My promise to myself in 2020 was to bring the blog up to date with past adventures before revealing the exciting new ones planned for this year. A little while ago now (OK, 9 months but who’s counting) I started writing about the first part of our 2018 Chilean adventure by bike. Part one was the spectacular experience mountain biking in the Atacama Desert and a prelude to the main part of our trip, the plan to go cycle touring in the Patagonian South of the country.
Like all good plans however this one had a couple of small flaws.
Issue one, was the weather. Arriving at the start of March, in the late Chilean summer, we were certainly hoping for wall to wall sunshine and between a sweltering Santiago and the deserts of Atacama we had indeed been well rewarded. What we hadn’t factored in however is that Chile is a fantastically long country (4,270km long to be precise) and that the south was well known for being far colder (and wetter).
Despite nervously monitoring the forecast since our arrival it seemed the British weather gods had decided to vacation with us. Wall to wall rain, storms and even sleet were predicted for the final 2 weeks of the trip, all around the area of Puerto Montt, our starting point and main route along the famous Carreterra Austral. We did debate just toughing it out, after all, how often are we going to get the chance to ride in Patagonia but finally, fortunately the voice of sanity and Carlos the local bike shop owner prevailed.
His sage advice was to ditch the sodden south and head north instead, a mere 7 hour bus ride away to the heart of the Coquimbo wine growing region and the Pisco-Elqui Valley – home of the delicious Pisco-sours. Sold.
Carlos, as it turned out, was also the fantastic, fortuitous answer to issue number 2, the fact that we had no touring bikes or equipment. Although this may appear to be an oversight on our part (it was) I had decided not to risk the expense and hassle of flying my touring gear out given that I thought there was a very slim chance, if any, that M, my partner would actually agree to go cycle touring in the first place. Having never done it before (and being the kind of traveller who is used to the finer points of all-inclusive luxury) I had absolute confidence he would bail out on the idea once we got there.
Turns out I was wrong (not often you’ll see that in print).
This was of course great news for the tour but less for having anything to cycle on/camp with. Carlos to the rescue again with 2 touring bikes. Both steeds were veterans of the road, rigid-frame mountain bikes boasting old school 26 inch tyres, v-block brakes and M’s with friction shifter gears, however they were sound, comfortable and came with pannier racks and bags. Taking pity on us Carlos even lent us his camping stove and spare cooking pans.
As for the rest of the gear a mad shopping spree at a local budget outdoor shop commenced (think Decathlon or Target but much, much smaller). 2 hours later however we had the basics assembled. Two very lightweight sleeping bags; one thin foam yoga mat (to be cut in half); 2 x sporks (spoon-forks) and a lightweight beach tent. What could go wrong…..?
Erecting the tent in the hostel later that evening revealed that beach tents don’t actually give you either a lot of sleeping space or indeed shelter from the elements. I was still willing to take the chance but M it seemed was close to his tolerance limit for my stupid ideas so, first thing the next morning, we were back at the shop swapping the beach shelter for a (slightly) more sturdy 2 person tent.
Day 1: Santiago to La Serena (mostly by bus)
Tent sorted and bikes collected from Carlos, who was also care-taking our suitcases, we loaded up our loot and headed out to navigate the Santiago streets to the bus station where Carlos assured us they would be delighted to take our loaded bikes on the bus to La Serena.
Not so as it turns out. The bus station was a heaving mass of humanity with buses arriving and departing at an alarming rate. After finally locating the counter to buy our tickets and then finding the buses to La Serena we were flatly turned down when approaching the hold with our bulging bikes. Much negotiation followed and the payment of an ad hoc ‘excess baggage’ amount to the driver and his mate before we finally dismantled and loaded the bikes into the bus’s belly and collapsed gratefully into the rather comfortable seats for the long journey ahead.
NB We learnt that bus drivers look far more kindly on you if you remove all of the luggage from the bike and ideally take off the front wheel/tie it to the frame.
Exhausted by the morning’s experience it was nice to sit back and watch the world go by, the view changed rapidly after leaving the smoggy city and we were soon flanked by mountains one side and the sea on the other. The journey fairly flew by and 7 hours or so later we were disembarking at dusk in the pretty town of La Serena. The sharp drop in air temperature compared to the balmy evenings in Santiago was certainly noticeable and we were glad to roll up to our hostel a short while later and change out of summer shorts and t-shirts. I briefly wondered how our very summer weight sleeping bags would fare but tonight we had beds and blankets so blithely filed away that thought.
