Day 49-54:  15.-20.2. 2009

La Junta – Coyhaique

        La Junta – R & R

        The heavy and constant rain in Northern Patagonia can be best enjoyed sitting on a soft couch, in a cozy hotel, next to a warm fireplace, with classical background music and a cold beer. This is exactly what I do today in the hotel in La Junta. Rain & Relaxation. I use the whole day to relax  in this supercomfy atmosphere, to update my homepage with the news from the last few days, to write and answer emails and surf the internet. I try to have ca. one of those days per week. It doesn’t work out all the time, especially the place is not always as  close to perfect as today, but generally it worked so far. My homepage is proof for that.

        Not the time for softies !

        “Do we really want to ride today?”. That is the question that keeps Oliver and myself busy over breakfast. We got up early because the road we need to take today  will be closed for road works between 10 am and 14 pm  (by the way, what a stupid time to close a road). And there is a solid reason for asking this question. It never stopped raining ever since we arrived in La Junta the day before yesterday. The water simply pours from the  sky in solid lines day  in day out. As much as I enjoyed this yesterday when sitting at the warm fireplace during my relaxation day. Today I am hoping  for a little break in this scenario. Without success though. It rains steadily. The road is of course a dirt road, hence it will be quite muddy and deep. Plus the road works will worsen the situation. “Lets get going. We need to make some ground. It might not stop for days and we can’t be stuck here forever.” This settles the open question. We get ready, into the rain gear and off we go. Into the rain. A day for heroes to be born.

        Out on the bike I am in a great mood. The best I had when biking so far. I guess this is due to a combination of the mental preparation I did since yesterday (somehow the rain today did not come as a surprise) and the chance to have a real Patagonian experience today. Wrapped in raingear and with batteries fully recharged I sing my way into the day and motivate myself.  And indeed it is great fun. People in the cars almost applaud and cheer us on. As do the road workers. Fantastic. We have 50 km to go today. We want to get to the Village of Puyuhuapi, which has been founded by a few German settlers in 1935.

        The temperature drops from 10 °C at the start to only 7°C on the way. It gets quite difficult to change gears as my fingers are really cold now They seem to be fixed to the handlebar and shaped around the grips, with no other position for them to be in. I do not wear gloves as they would be  soaking wet within minutes anyway. That would probably only make it worse. The precipitation shows as snow on the surrounding mountains, less than 500 meters above us. We are almost at sea level but it feels like in the high mountains. The wind gets stronger, fortunately supporting us as a nice tailwind. Our spirit is unbroken. We even enjoy the adverse conditions. Hard to explain. Must be because we know we have a reservation in Casa Ludwig, a hostel in Puyuhuapi. We expect a warm oven again.

        After ten, when the road closure timing has taken effect, we are still in the middle of the ride, in the middle of the roadwork area. We keep coming to areas where bigger excavation work is ongoing and we risk to be stopped and too be asked to wait for a while before we can pass. No good idea in the cold rain. We would freeze to death and almost certainly get a cold. Quickly we have established our strategy. We pass the “stop-posts” by pretending to be def and blind. When we then reach the immediate working area we make space for the big trucks to not delay them in their work. We greet the workers, wave happy hands, look extremely unknowing and try to find our way past the obstacle. And here we go. It works. No bigger delays in our ride. Wonderful. After a bit more than three hours we arrive in Casa Ludwig, with hands that can barely move and a huge smile on our face. We took the right decision, we have proven that we are no “nanzy-panzies”, we have faced the challenge and earned our place in the warm hostel. Well done. I am proud of us. As is Luise Ludwig, the hostel owner. She is a direct descendant of one of the three founders of the village. She speaks fluent German and is very helpful and a great host. The “Casa Ludwig” that we stay in is the original house that Mr Ludwig, one of the three village founders, has built in the 1940s. It is huge and cozy at the same time. I am surprised to see a 1976 poster of a “Weserlust-festival” in Bremen in the hallway. It makes me feel even more at home.

