Category Archives: Chile

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2011/05/17-20: Wrapping it up in Santiago
The highlight of our final days in Santiago was a night on the town with Raúl and Cristian, the philosophers we met on the Cruce Andino back in February. Why is it that we never quite let go quite this much at home? Is it something profound about the range of new experiences that travel brings us and which allows us to expand in new directions? Or is it as simple as good company, good food, and good wine?

The packing for plane travel took it’s share of our time and energy, starting with doing the rounds of several bike shops before someone managed to loosen Chris’s pedals. It took another trip on foot to the one of the shops to collect bike boxes, and our return carrying these got us a few odd looks. It was a bit of a slog, so we stopped half-way “home” at a coffee shop, parking the boxes outside. Of course we’re used to keeping a sharp eye on our bikes when we stop, but it was different to be keeping an eye on two empty cardboard boxes. By then, they had become precious goods; they were essential to our logistics, difficult to find, and hard to carry. Furthermore, it was the evening before garbage day, and everyone was putting rubbish –including cardboard containers– out onto the sidewalk. We worried that our hard won boxes would get grabbed for recycling!

Once packing was under control, we strolled around the city. We walked up Cerro Santa Lucía and took the funicular up Cerro San Cristóbal. Cristian had helped us arrange a mini-van transfer to the airport, and all went smoothly to the airport and the ensuing eleven hour overnight flight to Toronto. We’d found we had a layover of nearly twelve hours in Toronto, so we’d arranged to visit some cousins where we had a sociable and delicious lunch. Arriving in Vancouver in the evening, we assembled our bikes at the airport, and reconfigured into self-propelled mode for an evening ride home –a satisfying end to the journey.

We’ve assembled a Flickr collection of the trip. Who knows if we’ll get around to a slide show this time?

4,500 km Ride in 2011 (Red by bike, Green by Bus, Blue by Boat)

Read trip blog posts: Departure | Argentinian Patagonia | Southern Chile | Buenos Aires | Uruguay | Central Argentina and click Newer Post at bottom left to move forward.

What Next?
It’s always good to be home in our own comfy bed without having to pack each morning. There are graduations to attend, and weddings to plan. These are adventures in themselves, but the focus of this blog is more about our outdoor exploits as a couple.

We’re planning to join our pedalling nephew for another bike trip in August in Newfoundland. Having returned from a damp coastal (southern hemisphere) autumn to a damp coastal (northern hemisphere) spring, we’ve missed a winter. We’d like to get some skiing in this year, probably the back-country variety. We’ve also decided that to get further away from traffic in our car-centric culture, we need to move onto smaller back roads and trails, and this may involve a new gear splurge on mountain bikes and trailers. We’d try some local adventures first, and if we find we’re not too geriatric for this form of travel, we may even take on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, either in sections or all at once. We’d also like to go back to South America, and ride north from Santiago, Chile to Bogotá, Colombia. Maybe Raúl and Cristian will meet us for that, or we can meet them in New Zealand. Who knows? We may just do “something completely different.”

But first, Chris needs to get his arm back to full strength. The injury was a humbling reminder that  that we’re not invincible, that we’re getting older, and we’d better have a few more adventures while we can still move our old bones to explore the world.

I’ve already thanked Chris for the adventures we’ve shared. My gratitude continues!


And Back to Santiago

2011/05/12-13: In Mendoza

We’d always meant to do “the wine tour”, but when it became a real possibility, we were feeling rather “anti tour.” We’d pedalled through lots of wine country, rolling through endless vineyards. We got whiffs of fruit as trucks passed carrying flats of grapes, and smelling a more pungent odour as we passed the warehouses which buy grapes to press out the juice. Behind or near these warehouses there were sometimes dark piles of what I think were the skins that remain after juice extraction. I wondered whether this byproduct was useful as compost or mulch? Enough of the process. Time to sit down and indulge in the end product!

