The Carretera Austral is Chile’s southern highway and one of the most renowned bicycling routes in the world. It’s no surprise why two-wheeled enthusiasts flock to this remote pocket of South America, only to be isolated amongst the monolithic giants, towering glaciers, powerful rivers, and cascading waterfalls. Isolation is ordinary. Civilization is scarce. Wild is assumed.
Many touring cyclists that begin their journey much farther north save the Carretera Austral as one of their last stops before reaching the southernmost point in the world. But that doesn’t mean this trip is for the hardiest of long-distance cyclists. This is a documented journey of four varied-skilled cyclists successfully experiencing the wild regions of Chile by bicycle in just two weeks.
The official Carretera Austral spans over 1200km from Puerto Montt to O’Higgins, but the road gets rugged and more wilder the further south you travel. That’s why our party of four chose to start after Coyhaique where the road turns from asphalt to gravel and never turns back. This account is the 515km from Villa Cerro Castillo to O’Higgins, also known as the southern half. Although we met many cyclists journeying for months, if not years, at a time, this trip journal is meant to inspire those with 2-3 weeks of vacation and looking for something completely different than the usual destination vacation or city-hopping holiday.
For adventure-seekers with more time, you can start from the official beginning of the Carretera Austral in Puerto Montt and keep continuing south into Argentina via Ferry and single track.
I have included a lot of information from the type of touring cyclists we are to the equipment we used, but if you just want to hear about our itinerary, feel free to jump below.
You can read here and many other accounts about the Carretera Austral. However, there is no such thing as consistency in Latin America and specifically, Patagonia. Ferry schedules, bus companies, and service providers will change from the time of publication. We found that the descriptive account that we relied on was very different from what we encountered. As for distances to locations, hill descriptions, road conditions, I would, as we did, expect some variance in what is written. Everybody rides differently and has a different opinion of “not that steep.” This is our account and I will try to explain it as technically accurate as possible.
If you have any questions about this trip, please feel free head on over to the about me page and email me. I would be happy to help!
Style of Touring
We were a group of four touring cyclists with varied experience and not one of us would describe ourselves as “hard-core” (you can do this!). We had two people in their 30s and two in their 60s. The two in their late 30s hadn’t toured before, but were urban cyclists who might have cycled to and from work more times than not. The two in their 60s have international touring experience touring for 2-3 weeks at a time in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Cuba, Canada, and The United States. We are all in good, healthy condition, but by no means athletes. We like to cycle for the journey, not the competition. If it means skipping a few days or hopping on a bus when the weather isn’t favorable, we say “so be it.” Being able to say we did the WHOLE thing isn’t important. We enjoyed going at a nice pace to enjoy the scenery. On this trip we completed anywhere from 30-70km/day with an average of 49km/day.
I have included as many prices as I can in CHP (Chilean Peso), CAD (Canadian Dollar), and USD (US Dollar). These prices were effective as of December 2016 when 1 CAD = 500 CHP and 1 USD = 675 CHP. In terms of how much you will spend, it depends on your style of cycling. We budgeted (brought cash) for 12,500 CHP/person/day ($25 CAD, $18.50 USD). We spent on average of 5,000 CHP/person/day ($10 CAD, $7.50 USD). We kept it low because we guerilla camped every night except for two nights and we made 90% of our meals. A majority of our budget was groceries and boxed wine (don’t judge).
Cash is often the only accepted form of payment in this part of Chile. You might find some larger grocery stores in Coyhaique, Cerro Castillo, Puerto Tranquillo, Cochrane, and O’Higgins that take VISA or MasterCard, but don’t count on it. The two banks on this route are only in Coyhaique and Cochrane, that’s it. Bring lots of USD and transfer it to Chilean Peso (CHP) in Santiago if you can. ATMs throughout Chile charge on average of 5,000 CHP ($10 CAD, $7.50 USD) per withdrawal but vary depending on your financial institution.
Time to go/Weather/Temperature
You will hear this a lot: “You can expect to experience every season on a typical day in Patagonia.” Choosing a good time to go is a bit of crapshoot. But for the most part November to March is your window. We were on our bikes from November 14 – November 26, 2016. This is definitely shoulder season, which we preferred, however we were told January and February had favorable and more consistent weather (with a few more cyclists on route to boot). That being said, we were lucky and had only two days of rain in the two weeks we were riding. One of which was blowing rain with some snow mix in there. The other was a light drizzle that didn’t affect our ability to continue in the saddle. Temperatures ranged from 10 to 30 degrees Celsius with a few days where we had to stop in the afternoon because it was too hot. Yes, expect big variances just in this section!
Daylight should never be a problem this south during the spring/summer. You can get in long days at this latitude. In November sun rose around 6:00am and set around 9:00pm.
Spanish is widely spoken in this region of Patagonia. Do not expect anyone to speak English in any of the towns/villages/cities. That being said, Chileans are very warm and will gladly take part in an international game of charades if need be.
We rode three Surly LHTs and one Trek 3700 mountain bike.
The steel LHTs were definitely not the only ones on the Carretera Austral; in fact, it was the most popular bike among all the cyclists we met. They were strong and reliable.
