Chile 2003: Chacabuco to El Chaltén
Feb. 25 / Mar. 4, 2003

Michael J. Ferguson

Les Publications INRS-Télécommunications, Montréal

Chile 2003: Main Index


1  Chacabuco to Coihaique, Tues. Feb. 25
2  Coihaique, Wed. Feb. 26
3  Coihaique to Ruta 7, Thurs. Feb. 27
4  Camp 1 Ruta 7 to Puerto Ibañez, Fri. Feb. 28
5  Puerto Ibañez , Sat. March 1
6  Puerto Ibañez to Chile Chico, Sun. March 2
7  Chile Chico to Perito Moreno, Mon. Mar. 3
8  Perito Moreno to El Chaltén, Tues. Mar. 4
9  Maps

Next Section: El Chaltén to Puerto Natales: Trekking the Fitz Roy Massif & the Perito Moreno Glacier

1  Chacabuco to Coihaique, Tues. Feb. 25

The sun and clear sky were an absolute delight. The entire day was spent riding between 1000m (3300') ridges, on a relatively flat paved road, with a very strong tailwind. For once, the predicted prevailing winds were as advertised. The first 14km were to Puerto Aysen (Aisen?) - both spellings seem to be used, but Aysen is on the sign entering town.

The wild fuschias add a touch of class and colour all along the road.

Although Puerto Aysen is larger than Chacabuco, it is no longer the port of choice because it is almost 10km up a small river. I replenished my depleted supplies with a certain amount of difficulty. One of the two large? supermarkets had no produce at all, and the other one had a tiny fruteria, with only 2 rather dead bananas. A small market, that I passed coming into town, with nice bananas hanging in the window, remained steadfastly closed, and this was now 10:00am. After riding through the entire town, I found an open market with bananas, and was on my way.

The ridges and waterfalls continued beautiful all the way to Coihaique.

I stopped for lunch at a bus shelter that had pleasant view of the ridges across the valley and protected my poor Camping Gas stove from the wind so I was able to cook my risotto. During lunch, the Swiss cyclist I met in Villaricca stopped for a couple of minutes to say hello. He was followed about 15min. later by John, an Australian from Byron Bay, who had been riding with him for about 200km from Chaiten on the Carreterra Austral. John said that the road was terrible, and that his friend was crazy, racing down gravel hills, riding 100km+, no matter what the weather, with a fanatical insistence on the necessity of getting to Villa O'Higgins by next Friday for the Saturday ferry. Although John is probably going to take the Villa O'Higgins route, he feels that he might take a little longer to get there.

There was, in fact, a real hill on this ride, a 300m climb to a ridge just before you reached Coihaique. It was protected by a huge stone column.

There were light sun-showers during the late afternoon, but the reward for that was an intense rainbow.

At the top of the ridge, you could see Coihaique laid out in front of you.

It was downhill from there, but not all the way, of course. I climbed slowly up the final hill right into town, looking for the Hospedaje Baquedano that was supposed to be right when you entered town. There were no signs, and the girl I asked sent me further into town. Lonely Planet said it was 20 Baquedano so I followed the numbers backwards towards the edge of town. As I approached the top of the big hill coming into town, I finally found it, the very first house in town. An old beatup car was blocking the driveway so I just stopped, contemplating my next action. Patricio Guzmann, came out of his house and said, ``You are looking for a place to stay?'' and then ``You have too much stuff!''. I said ``Yes'' to both, and he said they were full, but he would work something out. There was space in the garden for another tent so I was able to begin my setup.

Patricio, is really a teacher, with a Spanish/English school, recommended by Lonely Planet, here in Coihaique, and a day job teaching English at a local high school. His real love, though, was teaching adults. He was quite intrigued that I was a professor, and he invited me into his house for tea, cheese, and conversation. We discussed, training, education, and student motivation for an hour or so, before I excused myself to finish putting up my tent.

