Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Joy of Cycling - the Lakes District of Chile: Chillan - Puerto Montt (7th - 22nd Dec '11)

I start this blogpost with a little homage to the Wine of Chile.
It is great and cheap and comes in handy boxes.
Now I know drinking wine in a box is very uncouth but Jules and I have to admit that we have been drinking copious wine from cardboard here. It is much easier to carry on the bike and it tastes really good! Though we are not sure if it is just that the Chilean wine is that good, or that our standards have been reduced by our time on the road. Either way, we have gotten quite used to our evening tipple at some beautiful campsite overlooking a lake or river.
Now if that is not enough reason to entice you to come cycling in Chile (and it should be), then images of the Lakes District of central Chile will have to do.

We spent a few weeks travelling south through this area (encompassing the Araucania and Lakes/Rivers Districts), under perfect blue skies, with cycle-friendly temperatures, staying at amazing campspots, with fantastic views of mountains, snow-capped volcanoes and picture-perfect lakes. And meeting super-friendly people. In this section there are lots of small roads to explore, national parks to meander through and enough little towns to buy the essentials... like handily boxed wine.
Jules and I wandered on a kind of random path through the lakes area – we were originally going to cross into Argentina and head through the lakes district on that side of the Andes but we had heard reports that the ash from the volcanic explosion was still causing problems and we wanted to spend more time in one area rather than just whizzing through. Besides, to be honest, we were having far too much fun in Chile to leave.
We had thought up a sort of general route through the back roads of the Chilean Araucanian and Lakes district, but this changed every day, and sometimes even hourly if a local happened to recommend a potential route to us. Our wanderings through the lakes district took us to hotsprings, past a number of volcanoes, up through forests of the unusual Monkey Puzzle trees, over lava fields, alongside numerous lakes and to old German settlements.
One of our most enjoyable sections was the River Biobio valley. Generally its a bad idea if the area you are heading into does not have any roads leading out of it, but this didn't stop us deciding to explore the River BioBio. We had read about a cyclist that had passed this way and then used a horse-trail to connect to roads further south and we decided that it sounded suitably foolish enough for us to attempt. When we reached the end of the valley, and with a bit of local advice, we found a foot trail down to the river, then a narrow pedestrian bridge over the river,and a very steep and rocky horse track up from the bridge that we had to two-man push our bikes up in stages. The horse-trail then widened slightly and we could ride sections of it but overall the next 7kms involved a lot of pushing - up to the top of a little pass. We then crossed down into another river valley where we found a 4wd track and eventually connected up with a gravel road. Not our easist of routes but definitely one of our favourites. We had found ourselves in an area with no road connections, only forests and farms and views of the surrounding snow-capped volcanoes, lakes and creeks.
Our progress through the lakes area was mainly influenced by the fantastic campspots that we found. Almost every night we were camped either beside a picturesque river or a lake and we often gave up on a day`s planned ride when an opportunity to contemplate life beside a river presented itself. Usually we asked the locals where we could camp and they would point us in the direction of some great spots. Lots of the little towns had either a farmers field or a spot next to the river where the locals camped, and sometimes people would open up their gate for us and direct us to a fantastic river/lake frontage, often complete with a picnic table!
Now I know this blogpost has been a little bit gushy and crammed full of superlatives, but I just can`t help myself. Jules and I floated through the lakes district on a little cloud of cycling (and wine) happiness.  We luxuriated in fields of daisies, in the hues of roadside lupins, and the beauty of the climbing wildroses alongside the road. It would have been too good to be true, except these gasp-worthy scenes of Spring flowering also helped induce terrible attacks of allergies. So I was riding past stunning vistas with a continually running nose, itchy red skin, and swollen puffy eyes. Just to bring me back down to earth.
The sublime weather came to an end as we arrived in the southern reaches of the lakes district, and we received a healthy dose of rain. Our first spot of bad weather for a very very long time...and a good chance to hide up in the touristy town of Puerto Varas to work out the next part of our trip – heading south into Patagonia.

