Patagonia’s Wild West: Stagnation on the Carretera Austral
From O’Higgins to Puerto Montt, the Ruta 7, better known as Carretera Austral, runs across South of Chile over 1350 km. This road is very popular among travellers due to its magnificent landscape. It consists of a large part of gravel road and is especially attractive for cars with 4x4, bike packers and enduro riders. It was also clear to us that we do not want to miss this special road with all its national parks. The fact that we have heard a few stories about desperate motocycle riders has of course not prevented us from exploring the Carretera. It rather raised some good expectation (especially after we are already had much fun on wet slopes behind the Chilean border on the way to the Carretera).
At first, we want to go to Park Patagonia to which you get via the Carretera Austral. This park was bought by Doug Tompkins, founder of “North Face”, to protect the unique biodiversity there. Until today, the park is maintained with some other areas in the region by the foundation Tompkins Conservation.
We experience very quickly why this spot needs special protection. Only the ride to the park is an experience. In front of a scenic panarama of the Andes along a small dirt road, we are observed by hundrets of curious guanacos. We will stay in the park for a couple of days and will also go hiking (which is just obligatory here). A very idyllic camping ground in the middle of the dreamlike mountains offers us some (icecold) showerd and much space for our tent and the hammock.
A day-hike leads us to the “Lagunas Altas” (“high lagunes”), each more beautiful than the other. The dry, yellow grasses in front of the blue, snow-covered mountains in between show us the magical Patagonia like we always imagined it to be. Throughout the 23km with 1268 meters of height, we barely see other humans which is a great contrast to our tour to Fitz Roy. We just meet two female trailrunners who impress me deeply: The two women are running uphill the challenging trek (for which we planned the whole day).
Without any haste, we arrive in the late afternoon at the campground. I just want to start a fire in our small hobo cooker, when an interested ranger appears. He has never seen a cooker that uses wood before. He is fascinated by the sustainable concept and asks me curiously where to get such a thing and what our experiences are. After I explain him everything about it, he interdicts us the cooking with wood… Well, thank you!
That we are not allowed to cook with fire is not due to the fact that the ranger doesn’t like us. It is justified by the sad fact that Patagonia is bedeviled by lagre forest fires. Even if we act responsibly with our little stove, it could incite others to start a bonfire. Annoyed but understanding, we stick to our gas cooker. Luckily, we have this backup with us.
A Restless Night in Sub-Zero Temperatures
Back on the Carretera Austral, we ride on various undergrounds. Most of the time, we travel on gravel which would normally be fun to ride if there weren’t countless potholes we have to watch out for. However, the landscape is very diverse. Having both good and rainy weather, we are impressed by waterfalls, turquoise mountain lakes and massive mountains. Every day, we are able to find nice wildcamping spots without any problems.
The further we come to the North, the better the quality of the streets gets. On the way to Coyhaique, we ride through great, asphalted serpentines at higher speeds. After a long electricity and internet abstinence, we go to a camping site in order to recharge the camera batteries that have been dead for a long time (therefore we had to document the Park Patagonia with our GoPro – the only device that had some battery left at that time)
In the middle of the night we wake up to a loud “rummms”. In sub-zero temperatures, I get out of the tent to notice that the tiger fell on the side. The side stand pierced in the ground and couldn’t hold the motorcycle any longer. So, Nicki also crawls out of the tent and we pick up the motorcycle – in underwear – together. Now I know why broadened side stands have a right to exist… We can’t sleep that good tonight, it is pretty cold. The next morning, I see pieces of ice on top of the tiger and the tent. The weather report tells us that we had -8 degree last night. It’s time to get to warmer climes.
Take us with you, bastards (the second time)!
So, it goes higher to the North, but not without a detour off Ruta 7 to island Raúl Marín Balmaceda. Our friend Tom told us that there’s a lonely beach with countless dolphins. The fact that there are not so many other people is certainly because the way to the island is rather adventurous – sounds like a good challenge. And actually this untravelled street is a real insider tip. Once again, we discover a new landscape of this region that is impressing us: where clear rivers are running between lush meadows and foggy hills, the world is still in order.
We are enthusiastic when we arrive at the little ferry that should bring us to the island. The port looks like we are in paradise.
But the enthusiasm leaves quickly after the ferry we see on the other side of the shore just doesn’t want to come over to us. We have to wait. Except for us, no one wants to go to Raúl Marín Balmaceda. But still, the ferry is supposed to go there nonstop. They really can’t have missed us. In precaution, we wave to all people we see on the other side, but that does not help either. We haven’t had the best experiences with ferries in chile yet. We just discuss how long we should wait before we turn back, when the ferry finally moves towards us after we’ve waited for an entire hour.
Five meters too far
Raúl Marín Balmaceda is something very special because only sandy paths lead through the small island. Since we would probably get stuck here in rain, we can’t stay long. But before we leave the island, we want to spend an evening on the beach. We ride the tiger through always narrower sand paths until we arrive at the loneliest beach of the island. We’re all alone here.
As we turn off the motorcycle, we already realize: we do not need the side stand today. The rear wheel is digged in the soft sand so much that the motorcycle stands on its own. All right, we’ll have to deal with that tomorrow. After we set up the tent, we sit on the beach for sunset and cook our dinner. We can actually see some dolphins.
