Chilean Adventure: Christmas with a Difference

1 03 2010

Rich & Donna decided to go to Chile and Argentina for xmas this year…here’s how they got on.  Happy reading!

Rich and Donna do Chile and Argentina, Christmas 2009.

In the days leading up to Christmas I very much enjoyed the following exchange with work colleagues.

Them: “doing much for Christmas?”.

 Me: “Well with Donna being pregnant and everything we’d thought we’d take it easy”.

Them: “Oh, a quiet one then?”

Me: “Yup we’re off to South America for two weeks mountain biking. It is on fireroads though and we’ll have a van backing us up so that’s ok”.

Cue aghast looks as our measure of “taking it easy” sinks in.

A few days later and we’re in the hands of Air Iberia on a sequence of flights down to the other side of the world. In case you were wondering, it takes a very long time to fly to Chile. Massive thanks to Rick for lending me his Sony PSP console and I whiled away the hours watching the antics of David Brent in The Office and getting into all kinds of mischief in Grand Theft Auto.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4057/4257850046_a27cfca851.jpg Donna crams for Chile

Eventually, we landed in the Chilean port of Puerto Montt, and met our guides for the trip. We were travelling with Saddle Skedaddle, a biking company we’d used before and really had started to trust to look after us properly. The group consisted of us plus one other couple (both experienced bikers), plus another 8 people making 12 in all. They were a good cross section of ages and experiences, as well as nationalities.

We had an almost disaster even before we had the left the airport, as I realised as we drove away that I was without my jacket. A jacket that contained my wallet and Blackberry, Umm I’d left it on the plane. However our super guides made enquiries at the airport and lo and behold big sigh of relief it had been handed in, complete with wallet and phone. Phew! An omen for a good trip perhaps?

The following day found us getting a ferry across the entrance to a long (100km) fjord and starting the biking proper.  This was what I call View Biking ™. Where the backdrop is wonderful, and the cycling being an excellent way of seeing these fabulous views. I.e. more about the view than the biking – in fact glad that the cycling was straightforward as once or twice I almost when over the side gawping at the panorama! We followed the edge of the fjord on an undulating wide track, with the snow capped mountains all around.  Our fellow travellers turned out to be great company too – all friendly and up for an adventure. And that very British of subjects, the weather? Sunny, mid 20’s, perfect cycling weather.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2716/4257959858_8f6fd75ec8.jpg Donna getting used to View Biking ™

We arrived at our accommodation for the night and our guides thought that we’d need something to wash all that dust away, so cold beers as soon as we walked in were in order.

That night we stayed in the first of many Cabanas – little characterful wooden lodges. Needless to say sleep was not too difficult…

The next day dawned and breakfast featured, wait for it, CAKE! We’re talking a creamy sort of layered affair. Proper naughty! Donna warmed to the Chileans as cake made a regular appearance at breakfast, Rich less so as Chileans believe it is acceptable to serve a sachet of Nescafe and some hot water at breakfast. Thankfully this was to change as the trip went on and Rich did get his coffee hit.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2677/4259585546_300ed5b0a4.jpg Breakfast cake!

We needed the cake though as today turned out to be a long one – over 90km and a lot of that on really quite bumpy unmade track. We made it to the end of the fjord and headed inland, including up a most cheeky incline (that means a nasty steep climb!). The ride finished with a long road section with pretty yellow broom plants in flower along both sides. The day wasn’t over yet, as we jumped in our van and hot-footed to the local waterfalls, which turned out be spectacular. Not high falls, the impressive part was the sheer volume of water being forced through gaps in the volcanic splurge of rocks at the foot of a mountain.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4021/4258827719_744dda848a.jpg Falls near Ensenada. Volcan Osorno hiding behind