Notes for cyclists.
Some people are under the impression that you have to stick to the main highway in Chile, but it is quite possible to travel all the way through this section using smaller roads and backroads. It involves a lot of zigzagging, but it is worth it to avoid the Panam and enjoy the countryside. Just get a good map and connect up the roads!
We left the Panam at Chillan and headed south through Pemuco, Yungay and Quilleco – this is all on asphalt. There is a great municipal campsite at Yungay – just before you get into town as you head over a bridge. It is on the east side of the road, right next to the river. Very pretty camping spot with picnic tables– no-one there when we were there (except the family that caretake it). And free!
Then there is a ripio road through plantations from Quilleco in the direction of Santa Barbara.  At one point on this road you will get to a junction, next to a river.  East leads to Villucura and west to an asphalt road, you can go either direction and get to Santa Barbara.  We went against the locals advice and went east but after only a couple of kms we turned off on a small road leading to "Corovaca" (or something similar starting with a C!).  We didn't know whether it connected through but it went up through some plantations on some steep rough roads, nice riding,  and eventually we managed to connect through to Santa Barbara.

From Santa Barbara we headed east through the River Biobio valley, which is asphalt until Ralco and then it becomes ripio (and there are some nice steep climbs in this area).  Good wild camping opportunities along this section to Leroy Ralco, but if like us you are tempted by thermal springs at the end of a hard day's riding, you can camp at the "Termas del Avellano".. 3500 for the Springs and camping.
The tourist office in Ralco told us there was a new bridge across the river that would connect up to roads further south but none of the other locals knew about this! When we arrived in Leroy Ralco, towards the end of the lake,  we asked around and got pointed in the direction of a pedestrian bridge over the river. We had to push the bikes down a foot path to the bridge, then 2-man push the bikes back up on the other side (steep rocky trail!) for a few hundred metres (it felt like forever) to connect up with a slightly wider horse trail. This trail is partly rideable but most of it was too steep and rocky for us to ride and we ended up pushing most of the 7km up and over the pass. Ask the locals in Leroy Ralco about the trails, they are over private land so we asked permission from a couple of people (hopefully the right ones) as well. At one point the trail forks into two – the right hand starts going up more steeply and this is the fork you want. The left fork goes towards some poplars,and a farmhouse (really nice family, I asked them if we could pass through their farm and they showed me the right way). Once over the pass the trail gets a little wider and eventually becomes more of a 4wd track, and then eventually turns into a gravel road (through a gate) and finally you join up with an actual road that was marked on our map. We went left towardsTroyo (friendly town, with a great farmer's field to camp in next to the river).  It was about 21kms from the top of the pass to Troyo, the first section all down but most up and down along the river.
We then headed towards Lonquimay, then Liucura (pretty and easy riding) and then back to Curacautin (where we had to get something fixed on the bike).  After Curacautin we went up through the Conguillo National Park, which was a great ride!. The first 10kms from Conguillo was asphalt and then it turns to ripio, and the ripio gets rougher the closer to you get to the park. It is 4000 pesos to enter the park, and it is a really pretty ride up through the Monkey Puzzle trees, nice lake – the road includes ripio, sand, washboard.. it has it all!  The camping in the park is really expensive but the park rangers told us to camp at the southern entrance station, which was a good little spot, we spent al day in the park and then headed out at the end of the day.
Asphalt, quick riding Melipeuco to Cunco. Then we turned onto the “Interlagos” Route – where we got a little lost and when a long way but ended up on a hilly ripio ride over to Villarrica. Villarrica was the most touristy area that we went through.
We then connected south past Lican Ray and Panguipuilli.  Then we headed towards Los Lagos which was a pretty quiet road. We were on the Panam for about half a day, then went along the road to Lago llanquihue.  We really enjoyed the section after La Cascada which goes through the national park at the base of Volcan Osorno. Then nice, easy (but still hilly – no flat riding along lakes in the Lakes District!) along the other lake shore into Puerto Varas.

** Great bicycle shop in Puerto Montt - Oxford Bikes, very helpful staff

Friday, December 16, 2011

Desert, beaches, wind (it's just like home!) Northern and Central Chile: San Pedro – Chillan (14th Nov - 6th Dec '11)

