SOUTH AMERICA WEST COAST ADVENTURE PART 1
Santiago, Chile to Puerto Montt, Chile
November, 27 to December 28, 2001
Start 35507 miles (57270 km), End 36,301 miles (58,550 km) cumulative
|An Interlude of work. |
|Chilean background |
|We arrive, we ride, we get sick |
|One guess as to where the first bike tourists we meet come from. |
|Saltos del Laja, not quite Foz de Iguazzu. |
|Central valley trials and tribulations. |
|Scenery at last, the lake country. |
|Puerto Montt, gateway to the Carratera Austral. |
"A pen and a notebook and a reasonable amount of discrimination will change a journey from a mere annual into a perennial, its pleasures and pains renewable at will."
Freya Stark, "On Traveling with a Notebook," in the Cornhill Magazine (1954)
An Interlude Of Work
"There's a reason they call it 'work.'" Brian says to me as we walk downhill past the nondescript, three and four story, box shaped office buildings. Our destination was one of these buildings at the bottom of the hill. In this case, the building was all too familiar, a red brick L shape 3 story structure with large windows outlined in garish pink, eight tall palm trees and petunia flower beds line the the walkway leading to the tall smoked glass front double doors. We entered the rather bland looking foyer, passed between the two hideous rock sculptures standing like stiff sentinels guarding the entrance to the twin, silver fronted elevators. On the second floor our offices awaited complete with computers, desks, tables, chairs, and a window overlooking the building across the street. Everything we'd need for the the day's tasks lay at our finger tips. We flicked on the computers, fetched cups of tea and coffee, and settled in for one last day clicking on the keyboard and pushing the mouse around its pad. For five months we'd been working at our old engineering professions. Now we just needed to complete a two reports, clean out our desks, and once again we'd hit the road.
We'd returned from Argentina at the end of April to find a most unusual email waiting. It was an invitation from Caryl's former boss and long time friend, Mary. "How'd you like to come to work?" the message queried, "We're extremely busy and have been having trouble finding qualified candidates." Now this was perhaps one of the most unexpected messages we could have received and, I must admit, we did not exactly jump at the opportunity. You see, we had been planning a summer excursion throughout Alaska, the Yukon, and northern B.C. We wanted to take the camper so we could explore regions we'd missed when biking through this region. We'd been looking forward to this summer's adventure all the while we toiled through the oppressive heat and humidity and jungles of Argentina. Going to work for the summer would mean postponing this journey, something we were not entirely anxious to do.
Yet, here was an opportunity quite literally dropped in our lap, an opportunity to learn the latest modeling and analysis software, to get back into something technical, to renew old acquaintances, to settle in one place for a while, and to get many tasks done that are extremely difficult to do while living on the road. Besides, we would also add a nice shot in the arm to our financial portfolio. There were a lot of issues to consider, taxes, places to live, overtime, travel, training, etc. For every question we raised, Mary came back with an answer making the transition all too easy. Finally, we just couldn't resist any longer. The opportunity was just too good to pass up. So in late May we left Evanston, WY, turned the nose of the truck south, and headed toward San Diego. Alaska would just have to wait one more year.
How does it feel to return to the workaday world after 6 years? In some ways it felt different and novel. Yet, eerily, it felt far too familiar, for me at least. I was returning to the same building I'd entered every day for over 6 years before quitting. I sat in an office next to the one I had occupied, overlooked the same street and lot now occupied by a large building, used the same shower facilities, the same kitchen with the same old refrigerator, even many of the faces were the same. The basic engineering activities were the same. After all, engineering concepts don't change, only the tools. I was amazed at how easily I slipped back into the routine and how quickly I felt as if I'd never even been away. Yet things were different. Many of the people I'd left behind all those years ago had left and scattered to other places. New, much younger, faces had taken their places. The building had been rearranged, walls added, doors removed, rooms changed, locks put in place. Even the company itself had changed. SDRC Western Region Office was now an independent ATA-Engineering, Inc. Even during the short time we were present major company changes were implemented. SDRC was purchased by EDS, Ross Perot's original creation, and ceased to exist as an independent entity. Another local software company was purchased and squeezed into the same building adding another influx of new, unfamiliar faces. Everything was different, yet everything was the same.
All in all, we had a good time. Learning the new software was particularly rewarding. I can compare it to climbing a mountain pass on our bikes. You push hard, feeling your leg muscles tingle as they push against the weight of the bike. Your breath comes hard and regular. Sweat drips off your face and chest. You don't dare stop as you may not have the strength to get going again. Gradually the peak grows closer and closer. As you reach the top you can feel the change in the bikes resistance. It grows easier. You shift up, pedal faster, shift up once again. Finally you're at the top. From here all goes much easier. OK, so maybe this is a bit over dramatic. However, once over the hump of learning the new programs work life becomes a series of short spurts of frustration and challenge with longer periods of just normal activity. It's the rolling hills that come between major mountain passes.
We worked full time for 10 weeks and then half time for the remainder. Finally, in October the itch to go somewhere was just too much. Our flight to Chile was scheduled for November 27th and we needed to get our biking muscles back in shape. We packed up our camper, said our good-byes, and headed to southern Utah for some serious training. Would we work again? Sure. Just not next summer. Next summer we definitely are going to Alaska and northwest Canada.
Chile is that long, string bean of a country that runs the southern length of the west coast of the South American continent. The eastern border of the country runs mostly along the high ridges of the Andean mountains. The highest peaks, reaching upwards of 20,000 ft, are found in the north. Peaks become significantly lower the further south you go finally reaching sea level at the Strait's of Magellan. The west boarder of the country is a long Pacific Ocean coastline the southern 1/3 of which is a ragged series of fiords, islands, and bays making the string bean look like it had been attacked by some voracious bean eating bug. Not too far off the coast lies the great pacific ocean rift, a huge underwater canyon made where the Pacific continental plate is sliding under the South American plate. I understand depths in the rift can be up to 30,000 ft making for a total vertical drop of somewhere around 50,000 ft occurring over just a couple hundred mile horizontal distance. The northern tip of Chile is bordered by Peru and Bolivia while the majority of the west is bordered by Argentina. Even Tierra del Fuego, the most southern island, is split giving Half to Argentina and half to Chile.
Chile has an enormous mix of environments. In the north it shares one of the world's driest places with the country of Peru. The Atacama desert is so dry there are locations where it is said there has never been a recorded rainfall. It has virtually no vegetation whatsoever. Only the valleys carved by the few rivers that flow from the mountains carrying with them glacier and snow runoff yield any sort of greenery to break the continual brown landscape. Further south along the coast, around the Santiago area, is a region that looks a lot like California's northern coast. Lush, fertile valleys filled with huge farmer's fields yield up crops ranging from maiz, tomatoes, and onions to grapes. This is Chile's breadbasket. Hills surrounding the fields are covered in brown grasses speckled with small green shrubs looking virtually identical to California's hills. We had strange deja vu of riding through Napa Valley.
The further south you go, the wetter and lusher the environment gets. Tales of continuous rain along the Caraterra Austral are quite common among the biking community. Tierra del Fuego, on the other hand, is a cold, windswept country that seldom sees temperatures much higher than 70 degrees F, 50 is more the normal high. And then there is are the high Andean altiplano regions. We'd experienced this high, cold, desolate land just briefly on our train ride out of Salta in Argentina. It'll be interesting to see how the lowlands make the same transition on the west side of the mountains.
Chile has an interesting history in that since the declaration independence it has managed to maintain a civilian government structure for a fairly substantial portion of its existence. Getting back to the beginning, however, the first European to visit what is now Chile was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who visited the island of Chiloe just after passing through what is now called the Straits of Magellen. At this time the northern half of Chile, north of the Rapel River, had been subjugated by the Incan Empire, more on the Empire later. The southern portion was occupied by a fierce and independent group of natives known as the Araucanians. These people were so resilient that they were not entirely subjugated for another 400 years and only after the then Chilean government forced them onto reservations.
