We were finally there. The Carretera Austral. We had made it! But at what costs? When we finally reached the gravel road that would take us north for more than 1000 km we realised that the effort we put into getting there had seriously drained us of all our remaining energy.
After our night in the shelter at the border we immediately had to tackle our first uphill. We soon learned that the uphills on the Carretera Austral would all have one thing in common. They would, almost without exception, all be very very steep. Lacking the strong winds from the Pampa to cool us down sweating felt like a totally new sensation and our thoughts went to the people who had one day decided to build the many uphills we were now struggling to conquer. Why? Why on earth did they have to build them so f*#?ng steep? To save explosives? To raise the sales for 4×4 Jeeps? Or simply just to make life hard on people who are stupid enough to travel on a bike?
We rapidly became more and more tired and were by the time we reached Villa O’Higgins, the small and southernmost village on the Carretera Austral, closer to death than we had ever been earlier on the trip. We decided to stay at a small modest campsite in the outskirts of the village. The owner, Mauricio, gave us a warm welcome and greeted us with these words: “Congratulations, you are now a part of the small exclusive group of people who have managed to pass trough Rio Mayer”. We immediately felt quite good about ourselves and soon learned that Mauricio was living a very inspiring life in his homemade Patagonian adobe house. He turned his own and all visitors poop into compost, used things others would call trash to build his house and picked up dead wood from the ground to heat his house and kitchen. We ended up staying for two nights in the campsite and left it convinced there was still hope in humanity. Valentine and Gary who we had biked with from El Chalten were eager to get going and left before us. We wished each other good luck and said goodbye.
Unfortunately our high spirits didn’t last long before the steep uphills were joined by heavy rainfall…days in a row. Emil hated himself for weeks before having said: “I’ll take pouring rain instead of headwind any day!”. The huge glaciers that covered the mountains around us were now lurking behind thick rainclouds. From every little crack in the rock wall next to the road water came shooting out. Clear, ice cold and fresh. The difference between the Pampa and the Carretera Austral could not have been any bigger. The barren land of the Pampa with its dry bushes and endless kilometres of sand and stone had turned into lush valleys where the sound of a waterfall would always be within in an earshot.
We spent our days pedalling up and racing down through rain until we reached the first bigger village Cochrane where we decided to sleep in a bed for the first time in almost 2 months. One might think that it would be like reaching nirvana. That we would sink into the smooth linens and dream of white clouds, cuddly kittens and unicorns. To be honest we didn’t really enjoy the beds that much. They were nice regular beds but after weeks in a tent we had kind of gotten used to the feeling of being capsulated inside our warm sleeping bags, the sound of wind rattling the fabric of our home and the way sounds of the nature seem so close. What we did enjoy though the wifi and the fact that we didn’t have to get wet in the morning and therefore stayed 3 nights and finally got the rest we needed after the windy Pampa and the passing of Rio Mayer.
After Cochrane something happened. Sunshine happened! The thick layer of clouds, that we for a few days had thought was a permanent installation of the weather gods, had vanished. The sun shined upon us and suddenly all the uphills felt a little bit easier. Maybe for the first time on the trip we had a couple of days that could be referred to as “easy riding days”. Turquoise blue rivers splitting the mountains creating canyons and valleys for the roads to follow. Around us glaciers sparkling in the sunlight as they stare up towards the blue skies.
Before we left on the trip we knew that Emils friends Kim and Liu from Thailand would be travelling in the region during the same time as us. So we decided to make it happen! A meet up! After days of sunshine we reached the village Cerro Castillo where we had decided to hang out for a couple of days. Emil met Kim and Liu for the first time in Mashad, Iran, on his previous trip from Europe to Asia. They are both very inspiring people not afraid of the unknown and always up for adventure. As they are filming their second travel documentary for thai television we gave an interview and shared our philosophy of life and travel. The rest of our time with them we basically just cooked, baked bread and played games for 3 days. The 40×100 cm pizza we made in an wood fired barrel oven even impressed the owner of the camping who contributed with cheese and oregano to make it perfect.
As we headed on north the weather switched back to rain after a week of sunshine. It became clear to us during our days on the Carretera Austral that we were biking in low season. On roadsigns and inside abandoned houses there were traces of other bikers everywhere. Small greetings, coal drawings of bikes and the usual “X was here X/X..”. We even found receipt from supermarkets indicating that someone had stashed up on pasta and tomato sauce… bikers obviously. But on the road we didn’t meet a single one. The other signs of us being out of season were the changing colours of the trees and the dropping temperatures. The landscape changed from green to yellow in just a couple of days and waking up to find the side of the road covered by frost was not unusual.
We grew tired of the rain and packing together the wet tent in the cold mornings knowing we would have to sleep in it the next night was quite demoralising for several days in a row. We started asking people living along the road if we could stay in their barns or toolsheds only to find that the welcoming atmosphere we had met further south on Tierra del Fuego was nowhere to be found. People came with all sorts of excuses for not letting us stay. Some farmers told us they would have to ask their wife for permission, others simply said that they had no space and so on… We felt guilty and maybe even greedy. Considered rich by the locals. Why couldn’t we just pay for a hotel? Well we may be from a richer part of the world but travelling around the globe for years means you have to narrow your budget.
