The fourth and final section: Patagonia – Part 1

Santiago – Salto de Laja: 310 Miles – The Pan American Autopista

Today was not intended to be an enthralling day, simply a day to move us South 300+ miles.  Leaving Santiago as a group of 18 bikes in cool, damp and cloudy conditions we made our way quickly through the morning rush hour to the central motorway and turned South on the Pan American, Ruta 5.

Pan American - Chilean style

The immediate surroundings are dominated by vineyards, vegetable and fruit farms on an industrial scale, presumably to serve the needs of Santiago.  We moved on under grey skies with the ever present threat of rain.  Although the temperature hovered between 13-15C (55-60F), the damp conditions and wind made it feel cold and unpleasant, requiring the donning of waterproofs just to keep the wind out.  After 60 or so miles the adjacent fields turned to woodland and several wood processing plants making timber building materials, palettes, etc.  It was getting noticeably cooler also as we headed south.  Stopping for fuel and coffee the scenery changed to bright yellow rape seed plants extending to the horizon.

Rape Seed fields to the horizon

Our destination for the day was Salto de Laja, a small settlement built up around a picturesque waterfall with nothing else but open countryside for miles.  On close inspection the waterfall was the product of a lava flow covering the softer sandstone.  As the softer rocks are undercut by the water’s force, so blocks of the volcanic rock break off into the valley floor below.

Salto de Laja

The cabin based resort overlooked the waterfalls and incorporated within the grounds a 9 hole golf course.  Resembling a ploughed field, the 9 holes provided a relaxing challenge, more so because the bag of rental clubs contained a driver and 3-wood (ideal for a par 3!!), a 7 iron, and a child’s 7 iron, as well as a putter.  So the entire course was tackled with the 7 iron and the putter with every stroke being adapted to suit the club in hand.  Later dinner was taken in the resort restaurant, being entirely adequate, though hardly memorable.  Perhaps the two bottles of wine softened the memory!

Salto de Laja – Pucon: 200 (270) Miles:  Dirt, what dirt?  Making the right decision

Today was a rare day of optional routes.  Since the support vehicle can only follow one route, when an alternative is offered then one of the two routes will be unsupported.  Following yesterday’s “boring” ride along the motorway, today was offered as a more “exciting” ride with 80 miles of dirt, gravel, sand, rock and, unexpectedly…snow through the “interlagos” road – the Chilean lake district.  The “boring” alternative was to continue on the Pan American, leave on the highway 199 to our destination at Pucon, and see very much the same scenery of volcanoes and lakes, but from a paved road surface, not a dirt road.

The decision was easy, and took about a nanosecond to determine …. Guess which one I chose?  I don’t voluntarily do dirt, only when an obligatory part of the route.  Setting off from Salto along Ruta 5, the Pan American, the driving was easy with fairly light traffic and good road surfaces.  Adopting a more “sports” stance on the bike, with cool, dense air and only a few hundred metres above sea level, the bike was running very well, especially after a recent service in Santiago.    The performance-sapping high altitude rides often makes one forget just how powerful these bikes are when given a chance on good road surfaces, and so the 200 miles of motorway were dispensed in less than 3 hours of relaxed, but spirited riding.

Between Pucon and our destination we rode through a section of dense Spanish Broom (Spartium?).  The intense yellow flowers and strong scent created a feast for the senses lining both the roadside and the valley over which we passed on a narrow bridge.

Spanish Broom along the valley sides near Pucon

The destination being reached by around 12:30, we rode up the mile long gravel path to the Mirador de Volcanes resort on a hillside overlooking a spectacular lake and volcano vista, although somewhat obscured by low cloud which had persisted all day.  Realising that the resort does not serve lunch we unpacked the bikes and returned to Pucon, the nearest town.  This is a tourist town built on the side of a volcanic lake offering not only pleasant surroundings, but also water sports and thermal springs in several directions bearing testimony to the presence of volcanic activity.  Instead of going to a restaurant for lunch, especially as tonight was a group meal at the resort, we opted for a visit to the supermarket for fresh bread, local cheese, ham, salami and two bottles of really quite good wine.  Feeling slightly guilty at having had such a good day and arriving early, in addition to our lunch we also bought beer, wine and snacks to greet the weary travellers who would later arrive having undertaken the off road section.

