It’s on the bucket list of every long distance cyclist: The Carretera Austral. After what we had read, we expected some amazing scenery, but nothing could have prepared us for what we experienced every single day. Snow-peaked mountains, lakes and rivers that were shades of blue and green you could not capture in pictures, waterfalls, long dirt trails, wild camping with postcard views, and the night’s sky so vivid you could see the milky way. Take home message: schedule time in your day to pause and take in the surroundings.
Sometimes, the more you plan the less everything goes according to plan. That is exactly what happened to us on this trip. Our plan was to cycle from Coyhaique to Villa O'Higgins, make the difficult crossing into Argentina and take a bus from El Chalten to El Calafate, and then onwards to Punta Arenas where we would take the plane back to Santiago.
Reading multiple blogs and trip reports, we concluded that doing about 60 km per day would allow us to do the southern part of the Carretera Austral in the 10 days we had, while leaving some time to relax in the evening and maybe take a day to rest or hike. The reality: a total underestimation of what was ahead of us!
On our first day, we set up our bikes and left Coyhaique at about 10:00am. The views were already amazing as soon as we left the small city, and we enjoyed some helpful tailwind for a few hours. We made it up the highest peak of the whole journey, at 1100m, in record time and arrived at our destination for the day at arround 15:00. Since it was still early, and we had tailwind, we decided to continue another 40 km to Villa Cerro Castillo. Big mistake.
Almost as soon as we made this decision we came to a very steep descent that we had to PEDAL DOWN, and not just casually. Our tailwind had turned into a headwind that was so strong it was pushing us backwards up the steep hill. We were on our highest gear to cycle long straight roads with only a slight incline. We decided to keep going, but we had headwind all the way until Villa Cerro Castillo. When we arrived, we had cycled 95 kms and our bodies were telling us “No way you are going to cycle tomorrow. Nope.”. Since we were so tired, and we wanted to avoid injuries that could affect the rest of the trip, we decided to stay in Villa Cerro Castillo for two nights and rest a day. The wind was so strong, the weather apps were predicting strong winds throughout the night and following day.
The next day we woke up and felt better, but didn’t feel it would be a good idea to cycle. So we decided to go up the Lagoa Cerro Castillo. This was the second questionable decision of our trip. While the view at the top was impressive, it was a very difficult day hike given the weather conditions (we could actually hear and see huge gusts of wind moving through the trees and bushes before they hit us) and the fact we had cycled for so long the day before. We arrived at our tent at the end of the day, ate some noodles and collapsed.
We left Villa Cerro Castillo cycling the few remaining kilometers of paved road in rain and headwind. After this, the gravel road started and we would not cycle paved road again until we got to El Chalten, with the exception of some streets in some of the small villages along the way.
The day was fairly flat, at least relative to our previous day, but the headwind and road quality really challenged us. One section of road around a valley and lake had terrible large rocks and we struggled with headwind for hours. At about 19:00 we still had some light and we spotted a nice wild camping spot next to a stream, with views of snow-peaked mountains all around. We only managed to cycle about 60 km this day, and this was when we realised we had overestimated how much distance we could cover in a day. The roads were bad, even with our wide tires.
The next day we cycled to Rio Puerto Tranquilo. It was a rough but beautiful cycle, including a really scenic lunch spot overlooking a lake. The original idea was to stop in Puerto Tranquilo and check out the marble caves, but at this point it was clear to both of us that we could barely cycle the 60 kms a day, let alone cycle extra distance the next days to make room for the marble caves. We tried to find an accomodation in the village, but everything was fully booked. We ended up at a campsite. There were some small supermarkets here and we stocked up for the days ahead.
In the morning we started cycling torwards Cochrane. By now, we knew we could not reach Cochrane by the end of the day so we would have to find a place to stay somewhere in the middle. Cycling this day was particularly hard. The road was bad and the elevation profile, despite not ever reaching high altitudes, was ondulating, which made for some frustrating cycling. We would go up a very, very, steep hill just to go down immediately and repeat everything again. However, the scenery was amazing, and we reached a campsite by the end of the day that had really nice views, good facilities, and sold beer. We had a very pleasant warm shower and washed some clothes, then ended the day with a beer looking at the landscape. We ate our pasta and then crashed in our warm sleeping bags.
The next day the plan was to reach Cochrane. We booked accomodation to have something to look forward to and motivate us to make the distance in a single day. Though it wasn’t too far, we were worried about climbing the three very steep peaks. Our fears were justified, and we were constantly reminded of the fact that the Carretera Austral was built by military vehicles. The hills are steep and we had to walk and push our bikes a number of times. The good thing is that when you are tired you can always lift your head, look at the landscape and remind yourself why you are doing this. In the end we reached Cochrane and had some well-deserved beers. We could not find an open restaurant, even though it was not so late, so we went to the supermarket and back to the accommodation for the now traditional cheese and avocado sandwich dinner.