This was a much longer day than I had anticipated. It was a very easy for the first 50km so I decided to go the next 30km to Coihaique instead of camping at the 50km mark. The two, uncharacteristic for the day, hills slowed me down considerably over the last 30km.

Although it was flat, I did climb 875m, 325m of that during the last 10km and was in the saddle for 6 hours. It was a long day.

2  Coihaique, Wed. Feb. 26

I spent the entire morning writing my journal and organising my 4 days worth of glacier pictures so at noon decided that there was no point in continuing. I rode around town, and managed, even in such a small place, to get lost. Fortunately, the Lonely Planet map of town is sufficiently detailed I did not totally get lost.

The fuel pump of my Primus Multifuel stove is leaking so I can only use it with Coleman fuel for emergencies. I also brought an old fashioned French Camping Gaz stove that uses the 270 puncture a hole canisters. I was able to find these canisters in Temuco, but have now finished my first one so was looking for some more before I really hit wilderness terrain. Much to my surprise, the large supermarket here did not carry the 270 canisters but did carry Primus compatible gas canisters. I bought several so, hopefully, I will not need to buy any more, or need to use my emergency fuel supply, for the rest of the trip.

I have been sharing my space in the hostel, for the last two nights, with a group of students, mostly from UC Santa Cruz, who are here studying the problems of preventing the huemul from going extinct. Their English speaking guide, who has been studying the huemul for 30 years, is apparently the world's leading expert. They are like all college kids, and seem to prefer to stay up all night talking. Since I am an early to bed, early to rise person, that is no problem at all.

3  Coihaique to Ruta 7, Thurs. Feb. 27

This was a tough day, that could have been infinitely tougher. It started with 40km of rolling mountain side with a strong tailwind that was occasionally a strong crosswind.

At 39.7km the turnoff sign for the continuation south of Ruta 7, the Carreterra or Camino Austral arrived as expected. Right under it was a gravel road, with 2cm to 3cm (1 inch or so) loose gravel boulders starting up the hill. I went about 3m and decided this was hopeless. I would ride to Balmaceda, Coihaique's airport and take a bus. About 100m up the road, around a slight bend there was a bus shelter and a paved turnoff, with another sign to Villa Cerro Castillo the first major town going south. Apparently, some of the Ruta 7 going south was paved, possibly all the way toVilla Cerro Castillo well beyond the turnoff the Puerto Ing. Ibañez where I catch the ferry to Chile Chico. However, all was not easy sailing. My first problem was a wobbly trailer and a dragging brake. Apparently, my heavy load spontaneously loosens spokes and many in my rear wheel were ready to fall out. I unloaded everything, tightened all of the spokes, and then straightened, somewhat, the wheel. After about an hour I was ready to go again.

The real trauma though, with the change in direction, was that my nice strong tailwind had become a very strong crosswind, laced with rain, that occasionally blew me across to the other side of the road. It also, occasionally, was a vicious headwind, that made even downhills painful. My map showed a small town 10km up the road, but with 5-7km to go, I really seriously was looking for a sheltered, accessible place to camp. With about 3km? to go, at 7:40pm, and with sunset in 40min, I saw a nice sheltered place, under the trees. The drainage ditch on the road meant I could stand up my bike to unload it. Although I was still visible from the road, it was obviously the best I could do.

I put up my tent, brought in my bike, and had a restful night listening to the wind howl above me.

It was a day of 55km, 1680m (almost a mile) climb.

4  Camp 1 Ruta 7 to Puerto Ibañez, Fri. Feb. 28

I broke camp and packed my bike relatively early and was away by about 9:00am. Sunrise is a late 7:30am.

The headwind was no longer ferocious, just distressingly strong. I stopped to rest after only 600m, and had my first banana for the day.

The town I was looking for did not seem to exist, but there was an official Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo campground only 3.5km up the road. However, with the headwind, it took me over an hour to get there. Last night would have been impossible. There also was no indication of anything silly like hot showers. Tanya, whom I was to meet in Puerto Ibañez, told me later that there were, indeed, hot showers, if you built and started the wood fire to heat the water.

