Bikepacking in Chile and Argentina

Bikepacking in Chile and Argentina

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By Cory Tarilton

Photos by Lauren Dunn

Many changes signal the end of summer in the Pacific Northwest. The mountains shed their green hues in exchange for vibrant fall colors. The rock climbing gets wet, the trails turn to muck as the hills wait to receive their white blanket of snow in the months to come. It is the perfect time to get away for a few months and see different parts of the world before returning home to a proper winter.

Chile and Argentina are two places I have always wanted to travel, and in late 2015, I seized the chance to travel through northern Patagonia by bicycle, bus, foot and thumb with my girlfriend, Lauren Dunn.

With a human-powered adventure in mind, we packed our bags and set off for Santiago, Chile in early November. Arriving in the bustle of this Spanish-speaking city was as much of a culture shock as we could have imagined. The constant surge of buses, ceaseless city noise and markets that adorned every side street made for a chaotic scene that wracked our nerves as we tried our best to understand this foreign culture and language.

Within a few days, we managed to find decent bikes from a local merchant, and took a bus south to the town of Temuco, 10 hours away. The luxurious overnight bus served as our home for the night, and when we arrived in the wee hours of the morning, we made for the Chilean foothills and countryside. While touring through the farmland and volcanoes, life took on a simpler pace. The daily ritual of packing camp, setting off for the day’s voyage and taking in the sights and smells of the eucalyptus forest eased the mind after a busy summer of work.Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 2.00.05 PM

After a few days by dirt road, we had reached the small town of Puerto Fuy and our first crossing into Argentina. A morning ferry took us across Lago Pirihueico, and after a short stop to get our visas stamped, we made for a small lake and nearby hot springs to soak our road-weary muscles. The mountains of northern Patagonia are full of hot springs feeding off the underground heat from the region’s numerous volcanoes.

We pedaled through Argentina’s Road of Seven Lakes and back into the Chilean Lake District for a circuit of the volcanoes. Within the last decade, two of the volcanoes of this region have lost their tops and spewed destruction. Bicycling through dead forests covered in ash and pumice made for a landscape that seemed out of this world.

After three weeks, we arrived at the town of Puerto Montt. The town has a bustling center and serves as a jump-off for the famous Carretera Austral as well as the desolate roads and fjord towns to the south. Low on funds, we sold our bikes in the town’s market, and bought bus tickets to the tiny town of Cochamó.

On our way into Cochamó, we learned of a cross-border trek that would take us close to Bariloche, our ultimate destination. After stocking up on provisions, we set off on this ancient trade route through the Yosemite of the Southern Hemisphere.

The route is an historic horse trade path, and has been so eroded over generations that there are 10-foot-deep channels at points where horses have beaten their hooves into the rich coastal soils. Sweeping vistas of towering granite domes girdle both sides of this river valley for miles.

The people manning the border outpost were delighted to see visitors, and after another stamp on our passports, we crossed the pass into Argentina again and down into the Rio Manso. The glacial-fed river has a drier climate than the west side, and the water of the Manso is some of the deepest turquoise I have ever seen.

As the rainforest dwindled and we trekked into the drier mountains of Argentina, black rock engulfed the sides of the river, contrasting the river’s softer tones. After two more days we reached Route 40 and hitchhiked our way into Bariloche, our destination for the next month, and on to our next adventure.   x

Best time to travel:
Mid-November to the New Year:
Great temperatures, good weather, no crowds, but still some rain potential
January and February:
Reliably good weather, little rain, but more crowds
Places to visit:
Villarrica and Pucón, Chile:
Lake towns widely known for their nearby adventure sports
Vallé Cochamó, Chile:
The Yosemite of the southern hemisphere
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina:
Outdoor mecca of Northern Patagonia
Travel tips:
Cash is king: USD is accepted in most places or can be easily exchanged. Avoid foreign card transaction fees by bringing cash to exchange.
Spanish: Chilean Spanish is a far cry from Castilian Spanish, and lacks many consonants along with having many slang words and conjugations. Argentine Spanish is a little more traditional but still has a unique accent.
Trip totals:
400 miles by bike
60 miles by foot
30 hours by bus