The first attempt to conquer Chile was by one of Pizzaro's aides, Diego de Almagro in 1535. After 3 years wandering around, he returned to Peru empty handed. It was up to Pedro de Valdivia to actually create lasting settlements, including Santiago in 1541, Concepcion in 1550, and Valdivia in 1552. Most towns were subsequently destroyed by an Araucanian uprising in 1553 and had to be rebuilt. Chile soon settled into the typical routine common among all the other Spanish acquisitions. It's development was a bit slower as it had neither the mineral wealth nor labor as found further north. Gold and silver deposits were scarce. Instead Chile seemed to become the bread basket for the richer regions.
Chileans seemed to have been swept into the independence trend without having really yearned for it. They were not overly disgruntled with Spanish rule, having been a true backwater region left to their own devices for centuries. But when the rest of Latin American countries joined to oppose French rule in 1810, Chile went along. On September 18 of that year a town council held in Santiago deposed the Spanish governor. Yet skirmishes continued on for another 15 years until a royalist army was decisively trounced in Chacabuco on February 12, 1817. A revolutionary leader with the unlikely name of Bernardo O'Higgins, yes his father was an Irish immigrant, declared complete independence in 1818. Nevertheless, royalists were not entirely ousted from the country until 1826.
From 1818 to the early 1900s, Chile's government swayed from being highly conservative to highly liberal. In this case 'conservative' meant having more central authority in the Federal government. Liberals gave more control to the provinces. O'Higgins governed as the first dictatorial president until 1826 when he was ousted by general public discontent. He spent his final years in exile in Peru. Although today he is regarded as a national hero. For a while the government was in turmoil until in 1831 when General Joaquín Prieto organized a coup and seized control. The true man yielding the power was a Diego Portales who managed to be the man behind the scenes of all presidents until 1859. It was he who put into place a constitution in 1833 vesting vast powers in the executive branch of government. The conservative terms were marked by major commercial and agricultural development, railroad construction, mineral exploitation, immigration, and school construction. Portales also narrowly averted hostilities with Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina over borders. The problem with Argentina was solved in 1881 when a treaty split Tierra del Fuego between Argentina and Chile.
In 1861 it was the liberals turn. They reduced the church's strength in government, increased spending on social issues, added to the railroads, and immensely increased exploitation of the large nitrate resources in the Atacama desert. Many of the nitrate mines were owned or controlled by British companies. Theoretically Bolivia and Chile had an agreement to share the mineral wealth of the Atacama. Both would own the region, both could exploit the minerals, and both would share in profits. As can be expected, this arrangement was short lived. In 1879 the Chilean army occupied the port of Antofagasta. Peru and Bolivia joined forces to try to expel the Chilean army. However, the Chilean army was better trained, better equipped, and less politicized than either Peru's or Bolivia's. Battles raged until 1883 during which time Bolivia lost essentially all its coastal access and Peru lost much territory as well. The final fate of the Atacama was settled in 1928 by negotiation. Peru took Tacna, Chile got Arica, and Bolivia became land-locked.
In 1891 the forces allied with the Roman Catholic clergy organized a revolt against the then liberal administration of President José Manuel Balmaceda. The new conservatives under Captain Jorge Montt beat the liberals in a battle at Valpariaso. Montt became president, Balmaceda committed suicide, and the country began a long period of reconstruction. Montt also gained a port city in his name, Puerto Montt. 1906 saw a major earthquake that destroyed Valpariaso, leveled much of Santiago, killed over 3000, and left some 100,000 homeless. Naturally everything was rapidly rebuilt.
Chile remained neutral throughout WWI and through most of WWII. Although it did eventually side with the allies of WWII in 1944. However, during this time the political scene was in great turmoil. Elections swung back and forth between liberal and conservative factions. Even a short term military dictatorship was overthrown by another military coup. At the end of the war the communist party came out as one of the strongest and soon gained a political foothold.
This wasn't to last, however. In 1946 a fellow named Gonzalez Videla got himself elected president with the help of communist ties. Once in office he promptly did an about face and made the communist party illegal. Some speculate he was pressured by the U.S. which was in the throws of the Cold War. He claimed it was because he wanted to prevent a communist plot to overthrow his government. He also wanted to appease landowners by halting peasant unionization and weaken the labor unions. Due to inflation and a bad economy, social and labor unrest were common throughout 1951. Economic problems did not seem to be curbed throughout the 1950s.
Jorge Allessandri Rodriguez at the head of a Conservative-Liberal coalition was elected in 1958 by an extremely thin majority of 31% to Salvador Allende's 29%. He relegalized the communist party, broke off relations with Cuba, resumed ties with the USSR, and proposed a series of building projects, agrarian reforms, and tax reforms. He also tried to attract foreign investment without throwing the doors completely open. Allessandri was followed by Eduardo Frei Montalva whose main accomplishment was the "Chileanization" of the copper mines. The government took 51% control leaving the minor share to U.S. Kennecott and Anaconda companies. Inflation remained high and economic growth sluggish, but the economy was reasonably stable. Relations also remained friendly with the U.S. and many multilateral organizations such as the U.N.
As the 1970 elections approached it appeared that there would be a 3 way race between Frei, Allende, and a large group of "also rans." Allende nosed out Frei with just 36.2% of the vote compared to 35%. He was inaugurated later that year in spite of suggested but never entirely validated efforts on the part of the U.S. to prevent it, including a woefully botched kidnapping attempt on the part of the CIA. Allende was an extreme leftist Marxists and made no bones about it. He immediately went about nationalizing everything including the copper mines and encouraging farm laborers and factory workers to peacefully or even violently take over management. His socialist experiment worked for about a year and then went into a free fall from which it never recovered.
With so many military dictatorships throughout Latin America it's not surprising that Chile was unable to avoid one of its own. On September 11, 1973 the military, under General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, took control. Allende committed suicide in the ensuing struggle. In the next few years Pinochet basically dismantled the entire Chilean system and reassembled it under a fully open free market economy. He did manage to bring about sweeping changes and stability that reversed the economic downward spiral of Allende's regime, but it was at the cost of a very harsh often violent rule. Pinochet lasted until 1989 when a democratic loving Chilean populace voted him out. In the 1990s Pinochet became the center of a battle between Spain and Chile. Spain held Pinochet for trial on crimes committed against some of the "disappeared" Spanish citizens. Chile wanted Pinochet extradited for trial in Spain. Spain, naturally, figured he'd get off too easy in a country where the military still holds significant power. They were right. Pinochet was extradited and in the year 2000 the court found he was "mentally unfit" to stand trial despite interrogations that would seem to mount more evidence against him. I suppose Chileans are just wanting to put the past behind once and for all. A trial would do nothing but drag out old memories.
Since 1990 Chile has returned to civilian rule with a fairly heavy military influence. How long the military continues in that mode remains to be seen. Elections are held regularly and competition is fierce. In fact, we happened to arrive just in time for new congressional elections. The number of parties competing was staggering, all of which promised "change" and "a better future", the usual rhetoric. At least as far as we can see the economy seems to be reasonably stable.
And we're off.
Nov 28 - 30, Santiago, Chile to Melipilla
The plane gently touched ground, rolled down the runway with nary a sideways shudder, and came to a halt. It had been a blessedly normal, uneventful flight. No delays, no bad weather, no turbulence, not even a full plane, and most wonderfully no terrorist threats or even hints thereof. The one and only shortcoming, not at all the fault of the flight, was that the sore throat I'd been battling for days and days finally decided to turn into a full blown, body aching, head throbbing, nose sniffling head cold. I was destined to get much, much worse over the next few days before getting any better. But, no matter. We were finally in Chile ready to tackle the west South American bicycling Mecca.
Exactly why is Chile such a bike tourist Mecca? I haven't the foggiest. It just seems that a major goal for a lot of tourists is to ride from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. If you managed to slog your way through the Darien Gap in Panama and not get yourself offed in Columbia it would be the longest, continuous north/south route possible. So there seems to be a lot of bikers every year who decide to attempt the challenge. We've always wondered of the many who start just how many actually finish. Likely the percentage is extremely small. For us, our Chilean tour would begin with a ride from Santiago to Ushuaia. From there, our plans remain fluid and open to change. Plans set in stone just are not our way of life.