Day 2: La Serena (Faffing)
Today had been designated as a preparation (faffing day), buying food, finding maps and all the other bits and pieces we needed but had forgotten including a bike pump and inner tubes, M have helpfully left the ones from Carlos back in Santiago. It was no hardship spending a day in this beautiful town however. As Chile’s second oldest city, it was a joy to wander around the pretty streets, admiring the architecture as well as the thriving markets. Shopping list mostly completed we finished off the day with a cycle to the famous long sandy beaches. We had in mind to take a refreshing dip in the ocean but one look at the wild Pacific waters and the idea of swimming was reduced to a quick paddle before heading back for an early night.
Day 3: La Serena to Vicuña, 65km
Navigating out of any city can be a stressful experience when battling traffic, unfamiliar road etiquette and heavily loaded bicycles. M’s star purchase yesterday though had been a mobile phone holder now taped and cable-tied to his handle bars and, after a bit of trial and error, our new navigation app – Maps.Me steered us out of the suburbs and on to quieter roads heading east. As the countryside opened up ahead the vehicles grew far fewer and the views more pleasing, lush greenery and pretty villages all framed by the ever present view of mountains. Right from the outset there was climbing involved but we soon settled into a rhythm, getting to know the bikes and the route as we went. The scattering of villages made for easy food and drink stops as well as a few shady parks in which to rest and eat.
Having become acclimatized to the roads it was slightly disconcerting when the navigation app suddenly dumped us into a dead end cluster of houses next to a busy highway. The road didn’t look the friendliest option but….. just as we were about to take the plunge M spotted a gravel path running parallel with the highway. With no better alternative we decided to follow it. Bingo, this quiet track was much nicer than the main road, the downside however was the added resistance from the gravel/dusty track. I’m used to road touring on slick 700cc wheels so our thick, knobbly little 26” ones were noticeably harder going. Following the track for a fair distance, dipping and soaring through little settlements and chased by a few energetic dogs, we either missed a turning along the way or the track simply ran out and we had no choice but to join the main highway. Whilst not as bad or as busy as anticipated big trucks often thundered past and, with no hard shoulder to ride, it was best not to think about it too much.
The heat of the day was phenomenal too, desert heat, and there was very little shade. Finally, skirting a reservoir, a long uphill drag culminated in a steep, forbidding climb which loomed above us on the horizon and into the mouth of a forbidding road tunnel. With no lights and hugging the very narrow pedestrian lane in was time to take a deep breath, pedal fast and hum a happy tune.
After 65km the town of La Vicuña was a welcome site indeed at the end of a long hot day, especially the shady, central square with low rise buildings and plenty of cafes for a weary cyclist or two. A quick internet search produced a campsite right in the town centre itself, but cycling down a residential street lined with wall to wall houses it was hard to see where a campsite could be situated. Knocking on the door of the Hostal La Elquine however we were amazed when the owner ushered through a narrow front door into a large shady courtyard surrounded by bedrooms and living accommodation. Even better a huge back garden made for a beautiful, quirky campsite complete with electricity points dangling from trees and an indoor kitchen and sitting area. Perfect.
New tent pitched and sampling some of the local produce for which the area is famous, namely wine, we settled in for the night.
Day 4: Vicuña to Pisco-Elqui: 45km, 635metres of hot climbing (felt like more!)
On previous bike tours I’d always taken either a circular route or a point to point approach. With our current situation however and lack of a plan we had the freedom to wander and return. Because of this we decided to use Vicuña as a base and head off on a little side trip up the Elqui Valley.
My main motivation for doing this is that it is apparently (although the Peruvians may disagree) the birthplace of the drink Pisco. Pisco is a colourless brandy made from fermented grapes and turns into something magical when mixed with sugar and egg whites to form Pisco Sours. It sounds weird but is very refreshing. In fact, so proud of their Pisco are they here that the valley renamed itself in the 1930’s to Pisco-Elqui, just to reinforce its claim as the premier producers of the drink.
Back to the bikes and the ride out of Vicuña is along a flat road bordered by fields, lush greenery, a rushing stream and the ever present mountain backdrop. We pass through a few villages, some inhabited, some abandoned, and a disconcerting number of campsites which are ‘closed for the season’. After a hour or so (around 20km) of riding both paper map and App inform us we’ve reached the turn off for the valley and so, in the heat of the day, the climb commences.
It’s hot work and the road rises steeply but the views are stunning and the traffic quiet. The valley floor is extremely fertile and crammed with well-tended rows of crops clinging to the mountainous wall. Less than half way into our 25km climb I’m really craving a cold drink and, what should emerge by the road side a few moments later, but a little stand full of freshly prepared juices. As it turns out they also sell handcrafted chocolates too and so we enjoy every moment of this incongruous find before heading back out into the heat. The road continues to rise, sometimes gently and sometimes in big walls of tarmac which loom at you and suck your energy. A 45km day doesn’t sound much but it depends how many of those KM are vertical.
