Chile: Villa Santa Lucia to Villa O’Higgins – Protests and hospitality on the Carretera Austral
Pinochet’s 1980s effort to link fjord and mountain divided communities far from the hub of Santiago – the Carretera Austral – is a prominent cycle touring destination. With west-coast southern ocean weather and vegetation not dissimilar to Tasmania or New Zealand it has turned out to be a striking home-coming for us. Although the road has its share of steepness, these sections prove short-lived. We’d hoped that we could just ride and enjoy as we tried to work our minds around the impending transition and journey-ending. With a sense of resignation, it soon became apparent that this wasn’t to be. The region of Aysén that is linked longitudinally by our route has a strong sense of local identity and separation from the more populous areas of central Chile. In a situation mirroring that of Scotland, they could be said to be Patagonian before they are Chilean. A few days before we arrived, protests have begun against the higher prices of fuel and food in the region. Prompted by the fishermen in Puerto Aysén and quickly spreading to most other industries and services, road blocks stopping movement of lorries and limiting travel sprang up at every town. Thus, as we progressed southwards towards Coihaique, the large town at the midpoint of the Carretera, the effects of this became increasingly marked. What started as a paucity of fresh vegetables in the north along with an absence of available fuel from petrol stations, culminated in eerie mostly empty shops sporting ‘No Hay Pan’ (no bread here). Apart from the absence of bread, petrol and vegetables, the blocks had a curiously beneficial effect for us – the almost complete lack of traffic! Instead of the frequent traffic we’d been warned about as we headed through the northern half of the Carretera, we saw fewer than 5 vehicles a day in some parts.
Throughout this trip we’ve been bowled over by the hospitality and sheer generosity of those who take an interest in the travelling cyclist via either the Casa de Ciclista list or warmshower.org. Jorgé, in Mañihuales, a day north of Coihaique has upwards of 10 cyclist a night stay in his multi-use house. Passing through in quieter times, outside the main January/February peak, we were welcomed with warm greetings despite having to wheel our bicycles through the church service being held in the front room. A well-equipped touring bike hanging from the wall attests to his interest. Our hosts in Coihaique overwhelmed us in more than equal measure. Oscar, Shayen, Diego and Ronaldo demonstrated in humbling intensity how we would like to look after stray cyclists in the future.
In Villa O’Higgins we confirm that the main Hielo-Sur tour boat is not going (fuel and a lack of tourists), meaning we’re on the hunt for ‘a man with a boat’. We do the rounds of doors – following one lead after another. With luck (some more cyclists, good weather and enough fuel) we’ll be heading south as planned in a couple of days. Either way, our plan B is also confirmed by the local police as possible, It is an attractively un-used small dirt road and a bicycle/pedestrian only river crossing to Paso Rio Mayer. Unfortunately this would not pass Cerro Fitzroy and other iconic rock peaks from my climbing magazine fueled dreams.