In January I had the opportunity to tick off a bucket list item that had been gnawing away at me for some years, namely to ride the 1350 km (840 mile) Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) in Chilean Patagonia.
The Carretera Austral, Chile’s Route 7, is becoming a classic for adventurous cyclists, having everything from stunning scenery, friendly locals, great side trips, and, of course, a formidable physical challenge.
The road is a work in progress, going from Puerto Montt in the north down to a small town, Villa O’Higgins (amazing where the Irish went…) in the south. The first half is mostly of excellent quality, a testament to Chilean engineering, but as you go further down it becomes more, er, “character building.” The asphalt paving is proceeding at about 80 km per year and currently covers about 55% of the route.
The prevailing wind direction is north-westerly and given that Patagonia’s defining feature is the wind, it makes sense to ride it north to south.
I could have taken my own bike and camping gear, but the excess weight would have cost me an extra AUD $1,200. Another, even more important consideration is that after O’Higgins the only way out is a 50 km trip to El Chalten in Argentina. This involves a combination of two ferry rides, a rough ride, and 11 km of manhandling and carrying your bike and equipment through a forest. This is doable if you have the time, but I had the rather pressing deadline of my daughter’s 18th, something I dared not miss.
On arrival in Chile they sting Australians, and only Australians, for a US$117 "reciprocal" tax. The Australian authorities, with their customary brilliance, welcome incoming tourists with a landing tax, so, unsurprisingly, the Chilean government reciprocates. (I'm amazed more countries don't do it.)
If you have another passport, consider using it. I do, but wasn't aware of the tax and didn't bring it. Ouch.
Bike Tour and Bike Hire Value
Julie and Celina at Roar Adventures hitched me up with a Chilean bike tour company from whom I hired a mountain bike and camping gear. Most importantly, unlike other hire companies they will bring the bike back from O’Higgins, sparing one the logistical nightmare of returning it to Puerto Montt. The company is run almost single-handedly by a very competent young Chilean woman who speaks very good English.
The tour company will also carry the bulk of your gear to the next stop, so you can cycle with only your needs for the day. In my case, the package included the meals and accommodation (hostels and camping). This was a great advantage as the prices down there can be pretty exorbitant – to be expected given the logistics. Also, at the end of a hard day in the saddle it spared me the additional hassle of arriving in a strange town and looking around for somewhere to sleep.
The tour company is well networked and knows the best places to stay, shop and eat. On top of that, they arranged other details like getting me the best SIM for the region (Entel, for your information) with sufficient data. This was particularly important further south where the signals are very hit or miss. With the other providers it’s no hit, all miss. Even with Entel, 4G is only available in the bigger towns, and most of the way it’s either nothing or just pops up an ‘H’ which can best be described as 0.2G.
I met many cyclists who had brought out their own bikes and equipment, so that is certainly an option if you prefer. As I mentioned, the issues you face are the cost of getting it there and back, and the SAS selection course getting through to Argentina at the other end. Also, the tour company says her bikes last two seasons at most. I had a good quality 2018 Cannondale mountain bike, with 29” wheels, and given the punishment it took I’m amazed they last that long. This photo was on the first day – it bore little resemblance to this by the end. So, if you are a bit maternal about your own machine, hiring is the way to go.
A few more points
Weather & Clothing
The weather makes Melbourne’s look stable. A gorgeous, cloudless day will be followed by a shocker. I had to stop for two days in Puyuhuapi, in weather to make a Welshman slit his wrists, with fresh snow at 200 meters.
Even in January some days were 8°C max and down to 2°C at night, so take clothes for an Australian winter. I recommend a Polartek-type fiber jacket that tolerates being wet, plus warm longs, and of course a breathable rain jacket. I was woefully underdressed, even after buying thermals in Coyhaique. February is apparently the best month for weather.
Jacket quality affects ride quality, whether you set out in rain or simply get caught out in some. Check out BikeRoar's article, "What makes a good cycling jacket?" to learn more.
I found not many folk speak English, so a Spanish course is a good idea before you go. However, although Spanish is normally quite an easy language, Chileans speak a most brutal dialect; expect to misunderstand and be misunderstood. I found they often just looked at me, they couldn’t understand their own language…! As always, it was the bike tour company to the rescue.
On With the Adventure
The Carretera can be split into two, with Coyhaique in the middle. The first half has better roads and with the wind behind you, riding can be positively quiche-eating. However, it is also noticeably wetter as you are closer to the coast, similar in many ways to Fjordland in New Zealand.
