We ended up staying in the slightly weird town of Entre Lagos for two nights. Mainly because we got a good deal on a cabin from a lady called Gladys*, the cabin had an AMAZING wood burner and it chucked it down with rain the entire next day. It look about 20 hours to dry out all our wet kit, the woodburner going like crazy and slowly rotating various items of clothing close – but not too close – to the fire.
Having booked ourself on a ferry from Puerto Montt to take a little voyage through some fjords and an impromptu day off we now had a massive day in order to make check-in on time. Luckily the weather gods had answered our prayers and we were now looking at a big day of cycling in blue skies and sunshine.
130km later we rolled into the Navimag office with 20 minutes to spare, only to find out that our ferry had been delayed by about 12 hours. Something that wasn’t a huge surprise to us, the ferry schedule in Patagonia is more of a guideline as to when the boats might or might not leave. Bad weather, maintenance or the current mood of the crew all seem to be factors in departure times. Boat rescheduled, we were told to go and find ourselves somewhere to sleep and be back at 6am the next morning.
Slightly disgruntled at having to pay for a nights accommodation we went in search of a cyclist friendly hostel. Dragging ourselves up a particularly menacing hill a guy flagged us down “Hey are you the English and Irish couple?!” and ran across the road to greet us. Errr, was our reputation proceeding us or was this just a coincidence? Turns out this was Uli, another Ushuaia bound cycle tourer. He’d met Ian (I’ll explain in a minute) shortly beforehand who had mentioned we might be in town. We did the usual greetings, however Uli was looking at us strangely.
“I think I’ve met you before” he said looking at Herbie
“Er, nope. Sorry I don’t think so” Herb replied.
Uli then turned to look at me.
“Oh, but I’ve definitely met you.”
“Nope, sorry not me either” I replied.
“Oh, but I’m sure I recognise you, you have the same hair”
We then tried to explain that given we’ve cycled the last 20,000km together it was unlikely he’d have been able to meet one of us on our own. Also that having your hair in a plait isn’t uncommon for a female cyclist. Unless maybe there is a female cycle tourist out there with whom I have a doppelgänger haircut?
After this brief conversation and realising Uli was a little bit strange (in an endearing way) we carried on heading for the hostel only to arrive and Ian poke his head out the top window.
We first met Ian on the road in California, also Ushuaia bound we’ve been leapfrogging each other ever since. A meet up either means cycling a few days together or just grabbing a beer before our trips head in different directions. It was great to see a familiar and friendly face. We checked in, made ourselves at home by cooking an enormous amount of vegetables, drinking a few beers and having a good old catch up.
Communication with Navimag was via whatsapp messages with an employee on his personal number. After a jumbled mix of messages in both Spanish and English later that night we learned out our boat was to be delayed even further – the good news was at least we didn’t need an exceptionally early wake up call the next day! When the next morning did roll around it transpired there were no boats at all! Everything was cancelled for at least two weeks due to ‘operations”?!
This actually left us a little bit stuck. We’d had our eye on a ferry for months ever since we’d heard about it back in Peru. We were pretty sure we had just enough time to pedal as long as there were no other setbacks, but were a little disappointed about missing the fjords. Cue some frantic new route planning and suddenly our booked flight home in late November seemed a little ambitious. After an entire day of pouring over maps and alternative options our choices were thus; leave the next morning and head down the Carretera Austral or head West and take a chance on Chiloe.
Chiloe is an Island off the west coast of mainland Chile and shares many similarities with Ireland. A wild and rugged West coastline, it’s fair share of wind and rain, hundreds of churches, a healthy fishing industry and origin of the potato.
Yes, you did read that correctly. The little gills behind Herbie’s ears started flapping wildly
“The origin of the potato? You had me at hello!”
It was settled, bin the Carretera Austral and head to the Island of Chiloe, crossing our fingers and toes that we’d be able to get a boat off the other end. According to another ferry schedule boats left the southern town of Quellon on Chiloe twice per week.
There was a boat in three days. With Quellon only 270km away we made the decision to leave early the next morning and see what Chiloe had in store.
With Ian deciding to join us for a few days we swung West, the three of us excited about the road and boats that lay ahead. After a 90km day interspersed with a 30min ferry crossing we rolled into the town of Ancud. It promptly started raining.
Herb’s grin was stretching all the way to his ears “It’s SO much like home!” He proclaimed.
Weirdly I wasn’t quite as thrilled about the sudden downpour but I did appreciate the similarities. Grey skies, horizontal rain, charming but ramshackled town. Yep, it’s just like Ireland.
