Tramp Urine

In the south after leaving the pine forests and mountains of the Austral behind, Patagonia as a cycling destination is a series of oasis; El Calafate, En Chalten, Torres del Paine and a few other gems…….. but in between these incredible places which are a hiker, climber or ski tourer’s nirvana there isnt to much excitement in the south for a cyclist. For me, it is not the best touring destination, a series oasis’s in a vast sea of grass. It might be that at this stage in the game I am spoilt for I’ve seen a good few scenic spots. The Slovenians laughed at the fact that I didn’t ever stop to take a photo of a waterfall or another lake and I suppose after a while a waterfall is a waterfall and a lake is a lake.

 
Patagonia is an incredible place but for me it is built for hikers more than bikers. If I were to recommend a place to visit for say a month by bicycle (or camper) it would be the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and save Patagonia for serious hiking adventure.

Following silly season I leave En Chalten for the south. Leaving the mountains behind the landscape flattens giving way to vast grasslands, home to guanacos (essentially llamas), foxes, hares and abandoned shacks. From the town of El Calafate it is just a short ride to see one of the greatest, easily accessible, spots in Patagonia, the Perito Moreno glacier. From the network of viewing platforms and promenades you are faced will a colossal wall of frozen H2O.

I join the hordes standing wide eyed in front of the glacier, it is one of those tourist traps which is a must see despite the crowds. To hear it groan from deep within the icy mass as its squeezes together, like distant unseen bellows, is something else. The weight of the mass of ice pushes the glacier forwards in to lake Argentino whilst the sun carves slices from its front. As you stand at the head of this seventy metre wall of ice, a mosaic of white and cobalt, you would be stupid to peer through the lens of your camera, finger on the button like a trigger waiting to shoot the moment a segment of wall collapses into the waters below. That is unless you have a fancy camera, which I do not, for you will be to slow. After a few futile attempts to capture the action I resided just to stand and watch the sceptical as a condor swoops into shot and a great plinth of ice topples into the water with a great slap as it hits the surface, the crescendo to the perfect performance.

South of El Calafate and into rolling grasslands. Unheeded by mountains the wind holds nothing back as it sweeps across this tundra. Its New Years Eve and I’m in for a wild one. I actually have a tailwind for once and I am flying, hitting 60km on the slight down hill I barely have to pedal. But you have to keep your wits about you, when the wind veers at the wrong moment I find my self on the opposite side of the road, eyes wide as I am faced with the bull bars of an en coming Defender. A close call. At times my bike like the motorcycles over taking me has a list, leaning to one side my arse hanging of the bike like a ballast to windward.

Signs look like they may be uprooted and after I’m uprooted from my saddle and sprawled in the dirt I decide that enough is enough and I decide to ride it out in my tent. The only snag is that there is no shelter and my tent even if I could get it up in this wind would soon be flattened. After a small battle through the wind I finally reach a petrol station and set up shop behind the building, out of the wind. I settle down to a wild night, its 2pm and I am horizontal reading in my tent and hoping the winds will have subsided come the New year.

After a pit stop in Puerto Natales for some bike maintenance I start on the final push to the self proclaimed “the end of the world,” Ushuaia, it claims to be the most southern town or city in the world despite just across the Beagle Canal and back in Chile the town of Puerto Williams clearly sits at a more southerly latitude. South America is full of these accolades, the highest capital in the world, the deepest gorge or the most southern city there is normally a tacky sign denoting these achievements.

I had planned to tour through Torres del Paine, a Chilean National Park which is a mecca for hiking, but at this time of year unless you have booked campsites months in advance it is not really doable save with a tour company. It is one of the problems with cycling, timings are difficult and booking ahead of time is a not possible. I have to leave something’s to do when I come back.

After the tent squashing winds in El Chalten I have come round to the fact that my flimsily tent is not cut out for the wind and I have to pick spots wisely, four walls and a roof is preferable and ideally glass in the windows. In this part of Patagonia there are sporadic abandoned buildings, gauchos refugio’s and bus stops. Each with their own character.