Santiago's airport has got to be one of the easiest to get out of. It's fairly small, not particularly crowded in the morning, and fairly far out of town. Most happily neither the main terminal nor the front loading zone are packed with hawkers nor taxis all trying to entice you into some overpriced hotel or tourist tour. There were just a few and a quick word telling them you intend to assemble your bike and ride away sends them off to find other prey. Quiet corners in which you can spread out and assemble a bike and gear abound and people are not particularly "in your face" nosey either. We had originally considered flying into Lima. In retrospect, we were glad we'd switched.
We'd arrived with no specific hotel or camping plans. Our only idea was to find the location of a nearby recidencial listed in our Footprints guide and ride over there to crash for the day. One stop at the tourist information desk and our plans came to a sudden halt. The recidencial had been closed some 2 to 3 years earlier. Now what? One option was to bus downtown, not an exciting prospect after an 18 hour flight and with only sketchy tourist maps available. Or perhaps we could ride toward the coast and look for hotels or campings. The tourist office told us that hotels were virtually nonexistent along RT 78 for a long distance. But, he absolutely assured us there were campings both in Talagante and El Monte. Talagante was only about 30 km out RT 78, it was still early in the morning, so why not? Let's go for the camping.
All the way to Talagante we asked. "Hay camping en Talagante?" "Si" was the answer given us by the lady attending the gas station, the man repairing the walkway in front of the station, by the police man in Talagante, even the sign at the park said "camping." The only one who didn't seem to think there was camping in Talagante was the only person who really mattered, the lady in charge of the "camping". But, we were assured by two men in the parking lot that there absolutely was a campground at which we could pitch our carpa, tent, in the next town of El Monte. In fact, we were assured that they even had cabanas should a tent not be allowed. So on we went.
Another 6 km found us in front of the La Tiburna park asking a Don Miguel if we could pitch the tent. Nope. This was not a campground. And the cabanas. Sure, there were cabanas. They were available for rent, by the hour that is. A notel motel you might say. Now we were assured that there were at least 3 hotels in the town of Melipilla located a mere "ocho a diez" (8 to 10) km further. "Diez y ocho (18)?" I asked. "No. Ocho a diez" I was once again assured. On we went.
Four km later we approached another ramp for highway 78 only to see a sign saying 14 km to Melipilla. We were honestly beginning to wonder whether anyone in Chile knew what there was around them. They were more than willing to help, in the process giving us so much misinformation that we'd been better off without any aid. We trudged on.
By the time we reached the hotel in Melipilla, dragged all our bags up to the second floor, and gotten something to eat my voice was gone, body was aching, and head throbbed. It hadn't been an auspicious start to this journey.
We spent two days taking the 1 hour bus ride into Santiago in order to explore the city, scope out hotel possibilities should we decide to return later, and visit some museums. In Santiago it seems that very few of the colonial buildings remain and not even many fancy 19th century Victorian buildings exist. Mostly the city seems to be a mishmash of buildings from several 20th century decades squeezed between a few remaining charming older structures. Earthquakes and urban modernization have definitely taken their tolls. Santiago is a city. A functioning, working city and this character is evident everywhere. It certainly is not what one would consider a major tourist destination on par with, say, Paris, Venice, Rome, or even Washington D.C. But, if you're going to visit Chile it'd be insane not to take some time to visit the working core and heart of this long, string bean shaped country.
There was one museum that is a must see for any visitor to Santiago. The museum of pre-Columbian Art is housed in one of the few remaining colonial buildings. It contains well arranged and explained, both in Spanish and English, artifacts obtained from early civilizations ranging from Central America through the tip of South America. Most of it was pottery. There were some metal goods and an amazing display of some of the most beautiful, ancient textiles. South American civilizations were some of the world's most expert weavers of that era. Even by today's standards the textiles are exquisite.
One object I found particularly interesting was something that reminded me of a modern lawn ornament. It was metal, probably a gold plated copper now turned green. On top of a 3 ft tall spike was fashioned a small open looking house, a roof held up by poles. Inside was a small man sitting on a throne and a couple other little people doing things that was unclear. This little house probably gave archeologists a great idea of what the house of a ruling elite member was like.
There are a few other museums in Santiago. We only visited the museum on the city's history which gave only a spotty historical story at best. The other's we chose to pass. It was time to start moving south.
We go around Santiago
Dec, 1 - 3, Melipilla to San Fernando
Santiago, Chile is located approximately 3/5 up the country from the southern tip and 150 km from the coast. It sits astride the chocolate colored waters of the Maipo river nestled at the bottom of the fertile valley the river formed. The city of 5 million sprawls for many kilometers in all directions. Smog hangs heavy over this hill surrounded metropolis. Highways from all directions radiate from the city center passing by the ring road on their way to places far distant.
Melipilla is a small town of probably 20,000 located about 65 km to the west of the city, 55 km outside of the ring road. It lies on a major east/west toll highway that heads out to the coastal resort community of San Antonio. From San Antonio going north roads follow closely along the coast. However, heading south there are no coastal road, dirt or otherwise. If you happened to be riding down from the north you would be forced to head inland and most likely you'd find yourself right in the town of Melipilla.
There is a road from Melipilla to San Fernando that is a great way to get around the city of Santiago. As far as roads go, it also one very nice one. It's paved, wide 2 lanes, has at least 4 ft shoulders, light traffic, and just rolling hills at most. Not a bad biking road and especially a good road to start on. We rode as far as Lago Rapel, took a day off to try a short day ride on one of the super rough dirt roads, and then on the third day continued onto San Fernando on the Pan American highway.
What has absolutely amazed us is how similar the central valley of Chile is to the central valley of California. Rivers, most of which have that familiar chocolate milk color, flow down from the snow peaked mountains to the east providing essential water to the fertile valleys. The valleys are green and lush, filled with grasses, shrubs, and trees many of which are imported such as eucalyptus and north American pines. Farms abound. We passed fields filled with onions, corn, tomatoes, wheat as well as numerous fruit orchards and vineyards. Low lying hills have that mostly unweathered, rugged appearance and are covered with brown grasses speckled with small green bushes. This area has weather patterns that are almost identical to southern California; long, dry summers and short , sometimes wet winters. So it makes sense for it to look so familiar.
About 100 km to the east the jagged, snow capped peaks would continue to tease us for our entire ride down the valley. In the U.S. roads, both dirt and paved, crisscross, zigzag, traverse, and follow the ridges of the mountains. It doesn't matter which mountain range you're in; Cascades, Rockies, Appalachian,
Pacific Coastal Range, roads abound. Many are dirt tracks created during early mining operations or used more recently for logging operations. Some are simply fire access roads. Some were created purely for the scenic value, the Blue Ridge Parkway in the east and Skyline Drive in the Rockies. And others are simply utilitarian, providing a route from one side to the other.
Mountain roads in Chile are an entirely different matter. For the entire 4000 km length of the mountains there are perhaps only about a dozen roads that actually cross and most of these are dirt. You can count the number of paved crossings on one hand, such as the crossing from Mendoza to Santiago. Although, the paved roads do increase gradually as the two countries improve existing crossings to make truck commerce easier. A lot of roads, paved and dirt, simply head toward the mountains and either end or turn into old llama and horse tracks. There just simply is not the same plethora of mountain roads in Chile that there is in the U.S.
Why? Well, we thought about it and have come up with a theory. Let's begin with the mining roads. Back in the mid to late 1800s big mining boom and bust period in the U.S. hundreds of towns sprang up throughout the western mountains of the U.S. This occurred at a time when the horse, mule, and ox wagon or even very early gasoline driven trucks reigned. So almost as soon as a mining town was founded, it needed a road suitable for wagon trains for extracting the ore. In some instances a town might even get a railroad which required an even better road bed. If the town lasted more than a few months, the quality of the road grew. Later these roads may have been further improved for use by logging companies or by the later formed U.S. Forest Service to provide their own access.
Chile did not have significant silver and gold deposits. Additionally, where there was mining operations during colonial times the Spaniards tended to use llama, horse, mule, and human labor to move the ore. There weren't the independent prospectors and there really weren't the boom/bust style towns of the U.S. Consequently mining roads just never developed. There also were no major sources of trees. Thus, no logging roads. The Chileans also didn't have the cash to build roads just for the scenic value. Not to mention the fact that the Andean peaks are a heck of a lot higher than the Rockies. So roads were and remain pretty much utilitarian, simply passing from one side to the other. That's it. Although from a biking standpoint, it's a bit frustrating watching these mountains to the east with only a few access points available.
