier than the average European country, and most folk carry VHF radios rather than mobiles.
A day off here is in order to rest legs, make use of the glacially slow internet connection and so on. I have a bed in a little yellow corrugated house where the curtains are tied back during the day with forks stuck in the rough-hewn windowframes and my bike is round the back with the chickens :-)
My occasional companions have continued on south but we will meet again. For me.. from here I plan to leave the Carretera Austral for a few days and head west on a track that goes out towards the Bahia San Rafael… it’s a dead end and a wild one at that but with time on my side there is no reason not to go and have a look :-)