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A Tale of Two Andes: Puerto Varas to Villarrica

We’ve ridden a lot since our last blog but we haven’t written a lot since our last blog. It has been quite busy here at times but it’s been a really, really good month for us because we’ve made good progress and had a lot of fun. We hit the next 1000km milestone, we have had 20 days of great company and we’ve seen so many places. We have cycled multiple 100+km days and the scenery has dramatically changed since leaving Puerto Varas and reaching Valparaiso. Time has gone fast and we’ve had to write two new blogs to cover everything, so this is the first of those blogs: Riding between Puerto Varas and Villarrica.

From leaving Puerto Varas we had three days before reaching the Andean pass over to Argentina. It was a scenic route around Lago Llanquihue (pronounced “Yankee-way”, not in the welsh accent that Ben can’t stop saying it with!) and we had views of Volcan Osorno from all angles. There was even a mountain bike race being held in one of the small towns and we got to ride through the finishing area, much to the surprise of the mountain bike riders! The best part about cycling around the lake though was wild camping in some trees on the lakeside beach and we watched the sun go down from the tent. We’ve seen quite a few sunsets on this trip but this was one of the best yet.

After waiting nearly two hours to clear Chilean customs at the border (they love the paperwork here) we tackled the first half of the steep climb in good time. The delay at the border meant that it was late evening when we started to cycle towards Argentina so we decided to stop by a lake between the borders and spend the night there. The lake was crystal clear and we even had our first swim of the trip in no man’s land. It was actually quite warm once you got over the initial shock!

The whole journey over the pass was incredible because we had 4 nights wild camping in beautiful locations on different lakes and we were the only ones there to experience it. Wild camping is definitely one of the best things about this trip, especially when you arrive early enough to relax and enjoy the place before setting up camp and eating. We stretch every morning before riding and try to do as much yoga as we can, so having some time in the afternoon means we have time to stretch and feel fresh for the next day’s ride.

We got to Argentina, the Siete Lagos region (Seven Lakes, or Lake District) and it was just as expensive and touristy as we were told it would be. It was a lovely area though, the lakes are enormous and beautiful and the landscape is so green and lush especially compared to the pampa that we have experienced elsewhere in Argentina. The town of Villa La Angostura was much like El Calafate that we visited months ago now to see the Perito Mereno glacier. There was lots of wooden fronted buildings, very European looking and everything was aimed at tourists. It had a nice feel to it though and the people were friendly. While sitting outside the tourist office examining our map we were given a whole punnet of raspberries by a guy that liked our bikes! Made our day.

We were excited to get to Villa La Angostura because we were staying with our first couchsurfing host. Mariana lived 12km outside of town on the road to Bariloche (the Ruta 40) which was just the busiest and most horrible road that we’ve ridden so far. It was congested, had little to no hard shoulder and lorries honked their horn to let you know that you were in the way. We got the impression that if you didn’t move off of the road they would probably mow you down because they were driving fast on the white line at the edge of the road and they weren’t moving. It wasn’t the best first impression of the region. We also decided not to go a further 80km to the biggest city in the region, Bariloche, because we didn’t want to ride that road any further than we had to. It was also a detour heading South so we would have to retrace our steps to continue our journey North.

It was a relief to get to Mariana’s house which was in the woods, away from the road and the crowds. There were very few other houses around and there was no Wi-fi so we felt properly away from it all. We had a whole day off to chill out and we didn’t even touch the bikes. We relaxed in the hammock on the deck, went down to the private lakeside beach to do some yoga and watched the sun set. We were also lucky enough to be invited to Mariana’s boyfriend’s house for an Asado with his friends. We both love a good Asado as it’s the stereotypical meat-fest you expect to find in Argentina. It turned out to be a really good one with half a dozen different types of meat from Sausages to lamb ribs to Bife de Chorizo steak (one of the best cuts). It was all seasoned solely with salt and cooked over embers for 4 to 5 hours, which meant eating at midnight but it was worth the wait.

We were apprehensive about leaving Villa La Angostura because we had another 120km to the next town and it meant riding on the Ruta 40 for a long period of time. It was busy enough until we reached the turn off for the pass that we came in on and then the best thing happened, we had a hard shoulder and the road became much quieter. The rest of the day continued like this and we happily cycled through valleys and around lakes in stunning weather. We managed to cycle over half way before camping at a free official campsite. Being the holidays in Argentina it was busy with Argentinian families, their cars filled to the brim with camping gear and they were all collecting wood for their camp fire later on. On the way down to the lake to have a wash we bumped into Liam and Jake, two guys from Sheffield that we had previously met in Coyhaique months ago and we assumed had got ahead of us. It was great to see them again. We rode together the next day to San Martin de Los Andes and enjoyed lunch on the beach before planning our next move.