The aluminum Trek was outfitted with strong components and was re-built for touring. It was an aluminum frame with an added climbing gear. Both of these differences from the steel LHTs were a little problematic. The frame held the gear and climbed with ease, but there were times you could feel its strength wear thin. The chain often jumped out of gear and disconnected on quick shifts into low climbing gears. (The route has a lot of up and downs and changing in and out of climbing gears is frequent). On the plus side, an upright mountain bike with front suspension was advantageous on the downhills and loose gravel.
We met other cyclists on route and most were riding steel touring bikes with no suspension. This is probably your best bet, but since this was a trip for less than a few weeks a strong mountain bike with sturdy components worked just fine.
We had the Surlys outfitted with both 700 x 40mm and 26 x 2”tires. In terms of width, I wouldn’t go any thinner than this as the southern half has some loose gravel sections and washboard where you will not regret having some wider tires.
The Trek mountain bike had 26 x 2.5” tires. Since there was little pavement and more gravel, there was no issue with the width of these tires.
In the two weeks we were on bikes, we had only one puncture from a thorn. When you’re venturing off the road, make sure you’re looking out for Patagonia’s prickly vegetation below!
Getting the bikes to Chile
We flew three bikes and rented one (for rental details, see below)
Flying with the bike: Standard advice applies to flying with bikes. Pack it well in a cardboard box (available at almost every bike shop), tie everything down in case it comes apart in transit, and prevent your front fork from bending with a spacer. Most airlines will charge anywhere from $0-75 (one way) for a bike box. That fee will be applied when you check into your flight on the day of. Most airlines will state only the bike and its components are allowed in the box to prevent people from adding luggage to an oversized item. Always prepare extra time when flying with bikes. Taxis, airport navigation, and check-in process always take a bit more time than you expect. Deflate your tires before you fly. When you arrive at your destination, allow for at least half a day to get your bike ready to go.
Renting a touring bike in Chile
Believe it or not, renting a touring bike in Chile was very simple. I accidentally bumped into Carlos Cavallo, the owner of a touring-bike-rental shop on the north side of the Santiago in the Bellavista district. Carlos rents out a variety of bikes built for touring. He has steel frames in all sizes and styles outfitted with racks and very good components. He speaks fluent English and Spanish and answered all of our questions by email, phone and WhatsApp. Carlos is a wealth of knowledge on cycling around Santiago and is an avid cyclist himself.
Cell +569 99424070
Santiago bike shops
Looking for a bike box on the way home, one last tune up before the big ride, or forgot a tool at home? Calle San Diego (San Diego Street south of Av Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins) is your answer. There are at least 15 bike shops on either side. They don’t sell steel/touring bikes, but they have basic parts and accessories. We pumped up our tires here and found two boxes on the street.
Bike tools: We brought two bike pumps (one broke, so this was useful), bike multi-tools for all bike components, pedal wrench, and patch kits.
Spare parts: spare nuts and bolts, two tubes per person, and one spare tire per person.
Clothing: Generally speaking, lots of rain gear, warm clothes, gloves, light gear for the warmer times, sunglasses, biking gloves, and wind breaker. Prepare for all weather. Down jackets were very helpful at night. However, most days were spent wearing shorts and shirts.
Shoes: one pair of strong-soled shoes or day-hikers and one pair of sandals.
Cooking: We brought two types of stoves depending on fuel availability. We used the MSR PocketRocket the most because we could only find isobutane when we started the trip. We also had a MSR Dragonfly, but didn’t find white gas on the route. Regular gas can be used in the Dragonfly, but that’s another conversation. We brought two pots and a frying pan.
Water filters: We brought two types of water filters, a gravity autoflow and a hyperflow microfilter. Both were used when we found questionable water sources, but for the most part we drank straight from fresh mountain streams.
We began at the start of the gravel in Villa Cerro Castillo. For the 90% of the time the gravel was pleasurable with limited amount of loose gravel and washboard. Typically we were going from 7-12km/h. Towards the end, starting after the ferry from Caleta Yungay, the road conditions worsened with many potholes and washboard. As well the side route to Tortel was fairly bad, but everything was pleasantly manageable.
Vehicles on the route were not an issue for us. We were travelling in shoulder season, but most vehicles were personal vehicles that would give you plenty of space and would pass at a safe speed. We found Chileans drove much quicker and stirred up a lot of dust, but still gave a safe passing distance. Commercial trucks were relatively infrequent, but they travelled fast on the road and sometimes passed closely. It’s always good to have a flag or something sticking out to suggest to the driver to pass with some generous space. On average we saw about 10 vehicles an hour. The top half, before Caleta Yungay, averaged about 15 vehicles an hour. And the bottom half averaged about 5 vehicles per hour. **If you meet the right Israelis, they might even stop you and give you a bottle of wine.
It’s always fun to meet other touring cyclists and you definitely will encounter some along the Carretera Austral as it is one of the most popular routes in South America, if not the world. High season to meet many other cyclists will be between January and February, but you won’t be fighting over campsites or resources, there is plenty for everybody. Expect to see anywhere between 1-3 groups a day on the road and up to 5 in the high season.
Let’s just say Patagonia isn’t known for their food culture. The food isn’t great, but all of the grocery stores are stocked with all necessities you will need. You will find grocery stores in most major towns (see Trip Details for further information on which those are) with instant coffee, milk powder, bread, cookies, tortillas, squash, cooked/packaged meat, oatmeal, chocolate, quick meals of rice, quinoa, or pasta; and dried fruit (although limited). I would not expect anything international, peanut butter, energy bars, and Gatorade powder or energy drinks.