At several points the topography is just too much, and a ferry bypass is needed. The longest is about 5 hours from Hornopiren to Caleta Gonzalo. The tourist blurb waxed lyrical about majestic views of the Andes. Er no, it was one of the bad days and we could hardly see the shore.
The scenery and vegetation are stunning, with lush temperate rainforest topped by snow-covered peaks (alas, not always visible). This photo above is of Lago Yelcho on the most perfect day of the whole trip. The riding is seldom flat, and on most days involves at least one challenging climb.
This was taken near the top of a pass involving 22 switchbacks. Inspiring scenes like this were more than enough to justify the effort. Alas, sometimes that effort is rewarded with, well, nothing but low, clammy cloud!
The most unmissable spot on the whole Carretera would have to be the hanging glacier at Queulat, which comes to an abrupt end at a cliff edge.
Our bike tour company was (naturally) friends with the kayak hire people and we were able to paddle round the lake, near to the glacial waterfall.
One lady had been here 20 years before and said that it, like many glaciers, is now sadly smaller. However, I think you’ll agree it’s still very impressive.
In stark contrast to the scenery, for the most part the towns are pretty drab and uninteresting. This is a frontier region, so they lack the picture postcard kitsch of Bavarian and Swiss villages. It’s all about nature.
The second half, after Coyhaique, is mostly drier and the vegetation less outrageously verdant. By that stage I was happy to trade scenery for less rain. But as I mentioned before, about 100 km south of there the asphalt stops completely.
The ominous sight of road crews told me I was nearing the end of the quiche. At some points graders keep the dirt in reasonable form, but with so much road most cannot be maintained.
The result is the classic washboard effect, to wit:
I tried taking them fast and slow but believe me, nothing works - they shake you to the core! There is usually a smoother strip somewhere, so you have to veer from one side to the other to avoid the worst of it — not something you would do on Parramatta Road, but mercifully there isn’t much traffic in this southern half.
In fact, even in the northern part, the traffic is very modest by Australian standards. The worst effect of traffic on the dirt roads is the dust they throw up, requiring repeated cleaning of your sunnies. In a few years the whole road will be paved, but the flipside is that there will be more traffic.
Another highlight is Puerto Tranquillo on Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in South America, after Titicaca. The lake is an amazing azure color, which was enhanced by some very obliging weather.
We stopped and camped there for a day. This is your humble correspondent at a campsite by the lake. Campsites became progressively more primitive, with cold showers (if any). By the end it was just wild camping, and doing the necessary behind a bush.
A great attraction are some marble caves along the lake, reachable by tour boats operating out of the town.
I started out as the only person on the tour which concerned me somewhat, as my eco-holiday was rather less eco with a truck accompanying me. However, along the way we picked up others, which at least spread the eco-guilt around. In fact, the tour company has to manage 25 bikes at any one time (only a woman could do that), so the truck is in perpetual motion up and down the Carretera collecting and dropping off bikes. At various times I was riding with Germans and Australians, all of whom were great company.
As we went further south, the phone coverage worsened. The tour company knew where it was possible to pick up faint signals, usually insufficient for voice but just enough to send texts. She would tell me of a bridge or crossroads where I might be able to get a WhatsApp or email message, and from where she kept tabs on all those bikes. How on earth she manages to run a business on that basis…
I subscribed to a Bikemap navigation app for my phone, which I clipped to the handlebar. It wasn’t really needed for navigation as there is only one road and I used it mostly to show me where I was, and how far I had to go that day. In fact it fell off once on a particularly rough stretch – luckily I noticed soon after and was able to retrieve it just before a grader buried it! After that I put it away.
After nearly 4 weeks I reached the final destination, Villa O’Higgins.
Was it worth it? Definitely. It was indeed tough, but even at 68 it was still achievable. Like most adventure holidays it should be undertaken as a challenge, with an expectation of sweat and discomfort. A boozy holiday on the Gold Coast it ain’t. But think of the bragging rights afterwards!
The total cost of the cycling trip was just under AUD $7,000, and about another $1K for incidentals like an evening beer. With airfares, it came to just over AUD $10,000. I checked out an American company, but they wanted USD $5,000 for each half, about double what I paid. I recommend you contact Roar Adventures.
Roar Adventures thanks Sholto Douglas for entrusting us to help him achieve this incredible bucket-list adventure and for sharing his story and photos. You can see more photos of his bike tour on his Flickr page. Sholto traveled on the Northern Austral Cycle Tour and the Southern Austral Cycle Tour with a customized extension.