Day 55 - 58: 21. - 24 .2. 2009 Coyhaique – Puerto Ibanez

Coyhaique – Relaxation and Preparation

I spend the whole of Saturday and Sunday doing nothing special really. Certainly nothing that might be physically tiring. I eat loads of good carbohydrates, walk around town, write my reports, update my homepage, read and write emails (all in the “plaza de armas” with public wifi, sitting in a mix of clouds and sun) and sleep a lot. I read the Sunday newspaper and try to remember a few new Spanish words and, last but not least, I spend three hours to clean and maintain my bike. I have decided not to give it to a bike shop but to rather trust my own knowledge and skills here. It also makes the whole thing here more self sustained, with less external help. More pure. In the end the dirt has gone at least from the moving parts (it will certainly stick to the frame until the end of the bike’s life), the chain runs smoothly again and I have built a new front mud-catcher out of a corn flake box and some tesa-film. Just like in good old times when mountain biking was young and there were no well designed mud catchers for mountain bike front wheels yet. It will do the job.

Now this is cool. Sunday night at 9 pm the city was dead. Even most of the restaurants were closed. And now, Monday morning at nine it is buzzing with action and people. Including me. The weather has turned from “soso” to “superb”. Clear blue sky. I want to get going again today, need to sort out a few things first though. Otherwise I cannot leave yet.The list is long.<E.g. I need to see if my new tent pegs have arrived at the post office. And they did. I pick them up and can get rid of the nails that I used instead until now. Then I send a parcel with stuff back home, 1.5 kg all together, including my old sleeping bag. All together it makes up exactly for the weight of my new, warmer sleeping bag for the south. Bingo. In line with the “one in – one out” rule. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I will see that later) I have at least 2kg of additional food on board now. I will have few occasions to replenish and will have to camp a few times in the coming weeks (which I actually look forward to) so there is little alternative rather than starving, which I reject as an option. I pick up my laundry which has been cleaned between Saturday and today. Clean. Perfect. I then go to the office of the company that runs the ferry that I need to take to cross Lago General Carrera. I buy the ticket for Wednesday, which leaves me plenty of time to get there. Then I go to the LAN-Chile office because it is the last city here witgh an office for a while and I want to confirm the changes of my return flights home and add a flight to Easter Island. That takes a while and is quite complex but finally it works out. Flights changed and Easter Island added, for a low price as it will be during low season in April. I also have two days in Santiago in the end to visit people who I met during my trip here. Perfect again. I go into the bookstore to buy a second hand English book to have something to read for the time coming. I leave the last book I just finished yesterday with Emma, the hostel owner. She studies German and it is a German book, good training for her. She is happy. The only thing that doesn’t work out is the Telefax-conversation with Eurocard. They need my signature to be able to refund the wrong bookings from January to my account. I talk to my banker but the whole Eurocard office is in a carnival holiday. Good for them. Bad for me. Not sure when I will have a fax ready for use again. At 1.30 pm I sit on the bike again and leave town, direction south. With a strong tailwind to support me. I am back in the game !

The first few kilometers out of town remind me a lot of the German “Voralpenland”. It looks very similar. A wide, green, hilly land in front of bigger and snow capped mountains. Just what it looks like when you drive towards the Alps and cross through the “Voralpenland”. It is very nice indeed. Reminds me that this area in Germany is clearly one of my favorite spots in Europe. When I keep going the landscape changes. It develops into a huge wide plain. It is getting dryer, more grey and brown rather than green. This reminds me of the USA. The mountains have a rocky shape, almost a bit like mountains that can be seen in canyon lands. One mountain is extraordinary. It looks like a massive and hugely oversized “Kirchenorgel”, this huge instrument in churches that is made of hundreds of “pipes” put together (obviously I am missing the English word here..). And all the time I am pushed forward by a strong tailwind. Even uphill, and especially uphill this makes my life so much easier today. Finally I can see into a great wide plain, almost like a desert. My road turns into the mountains though and directionally goes back towards the coast, hence it keeps the green color and vegetation. <span> </span>I am relieved, like that much better than a desert. What I realize is that although Chile looks very thin on a map, especially the area that I am passing through now, from the inside it definitely feels vast and huge. The low population level does certainly add to this feeling.

