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Cowering like frightened kittens, we huddled shoulder to shoulder in the five- by eight-foot wooden hovel that was our only safe haven from the deluge that was still pouring down all around us. Bundled in whatever dry clothes we still had, and shivering against the cold, we were three hapless Canucks in a cold, wet corner of Chile.
I´d guessed beforehand that our northward slog along Chile´s nearly legendary Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, would be one of the most challenging portions of my bicycle journey through South America, but it easily surpassed my expectations.
Damien, Gwendal and I had had our difficulties from the start, when we couldn´t cross a remote section of the Chilean/Argentine border because the ferry we needed to take was either finished sailing for the season, not sailing for another two weeks, or broken. We were never quite sure, and looking for reliable information was like trying to find a full set of teeth at a Merle Haggard concert.
Thus we found ourselves a week later grinding our way along what was surely the brainchild of some nefariously mad engineer, a giant washboard of a road strewn with fist-sized rocks, which ascended grades so steep they should be outlawed before plunging precipitously back down, like a slow motion roller coaster ride at an amusement park for the damned.
We´d crossed into Chile several hundred kilometres further north, near the quiet border town of Chile Chico. Now, to get to the Carretera Austral, we were cycling west along the shore of Lago General Carrera, the deepest in South America, whose picturesque waters shimmered aquamarine between a smattering of islands and promontories. Beyond the lake, the rugged hills were tinted green with copper, of which Chile is the world´s leading producer.
One of the perks of bicycle travel is that it allows you to experience places that most tourists would never end up in, or would complain loudly to their tour operators if they ever did. One such place is Puerto Guadal, where we arrived after two grueling days along the lakeshore. Puerto Guadal may once have been considered a one horse town, but it looks like that horse up and left, leaving the village´s dusty streets to a handful of friendly inhabitants and the occasional conga line of waddling geese.
After four nights of eating like kings and recovering from colds in Puerto Guadal, time constraints forced us to board a mini bus to the small city of Coyhaique, midway up the Carretera Austral. Among the faded suitcases and legs of lamb piled in the back of this tiny bus, I was surprised to see a large canvas sack stamped with a familiar logo that read: “Canada Post.” I thought of asking the duffel´s owner how he had acquired such a rare item, but decided instead to cling to my fantasy that among its contents was a care package I had expected a month earlier, and which was now adrift somewhere in mail limbo between Manitoba and Argentina.
Finally we were set to cycle the Carretera Austral, a route as renowned for its beauty as it is notorious for its brutality, a winding ribbon of rock and gravel that snakes its way through some of Chile´s most beautiful countryside.
It didn´t take long for our quality of life to drop.
Two nights out of Coyhaique, just as I was sleeping soundly in a warm bed with my girlfriend slumbering peacefully at my side, I made the mistake of opening my eyes. Immediately I was back on the Carretera Austral or, more precisely, under it, wrapped tightly in my sleeping bag under a bridge that was protecting me from a cold, misty rain. To my right I found not my girlfriend, but my two cycling mates, huddled together like two pigs in a blanket, Damien´s face buried deep in his bag as protection against a rat that had earlier scurried across his head.
The morning offered us a brief respite from the rain as we cycled through a lush landscape that looked like a set from Jurassic Park. When the rain began again, and perhaps because of it, our surroundings bgan to remind me less of a tropical jungle and more of the hilly rainforests of Vancouver Island, like where I used to go mountain biking around Cumberland.
Another wet night in my not quite waterproof tent gave way to our first sunny day, which nonetheless began with a hantavirus scare when we had to chase a mouse out of our luggage. A brilliant day of riding culminated with a stunning, if exhausting, seven-kilometre climb through Queulat National Park, an Eden of temperate rainforest streaked with waterfalls nearly everywhere we looked.
Then it rained. Not the drizzly rain we´d grown accustomed to, but the kind of rain that falls straight down from the sky in heavy globules, the kind that soaks you more thoroughly than any spring shower ever could. As our spirits sunk to the depths of our saturated bodies, our bikes likewise began to crumble beneath us. The wet grit from the road first attacked my chain and gears, but before long it had chewed through my brake pads as well. My bike was still rideable, but Gwendal´s tandem fared much worse, and was badly in need of major repairs.
Once, while stopped for some roadside repairs, I had to raise my arms toward the weeping heavens, tilt my head back and scream. I screamed, but I wanted to cry. Then a pickup truck sped by and splashed us with muddy water.
As we limped along, the already gloomy sky darkened into twilight and forced a retreat to our cramped refuge, which we were immeasurably grateful to have found at the side of the road. It was an inopportune time to discover the inadequacies of my rain covers, and it was undoubtedly our darkest hour.
In the morning we were able to half push, half ride our bikes to the next lilliputian village, another blip far below the average tourist´s radar which to us was more comfortable than all the five star hotels in Paris and New York.
The following two weeks were like a vacation from our vacation as we leisurely leapfrogged our way north by bus and by boat toward Bariloche, Argentina, a mountain resort that to us meant stocked bike shops and spare parts from home. Along the way we were able to appreciate some of southern Chile´s more therapeutic locales, such as the thermal hot springs near the laid-back town of Chaiten, the sleepy lakeside retreat of Puerto Varas and the refreshingly modern coffee shops of Puerto Montt, a port city of 110,000 at the northern terminus of the Carretera Austral.
Although the Carretera Austral had shaken me, soaked me and refused to let me cycle its entire length, I emerged rested, invigorated and eager to push on.
Border Bound (a pre-trip introduction)
Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego
Hurry Up and Slow Down (cycling in Patagonia)
Chugging Through Chile (cycling Chile's Carretera Austral)
Argentina a Lot Like Canada (crossing the Argentina pampas)
South America's Hidden Gem (travels in Uruguay)
The Bolivian Paradox
Pushing Through Peru (misadventures on a Peruvian riverboat)
Jungle Journey a Drag (cycling the Brazilian Amazon
Grand Finale (cycling Venezuela)
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