Experienced offroad motorcyclists may already guess what dilemma awaits us the next day: getting the 240 kilo heavy tiger out of sand is a real challenge. For 45 minutes, we have to pull, push and press the motorcycle the through the sand to move it centimeterwise. If we had stopped just five meters before, this fun (and much sweat) would have been spared. When the motorcycle is finally back on solid ground, we attach the suitcases again and continue. At least for 100m, then I fall in the sand and we can lift up the motorcycle again. What a start in the day…
This is how it feels, when the rear tyre is out of air
This day is supposed to get even better. Back on the mainland – 150 km further and again on Carretera Austral – I realize that something is wrong. The motorcycle can no longer be placed in tilt and urges to go straight ahead. I stop instantly. Nicki jumps off and sees: no more air on the rear wheel. The good thing is that we are prepared for such cases and have all necessary spare parts (even if we have no experience with a flat tire). Crap, not that good: of all the hexagon nut for dismantling the rear wheel seems to be lost.
Anyhow, we are standing in the middle of a long construction site. There are at least 30 people working in this section alone. There is certainly a toolbox here and I’m sure it won’t be a problem to borrow the right nut. But we are being taught better: not only that no one is interested in our problem (we really need to annoy them to make sure something happens and someone asks his colleagues), there is no toolbox here either. So we’re trying to stop passing cars, but most of them are just waving at us cheerfully. After all, Nicki goes off again to ask at the two tiny farm houses we have passed by. Nobody opens the door. After Nicki has told everyone on the site that we really need help, the site manager has mercy and calls his mechanic.
A car filled with five guys arrives after two hours. All of them are standing around the motorcycle and discussing what to do. Although we only wanted to borrow the nut briefly, one of the five who was presented to us as a mechanic begins to dismantle the rear wheel. We are not asked about our opinion nor allowed to touch our tools. The other four are standing around. When Nicki translates to me that they are having fun because the mechanic has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, we start slightly panicking. All right, we also would have no idea what we are doing. When the rear tyre is laying besides the motorcycle, a curious female rider arrives who watches the ongoing activity with interest. An assessment of the tire shows that it is completely destroyed. I count almost 8 holes which are torn between the cleats of the tyre. Some of them are so big that you can put a finger between them. Why we havn’t noticed this all the time, and how we got this far with such a tire can’t be explained. However, it is clear that we won’t get any further with this tire. If we would attach the same tire with a patched tube, it would only be a matter of time before it flattens again and we’re stuck on the side of the road.
But what a miracle, the rider has a 17 inch spare tire on her packed honda transalp. It fits right on our rim. We can hardly believe our luck when when she offers it to us. The construction workers insist on changing the tire but really do not make the most experienced impression. I still don’t get to touch the tools, but after some time the tire is actually changed. We thank the construction workers for their help and the construction workers thank us for giving them a reason not to work. The next few days, we will be travelling together with Nathalie, the name of the helpful Swiss motocyclist. The plan is to buy a new tire in Puerto Montt and return hers.
Smoke of the Vulcano Chaitén
But first, we ride to Chaitén to climb its similar named volcano with Nathalie. The day trip is worth it, especially the smoke that ascends from the top impresses me.
The Search for a New Rear Tire
In Puerto Montt it is not so easy to find a new rear tire. We go to every shop in the city, but they always send us to the next one. We would like to have the Mitas E07 tire, but it has been sold out all over chile for months. Finally, we get an overpriced Shinko discount tire from South Korea in a small shop (for the price we have to pay you would get two high quality Heidenau tires in Germany).
The dealer wants to mount the new tire, so he closes his store, throws the tire on the load area of his pickup and tells me to follow him. Just when we put on our helmets and start the engine, another customer comes to the store. Instead of driving with us to his workshop, the dealer opens his shop again and serves the new customer. Okay, I think, here in Chile everything is a little different than in Germany and I have to accept that, so I’m putting off the engine again. We’re still sitting on the motorcycle waiting for him while more customers come to the store. We seem to be completely forgotten now. Nicki is very annoyed and throws herself on the sidewalk. I go demonstrative in the store and watch everything. The latest customer buys a full outfit: helmet, pants, jacket and a pair of boots. Everything needs to be tried on ofc. We are still waiting. After about an hour, we finally ride to the other end of the city where the dealer mounts the new tire. At least this goes fast and uncomplicated, but I have to check what he is doing, otherwise he would have installed the chain tension way too strong. Half a day is lost when we bring Nathalie her tire back.
Dream-Road Carretera Austral?
Also in Puerto Montt, the Carretera Austral ends. The landscape along the street was really beautiful and varied often. There was not a lot of traffic and we could always find places to wildcamp. Since most of the villages along the street were very small, we had to spend relatively much money on food in tiny “Mini Mercados” (“small supermarkets”) that mostly did not have a large variety. The vegetables were often in poor quality. I would not call Ruta 7 a “dream-road”. The road quality was often bad. Don’t get me wrong, we’re very happy to ride offroad, but here it was often just about avoiding the endless many potholes. We also rode through many construction sites since more and more passages of the Carretera are paved. But I fear that through a fully paved road the magic of Carretera Austral is lost. For those who are dependent on tourism, this may be a positive development. For adventure bike riders, however, the attractiveness is lost and we are glad have done it in its current condition and without much traffic.