This summit began my first long downhill of the day. The new road followed the river, which now was pretty tame, but it was clear that this river was not always benign. The road was washed away in several places and in one place disappeared totally.

After the long downhill, there was a gentle climb up to the summit of 1120m. My GPS was remarkably accurate here. It reported 1119m. The entire way up was flanked by mountains, some with tips laced with snow.

and the occasional odd stone formation that was considered noteworthy.

Over this last summit was 6km of steep downhill. Here the views were magnificent: the valley, the mountains, and the glaciers that are part of the Parque Cerro Castillo.

Right on schedule, at 32km was the turn to Puerto Ibañez. My wishful thinking that the road be paved all the way to Puerto Ibañez was quickly shattered. This was, from a bicyclist's point of view, the worst possible: a loose gravel road.

After a first short uphill section, it was mostly downhill all the way to Puerto Ibañez, and mostly a tailwind which occasionally became a crosswind. These were the strongest winds I have ever been in. From a standing start on perfectly flat ground, I could get up on the pedals, do absolutely nothing, and be propelled to 15km/hr where I put on my brakes because I was about to go too fast. Sometimes I was actually blown uphill. There was the occasional narrow gravelfree channel but on either side the deep loose gravel would catch my wheel and throw me. On some of the few uphill sections, I would have to walk, because my back wheel would spin when I tried to start.

I started this last 28km at about 3:00pm, and the winds grew steadily stronger as I rode. Whenever I was riding, I had to concentrate completely on the road, so I only saw the beauty around me when I stopped to rest, became too dangerous to continue, or I stopped to prevent a spill.

I fell several times, once right over the handlebars, without much damage, but about 10km from Puerto Ibañez, while very carefully trying to control my speed, I caught some very loose gravel, and crashed onto my leg, badly scraping the knee. I cleaned that up, put on tea tree oil, and a bandage, and carefully tried to hold up the bike while replacing the paniers and water jug.

However, the worst of the trip was yet to come. The last section of the road into Puerto Ibañez is a series of downhill switchbacks. The wind, by now, had reached at least 100km (50mph), probably gusting to 120km (80mph) - this was my guess from the wind resistance you get when you stick your arm out of a moving car - and it was too dangerous to ride in any direction. It was also very difficult just to keep control of the bike while I walked forward. Occasionally, the bank behind the switchback would protect me so I could ride for a while. With the town visible below me, I hit the last section of the road with a full headwind. It was so strong, that one gust bent my map holder over on top of the handlebars and ripped the bicycle right out of my hands. I waited for sometime before I had the courage and energy to lift it back up. The very last section of the switchbacks was right up against the cliff I had come down and was protected from the wind. I rode very carefully, but still did not avoid falling one more time. Nothing was bent or broken this time, but I did have to reset the paniers.

After one small wrong turn, I arrived in Puerto Ibañez just after sunset, and found their Residencial Vientos del Sur. They insisted I bring in my bike and trailer, so I was home for the night.

I rode about 63km, climbed 1685m, and would not recommend the last 30km of dirt road for bicyclists in any direction. Going north from Puerto Ibañez is virtually impossible with the loose gravel, continual climb, and malevolent headwinds, and coming south is just plain dangerous. If this continues, I may be taking the bus more frequently than I had anticipated.

5  Puerto Ibañez , Sat. March 1

It is bright and sunny, and the wind is still shaking the roofs, and buildings. The ferry to Chile Chico does not run today so I will have to wait until tomorrow.

Puerto Ibañez is a small town so it is easy to walk around it in an hour or so. I had little inclination to ride. My real objective was to find a replacement for the wooden bar that I use to keep the paniers from bouncing off the rack. The ride down the hill broke my third one so my two spares that I brought with me were used up. After getting a map of town from the visitor centre, I wandered around, visiting several Taller Mechanicos - Repair Garages with no success. I showed the broken piece to Margot, the owner of my residencial, and her husband made me a replacement in less than a half hour.