When we first arrived in Chile we spent a few days resting up in the adobe-walled, tourist hotspot of San Pedro de Atacama. However, after a pancake-eating orgy it was time to board the bikes and head south and west, through the Atamaca Desert. Chile is a very long country, more than 5000km long, and in its northern reaches is the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. Supposedly this desert is so dry and devoid of life that NASA come out here to check their life-finding technology. We could certainly see why as we rode through landscapes of empty sand with no signs of life at all. This bleak landscape was accompanied by strong winds and lots of mining traffic. Urgh.
Thankfully after a couple of days spent looking at sand we could turn-off the Panam highway a little way after La Negra and take a nice quiet backroad towards the coast at Papusa. This involved a bit of a climb over the coastal mountain range and it was still through the desert, but at least it had some changes in topography to give us something to look at other than sand. We rode with Karin and Martin again through this section and we shared some lovely desert campspots and some good laughs.
We had a great ride down from the desert towards the beach at Papusa, where we dropped out of the mountains and down to the vegetated coast. It was wonderful to see some plants again, to enjoy the colours and to have smells to smell.
After the desert the coast was sensory overload. We moseyed along the coastline for a couple of days, enjoying the sights, before we had to head back to the desert. Along the way we had great beach campsites, fresh fish caught by the local fisherman and cooked up by Karin, friendly fishing villages and the joy of seafood empanadas. We cleverly managed to time Jules birthday to coincide with a couple of days spent next to the beach in the great little town of Taltal - luckily for me as otherwise it would have been her second birthday in a row in a desert! Birthday celebrations included sunset beers, yummy seafood meals, and good company with Karin and Martin.
When we left Taltal and headed south, back on the Panam, we were back to the dry desert. However, as we headed south we slowly started to see the changes in the make-up of the desert, and it became more and more vegetated the further south we went. This area is known as the “Flowering Desert” as occasionally after a big year of winter rainfall the desert is transformed into a carpet of flowers. We were lucky enough to hit one of these years and it was pretty to see. The road also passed close to the coast in some sections so we had some more beach camping time, but we decided not to spend too much in this section as we were keen to get to the southern reaches of Chile. So besides a trip into the Pan de Azucar National Park, and some rest time in the colonial town of La Serena we pretty much beelined for Valparaiso.
Valparaiso is a great little city. It is the old port of Chile, with lots of history, fantastic street graffiti and ridiculously steep hills. Known as the San Fran of Chile, it is a muddle of steep hills and stairs up and down the Cerros, houses perched seemingly on top of one another, and little nooks and crannies to explore. Valpo is also dirty and chaotic and we fitted right in. It was one of my favourite cities that I have been to, though trying to get the bikes up and down the hills was less enjoyable!
After finally finding our way out of the steep jumbled streets of Valparaiso we headed south along quiet country roads through forests and past little settlements – very different from our riding in the tree-less, people-less Northern Chile. We went first along the coast and then inland through the farming and wine areas, which meant lots of fruits stands that we could gorge out on yummy fresh and cheap fruit along the way. Cherries and stonefruit are cheap in Chile and we proceeded to stuff our faces with as many as we could carry.
We were very happy to get to the cheap fruit and veggie area because when we first arrived from Bolivia, the cost of things in Chile was definitely a shock to the system. Where we first came into Chile in the north of the country the prices were ludicrously high because of the remoteness of the area, and the effect of mining on the prices. As we headed south things got a little cheaper, though it was still more expensive than the rest of South America.
Chile was also a culture shock as it is very developed and it was like being back in Canada or the US with big roads, mega-supermarkets and well-organised cities and town. Suffering culture-shock, I had a little anxiety attack in one of our first mega-supermarkets- it was so big, there were lots of people around and there was way to much choice in the biscuit aisle for me to deal with. Thankfully we could ease our way back into the developed world by arriving in the north of Chile where it is still fairly remote and underdeveloped. In the north there were still shacks made of clapboards and tin, people still herded goats and no-one looked at us too strangely when we asked to pitch our tent in random spots.
The further south we got the more developed areas became. I almost fell off my bike the first time that we rounded a quiet desert corner and came across a major condominium development on the beach. However, by the time we got down to the mega-resorts of Vina del Mar we were getting used to the glitz, though we looked completely out of place with our dirty, ripped clothes.
The other thing that makes Chile standout from the last few countries that we have travelled through is the attitude of the dogs. In Peru and Bolivia the dogs hate cyclists and appear to want to bite our legs off. They chase us with rage in the eyes and froth in their mouth. However, in Chile our major problem has been trying to stop dogs loving us and following us adoringly down the road. A number of times dogs followed us out of a town and into the desert,happily running alongside our bicycles. We did everything we could to make them stop or turn back but not long after they would reappear, showering us with love and completely oblivious to our attempts to send them home. In one desert camp-spot a dog stood guard over our tent all night and then tried to come with us the next morning.
Even when we walked around the streets of Valparaiso a dog adopted us and followed us everywhere, including into shops, and if he wasn't allowed inside he would wait patiently outside for us. It got a bit ridiculous, with us trying to run away from him and then him happily finding us “hey you guys, where you been?”. I'm not sure where our dog magnetism has appeared from, maybe its because we smell so much? But every time we have to lose one of our adoring followers it breaks my heart.