        Now that we are clean and warm again we will hope for better weather again. The odds are against us though The hostel owners tell us that they have had bad weather ever since the end of December. It is time for a change. Otherwise we will be in the same “rain-movie” again very soon.           Under water…

        And indeed I find myself in the same rain-movie again when I leave Puyuhuapi and Casa Ludwig… it rains all over the place. Sometimes very heavy, sometimes a bit lighter. But consistently. Since almost six days now. The whole area between Chaiten and Cohaique, a stretch of ca. 400 km seems to be a very rainy hole. Annual precipitation can easily reach 5000 mm or more. The special bonus this year is a summer that is extraordinarily bad. It rains so much as seldom before in the last 10-20 years. The people here keep talking about a big risk of parts of the road being swept away in landslides. And it does look like this when I ride along the road. There are huge waterfalls coming down the mountain side right next to the road. There are big ponds of water in the road in almost every turn. Some parts can only be passed on one side of the road anymore because the other side is already gone into the ocean.  This whole coastal road that I am on here could just disappear anytime soon. I do believe what the locals say. Which is also the reason why I have convinced myself that the best thing to do is to just keep going further south. Hoping for better weather and a lower risk of ending up without road at the same time. I shorten my stages to ca. 3-4 hours of riding time per day and make sure that I can always stay in a dry hostel rather than ending up in a campground. Three days camping in the rain and some more days riding in the rain has reduced my appetite for more of this significantly by now.  

        Familiar gestures between participants on the road

        Oliver and I part ways today. He has decided to go back up north and east into Argentina by bus to escape the bad weather. I have decided to not lose time in the rain and to go down south as fast as I can, weather and road permitting. Hence we say goodbye after 6 days on the road together. We have indeed supported each other quite well. It was a well working symbiosis between two likeminded bike travelers on the Carretera Austral. We had good fun and have great shared  experiences now. Nevertheless, as Oliver is on a short holiday only (2,5 weeks) the time has come to follow our owns ways again and to look forward to future encounters. Oliver, I hope your bike will make it back to Bariloche in one piece!

        The ride today is entertaining. First I find myself in a rain-break shortly after leaving the hostel.. I can even take my raingear off for about half an hour. That is a nice surprise. Shortly after I am  back in the “normal” mode of these days (full raingear on, strong rain) and find myself being a victim of an asshole car driver. A mini-van filled with three road workers passes me exactly there where the potholes are especially big and fully loaded with water. Of course I get washed all over with this dirty water that comes flying my way. Wonderful. Not that I was not yet wet anyway, that would be a lie, but at least the rain water is clean. Much different to the pothole water. Anyway, I do not exactly know why I lose my normally well controlled temper but I start complaining heavily. First shouting, then waving my arms and then using the internationally acknowledged one-finger sign for an asshole. As the mini-van doesn’t move fast this all happens in best rearview mirror distance to the driver, who clearly picks up my signs. He stops the car and I pull in.”Hay un problema?” This is his opening question. As if he doesn’t know what he just did. Well, maybe he really doesn’t know, wouldn’t surprise me. Whatever. I explain to him, loud and clear, what he just did and that I do clearly dislike this kind of behavior. I am not sure whether he understands or not. We both keep talking a bit and then get going again. As I did not understand his last few sentences I leave the scene with the sincere hope that he understood and might not do this again when he passes a cyclist in the rain again. An hour later when he passes me again, this time on a stretch of the road without potholes and hence without risk of being washed with dirty water again, he is full on the horn and passes me very closely, by intention. It seems as if my little “lesson” didn’t achieve the desired result. I give up and forget about the idiot. No more signs, no more lessons. To all fairness I have to state that I am not quite sure if I used the right didactical method with the highest likelihood of  success in this case. I believe experience confirms that any method that uses the one-finger-sign as an opening is likely to be doomed for failure right from the start.