Passing through the little villages on route I count them off on my paper map and we inch along. There’s nothing that looks like a campsite either and I’m getting a little worried. Finally though, quite a few hours after setting off we arrive in the pretty town of Pisco-Elqui and it was worth the climb. With all the charm of a thriving pueblo from another era (if you took out the cars it could be 100 years earlier) there’s a real vibrant buzz about the place too which seems to attract its fair mix of entrepreneurs and hippies alike. After my dodgy Spanish locates us a campsite (one of three I’m told) we head down a side street off the main square and then a dirt track to find our pitch. The camping is basic but in a shady, wooded area on hard pack dirt. Being the end of season here it’s quiet too. Quickly putting up the tent we head through the woods to find a wonderful, crystal clear stream. After such a long, hot day, what better than to strip to your birthday suit and take an icy plunge. Floating in the glass-like water it was perfect, or at least it would have been if the river hadn’t bordered a busy farm track which had gone unnoticed in the initial excitement. The farm labourers didn’t seem to care though as we clambered out and rushed to find our clothes.
All that remained was to walk back to the town centre for a well-earned, very fine, Pisco Sour or two and some delicious vegetarian food served al fresco, all with the backdrop of a sun setting over magnificent mountains.
Sitting outside the tent later that night we were treated to the other thing for which certain parts of Chile are renown, an uninterrupted blanket of starts which will bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened traveller.
Driven inside the tent only by the chill mountain air we suddenly discovered the slight miscalculation in the quality of our sleeping bags. Whilst they may pack up incredibly small, they are also disturbingly thin. Not so much of a problem lower down in Vicuña but useless in the freezing mountain air. There followed a long, cold night.
Day 5: Pisco-Elqui to Vicuña: 45km, mostly downhill!!
Shivering out of our tent the next morning we eagerly watched the progress of the sun over the valley, looking forward again to its heat. Breakfast helped in the thaw as did a little shopping detour in which I purchased a beautiful pair of locally made boots. Just the kind of thing you want to do when limited for weight and space on a bike as M constantly reminded me (seeing as he’d had to take more stuff so I had room for my boots).
Now, we had two choices, to continue upwards for another 20km to where the valley ended or to reap the reward of all that climbing yesterday and head back to Vicuña. We chose down.
It continues to amaze me that sometimes you only realise how steep a climb has been when you cycle back down it again. Yesterday was no mean feat it seems and we enjoy a mostly uninterrupted freewheel to the bottom of the valley and the beautifully flat road back to Vicuña, which even a headwind couldn’t spoil.
Back in Hostal La Elquina we contemplated our next move. Given our diminishing time frame and the need to eventually pick up a bus back to Santiago, the most promising option appeared to be to head to the large town of Ovalle. Not far on paper at around 122km, the route looked a direct one, it would also take us through the heart of the Rio Hurtado Valley. The valley was reputed to be every bit as beautiful as its glamorous neighbour Pisco Elqui but, given the lack of metalled roads and public transport was far less visited by tourists (or indeed anyone who didn’t happen to own a 4×4).
Perfect! When I sounded out our plans with the lady in the tourist information after collecting her small stock of maps she did take pains to point out to me that it was quite a climb out of Vicuña, about 30km’s worth in fact, 30km out of the 45km it would take to get to Hurtado village in the heart of the valley. Breezily I assured her we were well used to hills whilst she wished us good luck with that pitying sort of expression that people reserve for fools and the deluded.
Day 6: Vicuña to Hurtado: 45km, 1557 metres climbing
Hurt-hard-oh, funny how the valley name breaks down exactly to describe the essence of the day so far. When you have been cycling (or pushing) uphill for 5 hours straight, mostly in the blazing sun with no shade, impossible gradients and deep sandy/dirt tracks, the world tends to focus to just a few feet of dirt in front of you. The day started well, and early, as we left at dawn to make the most of the cool temperatures. 30km of uphill felt do-able at that point as we relaxed, looking at the beautiful valley walls rising above us pinkening with the sunrise to reveal stunning mountains and cacti. Less green and cultivated than Pisco Elqui this felt like true wild country, especially given the small dirt track and lack of vehicles, we were on our own. As the day progressed however so did the road and some leg-breaking gradients. Alternating between riding and pushing, it became more of the latter as the day wore on. We grabbed any shade stops we could find to refuel and sip at water but given the heat, dust and hills we were consuming liquids at an alarming rate despite the rationing. Over the course of the 5 or so hours the climb took us we probably saw less than a dozen cars on that dirt road and few buildings, just the odd hill farm clinging to the valley. It was both beautiful and frightening in its rugged remoteness. Just as the water situation was becoming dire we stumbled across a little wooden guard hut at the side of the road. Looking inside there was no guard but a picnic cooler housing a large bottle of water. After debating the wisdom and etiquette of taking some, thirst won out and we gratefully filled our bottles taking care to leave enough for others and thanking the water gods for their offering.
