The Carretera Austral continues north from La Junta to Puerto Montt, via Chaitén, and this is the usual route for those riding the famous southern highway. However we decided a few weeks ago that we wanted to visit the island of Chiloé, just off the western coast of the mainland so rather than getting a 9 hour ferry to Chaitén then another 6 hour ferry to Chiloé we took the boat straight to Quellon at the southern end of the island.
Isla Grande de Chiloé is only 180 km long and 50 km wide but it is the continent’s second largest island. The Pan-American highway starts (or ends) here too, taking drivers the most direct, but less scenic, way to Alaska. Not the route we will be taking that’s for sure!
The guide book said that the typical weather forecast for Chiloé is either rain or drizzle so we were expecting to make use of the rain jackets we’ve been carrying but have barely used so far. However we were lucky, as we have been the whole way through Patagonia, and in the week we were there we had perfect weather. Because of the rainy climate, the landscape on Chiloé was reminiscent of the UK with lots of rolling hills and farm land. It was so different to mainland Patagonia only a few hours across the water! After riding for a few hours on some busy paved roads it was easy to forget where you were and it was only when we saw houses with tin roofs or the occasional glimpse of the Andes in the distance that we remembered we weren’t just in Wales!
Arriving into Quellon, a port city on the South-Eastern coast, we spent the night on a campsite overlooking the bay. We hadn’t planned our onward route but the road doesn’t go much further south, so our route would be heading up the island. Unless you want to go hut-to-hut hiking in the national park the south western part of the island is fairly inaccessible. In one day we made it half way up the island and decided to take a short detour to Huillinco to camp by the lake rather than do a big day to Castro, the capital of the island. Distances seem so small here and places are less than a days ride apart, something we’re not used to! The next day we rode to Castro via Chonchi and Villipulli. The latter had a wooden church which sadly we couldn’t go in, so we cooked some lunch outside and sat in the sun instead!
The majority of towns on the island are port towns and fishing is a big industry here. As the western coast gets battered by the Pacific Ocean and the wind, most of the infrastructure is on the eastern side of Chiloé and this is where we spent the first half of our ride. Castro is the main city on the island and one of it’s main tourist sights are the palafitos. These are the houses built on stilts because the river is tidal and the river’s height can be over three metres different from low to high tide.
One of Chiloé’s main attractions is that it has many wooden churches spread out across the main island and the smaller islands, 14 of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. Castro, being the capital, has a big church which is quite interesting because from the outside it is very garish looking and not at all what you would expect from a church. The outer has been covered in tin and then painted yellow, so you can’t actually see the wooden exterior. There had been a church on the site for 450 years but the first one burnt down, so it was replaced but that too suffered the same fate, so the church standing there now is the third instalment! Walking inside it was totally different as you were surrounded by wood and it was intricately built. You get a sense of why many of these churches are world heritage sites, the craftsmanship is seriously impressive. There was a small museum which had some models showing the complexities of the construction and how the wood was jointed together to build them, but you only get an appreciation of this from inside. Visiting other churches on the island would have been interesting, but it would have required many more days to explore the outlying islands of the archipelago and with a rapidly approaching visa expiry this wasn’t possible for us this time.
The north western part of the island was more accessible so we headed across to Chepu. We had planned to camp on the beach but when we got there the beach was kilometres away down a very loose, steep hill so we wild camped in some woods and being miles from civilisation we had an amazing view of the night sky.
Leaving here was a particularly bad day for us. Not only was the terrain difficult with steep hills and loose gravel roads but after cycling over 10km from camp, Ben realised that his packable backpack was missing. It must have bounced out of the gap between his bars. It was a tough decision but we decided that we should go back and look for it. On the way back, somehow the tarp managed to bounce off of Steph’s bike and so we both went in separate directions, re-riding the same road and making no progress.
After heading all the way back to camp and on the way back, when he was almost giving up, Ben found his backpack when he randomly glanced across the road and it was under a giant rhubarb leaf. The tarp was typically back at the furthest point where we got to before turning back for Ben’s backpack. Two hours later we found each other again and we had both found our lost possessions!
At least it was sunny! We bought an ice cream and alcohol-free beer (it was all they had!) to celebrate finding everything and we had nice beach camp at the end of the day.
The first time we saw the Milky Way was in Raul Marin but the mosquitos were so bad there we didn’t do more than look at it before retreating to the tent. Here the Milky Way was just as visible with the naked eye and we tried our hand at night time photography. We had gotten some tips from the guys we stayed with in Raul Marin, so we remembered the settings they had said to use and we think we got some good shots for our first time.