^Photo Credit: Liam Hardy

The way that most tourists cross the Andes back into Chile from here is by taking the road from Junin de los Andes in Argentina across to Púcon in Chile. I had seen on the map that we could take a different pass across the Andes, one that less people did and would be on ripio rather than a (mostly) paved road. Ruta 40 northbound had been tolerable but it was still a main road with the noise and traffic that that brings. Ripio might be harder work and dusty but it would also be quieter and more of an adventure. Jake liked the sound of our pass so he chose to join us while Liam carried on to Junin because he was going to hike a volcano that he would miss going our way. We said our goodbyes and parted ways, knowing we would meet back up in a few days as both of our roads would eventually join in Villarrica.

After a ridiculously steep climb, even by Yorkshire standards, we were on the best road that we had been on since the southern half of the Carretera Austral. (The section from Villa O’Higgins to Villa Cerro Castillo was our favourite part and you can read it here) We had fantastic scenery and the ripio was actually more of a dirt road than loose gravel. It was what our bikes were made for and for a few days it felt as though we were on a mountain biking trip rather than a cycle tour. It was double track but we had flowy switchback turns, undulating hills with a few steep sections to keep us on our toes but the best part was that for two days we saw, at most, about two cars every hour.

Another reason we chose this pass was for the free hot springs that we had heard were right before the Argentinian border. This area has a lot of volcanoes so termas’ are very common around here but usually you have to pay for them, which was why we were surprised to find some free pools that were even signposted. They were muddy and natural but after a hard day’s ride it was just what our legs needed. The only thing was that the pools were scoldingly hot and there was no river nearby to cool down in so we left hotter than when we got in!

We decided that we would get our stamp out of Argentina and camp between the borders because whilst it was only 10km between the two border controls, it was a big climb. It was only after stamping us out that the Argentinian guys told us that we are forbidden to camp in the next 10km and we would have to cycle quickly to make it in to Chile before the border closed at 8pm. (It was already 7pm.) So began the rush across the border into Chile!

It was a tiring 10km with some difficult climbs that involved pushing the bikes (Ben managed to make it but Jake and I couldn’t keep traction) and when we eventually did make it it to the decent the surface changed from the lovely dirt in Argentina to incredibly loose rocks in Chile. It was quite a treacherous steep descent, especially when you are tired and know that you need to go fast. Again, we were glad that we had chunky mountain bike tyres or at the speed we were going we would have probably fallen off! The rocks did claim one victim though, the dry bag on Ben’s fork leg, which bounced out of the cage and was sliced clean in half by the disc rotor. More annoyingly the two bread rolls were saving for tea ended up strewn across the road and covered in gravel too, so we had no bread left as well as a destroyed dry bag. Gutted doesn’t cover it.

We were 45 minutes late for the border and the gates were closed. We thought we would just camp and wait for the morning but because the Carabineros live at the border post they kindly let us through and after turning the computers back on, checked us into the country. At Chilean customs as well as checking your passport, they also check your vehicle for fresh produce as you are prohibited from bringing this into the country. Previously we just had to tick a box saying we didn’t have anything to declare, only once did they ask for the food bag and check what we had, but these guys were much more thorough. They asked us to take everything off of our bikes so they could inspect it and they meant everything. For Jake that meant four panniers and a bar bag but with the way our bikes are packed, it took a lot longer. Considering it was gone 9pm and they had technically finished work, they made sure they did their job properly!

By the time they had finished rummaging through our bags, thrown away Jake’s almost full pot of honey and we had wolfed down our block of cheese (they wanted to dispose of that too) it was almost dark. We asked if we could camp somewhere close by and they directed us to their cabin and said we could camp in the garden. It wasn’t very flat but we were just glad we didn’t have to go any further.

We didn’t rush the next day and at midday a Carabinero names Saul came heading our way. We thought he was going to tell us that we needed to leave but instead he asked if we wanted to see a waterfall and told us to bring a camera. Very unexpected! It was really strange following him into the woods, then walking up a river gorge but when we stopped at a tall cliff there was a beautiful waterfall, well away from the border. This was the kind of thing all three of us love, something random that not every tourist gets to see.

Saul was a really nice guy, a policeman from near Valdivia currently stationed here for a month. He loved to practise his English so when there are tourists he likes to speak to them. He also showed us where the wild strawberries grew and being hungry cyclists we made sure we ate enough to have at least one of our five a day!

