We made it to Futaleufú confident we’d be able to tackle the road ahead. A quick internet search suggested the weather would be cold at night with relatively mild days. There would be rain, but probably broken between sunny spells.
The scenery changed soon as we crossed the border. The Argentine side was spacious, with wide valleys full of golden grassland dotted with feeding cattle. The mountains bordering the valleys were tall and dramatic, but far enough to take them in from a distance. Chile was more compact, with narrow roads winding through the mountainous passes, following rivers and lakes coloured greys and milky blues.
The road changed from tarmac to stony track and we talked about how the surface was much better than we had expected. We were prepared for deep gravel of the kind we experienced further north on the Ruta 40. Indeed, we had been mentally preparing since leaving Malargüe for 20 mile days with constant battles to heave the bikes through the stones. Instead we found relatively smooth surfaces and could easily put in 35 miles a day even with the constant pouring rain.
The famous Carretera Austral seemed then to not be such a huge challenge after all. We would be able to make steady progress down to Villa O’Higgins, where we would, so we had planned, catch a couple of small ferries across a couple of lakes, push our bikes along a 12 mile dirt track and then emerge in Argentina close to Mount Fitz Roy.
But it was the day we left La Junta, with a five day stretch before we would reach town, that we realised the difficulty of what we were doing. The forecast was for constant drenching rain and powerful cold winds, with little chance to dry our kit until we got into town.
The first day of riding we grinned through it as much as we could, keeping our morale up with songs and jokes. But the night was a different story. The relentless rain soaked through the sides of the tent, wetting the sleeping bags. Wind pushed the tent down on top of us.
As with the night of the dust storm, we got no sleep.
Now being cold is ok, as you can layer up and warm up. Being wet is ok as you can dry out. But being cold and wet? No chance. If you are unable to dry out, hypothermia is coming quick. Facing four more days of riding before town, it wasn’t long after putting on our sodden trainers that we realised hitchhiking was a must. No amount of pride is worth your health.
The second vehicle that passed us was a truck with plenty of space in the back and seats for Sophie and me. Antonio stopped and said he was going all the way to Coyhaique.
His English was lacking as our Spanish, but it was still fascinating talking to him best we could about his job driving up and down the Carretera Austral to plant trees in government directed areas. The road is gradually being asphalted and after sections are finished, people like Antonio head in to help bring the surrounding area back to dense forestland.
And we talked about our plans to catch the boat from Villa O’Higgins – a route that most cycle tourists in this part of the world seem to take, albeit heading south to north and in the summer. Impossible, Antonio said. The boats only run until the end of March. The area pretty much shuts down over the winter. To make it south, we would have to cross a pass into Argentina and follow desert roads hundreds of miles against strong winds.
We had some thinking to do.
In Coyhaique some internet searching made the decision a no-brainer for us. The boat we had planned to take from Puerto Natales up to Puerto Montt, through the fjords of Chilean Patagonia, was having its last service of the season on May 1st. There would be no more ferries for half a year. To make it to Ushuaia and return back up north, we were faced with two choices: either struggle through two months of monotonous desert scenery in Argentina just to be in with a chance of making it the end of the world, or rent a truck and get the chance to relax a little while visiting all the sites we wanted to see (the Cueva de las Manos, Fitz Roy and Ushuaia itself). We would be able drop the truck off in Puerto Natales in time to catch the boat.
It was mixed feelings as we sat in the rental office in Coyhaique. Excited to be giving ourselves this break and allowing ourselves to visit the places I had been dreaming about for so long, but disappointed to be letting my sponsors down after they had donated for cycling the entire way.
I’m therefore putting it to you guys to decide what challenge you would like to see me accomplish before this trip is out. What would you like me to do? I’m thinking perhaps a marathon in the Atacama desert, an ultra-marathon (somewhere more hospitable than the desert though, please?), or perhaps something more wacky? I’ll make a shortlist of three that I’d consider, then leave it to you guys to finalise which one.
As ever, all money from sponsorship will go directly to the Teenage Cancer Trust.
Email, Facebook or tweet me your ideas, or leave a comment in the box below.
Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!