Restaurants are also in some towns, but options and food availability vary significantly. Often these restaurants are quite pricy offering a limited menu or even a plate-of-the-day option. Many options include empanadas (pastries filled with meat and/or vegetables), asado (barbecued meats), sopas (soups with meat, herbs and spices), potatoes, quinoa, chacarero (the largest sandwiches ever with beef, lettuce, tomato, and avocado).
Water is readily available in Patagonia (let that be a warning as well). It would be pretty hard to not go a full day without seeing a water source. You spend a lot of your time cycling next to rivers, streams, waterfalls, and lakes. However, a good rule of thumb is fill you bottles up every time you see a stream just to be safe. We brought two water filters, a MSR autoflow gravity filter and an MSR HyperFlow Microfilter. For the most part we drank straight from streams flowing off mountains and it was typical that other cyclists were as well. Sometimes we filtered water at questionable sources.
Juice and pop are available in every grocery store.
Beer and Wine are available in every grocery store. Beer is much more expensive than wine. Boxed wine is cheap, plentiful in towns, and sometimes much needed after a long day of climbing.
Camping exists throughout the route, but it’s not plentiful to rely on each night. Plus, it’s difficult to plan how many kilometres you will make it each day to make it happen. If you do find a campsite, you will be paying anywhere from 3,000-5,000 CHP ($6-10 CAD, $4.50-$7.50 USD) per person for a field camp spot, toilets, showers, and maybe a cooking shelter. For the most part, we just guerrilla camped next to the road or river. Some sites were perfect with nice views others weren’t the best and close to the road. That being said, there wasn’t enough traffic at night for it to be a problem. Some nights we saw district police/park patrol and they didn’t seem to mind that we were set up next to the road.
Definitely don’t rely on a bed every night, because there aren’t even towns that close together, especially between Cochrane and O’Higgins. We camped every night except one night in Cochrane. You can count on Coyhaique, Cerro Castillo, Puerto Tranquillo, Valle Chacubuco, Cochrane, Tortel and O’Higgins to have hostels, hostals, or hospedajes.
This route will have mosquitos and horseflies. In terms of amount, it depends on the year, the weather, and the time of year you go. For our trip, it was the end of November and we encountered almost zero bugs. We ran into some towards the end closer to O’Higgins, but they were more of nuisance than a pain. The horseflies float around your face and land on your head, but rarely bite.
Prepaid SIM cards are plentiful in Santiago. If you bring an unlocked phone, you can get a SIM card for as low as 2,000 CHP ($4 CAD, $3 USD) and pay an average of 5,000 CHP ($10 CAD, $7.50 USD) for a 1-2 GB, a few hundred national SMSs, and 50-100 national airtime minutes. Some plans included unlimited WhatsApp, Facebook and twitter if that’s what you’re into. We used the company Claro (Movistar, Entel, and WOM are other major providers) and it had service in the villages/towns. Don’t expect service along the road between towns, but sometimes you can be surprised. A general rule of thumb is that if a village/town is on Google Maps, they will have cell service. Speeds ranges are variable, but you can expect to send emails but not stream videos.
A good tip for you is downloading the route offline in Google Maps or Maps.Me so you have a digital map the whole way without needing network service.
Internet cafes don’t exist along this route. You won’t find any opportunities to use internet unless you bring your device as some hostals/hospedajes have wifi available. Speed ranges are variable, but expect to be able to send emails but not stream videos. Chile hack: The “@” sign is difficult to type on Spanish keyboards. You need to hold down the Alt key and type 64.
Businesses hours are variable along this route, but you can expect businesses and offices to be open between 9am-5pm with a lunch hour break between 12-2pm. Saturdays are closed earlier in the day around 3pm and on Sundays, most businesses are closed. The afternoon break can be problematic if you are arriving only for the afternoon to pick up supplies or use the services.
If it helps you visualize or estimate the difficulty of this trip, I have provided extensive details of our 12 day trip including road conditions, grades, roadside services, and points of interest. Each item is defined by a kilometre marking. The markings refer to the kilometres from the starting point of each day.
We got on our bikes and started the trip in Cerro Castillo and rode to O’Higgins (515km). That being said Coyhaique/Balmaceda is where the airport is and it’s the largest town in the area. It is likely you will fly into Coyhaique if you are only doing the southern half. It is completely possible to start here, so I have included the leg between Coyhaique/Balmaceda airport and Cerro Castillo as part of our overall trip
By the numbers
Total ascent: 13316m
Total descent: 13565m
Average km/day: 49
Average km/hr: 8
Hostel nights: 1
Paid campgrounds: 2
Punctured tires: 1
Entire trip elevation profile
Flight into Coyhaique
Our flight to Coyhaique from Santiago was scheduled for 8am. We arranged a cab to pick us at 4am, but it didn’t show up until 4:40am. It’s always a good idea to allow for extra time in Latin America, especially with bike boxes. We used Transfer VIP (http://www.transvip.cl/) because they took us to our Airbnb the day before and are based out of the airport. They have seven passenger Peugeot Experts that can fit four bike boxes and four people if you flatten the last row of seats. Expect to pay around 30,000 CHP ($60 CAD, $45 USD) into the city centre.
