07 February 2015

Villarrica to Puerto Montt via Argentina: The highways of dust and some pretty lakes

Villarrica marked the half way point in our incursion into the Chilean Lake district. January and February are also the busiest months of the year in terms of tourism. Our priority there was, once again, to take the least busy and more scenic roads...something that has proved very easy for the majority of our travels, but not so much in the lake district at this time of year.. With the private car being omnipresent in Chile, even the supposedly quiet dirt roads also carry lots of fast traffic.

Leaving Villarrica we headed for the Hua Hum crossing into Argentina. We thought it would be a quiet and scenic dirt road, but we couldn´t have been more wrong - we had entered the highways of dust! Speeding 4x4s and rental cars were our companions for all those days. The scenery never materialised either - most of the roads travelled through dense forests, which on the other hand, provide some shelter for the unforgiving sun of the summer. In Puerto Fuy, an Argentinian cycle tourist gave us more bad news: more dust, traffic and even steeper prices awaited us when we crossed into Argentina...

But we love Argentina. While Chile greets you with most of its land fenced off , National Park fees and ridiculous prices for campsites, Argentinian´s National Parks are pretty much all free, unfenced, and all of them have areas for free camping. But the lakes district was so different from the North. Generous folk, calm drivers, empty roads and the yummy cheap empanadas we had left behind in Catamarca were quickly replaced by price gouging on an unthinkable scale, frantic traffic, and empanadas that cost more than our daily budget.

We passed a few days feeling really quite down, finding it impossible to find the types of roads we like to ride and the kinds of communities we like to ride through. By the time we arrived in Bariloche (via one of the scariest roads of the trip), we knew something had to change radically. A special treat of a kayaking trip in the Lago Nahuel Huapi helped us to press reset on the whole experience, and we made the decision to take the expensive Cruce Andino boat crossing  into Chile rather than ride another kilometer on the suicidal roads of the area. When all was said and done we had spent more than two weeks´ budget over the course of two days, but we came out the other side of it with renewed energy and optimism.

The final piece came as we arrived in Puerto Montt to the welcoming arms of our Warmshowers host Sebastian, coinciding with other cyclists and sharing their energy, reminding ourselves what we love about bicycle travel and getting psyched for the final 2,000 km to Ushuaia. Writing this blog now with the benefit of hindsight, well-rested and surrounded by positive energy, we can see that there were also plenty of beautiful moments during our time in the lakes as well...

We head towards Lican Ray with views of Volcan Villarrica

Amongst all the expensive campsites of Lican Ray we manage to find a simple, reasonably priced one, a bit far from the lakeside action but perfect for our needs. Dinner that night features a very large home-grown courgette and a very small bottle of wine.

The campsite also featured a small garden that the owners used to educate guests (as well as to feed themselves of course!) After a year in the Andes, we finally see the actual quinoa plant up-close and for the first time. 
Passing Lago Neltume the next day, we find this sign that perfectly captures our frustration with the Chilean lakes: Beach for rent. This man wanted to charge us nearly $12 USD to sleep on a little spot of beach with no services. Wtf!?

With our hopes of a peaceful lakeside wild camp dashed, we ask at a small farm if we can pitch our tent. The family kindly gives us a spot of grass and we pass the night talking with their seven year old son about the violent video games his friend owns.  Quite a radical change from the countries up North...

The next day we reach our ferry at Puerto Fuy, which will take us almost to the Argentinal border.

We were really excited to enter Argentina, hoping it would mark a turning point in our experience.
For the first night, it seems that it has worked. We head for a designated free campsite within Parque Nacional Lanin....
...and enjoy a peaceful camp with great views.

But alas, it doesn´t last. We arrive in San Martin de los Andes to utter sticker shock -- a crappy campsite will cost us more than our daily budget. After taking care of errands, it´s almost dark before we are ready to leave town and so we end up sleeping on the town´s beach.

