Our day started in a rubbish heap behind a semi abandoned building in a flyspeck spot of a town called Bajo Caracoles. Not that it was a terrible place to camp, but given the place was in the back of nowhere, had a population of 66 and one policeman we weren’t complaining. Even our GPS’s were confused as to where we were.
The one thing it did have which we needed was fuel, which came from a couple of decrepit bowers liberally spotted with stickers left by numerous other adventurers passing through.
Bajo Caracoles was the end of our northward ride through Argentina on Ruta 40 and where we struck directly west to the border crossing at Paso Roballos and into Chile and the spectacular Carretera Austral, the southern-most section of the Andes. We had to ride ‘only’ 180km to Cochrane in Chile be we knew it was going to be a tough ride on dirt roads the whole way. The two riders we camped with the previous night, Mario and Tommy, had warned us of the corrugations and gravel pretty much the whole way across.
And from the second we hit the road we knew they hadn’t been winding us up. We quickly dropped the pressure in our tyres to deal with the road but even then the corrugations were soon rattling our teeth and threatening to loosen bolts on the bikes. The relatively smooth tyres on our bikes didn’t help but crawling along at 30kmh did have the advantage of giving up plenty of time to take in the scenery – when we weren’t scanning the road for the next hazard!
The enormous peaks of the Andes grew slowly as we bumped and banged along, spotting the occasional estancia (farmhouse) or a track leading off to one. A Swiss couple we had seen in Ushuaia overtook us, him bouncing around uncomfortably on a blown rear shockie. Incredible UFO shaped lenticular clouds spun off the leeside of the massive peaks around us, formed by a unique combination of pressure, wind direction and altitude. The land around us was almost uniformly brown apart from the spectacular turquoise lakes we passed. Immense wind-weathered cliffs and twisted geological layers dominated the landscape.
After climbing steadily for three solid hours and 90km we arrived at the quaint Argentinian border post in the pass. Carefully white-washed fences framed the small collection of wooden buildings surrounded by green grass. It looked more like a hobby farm than a border post. The single soldier in the post stamped our passports and bike carnets with vigour (the most beautiful sound you can hear at a border crossing), swung the small gate across the road open and bid us farewell with a salute. We felt a bit sad as this was our last moment in Argentina, for a while anyway.
The customs requirements on the Chilean side were a bit more formal. Filling out paperwork written in Spanish is always a hit and miss affair but the officials seemed happy enough and off we went into the wind, now blasting through the narrow pass. The sides of the valley rose steeply and the road narrowed considerably. Clouds and mist whipped around us and the windsock at the airstrip that services the border post was parallel to the ground, like it had been starched.
Much to our relief the road started to descend but we were still wrestling our heavy bikes around the treacherous roads. A group of fabulously excited BMW riders from Buenos Aires on their annual boys week-long blast stopped to chat and roared off in a cloud of dust, their support vehicle bringing up the rear. The uber luxury retreat Valle Chacabuco established by the (now deceased) environmentalist and North Face owner Douglas Tompkins temped us but was a bit out of our price range!
We were completely elated but exhausted by the time we reached the intersection with the main road, Ruta 7. It had taken us over seven hours to complete the crossing, treacherous gravel the whole way but we felt a massive sense of achievement. The huge Rio del Salto roared beside the much improved road, and suddenly there were small towns, powerlines and traffic.
The 50km ride to Puerto Rio Tranquillo suddenly seemed an impossible task so instead we treated ourselves to a gorgeous bungalow about 50km south of Puerto Tranquillo overlooking the Lago Gral Carrera. The hosts were charming and the food fabulous. We lazed in deep armchairs in front of picture windows in our bungalow watching the clouds form over the mountains and wind whip across the lake. A walk up the hill provided stunning vistas of the surrounding countryside with plunging waterfalls, rivers and glaciers all around.
From the much needed break it was a directly north to Coyhaique, about 300km mostly on formed dirt roads. The Chilean Government is developing road infrastructure along Ruta 7 but unfortunately not a lot of it is great for motorcycles, namely using lovely round river rocks to cap the road which roll around like marbles! The last 50km into Coyhaique was sealed, which felt wonderful!
With a great sense of relief and achievement we rolled into town. I had ridden there by bicycle in 2010 and it was wonderful to catch up with two friends Pelyao and Mario who run Café Konken - we recoomend it for great coffee and conversation. Mario immediately started playing his selection of Aussie hits for us and we spent a fun afternoon catching up on 6 years of news. Pelyao and Mario hadn’t changed at all and still loved Australian rock music, especially AC/DC! Having decided that we would leave the rest of the Carretera Austral for another time, we booked our ferry berths to Puerto Montt and planned our next trip to this part of the world – but this time on dirt bikes!