We were in volcano country now, with the mighty Volcan Osorno towering above us (in the cloud, unfortunately). Waterfalls admired it was off to the hotel, described as “interesting” by the guides. A better description would be “utterly bonkers”. The Hotel Ensenada used to be owned by a German family, who collected all kinds of bits and pieces from their travels round the world. Eventually the house was opened as a hotel, complete with all the artefacts still in place and that’s how the hotel is today. Part museum, part Victorian lodge it had a uniquely bygone atmosphere, with surprises round every corner. The main lobby had a portable shower (with firebox and boiler for heating water), a similar machine for portable laundry washing and the gents toilet had a dentists chair! It’s finding places like this that makes trips so special – the unusual and unexpected.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4058/4258829067_a20e98356d.jpg the unique Hotel Ensenada

After an excellent evening (we were introduced the wonders of a most lethal drink called Pisco Sours) the next day saw us leave Chile and head for Argentina. We’d be back..  After a bus transfer we were at the Chilean border, with the weather looking very threatening. The border was at a mountain pass, so once we’d got permission to leave Chile it was back in the van and into no man’s land. Oddly, the two borders (Chile and Argentina) are 11km apart – apparently to make sure neither side could spy on each other. We joked about the fact we were in a lawless place now – could we get away with murder if there were no laws?  Up and up we climbed with the van straining as we gained height. The rain started coming down, light at first and then heavier and heavier. Quickly the van windows were misted up and the atmosphere in the group took a downward turn. Were we going to cycle in this? At 1320m we reached the top of the pass and a desolate car park. The plan was to have lunch here, the ride downhill into Argentina (about 6km descent) to cross the Argentinean border on bikes. Sheltering in the van munching on a salami sandwich we all put everything on and eventually the brave amongst us set off. (Donna, quite sensibly, stayed in the van as the rain had been joined by a strong headwind – nice). Off we went and the road was just a sheet of water. We tiptoed round the corners, feeling for grip and daring to let off the brakes on the straights. One hairpin corner had a stream across the road coming up the hill, being blown back up by the wind. We flew into this corner and the wind simply acted like a huge airbrake and most of us almost stopped as we went round. Finally, the road flattened out, and giddy and full of adrenaline we reached the border. Utterly soaked, grinning like fools we said “Hola” to the first guard at his checkpoint, who then proceeded to insist in giving us each a stamped slip of paper to be used at the next part of the border. Of course these were stuffed into wet pockets and instantly disintegrated. This was going to be fun! At the next checkpoint we hung around waiting for our turn to be “processed” and jabbered excitedly about how terrifying the descent had been. It seemed that we were a little too exuberant as we were asked to leave for being too noisy – oopps. After a little difficulty from the grumpy guards (their faces when being handed the horrible damp smudged piece of paper we’d been given earlier was a picture) we’d made into Argentina.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4058/4258829067_a20e98356d.jpg Giggling soaked loonies in border crossing debacle

 Most sensible folk got straight back in the van, leaving a few nutters to have another 15 or so km’s on the road getting even more drenched and burning off a few calories in the process. Eventually, after more van time we rolled into the ski resort town of Bariloche. Here, the sun had made an appearance and we steamed our way into the hotel, dripping as we went.

The next day dawned with sun shining and the realisation that this was Christmas Eve. We’d arranged a rather special dinner that night (the Argentineans making a big deal about Christmas Eve), but first there was the small matter of today’s ride. This was an absolute classic, a local loop around Circuito Chico. This area is quite touristy, but with good reason as the landscape is a gorgeous mixture of towering mountains and wide open lakes. The cycling was spectacular too –I felt for people in their cars, struggling to really connect with this place through their panes of glass and with the noise of car radios.

One of the guides spotted Condors circling high above us – a rare sight not possible if travelling faster than bike speed. Whizzing through forests in the sunshine lifted everyone’s spirits and there was much chatting and joking.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4017/4259879852_f0942b32f6.jpg spectacular scenery and photogenic clouds on the Circuito Chico

What a difference from the rain soaked previous day – this was turning into a trip of many contrasts. Back at the hotel there was time for a rest before heading out for the main event – celebrating Christmas Aregntinian style. Whilst the meal was pricey (about 60 pounds a head) but we had unlimited wine, beer and cocktails and four quite stunning courses. Champagne brought in midnight and we got to bed, eventually. Happy Christmas!