It was another two days to Villarrica. We could have probably done it in a day but we had gone quite fast (completing the pass in only two days) and we didn’t know how far away Liam was so we went 19km from the border and found a cheap campsite including hot springs. They had a swimming pool, indoor baths and two large natural hot tubs that we relaxed in. Despite it being a short day, the previous 2 on the ripio had been tiring as well as fun, the hot springs were the best way to unwind tight leg muscles.

It was after we climbed out of the small town of Liquiñe that the paved road started and the road felt busy again. We went through two large towns that had traffic backed up for half a kilometre or more along the main street, there were people everywhere and so we didn’t hang around, only to buy supplies from the grocery store. For the last few days it felt like it just us three, out in the middle of nowhere and we were happy with that. Now the world had intruded. There was beeping and traffic jams where before there was just the crunch of tyres and the sound of bird calls.

Villaricca was even worse and we hadn’t even entered the city properly when some guy in a car beeped and shouted out of his window, telling us to watch where we were going. Without a cycle lane we were riding exactly where we should be, so after a quick look at the map we got off the main road and headed for the lakeside. We sat on the pier and had a beer. It was a nice view over the beach but already we missed the peace and quiet of the last few days.

We didn’t even bother looking for somewhere to stay in the city, preferring to wild camp just outside instead and without too much effort we found the best spot in town. It was on the lakeside with a view of Volcan Villarrica looming over the town. The expensive hotels on the other side of the lake might have all the mod cons but what they didn’t have was the sunrise that we witnessed the next morning!

This blog marks the end of an era. Since leaving Argentina we are officially not in Patagonia anymore. (Chiloé wasn’t Patagonia but the Argentinian Lakes are so we briefly re-entered the region). Now begins the push to the north. We plan on cycling the most direct way north through Chile, which will mean some boring riding for a few days but we will cover a lot of distance and in less time. We could easily spend our whole budget and all of our time in Chile, it’s that big with so much to explore, but if we want to cross the continent we need to think about the big picture. We said it in our last blog that we are going to prioritise what we’re going to see and not just detour every time there is a tourist hotspot and we can safely say that we have embraced that mindset over the last two weeks. We have seen so many awesome sights and whilst we haven’t been to Bariloche or Púcon we don’t feel as though we have missed out on anything. Those places are probably lovely, but they are also the places that tourists can get to easily on a bus, so they are going to be more expensive and less ideal for the cycle tourist on a budget. Instead we have seen a lot of the Andes that people don’t travel through, learnt about life as a Carabinero from Saul and soaked in some wild hot springs. It was a busy 11 days since leaving Puerto Varas, with only one real day off the bikes, and the next 11 were equally as demanding. More on that in the next blog…

Hasta al Norte!

Steph and Ben

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3 comments

  1. The phot of Steph ‘in the race’ made me laugh out loud! Love the yoga pic too, I bet it helps immensely. The lakes and scenery are blissful and it sounds like youve had a busy but fun few weeks! Safe journey onwards, looking forward to the next installment – as always! Lots of love xxx

    1. Haha yeah, it was an odd feeling crossing the finish line! We went past a few people from the race and it must have been exhausting as they were all so tired looking. It was on the volcano though whatever the race was!
      Yoga does help so much, even more so when it’s in a lovely location. It has been busy but well worth it. Thanks for commenting and love to you and the dogs too xx

  2. It sounds like you have really enjoyed your time in Patagonia, and seen and experienced as much of the area as you could. I’m sure it will always hold a very fond place in your hearts. Some great photos again in this blog – especially the sunrise/sunsets. The border crossing experiences sound good too – all part of the adventure! I am interested to hear where your wheels take you next…

    We have just returned from a week in Finnish Lapland for half term. We went with some friends who have a 5-year-old son (we met at antenatal classes!), so Solana loved having a friend to play with. The scenery there was magical, with lots of snow and pine trees everywhere. The kids did downhill skiing lessons and the adults did cross-country lessons; we also went husky sledding, reindeer sledding and (of course!) visited Santa. We were also lucky enough to see the aurora borealis 5 times during our trip (we didn’t manage any decent photos of it though). The temperature varied from minus 6C to minus 30C – anything up to about minus 15C was OK but any lower than that was pretty extreme! The buds were on the trees before we left home and we thought we’d return home to Spring but instead we seem to have brought the Arctic weather with us and we’ve returned to snow and temperatures below freezing… Solana is excited to return to school and tell her friends and teachers all about our exciting trip.

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