When my friend Melinda asked me to take her bike-packing, and suggested Patagonia, one of my favorite parts of the world, l immediately said yes. And suggested the Carretera Austral. Which is the southernmost extension of Chilean highway 7. It is largely gravel, and dead-ends into a lake — meaning that the further south you ride, the less traveled it is. The road is well graded, the surroundings beyond spectacular, the water drinkable and the towns well spaced — pretty much a perfect route for bike touring. As such we had ridden while RidingTheSpine.
So l felt confident recommending this stretch of road as an ideal place to try out bike travel. When other cyclists we met along the way discovered Melinda had never even ridden a loaded bike before, the were uniformly shocked (and awed). But the truth is, as spectacular and remote as it is, the Carretera Austral is a highway. Which means it’s nearly impossible to get lost, and busses and other such emergency/bail-out help are readily available. In addition to the aforementioned perks, the climbs are not particularly steep, and this time of year there is 14 hours of daylight — so no need to hurry or ride fast. Hard find a better spot to tour most anywhere in the world. I’m happy to say she loved it, and is now a confirmed bike-tourist.
Which isn’t to say that the trip was without its hassles, hangups and inconveniences. Such is the nature of travel. For starters we had a serious airline baggage/customs fiasco. AeroMexico lost our bikes, and told us to fly to our final destination (Coyhique deep in Patagonia) and they would forward our bikes — which sounded nice, and quite reasonable in theory. But it turns out they couldn’t actually get our bikes into the county, or maybe the could have except there was a general strike happening; and while customs wasn’t actually closed, it kinda was. In any case it took a week to get our bikes, and in the end we had to fly back to Santiago to do so. An expensive and frustrating start to what was already a short trip. Lesson learned l guess.
This ride was a new experience for me, in that we we had a end date/return flight, and less than 3 weeks total. I’ve never taken such a short international trip before, but Melinda only had that much time off from her real job; and it should have been more than enough to enjoy the entirety of the route. Including the last bit between Villa O’Higgens and El Chalten, which is mostly ferry rides and hike-a-bike. After the customs fiasco however, we were a little short on time, so we pushed back our flights (hoping Melinda’s employer wouldn’t be too upset). But bad planner that l am, it still didn’t quite work out. I’m just not used to the forethought and logistics necessary to this (arguably more normal) kind of trip.
I highly recommend the Carretera Austral, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do it in 2 and a half weeks (including rest days, detours and a fairly relaxed pace) even the super cool ferry/single track section at the southern end. But you NEED to plan around the Villa O’Higgens ferry (its in spanish, but if yer gonna travel in south america you better get used to that) which leaves at most 3 times a week ( 2 when we were there). And the buss (back to somewhere you can fly out of) is just as infrequent. So the whole trip ends up revolving around those ferry dates. Which is probably obvious, and normal for most people — but hard enough for me, that were l to do it again l’d consider doing it “backwards” –south to north.
Which logistically is much easier: you’d start with the infrequent ferry, and then ride towards civilization as it were, so no matter what happened, or how slow you went, there’d be no problem making your flights (bus service, and hitchhiking potential gets more and more frequent the closer you get to Coyhique). The “downsides” would be mostly psychological, there’s something satisfying about riding north to south. Leaving “civilization” heading towards the remote and rural. You would be starting with the most challenging bit, and ending on pavement. But it would make for a much more relaxing/less itinerary focused excursion, which in my opinion is part of the reason to travel (especially by bike).
But l digress. Our trip was a little shorter distance wise than we had planned, but that’s the problem with planning…. What’s important is, we had exquisite weather, with clear skys the vast majority of the time (some what unusual that far south) so we could see all the mountains, and glaciers and waterfalls. Not to mention the forests and wildlife. We took advantage of the long days to enjoy all the beauty, with long picturesque lunches, perfect camp spots, and a few side trips. Our bikes worked great. And we had a truly lovely (if brief) sojourn in one of the most spectacular parts of the world. Some world class bicycle touring.