Cochrane is the last village on the Carretera Austral before Villa O'Higgins, and our tires would not see any paved road until we got to Villa O'Higgins. It’s a very long way to Villa O'Higgins, with few campsites to stay in, so we knew we would need to wild camp for a few nights. We stocked up on food and gas and started cycling. We camped somewhere at the midpoint between Cochrane and Puerto Yungay, where we would catch a ferry to Río Bravo. The ferry is part of the Carretera Austral and is run by the Chilean Army. We had a little bit of a meltdown this day as we started to think too much of schedules and deadlines, trying to fit our days to the Villa O'Higgins ferry schedule. By the end of the day, we camped in amongst some trees, and calmed ourselves down, deciding that we could focus on the cycle and skip some of the Argentina plans if needed as we really did not want to spend our time catching deadlines and rather enjoy the cycling.
The next day we had a little tailwind and we realised that, if we did not take the detour to Tortel, we could make the ferry at Puerto Yungay by the afternoon rather than the following day. This could even allow us to make the Thursday ferry from Villa O'Higgins. We cycled perhaps some of the steepest gradients on the way to the ferry, pushing our bikes up the first third of a crazy mountain to get to the Puerto Yungay ferry, and we made it in time to get the last ferry of the day. On the other side of the lake there was a small hut by the ferry stop where we spent the night sleeping inside on the benches. The hut is built for travellers who wait for the ferry, and we were lucky to have the hut to ourselves for the night. Late in the evening a car of local Chileans drove up to the hut and set up camp outside to wait for the morning ferry. They offered us some food they were cooking from their truck, but we were so exhausted we thanked them and collapsed back in bed.
The next day we planned to cycle until about midway between where we were and Villa O'Higgins. It was a good cycling day, but not easy, again with lots of up and down and by the end of the day we had climbed a lot of meters elevation but without reaching high altitudes. When we got to the place where we planned to camp, we felt tired but not defeated and we suddenly experienced something we hadn’t felt in a while: tailwind!! The tailwind was so strong it was pushing us up small hills without any need to pedal, and we reached over 20km an hour in some sections and we decided to keep going until we didn’t have tailwind anymore. Unfortunately, this turned out to be another mistake but one we really could not have foreseen.
The problem was that, a few kilometers after we made this decision, we arrived in an area with a very big swamp – one of the few places along the entire trail where the water was stagnant – and the swamp meant mosquitoes. No joke, these were some fierce mosquitoes. Every time we stopped cycling, we were inundated with mosquitoes. We kept cycling to try and find a place to camp with less mosquitoes, but it was futile. With such a big swamp to cycle around and with dusk setting in, we had to stop. We found an excellent place to camp by a river, with an incredible view of the mountains and the waterfalls coming down the mountains, but we couldn’t even stay outside the tent to cook. To make matters worse, the ground was filled with prickly plants that shedded small sharp thornes on our clothes as we tried to set up the tent. We cannot describe how insane the mosquitoes were. We were completely clothed with our buffs covering our entire face except our eyes and the mosquitoes were so relentless we could barely see what we were doing. We ate the last of our snacks inside the tent (chocolate chip biscuits, some energy bars) and made an army mission to the river to brush our teeth and wash our face. It was so unfortunate, because the sky was amazing during the night and we could clearly see the milky way. Sadly, we had to leave in a hurry the next day as the mosquitoes were waiting for us outside the tent. This was the only place with mosquitoes during our whole trip.
The next day we cycled to Villa O'Higgins. It was a fairly easy cycle and we took it easy. We got to Villa O'Higgins by lunch, we had some food at a restaurant there and we rented a small bungalow. Initally we planned to stay only one night, but unfortunaly the boat crossing to Argentina planned for the next day was cancelled and we had to stay for three nights in Villa O'Higgins. With nothing to do but wait, we wandered around the city and spent our time drinking beer, cooking, and spending our money in the most expensive supermarket of our trip.
We thought the cycling part of our trip was mostly over now, but that wasn’t quite true. When we finally crossed into Argentina we needed to cycle from the Chilean border post to the Argentian border post. This was a difficult single track trail, made all the more difficult because we often had to carry our gear. The last 5km into Argentina were as bad as everyone had said in the blogs we had visited. You can definitely do it in time to catch the ferry on the other side, but it is a stressful cycle. We wondered why there were no pictures of this part of the trail when we looked for reviews, but the trail is so intense and time so short that we just did not feel able (in the mood, perhaps) to take any pictures. Prepare for mud, large tree roots and rocks that you constantly have to weave around with your gear, and large trenches at the end. There were even some parts cyclists all got together to help each other through, where large tree trunks covered the way. It was supposedly mostly downhill, but this was not noticeable until the end. We took a few hours to do about 15 kms, most of which was spent completing the last 5km. When we finally got to the Argentinian border post, we were rewarded with an excellent clear view of Mount Fitz Roy.