It is bright, sunny, and beautiful outside, but the wind is still howling. I spent the afternoon in the Residencial studying Spanish.

I was about to cook supper, after wandering around town to discover that the restaurants were really only open on demand and my Spanish was not up to demanding, when a young couple, Tanya and Jeff, from Oregon rode in with their bicycles, each with a trailer, and no paniers. Tanya said she had enjoyed the ride, and Jeff, who had a couple of spills had disliked it intensely. Tanya said that they had met a German guy who managed to get up it, but complained that the road was horrible. I don't know if the winds yesterday were worse, or whether I was more overloaded, had less skill, couldn't produce the appropriate energy or balance, am more spastic, or ..., but I know there was absolutely no chance that I could have made it in the opposite direction, and I barely made it in this one.

Jeff's Spanish is quite good so I had dinner of steak and salad with them. At dinner I learned that they have been riding for year and eight months, starting in Inuvik. At dinner, Tanya had a valuable piece of advance information. Apparently the German guy who found the road north from here rideable said the one south of El Calafate to Torres del Paine was not because of steep sandy hills. This means I will definitely take a bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales , leave my bike there and then take the bus to Torres del Paine.

6  Puerto Ibañez to Chile Chico, Sun. March 2

The wind never stops.

The short power failure this morning was fixed in about half an hour. It froze my computer but, fortunately, did not seem to fry the power converter.

There is considerable confusion as to whether, and when, the ferry to Chile Chico will run. It is clear that the schedule in the residencial is not at all accurate. Jeff went down this morning to enquire at the Carabinero's office right by the dock and was told that the ferry would leave Chile Chico at noon and leave at 9:00am on Monday. According to the schedule, there is no service on Saturdays and Mondays. Late last night, we were joined by two brothers, Jeff and Brian, one of whom now lives in Santiago, who arrived with their small rental truck. All five of us want to go on to Chile Chico. Jeff and Brian phoned Chile Chico and were told that the ferry would indeed leave Chile Chico today at noon, and that it would return at 5:30pm - we shall see.

At 4:30pm there was still no sign of the ferry, but a huge crowd was gathering at the dock so something must have been happening. I went back, and rode down, pushing my bike the last 200m on the gravel, having it blown out of my hands once. Jeff and Tanya were much better at it. They rode all the way.

At 5:00pm, 3 hours late, the ferry arrived.

All five of us waited, hoping to get on.

There were several announcements that the ferry was full, and only those with tickets would be allowed on. Much to my surprise, they were able to stuff all the cars, including Brian's truck. Then they started selling tickets to the overflow foot and bicycle passengers, so we all got on.

Lago General Carrera was quite rough with the wind being so strong that it was blowing spray off the top of the water.

I rode with Jeff and Tanya to the Hospedaje No Me Olivides just out of town, and were soon joined by Brian and his brother Jeff. Here we officially have kitchen privileges so we each cooked our respective dinners and had a communal meal. I went into town on Brian's food run to try to phone, but the only phone I found did not work. I will try again tomorrow.

7  Chile Chico to Perito Moreno, Mon. Mar. 3

The phone was indeed quite dead. A carabinero came an told me so as I was fiddling again this morning. After one abortive attempt, I was able to phone from an EMTeL phone centre.

The initial 5km of gravel to the Chilean Border Station was protected by tree wind-breaks so this ride was merely irritating. After satisfying Chile's exit controls, and determining that, as a Canadian, I did not really need any papers for my bike, I entered a totally gratuitous 6km U bend in the gravel road that ran 3km due inland from the Lago General Carrera, crossed a bridge into Argentina, and then ran 3km parallel, right back towards Lago Buenos Aires (it changes name at the border) to the Argentina border station. The last 3km was directly into the wind. Another km or so of gravel road became paved at the limits of Los Antiguos.