We strolled and relaxed in Mendoza, and perhaps our only notable outing was to the Serpentario (establishment that displays live snakes) to confirm the identity of our roadside friend as a Bothrops alternus or Yarará. We also gathered info for the last leg of our journey towards Santiago.

The Plan
With at least two days rest needed for Chris’s Achilles tendon and less than perfect arm, and five days needed to cycle the full distance back to Santiago, we’d be left with only a day to prepare our bikes and other luggage for the return flight. There would be no time for museums or shopping, and no margin for dealing with any glitches. We first considered taking an express bus all the way from Mendoza to Santiago, but then we came up with what we thought would be an interesting alternative.

We’d take the more local Upsallata Express bus to Las Cuevas, the last cluster of buildings before the tunnel through the Andes back into Chile. Then, having saved ourselves three days of uphill desert riding, we’d take the more adventurous way back OVER the Andes rather than THROUGH them. The alternative to the tunnel is the old road, now a set of rough gravel switchbacks that climb 1000 m in 9 km to reach the Paso Cristo Redentor. Quite a few cyclists do this as a challenging ride on full suspension mountain bikes. A few fools have done it on loaded touring bikes. And an even smaller minority, which now includes us, have done it while completely ignoring all the basic rules of dealing with altitude.

2011/05/14: Bus to Las Cuevas and 14 km and 1000 m climb to Paso Cristo Redentor  Upsallata Express seems to be used to dealing with bikes; there was a flat fee and they were handled well. We reassembled ourselves after the three hour ride to Las Cuevas, which is at 3100 m. In hindsight we should have camped at Las Cuevas and started the climb the next morning. However, the views and the evening light beckoned us onward and upward, so we rode a short distance on tarmac, and started up the gravel switchbacks.

About three hours of riding, pushing, and stopping to admire views brought us to the pass. It’s here that the Argentinians chose to erect a large and unaesthetic statue of Christ  in 1904, shortly after a border dispute was settled peacefully. Another roadside shrine? It doesn’t add to the place. There is an old stone refuge building, where we bought hot chocolate from a lad selling artesinias (more knick knacks) and we had to haggle to buy hot chocolate without the ceramic mugs we didn’t want to carry. A fox circled  around us in the dusk, wary but expectant.  He had become used to handouts from the refugio and easy pickings from the heap of garbage bags piled behind the building.


Fox looking for a handout

It was almost dark, and getting very cold. There may have been a spot to camp halfway down the gravel switchbacks on the Chilean side, but we decided to tuck our tent into the lee of the refugio and hunker down for the night at 4000 m. For one thing, Chris-the-photographer was drawn to the idea of mountain photos is the early light.

Chris-the-photographer started to look green as I made supper, and he could only force himself to eat a little. Then I began to feel ill. We spent the night lying awake and feeling very sick, with me vomiting frequently into the vestibule. We’d set up the tent with access only from one side, so any time one of us had to go out to pee –and this was often due to altitude effects– we had to go through the vestibule which was also the vomiting place. I think it is easy to say we’ve never spent a worse night in a tent.

2011/05/15: To Los Andes 75 km
P1020492P1020493Dawn finally came, we both felt wobbly and unable to eat, but we knew we needed to get down. We felt stupid, knowing we’d completely ignored the high altitude climbers’ rule of “climb high and sleep low.” We’d also broken the rule of ascending slowly by taking the bus to Las Cuevas. Silly us; we thought we were high altitude cycling pros after Tajikistan.

We piled on all our cold weather clothing, packed slowly, and started carefully down the steep gravel switchbacks. By mid-morning we arrived at Chilean customs down at 3000 m or so.

I mentioned what we’d done and how I was feeling to our immigration officer, in explanation for my worse than usual Spanish. He sent us to the altitude sickness clinic in the same building (Chile is very organized!) where a kind lady used a finger gadget on each of us to measure blood oxygen content, and immediately put an oxygen mask on me. This helped a lot, but I was still feeling weak, so we descended carefully another 1 km to the Portillo Hotel for the proverbial “nice cup of tea.” I also managed to down a Sprite, and we were allowed to relax in the hotel’s lounge for a while till I felt able to start down the infamous caracoles.