The friendly nature of the dogs here is only surpassed by the Chileans themselves. The big-heartedness of the locals meant that we actually enjoyed, to some extent, the riding on the main highway in the north of the country (after Taltal). Normally we avoid the busy highways if we can but in Northern Chile everybody that passed us was so friendly and gave us lots of waves and toots and big thumbs up. One night camped in a roadside stop we got talking to a very enthusiastic trucker who invited us to his birthday party, and then the next few days any of the trucks that passed us from the same company gave us big cheers and encouragement - our friend must have told all his mates about us.
One night in the desert we camped next to the house of a lovely old lady who lived by herself, and talked to her animals. We won her over with some chocolate and when we went to bed in our tent she came over to tuck us in with an extra coat, some blankets to put over our bags, a bit of twine she used to tie our tent down and a safety pin to put in the tent door. It was all a little random but very sweet!
Not far out of Santa Cruz we met the most big-hearted family yet. Alejandra and her mum and dad ran a little grocery store and gave us permission to camp on the open ground next door; however, this somehow turned into inviting us into their home, feeding us and providing us with a hot shower and a bed for the night. A really awesome family and so generous to us.
Unfortunately my Spanish has been letting me down in Chile. I really want to converse properly with all the wonderful Chileans we have met, but I actually feel like my Spanish has gotten worse! I find the Chilean Spanish very different from what I am used to, and most of it is very fast with lots of slang and different words. Thankfully some people slow it down for me and speak to me like I am a child and with lots of hand signals, and in this way we get by.
We finished up the Northern and Central section of Chile with a quick couple of days riding on the Panamerican Highway, zooming along south in order to get down to the Lakes Area. There are lots more beautiful places to explore in this very varied country! Next stop: volcanoes, lakes, mountains and even more good Chilean wine.

Tips for Cyclists.
We didn't enjoy the couple of days riding from San Pedro, through Calama and down to La Negra very much. It is remote but surprisingly there is a lot of traffic (mainly mining traffic) and often there is no shoulder and lots of wind. The section around La Negra is particularly painful – we tried working out if there was a road south from Antofogasto along the coast that we could take but the locals weren't sure so we ended up riding south of La Negra on the main road (missing Antofogasto completely)and then turning off an taking the paved road towards Papusa (130-ish kms to Papusa) and then Taltal. Papusa was a friendly little fishing village where we could camp down near the ocean. We would definitely recommend this alternative route south – though you do have to cross over the coastal mountains to get down to Papusa, and then you have to climb up again when you leave Taltal (though the climb is gentle here).
We also took the road through Pan de Azucar which we really enjoyed too – hard packed dirt road and hardly any cars.
The road from Caldera to Vallenar is a new u-beaut freeway, with a great big shoulder. But this means a fence all along the side which makes stealth camping a little more difficult. A couple of times along the number 5 (about 30kms south of Copiapo and just before Huentelauquen (north of Los Vilos)) we camped in the roadside rest areas that have showers, toilets and an ambulance station that is attended all night – the ambos gave us permission to camp there, they were really friendly, though it can be very noisy with the trucks coming and going all night.
We turned off the number 5 just before La Ligua and went on the road along the coast through lots of fancy little towns towards Valparaiso. Lots of hills, but we enjoyed it.
From Valparaiso south we headed through the little back country roads as much as possible. We took the highway 68 out of town (we tried heading out of town on the smaller roads up over the hills but got turned back by someone that told us it was very dangerous and people were very bad in this area!) but turned off the highway as soon as possible and headed towards Tunquen (where we camped in a sandune) and then along the coast south (lots of steep hills here!). After San Antonio we headed back inland through small country roads (La Ruta de la Fruta) in the general direction of Santa Cruz. We got back on the Panam at Teno to do a day and a half of fast riding down to near Chillan.
Wild camping is easy in the north of Chile, where there are no fences and no people! The hardest thing is finding shelter from the wind. When we left San Pedro we planned to camp before Calama but found No shelter from the wind and so had to go into Calama and camp in town. We camped at service stations a couple of times along the Panam, but they can be noisy at night. Good beach camping when you are along the coast.