        Rewards for the rainy ride

        The reward I get for my heroic day in the rain today is two fold: First I get to see the “Ventisquero Colgante”, a huge hanging glacier in Quelat National Park. This one is on my way today and I follow the walkway to the viewpoint to take a good look. It is impressive. The bit of the glacier that can be seen is only the very last tip of a huge glacier tongue that winds its way down the mountain from a huge ice field high above. And as it rains so much and is quite warm at the same time the glacier sends a huge stream of water, which escapes right under the “Ventisquero” down into the valley. All together that makes for an impressive scenery, especially on such a rainy day as today. Secondly I check into the Quelat Fjord Lodge for the night. It is not all that cheap but acceptable by German standards and the only option for me to have a roof over my head for the night. This if I do not want to keep going until the next village with a hostel, which would include climbing Quelat pass and would be another 60 km in the rain. I decide against this option and stay. Great decision ! I get a “cabana” all for myself. The cabana is a little wooden hut (or even house) that contains an oven with an open fire and is wonderfully furnished and decorated with a wooden be and cozy furniture. I feel like in a comfy mountain resort during a superb skiing holiday. My clothes hang in the oven areafor drying, I relax on the couch, write my report as I speak, will read a good book and have a nice dinner here in the evening. With a good glass of wine. That should suffice to prepare me for the next part of the “rain-movie” tomorrow. The weather is predicted to stay like this for another few days. Yippie.

        An easy decision

        It does rain cats and dogs again. And I mean big cats and big dogs. All night and also all morning now up to the decision point of  “do I leave or do I stay here for another day?”. This decision point has come now around lunchtime. I have quite a stretch to ride until the next opportunity for a shelter comes. This will take at least 4-5 hours. And there is a bigger mountain pass to climb. Hence I would need to leave now. Not nice in this very heavy rain. While I am still undecided the last bit of help I need to take the decision comes from Juan, the guy who runs the lodge. The road south has been blocked by a landslide and is currently being investigated and hopefully cleaned. This might take a while. Getting on the bike now doesn’t seem to be a clever alternative at all. I will stay for another night in my supercozy cabana. I will read my book at the fireplace and relax. Not a bad day after all. I will also take some time to pray for better weather tomorrow because now I do think about consolidating the three day ride to Coyhaique (the next bigger town on my trip) into two days. Weather and road conditions permitting this should be feasible. I will see.

