After our Xmas break in the pretty little town of San Martin de los Andes, we left for the Chilean border early in the morning of the 27th. It had been a much needed rest, more for our on-going lip issues than our legs. Claire was especially anxious about the stretch of ripio (gravel road) ahead of us through Paso Hua Hum to Puerto Fuy in Chile. Trying to get good info on the quality of the road from drivers, even from other riders is very subjective. An e-mail from David and Lisa (2 Aussies on an extended vacation after selling their software company to a Canadian conglomerate) who had done the crossing the day before on unloaded mountain bikes, was not too discouraging so we went for it. There was a vicious 16% grade on asphalt to get out of San Martin. This is our absolute max and thank God it was only a few hundred meters. The ripio started shortly after and though reasonable for the first hour it got progressively worse, with long stretches of washboard and loose gravel. On some of the downhills going into corners with some speed, in tricky dappled light, we would run into virtual wave trains of loose washboard that we couldn’t see until we were upon them. It was super sketchy and took all our riding skills (read luck) to negotiate them. (I kept hearing my riding buddies back home saying ‘momentum is your friend’ as I bounced along, faking like I knew what I was doing……..once again! – CH).
After 4.5 hours of tough riding we rode into the spiffy, new Chilean border facility where we were harassed by the customs official from hell who confiscated all our dried fruit, even our much prized bag of trail mix, despite having crossed the border 3x before wherein we’d declared our dried fruit each time without incident. I fumed for an hour or two, my Scottish blood boiling. A scenic ferry ride and an hour of smooth tarmac to our campsite and I had put it behind me.
The next day’s ride to Conaripe with periodic views of Vulcan Villarica, a classic snow clad, volcanic peak, still active and smoking, was wonderful. However, the weather took a turn the following day and we rode into the tourist town of Villarica in a chilly, heavy downpour. Our brand new MEC Gortex jackets were a big letdown with water penetration after maybe 3 hours. We found a cafe with wifi and started perusing our various apps to find a suitably priced (read cheap) accommodation. We rode to our first choice but it was full so they suggested Hostal Chocolate just around the corner. There was no answer at the door so one of the guests had to phone the owner and while we waited for him to show up I assessed the conditions, best described as old, falling apart and dirty but Eugenio, the gregarious, friendly host, found us an upstairs room (with no egress, i.e., the kind of thing I think about), near the shared bathroom. Regrettably the only working shower was downstairs. Nevertheless the price was right so we took it and we’re glad we did.
We had a fine time sharing the small kitchen/sitting area with some of the other guests (young Chileans where, once again, our ability to speak the language so enriches the experience) then shared a couple bottles of good wine with Eugenio and his friends. They were travelled, engaging, interested in our trip and full of stories. Had a long talk with Peyo who was in the process of building a mountain biking/skiing lodge on the slopes of the volcano. He was a fascinating character and an accomplished ocean sailor. By the end of the evening he invited us to go mountain biking. Liam, a young Scot who was working for Peyo, picked us up in the morning. Valerie, a friend of Peyo’s and the Chilean Master’s class (over 60) mtn biking champion joined us as our guide, we rented some bikes in Pucón (crappy by Squamish standards) and before long we were doing shuttle rides down the slopes of Vulcan Villarica- our idea of an awesome rest day! Cooked up some salmon for dinner (delicious), Eugenio had breakfast ready in the morning, along with more animated stories and advice. Then back on the bikes for a quiet, scenic, backroad ride into Pitrufquén on the last day of the year. It was a memorable 2 nights in Villarica.
As part of our haphazard trip planning we wanted to experience something of the Chilean coast but not a stretch of beaches filled with vacationers. I had seen what looked like a nice coastal ride heading west from Villarica through the heart of Mapuche territory. Eugenio and buddies immediately nixed the idea due to recent native unrest (remember The Oka Crisis of 1990 in Quebec, this was similar). They later recanted saying things had settled down, so we went for it…..and thus we found ourselves in Pitrufquén, a small working class town, far off the tourist grid, for New Year’s Eve. Contrary to everywhere else we’ve been there was virtually no accommodation. We ended up in an old, ‘economy’ hotel that initially wasn’t accepting guests but just as we got on our bikes to leave, maybe it was our looks of desperation, they relented. We were the only guests! it was a bit creepy, like something out of The Shining, but instead of a homicidal caretaker downstairs, we had two kindly, old ladies who just wanted a quiet New Years!
The rest of our 4 day ride through Mapuche territory had similar odd stays and encounters (tales for another day) but was a lovely ride on quiet roads through small farms with views of the ocean. However for the first time this trip we felt some hostility in two brief exchanges with natives, so contrary to what we’ve experienced to date. Now that we’re through and have read up on recent events (murders, violent protests, burnings, etc.) plus read a little of the troubled history and, most importantly, seeing first hand, the burnt out remains of at least 20 highway blockades we now understand the hostility. As they say, ‘ignorance is bliss’!
One constant in our trip to date has been dogs. They are like the sacred cows of India, ubiquitous, uncared for yet not mistreated. Each home has a dog and rural homes at least 2-3 and for each of these there would appear an equal number just roaming the streets. They bark at all hours and many love to chase cars and regrettably, bikes. It is often a stealth attack and accordingly I don’t think deterrents (whistles, sprays, etc.) would be useful, I.e., too hard to get at quickly. My strategy oscillates between ignore them or go at them, yelling aggressively. Regrettably Claire freaks out which I’m worried could lead to an accident. Whatever, the case we’ll have to get our act together as the dogs of Bolivia and Peru are worse.
NB – Very saddened by the passing of Chris McCrum. He was such a vital man, respected by many and a friend. He has left an indelible mark on our community.
PS – Despite Claire and I having lived with cold sores all our lives we never had to consider the link between diet and their onset. Much to our dismay foods rich in arginine, eg. nuts, chocolate, etc., activate the virus. We survive on nuts and chocolate! Our goto lunch while on the road is peanut butter and Nutella on bread. Drastic change is required!