By the time I got to Coyhaique, I'd started to like the Carretera Austral. The hills weren't bad. The pavement was good, when there wasn't construction. The wind was bad, but manageable, and was supposed to be much worse back in Argentina. The scenery was nice, and was only going to get better.
"It's too beautiful," was Patricio's description.
One major hurdle remained: the ferries. I had no desire to get several days behind schedule, and the last ferry only runs once a week. Or it does normally, anyway, and I'd heard that now it wasn't working at all...
I stopped at the tourism office on my way out of Coyhaique. The sign said it opened at 9:00 AM, so naturally, it opened at 10:00 AM. According to them, the ferry was broken, only now it was working again. The ferry runs on Saturdays.
Today was Saturday. Villa O'Higgins was 560 km away. That's seven days, perfect timing to arrive Friday night. Or six days if I make an effort. I made a reservation and stayed the course. We're sticking to the Carretera Austral!
On my way out of town, I stopped at a grocery store, knowing it could be a while before I found a good place to buy food. Previous towns on the Carretera Austral had a mini-market, with limited selection and high prices. If I wanted food, I'd better bring it with me.
I had expected more than a mini-market, but was surprised to find a full-fledged supermarket! Probably bigger than most in the United States! I must have spent an hour there, overwhelmed by the choices I could make and all the good stuff I could have.
Perhaps most notable was the beer section. They had more than two! There had been entire countries in Latin America that had only one beer, and this store alone had dozens! Different kinds, even!
It turns out Germans settled a good chunk of Patagonia, and brought their brewing tradition with them. As a result, Patagonia has the least people of any part of Latin America, and yet the most beers. And the best!
I managed to whittle my choice down to four...and bought one of each (buying beers individually is normal here). A Belgian unfiltered, a Scotch amber ale, a German dunkel weisse, and an IPA. I'd have one each for the next few nights, to celebrate conquering another part of the Carretera Austral.
I spent another 30 minutes, at least, in line to check out. The place was busy! I'm guessing people from all around come into Coyhaique just for the grocery stores, and based on the quantity in most people's carts, perhaps make purchases for two weeks at a time. Strangely, almost nothing is sold in large quantities here. If you want a lot of something, you don't get the big package, you have to buy several smaller packages.
It wasn't until after noon that I finally got out of Coyhaique. Cochrane, the only sizeable town between here and the end of the Carretera Austral, was 330 km away. Villa O'Higgins was 230 km past that. As the first 100 km would be paved, it made sense to me to try for Cochrane in three days, then Villa O'Higgins three days after that. As an added bonus, that would give me a day off before the ferry, and would put me in a town on Thanksgiving!
Doing that kind of distance on the Carretera Austral would necessitate taking all advantages, and a late start on the only paved day wasn't the best way to begin. On top of that, the first 100 km felt like one long uphill. I originally credited that to carrying so much food, but a later look at the GPS data confirmed that it was mostly one long uphill.
Towards the end of the day, I finally crested a ridge and flew downhill, right into the teeth of a bitter cold wind. Even with my mittens on, I was holding the brakes only because the rush of wind was making my hands hurt that bad. At the bottom of the hill, a small village, and then the gravel started.
The killer wind didn’t abate in the slightest, and this was easily the worst non-pavement I've ever had to ride on. Yes, worse than Bolivia. Sand, rocks, washboard. All three of them, at all times. This only confirms that "It's to make cement" was a load of hooey, which I should've guessed anyway.
The washboard was probably the worst part of the surface. It was like having someone violently shake your shoulders, while receiving a swift kick in the pants, for hours at a time. I'm still at a loss to explain why anyone would go to the trouble of building a highway, one that takes a decade to complete, and yet never take it seriously enough to pave it, or even do a good job with the non-paved surface.
Valeria, not built to handle this crap, slowed to a crawl. In the span of an hour and a half, I covered nine km. Nine. That would normally take 20-25 minutes. I can run much faster. I spied a flat, semi-secluded area to my left and gave up. Tomorrow the crappy road would still be there, but maybe the drizzle would stop, and the wind is usually weaker in the morning.
The wind didn't slow down. The rain got stronger. It was colder outside. After waking up, I sat in my tent doing nothing for half an hour, hoping the rain and wind might go away. They didn't. I miserably crawled out of my sleeping bag and into the cold. I packed up my dripping tent and put it in my panniers. I wheeled Valeria over to the pathetic excuse for a road. Now it was muddy.
"I hate this place!" I said aloud, more to the land around me than to anyone, or myself. Why did I come here?
"I hate this place!" I was almost convinced that if I told the weather how much it sucked, it would politely stop.
I couldn't believe it when the rain stopped entirely after less than an hour, and it even started warming up. The wind didn't slow down at all. The surface didn't get better either, but I might have gotten better at handling it. Only 50 km like this, and then I turn south and get crosswind instead.
When I finally got to the corner halfway through the day, I met two motorcyclists who told me that the rest of the day would be full of short, steep hills. They were kind of right, there were a lot immediately following the point where I met them. But then it flattened out a little, and the surface got better, too. I made half-decent time for once.