        Change of plan

        Lets put it this way. I got nervous. When the rain stopped and the sky partly cleared up right after lunchtime I simply couldn’t resist the temptation to get on the bike and to make my way over the mountain pass, hoping for less rain on the other side. And it was a good decision. I have spent the whole afternoon in sunshine or in cloudy but dry weather. The Quelat pass was stunningly beautiful. I have seen the tongues of the glaciers that cover the mountain tops here. There were fully loaded waterfalls all over the place, rain forest covering the mountain sides and a wonderful mountain area overall. A wonderful impression. My camera cannot cope with the differences in contrast between glaciers and clouds and hence the pictures don’t deliver the full impression. It all looks like one big white mass on the photos. What A pity. On the road there was no sign of a landslide that could have blocked the passage anymore. That was another nice surprise. The (self made) problems began a bit later though. On the back end of my stretch for today the road is under construction. Pavement is being rolled out. I am relatively tired because I have gone pretty fast during the first few hours (I think subconsciously I tried to escape the risk of getting into the rain again). Hence when I get permission from a road worker to use the freshly paved half of the road rather than going through the mess and loose gravel that the trucks and cars have to in the other lane I am happy. It significantly reduces the effort and I am much quicker now. I am so happy that I ignore the little bits and pieces of tarmac that are flying around and get stuck to my bike, my bags, my legs, to everywhere. Obviously the tarmac is not fully dried yet and my tires pick up small pieces of tarmac and dirt-tarmac agglomerates and throw them up into the air. I only realize the size of the mess when I  stop to eat a bite. Everything is covered in black sprinkles or a complete black layer. Including myself. My legs look like I had a black pock disease. The white bags are covered with the black pieces. The chain, chainrings and cogset are full with it. And this stuff is messy. It is sticky, greasy and extremely hard to get rid of. Especially once it is in your clothes. I do a bigger cleaning activity before I turn into the hostel for the night because I do not want to mess up the place. Otherwise I am sure I wouldn’t even be let in anyway. Unfortunately I cannot really clean away the stuff properly. It leaves traces everywhere. So I just do my best and leave it then. I do sincerely think about leaving all the bags and the stuff that cannot be fully recovered behind in Chile when I fly back home. It is just too messy. And I am not yet sure how to manage this for the rest of the journey. I am sure I will mess up a few more places and more of my things with this. These small sticky pieces find their way into every corner. My bike will have to go into a serious cleaning and maintenance break  in Coyhaique, which I plan to reach in 2 days. I am not looking forward to the reaction of the bike shop  staff when they see the bike and  hear about my wishes. I hope they will accept the mission. The next tricky bit is to clean myself of the greasy black stuff. The hostel shower doesn’t look like a big help as the water is cold and makes itself rare in the pipe. I try anyway as I have no other option. I can’t stay like this, it would mess up my clothes, the bed, everything. The solution comes in form of an old and especially hard brush, which I find in a bathroom corner. This one does a good job. It hurts a lot as the brush is hard but it cleans the stuff away. In the end I feel as if I have just peeled a few layers of skin from my legs and hands. But I am clean again. And I freeze from the cold water. Time for dinner and the hopefully warm bed.

        Chilean TV News

        No energy, no light, no shelf, no bedside table, no lock in the door, no curtain, nothing. All my room for the night had was a bed and a blanket. This part of the house are simply plastic walls put together. But what do I complain? What else do I need for the night? I have never seen it that way. Simplification executed well. After breakfast I do really look forward to pick up the morning news on TV (they have a TV in the “lounge” of the hostel). I haven’t heard much of the worlds’ latest news since a while. Here is what I see in the next 10 minutes, in this order:

·         Soccer: Colo colo won 2:1 vs Sport in some Copa Libertadores game

·         Car accident in the north: 11 cars crashed into each other on the highway, 4 people injured

·         Bull fighting: In Mexico a bull escaped from the arena and devastated the parking lot

·         Announcement of the 50th national singing contest in Vina del Mar, coming this weekend

·         US highschool basketball: A match ended up in a mass fight, involving also the spectators

        Well informed I get on the bike and begin my journey of the day.

“All the land that you can make accessible for agriculture within this year will be yours”. This is what the government told the people here in the 1940s. What would you do? Correct. You would burn down as much forest as you can. And this is exactly what it looks like in the region of Aisen. The fires got out of control and almost 60% of the forest of the region was destroyed. Many thousands of huge dead stems of the once big trees do cover the landscape now. They are the silent witnesses of that time. The vegetation now is young and looks very different to the old forests that I have seen so far. Everything is green though. The scenery does still look fantastic. The snow capped mountains are beautiful. Many views do remind me of the transalp tour that I did last year.  The wide valleys and the shapes of the mountains. The farms that are embedded into this natural beauty. Again it does feel a bit like in the European Alps. And today I can enjoy all this from a dry seat with a strong tailwind that drives me forward all day. And once again I am glad that I am doing this trip.

Give me more (good) food !

