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Published: January 6th 2010
the main church on the main square - all the buildings here are wooden and painted in pastel colours
South of the Chilean Lake District the roads run out. There is only the Carretera Austral heading south and that was only opened to traffic in 1988 (it was initiated in 1976 by General Pinochet). To paraphrase the guide book - it stretches over 1000km through the wildest, wettest, greenest, narrowest parts of Chile. It passes through untouched tracts of wilderness and through the world's largest swathes of temperate rainforests. Sounds good doesn't it? and the vast majority of it is still dirt road.
Its more riding alongside fast flowing rivers through forested sections either undulating up and down with the road or winding round sweeping bends. We've seen a lot of forests, lakes, rivers and mountains in the last few days but its not at all boring - every one is different. Its difficult to explain but each river/lake has its own colour and personality. Each forest has its own special flowers, foliage and lighting - sometimes you're riding through pine forest, then tropical feeling bamboo lined roads, then lush patches with fern clinging to rocks and flowers everywhere almost like a tropical rain forest. Plus the road workers do their best to provide a variety of challenging surfaces
the start of the Carretera Austral
an example of a good section of dirt road - here we're going through cleared pasture land in amongst the forest
for us to ride on. They do enjoy dumping large piles of sand on the road then spreading it out so its at least 10 inches deep - not too bad if a few vehicles have been through and made some nice compacted tracks, not so good if you are the first through. We manage to survive but a few others topple over in the deep sand.
We start off in Futaleufu a little border town of pastel painted wooden houses and a large grassy plaza. Back in 2008 it was covered in one foot of ash when Volcan Chaiten, 75km away, erupted after 9000 years of being dormant. Heading south we pass several areas that have been cleared of trees and are being used as pasture land for sheep & cattle - the fences are just giant tree stumps rowed up. We have a very lucky escape in the afternoon; for miles and miles there are enormous piles of gravel at the side of the road obviously ready to be spread but we are following the workers bus as its dropping them all off, an hour later and they'd have that sand spread and we'd be slipping and
an example of a bad section of dirt road
a few people came unstuck here in the deep sand.
Most of the settlements along the Carretera Austral are little tin towns built by Pinochet (possibly to keep the settlers, who were used to getting on and doing things their own way, under control). Puyuhuapi, in contrast, is another tiny wooden town on the edge of a sea inlet. It was started in 1935 by 4 Germans who settled and decided to make carpets - and apparently they were very good ones, world famous in fact. Back then the only contact with the outside world was by boat. The original 4 houses are still standing and we spend the night in one with a cosy front room warmed by a log burner. The tiny pale blue petrol station must be one of the cutest in the world.
Beyond Puyuhuapi there are spectacular hanging glaciers but we don't see any of them as the mountain tops are all hiding up in the low cloud. In places the road gets quite narrow and slippery - its been raining all night, and we have some rocky, narrow, twisty hairpins to climb. Further south near Coyhaique the cliffs are positively oozing water, its just gushing out all over the place
from sheer rock faces - not running over the top, actually just coming out of the rock face, everywhere, its really weird. Coyhaique is the regional capital and quite a big town (it has the first ATM for 3 days). We stay in little cabins on the riverside outside town but we have to go and do a circuit round the plaza as its a pentagon not a square!! How radical is that, it plays havoc with the nice neat grid systems that the towns here usually have.
From Coyhaique we have a rare stretch of nice smooth tarmac which takes us through Cerro Castillo valley where the multi-coloured rocks topped off with needlepoint spires close in on the road. This is where the rare huemul deer live - well all the literature says they are rare but they kept wandering out onto the road to say hello to us. The whole area is also condor territory and we often see pairs of birds circling way way up above us. Down a 2km well rocky uneven tack up the mountain side we find some 5000-8000 year old cave paintings mostly negatives of hands in a range of earthy colours.
The little caretaker is very happy to have some people to show around and thoroughly educates us on the ancients. Back on the 'main road' the scenery is much more open today, more like a moor land and then we skirt the shores of Lago General Carerra - the second largest lake in South America. We round the western end of the lake then follow the southern shore all the way to Argentina, stopping in very scenic lakeside cabins at Puerto Guadal on the way. Getting in and out is well tricky up the steep gravel slope with hairpins, and its not helped by all the overnight rains.
And the rain continues - we should have really nice views of snowy mountains and glimpses of the northern ice-field but we just have low cloud. We cross the Chile-Argentine border at Chile Chico and continue along the lake only now its called Lago Buenos Aires as we're in Argentina. These border crossing are not you're typical Latin American crossings. There are still forms to fill in but they are processed quickly and efficiently and we exist on the system so when we had over the bike's documents the forms are
the cutest petrol station in the world
printed out. Going into Chile always involves a SAG form - a declaration you are not taking any fruit or agricultural produce into the country, depending on the mood of the SAG man they may wave you through or they may rootle in your panniers or, if they are being very efficient, you have to put the contents of your pannier through an X-ray machine. When crossing the borders there's often a coffee shop on either side. In Chile a coffee consists of a jar of Nescafe powder plonked on the table along with a pot of hot water. In Argentina it's real coffee that tastes of coff.ee. So usually everyone hangs on and gets a coffee in Argentina.
Why have we crossed back into Argentina? To ride another infamous gravel road; Ruta 40. In preparation we have a night in a nice lake side lodge in Los Antigos; green lawns, a pier out into the lake and a coipu who likes to sit on a rock right in front of the chalets grooming himeself
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