Oh what a bad tummy can do.
Dec, 4 - 8, San Fernando to Talca
Sooner or later it had to happen. After arriving in San Fernando we went out for a short stroll among the stores in search of a few odds and ends. We were both feeling fine. After about 1/2 hour walking I suddenly felt a massive diarrhea attack coming on. We were in the middle of a large grocery store and, as usual, banos were not to be had. "Brian," I said, "I have to get back to the hotel, NOW!" We paid for the few items we had and hustled back. By the the time we got back to the room I was in dire straits. Just an hour later Brian was trying to talk me into going for dinner. Not a chance. Brian went to the store, bought dinner goods, ate, and then within just an hour he was rushing for the bathroom as well. We spent the rest of the night taking turns at the toilet and the entire next day in bed.
That experience taught us one thing, Chilean TV has got to be as bad, if not worse, than American daytime TV. It starts in the morning with a few dubbed cartoons for the kids. Then follows horrible morning talk shows, wretched soap operas, and the most awful evening game shows. The game shows are particularly bad appearing to concentrate on skimpily clad young women bouncing around. It was boring, boring, boring. I think it was the miserable TV that induced us to get out of town perhaps a day too early.
We'd packed reasonably early in hopes to catch the early morning chill and light winds. It seems that winds in the central valley typically come from the south and get stronger and stronger as the day goes on. No sooner had we entered the highway than we began to wonder whether we'd made the right decision. After having lost everything we'd eaten one day, had nothing to eat the next, and just some toast the third we were both extraordinarily weak not to mention the fact that our tummies were still not stable. As we headed down the road, the heat and wind rose while our strength wavered. Before too long we were managing just a few kilometers. Then we'd have to stop at one of the bus stop covered benches to rest. We were struggling.
Twenty kilometers out of the town of Curico we rested at another bus stop. Across the road a young woman dressed in blue jeans and purple shirt and carrying a blue day pack climbed onto the road from the side. Doggedly she headed down the road, her short dark pony tail bobbed behind. Soon thereafter we'd regained our strength and quickly passed her on the road.
About another 5 kilometers down the road as we rested at another bus stop, the woman passed us. Did she get a ride? I don't think so. We quickly passed her again.
A few more kilometers we rested and she passed us again. This was getting to be embarrassing. This lady walking was beating us riding. I finally asked her where she was headed. "Curico." she said. With a determined look on her face, she marched on. Now we knew for sure, we really were still sick.
We spent the night camping at a Copec gas station/truck stop and straggled onto the town of Talca the following day. Taking a comfortable hotel room near town, we made the decision to not even consider going on until both of us felt well enough to eat, drink, and ride. This meant we would not head out until Brian once again grumbled, "I'm starving." and until I could eat ice cream again. Then we'd know we were finally well.
Talca is town of about 140,000 people located 257 km south of Santiago. It's surrounded by fruit orchards and vineyards. Several of the local wineries are are well known throughout the country. It is the capital of region 7, has a university, is home to several art galleries, and is fairly affluent. Upscale shops line the main shopping street 1 Sur. Talca's main claim to fame is it was the home of Chilean's hero, Bernardo O'Higgins and is where he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1818. Naturally his house has been turned into a small museum.
Being the center of commerce for the region makes Talca one extremely busy town. All day long the shopping streets are continually crowded with people rushing or strolling from one store to the next. The shopping seemed to hit a fevered pitch on Saturday when the Christmas shoppers came out in force. In some sense it gave us a little feeling of relief. After all, it's rather nice to know that it's not just the U.S. that gets into a high pitched Christmas shopping frenzy every year. There's a little commercialism in us all.
Two days additional rest in Talca and we were finally well enough to go on which was good as Talca was beginning to become rather to familiar. Our only hope is that the wind would abate and the temperatures decline.
Let's try this again.
Dec, 9, 10, 11, 12 - Talca to Saltos del Laja
Finally we both felt well. My head cold was gone, our tummies were back to normal, and for once we had a tail wind. So it was time to make up for lost cycling days. Boy did we ride. We had hoped to make about 80 to 100 KM. We had not expected to go a full 135 KM. Actually, some of the extra kilometers were accidental. As the time to quit for the day approached we searched and searched for a spot to pitch the tent. The region south between Santiago and just after Chillan is a major farming area. Because of this virtually every plot of land is fenced. We kept our eyes out for a spot where we could sneak in for a night of camping, but they just didn't seem to exist. Every spot that looked tempting usually turned out to be right in front of someone's house. Now we could ask if we could camp in someone's yard and we've heard the locals will gladly allow it. However, you do need to be prepared to become their form of "entertainment" for the evening. We weren't quite in the mood for that as yet. We knew we could camp at service stations. Yet every one we had passed so far looked horribly uninviting, just dirt parking lots. So we searched on.
Two times previously we had seen a blue and white sign showing a hand under a faucet. Soon after the sign a large parking lot appears on one side or the other of the road. A sizable yellow colored block building with small windows lining the top of the wall stands in the middle of these parking lots. Sometimes an ambulance, tow truck, or other assistance vehicle sits next to the building. Yet the rest of the parking lot remains empty. We were convinced that these were some sort of rest area. It'd been a long time since we'd seen the last one and we were hoping another was due soon.
Sure enough, just before Chillan the much welcomed hand under the faucet sign appeared. We rolled on in to ask if we could camp. After a few minutes on the radio to ask the jefe, boss, we were soon told there was "no problema." We were also graciously invited to not only use the spotless clean bathrooms but the shower as well. "Shower!" I exclaimed. Yep there really was a shower in each bathroom and to our absolute delight it had stunningly hot water. It was all too good to be true. We had a grassy spot for the tent, clean bathroom, hot showers, and 24 hour security, all absolutely free. The attendants told us that they are spaced about every 30 or so KM all the way to Puerto Montt. Not all have hot showers, but all have clean toilets. What a find. We definitely will be on the look out for these rest areas more often.
OK so if you were to take a guess as to where the very first bike tourists we meet would hail from where would it be? Germany, the most likely answer. The U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, or Switzerland might be your second. The last, absolute last place would be Israel. In fact, I don't think we ever expected to run across Israeli bike tourists ever. So it was quite a surprise when we met Ishai and Ron, two young Israeli men about 70 KM south of Chillan. We'd just finished a good lunch of turkey, salad, and rice when up they rode in pursuit of water.
This was their first ever bike tour and they were full of questions. For obvious reasons bike touring in Israel is not exactly a big pass time. No it's not the violence that makes it difficult. It's mainly that the country is so small there's just no place to go. You can ride for about a day or two in one direction and then you're at the end of the country. Where do you go next? One option is Jordan. These men seemed to really like Jordan. They are at peace and the Jordanians are very friendly people. They're also at peace with Egypt. But from everything we've heard riding a bike in Egypt, especially Cairo, can be suicidal. The drivers there are absolutely lunatic. It just seems that the difficulty with bike touring in Israel is there is no place to go. So they came to Chile.
It was interesting to listen to them talk about Israel for a bit. Israel is a tiny country about the size of Vermont surrounded by many peoples who would like to see it disappear from the face of the Earth. They kept mentioning how small Israel is, how their population isn't that large, and how so many people hate them. It was easy to tell that the country on a whole feels vunerable. I suppose in some respects for the first time in decades the U.S. is feeling a similar sort of vunerability following the 9/11 attack. We asked about the possibility of us riding in some of the middle east countries. They did say we'd have to be careful as we may be mistaken for Israelis. I'm not sure which could potentially result in worse consequences, to be mistaken for an Israel or as an American. In any event, there are definitely some areas where a woman on a bike simply would not be tolerated. Although, sometimes women can get away with a bit more latitude if they are tourists. It's a fluid situation there, changing every year. So we'd have to do serious research before going over. Besides the middle east isn't exactly high on our list.