78 km/h ! This is a new record. I have not been going so fast on my bike on this journey before. And I do not even need to do anything. I have not even pedaled ! It was just a steep downhill and this immense tailwind that pushed me into the record. It didn’t even feel so fast as the road is good and the bike is so heavy that it is extremely stable. In this moment I am glad that I did the bike maintenance by myself. I would not have wanted a surprise in this moment (I am obviously assuming that the risk of a bike failure is lower with me having done the job myself rather than somebody in a bike shop in Coyhaique. This might be too optimistic or arrogant but still I believe it true

Mission Carretera Austral ?

The morning has been almost too effective. It was like a working day. I ticked off all my points on the list within three hours, got ready and going again. I feel like I am on a mission. My mission is to ride this Carretera Austral, actually the whole way down to Ushuaia by bike without bigger problems. But is this really a mission ? Is it not a holiday ? A voluntarily chosen adventure ?Shouldn’t I simply leave some things to accident and then see what happens ? Well, I am not sure. It is still a huge adventure. Even with the amount of planning I do. I guess there are various ways to face an adventure. Just like with everything in life. You can plan ahead and be prepared and then go for it. Then things are likely to work out ok and the number of surprises is low. Or you can plan less, react more to the challenges as they appear, probably improvise more and still you can succeed. Or fail. But you can also fail with a high amount of planning and preparation. I think the way I approach the whole thing here simply confirms what kind of person I am. Planning for success is what I usually do. I leave few things to chance. And this is the way I like it. I enjoy the planning and preparation because for me it is as much part of the adventure and mission as the ride itself. I would feel less comfortable and have less fun, could relax less even if I was leavingmore things to chance. So, nothing to worry about really. I will just keep going the way I am going.Do this whole thing here my way. Enjoy every day as they pass by and live the experience. Point.

A perfect campground

Now that is what a perfect campground looks like. There is a shelter with a bank and a table inside. Just in case it rains. There is a table with banks outside. The area for the tent is flat and green with grass. There is a fireplace and wood is readily available. They have even added some small pieces to get the fire going. Even I can manage this. Fool-proof. Super. I love this place. Camping here is a great pleasure. I enjoy the cooking outside. The “pasta in corn soup” taste better than ever. I make a fire as the temperature drops below 10 °C at 8.30 pm (the place is at 1000 meters, lowest at night is close to 0°C) and I am writing this here right in front of the fire now. I will relax and listen to some music right here with the fire until I get sleepy. Perfect. This is one of those moments again. Life is treat !

Male behaviour

Where did I read this again? Men are the people who by nature sit there in their caves and stare into the fire, without talking much. While the women do more talking and do not want to stare into the fire all the time. I have had one of those nights here in this campground. Last night I was sitting there and staring right into the fire for three hours. I was listening to music and kept thinking various things over. Whatever came into my mind. No big conclusions, just some time purely for myself. With a fire to stare into. I am glad I was alone. This would not have been very entertaining for any company here. Except it would have been another male who wanted to stare into the fire for a few hours as well. Oh yes, and when I went to bed there was this awesome and by now familiar night sky again. With loads of stars and the milky way to be seen so clearly. After my neck went numb from staring upwards for a while I went into my new sleeping bag and enjoyed the cold night, feeling warm and cozy. This was a good investment. I cannot afford to save money on the equipment here. Right choice.

Spectacular views and mountain shapes – Cerro Castillo

And I thought I was sleeping long when I finally got up after 9 am.My neighbors sleep until 12 am. This is when I leave the campground after an easy and relaxed morning. Maybe they used the time in the tent for something but I really guess they have been sleeping until so late (at least they look like it when they finally leave the tent). And this although they went to bed (or at least into the tent) before me (which was before midnight). Anyway, this is another way to spend a holiday. Sleeping. 

