The Carretera Austral (literally ‘The Southern Highway’) is National Ruta 7 which links some of the most remote parts of Chilean Patagonia. It is 1240km of winding, undulating and predominantly unpaved road through stunning wild landscapes. It has become a bit of a hotspot for travellers and it is billed as one of the best road trips in the world with many people coming to Patagonia just to ride/drive/backpack along it. However we were starting at it’s end point in the south, unlike most others.
For the first week of our journey up the Carretera our duo became a trio. We had the company of Alestair who we first met briefly in El Chaltén where we had discussed the border crossing and how we had planned to hike around the lake. (Read the blog here) When he arrived at our Villa O’Higgins hostel looking how we felt days before, we soon learned that he had chosen the torturous push around the lake too. We knew then that this crazy Frenchman was our kind of people!
Leaving Villa O’Higgins was a drawn out affair as we had fallen in love with El Mosco Hostel. We had gotten into a routine of baking bread, cooking excellent meals to share with the other cyclists staying there and using the tortuously slow internet to plan and blog. However, as we were about to leave our lovely hostel host told us about a free asado (BBQ) being held in the plaza to celebrate the start of the tourist season. Free food?! There was no way we were leaving before this.
Despite there being less than twenty tourists in attendance (but most of the village) we were treated to some traditional Patagonian dancing and a speech from the mayor before enjoying the feast. What a feast it was! The cook estimated there was 30kg of meat on the asado, music to the ears of hungry cyclists. Needless to say we all went back for multiple portions and were kilos heavier when we eventually started riding.
Riding with an extra person was a lot of fun! We had gotten used to our own riding routine so it was good to shake things up a bit and see how someone else lives while on the road. For example, Alestair loves trying to catch fish whether at a lunch stop or at camp. He was quite determined and after a couple of days of trying was rewarded with a free fish supper. We were both duly impressed and grateful when he taught us how to make a fishing reel out of a tin can.
We had a few relaxed days after leaving Villa O’Higgins with none of us being in any particular rush. This was a good thing because for the first time since starting our trip we had to ride and camp in heavy rain. Even though the conditions were unfavourable we did manage to find shelter for a couple of nights in the form of a cyclists’ refugio and a ferry waiting room.
The rain didn’t dampen our spirits as the scenery was incredible. We had gone from Argentinian steppe to snowy mountains intersected with beautiful rivers, fjords, lakes and glaciers. Everywhere we looked there was something stunning to stop and take a photo of, more reminiscent of alpine landscapes in Europe. The amount of water in this part of Patagonia was a nice change for us as we never had to carry much water or worry about where we could fill up next. The same applies to food too, as the distances between towns were considerably less than in Argentina and we could now have fresh bread for days at a time! But being at the end of the road in such a remote location meant that other than bread and eggs, fresh produce was near impossible to come by. Our diet suffered due to this as we would usually sauté veg with every meal!
Logistics had gotten easier and the scenery had become more spectacular but the road itself was now unpaved ‘ripio’. This varied from smooth, hardpacked gravel to sections riddled with potholes and loose stones. The washboard corrugations in the road were a test of legs and bikes and we had our first minor mechanical. The sidewall of one of our tyres was pierced by a sharp stone but being tubeless the small hole was easily plugged without the tyre deflating too much. Not only had the road surface deteriorated but the profile of the road drastically changed and we were gaining more elevation than before. Both of these added up to tougher days in the saddle. That being said, we were loving it! It felt more like riding mountain bikes at home and we were grateful for our big wheels and wider tyre set up (if anything we would like to go for even wider tyres).
We very much took our time getting to Cochrane, detouring via Caleta Tortel which was an interesting place. We wildcamped at the same spot for two nights before the town (next to a river where Alestair caught his fish!) which made for a short day’s ride to explore Tortel and then return to camp where we’d left our tents pitched. With little to no traffic on the road in deepest Patagonia we weren’t phased by leaving our things for a few hours and it made for a lovely, stress free day.
The road to Tortel was only built in 1999 so the town has built up around a fjord and is linked by wooden boardwalks rather than streets. All vehicles, including bicycles, are left in the small municipal parking lot at the top of the hill and you descend the boardwalks to the town itself. This is the type of place where locals are more likely to have a boat than a car!
Tortel might not be the prettiest place, especially on an overcast and drizzly day, but it had a certain charm. It helped that we had a huge pizza there with all of the toppings the restaurant had to hand and a beer to wash it down!
A couple more days riding and we reached Cochrane, the biggest town we had seen since leaving Argentina almost two weeks ago. For many overlanders Cochrane is as far south as they come since there is no border crossing to Argentina for vehicles from Villa O’Higgins. As this is not a problem for cyclists we ended up meeting a lot at the campsite that we stayed at. It was nice to be in like-minded company and hear other tales from the road.
Cochrane also meant our first rest day since leaving Villa O’Higgins which was hugely appreciated especially as Steph had been suffering from minor knee pain for the previous few days. A day off the bike allowed us to figure out what the cause was, visit the pharmacy and rest up. It turns out that as Steph’s Brooks leather saddle had been wearing in, so it had sagged slightly meaning her seatpost needed to go up. An easy fix and along with some anti inflammatories and some ‘magic’ cream (it’s all in Spanish) it seems to have done the trick. You can tell we are new to this cycle touring lark and have never had a saddle that moulds to the shape of your behind before!
The thing about meeting people on the road is that everyone has their own schedule. Parting ways with people is a natural part of the journey. Still, we were sad to be leaving Alestair as we headed north and he lingered around Cochrane a little longer. He is cycling to Lima, Peru though so I’m sure our paths will cross again at some point. You should also check out Alestair’s blog for more about his trip and he took the photos of us riding in this blog, so thanks man!
Another 1000km of Carretera heads north and so do we.
Steph and Ben
So you want to ride or travel along the Carretera Austral and have lots of questions? Read our Guide to Cycling the Carretera Austral which answers some of the most frequently asked questions before delving in to the specifics about the route we took along Chile’s Ruta 7.