From Chillan south to Los Angeles the farms give way to huge logging tracts. Fields ranging from newly clear cut to nearly mature pine trees line the highway. Trucks loaded with tree trunks pass by. Although, these aren't nearly as big or frightening as the logging trucks of Oregon. Free camping opportunities seem more plentiful under the shade of these pine trees, again if you're wanting to lift your gear over the barbed wire fences. Instead this day we were aiming for the nice, shady campgrounds at a place called Saltos del Laja.
Just east of the highway the Rio Laja makes a deep cut into the surrounding bedrock producing a small canyon about 20 meters deep. Just upstream of the bridge crossing the river are the waterfalls, Saltos del Laja. Tour books will say that these waterfalls are considered to be a mini Foz de Iguazzu. I'd have to say that after seeing the real Iguazzu that these are more like a micro version. They have the same horseshoe shape but only seem to be about 18 km wide and only 50 meters tall at most. Water tends to spray more than thunder over the edge. Supposedly hydroelectric projects further upstream have significantly reduced the amount of water tumbling over the edge. Even still, I don't think these falls could ever come close to Iguazzu's magnificence.
Despite being a small set of falls, relatively speaking that is, they have become quite a tourist draw. Anyone heading south to the lake district is likely to stop for at least one night to take a look. Three campgrounds and three hotels have sprung up just down river from the cascade. Although seriously impacted by the dam projects, white water rafting remains a favorite pastime on the river. Thankfully we happened to arrive prior to the January/February vacation onslaught. Campgrounds were open but just barely. Work was ongoing throughout the little valley in preparation for summer. A new restaurant was under construction, a pool was being built out on the rocks overlooking the river, even the folks at our selected campground were hanging new shade covers, painting picnic tables, repairing bathrooms. All would be ready in a month and, fortunately, we'd be far, far south.
Saltos del Laja did make a great base from which excursions to other locals could be made. We spent one morning exploring the town of Los Angeles. Not even coming close to the sprawl of the California city of the same name, this town boasts a population of only around 160,000. There are no limos, no Rodeo drive, no Disneyland, no big Hollywood sign. It simply is a service and supply center for the surrounding teeny tiny villages. Shopping happens big time. It does have a McDonalds which comes in handy for its free bathrooms. The one and only museum it has houses 2 very small rooms containing probably the best collection of Mapuche silver jewelry around. Glass cases display the silver while a photo above shows a woman wearing the items in the case. The women become absolutely festooned in silver across their chests and their heads almost to the point of being over decorated. I can't imagine what the weight must be. The only equivalent I can think of is the silver jewelry worn and sold by the Navajo. The resemblance is quite striking.
Chillan, back 80 KM north, is another city easily reached from Saltos del Laja. Even though we were getting tired of seeing town after town, we decided to spend a day visiting this city as well. It's supposed to have the most cultural interest of all towns between Santiago and Temuco, so it'd be a shame to miss. However, all the towns were beginning to seem the same. After all they do all have an extremely similar Spanish character. So an hour bus ride took us back north for a short visit.
When compared to Los Angeles, Chillan seems a bit more cosmopolitan. Perhaps it has more of a university presence. It just seems the streets are wider, the stores a bit more upscale, and the people a bit more citified. It does have a market that is supposed to be the most colorful open air market in Chile. There are plenty of outdoor stalls, lots of piles of fruit and veges for sale, and the usual meat and fish sections. Yet, I suppose we were a bit disappointed. After seeing the spectacular markets of Mexico, Guatemala, and even eastern Europe we tend to expect more. Have we become a bit jaded? Maybe. After you see so many places in the world, maybe it gets to the point you've seen everything. After Chillan, enough towns and cities. Time to head for the lake country and some just plain scenery.
On into the headwind we go
Dec, 13, 14, 15, 16 - Saltos del Laja to Temuco
The alarm chimed at 6:45 sharp. Up with the sun and off toward the southwest we went. Morning was cool and crisp. But, by 2 PM it got hot. Yet no matter what time of day, early AM, early PM, late evening, we had headwinds. By the end of each day we were too pooped to pedal a single inch further. We had always been under the impression that winds in Chile generally came from the northwest or west. Boy is that ever a misconception for this central valley. By the time we reached Temuco we'd ridden 7 days south on Ruta 5 and of those seven, five had strong winds out of the south from sun up to sun down. We only hope the Carratera Austral is different.
Camping is also a difficult nightmare on Ruta 5. It seems as though every kilometer along the length of the entire highway is private property. Fences abound. Sometimes, early in the day, we'd spot reasonable potential campsites. However, just when it came time to search for a camp site for the night there seemed to be none to be had. Often we found ourselves having to ride 10, 20, even 30 km further than we'd wanted just to find a spot. One day we got lucky. Construction on the highway near the town of Collipulli had resulted in easy access to a small and nicely shaded pine forest. Had there not been construction there would have been the usual barbed wire fences and locked gates. These opportunities to camp in nice, woodsy areas were extremely rare. Mostly we wound up behind service stations and at those rest areas. We will be so happy to be further south, beyond the land of large farms, where camping is far, far easier, or so we've been told.
The highway through Los Angeles was the pits. Chile's 4 lane divided Ruta 5 was not entirely finished. A loop circumventing Los Angeles was just being built and another 60 km to the south was nearing completion. Consequently we were forced to ride the old highway through town. Old it certainly was. Just a 2 lane old concrete road having a hit and miss, potholed shoulder had to take all truck and car traffic headed north and south. It was a bumpy, hair raising, unpleasant 15 km to say the least. Yet the extra 60 km beyond Los Angeles was a surprise. Even though the highway was not open, the 4 lanes were essentially complete. Only odds and ends needing completion kept them from opening. So by shifting back and forth between the future north and south bound lanes we were able to ride the entire way on our very own highway. Nice. If we were to return in only a couple of months I guarantee we'd be sharing the road once again.
Scenery south of Los Angeles began to remind us much of the Willamette valley in Oregon. Everything was lush and green including the hills. Tree farms having both eucalyptus and pine cover the hills. We wondered about the eucalyptus. We hadn't realized eucalyptus had any commercial value. Being late spring, wild flowers were in full bloom. Entire fields were covered in a purple carpet of flowers. To top it all off, in the distance tower amazing cone shaped volcanic mountains just like Mount Hood, Mount Rainier, Mount Jefferson, and all those other snow capped peaks of the northwest. They even seem to be just as regularly spaced as in the northwest. Southern Chile is supposed to have something like 270 volcanic peaks of which over 90 are known have to erupted in historical times. It's definitely an active area along the famous "ring of fire".
Located about 700 km south of Santiago, Temuco is a large town of about 260,000. It contains every possible service you could want including perhaps a half dozen or so good sized supermarkets. Eventually, probably by November 2002, a new 4 lane divided ring road will by-pass the town thus alleviating the heavy truck traffic that now must cross diagonally right through the center of town. But for now, we were forced to endure the traffic as we made our way through. Fortunately the old highway through town was not nearly as beaten up as the one going through Los Angeles.
Temuco is located in an area with a fairly high Mapuche population. Mapuche mostly live in the small surrounding communities. They drive to town on their interesting 2 wheeled, horse drawn carriages bearing goods from their farms to sell at the large outdoor market. Now here is the kind of market we had been expecting to see. Covering an entire 3 blocks near the train station, it consists of an odd assortment of homemade tables and roofs made of wood and corrugated metal scraps. Tables are mounded to overflowing with some of the best looking fruits and vegetables. One table bore 5 volcano shaped cones of cherries that looked too good to pass. The supermarkets may have supposedly "safe" fruits and veges. But, the better quality is always to be found at the market. Whoever said that Chillan had the most colorful market in Chile was way off, in our opinion that is.
Some of the Mapuche still dress in traditional costume. Although "traditional" has to be a matter of opinion as well. The costume usually consists of a colorful skirt and equally colorful but not matching blouse. One family we encountered reminded us of the indigenous of southern Mexico and Guatemala, dark blue wrap around skirts and frilly white blouses. Now keep in mind that these costumes really are not what the natives were wearing when the Spaniards arrived. Weather permitting, the natives often wore far less clothing than the Spanish rules of modesty would allow. So in the process of "christianizing" the natives they also enforced the Christian style of clothing. Natives subsequently modified, embellished, and added to the dress to meet their own tastes. For instance, they say that even the odd looking hats the women of the Bolivian altiplano wear is an adaptation of the English boler, I think it's called. Consequently it's no surprise that the dress in Chile looks remarkably similar to that of Mexico. Most of the natives, however, are adapting to more modern clothing styles which is not surprising given that the "traditional" styles date from centuries long past. It's a lot easier to buy a pair of pants off the rack than it is to make a traditional skirt.
