Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil Cycling Trip

Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil Cycling Trip

Date sent: Fri, 13 Mar 1998
From: Stephen Willey
Subject: Cycling in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil.

If you cycle and are planning a trip, and feel a little adventurous try Chile... :-)

One cold, dismal November morning we took our bikes to Heathrow airport and boarded our flight to Santiago. The "Gulf War" stuff was just starting and we were feeling extremely pleased to be heading just about as far away from it all as possible.

Once we'd negotiated customs (if you take your bikes with you then make sure that the customs guys give you official documentation to say that you brought them with you - otherwise when you try to leave Chile, customs are likely to be a little "difficult" and ask you to pay a "fine").

We loaded our gear and pedaled slowly towards Santiago 30km away. Our first night was spent in an expensive room in a family's house but we found a really nice, cheap place the following day.

A few days later, after we'd dealt with the bureaucracy, travelers cheques (The American Express Bank converted US$2000 Amex cheques into US$ CASH with no commission...!!! Don't know if they still do..) etc., we headed south. Hot, Hot, Hot!!! A couple of days' riding over a mixture of rough dirt roads and reasonable surfaced ones, a night camping next to a HUGE dam and a night in a brothel - cheap! only $4 but we had to leave at 9am sharp - took us to the cowboy town of Marchiue. We're not really into the animal-cruelty type stuff but it was the annual rodeo and we just had to go and see the Caballeros (cowboys in fancy-shirts and very tight trousers) strutting their stuff, polishing their spurs and roping a few steers whilst the guys in black leather... Sorry, got carried away, The Young Ladies watched avidly. A very interesting experience....

The next day we discovered 3 things. 1. Margaret Thatcher had been deposed, shafted by her buddies. A serious cause for celebration; 2. Men NEVER wash their own clothes and 3. Women definitely don't practice bicycle mechanics. We drew quite an incredulous audience one morning as I did the laundry and my girlfriend got out the spoke-key.

More pedaling south (we avoided the Pan-American Highway where at all possible - a nasty, dangerous road) over mostly dirt roads brought us to the town of Curico. A nice, neat place with palm-fringed squares and cycle-lanes. It's true, really!! In Curico we decided to avoid a largish chunk of the dreaded "Highway" and took a train to Temuco.

Temuco lies in the shadow of Volcan Villarica well.., sort of; and probably has the largest concentration of indigenous "Mapuche" people in Chile. It's also a major logging town; wood is very big business in southern Chile especially as most buildings outside of Santiago are built entirely of the stuff.

After a couple of wet days (we know all about Wet after Southern Chile...!!! Be prepared..) we said goodbye to Temuco and the two cyclists we met who'd just cycled down from Bolivia, and set saddle for Villarica in the rain.

Villarica is definitely in the shadow of Volcan Villarica. The perfectly shaped cone of the volcano looms the town and Lake Villarica itself. We spent a couple of days camped in Villarica where it did nothing but rain! We had considered hiking up the volcano to peer down into the smoldering maw but didn't feel like hiking in the rain. Decided to escape from Villarica and head for Lican Ray, a village nestling on the edge of Lake Calafquen. Found an excellent campsite on the edge of the village and spent another couple of days relaxing and dodging rain-showers.

On leaving Lican Ray we headed off along a dirt road that varied from rough 'n' rocky to soft lava sand; at one point the road crossed the aftermath of a huge mud slide that had rushed down the volcano's side to the lake, clearing an impressively wide path as it did so.

At the tiny village of Conaripe the road began to climb up through dense, temperate rain-forest towards the Andean foothills. For our hard work - the road was quite rough and very steep - we were rewarded with excellent views of snow-capped Andean peaks, huge swathes of towering forest and BIG hairy orange spiders wandering around on the road and once, during a munchie and cigarette break, an Indian funeral procession headed by a striking raven-haired Mapuche woman on horseback, toiled slowly past us up the valley giving us a brief but privileged glimpse into life in this remote place. A little later, we watched as a bridge repair team hauled huge logs about with the aid of a couple of oxen adding to a feeling of being in a "lost valley" that had been building within us.

Overshadowed by Volcan Coshuenco, the company-owned logging town of Neltune has nothing of real note except the Huille Huille falls, a very impressive torrent of water that thunders through a narrow channel in the rock, and by which we set up camp just as a torrential rain-storm hit. We were floating ( but dry, we bought a "Wild Country" tent that kept the water out no matter what came down.) on at least 3 inches of water the following morning.

Several days cycling over dirt roads ranging from good to absolutely diabolical took us via Pangipulli, Los Lagos and the really horrible Pan-American Highway (it's a bit better this far south - less traffic but still feels dangerous) to Orsorno. Takes it's name from the impressive Volcan Orsorno, another "perfect" cone-volcano. The town has an old colonial sort of feel; tired wooden facades on tired wooden buildings give it a strange atmosphere.

South of Orsorno is the very Germanic looking village of Puerto Octay. Many people of German descent live in southern Chile, and during WW2, the Chileans literally hid a German battleship from the Allied navies up a river estuary. Anyway, Puerto Octay has really excellent views over Lake Llanquihue of the volcanos Orsorno and Calbulco - REALLY recommend this place and a very good if a little pricey, campground.

We stayed a few days in Puerto Octay and had our first real breakdown, the tent, not the bikes though. One of the aluminum poles snapped and the emergency sleeves supplied with the tent bent like warm butter. We ended up binding it with reams of tape until we could find a better solution.

Generally, on our trips so far we've been extremely lucky with bike and equipment failures. In Chile, nothing more serious than buckled wheels and snapped spokes (we got very good with the spoke-key :-) ) and later, in Argentina and Sri-Lanka, hub and bottom-bracket failures - we always carry spare bearings and an axle but you could probably carry spares of the "sealed" variety on a long trip without paying too much of a weight penalty. During the 6,000 mile trip to Eastern Europe, Greece and Africa in 1989, we suffered nothing worse than bent wheels numerous punctures - 20 in 24hrs once! - and a stove clogged with lead from poor quality leaded petrol.

I do get a bit paranoid though, and always take a good range of tools and spares if cycling outside western Europe.

There is a really good downhill ( if you like going fast that is... {big smile}) into Puerto Montt, the town that claims it has the most southerly railway station in the world. We spent quite a while in P.Montt. We'd arranged to spend Christmas with Eric and Lena, the 2 cyclists we'd met in Temuco, and decided to try and get a replacement tent-pole shipped out from the UK whilst we were there. We'd been told express courier would take 3 days so we allowed 5 and took our bikes on a fantastic trip up the Reloncavi Estuary on a small ship supplying remote communities only accessible by boat or horseback.

It was a real buzz watching riders galloping along the banks of the river to meet the boat at the jetty. After an 8 hour journey we unloaded our bikes at Rio Puelo, and pedalled off to Cochamo along a narrow road with spectacular scenery, clinging to a cliff along another spur of the estuary. Three more days of spectacular waterfalls and volcanoes took us back to P.Montt. Our tent-poles hadn't arrived so I bought some copper tubing from a plumber and did quite a good repair-job.

After a quiet but really pleasant Christmas we addressed the problem of where to go next. Eventually we booked passage on a ship heading for Tierra del Fuego. We canceled the booking a few days later after discovering that our bikes were going to cost us an adult fare each which we could not afford. Instead, we took our bikes to Chaiten, the town at the start of the Carraterra Austral General Pinochet, a dirt road to Patagonia carved through virgin temperate rain-forest that was only built 30 or so years ago.

Well, that's it for now. If you'd like to read more tales from the saddle or have any specific queries re: bikes, kit, etc. Please mail me.

Happy traveling.

Written by Steve Willey
London, UK.

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