Margo going Wheeee

These paved caracoles didn’t seem intimidating after the gravel ones, and especially on the way down. It’s fun passing the huge trucks that have to crawl downhill very carefully! We made it to Los Andes, peeling off clothing as we went, and found a hotel for a good sleep. There was also a certain need for laundry after that terrible night in the tent.


¡Viva Chile!

2011/05/16: To Santiago 81 km
About twenty kilometres of climbing brought us back to the tunnel that the Chilean highways department had been kind enough to take us through in a  truck back in January, on that first hot day of our trip. There was no sign of such a truck at the building before the tunnel, so we briefly tried hitchhiking. A highway crew soon appeared, however, and when I asked whether bike transport was still provided as it had been in January, the jolly crew boss said yes it was, and exclaimed that he remembered us!

The next 60 km was fast riding, either downhill or flat, to Santiago. We no longer had a city map, however, and our navigation into the centre was stressful. The climax was getting ourselves inadvertently into a multi-lane tunnel, an experience we survived but have no desire ever to repeat.

We arrived at the small musty hotel that we had bailed out to on short notice from the nasty party hostel. It is as small and musty as ever, but it seems comfy enough to us after the array of places we’ve slept in the last four months. Our duffel bags were still here tucked away in the basement, so all we’re missing to be able to get into flight mode is bike boxes, and a huge wrench or stronger arms than ours to loosen Chris’s pedals.

So here we jolly well are. Home soon.

Five Days of Logistical Moves

The concept was to get ourselves and our bikes to Buenos Aires. There we plan to allow Chris to recuperate, and both of us to have a change of scene as we plan Part Two on easier roads and in a gentler climate. Upon arriving in La Capitale Federale, we were very happy that these five days were over.

2011/03/17-18: Ferry from Puerto Chacabuco to Quellón
The Naviera Austral ferry Don Baldo  left five hours late, not four. More of the passengers seemed to be locals than tourists. A few of the ports of call have road links to the Carretera Austral, but most were isolated fishing and logging communities. At each port, the stern ramp would be lowered to horizontal and the auxilliary vessel lowered with a winch system to provide transport between ship and shore. Sometimes  vessels would come to from shore to collect passengers and goods.


Evening Port Stop for Puerto Aguirre



Launch being lowered from ferry to take passengers to port

It was evening when we arrived in Puerto Aguirre, and I looked down to the ramp scene from an upper stern deck. I noticed that something the shape of a coffin was being transferred to a local launch. It was wrapped in brown paper and packing tape. Any uncertainty I may have had about the object was quickly removed  as I watched the care with which it was handled, and the tearful hugs and greetings in the boat as it moved off slowly through evening mist and rain towards the village. In another context, there would have been a piper playing Amazing Grace. It was someone’s serene and poignant final voyage.

We slept as well as could be expected on the floor of the boat. Arriving in Quellón the next evening, we found a reasonable hotel in a town without much other appeal.

2011/03/19: Bus to Puerto Montt
We seem to be doomed to delays. Our bus spent three hours waiting for a truck accident to be cleared. Hungry children grew crankier and noisier as we waited. We arrived in PM in the dark, and found an OK hotel in an otherwise seedy area.

2011/03/20-21: Two Days and a Night to Buenos Aires
The first part of this long haul was a cyclist’s nightmare. There are several different bus companies, but there was only one that said they would take bikes IF they had room AND also had a single run all the way from Puerto Montt, Chile, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  We bought tickets from Andesmar. On the platform, the driver scowled at our gear and gave a categorical refusal. I said no problem, we’d ask for a refund and do something else. However, a lady from the Andesmar office who was holding a clipboard had words with the bus driver. We think she twisted his arm to take the bikes, having threatened him with delays if she had to prepare a new passenger list  for the border crossing. Our bikes were stuffed roughly into the hold, and we got on with the obviously resentful driver warning us we’d have to get off in Neuquen if too many new passengers needed to get on. Fine, we said.

