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Carretera Austral North: Coyhaique to Raul Marin Balmeceda

In our last blog we wrote that we were excited to be back on the road north but things didn’t go quite to plan and we got a bit waylaid. Ben was waiting for a new debit card that was coming via Fedex and it was having all sorts of trouble being held up in Santiago then was unable to be delivered to the farm’s mailbox while we were still there. We had spent a month dealing with the bank online trying to get it sorted so we didn’t want to leave without it!

As luck would have it a friend let us use his cabin outside Coyhaique for a week after we left the farm while we waited for the card. It was crazy frustrating trying to get it sorted and checking the tracking page every day, but it’s one of those things that happens eventually when you have no fixed address. The silver lining was that we had free, albeit basic accommodation and it actually rained the entire week we were there, so cycling would have been a bit miserable anyway. Just when our itchy feet nearly got the better of us the card arrived and we could finally leave!

The day the card arrived also happened to be Ben’s birthday, and along with the card itself our friend brought us beer, pisco sours and meat for a BBQ! Add that to the sun coming out for the first day in a while and the feeling of knowing we were going to be riding bikes the next day and my birthday turned out to be a fantastic one.

Being back on the road felt amazing. The freedom to live by our own routine again, and the feeling of actually making progress up the continent once more. We were intrigued to see if our 5 weeks off riding would have made much difference in terms of scenery and people, as we were now technically in proper high season. Chileans have summer holiday for January and February so we expected things to be busier. After our first day of riding from Coyhaique we arrived in Mañihuales and rolled into a campsite to see 6 other cyclists all pitching camp. High season was definitely going to be busier!

Previously seeing other cyclists on the road was a novelty and nearly always ended up in a casual break and a chat by the side of the road. The amount we were seeing each day, coupled with the fact the road was now fast pavement now made that impractical. I think our busiest day was 18 cyclists all heading south. A wave and a greeting of “¡Hola!” had to suffice for most of them. That is unless they were going north. There seems to be so few of us ‘Northerners’ that finding others is quite exciting. Since leaving Coyhaique we have spent some time with a Frenchman and two Australians, and also seen 3 Russians going north, but that’s it.

After our week of rain at the cabin we’ve been lucky and had good weather, especially lucky as the northern region of the Carretera is renowned for being very wet! The scenery has continued to be spectacular but with noticeable changes. The vegetation is much more thick and lush, the now-slightly-lower mountains are covered in greenery and there is far more fertile agricultural land with plenty of grass and healthy looking cows. While it’s still a lovely landscape to be riding through this northern section isn’t charming us quite like the south did. Partially due to the scenery not being quite as striking, but also the road being paved takes away some of the feeling of remoteness and adventure.

Several sections that are still ripio (unpaved) currently have work in progress to pave them, which has meant works machinery, traffic build ups and even a replacement boat service to miss a few km that was impassable due to road works. Despite this it has been so good to be riding bikes in glorious weather.

One of the main attractions on this stretch of road is the Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier located in a national park just south of Puyuhuapi. We wild camped on a river bank the night before heading into the park and we got up pretty early to walk up to the viewpoint for the glacier. This turned out to be a great decision, the morning was cooler for the 3.3km hike up and we had the mirador (viewpoint) all to ourselves. The glacier itself was stunning, even after seeing Perito Moreno and O’Higgins we were still impressed. Even moreso when a handful of minutes after arriving at the top we saw the glacier calve some huge chunks off the front of itself. The noise was even more incredible than other glaciers as the ice drops several hundred metres onto the rocks below, and the sound reverberates down the valley. That made our day, and it was only 10:30. (The middle waterfall in the picture below isn’t actually a waterfall, it’s the chunk of ice falling from the glacier!)

By the time we left a short while later there were ~20 people at the mirador and we passed a whole bunch more on the hike back down. Perfect timing!

At the town of La Junta a little further up the Carretera we needed to take a detour from the regular way up Ruta 7. There had been a landslide near Villa Santa Lucia that had devastated the village and destroyed the road. Our next stop was to be Puerto Raul Marin Balmaceda (RMB), a tiny village on an island separated from the mainland by Rio Palena and the fjord of the Pacific Ocean.

