COLUMN SIX: Chile’s Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is no super-highway. JOHN SWART PHOTO

A safe and spectacular soft adventure

VOICE Correspondent

It’s the noise, not the wet, that stays with you after cycling the rain forests of Chile. Noisy rain pounding on steel roofs, beating on my guaranteed waterproof Marmot jacket (utterly useless in this deluge), rivulets of water racing helter-skelter between the potholes and tire tracks of the worn out gravel road, and the never-ending gurgling of water cascading down the streams, ravines and waterfalls that surround me on all sides.

This is Southern Chile’s Carretera Austral, a 1,240-kilometer string (too remote and unforgiving to be labeled a ribbon) of washboarded potholes, muck and dust. Chile stretches 4,300 kilometres north to south, but averages a mere 175 kilometres in width between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, making it a maritime country by nature. For decades, its south-central region of Aisen and northern Patagonia was accessible only by coastal freighters from the sea, or by a very few mountain tracks from Argentina in the east. The area remained Chile’s last frontier, home to clusters of hearty European settlers and indigenous populations.

In 1983 Chile’s General Pinochet committed to “Chileanizing” these remote villages and ports, and began construction of the Carretera Austral. By 2003 it became possible to drive, and theoretically cycle, the Carretera Austral, a twisting, marginally maintained, gravel road that passes between massive mountains swathed at their base in temperate rain forests and topped by hanging glaciers. The track follows pristine rivers raging unchecked by dams or energy projects, and drops into arid valleys with vistas stretching beyond sight, often unimpeded by any sign of humanity, for the two summer months each year that the road is passable.

On this day the rain is neither cold nor unpleasant, and the steady climb to a 700 metre pass warms me. Near the summit, a washed-out section of road has left the Armco steel barrier—designed to protect vehicles from the most precipitous cliffs —swaying in the wind, its concrete anchors hanging in mid-air above where the road has slid into the Rio Baker far below.

At the next corner I’m besieged by an enormous bull, its origin a total mystery. I realize that my new Brooks bike seat is made of sturdy cowhide—hopefully not from a relative this brute may wish to avenge.

As I pull two squashed white buns with jam from my pannier for lunch, I realize I haven’t encountered another vehicle or person on the road yet today. Below me, the milky, glacier-fed Rio Yelcho roars into the crystal-clear Rio Palena, both headed to the Pacific Ocean. Beyond my rocky lookout, the rain forest is truly impenetrable. Every inch of space is jammed with broadleaved, thick-stalked, monster-sized versions of the tiny tropical plants available on florists’ shelves here in Niagara. At the roadside, thin-beaked yellow and tan coloured birds resembling long-legged seagulls or pipers pick at slugs and snails, improbably quacking to each other like mallard ducks.

A wide grin perpetually covers my face, and the essence of this solo bicycle adventure along southern Chile’s Carretera Austral is clear. There are no must-see cultural icons or traditional tourist spots. The road itself delivers stunning scenes and improbable experiences in every kilometre, and the infrequent villages and hospedajes—Chilean homes renting space to travelers—ensure unscripted interactions each evening.

At La Junta, a small town at the junction of a gravel track into Argentina and the Austral, I’ve splurged for a decent meal at eco-lodge Hotel Montana, and share the simple dining room with one couple. American Linde Waidhofer, an internationally acclaimed photographer, introduces herself, and hands me a copy of “Unknown Patagonia,” her stunning coffee table book of the landscape I’m cycling in. She, and others, are crusading to stop what will become the largest hydro-electric plant in Chile from harnessing the Rio Baker. This book is her contribution to public awareness.

Days later, I stand conflicted at the mouth of the Rio Baker, having cycled its entirety. The river and its mountainous valley are truly the most spectacular natural landscape I have ever encountered. I’ve ridden above the clouds here, stood beside waterfalls whose roar drowned out my thoughts, and cycled for hours without a glimpse of another living soul.

I’ve also watched an educated young Chilean, briefcase in hand and backpack slung over his shoulder, trace a cow path to his home village where there is no electricity or running water.

I’ve shared a bus seat with two gutted pigs being sent to market by an indigenous farmer who couldn’t afford the trip for himself. These people want the tremendous economic benefits and jobs of the hydro project, and are resentful of foreigners meddling.

I consciously maintain no opinion; thankful only to have experienced this magnificent area as it is today.

People’s stories, like the vistas, are endless.

Katrin and Thomas arrived from Germany ten years ago to build hospedaje Campo Alacaluf, which stands isolated 44 kilometres down the dead-end road which leads to Laguna San Rapheal Glacier in Valle Exploradores. Katrin designed and constructed the home while Thomas cooked their meals and built the 10,000 KW water-powered turbine that produces their electricity. While spending the night with them, a 4 AM trip to the shared bathroom found me interrupting Katrin, casually enjoying a glass of rye and a cigarette, sitting on the toilet in the dark.

Mirtha, owner of La Pasarela Lodge, explained over fresh salmon that her other business was importing tulip bulbs from Holland, training them to bloom six months out of sync, then air-freighting the cut flowers back to an eager winter market in the Netherlands.

My quiet coffee on a street bench in Coyhaique, the provincial capital of Aisen, is shattered by hundreds of women who’ve congregated from local villages, shouting “Presidente malo con los ricos” —the President cares only for the rich—as they march through town protesting their lack of job opportunities.

At another hospedaje, the curtains of one window were fashioned from a most unique material. I had to ask. Pointing and touching, I queried, “Que este?” of my 75 year old host Ensalmo Soto Cerna, exhausting most of my Spanish vocabulary. His face lit up, a huge smile beamed, and he shuffled from the room, returning with a few grainy, well-worn black and white photos. One photo portrayed him standing tall and fit, beside a huge boa constrictor, its skin destined to shelter his kitchen from northern Patagonia’s intense sunlight. His voice rose in excitement as he explained through gestures and photos that he’d killed the snake while guiding in Brazil, a career he adopted after years spent traversing Chile, and its South American neighbours, as a soldier.

The Carretera Austral in Aisen and Northern Patagonia presents the opportunity for a safe and unique soft adventure that can be tailored to most travelling styles. Cycling’s the best way in my biased opinion, but touring this breathtaking country by rented 4×4 would be well worth forgoing another month in Florida. 4

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