We crossed the border the border without sacrificing any honey this time. In Bariloche, the baggage hold opened to reveal a pile of shipping cartons on top of our near horizontal bikes. A cowboy baggage handler (station employee?) ignored my cries as he climbed clumsily across our horizontal bikes to remove suitcases from the other side.  As the bus went for fuel, our bikes lay horizontally, one on top of the other, suspended by their rims across a depression in the undercarriage. How very convenient for all suitcases, knapsacks and duffel bags  to be piled onto them and to bounce on their fragile parts for the next 3000 kilometres!!

We were to wait in the station for an hour. I felt knots in my stomach as we sat on a bench.

A station mutt wandered over, sat down, and laid his muzzle on my knee. I stroked his head, and each time I paused, he raised a paw to plead me to continue. I felt my stomach knots release. How did the dog know I needed him at that moment? I thank that dog.

When the bus returned, Chris and I had discussed our tactics. Something really needed to change or we’d arrive in BA with severely damaged bikes. We’d prefer to find another way.

I gathered my Spanish and approached the bus driver, then in his driver’s seat, with a 100 peso ($25) note in hand. I asked very politely (conditional tense) if there was a possibility that our bikes could be placed in posición vertical with due care and with the bags beside them, so they had a chance of arriving in BA without serious damage. We didn’t know what the reaction would be, but we needed to try something. He placed the note on the dashboard. (In Central Asia it would have gone straight into his pocket.) I moved back toward the baggage area, where the conductor arrived to inform me of excess baggage charges. However, the driver strode towards the back of the platform with his expression completely changed, and instructed several people to ensure the bikes were placed securely and carefully en posición vertical “because that’s what Señora wants!” Chris was even allowed to direct and to help. We boarded the bus for the next leg feeling relieved, and assuming we’d succeeded in greasing the driver’s palm. It seemed a good investment to us.

To our surprise, the driver came to our seats and gave us 60 pesos change plus receipts for 40 pesos worth of excess baggage. We’re still scratching our heads about the about the sudden huge change in attitude. The driver even came to ensure the bikes were done properly as they were moved to a new bus as he went off shift, “because that’s what Señora wants.”

The rest of the day, the night, and the next day, we sat in our seats eating the cardboard snacks provided. Chris was getting sick. Horrendously violent movies were played, despite the presence of young children. I looked out the window and saw a guanaco on the horizon.  We arrived in BA with bikes intact, relieved but very very tired.

Onward to South America Part Two.


Sore Paws

We’ve met our share of cyclists almost every day we’ve been in the Carretera Austral; it draws adventurous travellers from around the world. On our last day on the Carretera, we saw a pair coming towards us with a dog galloping beside them. We were a long way from any habitation.

“You have a dog?!” Chris exclaimed.

“No, we don’t,” they replied, in frustrated tones. “He’s been following us since Puerto Rio Tranquilo.”

At this point they’d come 50 km from Rio Tranquilo. The cyclists had camped for one night, and the dog had settled beside them, waiting till they continued the next day. They claimed they hadn’t fed him, and had tried to lose him on the descents hoping he would turn back, but the determined hound would always catch up to them. They encouraged us to offer him treats and call him, but the hound refused our offer of shortbread and our entreaties of “Ven aqui! Come on! Who’s a good boy!” As we parted company, the dog – looking footsore but determined – continued loping north with the German/French pair. We later heard that Torrey and Lucie, not far behind us, had also tried (and failed) to get the canine to turn southward.