This was disappointing. On December 3rd the "guardaparques", in other words park rangers, walked out on strike. So the 32 national parks were closed to the public. It also seemed that many of the museum and other public works employees walked out in their own form of sympathy strike as well. So the one descent museum in Temuco, the one that houses many ancient Mapuche artifacts, was closed. So was the shop that displays Mapuche made crafts and the women who make them, the Casa de la Mujer Mapuche, and the artesian center. None of this we discovered until after we'd already paid for 2 nights in a hotel. Other than these few things, there is very little else to do in Temuco. So we settled for a day just wandering and catching up on email. I must admit, we are tending to find that these small towns are a bit boring. Let's face it, they really are just small country support and service towns. Not true tourist destinations. At least soon we'll be in the lake country which is a tourist destination.
Lakes, mountains, scenery.
Dec, 17, 18, 19, 20 - Temuco to Panguipulli
One web site we visited prior to coming to Chile commented that the ride down the Panamericana south of Santiago was a bit like an endurance test (Barry Logan's notes on South America). Oh was he right. After nearly 700 km on this mostly uninteresting highway we were good and ready to head someplace with some scenery. It didn't even have to be incredibly spectacular, just better. South of Temuco in the tiny town of Freire we finally had our chance. We rolled around the clover leaf off-ramp which placed us on the southeasterly heading paved road toward the tourist town of Villarrica. Leaving the traffic and divided hghway behind at least for a while was a wonderful relief.
Villarrica is famous not only for its beautiful lake, but for the fascinating volcano that overlooks the lake. From the road this amazing, cone like structure gradually grew nearer and nearer. We'd seen so many of these conical volcanoes all along the highway. This would be the first time we'd get somewhat close. Villarrica is an active volcano. From a distance it looks like just another cone. But, as you approach you can make out the thin ribbon of smoke rising from its apex and the smattering of black soot that crowns its top. Alone the cone makes for quite a sight. Yet, as a backdrop to the blue waters of Lago Villarrica, it's absolutely stunning. You can, for a not inconsequential fee, arrange for a guided climb up to the top of the cone where you can look down into the maw of the vent. But, the fee is somewhat high, $30 per person. So we decided to forego that little extravagance. We're saving our splurge cash for Machu Pichu and the ferry from Punta Arenes to Puerto Montt.
The little town of Villarrica sits at the western tip of the lake. In summer months, Jan to Feb, it's crawling with families spending their summer vacation on the lake. Just before Christmas, however, the lake and town were really quite quiet. The weather was excellent and the crowds thin, a perfect time to visit. Villarrica the town is a much quieter and less expensive than it's more upscale neighbor Pucon. Pucon is a place of highrise condominiums, luxury hotels, active nightlife, even a casino or two. In summer the place rocks. Not our kind of town. We prefer the much quieter Villarrica. Pucon will continue to be one busy place, at least until the next time the volcano errupts. If you wish to invest in real estate, make sure you get really good lava insurance.
Now we were starting to meet more cyclists. To date we'd seen one couple passing by at Lago Rapel far north. We didn't get the chance to chat. Another couple on a tandem headed north passed us on the highway. They carried only two small rear bags so there's no way they could be camping. There was the 2 men from Israel who started in Santiago and were headed south for a 2 month tour and the lone man from Belgium who started in Ushuaia 2 1/2 months previously and was headed north. That was it until we approached Villarrica.
On the road to Villarrica we finally met up with a couple of the Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia bikers. One man was from Switzerland and the other from Germany. They had started in July 2000 with a flight up to Prudhoe Bay. I hadn't even realized you could get a flight up there. But I guess Alaska Airlines does service the town. They'd done it all. Ridden down through Baja, ferried over to Mazatlan, continued on to Panama, flown over to Columbia, and were now continuing on to Ushuaia. Much to our surprise, they actually enjoyed Columbia. Other reports we've received have warned us to stay away. Interestingly they weren't really tied together. They'd meet up, ride together for a month or so, then split for a while, and rejoin somewhere further down the road. I suppose that keeps them from going at each other's throats after a while. It really does take a commitment similar to a marriage to keep two people together during such a long and grueling bike tour. To their knowledge, there were 10 other such tip to tip bikers who had started when they did who were still on the road. We still have to wonder how many started and gave up.
We noted several things about these two men. Both looked tired. Both looked beaten. Both looked as though the excitement and novelty had worn off. That is the problem we've seen with continual bike touring for many years without an extended break. The enthusiasm and excitement wears off. It seems that after a while people get to the point where they're just going through the motions; getting up each day, riding their allotted kilometers, and wild camping somewhere. They rarely look at museums, rarely spend time looking around the towns, rarely do much more than bike, bike, bike. It's especially tough on those who have an extremely limited budget, which is the majority of bikers. Splurges to eat in nice restaurants or stay in nice hotels just aren't in the cards. Sometimes even a campground with a nice hot shower is out of range. It seems a tough way to go. We are always glad that we have more alternatives and have the ability to do something else for a while to take a break from constant biking.
In Villarrica we met a threesome from England. Although at first we were confused by their appearance. There were 3 people, a woman in her 50s and 2 younger men, a Toyota truck and one bike all outfitted for touring. We had to ask, who was the biker? It turns out that Astral was the biker and his mother and cousin were providing pseudo sag services. By pseudo I mean that they don't always meet up and Astral often winds up completely on his own for days at a time. His mum and cousin are having their own vacation, exploring while he rides the Panamericana. This a charity ride. He wants to ride from tip to tip of Chile as quickly as possible while earning money for some Chilean charity. There was press and media attention involved, of course, and the Chilean charity even donated the use of the truck they were driving. His charity was called the Chile Challenge, Peru to Patagonia. Evidently he does this type of charity ride regularly, every year or so for the past 10 years. I suppose it's a great way to have a good vacation and do some good at the same time and maybe even have some of your travel expenses paid. But, it surely must take a lot of organization and you really do have to commit to finishing what you promised.
Villarrica was a wonderful place to spend an extra day. The blue waters of the lake and the splendor of the overlooking volcano were just something not to be passed by too quickly. But, all too soon we had to push on. This time we'd try out one of the back, dirt roads. We felt we were finally in sufficient shape to tackle one, although the one we chose perhaps was a bit more than we were ready for.
Rising and getting on the road early, we quickly found ourselves climbing up the steep, but paved road toward Lican Ray. It wasn't too bad. About 12 km of climbing, another 10 km ups and downs, and finally a zooming descent to the next lake, Lago Calafquen. Traffic was light, the road nice and wide, and temperatures much more pleasant than they'd been just a few days earlier. We passed all sorts of furniture factories. Villarrica likes to claim they're the furniture capital of Chile and we're inclined to believe them. The factories looked like not much more than metal sided warehouses. Yet the showrooms. Wow! These had the taste and appearance of very nice and expensive homes. It must be to appeal to a certain clientele. The furniture was also large in size. Certainly these pieces were not intended for the tiny house of the typical Chilean.
By-passing Lincan Ray, we headed around the north side of the lake toward the little town of Conaripe. To our right was the beautiful lake, to our left was green covered mountains, and on both sides were some very expensive looking summer cottages. With a tailwind pushing us up to the head of the lake, what more could we want.
Conaripe is a little spit of a town that has yet to mushroom into a major tourist spot. Now that the access road is paved it's only a matter of time before that changes. It essentially has one main road and town is about 1 km in length. Few restaurants are open in the off season. Even the hotel and camping across from the plaza looked dead. At least the few small supermarkets were open so we could pick up supplies. Otherwise, this is one quiet town.
