If you can find Chile on the map, then you must be aware of its outstanding physical feature. It is, of course, by a large margin, the longest, narrowest country in the world. So narrow, in fact, that it’s only a century ride from the coast to the foothills of the Andes–even a modestly fit cyclist could cross the inhabited width in a day. North to south, however, Chile is an amazingly linear country that has developed a superb long-distance bus system covering the 1650 miles between the driest desert in the world and the rainy island chain that begins at Puerto Montt.
I limited myself to the 1,000 kilometers to the south of the capital, Santiago and still ended up taking 21 bus rides a total of 3,750 kilometers! For the 700 kms from the capital south to the resort town of Pucon, I rode a fabulous night bus with my folding Bike Friday in the luggage hold while I slept comfortably in a luxurious, reclining seat. As I approached Pucon on a local bus, the perfect cone of the Vulcan Villaricca grew larger on the horizon until it completely dominated the view.
The town was beautifully situated between the volcano and a large lake of the same name, surrounded by evergreen forests and small farms. It was immediately clear that Pucon was the “in” place to vacation for upwardly mobile Chileans–new hotels and condominiums were spring up along the lakeshore, but the main street was still an attractive mix of businesses, many offering adventure trips in the surrounding country. These included a climb of the volcano, which was what had attracted me here in the first place.
Outside the bus station, I unfolded the bike, hooked up the trailer, and rode to the tourist office, where I learned the nearest commercial campground was just a couple of blocks away. Luckily, there was room for my tent, and El Parque La Posa became my home for the next six days. That afternoon I explored the town back street and inquired about conditions on the volcano. That night, I discovered for myself that it really was an active volcano when I saw the red glow from the crater reflected off the cloud of gas that clung to the summit
Since this was going to be another of my sea-to-summit epics, I woke at 3AM the next morning, looked up to see the flare reflecting off the summit cloud, and set off in the moonlight. After a quick stop at the lake to dip my wheels, I started climbing, and rode at a steady but slow pace over the ruts and dips, through bamboo then cypress forests for three hours. Occasionally a wary dog barked from behind a fence.
Ski areas lose all their charm when the snow is gone, and this one was no exception. With a chill wind blowing, I quickly locked my bike to a pylon, put on my jacket, hat and gloves and headed upward. I followed a jeep trail then a hikers path, to the upper slopes where, to my surprise, I found a lone hiker contemplating the climb, also equipped with one of the bamboo stakes used to mark the road. He introduced himself as Karl Jungst, a German doctor who spoke perfect English (of course), and we immediately set off together onto the snow, which proved to be frozen and very slippery. After a good deal of thought I realized my error: I was now in the southern hemisphere, where the sun shines on the north side of mountains, not the south!
Consequently, we worked our way over to a lava flow and resumed climbing on cinders. Just a couple of years before, this rock had been on the INSIDE of the volcano and was ridiculously light. A piece as big as a football weighed only ounces, so it was no use putting any weight on it! It took an extra hour to overcome this handicap, so were happy to reach the crater rim, only to be greeted by fumes so acrid, we immediately ran down several steps to find fresh air.
After seven hours and 7,000′ of climbing, I was content to sit up there just below the rim, watching the clouds clear in the valley, talking and finishing our meager food supply. The calm was shattered when the mountain gave a belch and shook under our feet, but no eruption followed and we continued our conversation. Kurt had traveled all over South America and had many tales to tell.
I ended my stay in Pucon with a climb unique to this area. I rode 20 kms toward the mountains and onto a gravel road, where I eventually located the gatehouse of the Cani forest reserve. Although it was already afternoon, I was determined to press on, and hiked up an unbelievably steep trail to 4,000′, through wild bamboo groves, until I reached the bio-region on the ridge top that is home to the aracauria, which we know as the “monkey puzzle” tree. Strolling through the ancient aracauria groves among the huge trunks, I was surrounded by baby trees, whose stange, scaley branches I could touch. I felt like I had entered Conan Doyle’s Lost World and I half expected a dinosaur to appear next. On the way down, I met an American birder who pointed out a flock of yellow parrots and some other local species.
The evening was equally memorable. On weary legs, I walked across Pucon to reach the soccer stadium where the electric folk band Illapu was due to play. This was a big event for a small town, so the evening paseo (stroll) had led most of the town’s inhabitants in that direction to see what was happening. There were as many people outside the fence as in, so I found a comfortable spot on the grass, leaned against the fence and rested my legs. When the band began with rock and roll intensity, the sound carried perfectly well. I let those unique melodies, a blend of Andean instruments and urban creativity, carry me back up to the high places I had visited.
The next morning, beside the rushing stream that ran through the site, I packed my gear into the trailer, tied the backpack on top, and rode the short distance to the bus station–I had decided to try the ultimate bus-and-bike technique! I removed the shaft from the suitcase, put on the backpack and stood at the ready with the folded bike, pack and trailer. The bus conductor barely raised an eyebrow as he rolled the trailer into the luggage hold, and off we went to Puerto Montt, the gateway to the island region.
It was a slow ride, and I thought the last broad lake we passed must be the sea. It wasn’t, and I was ready for action when we finally reached the end of Chile’s main highway. I struggled across the parking lot with my load and sat down on the seawall. Clouds blew across the bay that was quite empty of ships or boats. I quickly unfolded the Bike Friday, re-assembled the trailer, tied down the pack, and was on my way. From a huge burden, my luggage had been instantly transformed into an energy-efficient vehicle.
