Carretera Austral: A Ripio Odyssey
The construction of the Carretera Austral under General Pinochet aimed to connect remote communities in Chilean Patagonia as tensions escalated during the Beagle Channel conflict in the 1970s.
Today it remains a grand feat of engineering linking the remote and isolated communities of Puerto Montt in the north with Villa O’Higgins in the south. Perhaps a curiouser byproduct is that of the adoption of this rough isolated road spanning 1200 kms by cyclists. Voted one of the top ten cycling destinations in the world, each year more and more come to make their pilgrimage to the holy grail of adventurous cycling.
As I battled north through the Patagonia pampa day by day the Carretera Austral was the one thing to keep me sane. Promises of peaceful serene landscapes and light traffic only added to the allure as south bound cyclists recounted their time on this ribbon of ripio. For many a fitting crescendo to their long journey south.
After an early morning arrival at the port of Villa O’Higgins, bleary eyed I drop my tent and cycle in town to buy food and supplies for the coming days riding. Slowly the cyclists and backpackers from last nights ferry ride amass on the one shop in town.
If Ushuaia is the end of the world, Villa O’Higgins feels like the end of the road. More house front room than shop, with limited stock in the shop provisions are far from bountiful, and let’s forget the 5 a day fruit and veg intake.
Despite my concerns at the rain I’m promised on the Carretera things get off too a great start and hold for almost 10 days worth of cycling.
Curious dead forests.
The remote fishing town of Caleta Tortel provides an interesting side trip. The Carretera Austral was only extended to this town in 2003.
Southbound cyclists thin out.
Reaching the town of Villa Cerro Castillo things change. Ripio is replaced with tarmac.
The large town of Coyahaique comes as a surprise after the best part of 10 days in the wilderness. No objections to sampling the Cerveza Artesanale though.
As south bound cyclists thin out day by day racing to catch the final Villa O’Higgins ferry I expect to have the Casa De Cicilistas in Villa Manihuales to myself. Instead I find Kurt bursting out of the door.
Before long we are joined by Simon and Olivia, a convivial evening is had as we drink beer, chat and serve up a communal meal.
Bread and Butter pudding courtesy of Simon and Olivia.
With such fine company and a (supposed) bad weather forecast I stay on for another day, a chance to pick Kurt’s brains and draw lines on a map. Freddie and Flo, two French cyclists join us for our second evening together.
Time to say our goodbyes. A man who likes travelling light and drinking beer at a rate of knots it would have been a pleasure to ride with Kurt, pity he was headed south.
Before turning to snow the next morning.
Then back to murk.
Arriving in Puyuhuaphi cold, wet and miserable Flo’s friend Diego takes pity on the two dishevelled cyclists that turn up at his door, inviting us in we stay the night and thaw out. With a thread bare front tyre, no rear brake and friends further down the road I leave Flo and ride on to La Junta.
At La Junta its time to bid farewell to the Carretera Austral, its been an incredible couple of weeks of cycling and I’m sure this will remain one of my highlights of my trip north.
Time to follow some lines on my map.