I returned from the tourist information office to find Brian having a lively conversation with a nicely dressed old man who'd taken the opportunity to occupy the empty space on the bench. "Ola" I said. He mumbled something that was a far lot more than just an "Ola" back. Brian looked to me for interpretation. On the old man babbled, actually more like mumbled. His words imprecise, slurred together, probably hung heavily with slang. "What's he saying?" Brian asked. I just smiled, nodded my head in agreement, and replied, "I have no idea." It's unfortunate that many of our conversations seem to be this way. Most Chileans do not enunciate clearly and my Spanish certainly is not sufficient to extract meaning from fast spoken, slurred together words. Ah well, we tried to be polite at least.
Food for breakfast and dinner secured in our boxes, we pushed on around the lake onto the dirt road. We'd been assured by the lady in the tourist office that there was a camping just a mere 4 KM down the road. She gave us the name and even a supposedly valid price. After 4 KM of bouncing we arrived to find a gate securely shut and locked. Didn't look open to us. On we went with Brian grumbling about how no one seems to know what going on even just a few km down the road. Certainly it's not the first time we'd been given wrong information and it probably won't be the last. Maybe we shouldn't even bother asking.
The road changed from a flat somewhat bumpy dirt road to one steep, steep climb. We were on one lake and needed to traverse a ridge to get to the next. Being a secondary, dirt road they don't exactly grade it to 6%. More like 15%. We still had our road tire on the rear, drive wheel and our off-road tire on the front, an arrangement we planned to reverse before the Carratera Austral. So while the rear wheel spun we gradually forced our way up the hill until it became just too steep for the tire to grab. Having to push our way up a hill is not exactly fun. We definitely have to change those tires before trying any more dirt roads.
Camping was not easy. As usual, everything was fenced. Finally, at Lago Pallinque we found one spot that looked like a regularly used wild campsite. It was at a small beach with a fantastic view of the Villarrica volcano overlooking the lake. We were soon to discover that this "campsite" is actually the local parking place for row boats. We'd already set up camp and were eating dinner when Brian noted a row boat way across the lake. As we watched, it grew nearer and nearer. Sure enough, it was headed toward our little beach. The man in the boat beached it and proceeded to wait up by the road. His wife was due in by bus in a few minutes. He lived on the other side of the lake and even though there was a road, he had no car. So whenever they wanted to go into town they'd row across to this point and catch a bus. He's not the only one. In the morning another man, his daughter, and her infant came across for a different bus. These both were extremely friendly folks. Within minutes of meeting they'd both invited us to come to their houses across the lake, offers we decided to decline this time.
Panguipulli was just a mere 20 km further down the road. We rolled up to the very pleasant El Bosque campground with the incredibly friendly owner named Juan. We had to wait to get in for about an hour as he was having new dirt put on the road and the big truck blocked the driveway. A comfortable campground with just 15 sites which we had all to ourselves, lots of shade trees, super hot showers, walking distance to town, and a wonderful host. What more could you ask for.
Juan, the campground owner, is a person with whom we could have long conversations. For one thing he was very careful with his Spanish. We talked about the U.S. "land of opportunity" as he said, Argentina, a land with major economic problems, and Los Lagos, the region through which we were riding. Unlike some of the Argentines, he doesn't blame the us for Argentina's miserable state. He says it's the corruption of the Peron and subsequent administrations. He tells us that in Argentina if you get a traffic citation, a bribe to the police will clear all. In Chile, on the other hand, an attempt at a bribe will land you in prison for a month without bail or trial. Chileans seem quite proud of their honest and non-corrupt government. Certainly even though the Argentina problems are having some impact, it's not an economic crisis as it is there.
Back to the Panamericana
Dec, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 - Panguipulli to Puerto Octay
We really enjoyed Panguipulli. Such a nice town with great views and tons of rose bushes. Roses spaced about 4 ft apart line every street and many more fill the plazas and parks. Summertime brings the rose festival. The town boasts they have over 14,000 rose bushes and that's a number that's easy to believe. Portland, Oregon claims it's the rose city, but we think the little town of Panguipulli far out does them.
It was tough to leave. We'd found it such a relaxing town we just wanted to stay. But, our goal was to get to the Carratera Austral before January 1, before the main tourist crunch. So we needed to push on. A paved road took us on a nice southwest diagonal directly to the town of Los Lagos. It was one quiet, country road with pretty views of green hills. One spot took us down a steep hill to a fantastic river and then back up the other side. A couple of men hand shoveling dirt at the edge of the bridge stared after us with wide open mouths as we quickly shifted into our Megarange gears and crawled back up hill. I imagine they must not think much about Brian toughing it up the hill. But, I must give them quite a start. Judging from the cat-calls, whistles, yells, and comments I continually get from all the construction crews they must consider women on a touring bike quite a novelty. As Brian keeps saying, "If you think you've get it bad. Just imagine being a blond, Scandinavian woman riding alone wearing biking shorts." Not a pleasant thought.
Just south of Los Lagos, once again on the Ruta 5, Panamericana highway, we found a brand new YPF gas station combined with one of those emergency service areas. We asked if we could camp out on the very tempting looking green lawn in back and were told we needed to wait for the jefe to return from dinner before we'd know. Now this fellow has to be our vote for being the nicest gas station boss in all Chile. He was a kind of short, stocky fellow with a round face highlighted by graying moustache and hair. He wore a spotless white lab coat over his normal street clothes. At first we were a little intimidated. He looked too formal. Yet, not only did he let us camp, but he invited us to sleep on the floor in the building should it get cold and offered hot water for tea and coffee. He even made sure to introduce us to his replacement on the night shift. Yup, he has our vote, number one.
Unfortunately this was not the case for the next night. As usual we found locating camping spots along the highway to be nearly impossible. Fences abound. Now we could probably have jumped over the fence, but we're talking about closely spaced barbed wire. One false move and it'll rip whatever it touches to shreds. We know. We've had it happen. So we much prefer to look for places far easier to access which happen to be super hard to find. We'd been told there was another rest area at a little place called San Pablo. This was wrong. We stopped at a large open field being mowed by several men. These were lots for sale. We were turned down. We were also turned down at the tempting looking Copec and Esso stations further down the road. After 89 km, far more than we'd wanted to ride for the day, we finally made it to the municipal camping Mohr in Osorno. At least here we knew we could camp.
Or could we? This was the holiday season, only 3 days before Christmas. In addition to being a camping, the municipal park provided rental space for special events. Everyone, absolutely every organization of which there are many in Chile, has a holiday party of some sort and many of these wind up in the municipal park. The caretaker runs a tight ship. "How long are you wanting to stay?" she asked. "Uh oh," we thought, "This doesn't sound good." It turns out she was just concerned about having these individual campers, basically just us, surrounded by what could prove to be one very rowdy group of party goers. This evening there were two parties, one for the Crystal beer brewery employees that included an open keg and resulted in boat loads of litter scattered around. The other seemed to be a party for a group of kindergartners, many of whom found our tent to be absolutely fascinating. The next day was to include groups of school children of all ages. It'd be a zoo. We decided the caretaker's suggestion that we plan to stay just the night and move on fairly early in the morning was a perfectly wonderful idea.
So we headed another 36 km south, then turned east toward the lakeside town of Puerto Octay, bumping and bouncing our way down 17 km of rough dirt road. Puerto Octay was formerly the main port town back in the days when goods from the sea port of Puerto Montt were shipped across Lago Llanquihue, off loaded in Puerto Octay, and then ported across land to Osorno. With the advent of good roads and trucking, it's importance as a port city has disappeared. Consequently it is one quiet and laid back community. The population is about 2,500 and it just barely has enough supply sources to keep us in food for a few days. Yet it seemed a perfect place to hang out for the Christmas holiday.
Puerto Octay is filled with the most amazing looking old houses. As we strolled by an old fashioned 2 story hotel we couldn't help but be reminded of old U.S. mining boom and bust towns. In fact, this little town looks a lot like a ghost town that hasn't quite gotten to the point of just having spirited residents. The hotel looked very settled. Blue and white paint was peeling off the exterior. Hand rails unevenly graced the two balconies both of which had odd slopes. Even the walls looked as though they were not quite vertical. Nearly every house in this little town has the same tumbling down appearance which greatly adds to its charm. We rather hope it never changes.