Christmas Day was a riding day, so next morning it was back in the van and off again, this time to a remote valley. Expecting to be ambushed at any point, this felt more like the Wild West than South America. Again this experience wasn’t about riding on interesting trails, it was about riding on fireroads in the most spectacular setting imaginable. It’s not always about swoopy singletrack! Eventually we came to the shores of Lago (Lake) Traful, and our bed for the night in the little village of Villa Traful. The little lodges we each had were beyond cute, with a steep roof and all-wood interiors. Dinner (grilled trout caught from the adjacent lake) was spent pinching each other to remind us that this was Christmas Day – surely the most unusual Christmas Day ever. Thankfully there was some beer available to help get over this.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2750/4259273105_346101249b.jpg the wild west in the far south

Boxing day was a birthday for one of our group and some glorious cycling. A dirt road led up into the hills, through ancient forests and across babbling streams. A fine descent led us to lunch and birthday cake. I think both Donna and I really enjoyed the cycling on this day, despite the hard going on the rain-softened dirt track.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4026/4260112340_0446bdf403.jpg Glorious forest riding

The next day saw some excellent off road tracks to start with (a monster descent on a rough track straight after breakfast that woke everyone up very quickly), and the now obligatory jaw-dropping scenery. Lunch was taken next to a big lake and we buckled down to a 30km road climb to the top of a pass. I enjoyed quietly building up lactic acid with fellow rider Andy whilst Donna snoozed in the van, and was glad to see to the top of the pass.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4022/4259450589_d84e3dff5c.jpg Clinging on to Andy’s back wheel, lactic acid levels rising worryingly quickly…

 Here was a true watershed, with a stream dividing at a bridge with one fork heading towards Chile and ultimately the Pacific ocean, and the other fork to Argentina and then on to the Atlantic.  Our Chilean guide was also keen to point out that the Chilean part flows into a lake that strictly speaking should be Chilean but is Argentinean. There is a little tension between the two nations that sometimes bubbles up at time like this..  The road from the top of the pass took us right down to the town of San Martin de Los Andes, almost passing by Chapelco ski resort. Conditions were dry and sunny again, but with a strong headwind, meaning a lot of pedalling to get any speed up and being blown all over the place on the corners (worth paying attention here). San Martin proved to be a very attractive ski town, with plenty of excellent chocolate shops serving all kinds of naughtiness (Dulce Leche caramel on waffles with hot chocolate on the side is what St Peter would serve at the gates on heaven I’m sure..). Here we had a rest day and a chance to sit on something other than a saddle. Donna and I chose to go for a walk up to a viewpoint, as well as Donna buying her first maternity clothes (those jeans finally not fitting).

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4060/4260343738_f751bd7ac9.jpg Viewpoint non-bike chillage

The following day was time to return to Chile and another border crossing. We started with fluffy clouds in the sky and a long road with a truly delightful headwind. We all tucked in and took turns at the front in Tour de France peloton style. We stopped for a break and a snack after 20kms and saw the rain advancing across the plain. Seemed like we were jinxed with rain and border crossings! After lunch amongst the monkey puzzle trees (all now protected by law) we continued through a national park towards the border. Again we were flanked by volcanoes, but the weather had other ideas and kept them hidden. We all squelched our way through the border crossing and we headed for the adventure capital of Chile, the town of Pucon.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4063/4262142853_3b6dea688a.jpg Bustin’ back into Chile

Some of the group were keen to attempt the climb up the nearby Villarica volcano, so got prepared for doing that the following morning. I opted for the possibility of exploring the lower slopes of the volcano on bike, so asked our guides for advice. In typical laidback fashion their response was “ride up and look for interesting tracks”. Ah ha some true adventuring! I’d missed the technical side of mountain biking and was really up for something other than wide tracks.