We flew from Santiago to Coyhaique with Sky Airlines. However, both Sky and LATAM airlines fly to Coyhaique 3-5 times a day. Sky Airlines allows for one checked item (can include your bike box) and one carry-on luggage. They charge 35,000 CHP ($70 CAD, $50 USD) for any extra checked bag. However, they don’t seem to weigh or look inside your bike box. On the way back, we each carried one pannier on the plane, and secured the other in our bike box and we weren’t charged anything extra.
It’s worth noting the Coyhaique airport is technically in the city of Balmaceda, which is 50km to the south. If you’re travelling south and don’t need supplies/gas, you can skip Coyhaique all together and start motoring. But, chances are you will need camping gas since you can’t bring that on the plane. We sent one person in to Coyhaique to pick up supplies while the other three set up the bikes in the airport.
You can get a transfer into Coyhaique for 5,000 CHP ($10 CAD, $7.50 USD). But keep in mind it’s a small airport and they only offer transfers when planes arrive (4-6 a day). So if you setup your bike after landing, you might have to wait a few hours until the next plane arrives.
Coyhaique has a large hardware store and many small stores selling outdoor clothing (including a Patagonia brand tienda), a few restaurants, and many hostals/hospedajes to spend the night. Unfortunately at the time of our arrival, there was a strike at the large hardware store. We found isobutane at another smaller hardware store, but this one didn’t carry white gas/camping fuel. If you’re looking for regular petroleum gas, the only gas stations are in Coyhaique; there is nothing close to the airport in Balmaceda.
At the time we arrived it was blowing rain and snow, and we were very behind schedule. So instead of biking from Coyhaique, we took a 70 km/1 hour transfer to Cerro Castillo (yes, we skipped a big hill too, but who’s counting). We transferred to Cerro Castillo for 90,000 CHP ($180 CAD, $135 USD) with T&T Van (Phone 67 225600, mobile 993123939, or email firstname.lastname@example.org). The van was a large Mercedes passenger van for up to 15 people so there was more than enough room for four of us and our bikes. The company even said they could store our bike boxes at their warehouse for when we returned, but we were continuing south after our trip.
November 14, Day 1 – Balmaceda to Cerro Castillo, 72km
Start altitude: 516 m
End altitude: 325 m
Distance: 71.6 km
Total ascent: 1391 m
Total descent: 1582 m
Although we did not bike this section, we observed the route from the shuttle (I will try to be as helpful as possible, but take it with a grain of salt). This section has two large climbs. At 23km you average a 3.5% grade for 11.5km climbing 400m in elevation. Then at 43km you average 2.5% for 14km and gain 300m. The first climb follows the Rio Blanco canyon and then descends all the way to the bottom where you part ways with the Rio Blanco. The road heads south and you immediately climb up for the second longer, but somewhat more gradual climb. At this time of year, it was lightly snowing at the pass (1112m). The road was concrete and in good condition. You then descend down to Cerro Castillo the whole way with an average grade of -5%.
Villa Cerro Castillo has several cabana-style accommodations above the village before you descend down to the bottom. The town itself has a few cabana-style and hospedaje accommodations. We stayed at a private campground for 3,000 CHP ($6 CAD, $4.50 USD) per person with full bathrooms, showers (hot showers if you stoke the fire under the hot water tank), and shelter with a fireplace for cooking and drying off. We ended up sleeping inside because the night was miserable conditions with blowing rain.
The attendant is friendly and speaks limited English.
Directions to the campground: As soon as you enter town at the bottom of the hill, there is one road to the right and the rest of the town is to your left. Follow this gravel road back almost in the direction you came. The campground is 1km up on your right hand side.
After completing one of the biggest climbs on the route, you will deserve a good meal. There are a few restaurants selling coffee for 1,500 CHP ($3 CAD, $2.25 USD) and mains around 7,000 CHP ($14 CAD, $10 USD). There are buses converted to roadside stands on the main highway that make burgers, chacarero sandwiches, etc. for 6,000 CHP ($12 CAD, $9 USD).
There are two grocery stores in town that carry similar items, but the one next to highway accepts VISA and MasterCard. You can find beer, wine, pasta, rice, cigarettes, chips, bread, butter, ice cream, frozen meals, candy, cold drinks, cheese, sausage, and it has a restaurant attached to it. We bought an onion, butter, garlic, two chocolate bars and some candy for 2,500 CHP ($5 CAD, $3.75 USD) to give you an idea.
November 15, Day 2 – Cerro Castillo to Ibáñez River Campsite, 29km
Overcast, cloudy breaks, light rain, average of 9 degrees Celsius
Start altitude: 356m
End altitude: 359m
Distance: 28.8 km
Total ascent: 800m
Total descent: 797m
This was not our biggest day by any means as we waited until late morning for the rain and wind to die down. Just outside of Villa Cerro Castillo the gravel starts. For pretty much the entire day there are amazing views of Cerro Castillo and Cordillera Castillo from the road if the weather cooperates. First 8km are climbing at an average of 3%, descend for 4km (-4%), climb for 5km (+3%) and then descend 3km (-6%) to the river where it flattens out for 20km (0.5%). When you are coming down into the valley, you are welcomed with amazing views of the meandering Ibáñez River. There are good spots for lunch at the bottom of the descent closer to the bridge at 20km. We encountered strong headwinds all along the river which made for some tough riding on our initial day. All along the river there are farms with grazing cows in the river bogs. Road is in great condition and smooth-packed gravel. At the time of riding, they were doing a lot of construction widening the road. We stopped for the day 9km after the bridge. We found a nice place next to the Ibáñez River with gorgeous views of the mountains across the way. It gets dark closer to 7pm because of the high surrounding mountains on this side of the river. There are some spots to camp here, but not a lot and could vary with river height. There are few water sources coming out of the cliffs on the south side of the road.