Onwards and upwards the road wound, every time we crested a rise hoping it was our last we’d have our hopes dashed as the track would be revealed winding ever upwards. I was seriously wondering if we would ever get there (and regretting the route choice) when at last we spotted a wooden shelter with a cross on the horizon. This was Portezuelo Las Tres Cruses and, oh so happily, marked the summit of the climb after 30km (20 miles) and 1520 metres (or 5000 feet) of climbing. Tres Cruses also had a water bottle for pilgrims and we took advantage again, our previous supplies completely drained. After a short rest we began the bit I’d most been looking forward to, the downhill! 15km, almost all of which did not require pedalling…..what it did require however were brakes.
V-brakes on a bike are not known for their efficiency at stopping, especially given a heavy load of gear and near vertical descent over rocky, dusty trails, mostly consisting of hairpin bends and vertiginous drops descending the mountain into the valley below.
Even the death grip applied to the brakes on the sketchiest bits saw the bike only fractionally slow down but not stop. Cornering around the mountain walls, trying not to look at the drop off the side whilst plunging onwards unable to stop. It was therefore with huge relief and hands frozen into claws that we arrived in Hurtado village, heading along the dusty, silent main street to find a little store and cold, cold drinks.
Talking to the store owner it seemed there was only campsite in town….which was closed! He assured us thought that if we knocked on the owner’s door we should be fine. We did, it was! It’s one of the many things I love (and can be frustrated by) about South America is the relaxed attitude to life. The campsite owner directed us down a steep dirt road by his house and a mile later we rolled down to a padlocked gate in the middle of nowhere. Debating whether there had been a misunderstanding but not wanting to cycle back up the steep track the owner finally drove up and, after unlocking proceeded to give us a long (long) tour of what was our own private campsite. It even included its own natural, mountain water fed outdoor swimming pond.
Nearly dropping from exhaustion we finally said goodbye to the owner after trying and failing to grasp whether there was a restaurant open in town, we just wanted to collapse. Which we did but only after enjoying our second, and thankfully more private, naked dip in the swimming pond. Appreciating the luxury of wooden loungers afterwards to rest and dry off.
Refreshed but exhausted, preparing the campsite was not the happiest of thoughts but, tent pitched, we set about the long walk back up the dirt track to find food. Food it seemed however was elusive. Apparently there was a lady who ran a restaurant somewhere about, maybe she was in church, no, maybe she was at a friend’s, no, maybe she was out of town….After an hour or more of trudging the main street getting dusty and increasingly hungry we gave up trying to find somewhere to eat, bought eggs, tuna and an onion from the tiny village shop and walked the mile back to the campsite to cook omelettes under the stars. Food had never tasted so good. Exhausted but feeling a sense of accomplishment we donned all of our clothes and huddled in the stupid sleeping bags, wedged onto our half a yoga mat each and trying to keep warm.
Another long night!
Day 7: Hurtado village to Hacienda Los Andes: 7km
Waking the next day, cold, stiff, tired and hungry, neither of us were in the best of moods as we finished off pannier dregs of cereal bars, bread and eggs for breakfast and in no hurry to do another long day in the saddle. Idly flipping through the tourist maps I’d picked up in Vicuña I noticed that, bizarrely, just down the road from here and in the middle of nowhere appeared to be a rather lovely looking upmarket hacienda. I laughed at the thought as I bashed the dust and debris from our camping gear. Like most of the places advertised here I bet it closed long ago. Packed up we made the weary, long push up the track to Hurtado before setting off again. Whilst the going had flattened out compared to yesterday our legs were still protesting and we were exceedingly grumpy.
Three km later heading towards us we spotted another touring bike, the first we’d seen all trip. The very friendly Dutchman asked about the route ahead as we quizzed him on his. As it turns out the mythical hacienda was not only still open for business, it was 3km down the track and had a very decent campsite and food. We covered those 3km in record time and, swooping round a final corner there is was. Any debate on if we should stop was quashed by the sound of M’s tyre deflating fast so we eagerly pushed up the drive and into what can only be described as paradise.