We had been looking forward to the Ruta de los 7 Lagos, or route of 7 lakes, for a while, but at this time of year the road is so full of tourists that it makes it quite hard to enjoy. 
And there are also lots and lots of cyclists on this popular route... For the first time in our trip, we don´t stop to talk to every cyclist with panniers that we encounter

At Lago Espejo, we are reminded of the relaxed attitude we like in Argentina. Like in Spain, sometimes rules are there just as a suggestion. Sign reads "On the beach it´s prohibited to make fires and camp"

We spend a day off at Lago el Espejo enjoying the beach and hoping that the rest will be of help...we are so tired of the traffic and a bit disappointed at the route 

It´s just a short push to touristy Villa La Angostura...and on the way we see some of the best scenery of the Ruta de los 7 Lagos.

Crystal clear lakes and mountains, that´s what we came here for...

And of course, some nice lake-side beaches

At Lago Espejo we met Urban, a German cycle tourist on a short trip around Argentina and Chile. At 50 years old, he´s recently discovered cycle touring and was full of enthusiasm. It´s never too late to get started!

We cycle through uninteresting Villa La Angostura, which provides an opportunity for stocking up for the night...

...and soon afterwards find an idyllic place to camp by the Lake Nahuel Huapi. Before it´s too dark we take a plunge in its chilly waters

In the morning we take it easy, enjoy the views and the quietness of the place. Despite being in one the busiest, more expensive areas in the whole continent, you can still find incredible wild camps, only a few kms from fancy Villa La Angostura.

Unfortunately though, our happyness is short lived. Just after leaving our idyllic campsite, we are faced with the road 231 to Bariloche. Serving as one of the main crossings from Chile to Argentina, and being so narrow, it´s the perfect recipe for a dangerous road (indeed one of the dodgiest of our trip). Luckily though there´s an unpaved shoulder that we take all the way...

Bariloche itself isn´t particularly exciting, but at least it´s a big town with all the services and not only overpriced tourist hangouts. And, it has the Nahuel Huapi lake, which is really scenic from all angles. Here Cerro Tronador (3491 m) as seen from the lake.

We splurged and try out kayak touring...can´t really coordinate our paddle stroke, and realise that tandems are really not for us! However, Alberto quickly comes up with an idea...kayaking around the coast of Spain. Next project maybe?

After 1.5 months without any rain in the Bariloche area, we woke up to threatening skies and thunder, ride to the ferry and cross the Nahuel Huapi headed back for Chile

The second crossing takes us on the very green waters of Lago Frías...

...where we stamp out of Argentina at one of the most scenic border crossings of our trip

Then enjoy the 30km of traffic free ripio that take us to Chile. Only one tourist bus a day uses this crossing, and so for the first time in a few days we really can relax and enjoy the scenery.

Arriving into the village of Peulla, we stamp in to Chile, get to know the entire village and make plans for the following day: a boat trip picking up trash with the Conaf guys in and around the beaches of the Lago de Todos los Santos.

But before, we take our daily shower before it gets too dark....and sleep peacefully by the Conaf office

In the morning we set off to pick up trash, and get to see the Puntiagudo Volcano

and the Tronador, now from its Chilean side

We pick up trash from the beaches, then ferry it across to a bigger boat which will transport it and  us back to Peulla

Just before the wind picks up, clouds appear, and we head back to port...

Job done for the day! We felt good to give something back to countries and people that have offered us so much hospitality during our trip

In the afternoon we catch one more ferry that takes us forward to touristy Petrohué, on the sides of Volcán Osorno - another picture perfect snow-capped volcano

The following day we ride towards Puerto Montt...and stop by these beauties

Most are still too green, but we found the ones that are ready and have a blackberry feast

Arriving into Puerto Montt, we enjoy the different architecture of the city and settled down for a few days of rest with our great host Sebastian and other cyclists
Route notes:

You can see our detailed route on here

- Villarrica to Puerto Fuy: the paved road from Villarrica to Lican Ray had a lot of traffic in high season, so we took parallel dirt roads almost devoid of any traffic. From Lican Ray we joined to route 201 towards Puerto Fuy via the T25 and then road 203. There´s a very good campsite (Rayan Mawiza) for 1800 pesos chilenos 3 km out of Lican Ray, on the turn off to the paragliding take off site (away from the lake) - the onwers are incredibly friendly, and have an organic garden growing every vegetable you can think of. Lican Ray to Coñaripe is paved, then all unpaved to Puerto Fuy.