Some locals did see the desperation in our eyes though (it always helps when rain is running down your face when you ask for a place to stay). Some of the better places we slept were next to hanging meat inside a smokehouse, a bus stop and even a bus. The best night we didn’t even ask for. It was Olimpia and Exequiel who asked us. Two locals living next to the road who invited us to sleep for free in the cabins they usually rented out to tourists. Together with them we made empanadas and practiced our Spanish skills as we talked about everything from Swedish food culture to the modern politics of Chile.
We slowly made it north and had our rainiest day on the whole Carretera in the national park Queulat were we almost lost it and knocked down a roadworker. If you are sitting in your warm home in front of your computer at least try to relive this moment with us. Here comes the story.
Imagine you wake up in a small wet bus stop next to the road… OK? Are you there with us? Cool. The sky is literally pouring down. The amount of rain coming down is, as we remember it, close to biblical. We actually considered building a huge ark, bringing some local cows on it and just wait till the water raised enough so that we could sail it north. Anyway we didn’t even consider the idea of staying in a bus stop for a day waiting for the rain to cease so we hit the road.
After about 45 minutes we were soaked. We were happy to wear our great rain gear but when it hits you in the face its just a matter of time before it has slowly travelled from your face, down your neck and crawled down your upper body to join whatever other liquids you might manufacture in your armpits and various other regions of your body. OK so there is that…rain.
Then you hit the gravel road that is under construction. We are no road engineers but apparently you have to cover the road in soft sandy gravel before you can even start to smear out the lovely asphalt. Guess what! We arrived before the smearing which if you read the previous sentence means we were basically biking on sand. After that add the fact that the road goes over a mountain pass (read: STEEP UPHILL). On top of that throw in some headwind strong enough to fit in on the description: RIDICULOUS. Are you still with us? OK…cool!
So after pushing our bikes almost all the way up, trying to smile back at the road tripping families sheering from inside their cars, we reached the top. Now comes the huge downhill. NICE… you might think. If it wasn’t for the fact that our body temperatures had now started to sink alarmingly fast. In the downhill we had to stop because we couldn’t feel our hands anymore. So we chucked em inside our underwear trying to draw heat from our private parts and dressed up with warmer clothes. If we started the day thinking “lets try to bike at least 50 km and then find a nice tent spot” we were at this point more likely thinking “WHERE IS THE NEXT F*%&NG HOTEL?!” Hearing rumours about a hostel 20 km away we just turned on our autopilot and went into that robotic mode where you don’t feel anything and look like someone who just found out that your life long stamp collection has burned up. Out of nowhere a small guard booth pops up with a road worker waving a stop symbol. Ok? Whats this?
SAY WHAAAT!? It’s closed? Rain still pouring down from above. Freezing cold. Turns out they closed a section of the road 20 minutes earlier due to working with explosives further up the road.
“When will open?”
“In four hours…”
This is the part where we discussed weather it would be reasonable to knock the roadworker unconscious and steal her communication device to cancel the whole dynamite business and keep the road open. We didn’t do that. Instead we almost started crying and went back where we had seen a sign towards some lodge. Turned out it was a lodge for rent and that it was full. A rich old chilean guy had rented it over easter and invited all male members of his extended family. They invited us for some hot tea and let us stay indoors until the road opened again. This saved us from having to stand out in the rain for 4 hours and greatly improved our mood. When the road opened again we crossed and continued north.
After the crazy rain day the weather improved and we would once again have sun until we hit the end of our time on the Carretera Austral. The end stats of rain days vs sunny days ended on about 70% Rain/ 30% Sun. Don’t get us wrong though if it sounds like we are complaining! We loved the Carretera Austral. The nature, even on the rainiest days, was amazing. Seeing farmers riding around on their horses herding animals trough the mountains and just being in an environment that is so isolated from the rest of the world was really cool. But after having endured crazy wind on the Pampa and now crazy rain on the Carretera we realised that our choice of starting location for a world bike trip really wasn’t the easiest. But maybe that was just what we needed. A really hard and trying start. A smack in the face, waking us up from the very different life we have lived home in Sweden the recent years.
We had both imagined we would be in Santiago around 2-3 Months after leaving Ushuaia. We were very wrong about that but also realised that we don’t really care so much about it. We are on a several year long bike trip! Why on earth would we stress out if we are not travelling fast enough? That would contradict our whole idea of travel. Having the time to stop for a chat with some roadworkers or pitch the tent on a beautiful spot even though we have just biked 15 km that day is more what we want. So what if the winter is catching up with us? We’ll just take a bus if we have to! To truly live free and experience you need to find the perfect balance between challenging yourself and listening to your heart. If our three year journey ends us up in Mexico that doesn’t mean we have failed. That means we have probably been doing just what we love the most. Living each day like it’s a huge adventure. Squeezing out the most amount of fun from each pedal stroke. Or as the Swedish poet Karin Boye puts it in her famous poem “I Rörelse” (In Movement).
With that we’ll leave you till the next blog post about how we returned to Argentina and were surprised by something we could never have expected.
/Emil and Johanna