A trip to Patagonia, Southern Chile

A fantastic adventure cycling trip (independent and unsupported) a friend from Knysna and I did in February and March 2020 through Patagonia in Southern Chile.

The “Carratera Austral” (Ruta 7) is one of the most spectacular roads in the world providing access to over 20 national parks with wild and wide-open landscapes, soaring mountains, lakes, forests, glaciers, and fjords. The area encompasses the Southern and Northern Icefields (once joined) which together form the earth’s third-largest ice cap, after Greenland and Antarctica. The road runs 1247km north-south from Puerto Montt (not far SW of Bariloche in Argentina) between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west to the isolated settlement of Villa O’Higgins in the Mt Fitzroy area.

Road building started only in 1976 under the Pinochet regime for strategic reasons (he didn’t like the Argentinians!) and to link remote Chilean communities whose previous main contact had been individually across the border to the east. It remains a “work in progress” with about 50pct being tarred (mainly the northern half), the rest being rough gravel with challenging corrugations and potholes. Not much of the route is flat!

Towns and villages are few and far between (in cycling terms) and progress slow with heavily laden bikes – equipment had to include camping gear and food for a number of nights of “wild” camping – luckily there was clean, clear water everywhere. It took us 22 days to get to O’Higgins, which included one rest day and two doing side trips. Here the road ends – only mountains, forests, and lakes to the east, south, and west. We were always going to leave our rental bikes here (it takes the company a month to retrieve them!) and intended to continue by ferry, 25km on foot across into Argentina, another ferry and then buses, detouring to Mt Fitzroy and the Torres del Paine before flying back from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt. However, upon arrival in O’Higgins on 15 March, Coronavirus finally caught up with us: we were told that the Argentine border had been closed that day indefinitely with some south/north travellers stuck in the middle and having to be rescued by navy boat. Moreover, rumour had it that the village might be quarantined imminently – manned police roadblocks were already in place.

So we beat a hasty and improvised retreat back northwards: there is no public through transport and buses/ferries between communities only intermittent. We arrived in one town on a Tuesday and were told the next bus north was on Sunday, necessitating a huge detour by 12-hour ferry. It took us almost 4 days to get back to our starting point followed by a 2-day hassle to secure flights home 10 days earlier than originally booked. We just made it out! 

We met some great people along the way: locals, fellow cyclists, backpackers, and other travellers and so have new friends who live in places like Bariloche and Punta Arenas. This is a fabulous, pristine part of the world to which I will almost certainly return – next time to do some of the amazing and remote hikes throughout the region.

It is indeed a strange world I returned to from Chile but one does get used to it – cycle rides in the Surrey Hills and long walks with the dog are still possible. I also feel lucky to be a pensioner with no work commitments, a large house and garden and no young children to try to keep entertained.