The ferry crossing has three daily departures in high season, takes 1.5 h and costs 3300 pesos with the bike. To buy supplies (there are none once you make the crossing until San Martin de los Andes), Neltume seemed to have more than Puerto Fuy.

- Puerto Fuy to San Martin de los Andes: There are both Chilean and Argentinian aduanas at this crossing. A few km after the Argentinian aduanas, a 3km diversion will take you to a designated area for free camping - follow the signed turnoff for Camping Don Bartolo and then carry on over the hill. The road is unpaved and in high season carried plenty of fast moving traffic.

- San Martin de los Andes to Bariloche: The road is entirely paved now apart from a 10km section which is currently being worked on and will be paved soon. The 7 lagos route has plenty of fast moving tourist traffic, especially after 11am, but has somewhat of a shoulder and lots of cyclists, which somewhat mitigate the risks. Still, we didn´t find it pleasant. There are two designated free camping areas, one at km 48 from San Martin (Lago Villarino) and one at approximately km 80 (Lago Espejo Grande). Paid campsites in this area were around AR 100 per person but seem to rise exponentially each year.

From the junction with the international road to Bariloche, traffic picks up substantially with trucks and busses in addition to tourist traffic and there is no paved shoulder. We found this road to be extremely dangerous at least at the time of year we rode it.

- Bariloche to Puerto Montt: We took the Cruce Andino crossing to Petrohue, boats operated by Turisur. We were charged AR 846 (!!) per person for just the three boat rides. In between the first and second boat is a 3km ride, and between the 2nd and 3rd a 30km ride. It is entirely possible to reach Peulla in time to catch the last boat in the same day, but you can also choose not to rush (or in the event of a mechanical etc) and wait to catch the Peulla-Petrohue boat the next day. In Peulla, you can ask at the CONAF office to camp in their garden. The area is also house to a few great walks, one of them includes a trek up to 2000 m at the foot of Cerro Tronador - the paths starts from the Vialidad Refugio on the Chilean side (we didn´t do it, but were told is easy and very scenic)

The first 6km from Petrohue are unpaved, after which the road is paved and with a (somewhat cobled together) cycle lane the whole distance into Puerto Varas. We believe both the 5 and the smaller road via Alerce are extremely busy, and so we took unpaved roads which parallel these, starting from a turnoff signed for Colonia 3 Puentes.

31 January 2015

Chillan to Villarrica: Lava rubble and monkey puzzles

With the decision made to try to make it to Tierra del Fuego before the Patagonian winter sets in, we again found ourselves on a bus, as the roads we would have liked to take south of Santiago were too slow and we were unwilling to go on the main Panamerican highway. We arrived in Chillan in the mid-afternoon, marvelling at how much the landscape had changed since we were last on the bikes in Copiapo. 

Our route South kept us off of the main roads and took us through forests, past rivers, lakes, and volcanoes. Surely there are flatter routes, but we were purposely trying to go above 1,000m to catch a glimpse of the famous monkey puzzle trees, or araucarias, which give their name to this region of Chile. We expected things to be easier in Chile, riding in a so-called more ´developed´ country where the altitudes were not as extreme, ripio roads would be better, good maps, food and wine available everywhere. However, we found more of the contrary - unpaved roads were among the worst of our journey, the hills steeper than ever before, and most low land was fenced off (making wild camping a bit more difficult). The people became more distant. Here, in the lakes region, tourism is quite developed, so you get funny looks if asking for free camping. Oh, and the heat...which rockets up to 40C and higher at this time of the year.

