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El Camino Austral: Puerto Montt to Villa Santa Lucia

Click Picture to Enlarge We had originally intended to spend a day in Santiago getting maps etc. but the airlines had foiled that plan so the first morning in Puerto Montt was spent finding provisions and checking out logistics. The "not going smoothly" trend continued full force as we first went to the CONAF (National Forest Service) office for maps and found them to be closed with a hand written sign on the door (in English) saying "We are ON STRIKE". So much for CONAF. This raised concern that we wouldn't be able to get into Torres del Paine later in the trip, but we put that on back burner for the moment. Next up was the tourist and/or Ferry office. We had hoped to bike down the island of Chiloe, take the ferry to Chaiten, and then continue south to Coyhaique. Such was not to be the case. December was still considered to be the "Off Season", according to Navimag, who runs most of the ferries. The boats from Chiloe to Chaiten wouldn't start until "January sometime". Same problem with doing the mainland part of El Camino Austral from Puerto Montt to Chaiten - there are several gaps in the road which are fijord crossings by ferry. Again, no ferries until "sometime in January". So that left us with a jump-start by ferry straight to Chaiten, a 12 hour Click Picture to Enlarge overnight trip, which happens every Thursday and Friday. In a small bit of improving luck, this was a Thursday so we bought tickets for that night and were told to return at 9:30 PM for boarding.

We spent the rest of the day provisioning, finding maps and doing a test ride out south-east from Puerto Montt and back. Weather was ok, around 15 C with occasional drizzle. We had come prepared to ride in 5 C and raining, but we really hoped not to, but the omens were not encouraging as we returned to the ferry terminal at 9pm in a moderate, cold rain. The ferry terminal was mostly empty, and simply noted "Boarding time 11:30". This seemed to be normal and expected, so we wandered back to town to find a cafe, or any place warm and dry to kill another 2 hours. We found both a cafe and a young German man who was a day behind us on the same journey. Finally, around midnight we boarded the mostly-car ferry and spent a long night in chairs which reclined far back, but which had zilch for leg room. In the morning we were greeted with welcome and spectacular sunshine! Since we were pasty Seattle-white on arrival, and somehow neglected to sunblock for a couple hours we promptly got a bit fried. One of our fellow passengers turned out to be quite talkative, eager to use his English and chat in general. He was a former Chilean fighter pilot now running a large ranch somewhere down south of Chaiten. He was delighted to learn that I was a flight instructor and talked at great length about flying around these parts. Actually flying by small plane would definitely be the best way to get around these parts since it's either gravel road or boat, and debatable about which is faster! He informed us that we were very lucky to see the sun, and that with the strong south wind it would probably even stick around for 4-5 days!

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Approaching Chaiten (around the bell-curve shaped hill) Volcan Corcovado is visible in the distance, 2340m high

Around noon we arrived in Chaiten. There had been a large ferry-dock complex in Puerto Montt but as we drew closer to town I failed to spot anything that looked remotely like a dock for a ferry carrying 25 cars and trucks. Indeed, the captain simply nuzzled up to a cement ramp, ropes were made fast to a couple cleats which had been mounted directly to rock on the shore, and we all disembarked.

Chaiten was our first taste of what the rest of El Camino would be like. It's the largest "city" between Puerto Montt and Coyhaique. In the 1200km of road from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins the total population is around 85,000 - and half of those live in Coyhaique!! Chaiten is a (relatively) bustling metropolis of 2000.

We found the store and bought food for the day - some rolls, a couple green peppers, an onion and some "queso fundo", the local cheese which we (fortunately) liked a lot. We also bought some "Pan de Pascua" a special 'Holiday bread' - i.e. Fruitcake! It's a bit lighter than it's American counterpart, and actually quite tasty, which was fortunate because it would prove to be the only bread we could find for the next 5 days!! It made for lousy sandwiches, but that's ok, there's no Peanut Butter in this part of the world either.

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Approaching the ferry "dock" in Chaiten, and looking over the town

The road out of Chaiten was paved and downwind making for great progress. The sun was shining, the scenery was spectacular, and there was almost no traffic, what more could a bicyclist ask for? We stopped for lunch by a river and then continued wondering when the pavement would run it. 10km out of Chaiten the pavement came to an abrupt end, and just as we reached that point a huge, double-decker German bus towing and even more huge (sleeping?) trailer came roaring up the road in a spray of gravel, triumphantly hit the asphalt and roared off into the distance. We hoped this wouldn't be typical of traffic on the road, got back on the bikes and hit the gravel. It was tough going for the first few km; lots of loose gravel on the road leaving a single wheel track for us each to ride in. crossing between wheel tracks was challenging, and when traffic came by we usually ended up heading off the track, getting bogged down and jumping off the bike before worse things could happen. It would be a long 350km if this kept up! Fortunately the road improved in a few km to being covered by much less loose gravel and the riding was easier. Scenery was Fantastic!! Lush valleys strung between snow and glacier capped mountains. We passed through a small town which included a "cabin" made from the old fuselage of a DC-3. Such a versatile airplane! and then continued on toward Lago Yelcho, the day's goal.

