PATAGONIA… A State of Mind – Scaling the Andes on a Bike Solo

We make a point of publishing articles only on destinations that are accessible to you. The following story by Canadian author, Anik See, is unusual because we have not published an armchair-travel story like it and because Ms. See biked across the hazardous Andes solo. Ms. See, the cycling editor of Big World magazine, is the author of A Fork in The Road, a collection of stories about people, places, and cuisine. – Editor.

When I pulled up to the Chilean border on my bike, the customs officer’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets. I was standing at the edge of a wide valley in southern Argentina, on a vast plain of tumbleweed and scrub leading to the end of the world. The snow-tipped Andes stretched up to the clouds ahead of me. I had ground my way over a pass on what was optimistically called a highway, but would probably be better described as a dirt path through the most beautiful and desolate landscape I had ever seen.

It had been four days since I had seen anyone. Since I had started riding on this dirt path a week ago, a total of 10 cars had passed me, faces of passengers pressed to sticky back windows and arms flailing out, waved a brief and dusty greeting.

The customs officer wasn’t interested in my destination: he wanted to know why I was headed there, to Coyahique, on a bike. I told him that I was cycling through northern Patagonia, but my reply did not satisfy him. He reluctantly stamped my passport, wagged his finger at me and then gave me several fresh-baked buns that had been baking in the adjoining room. I thanked him, waved goodbye, and set off down the other side of the Andes, bouncing over wash boarded and pot-holed gravel into a fresh sunset.

By noon next day, I was grinding my way along the hazardous Futaleufu River. The road got worse and worse, climbing through green peaks, and descending towards craggy rocks that housed the violent Futaleufu. The entire day I saw only two gauchos. They nodded curtly and raised their forefingers from their reins as I passed through. Two ghosts in Patagonia.

Portions of the road had turned into deep crevasses from icy blue water tumbling off the mountainside. The resulting potholes were big enough to get lost in. With scarcely a farmhouse in sight, the road spiraled westward; elbow-jarring gravel bumped down to a lake where I called it quits for the night. I threw a sleeping bag on the ground and watched three Chileans fishing down the lake, silver tails of fishing line flashing back and forth until the sky turned black.

Early next morning I came to the first town with supplies since the day before I had crossed the border.

400 Potholed Miles

There wasn’t much to Santa Lucia; just an old, colonial church and a store in the front room of someone’s house, but they had just about everything I could ask for. In Santa Lucia I picked up the Carretera Austral–the only road through Patagonian Chile. It stretches 400 potholed miles from Puerto Montt to southern Chile’s only large settlement, Coyhaique. After that, it becomes increasingly more difficult to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time. Most people stop at Coyahique to take a plane or boat if they need to go farther south.

The Carretera is a graveled, wash boarded, potholed path that winds in and out of the mountains, passing glaciers and rainforests, and as I turned onto it, I passed a hitchhiker who the women in the stores said had been waiting for a ride for two days.

There was virtually no traffic; the few motorists that did pass, stopped to see if I needed anything–a ride, water, food, directions on a road that is only going to one place.

Patagonia is a strange place that defies you to form a succinct opinion about it even after you’ve been there. The diversity of the landscape is almost impossible to describe. Although empty of physical life, its remoteness initiates more mental and emotional life than any other place I have been, and that quality seems to be recognized by the people who choose to live there. The vast, lonely plains and the craggy peaks that make up Patagonia were named in 1520 when Magellan, taking shelter in a bay, saw a gigantic ‘Indio’ on the shore. Noticing the man’s prodigious feet, he cried, “Ha, Patagon!”-Hey, Big Feet. The name stuck.

After the empty spaces and the jagged peaks, Patagonia is famous for its wild weather. It’s said that Patagonia without wind would be like Hell without the Devil.

Patagonia is unlike any other place–scenically and culturally; no money, no cars, the occasional farmhouse that will see you freshly-baked bread or exchange a bagful of it for a pen or a promise for a postcard from somewhere further down the road. There is not much in the big void called Patagonia, and that is its charm.

The people are shy, but extremely accommodating. I asked a family if I could camp in their field one night, and as I was throwing my sleeping bag into my tent, a young boy came and dragged me to the house for dinner. While I was being stuffed with homemade bread, cheese and wine, his father and I argued about why I was traveling alone and why was I not married yet. At the end of the night, they, of course, wouldn’t let me sleep in my tent. I slept in the boys’ room and they slept in my tent. This is the essence of Patagonia. Those who have read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia may have an inkling of an understanding about the uncharted territory at the bottom of the Western Hemisphere.

Glaciers and Rainforests

The few villages I passed scarcely had more than 100 inhabitants. The “vehicle” I saw most often was the horse. The roads were used more for herding livestock from one farm to another than for motorized vehicles. The ride south is strenuous and astounding. The Carretera twists in and out of mountains, swooshing past glaciers and rainforests and occasionally touches Chile’s intricate coastline.

At night I camped on the side of the road. There were no campgrounds and it was no problem to pitch a tent anywhere that seemed appropriate. The only thing I had to worry about was the occasional lost cow stumbling by my tent in the middle of the night. The eerie moan of that lost cow reminded me that I was alone, but not lonely, and not entirely alone at that. There was always a glean of understanding from the locals too, when they saw me trundling through on my bike. They were invariably happy to let me camp on their land. I was invited to

late dinner a few times and once in a while awoke to a rustling outside my tent, peeking out just in time to see a child running away and a stack of steaming bread in front of me.

Pounding, Frothy River

As I climbed the only pass on the route, I watched it twist up the mountains over 18 gravel switchbacks. It took a while to negotiate, but at the top I saw something that I would never see again: green mountains crashing into one another with huge ice fields sitting in every nook and cranny. Clouds drifted about eye level, swooshing over me, coalescing, and dissipating a few feet away from me.

On the other side, the road followed an endless valley, high above a pounding, frothy river. Waist-deep potholes and trenches continued and the road remained bad until it met with silky smooth pavement just before Coyhaique.

I sat in Coyahique’s central square, cooling down from the ride into town. A man, standing on the edge of the square, approached. He asked where I had come from on my bike.

“Argentina,” I told him, brushing a stand of greasy hair away from my face.

He nodded gently. He stared at my bike for a while and then at me.

“Has it been a good time for thinking?” he asked.

I smiled. He smiled back, nodded his head, and wandered away, clutching a book behind his back with both of his hands.

Yes, there certainly had been time enough to think. When I came to Patagonia, I didn’t know what to expect other than a different culture, a different language, a different landscape. But now, I know I have been to a place that, through its simplicity will alter my own landscape forever.

When You Go…

LATIN AMERICA BY BIKE by Walter Sienko (The Mountaineers, Seattle 1993) is a great resource for cyclists planning to tour in Latin America. It gives a good overview on customs regulations, supplies, accommodation, and weather.

IN PATAGONIA by Bruce Chatwin, is widely available in paperback. Chatwin’s book is regarded by many travel writers as one of the best travel books of the past 50 years.

AN ENGLISHMAN IN PATAGONIA by John Pilkington (Century 1991).

Lonely Planet’s CHILE AND EASTER ISLAND guidebook has current information, as do the Turistel guides available in English in Chile.

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