November 16, Day 3 – Ibáñez River Campsite to Rio Murta camp, 60km
Overcast, sunny breaks, sun, 14 degrees Celsius average
Start altitude: 357 m
End altitude: 240 m
Distance: 59.8 km
Total ascent: 1204 m
Total descent: 1321 m
First 10km are flat with small ups and downs along the river valley (0% average). There is plenty of water along road. At 10km, the road climbs significantly for 5km (3%), small descent for 2km (-2%) and then climbs again (1%) for about 12km. Then there is a beautiful 8km rolling descent (-4%) down into the river valley with one or two small climbs in between. We connected with the Rio Murta and biked with the wind along a beautiful gentle downhill river sloped section until we stopped for a break at the bridge crossing the Rio Murta (54km). We biked for 6km up above the river and the road was rolling farmlands with cows and sheep on pastures next to the road. At 60km, two individuals on the side of the road welcomed us in for coffee. It turns out they welcome hundreds of cyclists every year. We ended up staying the night and they treated us to a fire-roasted vegetable pizza, chicken, sausage, and rice dinner; as well as several awkward conversations about the Christian faith. Regardless of what we believed, they were good people with very kind hearts and continued to welcome three more cyclists that night. The Rio Murta valley has gorgeous views of rolling farmland. At night the sky comes alive with a lot of stars. If you can get a clear night, it’s definitely worth it. This was a full 60km day without seeing a single grocery or supply store (just to remind you to always have lots of food with you!). The closest grocery store is in Bahia Murta.
November 15, Day 4 – Rio Murta camp to Lago General Carrera camp, 50km
Overcast in the morning, blue sky in the afternoon, light wind in variable directions, average 14 Celsius
Start altitude: 240 m
End altitude: 245 m
Distance: 50.5 km
Total ascent: 1219 m
Total descent: 1215 m
The first 35km of the day were relatively easy (net 0% grade). At 12km you pass the turnoff to Bahia Murta, which is 5km down the road. I don’t know what is in Bahia Murta because we didn’t visit. Continuing along Lago General Carretera, there are nice flat sections and small climb/descents along until you reach Puerto Rio Tranquillo. You are treated with gorgeous views of Lago General Carretera and the surrounding mountains. To give you an idea, the two largest climbs are both 50m tall at the 20km mark (3%) and 8km before Puerto Rio Tranquillo (7%). The town itself is modest in size with grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and hostal/hospedajes. Grocery stores have everything you need including salami (3,000 CHP, $6 CAD, $4.50 USD), cookies (500 CHP, $1 CAD, $0.75 USD), bottle of wine (1,500 CHP, $3 CAD, $2.25 USD), box of oatmeal (2,000 CHP, $4 CAD, $3 USD) among many other things. We had lunch at the Rio Tranquillo Cerveceria. Lamb sandwiches on homemade bread (5,000 CHP, $10 CAD, $7.50 USD) and Chorillana (7,500 CHP, $15 CAD, $11 USD) were delicious. They also serve beer brewed on-site that tasted good at the time. Don’t fill up and rest too long here, you have a big hill right out of town. You climb 250m at an average of 3% for 8km. It’s a long one, especially after lunch, but you have rewarding views of the Lake from the top of the hill. This was one of my favourite days of biking. We stopped for the night at 17km after Puerto Rio Tranquillo. Not a recommended spot next to the road, but it felt good at the time. If you can fill up with water at the top of the hill at any of the viewpoints, I would highly recommend it. Water is light for the next 20km.
November 16, Day 5 – Lago General Carrera camp to Puerto Bertrand, 50km
Blue sky, some wind closer to the Lago Bertand, hot, 24 degrees Celsius average
Start altitude: 245 m
End altitude: 216 m
Distance: 50 km
Total ascent: 949 m
Total descent: 978 m
This was a surprisingly long day. It was hot day and there are several significant medium-sized hills (60-175m elevation gains). That being said, the scenery is amazing. We lucked out with beautiful spring flowers along the Rio El Canal, snowcapped mountains, and emerald blue lakes. The first 7km were three modestly steep climbs (30m at 6%). Towards El Leon and after you cross the bridge over top of the Río Delta O El León, there is a fantastic river-grade ride if the wind is with at your back. At the end of the flat section you meet back up with the lake (17km) and there is a great rest stop or place to have lunch next to the water. At 22km you hit your first medium sized climb of the day (70m at 5%) and then descend (-2.5%) back down to a bridge at 26km, crossing the passageway between Lago Bertrand and Lago General Carretera; there is another perfect spot to have lunch here. From here, you climb two successive hills each around 50m (3% and 6%) for next 7km until you meet up with the junction of Highway 265 to Chile Chico (33km). Before the junction there are a few resorts advertising food, ice cream, and camping, but it looks like you have to descend down to the lake to enjoy them. The afternoon heat arrived just in time for two more significant climbs before we ended our day. Right after the junction, you climb 100m in 2km (5%) and then descend down to Lago Bertrand (again more spots to rest here, although it might be a bit windy if it’s anything like our day). You’ll have a beautiful ride along the edge of Lago Bertrand for 2-3km and then there is one large climb where you ascend 200m in 7km (3%). It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it was. The last 4km were downhill all the way to Lago Bertrand (-5%). If you can get in here by 5pm, it’s worth it. Puerto Bertrand is a nice little town with an amazing lake and good views of mountains all around. There is grassy patch next to the water just before you get into town. We asked the locals and they said you can camp here for free, but it’s suggested to buy some items from the small grocery store. To give you an idea of prices, we bought 1 L of orange juice is 1,500 CHP ($3 CAD, $2.25 USD), small bag of chips is 1,300 CHP ($2.50 CAD, $2 USD), and 1.5 L of wine for 3,000 CHP ($6 CAD, $4.50 USD). In town there are a few adventure companies that will take you mountain biking or river rafting down the Rio Cochrane. But what I strongly suggest is visiting the top plateau of the city. It has a brand new plaza (with some help from the feds). We found the only restaurant in town (28 Amador Esparza) that made us delicious chicken and potatoes, fresh salad (vegetables!), and coffee and tea for 8,000 CHP ($16 CAD, $12 USD). They also have cold beers for 1,500 CHP ($3 CAD, $2.25 USD). It was a small, new-aged cabin with a wood stove, Patagonia coffee-table books, and a large window to take in the mountain views.