These shapes are amazing. The mountains in this area here seem to have developed from one huge plateau that collapsed away in most parts and left just a few rough mountains standing.At least this is my conclusion after observing the shapes of the mountains that have tried to do the same but didn’t leave such a nice shape but just a pile of rocks and gravel around a stone hill. “Cerro Castillo” is certainly the highlight of the day. These “castle mountains” are a huge front of sharp edged mountains that face into the bright blue sky and leave a silhouette like a big castle. Fantastic. And I can observe this panorama almost all day. First from the distance, then I get closer, then from the distance again. I spend more time stopping and taking pictures than actually riding the bike today. But it is absolutely worthwhile. It is simply very impressive. Finally I think I have taken 30 pictures of that same mountain range, in all sizes and from all different angles. Will be hard to find the one to upload to my homepage.

New speed record again !

82,1 km/h is what I reach in the final descend of my ride today.And again I am completely not to blame for taking a risk to reach that high speed as again there was no pedaling involved. Just a strong tailwind and a good downhill road. Cool. 

Wind ? Which wind ?

Although at hardly more than 1-2000 inhabitants PuertoIbanez seems to be a relative boom town. When I come into town I pass by a few “Neubaugebiete” (new housing areas). They are colorful but not necessarily beautiful. Small but functional houses sit there, close together following the US or European model. There are a few signs that announce the building of more of such new development areas. I wonder who moves here and why? Maybe I can find out.

The wind is not so strong today. It can be much stronger.” The lady in the hostel is almost surprised when I ask her about the strong winds here in Puerto Ibanez. Puerto Ibanez is a mini town at the northern shore of Lago General Carrera, which is the biggest lake in Chile and the second biggest in South America. After a superb day on the brand new road, all paved, and with sunshine and strong tailwinds I have been fighting my way through a very strong headwind for the last few kilometers. And that wind is strong. It is by far the strongest I had so far. It got stronger and stronger the closer I got to the lake. Here in town everything seems to shake and get lose due to the strong winds. The hostel almost shakes and I am really afraid the roof might fly away during the night. But no, the wind is not so strong. I am relieved that the hostel lady is not concerned at all. I will relax as well then I guess. This might be the first night for me to use my Oropax to get some sleep. And tomorrow I will find out if I am prone to sea sickness. The waves on the lake are supposed to be up to 4-5 meters high in strong winds. And never below 2-3 meters. I am not sure if I look forward to that experience but I have to get across that lake. Maybe I should skip breakfast. 

A lesson in effectiveness with simple tools

I cannot trust my eyes, can I? I have had my little fishing experience myself, in a supposedly well populated and very rich fishing ground a few days further up north. The result was disappointing rather. I left those fishing grounds without even a sign of a fish having been at least near my hook or even having taken notice of it. And what do I see now? A bunch of local kids standing on a small platform on the lakeside here with a pile of fishes of various sizes already pulled out of that water. I wonder how long it took them ? These are at least seven or eight fishes they already have. Some hours maybe? I keep observing and learn quickly that they work almost like in a continuous process flow, almost like in a fishing factory.One guy prepares the hook. The next guy throws the thing into the water (obviously at the right place). He waits for about a minute, pulls it back in and hands over the caught fish to the next guy. He take sit off the hook and kills it with a stick. The next guy takes it and adds it to the rest of the catch, keeping them all fresh in the water. Unbelievable. And the most stunning thing is the type of equipment they use. They simply use cord attached to an empty tin and a simple hook prepared with some kind of meat. And it works just great. They could easily supply whole restaurant. It is good fun watching them. When I ask them for a picture they proudly pose for the shot. And even offer me to buy some of the fish. Thank you, I have no idea how to prepare that here.. 

Back in my room I wonder what that strange sound is that I already heard come in from the outside when I checked in earlier. Like a small kid crying or shouting all the time. Or like a door that needs some oil and keeps moving in the wind. Or like a lamb that keeps complaining all the time. Very strange. It is annoying, goes on my nerves. I hope it will stop sometime, at least when I go to sleep. I am already used to some cock shouting early in the morning and waking me up. That is very usual that people have some chickens at their house. I got to that by now. But that sound here. It keeps going, over and over again. I cannot help it, it goes on my nerves. What is this?? I walk downstairs and outside to try and locate where it comes from. And there we go. What do I find in the backyard, attached to the fence with a rope? A little lamb. Indeed. This is the first time I see (or better: hear) this so intensively. Luckily it is being locked away into the garage or wherever sometime later and stops crying. I am sure otherwise some of the stray dogs from town would have gotten it as a midnight meal during the night.

