Thursday, March 31, 2016

Finally Starting the Carretera Austral

Tuesday, February 16th thru Friday, February 19th

Located at the southern tip of South America, the Patagonia region stretches across both Chile and Argentina. Within Patagonia, there are two popular cycling routes: Ruta 40 and Ruta 7.

The first, Ruta 40, runs through Argentina. Because of its location on the east side of the Andes, the climate along this route is desert-like, and the terrain is, in my opinion, less-than-interesting. Ruta 7, on the other hand, runs through Chile. Because of its location on the west side of the Andes, the climate is more temperate, and the terrain is much more varied--think lush rainforests, glaciers, and fjords. Whenever you see gorgeous photos of Patagonia, chances are high that you are looking at the Chilean side of Patagonia. I wanted to see those gorgeous views with my own eyes, and for this reason, I chose to bike Ruta 7 through Patagonia.

This gorgeous view, which is of the bridge crossing Río Mayer, is from the Chilean side of the Andes.

Ruta 7 is commonly referred to as the Carretera Austral ("Southern Road"). Extending from Villa O'Higgins in the south to Puerto Montt in the north, the Carretera Austral runs for 1240 km through southern Chile. It is often called "The Road at the End of the Road" because it starts where the PanAmerican Highway ends. The Carretera Austral is represented by the blue line in the map below:

Construction on the Carretera Austral began in the mid-1970s under the dictatorship of Pinochet. (Not surprisingly, the road was originally called "Carretera General Agosto Pinochet.") General Pinochet wanted to build the road as a means of accessing remote villages in the south. Without a road through Southern Chile, access to these villages was highly restricted; air and sea access was complicated by extreme weather conditions, and access through Argentina was complicated by political matters.

As you can imagine, construction of the Carretera was a huge undertaking, lasting numerous years and sacrificing many lives. The final segment of the road, to Villa O'Higgins, was only finished in the year 2000. And that only completed the gravel construction of the road; efforts to pave the route have been ongoing ever since. As of present, only about 300 km of the route is paved. The rest of the road is in some state of "offroadedness."

My friend Eric (of In Search of the Green-Tailed Towhee fame) first introduced me to the Carretera Austral a few years ago. He loosely proposed a three week trip to bike the Carretera. But three weeks didn't seem like adequate time to me. Ever since then, the thought of doing this ride had been floating around in the back of your mind. Every photo I saw and every story I read about Patagonia made me more and more curious about riding the Carretera.

And now, the Carretera Austral was before us. After years of growing interest in the Carretera, I was excited to finally be pedaling along the route. Suffice it to say that my first impressions of the Carretera Austral did not disappoint. The views along the Carretera were amazing!

El Mecánico, enjoying the views along the Carretera. Notice the waterfall in the distance...
...and now notice how tiny El Mecánico is standing next to the massive waterfall.
And now notice the wall of waterfalls ahead. The car (the tiny white blog at the far end of the road) provides great scale.

As the first stretch of the Carretera took us through rainforests, our ride was quite damp. In the middle of the wilds of Patagonia, dry places in which to escape the rain were difficult to come by. The very few shelters along the route were well evangelized by other cyclists, who in passing would mention, "There's a small roadside refugio 30 kilometers up the road, and another 20 kilometers beyond that is an empty cabin where you can spend the night."

The small roadside refugio was easy to spot.

The roadside refugio, which kept us dry as we ate lunch. We shared the refugio with a ceramic Jesus and a plethora of candles.

The empty cabin was a bit more of a challenge. The turnoff to the empty roadside cabin was noted by a small tire and an even smaller sign with a bicycle on the side of the road. We kept our eyes glued to the roadside in search of this turnoff.

The small tire and the even smaller bicycle sign indicating the turnoff to the cabin.

The first to arrive to the cabin, we crossed our fingers that we'd have the whole shelter to ourselves. We spread out our gear to dry, and we made a cup of tea to warm our shivering bodies. As the afternoon progressed, though, more and more travelers arrived. We kept moving our possessions to a smaller and smaller corner of the cabin to make room for the others. By nightfall, there were thirteen cyclists at the cabin. When it was time to fall asleep, we shared the inside of the cabin with three French cyclists, while another Frenchman and seven Germans slept in their tents outside.

The "empty roadside cabin" ended up not being so empty.

The cabin was equipped with a fireplace. Given the dampness of the rain forest, dry wood was in small supply. Fortunately, there was one large chunk of wood that previous cyclists had left under the cabin's overhang. This wood provided much-appreciated warmth for about 45 minutes, just long enough for us to thaw our toes and fingers.

Brian uses his Alaskan machete skills to make some fireplace-appropriate logs.
The cabin was covered in graffiti. We found where our friends Ali and Adam, who we first met in El Chaltén, had left their mark.
This ascending sign had been turned 45 clockwise. We soon learned why, as this particular climb was way steeper than previous climbs.

The next morning we came across a "Danger" sign. We'd seen many of these signs during our trip, but figured they'd been left behind, as we couldn't identify the associated dangers. But this sign offered a legitimate warning. Off in the distance was a landslide that had blocked the road. Fortunately, a crew was working to clear the path.

After waiting about a hour, we were allowed to pass. Wearing grave looks of concern on their faces, the construction crew urged us to pass as quickly as possible. The narrow path they had cleared for us looked sketchy, as if the slide would reawaken at any minute. There is no way in hell that a work crew in the United States would have let folks pass by this slide; it was way too unstable and there was way too much potential for liability. With racing hearts, we pedaled as quickly as we could and continued along our way.

The road-blocking landslide.

One hundred km into the Carretera, we encountered another ferry. The late day ferry ride enabled us to camp on the water in Puerto Yungay. We had the whole beach to ourselves. Ah!

Brian enjoys a cup of joe while looking across to Río Bravo.

The next 20 km provided us with a seemingly endless tough climb, which eventually rewarded us with a seemingly endless descent, followed by some of our most favorite vistas along the Carretera -- glaciated peaks, pristine rivers and waterfalls, deep canyons, and gigantic foliage.

Brian poses in front of the Giant Rhubarb.
And I pose in front of the Giant Rhubarb, too. These amazing perennials can grow to more than two meters in height. They would have easily provided an entire outfit for Adam and Eve!
Brian stops to admire the mountains in the distance.

The first 120 miles of the Carretera Austral did not disappoint. The start to the long-awaited Carretera Austral was beyond awesome!



  1. Wow... The waterfall dwarfs anything I've ridden past in Rainier, then I get to the giant rhubarb leaves!!! I have learned to scroll through and look at your pictures first THEN go back and read so I can see them twice!!

    Thanks for sharing as always!

  2. Wow, one stalk of that Giant Rhubarb would make several pies! It's like you're in the land of giants :) Delinda

    1. Ha! I'd totally go for a giant rhubarb pie! :)


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