For three days we battled the hills and rain. Yes for an island which had a maximum altitude of a staggering 200m we managed to clock up some big climbing days. Up – down – up – down, rain – sun – hail – sun – rain. Despite all the literal highs and lows it was a charming place; the people incredibly friendly and proud of their little island. Plus every town we stopped in boasted an amazing sandwicheria. Herbie’s belly and heart were full, and longing for home.
We left Ian with some ladies in the main town of Castro and headed out to Quellon to catch our ferry. When we arrived, we found out that yes the boat was running on time! It was to be a 30 hour sojourn through the fjords and halfway down the Carretera Austral.
The ferry was beautiful. Ok, the actual ferry wasn’t beautiful, it was more like something you’d spend a couple of hours on crossing the channel. Turns out though that both of us are quite happy to sit on our arses for extended periods of time and look at the scenery. There were no cabins, so sleeping was a camping mat on the floor, being rocked slowly by the ever moving ship. We passed through hundreds of islands and docked in the remotest of ports. The people who live in these secluded locations rely on the weekly ferry for everything from supplies to post. Our journey was blessed with blue skies and sunshine and seeing the isolated way these people live it had me longing for a simple life.
Before my romantic head blossomed to the size of a small island I remembered that we were in Patagonia where it rains a lot and is bloody freezing. While spending a few days or weeks in isolation on a small Patagonian Island may be unbelievably enchanting and gratifying while the sun is shining. As soon as bad weather hit I would be a grumpy little girl longing to be back in London with a 24hr Sainsburys and hipster coffee shop a mere 200m from my font door.
Two nights and one entire day later we’d arrived in Chacabuco, being back on dry land brought wet rain and it was a soggy pedal into Coyhaique. To make up for it the Carretera Austral was playing a blinder, the road was beautiful and with little traffic as it wound up through the mountains. That evening as we headed out for a burger and beer (which turned into a couple of beers, which turned into cocktails) it was by pure, complete, blinding luck that we found out from a local that the border we were heading for was closed. We drank some more cocktails. Closed? Really? Shall we have another? Before we knew it we were propping up the bar and speaking some of our best Spanish of the trip so far. Finally leaving, we managed to do so in different directions. Herbie promptly ran three laps the town looking for me convinced I’d been kidnapped. While I just walked back to the hostel in the most direct direction I could remember. When Herbie eventually found me I was sat on the front doorstep of the hostel cuddling a dog wondering what took him so long. Oops!
Anyway, the border is closed?!
The Villa O’Higgins border.
The pièce de résistance of border crossings.
The right of passage for every cycle tourer in South America was CLOSED!
It was 13th October and the border didn’t open until 1st November. Every blog we’ve read or instagram cyclist we’ve followed has taken this border crossing into or out of El Chalten. Because EVERYONE took this crossing we hadn’t even thought to check if it closed or not. After a little digging it turns out that it’s only a summer border, we were nearly three weeks early.
Argh, this was a massive blow. We woke up the next morning a little big hungover and instead of pedalling back out to the Carretera Austral to clear our fuzzy heads we now had to kick our brains into gear and figure out what on earth we were going to do next. We had a few options; there are four border crossings back into Argentina heading South from Coyhaique on the Carretera Austral. The two most northern borders are proper road crossings and are open all year. The third is a foot/horse crossing only. It involves four river crossings, the worst ’about waist level and 40m across’ plus climbing over (or under) a fence. The fourth is the open on 1st November Villa O’Higgins crossing which involves two ferry rides and a 15km ‘hike a bike’.
As gutting as it was we didn’t have the time to sit around for three weeks waiting for it to open. It would mean we’d have to do a mad sprint to Ushuaia then back to Punta Arenas before our flight left on the 23rd. With absolutely no more time for any more unforeseen circumstances. Neither did we quite fancy climbing over fences or through waist deep rivers in ‘not yet summer’ Patagonia. Boring road crossings it was.
Frontera Chile Chico was 110km and another ferry crossing away from Coyhaique. The ferry was scheduled for 6pm the following day which as long as we left early would have no trouble making it on time. The ride turned out to be an absolute stunner. We stopped at the best picnic site for lunch and had blue skies as we cycled over our last 1000m pass. Snow capped mountains, hairpin bends and quiet roads, it was the kind of day bicycles are made for. We rolled into the ferry terminal at 4:50 only to find out the boat was actually leaving at 5pm not 6pm. Somewhere, somehow the ‘unforeseen circumstances’ gods had decided to change their mind about us.
*When looking for places to stay it’s always good to find a Mommy. Turning up at her doorstep looking like shivering drowned rats Gladys went straight into Mommy mode, quickly ensuring we got warm and dry as quickly as possible. She was an angel.