Late in the day, I saw what they were talking about. For 15 km, I never bothered switching out of my lowest gears. The pattern was climb for one minute, coast for five seconds, repeat. Oddly enough, I was right next to a lake. You'd think the road would follow the shoreline and stay nice and flat, but no. Hill repeats, for over an hour.
Like yesterday, I passed a small village late in the day and kept going. Conditions were tons better this time, decent surface, no wind, and sunny skies! First time I'd seen that on the Carretera Austral! I spent almost the entire time climbing, but didn't mind. Climbs get rewarded with downhills, so by doing a long climb now, I'd be riding easy later. Bad surface and headwind do you no such favors.
I found a hidden area in some trees, and decided I'd toast my perseverance before setting up my tent. I opened my pannier, pulled out a bottle, and panicked.
The bottle was nearly empty.
All the crappy washboard early in the day must have caused something to bump the bottle cap just enough to open it a crack, and all the shaking probably made it foam up like crazy. Even though the bottle was nestled vertically, nearly everything had worked its way out, and almost all that was left was foam.
I wouldn't mind losing a beer, but I'd put this one in my left-rear pannier, the one where I put things that can't get wet. My water jug, which takes up a lot of space, goes in my right-rear, along with things like my tent. Included in the beer-soaked luggage was my sleeping bag, my sleeping bag liner, two books, my medical papers...
I pulled everything out of the pannier and laid it in the tall grass to dry overnight. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, so the threat of rain didn't worry me. I pitched my tent and got in my slightly damp and uniquely scented sleeping bag.
It was the German dunkel weisse. I'd been looking forward to that one.
Some of my things got fairly dry overnight, others didn't. I packed them all up and started off on my first sunny morning in a week.
The hills were frustrating, but manageable. The views were fantastic! Now that there weren't clouds everywhere, you could see the tops of the mountains. I wondered what kinds of sights I'd missed so far. To imagine a couple weeks straight of scenery like this! If only I'd been so lucky!
Halfway through the day, the pavement turned from its normal rocks-and-washboard crap to a perfect unpaved surface: hard, even, smooth, firm, no washboard, no gravel, no rocks. A sign nearby pronounced the name and some details of the road improvement project. It had started at one of the rare intersections on the highway, and the next intersection of any kind would be Cochrane, 60 km away. Was it this good all the way to there?
5 km later, I saw a cyclist coming towards me, down a hill. I waved and pulled over. He stopped, and about as soon as he did, another cyclist crested the hill. The two of them were a couple from California, mostly sticking to the Carretera Austral. They were on steel touring bikes similar to Valeria, but with fatter, knobbier tires.
After only a few minutes, a French couple showed up. They were tall and didn't talk much.
The Californians and I hung out for a good half hour or so, mostly exchanging information about the road ahead. Like Patricio, they declared that the last section north of Villa O'Higgins was can't-miss beautiful, worth every effort.
As it turned out, they had been at the ferry while it was broken and got stuck for 10 days. On top of that, they were on the side that doesn't have a town, so they quickly started running out of food. They eventually were able to take a fishing boat across, over a week behind schedule, and still got charged full price.
I was mostly curious about the trail after the ferry, which is not traversable by motor vehicle. I'd heard it wasn't bad, moderate to difficult, but I'd only heard that from people who hadn't done it, and also only from Latin Americans.
"It's a challenge," they told me, "but you could do it on that bike. You'll definitely have to push your bike, but it's only one crappy afternoon, you'll survive."
Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but maybe close enough.
The sun managed to stay out all day, the only time that would happen on the entire Carretera Austral. Just yesterday, I wanted to be anywhere else, and now I was overwhelmingly happy to be here. Weather makes that big of a difference. Good surface helps too.
The good surface didn't last all the way to Cochrane, but held out a while, and slowly deteriorated back to its normal crappy self. Just as the headwind picked up again, and just as the ridiculous hills started at the end of the day.
I managed to hold a lot of patience for the miserable last 18 km, including a few gravelly slopes steep enough that I had to dismount and walk. By the end of the day, the bottoms of my feet were hurting, especially the bottoms of my toes. When I'm on bad washboard, I take weight off my hands and rear and put more on my feet for balance. After doing that for several days in a row, the slightest pressure hurt. I'd have to make an effort to take the weight off them from now on...
I mercifully made it into Cochrane in early evening and made a stop at the grocery store, where you can also buy electronics, hardware, a bike, or a bunch of gifts and nic-nacs. It was like a Wal-Mart, only about 5% of the size. I loaded up on food and bought some beer, intending to share it at my hostel.
There were two other cyclists at the hostel, Brazilian best friends who had finished the Carretera Austral and were on their way back to Santiago, by bus. They gave me some more info about the road to Villa O'Higgins, including the location of a shelter for cyclists, not visible from the road, so you have to know exactly where it is.
I met a Dutch couple too, not on bikes, and spent the evening talking with them and having some beer and cheeseburgers, cooked for me by the Brazilians. Comfort food. Awlriiight...