We’ve switched adversaries. Our daily struggle Is no longer against the wind. We’re riding the Carretera Austral (CA) and we now contend with loose gravel, dust, potholes and hills. We’re not sure what is worse. Combine all these, which has happened too many times, and it is admittedly demoralizing. The CA (Highway #7) of Patagonia, Chile is one of the most famous and challenging bike touring destinations in the world. The +/- 1200 km from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins was started in 1976 under the dictator Pinochet and work continues to this day. It is often touted by the Rightists (now in power) as one of his major achievements, opening up a heretofore very isolated part of Chile. Approximately 75% of the existing road is now paved but we started our ride from the south where maybe 80% of the portion we rode was gravel (ripio), often loose and with many a stiff climb. We have never spent so much time in granny gear. It is also strikingly beautiful with towering mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes, fiords and as we’ve proceeded north, spectacular blooms of springtime flowers. Entire fields of wild, purple lupines, hillsides covered in pink wild rose, long corridors of ‘remate’ (a large bush with lupine-like yellow blooms and an almost overpowering fragrance) adorning either side of the road and even lowly broom, a solid mass of incandescent yellow, nothing like the invasive variety we have back home.
It has also been tough going. The towns are few and far apart, typically very humble affairs and poorly provisioned but pioneering in spirit, welcoming and honest. We’ve never worried for our own security or that of our belongings. The farther north we go the more ‘first world’ the conditions and though I’m enjoying the bakeries full of treats we are missing the connections we made further south. Much like when we lived in Nicaragua, every second house has a small business with no shortage of possible accommodations on offer. We’ve typically opted for camping and rustic though they may be, we’ve camped in some beautiful spots. One of my favourites was Camping Picaflor. It had been a long day on ripio, with on and off light rain and threatening, dark clouds moving in. We were tired and resolved to wild camp when Picaflor’s small hand made sign led us 800 mts down (dreading the thought of having to come back up) a rough road to a small sheep farm. The lady of the house got us installed, the only guests, then went off to make us some ‘bread’ (more like bannock). The ablution block plumbing wasn’t working so we had hot showers in their modest home. We cooked our dinner in a small shed with chickens pecking around our feet where they also had a typical wood fired, lamb grill, Argentinian-style on a vertical spit. We lit a fire in the grill and settled down for a read while a light rain fell on the shed roof. We woke to a clear skies with the surprising and awesome view of a beautiful mountain towering above us.
And then there has been our health issues. Claire’s shoulder pain has diminished but a tweaked abductor and hand numbness have been a bother. My back was out for a couple of days but I worked through it and a small hamstring pull has been a worry but the above pale in comparison with our poor lips. Both Claire and I suffer cold sores, a latent virus we carry that is activated by sun, wind, cold, stress or a combination of the above producing an irritating, sometimes painful, blister on our lips. Given the UV Index for the southern Andes is the highest in the world (I believe some 10x higher than what would be considered a high rating in Squamish) combined with continued exposure to all of the above and our cold sores have been off the charts. Claire’s lips have been a mess since shortly after our arrival in Ushuaia and is only now getting over them (as Jim writes this, a new cold sore has bloomed… any expert on this out there??) My lower lip is hideous. I put a medicated ointment on at night and wake up with my lips virtually stitched together with blood encrusted, exfoliated lip tissue. I occasionally, and excruciatingly, whack myself in my mouth adjusting my sleeping position, I.e., in a mummy bag on a narrow ‘Neoair’ mattress (we will spare you the photo – CH). I haven’t kissed my wife in 6 weeks!
As we head north we stop and talk with all the bikers heading south, as many as 8 riders in a day. It is a mixed bag of nationalities, riding setup, ages and journeys but the encounters are rewarding. Occasionally spirits are down due to hardships but more often than not positive energy abounds. We’ve met: 2 Poles on a hammerfest knocking off 150 km/day; many French including a young couple struggling on their tandem, an older couple who had been on the road 4 years – super upbeat and full of info, except for the missing beta on an alternate route just ahead that would have saved us one of the worst stretches of ripio we’ve experienced, damn!; a couple of Brits who’d started in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (google it) and had been on the road for 19 months. He was done in, not really wanting to chat and anxious to finish in Ushuaia, until I guessed he was from Manchester – he sounded just like Andy King! – surprisingly, it made his day; 2 Yanks on recumbents (Gawd, they look comfy) going slow and also struggling with the ripio, they kept falling in loose gravel but at least they didn’t have far to fall and many others, all with a story to share. Surprisingly we’ve met few Americans. It either reinforces the stereotype of their insularity or simply that in the era of Trump (universally derided) they are too embarrassed to travel. When camping alongside other bikers we have more time together leading to some very pleasant evenings; in Ventisquero (grim campsite beside a swamp) a couple of young Belge doctors taking a gap year in the midst of their specialties and in Futaleufu (nice town famous for rafting !) two middle aged Australian doctors both retired, burnt out with the health system, soon to head home and start an organic farm in Tasmania- they had tricked out ‘bike packing’ rigs that got me thinking about future adventures! The meeting and sharing stories with other bikers has been a big part of our trip especially on the CA. At Futaleufu we crossed back into Argentina (to avoid some wet weather) and are back in the equally beautiful Lake District of Ruta 40. All paved, more established towns, a lot fewer bikers and apparently, the soon to be, throngs of vacationers from Buenos Aires. We are currently spending Christmas in San Martin de Los Andes and then once rested, another two days of hopefully smooth ripio, crossing the Paso Hua Hum and back to Chile. Our planning extends a few days out (to Villarrica) and then we’ll see what happens….we have some big ground to cover!