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The Carretera Austral is widely regarded as one of the great cycling routes in the world. Featuring glaciers, dense rainforest, fjords and turquoise coloured lakes it is an area of staggering natural beauty. It is arguably the only thing in world we can be thankful to General Pinochet for. Quite what motivated the president is uncertain. Connecting remote regions of Chile to the ‘mainland’ was the public reason. Concerns over encroachments from Argentina in ongoing territorial disputes was also a factor. A road that could support troop deployments in the case of an Argentine invasion also influenced Pinochet. Either way we are left with a glorious, still unfinished, road that winds through a wild, sparsely populated part of Patagonia.
Nature at its finest along the Carretera Austral
The route runs 1240 km from Puerto Montt in the north to Villa O'Higgins in the south. The southern half of the route is the most wild. The road winds on dirt roads across remote terrain, the occasional fyord, which can be crossed courtesy of a free ferry, and up and over several small passes through spectacular mountains. Despite the often slow going on dirt roads the cycling is not overly difficult. There is a little wind in this part of Patagonia as opposed to the everyday crazy wind in Argentina further south. The highest pass on the Carretera Austral is only at 1,100m. Although there is the occasional steep gravel section it is mostly small ups and downs through picture postcard scenery. The nature and wildlife on display throughout the route is what makes the Carretera special. It is a bird spotters paradise. The rivers are full of trout and salmon. Attach a fishing rod to the back of your bike and you could fish for your supper. In the north section of the route there lie evergreen forests with large tracts of cypress trees. East of the Carretera towards the national border lie forests of the Patagonian Andes where there are broad-leaf trees and conifers. Guanacos, foxes, pumas and nandu's roam free. A nandu is a native South American bird like a small ostrich. I saw different species of deer bouncing around every day.
Despite all its natural wonders the Carretera Austral isn't the far flung adventure you might be hoping for. You won't be alone cycling the Carretera Austral. You will meet many other cyclists along the way. There are more people on 2 wheels than 4. The locals don't give you a second glance. The route has been documented in fine detail a million times online. You feel that it won't be long before there is a step by step guide to cycling the road on the Lonely Planet. Maybe there already is. If its pure off the beaten track adventure you are after then you won't find it here. I spend a lot of time cycling alone so I enjoy meeting other like minded cyclists and sharing stories. On the Carretera I met Poles, Danes, a South African, a Kiwi couple, an Argentinian brother and sister and a whole heap besides. I am still in touch with some of them. So yes the route is well trodden but its well trodden for a reason, because it's great, so best to just enjoy the incredible nature and scenery on offer.
Photo Credit : Travel Nation
For many the real adventure begins at the end of the Carretera Austral. The road ends at Villa O'Higgins. Named after Bernard O'Higgins a hero of Chilean independence from the Spanish. This is the end of the road for cars but for cyclists this is where you catch a boat to Candelario Mancilla. Then you push/cycle your bike along a single-track path that takes you around Lago del Desierto and onto El Chalten in Argentina. One of the most memorable border crossings in the world. It has become somewhat of a rites of passage in the cycling world. Sadly I arrived in Villa O'Higgins at the time of a dispute between the village and the boat workers. Myself and a few other cyclists sat around for a few days playing cards hoping for a resolution. Eventually we realised we were going to have to make alternative plans. Luckily there was a little used border crossing only 60km away which we headed for. We woke the Chilean border guard up, got our stamps and asked where the Argentina immigration office was. He just pointed down the valley. There began a bizarre 10km of no mans land. There was no road, no path and rivers that could be only be crossed by rickety rope bridges. Following the simple rule of keeping the river on our right and the mountains on our left we dragged our bikes through forests and across grassy plains. Eventually we came across a hut that was Argentinian immigration. From there we hit the wide open spaces of Argentina Patagonia and made our way to Mount Fitzroy where began the journey to the end of the world.
Crossing a rope bridge in no mans land between Chile and Argentina
Excellent. Lots of beautiful wild camping opportunities. Although a lot of areas are fenced off it it still easy to get round this and camp discreetly. Easy to find water along the route. There is an outdoor gear store in Coyhaique where you can get camping gas and other camping accessories you may need.
Visa's and border crossings:
New Zealanders, most European and Latin American citizens do not require a visa and will be granted a tourist visa for up to 90 days. For other countries they are easy to get. No vaccination certificates are required. The USA recently allowed Chile to enter the Visa Waiver Program and as a result Chile has completely dropped the reciprocity fee which was $160. However, Australian citizens must pay $117 and the fee is valid for only 90 days. Mexicans must pay $23 and Canadians $132, but the fee is valid for the life of the passport.
Chile has strict rules about what can and cannot be brought into the country when it comes to food and animal products. And they are devoted to thoroughly searching your luggage. Products such as: honey, beeswax, feathers, untreated animal hides, fruit and vegetables (whether cooked, fresh or dried), cheese and other fresh milk products, fish and meat (cooked and raw), nuts and unprocessed seeds are unconditionally banned products. At border crossings, you receive a form in which you have to declare whether you are carrying any food. Think carefully before you answer NO. If officials find something in your bags, you could be forced to pay a $US200 fine.
The roads range from the very good to the hideous. There is a lot of ripio (gravel in Spanish). There are sections where your tyres sink into the loose stones and a bit of pushing will be required. That said more sections are being paved all the time but is slow going. At the time of writing around 40% of the route was paved.
Plenty of washboard on the Carretera Austral
After Puerto Montt the only hope of a bicycle shop/repairs is in Coyhaique. There is the occasional ferreteria (hardware shop) where you might be able to find an inner tube if you are lucky. Anything bigger than 26" would be a miracle but given the growing popularity of cyclists along this route you never know.
In the small towns there is often a public library where you can find free internet.
Good front and rear racks are essential as your bike will take a pounding on some of the rougher stretches. You want steel not aluminium.
Horseflies (tabanos) are super annoying and can be a bit dangerous if you are cycling. They disappear at the end of January.
Don't put yourself on a strict schedule. The locals have a saying, 'Those in a hurry don't go far'. Be prepared for long sections where you will do well to get close to 15km/hr.
Solar Panels don't work well in this part of the world.
The ferry from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo is free and goes two or three times a day.
When to Go:
When asked about the weather forecast the locals will reply "Tomorrow will be the same as today", i.e. unpredictable. Expect anything at any time of year. Summer begins in December and extends into March. January and February are the most popular months. Temperatures exceed 20°C in summer. The winter extends from June to September, and temperatures routinely fall below freezing. Rainfall is abundant across most of this region. The wettest months generally being April to August, particularly on the western coast.
Nothing like as windy as in Argentina Patagonia. The mountains offer good protection. I rarely found the wind an issue at all.
Chile is a relatively expensive country and the further south you go the more expensive it gets. Fortunately it is an excellent place for camping. Beds are around $25. Camp grounds are between $5 and $8. The only ATM is in Coyhaique. Credit cards are almost never accepted. In Coyhaique, at Frutteria Palestina, you can buy Argentinean pesos at a better rate than in Argentina (still not as good as in Puerto Montt or Puerto Natales). $US and $ARG are often accepted.
In the southern part there are often big distances between towns so it can be necessary to stock up for 2 or 3 days. In most towns there will be at least one mini-market, selling bread and some other basic things. If you are lucky they might have some good vegetables and fruit. Siestas are the norm. In the towns I ate a lot of Empanadas: pastry filled with meat and cheese. The only sizeable town along the route is Coyhaique where there is a big supermarket.
Side of the road: