Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The 500 charity Kilometers

We left Bariloche and took a fairly circuitous route around the region known as the seven lakes, in order to try and spend time at each one, and clock up a few kms for the Red Cross appeal. The cycling around the region is fairly challenging; a lot of very undulating, unpaved routes with miles and miles of road works where they are trying to improve the ripio, and the lakes themselves largely hidden from view most of the time. That said, when off the road and by the lakes themselves the region couldn't be more beautiful. As the holiday season has now officially ended the area was almost deserted, and we had entire lakes to ourselves for camping and fishing! It was a shame to move on, and we were very tempted to take a week off to explore further, but decided in the end to push on for San Martin de Los Andes. Here we did take a couple of days off, after finding a hostal full of other cyclists, we spent some time servicing the bikes, cooking (always such a nice change after eating food off the MSR for any length of time), and exchanging tips for route planning.

We had previously thought it wouldn't be possible to go back into Chile and that we would continue instead through Argentina, however we had really wanted to visit the Lanin and Villarica Volcanoes via Pucon and as we heard from other travellers that this was still possible, decided to take a little 260km detour across the border in order to do so. As with all such Andean border crossings, it turns out there are a couple of hills to navigate enroute, and crossing twice in a week, although memorable, is probably not something we will repeat in the near future!

The terromoto in Pucon was felt at 7.6, and being at the foot of the very active Villarica volcono the majority of people we spoke to were deeply traumatised not only from the quake itself, but from the belief that the volcano itself was erupting. People described the roads literally waving up and down as if made of jelly, the buildings moving so much that it was impossible to stand, and a general belief that it was the start of the end of their world. Incredibly only four people died in the area, and the majority of buildings remained intact. The only visible remnants of the quake we saw were a couple of land slides onto the roads and in areas where the roads are paved they were often split down the middle for extensive stretches. In general however it was amazing how everyone seemed to be getting back on with their lives, after what was such a terrible natural disaster.

From Pucon we decided to climb the 2800m Villarica Volcano; one of the most active volcanos in South America, (it last erupted in 1984 and there are huge black rivers carved down the sides of the mountain from the the lava streams that ran down it!). This has probably been one of the most incredible things we have done so far on our travels; the climb itself was relatively easy, and provided the most amazing views of the surrounding lakes and volcanoes. The crater at the top was like something from another planet, it was incredibly toxic - very difficult to breathe due to the amount of sulphur and phosphur gases being emitted, and looking down into it felt like looking into the core of the earth!! I was only slightly disappointed not to be able to see a big pool of red bubbling magma at the bottom!
We took the quick route down (throwing ourselves down the snow on our bums!!) which was very funny, and meant I finally got chance to try out an ice axe arrest! (although unfortunately still not christening the axe Ja got me for Christmas last year).

We had a couple of long (100km) and what felt like very difficult days back into Argentina crossing the Andes at the Icalma border (1300m, but undulating so felt more!). Two notable events occured here; firstly Ja's worst fears were realised when he was attacked by a pack of four dogs, and ironically he was not armed with any of the many defensive sticks/sprays/alarms he still insists on carrying. My sympathy for him lessened somewhat when I discovered the dogs he described attacking him turned out to be no bigger than your average kitten, and were the house pets of a hotel owner, all were identical to the one pictured here in its full viciousness - two of them even wore pink hair bobbles. Even Ja admitted with hindsight that 'attack' might have been the wrong adjective.

Secondly we discovered the wonders of the monkey puzzle tree (or pehuén), which is native to the region, and at this time of year is full of the piñones seeds that the native Pehuench peoples were named after. The nuts are like a cross between pine nuts and chestnuts, and taste amazing either roasted or boiled. Collecting them became strangely compulsive and seemed to put us back in touch with our hunter gatherer roots (it reminded me a lot of collecting conkers when we were children, except even better as they are edible) and before we knew it we had managed to weigh ourselves down even further with about 3 kilos of the things. We are now planing a pehuench dinner party, and desperately trying to think of recipes to use them up!!

We have managed to clock up 700 kms since leaving Bariloche, and are close to having raised the £500 we had hoped to raise and donate to the Red Cross Chilean earthquake disaster appeal. Thank you so much to everyone who so generously donated, and Richard you will be pleased to hear that at least 200 of them were uphill, with a headwind and on bad ripio, so I reckon we earned it ;-)

We now plan to jump further North, to Mendoza, where we are meeting a French couple Ben&Sylvie, who we will cycle with for a bit before heading up into Bolivia.

Saturday, 13 March 2010


Although relatively straightforward, the journey to Peurto Montt took significantly longer than anticipated, necessitating an over night there rather than heading straight through to the much smaller and more picturesque Peurto Varas. It was a bizarre experience to be back in a city having been in such rural areas for so long- the traffic, noise, number of people and relative poverty came as a bit of a shock to the system. Peurto Varas however is a lovely little touristic town, where we re-met up with a Chilean couple, Natalie and Ricardo who were trying to get back home to Santiago.

As all transport to the north is in chaos we ended up spending a couple of very enjoyable days with them, before we headed off to leave Chile for the Argentinian city of Bariloche.

The route we decided to take for the border crossing is a fairly unusual one, and involved three lake crossings (plus an extra little one necessary to reach somewhere to camp for the night) and crossing the Andes via a very challenging and poorly ripio'd 1000m pass, to head into Bariloche from the West. The challenge was worth it however, as it provided three days of unbelievably beautiful scenery, and our lakeside camping spot at the border control was absolutely stunning!