A night camping at the teeny, tiny town of Puerto Octay is supposed to be super duper quiet. HA! Let's see. We began with some sort of Christmas party happening out on the basketball court directly across the small bay from the campground. Much to our relief this party, which included some fellow yelling over loudspeakers, came to an end at the early hour of about 10 PM. Next, Christmas carols floated down from a church nearby. These weren't too loud and, mercifully, ended shortly. Then came some sort of other party, a night club I think. The same song belted out over more loud speakers rang out for what must have been over an hour. I just can't imagine how the same song could have so many stanzas. This finally came to an end somewhere around midnight by my watch.
Ah, so for our next number, dogs. I swear every house in town had at least one dog and there was an equal number of strays wandering about town. Some weren't so bad, low woofs coming from hills long off. But there happened to be one right near the campground, the ring leader for the rest, that had a high pitched grrrowp that pierced even the foggiest mind. It'd start up and immediately the rest of the choir would pitch in. This ended at perhaps somewhere around 1 to 2 AM. For our final number we got the backpackers. Actually, they weren't really backpackers as they had a pick-up truck. Nevertheless, they were of that age bracket where having just fled the parental yoke, they feel the urge to cause as much mayhem as possible. This means get a large amount of booze, gather around the campfire, sing horribly off key to the tune of a couple of guitars, get drunker and louder by the minute, and completely ignore the fact there may be other people in the campground trying to sleep. The finale went on until around 3 PM. So at last I got some sleep, at least up until our friends the dogs decided to come back for an encore. Fortunately this only happened the first night. The second night, Christmas eve, was far more peaceful. The entire band had gone home.
We'd been in to see Osorno via the bus and had once again concluded that it was simply just another not too interesting service town. It did have one museum we wanted to see that happened to be closed for the holiday. Also there was a very small Spanish fort, more of a redoubt consisting of two of those corner sentry towers and the wall in between. Finally there was one small block of interesting old German style houses, now preserved as National Monuments. That's it. So we decided to join the hoards of Christmas shoppers jammed into the Lider supermarket in search of special goodies for the journey down the Carratera Austral. Our goodies consisted of 2 jars of peanut butter, one bag of pretzels, and much to our delight a package of complete pancake mix. These things are hard to find yet make for high energy and compact food. It's a "grab it when you can" mentality one has to have.
The bus swerved around a corner at a frighteningly rapid rate of speed. We passengers crammed into the back seat giggled nervously as we slid to the opposite side. Another corner taken a bit too fast and we all slid back to the other side. We whipped over the top of a small hill, bottoms lifting slightly off the padded bench. Scrabbling to grab whatever hand hold we could find, we braced ourselves as the bus came to a squealing halt. Then it backed up. It'd flown by passengers waiting by the road who now were running to catch up. Once they were aboard our flying bus adventure took off once again. Who needs a roller coaster. You want excitement in Chile. Just go to Puerto Octay and find the correct bus driver and you'll have all the excitement you could ever want.
The end of the doble via ruta 5
December 25, 26, 27, 28 - Puerto Octay to Puerto Montt
Christmas day started out in three languages. "Bonjour, joyeux noel" I said to the Swiss couple next to us. "Merry Christmas" they chimed back. "Gracias." I replied. Puerto Octay was just a little too teeny tiny for our Christmas evening dinner. Also, the campground was just a little too noisy. So Christmas day we moved on the short distance to the town known as Bajo Frutillar. This is a long, skinny town lining a section of the western shore of Lago Llanquihue. It is a near picture perfect town having wonderfully restored 1800s German style houses, a nice black sand beach, fabulous views of three volcanoes including the conical Volcan Osorno, many high quality hotels and several very nice restaurants. Our biggest question was, would it be possible to find a turkey dinner in Chile for Christmas.
Turkey it was. In fact it was amazingly wonderfully cooked turkey. We found the little restaurant named Andes Cafe right on the lakeside road. It had several outside tables with commanding views of the lake and volcanoes, an attribute that first attracted our attention. Then there was one item listed on the menu that synched the decision, pavo con salsa almandre, turkey with almond sauce. The meal started with a small plate of salmon filets soaked in oil, spices, capers, and onion slices. Mmmmmm. Next, two large and thick slices of white turkey breast meat smothered in a creamy almond sauce with a side of fried potato pure shaped like little pears, cloves being used to represent the pear stem. To top off the meal, a cup of a dessert made of some sort of whipped egg and amaretto. Mmmmmmm even more. We'd wished for a turkey dinner on Christmas day and we got a turkey dinner on Christmas day. I'd recommend the Andes Cafe in a flash.
Frutillar is a small town consisting of two very different and distinct parts. Frutillar Alto (alto meaning upper) is located up on the higher plain to the east of Lago Llanquihue. It's a factory town having a bunch of rather modest looking factory houses located on the northeast side. Downtown looks a bit more upscale. Frutillar Bajo (bajo meaning lower) is pretty much a tourist town. It consists of just 2 streets lining the edge of the lake for a length of about 7 to 8 blocks only. It has a few fine restaurants and hotels, a long sandy beach, and one expensive tiny grocery store. The grocery store really irked me. Looking at the sign for ice cream we noted the price of a coronette was $550. But when we went to pay the cashier turned the sign around to reveal it was $600. They took prepackaged sausage that should have had a constant price, weighed each one, and then priced by weight. If it hadn't been the only store in the little town there's no way we would have shopped there.
Otherwise, Frutillar was a really nice town. We particularly liked the campground, unquestionably the nicest we'd been in so far. The town itself is clean to the extreme, certainly quite affluent, and has a great lakeside location with wonderful views of volcanoes. Its fine state is clearly due to the influence of the many German immigrants that were attracted to the country. Germany even helped organize and construct the interesting museum in town, one of the best museums we've found in the country so far. We liked Frutillar.
Our last push down the road to Puerto Montt was met with howling headwinds. A cold front had swept across the lower portion of the continent bringing with it a night of light rain and cold southerly winds. A ride that should have taken perhaps 3 hours wound up requiring closer to 5. We ended up totally bushed as well. Yet at long last we arrived. Puerto Montt, the gateway to the Carratera Austral and perhaps the most spectacular riding area of all Chile.
Appendix A - Route
November 28 - 72.36 KM ring road and Rt 78 Santiago Airport to Melipilla
December 1 - 64.56 km Rt 5 to Lago Rapel
December 3 - 78.11km Rt 5, side road, Pan American to San Fernando
December 5 - 48.92 km Pan American to Curico
December 6 - 74.07 km Pan American to Talca
December 9 - 135.74 km to 15 Km north of Chillan
December 10 - 98.43 km to Saltos del Laja
December 13 - 99.75 km to Collipulli
December 14 - 79.02 km to Lautaro
December 15 - 19.65 km to Temuco
December 17 - 84 km to Villarrica
December 19 - 64.14 km to Lago Pullinque
December 20 - 20.04 km to Panguipulli
December 21 - 62.33 km to Los Lagos
December 22 - 87.93 km to Osorno
December 23 - 6987 km to Puerto Octay
December 25 - 31.80 km to Bajo Frutillar
December 28 - 63.20 km to Puerto Montt
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
November 28, 29, 30 - Hotel Turismo Melipilla, Melipilla, Chile
December 1, 2 - Camping Bosque Hermoso - Lago Rapel, Chile
December 3, 4 - Hotel Imperio, San Fernando, Chile
December 5- Copac filling station outside Curico
December 6, 7, 8 - Hotel Cordillera, Talca, Chile
December 9 - Ruta 5 rest area 15 km north of Chillan
December 10, 11, 12 - Camping Rinconcito Saltos del Laja
December 13 -Pine forests south of Collipulli
December 14 - YPF station 10 KM south of Lautaro
December 15, 16 - Hotel Estacionimiento, Temuco
December 17,18- Camping Castanos, Villarrica
December 19 - site next to Lago Pullinque
December 20 - El Bosque camping, Panguipulli
December 21 - YPF station south of Los Lagos
December 22 - Municipal Camping in Osorno
December 23, 24, 25 - Camping El Molino, Puerto Octay
December 25, 26, 27 - Camping Ciruerilillos, Bajo Frutillar, Chile
December 28 - Hostel Teo, Puerto Montt