Posted by Andrew Godlewski ● Dec 15, 2018 3:05:33 AM
Research: Cycling Patagonia and the Infamous Carretera Austral
For the past five years, I've dreamed about seeing the Straights of Magellan.
There is something about the first passage through this remote waterway and the uncertainty of reaching it in the first place that continues to grasp my imagination. While we all learn about this in history class, it wasn't until I heard Dan Carlin's account of the voyage that I latched onto the story of Magellan and the Armada de Molucca. I won't bore you with the details, but if you ever want to go down the rabbit hole like I did, I highly recommend the podcast linked above, along with "Over the Edge of the World" by Laurence Bergreen.
With the Straights in our sights as the starting point, our research branched north through the secluded Southern Patagonia. For any cycle tourist or biker, it's no surprise that we quickly found ourselves scouring the internet to learn all we could about the Carretera Austral.
It started as a simple plan: we'd fly into Punto Arenas, fulfill my dream of gazing on the straights, and then bike what is described as the most wild, remote, and stunning roads on Earth. The more we read, the more we learned that this road is a cyclists Mecca. People fly the world over to be able to say that they cycled down the 1,200 KM stretch that few people ever have the chance to see.
The highlights began to hit us with every scroll of every page: wild camp wherever you want, cycle past and over glaciers, scoot along the base of the infamous Fitz Roy, and rest in the shadow of the Andes.
Even the timing appeared perfect! Starting in February from the Straights, we'd be right at the end of the Summer and in a great position to make it north before the colder temperatures started to set in. What could possibly hold us back??
The moment(s) of reckoning then began......
As we plotted the course onto the Carretera Austral, a few things became clear:
- A large chunk (over 70% by many accounts) of the road was unpaved
- Most cyclists took the approach of traversing North to South
- Wind is an important consideration in the Pampas region of Argentina
I'm not going to sit here and say that Suzie and I fear these things. Quite the contrary; we relish the thought of adventure into the unknown and believe that suffering on our bikes is just another factor that makes cycle touring the best fucking way to see the world. That said, this would be the first leg of a much, much larger journey through the Americas for an entire year.
Road conditions are factors that should always warrant scrutiny in planning for a cycle tour. Not something that one should obsess over, but something that should be understood barring a "worst case" scenario. While cycling in Western Turkey several years ago, my crew and I found ourselves in the middle of a mountain range on dirt roads as a storm passed through. With no towns around for miles, we spent the better part of a day slogging through the mud until we finally felt the reprieve of pavement. It's all part of the adventure though! Hardship like this often mark the most memorable parts of a trip.
The road through western Patagonia is almost entirely unpaved in the south. Described as "the rippio," my understanding is that it is best suited for mountain bikes, and that the going would be slow... approximately 12 Km/h barring a headwind. This alone would not be enough for us to skip out on the isolated beauty that awaited, but I will say that the thought of spending weeks on washboard roads, holding tight to handlebars cutting through the loose gravel wasn't exactly to be contemplated with a smile on my face.
Above, I mentioned the wind. The wind in Patagonia has been described as an "impossible battle." Through all the accounts that were researched, it seemed like the journey from Punta Arenas to the start of the Carretera Austral would be marked by a hellish headwind in which we'd be forced to push our bikes while openly weeping. Luckily, it would be too loud for Suzie to hear my man-sobs and sniffles through the day.
One cyclist lamented a day she spent pushing her bike straight into a relenting 100 KM/h squall, only to make 1.3 K before mid-day. As the wind died to a "breezy" 50 Km/h, she got back in the saddle, only to be knocked over a few minutes later by a strong gust. With her bike on top of her, the squall returned to it's typical burst, pinning her to the gravel for several minutes.
It wasn't hard to envision Suzie and myself in a similar situation. I cannot say we've been exactly there before, but there have been several occasions in the past that come to mind where all hope appeared to be lost during a days ride. Times where we both knew that a little extra research before the trip could have prevented a moderate disaster.
The final straw was the section of road between El Chalten and O'Higgins, the border crossing and official start (or end depending on the direction you are running) of the Carretera Austral. Designated "No-Mans-Land," this section is is off limits to cars, as you need to take 2-ferries and hike your bike along a narrow stretch of trail through the forrest.
The potential experience seemed like it could have been the trip of a lifetime. The achievement of cycling this majestic road in and of itself was appealing to both Suzie and me. I totally get that some are reading this who understand that we missed out on a true trip into the wild. Go ahead. Leave your comments, let the shaming begin. Perhaps I am not worthy of the term cycle tourists.
When it came down to it, this is not how we want to start this epic journey we have planned for 2019. Undoubtedly, we'll face our share of adversity as we move over the Andes, into the desert, and across the jungles of South America. We welcome this! However, rather than throwing ourselves into the fire headfirst, we choose the slow burn.
Here are all the amazing sites we found to help us as we researched cycling the Carretera Austral and Patagonia. I cannot thank these people enough for taking the time to share there experiences of touring through an area that is far less known than most other places we've researched.
- The Wild Road: Cycling Patagonia on the Carretera Austral
- The Sublime Carretera Austral: Chaiten to Villa O'Higgins
- Bikepacking the Carretera Austral
- How to Travel Through Carretera Austral – the Most Remote Region in Patagonia
I hope the post here does not deter anyone in anyone from embarking on a cycling trip through Patagonia. You can follow our trip through the other posts and see how we shifted our mindset, but I encourage you to strongly consider riding this route and doing your own research. Many have taken the trail with the most awe-inspiring accounts of any cycle touring article I have ever read. The juice appears to be worth the squeeze, so don't wimp out. This road just wasn't for us..... this time.
I'll find my way to see the Straights yet, hopefully sooner rather than later. For now, I find comfort in the knowledge that I have dreams yet to be achieved, and two pedals that I may crank to reach them....
For more information on our experience traveling in this part of the world, check out our page on cycling South America here.
Image Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carretera_Austral,_Chile_(10775459555).jpg