I packed up my Ñadis campsite, returned to the Carretera, and turned south again, heading for a spot I had marked where the stream from the main glacier on the other side of the road seemed to cross. I was still picking a few tips of thorns out of my legs, so I was not eager for another few thousand feet of combat, and my map had no roads, trails, or ranches on that side, but if the stream’s flow had a lot of seasonal variation, perhaps I could rock-hop up the riverbed. Unfortunately it looked like the vegetation ran right down to the bank, and the water passed through some potential cascades, so the easy version of that plan was out. The last forecast I had seen said that the next couple of days would be unsettled, and the mists forming higher on the peaks suggested higher humidity, so I gave up my vague hope of climbing the Ñadis’ more impressive neighbor and rode on. The road crosses an upper branch of the Rio Los Ñadis, goes over a faint hydrological divide, then follows the Carrera and Vargas Rivers to where they join the Baker. This part was rolling dirt, but the net downhill made it reasonably fast. While I stopped for a snack, a guy on a touring motorcycle came by, then stopped and returned to talk. He turned out to be from Argentina, and to have done extensive touring by motorbike, including starting in Homer, Alaska. We talked until the flies descended in earnest, exchanged emails, then headed in opposite directions. The road to O’Higgins involves one more ferry, and I hadn’t really thought about its likely-limited schedule, but two signs gave two different versions (the truth was a third thing), and one said the last one was at 3:00 PM. I found this highly unlikely given the rhythm of life here, but wanted to be sure, so I put in some effort on the final climb up the Rio Vagabundo over to what looks like a lake, but is actually a really long fjord, at the mouth of the Rio Bravo. Some Slovaks I had met in Cochrane were cooking lunch in the bus shelter at the Tortel road junction, seemingly unconcerned with the time. They had been in “what are you doing with that trailer” camp rather than the “nice bike” one, but I would show them… Tortel is famously wet, and for about ten kilometers before and after the turnoff to the town, the vegetation was incredibly lush. These sudden changes in climate are a distinctive characteristic of Chilean Patagonia. By the time I reached the top of the Rio Vagabundo, the vegetation had returned to the drier oak-like scrub. The road descending to the ferry terminal was paved on a couple of extremely steep sections, but otherwise typical dirt. I met a few cyclists heading up, making me think that the ferry might be operating on the earliest potential timetable, so I picked up the pace. I reached the terminal to find no boat and a definitive schedule informing me that I had about an hour to wait, and that this ferry was inexplicably free. The Slovaks did not make my boat — perhaps they were aiming for a later one? — but there was a retired couple from Washington in an old VW camper van, with a small house near Chiloé. They had traveled extensively, and were now making their way down to O’Higgins. I waited for the cars to disperse, then made my way down the quiet road to O’Higgins, looking for a decent place to camp. The couple in the VW were occupying the first, but I managed to find a small-time logging operation a few miles farther on where I could reside in peace. The next day I finished the ride to O’Higgins. There were a couple of long climbs, the largest being out of the Rio Bravo over to the headwaters of Lago O’Higgins, a broad and marshy valley with glaciated mountains to its west. It was raining off and on for this part, so I only glimpsed the bottoms of the glaciers, and many waterfalls below them. The valley vegetation was again surprisingly dry-looking, giving the impression of a central California climate with western Cascades glaciation. The wind, generally from the north in this area, punished me around the south side of Lago Cisnes, so I was fairly worn down by the time I reached town. There are many campgrounds in Lago O’Higgins, and I chose one recommended by some other cyclists I had met along the way headed north (hi, Team Klaus!), El Mosco. It was on the high side of Chilean campground prices at $9/night, but actually offered enough value that I did not resent it, with a kitchen and reliable hot showers. I spoke enough with the Czech working the desk to get the sense that he was an interesting character. He had lived in O’Higgins for six years, having climbed most of the local peaks in that time. He said that although the surrounding land was private, people weren’t aggressive about property rights. He also casually mentioned that he had crossed the southern icefield on skis, though he denied being a “mountaineer.” The O’Higgins ferry turns out to run only sporadically, and never when the weather is bad, so it was not clear when I would be able to get across the lake. My intestines were still getting over something I had eaten or drunk in the past week, so I stayed two nights to give myself a bit of a rest. But I was restless, not able to explore the peaks in mediocre weather and not up for extended socializing in foreign languages (my French has come in handy multiple times on this trip). I had noticed the Paso Mayer on my map, and the Czech guy confirmed that cyclists do it. It would probably add a couple of days to the ferry crossing, but since I did not know when the boat would next run…
Thoughts on the Carretera Austral
The Carretera Austral is the John Muir Trail for bikes. Those of you who don’t know me are probably wondering if I have been sponsored by the Chilean Ministry of Tourism. Those who know me better will understand what I actually mean.
Both the CA and the JMT are well-defined paths that a reasonably fit person can complete in two or three weeks, passing through spectacular mountain terrain and wilderness without exploring them. Both are also overused trenches full of powdered dust. Increasing numbers of people travel them, take the same photos, stay in the same places, buy the bumper stickers, and move on. While the JMT can be a gateway to exploring the Sierra, a friendly mountain range without much regulation, most people are fenced into the trail corridor by their own timidity and lack of curiosity. On the CA the fences are physical barbed wire, and surrounding peaks are difficult and highly regulated.
I should have anticipated this. I do not enjoy following prescribed routes: even on my first Sierra backpack, I got bored with Roper’s high route after a couple of days and decided instead to make up my own route linking peaks and places I thought might be interesting. To the extent possible, I hope to do something similar with what remains of this trip. And if I do any more long bike tours in the future, I will plan them more like I did my first journey down here, and avoid any pre-programmed paths.