Another experiences with a fellow traveler

This is just ridiculous. They are so ignorant here in Patagonia. They are just not set up for tourism here.” The Englishman who enters the “restaurant” where I have just taken my dinner seems to be in a hurry and quite enraged. “I took the bus from Coyhaique to here. It took me 4 hours rather than what I expected to be a 2 hour ride. The bus driver drove through town in Coyhaique for about an hour. He picked up some passengers, fair enough, but he also stopped by shops to do some stuff there for himself, some of his own shopping. And then the bus schedules do not interlink. When you arrive in one place you have to wait too long for the connecting bus to the next place. I only have four hours to get from Chile Chico to Perito Moreno tomorrow and have no idea how I can manage that.” He sits there and keeps complaining. And he looks so silly doing it. He wears that old woolen hat all the time, doesn’t even take it off in the restaurant although even outside it is too warm to wear one. His red hair is long and curly and sticks out from under the hat at all sides. Then he has got this scarf under the jacket, which he doesn’t want to take off either. Not sure where he is heading to but he could go to the cold like this. And I am sitting there and have the impression that I am in the middle of a movie or sketch. I have trouble controlling myself, not to burst into laughter. Later on the ferry I meet the guy again and find out that he takes pictures for an English travel guide. I am surprised he doesn’t know better than this. In his job he shouldn’t be easily surprised by these kind of things anymore.

Is it good or bad to be a volcano victim?

There are always (at least) two versions of each story.The people who I met in Chaiten, the town that is closed now after the big volcano eruption last year, have complained heavily about not getting government support to rebuild their village. They get no water, light or electricity because the government wants to move the town a few kilometers up north into a safer place and hence doesn’t support the rebuilding in the same place. The last week has just shown that this idea is not too bad because the few people who were already back in town had to be evacuated again because there were follow up eruptions. As a result the cone of the recently built new crater collapsed and huge amounts of volcanic dust has been flying around again. (By the way, that was a good timing from me to pass by the volcano just a few days before it erupted again. Lucky me !). Anyway. The important thing I found out today from the hostel owner is that there is a very significant government support for the victims that lost their houses. They get the equivalent of 750 Euro per months for a living for the next 12 months (minimum wage here is 200 Euro/month) and an additional 20.000 Euro to build or buy a new house anywhere they want, except the old area of Chaiten. The hostel I am in, together with the house of the family and the yard around, all together a pretty big estate here, did cost less than that. This is not a bad financial support at all. But nobody in Chaiten ever mentioned that to me. They seem to only talk about the bad sides, not the good ones. This is interesting because I left Chaiten with the impression that these people were completely left alone by their government. Now I know better.

Day 59 - 63: 25.2. – 1.3.2009
Chile Chico - Cochrane

No test for tough guys

What a disappointment ! The ferry went through pretty calm waters today, no big waves, no shaking, no test of my sea sickness safety. The wind here on the southern side of the lake is much less than on the northern shore. That is unexpected and not in line with what my educated expectations have been. Guide books are not always correct it seems. Okay, I will have to undergo that test later then when I go back to Punta Arenas from Ushuaia. I will do this part by boat as well. And I am sure there it will be more rough, out in the open sea and in the channels of the Magellanes strait.

Victim to a little bug

“The first thing I will need to do is to use the toilet”. I am sure this is not how the guests usually enter this hostel. But I have no option because I have a definite need to do exactly what I told the lady. I seem to have caught a bug in my stomach. All afternoon I am caught in my room, close to the toilet. I can hardly read a page of my book until I need to go again. This is what I call in my professional words a very unsatisfactory back-end-performance. I am glad I have caught exactly today for it as I was thinking about staying in Chile Chico for the night anyway. Now it is confirmed. There is no moving on today. Tomorrow I will see if I feel like leaving or staying for another day.

What again does a tourist information center do ?