The Hacienda Los Andes was a collection of smart adobe buildings set in verdant, well-tended gardens. The boutique rooms were spacious, airy places of luxury showers and clean sheets whilst the restaurant boasted 3 superbly cooked meals a day. There was also camping situated a mile away by a tranquil river…..
We opted for the bedroom! Treating ourselves, a hot shower, a well cooked meal and clean sheets had never felt so good. At just 7km apart our accommodations from last night to now couldn’t have been more different but, for now, all there was to do was sit back in the garden hammock, drink a well-earned glass of wine and relax!
Day 8: Hacienda Los Andes: 0km
With such a wonderful location we were in no hurry at all to move! Sadly though the bedrooms were fully booked from now on so we’d be transferring to the campsite but still, I got to enjoy the garden and wash all my clothes, whilst M fixed a stubborn bike puncture and, that evening, after another superb dinner he took advantage of the on-site observatory for a viewing experience second to none. In fact, as we learned later, this was quite a sought after place to visit for astronomers.
Camping was more a little hard to get used to again after the luxury of the night before and the freezing temperatures remained. The blanket of starts that accompanied the ubiquitous 3am toilet trip though was always a joy.
Day 9: Hacienda Los Andes to Ovalle: 70km (205 metres climbing, 1056 metres descent)
Reluctant to leave the tranquillity of our little slice of heaven we dawdled over breakfast until we could no longer put off pedalling.
Mounting the bikes I felt a little more rested and the prospect of a route that was mostly downhill cheered me tremendously. Hitting our stride again the kilometres began to fly by, the bare mountain peaks giving way to lusher greener vegetation and farms as well as warmer air as we descended rapidly. The road oscillated between gravel track and tarmac for a while, swooping up and down around the mountain’s edge and through increasingly larger settlements from clusters of huts to established towns. It was a strange feeling descending back towards civilization and not always a happy one. By the time we reached the large city of Ovalle we were smacked in the face by traffic and fumes, noise, crowds and impatient cars. Navigating this thronging mass took some nerves of steel and it was with a huge sense of relief that we pulled up at our slightly dingy b&b for the night.
A small box room in in dim house led to real feelings of claustrophobia after the space, peace and endless starry skies we’d been used to. Even the soft bed and warm sheets seemed a bit lack lustre after the peace and vastness of the mountains. Whilst it was nice to be clean and comfy I think we both felt the culture shock of being in a bustling city again and retreated for an early night after a hasty dinner.
Day 10: Ovalle to Santiago: Bus and bike
Learning from our previous experience we turned up at the bus station early and, after booking tickets on the next available bus in an hour’s time we dismantled the bikes and the luggage and waited patiently. And waited….and waited. Other buses came and went but not a sign of ours.
Finally, 3 hours later than predicted and just as we were about to panic our bus pulled in. Being small, blonde and female I was designated the best bet at getting the bikes on board with minimal fuss. It worked! Fortunately a very kind gentleman stood next to me in the queue for the baggage hold and insisted the drivers loaded our bikes first and they duly obliged. Stuff safely stowed we relaxed for the journey home. Our poor bus was in a lot worse shape than the one we arrived on, wheezing up the steep mountain roads, being overtaken by everything and rattling alarmingly but eventually we made it back to Santiago. It was also with a real sense of achievement that we pedalled back the last few miles through a now more familiar city to Carlos and the bike shop. Him to be reunited with his beloved bikes and us with our luggage.
Would I recommend the route, without a doubt. The cycling in Chile is phenomenal as is the variety of scenery and terrain. It’s also worth taking the road less travelled. Going out there we’d only thought in terms of the Carraterra Austral and Patagonia but instead we discovered the desert and the fertile valleys of Coquimbo which were a joy. It was certainly hard work even for moderately fit and experienced cyclists (on a good day!) with some technical riding thrown in if you look for it, and sometimes even if you don’t.
Speaking at least a little Spanish is also very useful, especially outside of the main tourist areas. It’s just also the polite thing to do. In terms of planning we did some, but not a huge amount and it seemed easy enough to plan on the move, but local knowledge and maps were invaluable as was the help and support of Carlos from Touring Bike Rental Chile, I cannot recommend him or his bikes highly enough.
It was certainly an all-round, good, old fashioned adventure from the last minute scramble for touring equipment to the many scrambles up and down mountains, from querulous bus drivers to kind campsite owners, from naked swimming in icy mountain streams to wonderful ceilings of stars to sleep under. Settling into my seat on the flight home I looked out over Chile’s endless spine of mountains glowing in the sunset. “So”, I asked M, “would you ever do something like that again….?”
“Of course, it was fantastic” came the unexpected reply!
Now, that sounds promising.
If you enjoy reading about adventuring, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.