November 17, Day 6 – Puerto Bertrand to Valle Chacubuco, 44km
Blue sky with cloudy periods, 20 degree Celsius average
Start altitude: 216 m
End altitude: 410 m
Distance: 44.2 km
Total ascent: 1071 m
Total descent: 877 m
Leaving Puerto Bertrand is a beautiful ride. The road follows the Rio Cochrane almost all the way to Cochrane. The first 15km are small up and downs with a handful of retreat-style resorts between the road and the river (net average of 0.2% grade). At 12.5km, you’ll reach the viewing area of the junction between the Rio Neuf and Rio Cochrane. There is a quick 10 minute path to see the two rivers merge up close. At 15km, the hills begin and will continue until the turnoff to Valle Chacubuco. The two largest are doozies and they are loose-packed gravel; the first starts at 19.5km and the second at 28.5km. They climb 200m at 6.5% and 230m at 5% respectively. Here you can begin to feel a drier climate; the roads are dustier and the vegetation seems to be less prevalent. That also means fewer streams to gather water. After the first major hill, you descend down to cross the river and climb back up the valley to the other side. Here, you can opt-out of Valle Chacubuco and head to Cochrane skipping a medium size hill (130m gain at 6.5%). That being said, Valle Chacubuco was one of the best parts of our trip. You can read the incredible story about the late Founder of The North Face and his partner, ex-CEO for Patagonia, work to protect Patagonian land, but I can tell you as soon as we entered the protected zone in Parque Patagonia, you could feel the biodiversity all around you. We saw more animals and diverse plant species than we saw the whole trip (guanacos!). The junction to Highway X-83 that takes you into Valle Chacubuco and continues to Argentina is at 31km. From the junction, the Park’s head office is about 11.5km and the campground is another 2.5km. Once you reach the Park’s head office you have the rare Chilean opportunity to have some snooty bellboy to talk down to you. Apparently, cyclists aren’t their bread and butter, as single rooms in this resort start at $350 USD/night. Speaking of which, the campground costs 10,000 CHP ($20 CAD, $15 USD) per person. Ouch. This is easily the most we paid for camping and it was a simple field with a handful of cooking shelters throughout and one grungy bathroom facility with warm solar-heated showers. We felt kind of better knowing it’s going to a non-profit devoted to protecting land all throughout Patagonia. The wind can pick up here in the late afternoon and early evening making you want to jump into your tent earlier than desired (fires are not permitted in the park). If you’re looking for a meal beyond your regular rice and salami, the resort has meals starting at 17,000 CHP ($34 CAD, $25 USD), but they will remind you to make reservations, even if only one car is in the parking lot. No thanks. We bought focaccia sandwiches the next day for 8,000 CHP ($16 CAD, $12 USD). They were amazing and included some homemade potato chips. Most of the ingredients were grown in the park. Keep in mind the kitchen doesn’t open until 1pm. If you wanted to hang around a little longer and can afford another nights rent, there are a few nature trails and day treks around the park.
November 18, Day 7 – Valle Chacubuco to Cochrane, 30km
Blue sky, 20 degrees C average
Start altitude: 410 m
End altitude: 153 m
Distance: 29.8 km
Total ascent: 566 m
Total descent: 823 m
We took the morning and early afternoon off in Valle Chacubuco and explored some trails and napped in the fields. We left around 4:30pm with our sights on Cochrane, which was the perfect time to leave as the valley was golden and the guanacos were grazing all around us the entire way out of the park. Plus it was a pretty generous day with more descent that ascent. We biked 13.5km to the junction of the Carretera Austral. After the junction you climb slowly for 3km (2%) and then have a really nice downhill for 2km (-7%). For some reason there is 5km of pavement in this section. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it doesn’t last for long. The next 2km is a gradual uphill until the turnoff to the Bolsa Ferry (22.5km). Here there is only 6.5km left to Cochrane. It’s a rough, dusty road that follows the canyon, but it’s beautiful in the evening sun. We arrived in Cochrane well before sunset and treated ourselves to dinner at Adas (Tte merino 374) in town. Here you can get a steak and side (I recommend the spicy mashed potatoes) for 7,500 CHP ($15 CAD, $11 USD) and a national beer for 2,000 CHP ($4 CAD, $3 USD). The food here is delicious and there is a small grocery store right next door that is open late. After dinner we found Hostal Lejana (Rio Ñadis 521). It’s a simple place with comfy twin and double beds, great showers, fast wifi, and a TV room. It was 5,000 CHP ($10 CAD, $7.50 USD) per person. Cochrane has a handful of restaurants, many cabanas/hostals, craft stores, cafes, clothing stores, and a two or three large grocery stores. The largest grocery store is right on the plaza and it also has a hardware store component inside where you can buy supplies and gas (450g 95% butane for 4,000 CHP, $8 CAD, $6 USD). We bought 5 days’ worth of food for 55,000 CHP ($110 CAD, $81 USD). The Banco Estado is the only bank in town with an ATM and it’s on the opposite end of the park (Esmeralda 460).
