Lago O'Higgins to Coyhaique (The Carretera Austral Part 1)

Please find the photos for this entry here: Google Album - Lago O'Higgins to Coyhaique

We were up early on Sunday the 12th, ready for our ferry ride at 7:00 AM and eager to hit the Carretera Austral after weeks (and months and years) of anticipation. Though the bay was sheltered (photo 1), we quickly learned that the wind on Lago O'Higgins was no joke, the small boat swaying back and forth and motoring against the waves for the first hour of the ride, before turning to ride the waves east. We even noticed that the captain was steering the boat between each big wave, trying to make progress north, while also squaring the boat up to ride oncoming waves east (photo 2). About 3.5 hours later we were safely in O'Higgins and stopped for a resupply of food before hitting the road. We'd all decided that after the overland crossing from El Chalten, the day before, that we'd aim for 30-40 km before finding a wild camp for the night. Not long after leaving O'Higgins, we'd come upon huge mountains and waterfalls cascading from the glaciers. We soon found a hidden spot off the road and by a good size river... though we learned the next day that our camp, downwind of a lake, was a mosquito haven and our new friend Peter, from Scotland, got his share of bites :)

The next day we set off with the goal of making it to the next ferry, about 75 km from our camp. We all headed out around 8:00 AM, each riding at our own pace and stopping to regroup at a small river for lunch. After lunch, the rain set in and we were faced with about 40 km of climbing and descending next to muddy rivers. After a last stop around 2:30 pm, we learned from cyclists traveling South that we should try to catch the 4:00 PM ferry (20 km up the road) if we wanted to be sure to get to the other side of the bay that night. They told us the ferry was scheduled for 4:00 and 7:00 PM, but that if no cars were waiting for the late ferry, they might not run, leaving us on the south shore until the next day. With some strong pushing, we made the ferry with about 15 minutes to spare - soaked, but glad that we would make it to the other shore where there was a shelter we'd been told we could camp in that night. After making dinner on the steps of the shelter, and (unsuccessfully) hanging our clothes to dry, we hunkered down in the shelter with two other cyclists traveling south. The shelter was really just a room with benches, maintained by Los Cabineros de Chile - basically the national police force of Chile. They were very welcoming, and explained how their service rotated between regions of the country, sounding somewhat like our National Guard. Photo 3 is a picture of the ferry at night, where the Cabineros gathered to spend time together... they even had a satellite cable hooked up for TV once the ferry was docked for the night.

The next morning, still soggy from the day before, we hit the road and soon learned that climbing would be a central theme on the Carretera. After sweating our way up a forested climb for most of the morning, we descended into another valley, where were greeted by sunshine and smoother rippio (gravel road). After a short lunch, we all got back on the road at our own pace, and cruised beside the biggest river in Chile, Rio Baker (or Rio Cochrane on Google Maps) for the next 30 km (photo 4). After struggling over the final 20 km of hot, dusty, wash-boarded road, we found a small campsite right by the river and across the road from a small farm house. We decided to ask the homeowners if it was ok to stay across the road and they assured us it was fine and offered to sell us fresh baked bread and eggs... we happily obliged, devouring the first loaf immediately (with mayonnaise stored in a mustard container - a mix we termed mustaise). After taking our time washing clothes and bathing in the river. we cooked dinner over the fire, and got to bed early, knowing that our next town and (fingers crossed) bed would greet us the next day.

After waking around 7:00 AM, we all hit the road at slightly different times, agreeing that we'd do the 50 km to town at our own pace. Cameron headed off first, hoping to get to town in time to do some media stuff, instagramming, etc. Eli, Noah, and Peter followed and we all arrived between 1:00 and 2:00 PM after a very washboard covered route. Unfortunately, Peter's hub was trashed and he'd broken a spoke, so it looked like he'd be hitching at least to the next major town of Coyhaique. After having a late lunch and wandering around town for at least an hour (many places close during the afternoon hours, making it difficult to find a place to stay if you arrive in the afternoon), we managed to find a spot in a small hospedaje - basically a boarding house with shared rooms, kitchen, and bathrooms. We were pretty excited for the first hot shower in quite a while, and after finally figuring out that the on demand water heater was out of propane, we cleaned up and headed to the store for dinner fixings. In the process of our hostel/hospedaje search, we'd met Meg, who was staying in town while working as a teacher for an expedition school from the States. Meg invited us to make dinner at her cabin, so we picked up more food than usual and headed to her place for a great meal, conversation, and story sharing.

After waking to more rain in Cochrane, we (Cameron more than the others) weren't very enthusiastic about getting soaked yet again, especially when we weren't sure exactly where we'd end up that night... maybe at another wild campsite with little shelter. After motivating, getting to the grocery store to resupply for the next several days, and packing all of our food, we finally hit the road early afternoon. As luck would have it, we were lucky with the rain, and blue skies soon returned only an hour or so into the ride (photo 5). We were all a bit slow and decided that we'd shoot for 40-50 km before calling it a day. Fortunately, north of Cochrane the towns aren't as few and far between, and we ended up in Puerto Bertrand that night at a tent camping spot. We'd recognized that our accommodation options were either to wild camp (free), tent at an established area in a town (usually 3,000-5,000 Chilean pesos or $5-8 with a shower, sometimes a shared cooking/kitchen space/wifi), or stay at a hostel or hospedaje (shared room, kitchen, bath, sometimes breakfast provided - usually 8,000-18,000 pesos or $12-28 per night). Cost wise, wild camps are always the way to go. With a budget of approximately $20 per day per person, we've pretty much agreed that we enjoy wild camping when the weather is good in exchange for a hostel here and there when we can afford it. On the other hand, we also will pay to camp if it includes a shower and dry cooking space, especially if the weather is bad or if it's later in the day. After arriving in Puerto Bertrand around 8:00 PM, paying for a tent site that would allow us to shower, cook quickly, and get to sleep for another early wake up was agreed on as the option that made the most sense.