The off-roaders arrived at around 5PM, a full 4 hours after us.  Tales of deep snow, closed roads, several having fallen off their bikes in steep, rutted bends convinced us that we had made the wise choice to take the highway.  And on top of that there were no tales of stunning scenery, so I guess that we missed very little and gained quite a lot in terms of time, tranquillity and wear and tear on the bikes and ourselves…. A good choice.

Tomorrow, no such choice of route according to the route notes…100 miles of gravel and sand packed roads to San Carlos de Bariloche….and maybe some snow too…I can hardly wait!

Pucon to San Carlos de Bariloche:  220 Miles:  Choices?  And volcanic ash clouds.

Today was one of the best riding days I have had, not because of any one specific riding experience or stunning landscape, but just the collection of events during the day.  Our resort last night was one of the better locations we have stayed on the trip.  The 3 bedroom/2 bathroom cabins were located on a hillside overlooking volcanoes and a volcanic lake.  Each cabin had a master bedroom/bathroom (which having arrived early, I claimed for me!) and in the common kitchen/dining/lounge area a wood burning stove which I lit.  My bedroom had another wood burning stove which served not only to dry my daily clothes washing, but also keep me toasty warm all night!!

Mirador de Volcanes resort near Pucon: View from my window

Leaving at 8:30 we set off towards the Argentina border, some 50 miles away.  After 30 miles of excellent road winding up through the mountains to the border post the road signs read “zona de curvas peligrosas y pendientes Fuertes” or Area of dangerous curves and steep gradients…. A few hundred metres later the second sign reads “Fin de calzada” or End of paved surface.  Immediately the road turned to deep gravel, tight hairpin bends and steep gradients. Engaging second gear, standing on the pegs and concentrating hard we negotiated the first few miles until the road levelled out into a high plateau where we found the Chile immigration post. Documents stamped we hen moved to the Argentinian post and did the reverse, entering ourselves and then the bikes into Argentina one more time. As we have seen before, the Chile-Argentina process is relatively straightforward and the desks are numbered 1, 2, 3, 4 which are followed in sequence to get all the stamps, forms and formalities of entry.  The Argentinian dirt road was smoother than the Chilean equivalent which had been rutted, an occasionally washboard surface and with deep gravel in sections.  Stepping up to third and fourth gear we moved along at 40-45 mph rather than the 20-25mph on the other side.   After about 35 miles of rough surfaces the road once again turned into smooth asphalt surface and one has to ask why they did not finish the job?

And so we continued, with the promise of only 60-70 miles more of dirt later in the day.  Following the route notes we deviated off the main road to a smaller regional road and across a river, while the satellite navigation system told me to continue on the main road. While stopping for fuel just inside this road I took the chance to look at more detail at the map and realised that the purpose of taking the smaller road was to “enjoy” a long section of dirt road along a lake shore.  But the map clearly indicated a good main road to the same destination, along the opposite bank of the lake/river.  Emboldened by our wise decision yesterday to avoid the dirt unless absolutely necessary we sent a message to the leader to say we were taking the alternate route.  Although unsupported should we have a mechanical breakdown or accident, the choice between twisty mountain roads with good views or dirt tracks with similar views was compelling, so we returned to the main road and enjoyed some of the best riding so far with sever4al challenges.  We also officially entered into Patagonia.

Entry to Patagonia

Patagonia extends from the 39th parallel to the Straits of Magellan and was so named by Fernando de Magellanes the Portuguese sailor during his 1520 voyage to South Amercia under service to hte king of Spain to find a route to the pacific around the tip of South America.  Encountering the local indians, the Tehuelche tribe, he noticed that they naturally had large feet, which in derogatory Spanish would be Patagones…hence Patagonia or the land of the big feet.

We were told to expect high winds in Patagonia, and almost immediately encountered them.  Strong, gusty winds that seem to come from several directions at the same time.  Also cold and damp.  Sometimes leaning at ridiculous angles while riding in a straight line to counteract the strong side wind, only to be blown half way across the road with a gust from the opposite direction.  It was actually fun to do this, especially around the twisty mountain roads.  To our right was a large lake gradually opening up from a river and probably a reservoir, though we did not see any dams.  The landscape resembled the altiplano (high plains) that we had seen in Peru in some respects with an essentially flat valley floor with mountains fringing the low lying areas, often with snow caps.  But now we are at 1,00 metres above sea level, not 4,000 metres.  Being mid-late spring and now at 40 degrees south, the snow lingers for longer.