Chiloé wasn’t all sunshine and stars though. One thing that annoyed us even more than the roads making our possessions bounce away were the Tabanas (Horseflies). They are absolutely terrible and their bites are particularly potent, even through clothes. They are also really hardy creatures. You can’t just swat them away as that makes them fly around you even more so you need to actually disable them. Easier said than done though as you really need to crush them, and then hit them again, or they get back up.
The nicer creatures we saw though were the penguins! We had cycled all the way through Patagonia and not seen any yet, so we made the effort to head to Puñihuil beach where both the Magellan and Humboldt species have colonies on three small islands. It is also one of only places to see both species together, so that was cool. The actual beach though is incredibly touristy with many companies offering the same thing and all encouraging you to go with them so they get your money. However we managed to get a good deal by arriving as a boat was leaving and we went on a half hour tour to see the penguins. It was worth it though to see them swimming, splashing and waddling around. We saw a group of penguins singing (they were stood screeching and flapping their wings) and others were just happy to lie in the sun. It was hilarious watching them move around the rocky islands as they seemed so ungraceful and not very steady on their feet, so they just fell over all of the time. They were so funny!
It was a good day for wildlife spotting as whilst we were cycling back to our beach wild camp spot we also saw a pod of dolphins playing in the waves and surfing. They were really hard to photo though with being high up on the road and so far away, but after watching them for a while we managed to just about capture it!
When we got to Ancud we went to the museum there and saw blue whale skeleton that washed up a few years ago. It is hard to imagine how big they are until you are stood next to one and you could lie in between its jaw bone with room to spare. You can also go on an boat trip to see them too but it was a bit out of our price range.
Ancud was the last stop on the island and one thing that has been good about getting further north and away from the tourist trail is that things are starting to get cheaper. People that have come from the north kept telling us this would happen and it is only now that we’re starting to find cheaper groceries.
We took the Ruta 5 to the ferry port at the top of the island and on the way we met two Aussies, Michael and Dave, who were awesome to chat with for almost an hour. They confirmed that the main Ruta 5 towards Puerto Montt is fine to ride even though it the main Pan-American highway (dual carriageway) and there’s even a truck stop half way along is ok to sleep at. It was a busy road but found it safer than a lot of roads as there is a massive hard shoulder that is essentially a third unused lane. The truckers rest stop was great too as the security guard, Alejandro and Sandra, the office clerk looked out for us and even gave us some free hi-viz vests to brighten up our bikes. We needed it the next day too as cloud hadn’t burnt off in the morning and something super visible was welcome in the hazy conditions.
We skipped Puerto Montt, even though it is technically the start/end of the Carretera Austral, as we had heard that it was just like any other big industrial city so we stopped for two days in Puerto Varas instead. We arrived mid-morning so we sat at the lake side beach for a few hours and had a huge lunch with a view of two volcanoes. The architecture in Puerto Varas was very European and a lot more wealthy than a lot of the towns we have been through recently. We had arranged to stay with a Warm Showers host for a few days and after meeting her for a few minutes on the beach so she could give us directions, we enjoyed the last of the afternoon in town before heading a short way out to her house. Adrianna was so lovely! She was patient and expressive with her Spanish, making sure we could understand what she was saying and helping us learn. She also lives in an awesome part of town, on a condominium estate with other mansions! We felt so out of place rolling into the neighbourhood in our usual bedraggled cyclist state. We had a restful two days here, we met other travellers stying there and as always we managed to gain some more knowledge of places we will eventually reach in the north.
It has been a good few weeks for us. We have chilled out but we have also had to plan our route again and this made us realise we’d been very much following the one set tourist trail up until now. It has been fine as Patagonia has many awesome sights that we wanted to see and have managed to check many of them off. Now, heading north, we need to go to Argentina as we’ve spent almost 3 months in Chile (which is the limit on our visa, we need to leave to be able to come back in again) but after the Lake District we’re moving away from tourist spots, making our own way and won’t just be detouring here there and everywhere just because the destination might be in a guide book or it might be interesting. We are going to prioritise things we actually want to see (even if they’re still a few weeks or months away) rather than trying to see things that were not so fussed about. It’s impossible to see everything when your method of transportation is so slow, so going forward we need to start prioritising places we genuinely want to see, otherwise we will spend the entire trip casually rolling around Chile seeing every national park and Andean pass. While that would be an amazing trip in itself it’s not our plan! It is a bit of a change in mindset/trip direction that will be set into motion in a few weeks.
Ben and Steph