“Do you have a map of town?” “No I don’t. I thought you were the tourist office here…”. I know it is not nice to complain about people who are not around but this needs to be said. In Chile Chico I have met the most useless tourist information center staff ever in my life. They were hoping for me to have a plan of town so they could show where the dry laundry is (or better: the lady who washes the clothes, hangs them out for drying on her garden fence and gives them back more dirty than before). Finally she went outside with me because close by there was a big public map of the town and she used this one to show me the way. Of course she was following the Chilean tradition to mix up left and right as well (I really see this in the majority of the local people). When I was asking for the distance of the next town she said 2 hours. I advised her that I was travelling by bike and then she came up with a distance of 140 km. On my own map this distance is shown as 70 km. She could not help with a recommendation for hostels other than with a list of the names, costs and phone numbers. No clue where they were, whether they were good or not, nothing. In short, she was completely clue- and useless. Well, I guess this is only part of the challenge and adventure I am going through.

And it still keeps getting tougher – every km earned hard !

Today is clearly one of the absolute highlights of my tour ! In many aspects. The road along the southern shore of Lago General Carrera is impressive. It has been built into very steep and rocky cliffs and goes up and down all the time. And not just a bit, a lot. Very steep uphills and very steep downhills, on a very bad road with loads of unsecured curves. You could basically make your way flying right into the lake from high above if you did not break and steer properly. Impressive. The next stretch of roads I am going on here will have almost no civilization for two days. I feel completely alone and somehow even a bit lost. I think in the course of the whole day I meet less than 10 cars. The whole day I simply keep riding. I make many breaks for taking pictures, of the lake and the road and the ice fields that can be seen on the mountains on the other side of the lake. And for eating of course. The weather is beautiful and invites me to spend a long day on the bike. This whole scenery, this lake, these mountains, this road, all this is an absolute highlight. I find the lake color being a deep blue all day and then turned into a turquoise-green the next morning. How does that work? The lake water is so clean that when I pick it up to refill my water bottle (I am running out of water in the heat and there are no streams coming down the mountain because the area is so dry) it looks and tastes like pure clean mineral water. In the end of the day also the data of the tour of the day is an absolute highlight: I have climbed 1881 meters of altitude in 82 km. At an effective riding time of 7,5 hours. And I feel like it in the end. I wanted to use the good weather though as it might turn quickly here. Now it is time to break and prepare for the night though. And the overnight plan that I have developed is another highlight of my tour today!

Sleeping like the cowboys

The inspiration came from the book I have been reading the last few days. It is a novel that has been written in the 1960s. I picked it up in a second hand book shop. It is a story like in a western movie. It has taught me a lot of new (or rather old) English words. It deals with punchers, killers, gunmen, cowmen and many other things of which many were new to me. What the guys in the book do all the time though is to just make camp for the night in the middle of the wild, And I assume right under the sky because nobody ever mentioned a tent in that book. And that is exactly what I do as well. The weather looks relatively stable. I find a spot with a great view over the lake to the mountains and ice fields over on the other lakeside. I make camp and get my sleeping bag and mattress out. Before cuddling myself into the sleeping bag I cook a huge portion of Risotto, add a tin of Tuna to it, eat it all and then turn myself into the horizontal position. Hopefully it will not rain! The last I want is to be surprised and awakened by some heavy rain in the middle of the night. The clouds above me do even break up a bit though. Lying on my back I can even see the stars. Wonderful. The light wind gently strikes my face and sends me into a deep sleep until seven in the morning when I get up with the first significant signs of daylight. This has been perfect ! Undoubtedly the best night I had so far on my trip.

Bull fighting ?

“Should I stop close by and take a picture or should I rather keep going as if it was completely natural for me to be on this bike and on this road right now?” My estimate for this bull’s weight is at least 400 kg, if not way more. He has this classic stature of an impressive bull as I know it from TV. A huge and bulky chest and shoulders, big horns, a massive head, a somewhat lighter back end and he is of a reddish-brown color. All together this is an admirably strong animal and would certainly be very nice to look at, if he was not standing there right at the roadside and facing into my direction. The front legs do already stand on the road, he looks like he is checking me out and preparing himself for the attack. As it rains I do wear my red jacket and have pulled the yellow rain cover over my backpack. If either red or yellow somehow attract this monster that will be the end of my journey. I do imagine how an attack would look like. The bull would probably hit me right into the side while I am passing by, leaving the bike in pieces and myself with a huge headache and probably a few broken bones. If he would keep going with the attack probably all my bones would be broken sooner or later. But then on the other hand he will have seen a few bike riders before and cannot have attacked or killed all of them. By now word of such a killer-bull would have spread even to me. Considering this I decide to simply keep going and to try to ignore the bull as good as possible. And here we go, it works, he doesn’t move. Why am I writing this ? I guess because I had a huge amount of respect and even some fear in this situation because I had already imagined in detail what could happen in the worst case. It might sound ridiculous but this is exactly what it felt like. I was scared and I needed to overcome my fears if I didn’t want to wait for an indefinite amount of time. I did it and it worked fine.