The next day we'd push on, shooting for the next town of Puerto Tranquilo and the neighboring Marble Caves that we'd read about. After a climb out of town, and some rolling hills, we arrived at a bridge between the two lakes that feed Rio Baker (the river we'd ridden beside for days). This bridge held some significance because, when looking at Google maps and street view before the trip, we'd picked this spot as a reference point several times - excited to see the teal water, one lane bridge, and mountains in the distance (photo 6). The landmark didn't disappoint. Another interesting fact that Meg (the teacher from the States) had taught us was that these lakes didn't always empty into Rio Baker and that it had been a tectonic shift that had caused the waters to flow west towards the ocean. After learning this, we definitely observed that the volume of water flowing indeed seemed to be more than the river had originally held. This is part of the reason that the region has become a popular rafting and kayaking area, with Puerto Bertrand as a popular rafting put in spot. After the bridge siting, we pushed on again, hoping for a couple more kilometers before a lunch stop. The last push of the day took us high above the lake before a final descent into Puerto Tranquilo. We'd hoped to go to the marble caves, but the wind was too strong, and no boats were allowed to travel... guess that means we'll have to go back and visit again! After arriving in Tranquilo, the rain returned again and we decided that another camping spot with a dry cooking space and a shower was in order. That night, we also happened upon a couple from Santiago - after sharing food and conversation and telling them about our trip, they generously offered to host us in Santiago whenever we arrived. Soon after dinner, it was off to bed.

The next day greeted us with more wind and rain and we knew that we were in for an adventure, with no towns within a day's ride. We had been at it for over a week straight with no rest days at that point, and had talked the night before about how we might split up in the coming days with the plan to meet in Coyhaique. Eli was feeling strong that day and wanted to push on as far as he could. Cameron was feeling similarly, but the rain and wind had him procrastinating and moving slower than normal, and Noah really probably deserved a full break and recovery at this point. About 30 km into the ride, Noah and Cameron talk about the possibility of Noah hitching a ride ahead to Coyhaique. It was a more in depth conversation, but the dilemma of keeping to a schedule vs. riding every single kilometer came up and the two agreed that the end goal was really to make sure that we all arrived in New England together. Cameron set off again, hoping to find Eli somewhere up the road and with the plan that if we didn't see Noah that night, that we could trust that he was safely getting himself to Coyhaique or camping solo for the night. After spotting a Boston Red Sox cap and bandana on the side of the road, Cameron realized Eli was hidden out in an abandoned cabin, waiting for Cameron and Noah to arrive... and to make a game plan. Thinking that Noah was likely going to catch a ride ahead, Eli and Cameron briefly considered riding an additional 70+ km to make it to Cerro Castillo in one day instead of two... but just as they were about to head out, Cameron looked at Google maps one last time for reference, and the two decided that pushing ahead that late in the day would have been stupid. Within minutes of their more responsible decision making, Noah arrived safe and sound and the three were back together again in their abandoned shack (photo 7) for the night.

The next day, the goal was Cerro Castillo. Noah was still recovering from a cold he'd been fighting over the last few days, but was going to push on at his own pace. With a similar plan as the day before (Noah would do what he could, but would make sure to give us a wave if he decided to hitch a ride to Coyhaique). After Eli and Cameron stuck together for the first half of the day, riding a good climb and descent in the first 30-40 km and finding some tailwinds, Noah rejoined again - continuing to impress with his resilience and biking stamina... especially without the riding history that Eli and Cameron had brought to the trip. The day continued on over one last climb on rough rippio for about 20 km, before the views of the valley and Cerro Castillo opened before us. We'd coast into Cerro Castillo that night to find a nice, quiet hostel and knowing that we just had one long day (on pavement!!! after over 500 km of gravel roads) ahead of us to Coyhaique. (Photos 8 and 9 of the mountains outside the town of Cerro Castillo)

The next day, we aired up our tires with higher pressures for pavement, and pushed off early (photo 10), knowing that we were about to do a 800+ meter climb and would be hitting the highest point on the Carretera Austral. After several hours of climbing (photo 11) (and thinking about climbing on light road bikes without gear), we'd arrived at the summit and relished the winding downhill on the other side. After a short stop for our first lunch about 30 km into the day, we pushed on and the change in route greeted us with the first headwinds we'd felt in quite a while. With some bitching and moaning here and there and a stop for a cold coke and cookies, we'd pulled off the last 30 km of the 100 km day without too much issue. That night we found a modest place to stay, agreeing that we'd take the next two days off to rest and to celebrate Eli's birthday, that was coming up on the 23rd. On our first day off in Coyhaique, after 10 days of riding, we were all pretty beat... not able to accomplish much more than downtime together and finding a nice hostel for the next couple of nights.

The next 5-6 days of riding will take us to Futaleufu, Chile, arriving sometime around February 28th, before crossing into Argentina yet again, and riding north towards Bariloche. As of our second day off, we're all feeling recharged and as though our legs are ready to keep pushing us closer to home.

Signing off until next time,

-Cameron, Eli, and Noah

Please find the photos for this entry here: Google Album - Lago O'Higgins to Coyhaique