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Heading up a short hill there was an unmistakable hissing noise, our first flat tire, now nice! Turned out to be a small leak which I could fix just by popping the tube out with tire still on the bike. Having 1 flat in the first 10km of dirt did not bode well for the trip, and while we had brought 4 inner tubes, the same number of patch kits, and 2 spare outer tires, I really hoped we didn't end up using them all! Again, our luck improved and the next flat tire wouldn't be until 10 days later.

The destination for the first evening was determined to be Lago Yelcho, a large lake which El Camino clips by the west end of. I think it was West anyway, my usually impeccable sense of direction was thrown completely out of whack by being in the southern hemisphere. While the sense of "the earth gets smaller in that direction" was ok at pointing out south, the concept that east was then on my left hand took a long time to get used to. My Suunto Vector altimeter/compass watch was also confused and proclaimed south to be north - but it wasn't completely wrong since it also proclaimed north to be north! The road ran down a mostly-flat valley making for easy pedaling once the road surface improved and after about 45k we arrive at Lago Yelcho. There was a very small town as we reached the lake, a maybe-store, and about 6 buildings with a boat ramp, and a boat which wasn't going very far. We kept going across the bridge at the head of the lake. While the road is itself a bit overbuilt for the traffic around here, the bridges were phenomenally excessive. Anyone looking to justify the phrase "Pinochet's folly" would only need to take a picture of this fantastic suspension bridge and point out that the traffic volume was usually about 10 vehicles per hour!.

We had seen signs for a campsite and kept looking but not seeing, and we were tired so we decided a small clearing on the shore of the lake next to the town soccer field would work just as well. The lake was beautiful, although we realized after arrival that there was a large fishing operation just around the corner from our site. We were a little worried that the locals would be inclined to start soccer games at 10pm, but there were only a few friendly dogs to notice our arrival. The dogs appeared well fed (a change from Mexico where pets generally are not given food) and very very friendly. eventually they got bored and wandered off leaving us in peace for the evening.
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Day two started on an ominous note as I broke my front "fender" (just a plastic sheet which strapped to the bike frame) and a few km later Gretchen realized she had left her fender at the last campsite as well. So if it rains, we'll be getting even wetter!. But this was hardly a concern at the time since we were once again slathering on the sunblock and trying to avoid sunstroke.

Today the map earned it's reputation as the "lying bastard". To begin with, contours were pretty sparse on the map. And while there was a nice pictogram legend, and even a distance scale, nowhere on there was printed the contour interval. It turned out to be pretty large. There were a grand total of 2, maybe 2.5 contours between us and Villa Santa Lucia, so we figured there would be a slight hill. "Slight" in this case turned out to be closer to 900 ft of climb! And the map didn't show the black flies either - big, black, biting buggers, very dumb, easy to swat if they landed, but they had strength in numbers. The road went up in short steep spurts which not infrequently reduced us to pushing the bikes while trying to swat the flies. We took shelter in the shade under a bridge for a while, and then, determined to get the pass over with, we headed on, over the ridge and down into the valley of Villa Santa Lucia. We found the store (the building on the right in the picture of main street) and next-door the baker, whom we talked into serving us lunch (eggs, bread, nescafe) and who insisted on turning on the TV while we ate. Despite being in a valley ringed by 2000m peaks, they had about 10 channels bringing in the outside world of sitcoms, golf tournaments, and commercials for the university (which showed scenes of an office job in slow motion while playing upbeat music. I have to admit, from the heat and grime of the road, a clean cool office looked attractive).

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Climbing the hill from Lago Yelcho over to Villa Santa Lucia on a Hot day. Descending back into a beautiful valley and hanging out on the bustling main street of Villa Santa Lucia

Leaving Lunch we met our first other biker. A big Danish guy wearing long black bike tights and long sleeve top with fishnet on underneath each. He explained that the fishnet prevented the bug bites - which we could well appreciate by this time, but it must have been at least 25C, and the sun was beating down so the long black clothing??? The Dane said he took off for about half the year every year, and was spending a couple months on El Camino on bike and stopping often to fish. He'd be meeting up with his wife sometime in February in Buenos Aires. "She's not into biking and fishing much" he explained. We nodded and headed off down the road hoping to get in a few more km now that the heat of the day should be waning. Indeed, we were rewarded with a beautiful ride along a river valley with rolling ups and downs which would be pretty representative of the next few days of riding.

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