Patagonian weather – hard to imagine

The rain is back. Two hours into today I find myself in the middle of a consistent heavy rain. The mountains are covered in dark, deep-hanging clouds and I see no way how this should change anytime soon. After 4 hours and 55 km I reach Puerto Bertrand, a sleepy little village at the southern shore of Lago Bertrand. This lake does give birth to and feeds the famous Rio Baker, one of the wildest and biggest streams of Chile. Being all wet as I am by now, also tired of yesterdays long bike ride, and with no realistic chance of the weather changing soon I turn into a hostel in town to get a hot shower and a dry room. I take the shower, organize my stuff in the room for drying and have another look outside. What I see is: Blue sky, strong sunshine, warm temperatures and no sign of any rain clouds or bad weather. Unbelievable how quickly this changed. There is just no way how you could imagine and really believe that there will be sun in a few minutes while you are still riding your bike in a very heavy rain now. And vice versa it is hard to imagine how it could be pouring down with rain in a few minutes while you are riding in the sunshine under clear blue sky. My imagination stops there although Patagonia should have taught me differently by now. Already having checked into the hostel is not a bad situation to be in though. I can now walk around the village, relax at the shores of the lake, bath my feet in it and enjoy a cold beer from the local shop in the afternoon sun. I have been disciplined with regards to alcohol for many days by now. Hence the cold beer is a very welcome refreshment. It is well earned after the hard day yesterday and the rainy ride today. I feel very contented. The two cyclists (from the US and Australia) that come into town from the South quickly get that impression as well. We agree to meet a bit later to spend some time together and chat about travel impressions.

I also meet two Italian bike travelers. Gabriele and Alessia. They stay in the same hostel as I do and they are going South as well. Alessia does “only” have a four week holiday and they want to do the whole Carretera Austral in that time. Hence they are a bit in a hurry. Once finished with the Carretera Alessia will have to fly back home and Gabriele plans to keep going south to Ushuaia. We agree to keep in touch via Email to keep the option of meeting again in Calafate open for us. Those two are nice fellows, would be nice to meet Gabriele again and to maybe spend a few days on the road together. They did the “Jakobsweg” to Santiago de Compostela by bike last year, just like I did 1,5 years ago. It is amazing how some certain routes seem to be pre-set as great biking trips.

Rafting on the infamous Rio Baker

Rio Baker is the biggest river in Chile, measured in volume of water transported per second. It is the outflow of Lago Bertrand, which is this clear, blue glaciar-fed lake right in front of my hostel in Puerto Bertrand. What is more natural than doing a rafting tour on that river then? Nothing. And hence I go for it. We are six people plus guide. Three Chileans, an English couple and myself. Fully equipped with wet suit, helmet and a good introduction to the secrets of proper rafting behavior we begin to paddle down the lake towards its outflow, the birthplace of Rio Baker which introduces itself with a few smaller rapids. Once we are in the first bigger rapids it takes about ten seconds and the first one of us is over board. It is one of the three Chileans who has been surprised by how bumpy a ride we are on here. The guide has him back in the boat quickly though, no big disturbance for us. We keep going through some more rapids but also enjoy quieter parts of the river. There we can swim and dive from the boat. Good fun ! And not too cold as the wet suit works really well. Obviously on this trip we are not going through the toughest and fastest rapids that Rio Baker has to offer but it is for certain good enough to keep us well entertained and even a bit scared. Sitting there in the first row, right in the frontline I see every big wave coming straight at us. I also enjoy the bulk of the water loads that we get when going through the bigger rapids. This is really good fun. Honestly I was a bit scared first because I did not know what to expect. Now I am very happy that I did it. That was a great adventure.