The last days have been tiring. The rain does suck energy from your body. You invest a lot of energy simply to keep the body warm. Hence you need to replenish more energy than usual. This can be a problem here. The problem is not so much the quantity of the food, it is more the quality.  I feel like I have eaten mostly “empty” calories during the last few days. The bread and buns you get here are all made of white meals. The dinners portions are smaller than higher up north and somehow feel “empty”.  I haven’t had a high quality carbohydrate meal (e.g. pasta!!!) since a long while. I am in a great shape now and my body weight is certainly lower than ever since I left university but somehow I feel more empty and less powerful than I should. As a consequence when I arrive in the hostel today the first thing I do is to get my cooking pot out and to prepare a decent water-milkpowder-babypowder-cereals mix of my own stuff. This helps for now. Three hours later I have a chicken & rice dinner and right after this I go to the supermarket and buy yoghurt, bread and cheese (both of which I eat straight away), cereal bars and some pears. I will keep eating this tonight. Tomorrow morning I will have to bring my own cereals to the table. Then my carbohydrate load should be back to an acceptable level. I will need it for a heavy 80 km ride on dirt and hilly roads to Coyhaique, where I will rest for a few days. I need to pick up the pegs for my tent that have been sent to the post office there. I need to get the bike cleaned and maintained, do some shopping and other stuff to prepare for the unpopulated stretch of the Carretera that will follow then.

Can I escape the rain ?

I leave the hostel early (9.30 on the bike is early cause it means getting up before eight) because the weather forecast predicts rain coming to Coyhaique later in the afternoon. As the wind is in my back I expect the bad weather front to follow me today. And this is what happens after I had a burger-lunch in the mini village Villa Ortega (<200 people) which is the only village I pass through today (before coming to Coyhaique). The old lady in the “restaurant” is surprised to hear somebody knock the door for food (although she has a shabby sign in front of the house that once said “restaurant”. She is helpful though and gives the best in the kitchen. Her house is right next to a soccer pitch. Or what could have been one a while ago. She explains that the village has a soccer team and that they play other villages on the Sundays. Surprising that a 200 people village cann even build a 11 people soccer team. I guess the age varies from 10-60 or so. Unfortunately it is a Friday today so I can’t see them play. Pity.

The remaining 32 kms to Coyhaique are like a race. I have really dark clouds in my back, actually almost right over me. Very small feathery rain is already coming down. These must be raindrops that are being carried form the rainy area right behind me towards me through the strong tailwind. The rain comes my way but I do not want to get wet today again. I had my fair share of rainy days on the bike and would like to stay dry for a change. There are about 200 meters of altitude that I still have to climb to the pass of today before the road will descend for many kilometers. With the wind pushing me I go really fast. I almost forget about the bags I have on my bike. The race is on. I feel like in good old times. And my legs are good. Pushing hard and going fast seems easy. After the peak - I kept escaping the rain – I keep pushing hard to get some distance between the black clouds and myself. The downhill is not steep so I keep pedaling to gain speed. Unfortunately there are many smaller climbs within the downhill which keep tiring me, mentally and physically. Knowing that I will rest for a few days after today I am happy to empty my batteries though. I keep pushing hard for the next hour and actually make my way into Coyhaique before the rain and without getting wet from above (but I got wet from sweating). That was nice. I check if everything is still with me and am happy to find a positive result. Welcome to Coyhaique, a town of 37.000 peple that will be my shelter for the next few days.