But, on the plus side, the scenery is incredible and new to us: snow-capped volcanoes, lakes and rivers, all in one shot, is something that got us very excited. We have also met some very generous people, who have invited us for some delicious asados (yes, they do have them here in Chile also), beer, wine and given us places to pitch our tent. It seems true that, like most Chilenos say, the South is different.

Leaving Chillán on the N59 to Santa Bárbara, we realise that this road is busy, has no shoulder, and traffic is nuts. It turns out is the old Panamerican and avoids the fees of the faster route 5...so it wasn´t a great idea. At least we had the nevados de Chillán for company...

We have grown accustomed to crosses on the side of the road in South America but Chile is the first country in which we have seen ghost bikes. It was especially upsetting to see this one in a non-urban setting along the road we were riding.

But we were finally in the lakes district, and with that, a daily river swim...
...then moved on to celebrating our anniversary of one year on the road with some cheap boxed wine (which wasn´t that bad actually, for $1!)

The following day we arrive early at Santa Bárbara, and are pointed towards Juanita´s shop...
...who serves up the yuummiest emapanadas we´ve tried in Chile
The road to Ralco was paved and with the help of a light tailwind we made quick progress and arrived in town early. Then carried on to camp by the river
Our route to Chenqueco follows the Rio Bio Bio.

In Chenqueco we stock up with some more food, camp by the pasarela that takes you on a shortcut to Lonquimay, and go to sleep...

...not knowing what awaited for us the following day. A rough singletrack that was so steep/rocky/sandy that required both of us working together to push the bikes up once at a time...for long periods of time, in pretty hot conditions

Every time there was a hill we hoped to be able to ride it...but never materialised. It was so hot and our progress was so slow that we worried about water...
But luckily, just as we were wondering whether to turn around to the nearest river, we found a small stream and loaded up. One of the things we take for granted at home is water availability...On this trip we´ve come to appreciate how lucky we are to have a running tap of potable water back home

It took us more than half day to climb 500 m. The descent was dusty and so had to be taken carefully...Alberto had a fall as with our worn out marathons having some decent grip was sometimes a problem

Finally, 9 hours after we set off, we saw the light at the end of this tunnel, indicating the end of the 17 km section that had taken us the whole day. This was the slowest and toughest day of our journey - even the high Peruvian Andes and the Puna were far far easier than this section!
After much debate about leaving the route here in favour of  a shorter and flatter route via Troyo, (all this in a totally shattered state) we decide to woman up and carry on on the original route past Volcan Lonquimay. We hoped the road would be better....

...and for the most part, it was, although the dirt tracks still required pushing some of the time. The cattle grids were pretty cool though!

...with plenty of loose powdery dirt to navigate.

Fortunately after a brutal climb in the heat of the day, we reach pine plantations which provide some much-needed shade.

...and finally, after far too long, the monkey puzzle trees!

Having officially entered the Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello-Nalcas, the scenery improves even more. It´s late, we´re tired, and luckily we find an area practically begging us to camp. ´You cyclist. Me picnic area. You sleep here.´

Our camp spot overlooks a gorgeous green lake. 

On the downside, we can´t actually reach it to swim. After some tough days fighting the polvo the technical term to describe our state is ´gross´.
The next day features more tough climbs, but the views are spectacular, climbing up through the lava field of Volcan Longquimay´s past eruption. Volcano Tolhuaca is on the right (2806 m, and nowadays an inactive volcano)

Monkey puzzles up close, and the volcano Lonquimay in the background

We are glad to be tackling this unforgiving landscape in the morning, before the worst of the heat sets in.
Before we know it, we reach the top of the pass at almost 1900 m. Lonquimay vs. Lucy

We take the halfway-paved descent to Malalcahuello where the CONAF (National Parks) guys tell us they saw us struggling up the climb as they drove past this morning. They kindly let us camp in the boss´ yard and make use of all their facilities in their office. 
The next day we take a small diversion to pass the Salto de la Princesa on our way to Curacautin

and then begin to make our way towards Conguillio national park. A kind local paramedic lets us camp behind the Posta de Salud on the roadside. 