There was no ATM in town, the telephone system looked as weak as in Chile Chico , and it was only 12:30pm, so I decided to ride the 60km to Perito Moreno. Jeff an Tanya caught up with me at the border station, returned some stuff that had fallen out of my trailer, and caught up with me again in Los Antiguos. I left before them and later saw them again as they rode into Perito Moreno , while I was looking for supplies and an Internet connection.

It was an easy 65km, with a satisfying consistently strong tailwind on a mostly flat paved road.

The only major climbs, and these were really quite gentle, with the wind helping up the hill, were at the end of Lago Buenos Aires. It was entirely scrub, dry desert, without any trees, other than those planted for windbreaks. The real mountains were all in Chile.

It was a total of about 75km, 1085m climb, and an easy 5 hours of riding.

Perito Moreno, 3300, is the only large town for several hundred kilometres. Everything is clustered around one street, Av. San Martin. However, it does have banks with ATMs, Internet access, and several phone booths. The major disappointment was an almost entire lack of fresh vegetables in the supermarkets. If this, as the guidebooks say, is the place you should stock up before going south, then there is certainly trouble. I would hate to try and get enough food for the ride along the infamous gravel, Ruta 40 , as Jeff an Tanya, are going to do.

With my distaste complete for gravel roads, I will try to get on the bus for El Chaltén when it arrives tomorrow morning from Los Antiguos.

8  Perito Moreno to El Chaltén, Tues. Mar. 4

There were five of us, a young German couple from outside Munich and an young Italian couple from Rome, waiting for the bus from Los Antiguos to take us to El Chaltén. The bus was supposed to arrive at 9:00am and finally did at 9:45am. We were all worried that there might not be enough room for us, me especially, because I had my bicycle. It turned out we didn't need to worry. All the passengers on the bus got off here and we had the 24 seat Mercedes bus to ourselves. My bike and trailer were put in the rear trunk, and my bicycle pack, with all my paniers was put in the back seats of the bus with the other backpacks. My ticket was 110Ap ($55cdn), my back an extra 30Ap, and my trailer, which was declared to be cargo, was another 15Ap.

The Argentinian Ruta Nacional 40 is an infamous gravel road that travels almost 1000km? through the Argentine Pampas. For bicyclists it is a test of physical and mental endurance. I was curious to see how difficult it was, and it does indeed live up to its reputation. It has very steep ups and downs, in both directions, loose gravel, with very little, if any possibility to buy groceries, and only occasional possibility to buy food of any kind. There are Estancias , working? ranches, every 40km or so, but most of them are another 5km to 10km off the main road, via a dirt track. About 10km out of town, we passed Jeff and Tanya. I hope they make it. I am convinced they will survive, but I doubt they will enjoy it.

We stopped at every gas station/hotel in our first 450km: both of them. The first one, was a pit/smoking (110km?) stop at the Hotel Bajo Caracoles.

The second, was the Hotel El Olinie , another 120km or so later, where we had lunch - all you could eat breaded cutlets and potatoes, for 3Ap. I also took the opportunity to wander around outside and enjoy the scenery, commune with the wild animals, and sympathise with Tanya and Jeff for what they were going through on this wretched road, which, also, unfortunately, appears to be a good gravel road , at least for cars.

As we went further south, the landscape remained barren and dry, but was starting to be dominated by buttes and mesas.

We started up to El Chaltén at sunset and did not arrive until nearly 11:00pm. After I put my bike back together, readjusted the brakes that always seem to get pushed out of shape when the front wheel comes off, It was close to midnight. With some effort, I found the El Refugio , my campground of choice, and finally got my tent up, in spite of the horrific winds, by 12:30am.

It was a good day. I made it to El Chaltén.

9  Maps

This is a link to the Google Earth Map of the ride between Chacabuco and Perito Moreno.

Next Section: El Chaltén to Puerto Natales: Trekking the Fitz Roy Massif & the Perito Moreno Glacier

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.02.
On 12 Nov 2008, 11:57.