        Insights from Coyhaique

In Coyhaique there are a few early observations that I make: All the five hostels that I have extracted from my electronic version of the “Lonely Planet Guide” are fully booked. This confirms earlier observations in other places. A recommendation in “Lonely Planet” means a safe future for any hostel. I do not have trouble to find another nice hostel with a vacancy though: “Gladys”. It is close to the “plaza de armas” in the town center. I get a cozy individual room with shared bathroom. With decent breakfast and for a decent price. The second observation is the distribution of the wireless internet accesses in Chile. So far I found that most of the hostels had wireless internet. That was already a surprise to me. Here in Coyhaique this has been taken one step further. The “plaza de armas”, which is the central place in town with banks to sit and relax, is equipped with a free public wireless internet access. I am updating my webpage from that access as I write these words. Sitting outside in the town centre, a fountain next to me, 18 °C and a mixture of sun and clouds. This is great ! Highly recommended. The third observation is rather an encounter. As I enter town I meet the three Chilean youngsters from Santiago that I already met on the ferry a week ago. They had the same route south but headed ahead of Oliver and myself as  we went north into Pumalin park first. We felt with them during the next few days of heavy rain as they had to camp every night and as their equipment was not exactly as professional as it should have been to cope with th rainy conditions properly. No surprise they stayed in Puyuhuapi in a shelter (an empty house) for five days and then took the bus to get to here to Coyhaique. Now they are disappointed because they have “cheated” on their first such journey. Well. They say it is a good reason to  come back and try again. With improved preparation and equipment. They confirm that they already have a long list of learnings from this last week. What to bring next time, what to leave at home. How to change the equipment etc. I have mixed feelings. Pride because I did it all on bike, without cheating. Regret for them because they are disappointed. I even think about leaving some of my equipment (e.g. the fully waterproof Ortlieb bags which are very hard to find and expensive in Chile) with them in Santiago when I fly back home.     

This changes after the evening. I walk to their campground to have a chat and some beers with them. The campground is the front yard of a simple hostel. There are ca. 6 tents there and a nice group of people. Mostly male, between 18 and 50 years old (the majority below 30 though). From Chile, Sweden, US, Germany and Israel.  There is a fire burning that keeps us warm and helps grill some sausages. A nice campsite with a good atmosphere. The topics of the discussion vary and are mostly entertaining. At some point of time the Chilean people there (including the three youngsters) start explaining about two social groups in Chile. One being the upper class with more money and one being the lower class with less money.  That is no surprise, nothing completely new to me. I don’t know why they keep making the point a few times and why they keep repeating that they belong to the upper class but even between  themselves they confirm that they belong to the same bigger “group of people” in Santiago. As if they want to comfort themselves between each other. Strange. These talks are always supported by the information that what they say is not exactly politically correct but true. The “leader” of the youngsters (he even found a sponsor for the tour who gave them jackets and some energy bars) shares that he does not use his good mountain bike for the tour and that he has a real good one at home. A “Giant” frame with expensive components, very lightweight etc. They also share about their usual summer holidays in the past years, when they went to fancy Pucon or a similar beach resort north of Santiago most of the time. They do not seem to be in trouble of being able to afford the right equipment. It seems to be a matter of lack of planning and experience. Or of not taking the whole trip serious enough beforehand and then having been surprised by the difficulties that occurred. Anyway. My plans to leave my Ortlieb bags with them in Santiago are changed by now. I will take them back home and keep using them myself. But I will clean them at some point of time.

I am (getting) old (and/or wise)

Later that night the whole bigger group of 11 people moves on to a discotheque. A very noisy place. The music is very loud and the average age of people here is certainly significantly below thirty. Latest here I realize that I do have a different preference in spending my time than these guys do. Why would you be in a place that is so loud that you cannot talk to each other anymore? You certainly harm your ears (mine are already below average and don’t need more stress) and cannot get into any conversation at all. All you can do is drink and watch people. People that are at average 10-15  years younger than myself. No. If I ever need some activity to feel younger than I am (the classic midlife crisis activities) this is not one of the options. My disco times are definitely gone. And I am glad about it. This might sound “spiessig” or old fashioned but it is true. I do much prefer other kinds of spending the evenings and probably with other people that do share my preferences more. I guess that is life. Good to have that confirmed.

The next few days I will spend with admin, relaxation, eating good food, resting and reading. I will buy a warmer sleeping bag and pick up the tent pegs that have been sent to the post office here because they were late in Puerto Varas. I will replenish my food reserves and send some stuff back home again (the light sleeping bag that I used so far and a few more smaller things). I will do good bike maintenance and be ready for the second half of my adventure soon. The more tricky part is still to come. Lower temperatures, more wind, more rain, less infrastructure. I look forward to it.