I wondered how the story ended. Most of the time, we never find out how some tales of which we see only the beginnings will end. We can only speculate. A few days later, though, the condition of Chris’s arm helped us to decide to retreat northward by bus as we shifted gears into Plan B.
Our bus back to Coyhaique stopped in Villa Cerro Castillo, allowing passengers to alight for 20 minutes. I had time to talk to the young woman in charge of the general store. I told her about the footsore but determined mutt we’d seen heading north, and wondered if she’d heard of a dog arriving in town on the heels of two cyclists.
“¡Si! Habia un perro de color café llegando aqui con ciclistas. Esta todavia aqui con una familia.”
(Yes. A coffee coloured dog arrived here with some cyclists. He’s still here with a local family.)

We’ll never know whether he ever got back to Rio Tranquilo, or whether anyone there even missed him. At least we know he didn’t continue to Coyaique, climbing switchbacks as the ripio changed to pavimiento. And we can assume somebody fed him and that he got a good rest. Perhaps he eventually got back to his original family in Rio Tranquilo, or maybe he found a new and better home in Cerro Castillo.

The dog had run 130 kilometres in about 48 hours. He’d looked footsore when we’d seen him after 50 km, so heaven knows what condition his feet were in after 130 km.


¡Pobres patitos! 


Shift to Plan B

2011/03/13: Casa de Ciclistas in Rio Tranquilo
On our way back from the internet cafe where we uploaded the last post, we met Torrey and Lucie. They’d met Nina, a German friend they’d ridden with further north, just south of RT, and had turned back into town planning to find lodging for three out of the pelting rain. We invited them to join us in our cabaña, which had more beds than we could use. (We’d chosen the cabaña for it’s tiny bathtub, which allowed us to apply heat to Chris’s arm.) We spent a sociable evening with five of us eating together, soggy gear drying by a wood stove.

Five Soggy Cyclists(Photo gratuitously lifted from T&L's Blog)

2011/03/14: Still in Rio Tranquilo
Our intended route south would have involved pushing our bikes across a rough path from Villa O’Higgins to El Bolson, and pushing bikes is the last thing Chris’s arm wants to do right now. We suspected he needed at least a week’s rest, and that extra week would have meant a race for the last ferry from O’Higgins on March 28th, and a late season mountain crossing, likely in bad weather. We don’t need epics with Chris in his present state, so after a slow morning we tried to get a bus north to Coyhaique to start our retreat, but found we were to late too leave RT that day.
We went back to the cabaña, and later followed the suggestion of going to the Centro de Salud Rural to have the paramedic look at Chris’s arm. The paramedic proposed an injection of anti-inflammatory, followed by a course of tablets to help speed Chris’s recovery. Poor Chris had to drop his drawers for the intramuscular injection! The clinic looked organized and efficient, and it turned out the service was courtesy of the Chilean government.

2011/03/15: Bus to Coyhaique and damned logistics
After having my bike damaged on a Greek ferry, I’m wary of these logistical moves, but we arrived in Coyhaique with bikes unscathed and contemplated our next move over coffee. To get to Puerto Montt, a transportation hub, would allow us to get to Bariloche and Buenos Aires on bigger buses. But with bikes, Puerto Montt is best reached by boat from Puerto Chacabuco, since buses north on the Carretera Austral are too small to accommodate bikes. The season for Navimag’s sailings directly to Puerto Montt was over, we discovered, so we bought tickets for the Thursday sailing from Chacabuco to Quellon on Grande Isla Chiloe, from whence there’s a bus to Puerto Montt.

2011/03/16: Bus to Puerto Aysen and 15 km ride to Puerto Chacabuco
At least the buses are cheap. They must be heavily subsidized! Why aren’t our Canadian long-distance buses this cheap, and our highway tolls higher as they are here so that more people would leave their cars behind? We moved the 70 odd km to Aysen by bus in pouring rain, and rode the last 15 km (easy pavement) during a brief period of lighter rain to Chacabuco, a tiny fish-processing town with not much more to offer than a ferry dock. Naviera Austral called on our cell phone to announce the next departure was delayed by five hours due to poor weather.