Colleague Andy in our group was keen to join me so the next morning we rode out, without guides, in the rough direction of the volcano for a freestyle adventure. The weather was low cloud, so much so that the volcano walk had been cancelled. Some of the group were out white water rafting instead – good effort! Andy I found the road up to the volcano and set off. The road kicked up and 8km of really quite steep climbing later we were at the gates of the volcano (a national park). By now we were in the clouds and visibility was about 20 metres. Best not go too far or fast! We looked for likely tracks and dropped into what looked like a huge dry riverbed, with a surface of small bits of volcanic rock and extremely drifty. Much fun was had sliding our way down. Boys eh?

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2677/4262246651_ee4ec3a4f2.jpg A lava rock eye view

We found all kinds of fun technical sections to play on and having to concentrate on what the bike was doing was just what the doctor ordered. Both Andy and I were grinning like idiots as we buzzed down the road towards the hotel. One last stop before we went back though – a tempting track I’d spotted half way up the climb. It turned out to be a corker  – a fab short and narrow plummet down to a stream, lots of fun options to ride across the stream and a technical climb (or push) back out. Reverse for maximum enjoyment. We’d promised to be back by lunchtime so 2 very happy mountain bikers sped back home, for an afternoon at the local thermal hot pools to rest those weary muscles.

Some of you may have heard that the steak in this part of the world is a bit good – that evening we were taken to a steak restaurant (which was Uruguayan I think) for what was the best steak I’ve ever had  – really thick, properly juicy and utterly delicious. If only they served them in the UK..

New Years Eve was spent on quiet roads heading for a very odd town with 20 houses and 1 creaky wooden hotel. The owners very kindly slaughtered a lamb for us to eat that night, even showing us the whole process from bleating to eating! Quite an experience and the vegetarians in our group were kept inside throughout. 4 of us provided New Years Eve entertainment in the form of a quiz, and soon it was 2010. After much celebrating and singing of Auld Lang Syne (cue peculiar looks from Chilean guides) it was time for bed as tomorrow, our last day of cycling sounded a bit special.

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2724/4262839083_6ef03ddec6.jpg On the road to 2010

The next day we rode from the hotel and after 15 kms or so we started climbing. The plan today was a 30km offroad climb, lunch, then 30kms back down again. All off road and right past volcano Llaima, one of the most active volcanoes in South America. The last eruption on 1st January 2008 had been 2 short years ago – were we due to see another? Thankfully, the volcano kept silent as we climbed up past fields of lava. Halfway up we even got to see the top of the volcano through parted clouds! The road continued up past the “Jurassic Lake” (as seen in BBC’s Walking with Dinosaurs) and into the Monkey Puzzle forests (Araucarias for the botanically correct). An awe-inspiring landscape and a superb scenic spot for lunch at the top too. The way back down was surprisingly tough – lots of braking/accelerating ridges from cars meant a bumpy ride, albeit with a huge view in front of you. A really special day, definitely leaving the best ride until last. It just remained to head out to the town of Temuco, to pack up for the journey home.

http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4058/4263396306_3042bd458f.jpg Muddy@rse does volcanoes!

What an extraordinary place, what fun and if you ever get the opportunity to get out there – go!

More photos available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/13519914@N00/collections/72157623044281517/  (the full set, great if you have time and inclination to browse) or here http://www.flickr.com/photos/13519914@N00/sets/72157623182717558/ for the time saving top 50 photos. Enjoy J Rich

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3 responses

1 03 2010
Guy

flippin’ brilliant guys 🙂

2 03 2010
Darth vader

enjoyed that great stuff

7 01 2011
2010 in review « Sussex Muddyarse

[…] The busiest day of the year was March 1st with 128 views. The most popular post that day was Chilean Adventure: Christmas with a Difference. […]

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