In the distance we could see that the visibility was diminishing quickly.  With the strong wind it was unlikely to be fog or mist.  And above the opaque, white lower elevations the sky was essentially cloud free, so rain was also ruled out at the cause of reduced vision. Approaching at 60-70 mph, playing with the cross winds, the cause became clear as it was a dust storm, whipped up by the strong winds over the sandy semi-arid valley floor.  But this was no Saharan dust storm as we used to see in dry season in Nigeria, nor the kind of sand storm which would occasionally engulf Riyadh when we lived in Saudi Arabia.  The white, fine dust was blanketing the surrounding countryside in snow-like drifts resembling a winter scene.  It became obvious that this was volcanic ash from the Puyehue volcano which began to erupt in June and is still blowing ash even now.  At times the visibility was reduced to just a few metres making driving quite hazardous along the winding mountain roads with heavy truck traffic in both directions.  Geologically this was a fantastic opportunity to see the actual deposition of a layer of volcanic ash which up until now I had only studied in rock exposures and which I had seen for much of the trip through Central America in road cuttings.  Now to see it actually in the process of formation was a real bonus.

Ash layer on side of Ruta 40 from Puyehue Volcanic eruption

Ash cloud over the lake

But of course there was a downside.  The volcanic ash is in fact a very fine powder of volcanic glass which permeates everything.  Soon my eyes were beginning to scratch and breathing in the fine dust made me sneeze.  With visor closed and bandana tightly wrapped around my mouth we battled the wind, dust and traffic for more than two hours and more than 100 miles of choking ash clouds until emerging on the other side close to the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, the winter ski resort, summer water sports resort and mid-season…..who knows what?  Tomorrow I’ll find out.

San Carlos de Bariloche – Rest day

When we arrived yesterday the wind was blowing at gale force over the lake, driving white capped waves towards the shoreline.  It was not really raining, but water droplets whipped up in the stiff breeze gave the impression of a fine mist.  It rained overnight, and the volcanic ash suspended in the lower atmosphere was precipitated out, leaving every surface coated in a fine whitewash.  Waking this morning the wind had not subsided though the sky was clearing of the grey clouds of yesterday.  The dust and sand was everywhere and even the shortest walk along the shoreline left our mouth full of fine sand and hair in a wind-tangled mess of damp sand.

Bariloche looking over the lake shore to volocanic ash cloud in mountains opposite

Needless to say my walk to see Bariloche this morning was fairly brief.  The shoreline along to the main square and then in two parallel roads to catch the main streets.  Bariloche is well known for skiing in winter and water sports in the summer.  But now we are mid-season, neither winter nor summer and the ash cloud has caused the airport to be closed for some months which has diminished the number of tourists even further.  Judging by the closed down businesses I am assuming that the ski season was significantly impacted by the ash cloud as the only other way to get here is by tourist bus, perhaps as many as 24 hours’ drive from Buenos Aires, or 5 hours from Neuquen.

Civic Centre - Bariloche

The impression is of a typical tourist ski or seaside town out of season.  The architectural style is very Germanic or Swiss with lots of exposed wood and chalet style buildings.  The original settlement I understand was populated by German immigrants which accounts for the building styles.   The majority of the tourists appear to be retirees, wrapped up against the biting cold wind, sheltered in café’s or aimlessly walking around the tourist shops selling identical sweaters, gloves, tee-shirts, leather goods or hats.  But Bariloche is also famous for its chocolate tradition and there are many chocolate shops also.  I can imagine the city as a buzzing tourist place in high season, but right now it is a little subdued.

Like just about every building we have seen in Bariloche, the cathedral is also new, dating from the early 1990’s and constructed in concrete with local rock cladding for a more rustic appeal. Although the concrete structure is exposed throughout the building, the simplicity of the form and the bright stained glass windows are nevertheless attractive. I was speaking with a local resident during lunch and she told me that when she came to live here 23 years ago, the city was just three blocks square…it has certainly grown since then.

Bariloche Cathedral

Bariloche Cathedral - Interior




About hutch66

Middle aged man who should know better than to ride a bike for 19 weeks across the Americas....but then you have to live before you die...
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