November 19, Day 8 – Cochrane to Lago Chacubuco camp, 37km
Blue sky, 25 degrees C average
Start altitude: 153 m
End altitude: 380 m
Distance: 36.7 km
Total ascent: 836 m
Total descent: 609 m
We stayed the morning and early afternoon in Cochrane and got in one last good meal and bought more supplies. Café Tamango has no American-style breakfast, but she will cook eggs if you ask. If you have been eating oatmeal for seven days, it’s worth it. Eggs and toast for 3,000 CHP ($6 CAD, $4.50 USD) and Chilean-famous Nescafe for 1,000 CHP ($2 CAD, $1.50 USD). We left around 4:30pm and that was still too early as it was quite hot (30 degrees C). Road was loose gravel and noticeably worse than prior to Cochrane. The first 6km is climbing (2%) until you reach a plateau and then descend (-1%) down to Lago Esmeralda 1km later. At 13km there are some nice campsites next to the river. At 14.5 km you descend down into the valley for 2km (-4%). After that it’s all uphill to Lago Chacubuco (2% for 11km), although you never get close to its shore regardless of how close the road looks on Google. It’s a lot of ups and downs. You start to see Lago Larga at 30km, but again you never go down to the shore. There isn’t a lot of water or campsites here, but we found a simple spot at 37km right next to the road. It was here where we first experienced large mosquitos. Not a lot, but definitely noticeable.
November 20, Day 9 – Lago Chacubuco camp to Rio Cochrane camp, 59km
Blue sky, 25 degrees C average, afternoons too hot to bike
Start altitude: 380 m
End altitude: 25 m
Distance: 59 km
Total ascent: 969 m
Total descent: 1324 m
The first 7km of Day 9 was pretty glorious downhill grade (-5%). The next 12km were small up and downs but on no overall net elevation gain. You cross the Rio De Los Nadis at 18km. Nice farms and ranches along the road. The road here has a cool temperature with nice tree cover, perfect for an afternoon ride. At 23km, along Estero la Tranquero, we stopped for lunch. This is a great spot to rest and an even better spot to camp if you left Cochrane in the morning. We saw horses roam up and down the river. The afternoon started getting quite hot (low 30s C), so we napped and swam under the bridge crossing the river at 33.5 km. There are plenty of good rest spots along the river between 30 and 33.5km. At 57km we met back up with the Rio Cochrane and started looking for spots. Glad we held out to 59km because there was a perfect spot that was protected off the road and you could cook right next to the river. Went for a swim in the Cochrane and it was quite cold, but amazing after a long day of biking in the sun. Black flies started to bother us, but they didn’t seem to be biting much.
November 21, Day 10 – Rio Cochrane camp to Tortel and back to Puerto Yungay pass, 60km
Overcast, 20 degrees C average
Start altitude: 25 m
End altitude: 383 m
Distance: 59.8 km
Total ascent: 1435 m
Total descent: 1077 m
We biked 7km to the junction of Highway X-904 to Tortel. This day includes a ride to Tortel and back to the junction. Tortel is 22.5 km from the junction and the road was the worst part we encountered, loose gravel and plenty of washboard terrain to make you go a little crazy. It was a shame, because glaciated peaks and waterfalls surrounded us on either side, but we could only stare down. Tortel is a cute harbor town that is all board walk access only. You have to park at the top and walk down. There is a port here where the boat to Puerto Natales stops. Keep in mind you have to bring your bike and panniers down 50+ stairs if you decide to do this. Depending on the time of year there are a few restaurants. There was one Comedor open when were here with a set menu serving a meat, potato, carrot, and cilantro soup for 5,000 CHP ($10 CAD, $7.50 USD) and fish empanadas for 900 CHP ($1.80 CAD, $1.30). There is a limited grocery store with some expensive prices (1.5 L boxed wine for 4,000 CHP, $8 CAD, $6 USD and a large chocolate bar for 1450 CHP, $3 CAD, $2 USD). We found tourist information that could clarify ferry times depending on the year. We headed back to the junction of the Carretera Austral and found the wind was at our backs so we saved 30 minutes from the ride in. In order to make sure we got the first ferry from Puerto Yungay we tackled the hill just after the junction in the evening. This one is a big one. You climb a 6% grade for 5.5km. There are two lakes on the plateau and we camped close to the second one. Not a lot of camping here, but we found some flat pads next to the road that would do (60km).