We crossed the lake in the ferry and wild camped in between some trees about 3km after reaching the other side. The next day we cycled to El Chalten where we ended the cycling part of our journey. With only about 35km to do, we took it easy but it was not the easiest cycle with bad roads and some headwind. The views of the mountains and Fitz Roy along the way certainly helped. The last 5km or so we got some incredible tailwind that literally just pushed us into El Chalten. The wind here was strong, very strong, and we were happy we weren’t experiencing it in the other direction. The next morning we woke very early and hiked mount Fitz Roy, up to Laguna de los Tres. The hike is easy up until the last 1km where it goes up some rocky steps very steeply. We were early enough to see the sun rising and casting some amazing light over Fitz Roy on the hike up, and the skies were almost clear enough at the time to see all peaks. However, as the locals told us, the weather can change drastically in a matter of minutes and about halfway along the hike the wind brought snow that came down sideways thanks to the extremely strong winds. We started to head back, thinking the weather was too bad to see anything, but within 30 minutes the skies were completely clear again and so we continued to the peak. Unfortunately, by the time we got to the lake at the top of the hike the snow and wind had set in again and did not really lift for some time, so we headed back (we recommend taking warm and preferably waterproof gloves with you; our hands were very cold). On the way back down we passed long lines of people heading up, so we were thankful we got up early to get there before it got too busy. We struggled a bit walking back to the town, as our knees were suffering a bit from the downhill hiking. The skies really only cleared late in the afternoon at the top of Fitz Roy, though we imagined it would have been pretty busy up there by this time.
We had planned to take a bus to Torres del Paine National Park, but since we lost so much time in Villa O'Higgins we didn’t really have the time to do that. So we just took a bus to El Calafate and spent two nights there. We did have the time to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier.
After visiting Perito Moreno, we took a bus to Punta Arenas, back into Chile. When we got to Punta Arenas we tried to find two bike boxes so we could pack our bikes, but there were no boxes available, even though there were a number of bike shops that looked well-stocked. We ended up finding some small boxes to tape together as a base for our bikes and then buying as much bubble wrap as we possible could to wrap our bikes. Obviously not ideal, but our bikes were accepted on the plane and arrived without too much trouble.
Each trip is different, and everyone has different preferences. If you plan to make this trip you should spend a bit of time thinking about what you really need. We hope this list helps your planning a little bit. We both point a few things that worked well and a few things that did not.
Bombtrack Beyond 1
It performed well all the time, but I noticed it more on the descents. Going through really bad washboard, holes and rocks, I never had to worry too much, I could just enjoy the speed, even while carrying so much gear, I could not even feel any wobble in the frame. At times I wished for wider tires, but to have wider tires than this I would have to ride a mountain bike, which is not as well suited for cycling entire days or weeks.
Being able to carry our sleeping system in the handlebars made a huge difference. We now have room to spare in our panniers, even when carrying days worth of food.
What didn’t work.
I used a Vaude Escape Light Jacket. I like this jacket, and is good when it’s raining. But it doesn’t breathe well and if it’s not raining it makes me sweat instantly and is very uncomfortable.
Sea to Summit Collapsible Bowls
The idea of collapsible bowls is compelling, but in practice they are difficult to wash. They were greasy most of the time and they kept the smell and taste of previous meals.
Carrying the tent on top of the rack
This meant I had to unstrap the tent and strap it back again everytime we needed something from our bags.
Merino wool clothing
We had already seen the advantages of merino wool when on previous cycle trips, but it is worth mentioning again here. Apart from being comfortable, they are: cooling when you are hot and warming when you are cold, lightweight, easily packable (like a normal t-shirt or pair of socks), they don’t smell after days of use, and they are easy to wash and dry quickly. I think I wore the same shirt for 4 days in a row and there was still no smell. We brought multiple shirts, underwear, a buff and socks. For socks, a thick pair of wool socks for the night was definitely worth it.
I used the Haglöfs Bungy Jacket. I have trouble layering because I overheat easily (Simão always complains I am reducing/increasing jackets too frequently when we cycle). This jacket was a perfect mid-layer, warm but it did not make me feel overheated, and it wicks moisture away very well so that I could wear it even during the long climbs without feeling I needed to de-layer. It also does not smell after days of wear.
Organicup (Menstrual cup)
This is a life-changer in the best of times but definitely has its advantges during cycle trips. Not having to change frequently or carry around lots of space-eating sanitary products (and then figure out where to dispose of them or carry them while wild camping for days), plus general comfort are just a few obvious advantages. Seriously, thinking back to all the places and times I would have needed to change normal sanitary products and didn’t have to… As I said, life changer.
What didn’t work.
Padded cycling shorts
I brought two pairs of padded cycling shorts with me, a good brand, but I have to admit I had a love-hate relationship with these. On some days (and roads), the padding felt like it was easing the time on the saddle. At other times, I felt that the padding rubbed in places, even when using Chamois cream. What worked best for me was to wear padding cycling shorts every few days and non-padded underwear in between.