The road to the park is busy with traffic on this summer weekend, so at the last minute we decide to divert and go around the West side of Volcan Longquimay rather than the East. Meters after the turnoff we are immediately rewarded with this view of Longquimay and its lava flow from a past eruption in the 1980s.

Longquimay is one of Chile´s most active volcanoes. Currently on yellow alert. 

We climb back up into monkey puzzle territory. I don´t know if we´ll ever get tired of these guys. 

We pass briefly through Conguillio National Park, though not on the main route, and a park ranger lets us know about a river where people sometimes camp for free. We head there and meet some Chilenos on vacation making an asado, who offer us some pork, homemade bread, and drinks. We could get used to touring in Chilean vacation spots!

The next day we face more crazy heat and steep hills, but we are glad to be on quiet gravel roads so can´t really complain. 
We look for every opportunity to take a dip in the (usually freezing) rivers to refresh ourselves and clean the dust off our legs. 

Another riverside camp, another Chileno family feeding us food, and another short day´s ride and we arrive in Villarrica, a touristy town that has absolutely zero charm, lots of US-style cars and 4x4s, but at least has awesome views of Volcan Villarrica. 

The truth is, after a tough route we did need a rest day, even if it was an expensive and pretty bland place to take it. Then got some yummy empanadas, of the fried variety...

Route notes:

- Chillan to Ralco: The road from Chillan to Quilleco was busier than we hoped, but we found Chilean drivers to be more respectful than other countries. The road is paved to Quilleco, after which a good ripio road takes you to Santa Barbara (there is a good free river camping spot at the bridge crossing the river about 10-15km out of Quilleco). There is free wifi in the plaza in Santa Barbara. From Santa Barbara to Ralco we followed the main paved road, although we believe there is a dirt alternative on the other side of the river. Traffic levels were acceptable though not truly low.

- Ralco to Malalcahuello: We followed the  GPS track and route info from Pedalling Nowhere. We have left detailed comments on the route page, but suffice to say this route is more recommended for people with a lighter-weight setup than us, or potentially with our setup if going South to North. On the descent from Volcan Lonquimay we diverted from the route, turning left to Malalcahuello. Paving starts halfway down the descent and continues to Malalcahuello.  The CONAF office is located on the right just before you reach the town of Malalcahuello, and staff there are often happy to let you camp if you have been or are going to the Reserva.

- Malalcahuello to Villarrica: There is a traffic free bike path from Malalcahuello to Manzanar, although at some point it starts to criss cross the road through a lot of gates so we gave up and went onto the road. Traffic was not too bad and again, generally respectful. From Curacautin, pavement lasts another 10km or so. We found the road to be quite busy with cars heading to Conguillio National Park.

A signed turnoff for the Ruta Interlagos takes you on the much quieter Western side of the Volcano. There is one steep section of loose rocks which required pushing but otherwise the road is okay ripio. This road does enter the national park for about 5km and there is a park ranger stationed as you exit the park (if coming from the North). We were informed that no one, bicycle or car, has to pay the entrance fee if they are just using the road to transit through. On the main road through the park (which has controls at both sides) cars are given one hour to traverse the park without paying. The ranger we spoke to said that if a cyclist said they just wanted to pass though to Melipeuco then a more reasonable time limit would be given.

This road is unpaved until you hit the more main road heading to Cunco. From Cunco we took a route via Lago Colico hoping to avoid the main traffic, which worked pretty well. It is paved for about 10km until a signed turnoff for Villarrica. The route thereafter is unpaved until Pedregoso (a small town with just a basic snack shop), where it is paved again but still not too busy until Villarrica.