November 22, Day 11 – Puerto Yungay pass to Lagunas del Colorado camp, 71km
Blue sky and overcast, 20 degrees C average
Start altitude: 383 m
End altitude: 294 m
Distance: 71.5 km
Total ascent: 1809 m
Total descent: 1897 m
This was one of the hardest days on the Carretera Austral. We biked 13km of downhill to the Puerto Yungay ferry (-3%). The ferry leaves during the following times:
April to November
Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo: 1200h and 1500h
Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungay: 1300h, and 1600h
December to March
Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo: 1000h, 1200h, and 1800h
Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungay: 1100h, 1300h, and 1900h
**Remember things change in Latin America)
The ferry is free of charge and has plenty of room and can fit 9 or so regular sized vehicles. There is a small store at the Puerto Yungay side of the ferry run by a super friendly couple. They sell a small selection of food, fresh fruit, and some homemade things. It’s a tad expensive; pringle-type chips for 3,000 CHP ($6 CAD, $4.50 USD), 1,500 CHP for cookies ($3 CAD, $2 USD), and homemade soapapillas for 500 CHP ($1 CAD, $0.75 USD). He charges to use his bathroom, 250 CHP ($0.50 CAD, $0.40 USD). After you get off the ferry, it’s a pleasant flat ride (with small up and downs) for 20km. Then the road starts to climb for 3km (4%), followed by a small descent and then an even steeper climb (7%) for 3km with switchbacks. You descend down into the valley for 5.5km and cross the bridge of the Rio Tranque. Unfortunately, the next 4.5km is a doozy (6%), followed by a 4km descent (-5%). As you descend down, the Rio Bravo sits to your left. Be careful, the sides are abrupt and very steep. Once you cross the bridge you have one last climb for 3km (5%). Along this climb there is a large slide that occurred the year before (2015). They were doing a lot of road construction when we went through. Once you reach the top of this climb, you descend down into a beautiful temperate valley with a stretch of beautiful glaciers, lakes, and waterfalls. We biked for 5km before we found a nice dugout next to the road. It was a perfect spot protected from the road and plenty of water.
November 23, Day 12 – Lagunas del Colorado camp to O’Higgins, 49km
Overcast, rain, 14 degrees C average
Start altitude: 294 m
Distance: 48.9 km
Total ascent: 1053 m
Total descent: 1079 m
From where we camped, it’s 49km to O’Higgins. Generally, there are no substantial climbs until O’Higgins (compared to the day before). 5-10m swells for first 20km until you hit Lago Vargas where it climbs up for 1km (5%). At 28.5km you bike next to Lago Cisnes, a beautiful lake with huge waterfalls surrounding it high up in the mountains. There is another small climb (5%) for 1km at 32.5km. You curl around the far end of the lake and at 39.5km you climb for half a kilometer (7%). You then descend down into a river plain and cross the Rio Mayer at 42km. The last 7km to O’Higgins are up and downs with one or two medium sized hills (20m gains at 2-3%), this might be tougher mentally than physically as you are so close to what might be your finish. There is no bank/ATM in O’Higgins so make sure you have plenty of cash to stay and get out. El Mosco is a backpackers’ hostel and campground. Camping is 6,000 CHP ($12 CAD, $9 USD) and a hostel bed is 10,000 CHP ($20 CAD, $15 USD). There are a few places to have dinner in town ranging from 7-8000 CHP ($14-16 CAD, $10-12 USD). One grocery store accepts VISA and MasterCard the other two do not.
Getting out of O’Higgins
There are daily van/shuttle trips returning to Tortel and weekly trips to Cochrane. Price and schedule seem to vary day-to-day. We left to Tortel at 800h to catch the 1000h ferry and paid 7,000 CHP ($14 CAD, $10 USD). If you’re planning on returning all the way to Coyhaique, you’ll have to allow two days, one day to Cochrane and another Coyhaique (permitting schedule).
You can also cross to Argentina and El Chalten via Lago O’Higgins at Puerto Bahamondez (35min by bike from O’Higgins). Here, the boat (via Robinson Crusoe http://www.robinsoncrusoe.com/index.php/es/) will take you across Lago O’Higgins and drop you off at Candelario Mancilla. From this point you have to pass customs into Argentina and hike/bike a rough, narrow, and muddy track to Lago del Diserte. Here you can either walk around the lake or take another boat across (runs twice daily). From the other side of Lago del Desierte it is another 40km of road to El Chalten. Although we didn’t complete this journey, many reviews say this part can be delayed (due to weather) and to prepare 2-3 days’ worth of food.
Villa O’Higgins Expeditions can also provide 2 day tours to El Chalten.
I recommend if you’re looking for an amazing and pretty reasonable trip along the Chilean coast, there is a new ferry that started in 2016 and runs from Puerto Yungay to Puerto Natales, the hub city for the famous Torres del Paine. We took a van from O’Higgins to Tortel and got out at Puerto Yungay. We took the Transbordadora Austral Broom ferry (runs once a week) to Puerto Natales. If you’re going south, this is a beautiful route through the Patagonia islands and Bernard O’Higgins National Park. For foreign visitors, it costs 120,000 CHP ($240 CAD, $178 USD) for two full days on the ferry and includes two dinners, two lunches, and two breakfasts that were adequately described as “so-so”, but when you’ve been biking for two weeks, it’s quite amazing. On the plus side, you’re still in Chile and you can find amazing trekking in the park and cheap flights from Punta Arenas.