Most of the waterfront houses had “Hospedaje” signs, but no side entrance, so I turned up the hill and soon needed to push my tractor-trailer to the first guest house with a yard. There I found a bed for the night, dropped my gear, locked my bike and returned to the seafront to find the fish market and eat a seafood dinner. That night I talked to Chilean, Spanish, and Flemish travelers in three languages, trying to get a feel for the attraction of the Grande Isla de Chiloe, which had a seemingly magnetic attraction to the hundreds of Chilean backpackers I had seen at the bus station.
For the world travelers, Chiloe was just a stop on the road to Patagonia, but I had just four days left. The next morning I squeezed my suitcase and backpack under the stairs in the house and set off with the bike and daypack for a lightweight trip. The bus to the ferry was packed with excited young people and older folks I took to be islanders. I couldn’t help but compare this experience to the Washington ferries, full of well-to-do people commuting to their lavish San Juan homes. Then the bus rumbled down the island’s hilly backbone, rough, forested land gradually giving way to small farms surrounded by well-tended fields with grazing cows and sheep.
The bus station in the island’s main town, Castro, was close to the cathedral–a vast, wooden structure covered with corrugated iron and painted a remarkable shade of peach. The plaza was full of backpackers, who appeared to have arrived at their final goal. Down a steep hill was a small quay, where a handful of fishing boats, all painted yellow, added color to the scene. But the real center of attention was the craft market, where all the usual American items, like macrame, hand-made jewelry and crystals, vied with local knitwear and produce for the visitors’ pesos.
I soon decided I wanted to find a more authentic place to stay, so abruptly returned to the bus station, folded the bike and hopped the next bus south to the last harbor in the area. In Chonchi, I bought an apple empanada from a charming, young salesgirl, then rode past another cathedral, this one with peeling paint, down another hill to the elegant esplanade, which was completely deserted. On the quay, trucks were loading fish food onto a fleet of boats. It was clear that salmon farming had overtaken fishing as the local industry. I found a guest house on the waterfront for $6 a night and began a long paseo around the town. Wind and rain arrived from the west, but that didn’t stop a couple of activists from setting up a sound system by the pier and playing island folk music at high volume. It was unlike anything else I had ever heard, with a bass drum beat that would put disco to shame, but not at all unpleasant to my ears.
I slept well, and the next morning quickly prepared some breakfast cereal in my room, sure that another long day was under way. Outside, I met a group of city youths who were camping on the beach, and pushed my bike over to visit their camp. They seemed to embody the values I identified with the beats, hippies and gen-x all in one generation. They were into meditation, ecology and Coca Cola all at once! There was the answer to my question, they had come all that for the pleasure of escaping the heat, sitting by the bay and hanging out.
With my time running low, I was driven to push a little harder. When I missed the hourly bus back to Castro, I started to ride and it began to rain. I sat in a bus shelter, donned my rain gear and pushed on. The rolling hills of Chiloe spread out before me and I settled down to the journey. When the road reached the estuary leading to Castro, the scenery began to include holiday cabins and small resorts. Then, without warning, I was confronted with the secret objective of my ride, a wooden boat shop! The bare frames of two 36′ boats sat on the sand next to a lean-to workshop, steam was rising from a salvaged steel tube over a fire. As I watched, one of the builders, put on a glove, pulled out a steaming timber and forced into the curve of the hull.
A mile further on was a bigger shop, although this merely allowed the storage of longer planks. The only power tool was a primitive table saw, everything else was done with very basic hand tools. I could clearly see that some of the boat’s timbers still had a knot or a bit of bark. These were work boats, built fast but strong to stand banging against a dock or on the bottom. I saw no pleasure boating anywhere on Chiloe and the few touring cyclists were all foreigners.
I rode back into Castro, around the market and out of town, past the palofitos, typical houses built on stilts over the water. A dotted line on my tour map showed a gravel road leading to more coastal villages, and I was determined to follow it. It began to rain again and I noticed signs of construction on the roadside. I reached a newly-graded section and the surface turned to thick, gooey mud, which quickly plastered itself all over the bike and my legs. The new route a flagman suggested I follow appeared to have exchanged a line of small hills for one huge one, which I was forced to walk.
The entire gravel/mud shortcut was less than 12 miles, but seemed to take all afternoon. As I pushed up what looked like the final grade, I was passed by a produce seller on a three-wheeled cargo bike (a popular item in Chile) and realized I needed to show a bit more enthusiasm. One more effort and I entered Dalcahue from the back road, and found the fishing village I was looking for. Yellow boats lined the shore, a catch was being unloaded at the pier and some long-haired folks were selling a variety of items on the sea wall. I found a house with a garden full of tents and stayed in a room that appeared to belong the family’s young daughter, judging from the pictures on the walls. (However, there was actually no one who fitted that description in the house.)
The next day was Sunday, and I found a thriving market on the waterfront-everything from folk music cassette sales to hand-woven blankets. A cassette and a scarf was all I could carry. People were clearly coming from miles around for this, and it was curiously different from other native markets I’ve seen because all the people looked and dressed like me. Maybe this is how the San Juans looked a hundred years ago? My long journey back to Santiago began here, with a 50-km dirt-road coastal marathon, which included the sight of several ox teams, farmers on horseback-a couple with their wives sitting behind them–and a flock of green parrots landing in an apple tree. The next day, in Ancud, it was time to let the buses do the work. That last day in the saddle the Pacific Southwest remained as the highlight of my journey.