Travelling is all about meeting new people and during our rest day in La Junta the 2 Australians I mentioned earlier arrived at our hostel. Luke and Lucy were heading the same way as us so we spent a few awesome days riding together. Our first stop was Termas El Sauce, a natural hot spring on the way to RMB. After it was recommended by two different locals we couldn’t resist. It didn’t disappoint. It was a really nice camping area next to a typically clear Patagonian river that just happened to have a volcanic spring that pumped out water at 85 degrees! The mix of the river and the spring made for a perfectly warm place to relax and unwind tired cycling legs.

Carrying on the relaxing theme, we arrived in RMB the next day and discovered miles of sand dunes and volcanic beach and it seemed rude not to camp there for the night. Watching the sun go down around a camp fire on the beach with new friends was perfect. Though once the sun had gone down the real show began. The evening was cloudless and the small village of RMB has no electric after midnight so the Milky Way was completely visible in the night sky. It was beautiful, and something we had never seen so clearly before. Both of us decided we need to learn how to photo it before the next perfect night like this one.

The next day our paths went separate ways and Luke and Lucy got the boat to Chaiten to finish the last stretch of Carretera to Puerto Montt. We had another day to wait before our boat to Chiloé, an archipelago off the coast of the mainland that has a genuine Pacific coastline, not a fjord.

While going via Chiloé meant actually missing the last section of Ruta 7 it had been recommended to us by several different people that had ridden there. Spending another day in sleepy RMB wasn’t unappealing either. With so little to do in town we enjoyed a lovely day of relaxing on the sand dunes and generally taking in the absolute tranquility of this idyllic place.

Our day got even better when we tried to find somewhere to stay. We normally wouldn’t write much about a specific hostel but we ended up at Hostel Abuelo and before we had even asked about a room we were being sat down and given tea and cookies. The hostel is owned by a guy that lives in Valparaiso but was being run by three independent artists (filmmakers, photographers, poets and writers) also from Valparaiso who were volunteering there in exchange for accommodation while they made a documentary about RMB. Jorge, Gato Pietro (Peter the Cat) and Perezoso Britto (Lazy Britto) were the best hosts you could ask for. Super friendly and interesting, it was good Spanish practice talking to them about life, politics, travel and music. Their tastes were really good and there was always something awesome pumping out of the speakers, until the town blackout at midnight obviously. They shared everything with us, and every time they had a meal they fed us too! Considering this was the cheapest place we could find in town it was beyond perfect. Many hostels say ‘make yourselves at home’ but these guys really meant it. Pietro and Britto were actually heading to Santiago the next day and wouldn’t be back for a while so the evening felt like a bit of farewell party. We were in the right place at the right time to enjoy it with them.

It was with a tinge of sadness that we left the next day, particularly because we realised that was the end of the Carretera Austral for us. Our trip up Chiloé would take us all the way to Puerto Montt. It has been an amazing couple of months and Ruta 7 has not disappointed in the slightest. We can both fully appreciate why people flock here just to ride it (and why they do it north to south!). It has definitely felt like we’ve spent long enough in the Aysen region to have fully appreciated it and as we head to Chiloé and further north the environment will definitely change, but we are both excited to see new places and landscapes.

We’ll let you know how we go.

Ben and Steph

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2 comments

  1. Awesome blog post! You both look and sound so well and happy! Awesomw photos and, as always, amazing to read what a fab time you are having. Thank you for teaching me about a part of the world I haven’t really given much thought to before! xxx

  2. Pisco sours – salud! Glad Ben enjoyed his birthday BBQ celebrations – I’m sure pretty different to how you’d have been celebrating in January in Britain! We’ve had plenty of cold weather recently – snow, ice, sleet. I’m not normally one to complaint about the British weather at all but even I am now getting pretty sick of worrying whether we can get to work/school… The hanging glacier looks great. We saw one in Chile too, but not the same one. I remember camping nearby and you could hear it calving in the night, sounding like thunder. It is good that you have had some nicer weather and even better that you have had some clear nights for stargazing. Chile is supposedly one of the best countries for stargazing, so I hope you get to enjoy plenty more. The best stars we’ve ever seen were one night camping on the Peruvian coast and we could see the black shapes in the milky way that the Mayans said were animals – a “llama”, a “snake”, etc- keep an eye out for them! Chiloe sounds great – we didn’t make it there but I would like to go; I’m looking forward to your next blog entry describing it.
    Julie, Laura & Solana x

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