Bariloche has ended up being a week of parties and reunions, staying in a hostel with a really lovely group of people and then having bumped into Kev and Heather again we had a very lovely evening watching James Wheeler and some other local blues bands at a Blues concert. Carl the Swedish cyclist was leaving Bariloche after a month here resting his knee, and celebrated by cooking an amazing asado (Argentinian BBQ) which we shared with his family others from the hostal.

Tomorrow we start the next 500k of our trip, for which we are hoping to raise £500 for the Red Cross to support their work with the relief effort. We now plan to do this through the Argentinian Lake district, but are not yet certain as to which route we will take to get to the North Chilean town of Atacarma.

Friday, 12 March 2010


The town of Chaiten was formerly inhabited by around 4500 people, however was evacuated in 2008 after the start of the ongoing eruption of the Chaiten Volcano. It is officially closed and the authorities have previously (and unsuccessfully) taken legal action to try and remove the inhabitants who did not wish to be evacuated. The town was largely buried under volcanic ash during the initial eruption, although thankfully no-one was injured. As the eruption is ongoing the layer of ash is intermittently added to. In spite of this a number of the inhabitants have refused to leave, and remain in their homes without electricity or clean running water. The road north of Chaiten remains closed, however it is possible to continue north by taking the ferry to Peurto Montt.

Rather than staying in Chaiten itself (which is possible, although potentially not very comfortable) we stopped some kilometers out of town in the very beautiful national park.

Here we met Kev and Heather, a Scottish couple also on bikes, who we have been bumping into intermittently, and spent a very lovely day relaxing in the hotsprings (finally getting to use the bikini I have been carrying all these weeks!!!!).

The difficulties suffered by Chaiten were being compounded by the after effects of the earthquake and the impact on the tides of the tsunami when we arrived. The town itself is almost deserted, and is a very surreal place; we were left extremely saddened by the sight of peoples homes and businesses half buried under the mountain of ash, often with the just the roofs appearing to be protruding from the ground. Given all the difficulties we were extremely lucky, and relieved to be able to make the trip over from Chaiten with relative ease.

Better weather and bitey things

After my moan about the rain in our last entry we have, miraculously, not had a grey day since!!! The amazing sunshine has meant we have been able to fully enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the county we are cycling through, and everyday the views along the Caretera Austral seem to be more amazing. As tends to be the ying and yang way with these things however, when the sun came out, so did a huge number of enormous black and red bitey flies, more like pitbulls with wings than the variation of horsefly that I think they are.
Like pitbulls they seem to take great delight in chasing along behind us and attempting to bite at any exposed flesh. The only thing worse than hearing them buzzing round is hearing them stop, as it invariably means they have landed somewhere on you and are about to take a chunk of flesh (and they obviously have teeth the size of a dogs as they can bite through clothing). This has resulted in many hours of windmill like arm flailing (particularly dangerous on a bike) and significantly increased our speed as we try and escape (no bad thing as we seem to have become somewhat tardy in our pace of late!). These, together with the killer mozzies we have been encountering of late resulted in Ja insisting on donning the above outfit involving prety much every item of clothing that he owns before he would agree to put the tent up!!

In the very lovely little hamlet of Puyuhuapi we had a fantastic hospedaje to stay in and made the most of the good weather with a couple of days of sea kayaking. The arm flailing practice we had with the flies turned out to be good practice for the paddling, and it made a nice change to be moving arms rather than legs! Our intention had been to find one of the hot springs that are common in this volcanic region, but we were over enthusiastic in our efforts, ending up miles out to sea instead, where we met a number of penguins and were joined by a pair of seals who were playing with a fish they had caught, and were extremely interested in us and our boat-repeatedly diving down underneath us and then popping up a few meters away!

The towns we passed through after Puyuhuapi on our way to Chaiten were very different; far less friendly and very run down. Wildcamping out of the towns of La Junta and Villa St Lucia would have been preferable to staying there, but unfortuantely we needed to get some work to my bike after I damaged it (and myself, although rather less badly than the bike) losing control on some really bad ripio as we left Puyuhapi.

It was in St Lucia that we first heard about the earthquake, although in fact we seemed to have managed to sleep through it, and weren't able to find out any detailed information about it until reaching Puerto Montt nearly a week later.

Thursday, 11 March 2010


As everyone will be aware, on Saturday 27th Chile was hit by a massive 8.8 earthquake, leaving millions in and around Concepcion homeless and killing hundreds. Being nearly 800km South of the epicentre the area we were in felt only mild tremors and was thankfully undamaged. Due to how remote we were news was slow to get through, and it was unclear how serious the situation was, leaving many desperate for news of friends and family. Everyone that we meet has been deeply affected by the tragedy, most having friends and family in the area. Juan, who we cycled with in December was further North than us and unfortunately lost everything in the tsunami. Thankfully he was left unharmed. The crisis in Chile is ongoing, with massive aftershocks still occurring and high ongoing tsunami risks. Our thoughts are with those who have been affected and we are considering ways that we might be able to help, including trying to raise money to donate to the Red Cross, who are currently leading the relief effort, by asking for sponsorship for our next 500km. Due to damage to the roads and the ongoing risks in Chile we are not able to continue north through the country, and will plan a new route over the next few weeks. If you would like to sponsor us you can do so via the JustGiving website on the following link