This post is for my Grandfather who gives me guff for falling in love with every country and being infinitely behind on my blog. Following my Spot tracker that drops breadcrumbs via satellite every 15 minutes, he often researches facts about the places I ride through, fueling my belief that wherever I go there is an opportunity to find the story of a place, even if you really have to dig, that can be the greatest part.
With magnetic force I am back in the Andes and on ripio roads again, igniting an intense fondness for Chile. Why the quilty feeling that I am on Summer break? Biking with no weather battles feels odd to me. Sunshine, lakes and camping culture are in abundance, almost layed out too easily. I find myself preoccupied at camp o’clock to look beyond the fences and ´Propiedad Privada´ signs to stay true to my gypsy stealth. It is high season but perhaps since I am riding solo I can get into the energy of local families basking in pine, wine,BBQ and Reggaeton. Other countries I rode, people thought I was nuts to sleep in a tent but here it’s woven into the culture, where siestas are sacred and I am free to ride impeccably maintained parks without interruption or questions. Waves & Holas have replaced the curious, unfiltered questions that once exhausted me. I found myself longing for them in the rear view mirror. Every day when I hop on thesaddle, the chance for discovery is all around me and a ride through the wonderous Araucanía region and National Park Conguillio have reminded me of this.
I don´t like paying to sleep in my tent. Inside the park to camp it was 5000 pesos so I scampered off into the trees until they were scorched and lava rocks crunched underfoot. I had been feasting on the view of Volcano Llaima (Llaima means blood veins in Mapudungun) and up close it was spectacular. At 3125 meters I was trying to calculate how many times I could have rode up it. With 35 eruptions, the last was in 2008. Besides feeding my volcano obsession, Chile has a fascinating tree genus called Araucaria. John Muir travelled alone to Chile in 1911 at the age of 73 because he wanted to see this Monkey Puzzle Tree.
I got my hands on a decent Michelin map with lots of backroads so I followed my curiosity to take a ripio route to Lago Colico. After a mess of roadworks but less Monday traffic as I was happy to be on rough stuff. Around the lake I rode until I happened upon a playa just as everyone was heading home. Remarkably camping was free and a sweet family lived nearby, otherwise I had the place to myself. Amazing. The family invited me to their bonfire where I realized I can barely understand Chilean Spanish.
I took a scenic dirt road to Lago Caburgua in the stellar heat I was starting to warm up to Chile more, easing some of the stress of the high costs and traffic as I got to tackle some more challenging routes and venture into the endless greenery. I went for a swim and wild camped with a towering forest view. Is may be possible to hitch on someone´s boat to Pucon as it lies just on the other side but I opted to ride 75km to Currarehue, hugging the border & Rio Mitre. I asked to camp in Mitre and a man who was working stopped to lead me back to his garden. I have retreated back into my shell in Chile as I’m still trying to navigate a more reserved culture. People sometimes ask if I have any friends to ride with which I get a chuckle out of.
So thankful that this Jaime gave me a camp spot & invited me to the breakfast table. He was one of 9 siblings, accustomed to sharing I imagine. His granddaughter made a fort out of my tent and his sister passed around mate tea. She told me fear is like a seed inside you and if you allow, it will grow into your heart and mind. Now that I am accustomed to the road, I really only fear the same things I did in my job and at home, this kernal of doubt that is possibly just there out of habit. I figure if I can adapt to living on a bike, certainly I can do without that.
I serendipitously crossed paths with Lee who I met in Colombia, then Ecuador but we had never rode together. We left Las Lajas Argentina for Pino Hachado, an easy pass and border crossing. I’m still in the mentality that any climb on pavement doenn´t count. We met some Argentine touring cyclists which has been a common sighting and then ate lunch outside the aduana (immigration). Lee was asked if he had anything from Colombia or Peru in his panniers and I joked at how easy it would be to smuggle drugs as not one person had ever asked what is in my bags in 12 border crossings. In Chile, however, even the most remote crossings have high tech X-rays to look for fruits & veg (nuts, eggs, anything animal derived). They are fruit fly free & intend to keep it so, although the most voracious horse flies I have ever happened upon are in Chile. There is also a giant, buzzing red and black nuisance that will take a good chomp out of you. Some bored police at the border scrutinized Lee’s passport saying there was a missing freckle in the photo. The moment fluctuated from serious to joking but all went swimmingly, we didn’t even have to have our bags xrayed, they were exhausted from all the detective work with the passport.
