Tired from our cold, windburned, existence at the bottom of the continent, Panthea and I were excited to board a plane and be whisked 1500km north, to Puerto Montt – the gateway city to Patagonia. From here, we headed north, away from Patagonia, through the Chilean Lakes District . In the first weeks of our trip we’d traveled through these latitudes. But, fooled by a more effective tourism marketing campaign – by guidebooks and travelogues – we’d crossed into the Argentine Lakes District. Only after spending a week among the throngs of vacationers from Buenos Aires, and on busy paved roads, had we realized that we’d left a cyclist’s paradise behind.
Cass, who we’d traveled with across Tierra del Fuego, was on a similar schedule. He’s now headed north, for the first time in his five year odyssey down the length of the Americas, to close the gap between Puerto Montt and Cusco, Peru. So, the three of us, with a similar desire to find the least traveled path and eat as much fresh food as we could, set off to explore the quiet back-routes of the Chilean Lakes District together.
Arriving in the bustling port city of Puerto Montt after months of eating preserved food or old vegetables, we indulged in any treat we could find. One can find empanadas, those irresistible beef-filled pasties, and milcaos (potato pancakes), on almost every street corner.
A typical Puerto Montt house.
Oh yes please. What a joy to find a huge array of fresh food, picked only days before (and for cheap). Puerto Montt is the last big city on the Panamerican Highway, the main Chilean artery that makes a quick connection to farms all over the country.
Ma donna di Porto Montt?
Down at the fish market at Anglemo these strings of dried muscles (bottom) and bright, unidentified shellfish (top) adorn the front of many stalls.
If they’re not selling seafood and honey, it’s cause they’re selling knit hats, sweaters, gloves, woodwork, or these spools of wool.
Mostly salmon, in this salmon farming hub. We left town with a good supply of the smoked stuff.
We sat down for a local specialty (well, typical of nearby Chiloe, anyway): Curanto. Traditionally steamed in an earthen pit full of hot rocks, this mix includes potatoes, sausages, chicken, beef, potato dumplings, and muscles, served with a broth.
Delayed by a lot of good food, and a rainy morning, we made it only 20km to Puerto Varas, on Lago Llanquihue, that first day. Luis (“Tito”) was so impressed by the size of our tires, when he passed us on the street, that he offered us a room in his heritage home for the night. An avid collector and trader, Luis has filled his 100 year old home with fascinating antiques and historical photographs of the region.
And of course, as we continued north, we found quiet tracks through lush forests…
…and horizons dotted with dozens of volcanoes. This one is Volcan Osorno, which he had passed by three months prior.
It’s a landscape of lakes and volcanoes. The pointy one is Volcan Puntiagudo.
Three days in, we found our first stretch of singletrack…
…which led us onto a old bridge, no longer suitable for anything but pedestrians…
…because it ended in this ladder.
Eating a diet consisting of raw fruits and vegetables, local cheese, and empanadas, and staying in (empty) established campgrounds was re-energizing after the harshness of Patagonian travel. After several comfortable nights, and easy days between well-supplied towns, we left Lago Ranco, on its namesake lake, ready for a few days through more remote valleys in Reserva Huilo Huilo.
What we didn’t expect was that the small, 4×4 road show on our map, would no longer exist at all. When we began asking people in Llifen, the nearest town, about the state of the road, no one seemed to know anything about it. They said a bridge was out, and no one had come through in years. Maybe it was fine on bikes.
The closer we got the the start of the small road we wanted to take, the more adamant people became that we couldn’t make it through. The cables on the bridge were cut twelve years ago, and no vehicles had been through since. Dreading 150km detour back out to the flatlands, and having come so far, we decided to take a look at the bridge ourselves.
When they say the bridge has been out for twelve years, they’re not kidding. The road on the other side was completely overgrown, and the river looked un-fordable. Time to turn around.
Defeated, we rode back up the trail and along the quiet track toward the junction with the main road. For some reason, we decided to go chat with some of the ranch workers who were out cutting firewood. We happened to pass them just as one of the ranch arrieros (cowboys, in a more literal sense than the wild west guys), was passing through on his way to the ranch headquarters down the valley. He assured us that while the old bridge was out, there was a good trail that could be done on horseback in an hour and a half that connect through to the road, which excepting this 10km stretch was still drivable in a high-clearance vehicle. Now late in the day, we turned around again, and made for a camp spot part way up the valley.
It’s not bikepacking unless you have to push. But, really, the horse trail was mostly pretty decent.
We did end up crossing the river. Three times. Actually, this is crossing is just across one channel where the river splits around an island.
We slept on that island, and I even caught a little rainbow trout to go with dinner. In the morning we crossed this: the second channel of the river, much deeper than the first.
Our third and final crossing was right at the limit of what a person can cross on foot. In fact, the few inch difference in leg length between Panthea and I made all the difference. The water came up past her waist, making it a massively powerful force to contend with. So, I made four trips across, carrying bikes and gear. On the other side, to our great relief, we found this beautiful tractor track.
Cass finding two-track zen.
The road, ever improving, climbed up and up, until we emerged in this flat volcanic valley.
After a final climb, we descended down to the Rio Fuy, in its volcanic slot canyon, the crown jewel of Reserva Huilo Huilo.
Cass’s wheels: a Surly Pugsley, with 26×4″ tires, and a Rohloff transmission.
After two long days of mountain biking, we were glad to arrive in Neltume. We’d ridden through Neltume, on our way to cross into Argentina at Paso Huahum, in our first days in South America. At that time we had no idea what a mountain bike and adventure sport gem lay just off the dusty through-road.
A Newfoundlander in Chile. Big as a bear.
Salto de Huilo Huilo. The volcanic slot canyon ends abruptly…several times.
A local mountain biker, Fabian, took Cass and I out on a “rest” day ride and showed us the (free) lookout where the locals go to watch the falls.
We consider these cultural stops. At this road-side stand, we got some kuchen (the Chilean interpretation of German cake), and mote con huesillos (a sweet drink made with whole grains of wheel, and rehydrated whole dried peaches).
Kuchen. Wildberries, Pinion (made from the ‘pinenuts’ of monkey-puzzle trees), banana, and tuttifrutti.
Lago Calafquen. We arrived back and Conaripe, and one day later in Villarrica, where this whole voyage started.
Ten days out from Puerto Montt, we arrived in Villarrica, where we’d begun pedaling months earlier. Now seasoned travelers of Chile, Villarrica felt comfortable and familiar. Here, Cass was joined by his family for a three week cycling vacation (with his 18 month old son in tow), and we parted ways. Panthea and I continued north into the mountains, leaving the lakes behind. But that is worthy of its very own post.
We’ve recently made an Off Route Facebook page, where we’ll be posting more frequent updates of where we are and what we’re up to, as well as lots of extra photos. You can “like” our page if you’d like to follow the adventure more closely.