We set up camp next to an idyllic river in Liucura. Lee took the dirt road and I headed to a larger town, Curacautin to get $ out, trying to avoid the “official” exchange rate in Argentina. I was eager to adjust my bad attitude of pavement, the idea that it induced instant boredom was something I developed in Peru. The ride was serene, plenty of spots to dunk in cooling streams or snack amidst wildflowers. When I came upon the longest tunnel in South America I was advised that I would have to hitch a ride with one of the long line of cars. I found a truck & sat in back with a 2 year old wearing a snorkeling mask and fins who climbed all over me. In town I stocked up on provisions & camped in a spot called ‘El Paraiso’ next to a peaceful river that I swam in until late in the night. I love how it stays light out until about 10 pm. The next day I hit the ripio road to Parque Conguillio. Many cars zoomed past, all shaving seconds off their busy family Sunday to nearly smear a cyclist..I pulled my bandana over my mouth to combat the clouds of dust I was constantly left in.
I stopped for flower karaoke & a family busted me & invited me to stay in their home nearby. I was honored to have my first Chilean invite but I was excited to camp in the forest.There was a crystal clear babbling stream surrounded by blossoms nearby and I went to fill up on water and was immediately swarmed, bitten on all sides, through my clothes even and then had a complete freak out, flailing my arms like a helicopter, the cap to my dromedary bag kerplunked & whisked away in the stream’s current. So with my temporary insect driven insanity, an important piece of equipment I rely on a daily basis was junked. I actually stopped the spout with a patch so it’s usable and I continue with DIY repairs of tent zippers & such, reminding myself that these things are intended for camping, not using every day and living in.
Parque Conguillio started off with a hurculean climb to wake me up and then a swooping descent though an amazingly fun bumpy track through a forest canopy, I absolutely loved this part. A bit of wiley sand riding and pushing led to Lake Arco Iris with it’s brilliant clarity and blue but there´s no swimming allowed in so I rode along the other planetary ambiance of lava beds next to Volcano Llaima and when I reached Lago Verde the water was so perfect I bobbed along for hours. Back on the road I was happy that this corrugated unshaded stretch was in the cool evening, birds were chirping and I crossed more pretty streams and then the park ended unexpectedly and so I headed to the colorful town of Melipeuco. I had some lazy Sunday plaza lingering, checking out murals and homemade treats, running into a Canadian couple I had met on the road. The woman was incredibly fit and fast, I was surprised & inspired that she was 46.
Yet another amazing aspect of riding Patagonia is the accessibility to cross back in forth between Argentina & Chile. With over 40 border crossings, there is too almost much to see and I am almost out of pages in my passport. I left Chile with the dazzling highlights of Volcano Lanin and Lake Tromen and onto the dusty construction nightmare and butt bouncing corrugations of Paso Mamuil Malal
Chile seems to be an entirely different country from the one I started in the Northern desert. Maybe it was the pulsating of my sunburn, or my steady diet of rice & hard boiled eggs, or that after a long day of slogging I had to pay to look at the lagunas but for the first time I was just going through the motions, on auto pilot . After a week, only one car waved at me…nuns. I may have had a case of ´´Peru come down´´ as I´ve heard other cyclists refer to it. Soon as I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama I boomeranged back to the road, fleeing from this Gringolandia. When I had to return a few days later when my spokes broke and I looked down to discover my spares gone, I asked the hostal how many Americans were staying there, convinced I couldn´t deal. I ended up around a fire with some very intriquing travelers, a few of whom were my brethren Americans. I am so often judgemental and wrong, how have I not learned?
I was eager to get to the stunning, desolate Paso Sico but when I stopped in Socaire. the last town to buy food for the next few days, the grumpy shopkeeper shut the door in my face. A family in the restaurant across the way had seen what happened and gave me a giant bag of rice, bread and canned fish. They invited me to their bbq and to shower, wash my clothes and camp at their house. I couldn´t believe my luck. The mother was from Peru and we spoke a little Quechua and I knew her home town, Abancay. She had left her family to come build her business and once she was on her feet they all moved to make a new life in Chile. I really admired her perseverance.
We had a gregarious feast, I smooched a cute Chileno and had some quality family time. I finally felt human again. I began to wonder if nomadic life was for me. Could I keep riding the world? I spilled my guts to Cherry wondering if she had felt disillusioned with this place. Your happiness is not about people or a place and you just have to be content within yourself, is essentially what she said. Possibly I rode all this way to find that out.