The gauchos refugio’s can be fantastic, complete with wood burners and bunk beds or they can be unsightly necessities with mud floors and rickety bunks with the occasional air mattress puncturing protruding nails. A few times I have attempted to open the door to one of these shelters only to be barred by a lock, peering through the windows these locked ones tend to be the deluxe suites, complete with table and chairs, a wood burner and even facilities (a loo). On these instances I either push on to the next bus stop or after fruitlessly searching under every rock in the vicinity for a hidden key reside to camping in the lee of the building.

The standard of bus stop varies significantly but they all have one thing in common, a slight smell; I I’m convinced that the last process in the bus stop assembly line is to have a drunk tramp urinate in one corner. The frequenting by cyclists is readily apparent in the graffiti sprawled across the walls of these shelters. The boring Englishman in me still sees this a vandalism, just because you are a cyclist doesn’t mean you graffiti is tasteful, at least there are no crude penis’s scrawled on the walls. But it must be said that although I don’t tag the walls myself some of the art work is pretty good. I don’t know what the locals think of all these ruddy cyclists kipping in their bus stops though or of their graffiti.

They come in all shapes and sizes, small one man-ers in which the foetal position must be assumed to squeeze in, four tent-ers which can either house four tents or ten sleeping bags top to tail, ones with open fronts (more shelter than house) and sometimes they come compete with a mattress propped against the wall which you couldn’t pay me to sleep on.

The calibre of bus stops, shrieking shacks and refugios is a hot topic in the communal areas of hostels as cyclists say things like “you must stay at this bus stop, its just fabulous, its got glass n all, oh and even a door,” or “yeah I stayed at that one with five other cold bikers squeezed in like a game of sardines.” On lookers must wonder why on earth a cyclists all seems to know so much about bus stops.

The last stretch, occasionally I pass unfortunate soles cycling north opposing the prevailing winds, I don’t stop, usually I would have a chin wag, but they are in the hurt locker and the last thing they need is my sympathies and the smug look on my face as they crawl through the cold wind full of hail and chilling rain. I link up with Clive and we take pit stop in a famous bus stop. When we arrive two other cyclists have beat us to the punch but there is plenty of floor space to play sardines.

The pair already there are in for a bit of a show, myself and Clive are soaked through and a change of clothes is required; now there is no graceful way to removing a pair of soaking wet leggings which seem to be glued on even when dry. They are presented with two bare arses, albeit shapely on account of all the cycling but quite close none the less in the confined quarters; hopping about we in turn manage to not so seductively remove our resisting legging and slip into some dry long johns, but that is not before Clive nearly topples over baring all…nearly. For some reason unbeknown to us the Brazilian cyclists, without a word, start to assemble their gear and move on, well more room for us.

A visit to see some King Pinguinos and a few days more of riding through the tundra, the grass ripples beneath the wind like a vast ocean its surface of infinite waves, before I reach Ushuaia the most southerly city in Argentina and the inky black waters of the Beagle Canal. Ushuaia is nestled in the southerly part of the Andes and I’m glad to return to the Andes once more, a great spot to complete my South American leg.

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Willy Waving

Dated: 27 DEC 18

El Chalten is a small town nestled in central Patagonia and sits at the foot of the most iconic mountain in this region. Fitz Roy is for any hiker, biker, climber, mountaineer or camera clasping bus loaded tourist, synonymous with Patagonia and a must see. You just have to pray for the weather to be clear.

But when we roll into town in the blustering wet weather searching for a place to pitch the town is akin to a small ski resort with ominous heavy grey clouds threatening snow. El Chalten comprises of log cabins and pine clad buildings; warm inviting looking bars with classic rock or western pop, climbing shops in place of ski rentals and tour companies. The street is teaming with out bound fresh faced hikers, smiling as the stride along with the backpacks and hiking poles and a few can be seen looking a little more rough around the edges heading to a bar for a well deserved pint after a few days out in the mountains. Its a fashion parade of the latest brightly coloured outdoors gear.

I love the feel of the place, so many like minded people all here to enjoy the outdoors. We are just looking forward to a hot shower and a good feed so go in search of the cheapest establishment that meets these lofty requirements. Its rare you meet a cyclist on a plump holiday esque budget, we tend to be cheapskates.

It is a great place to be stuck for Christmas, although it isnt festive in the slightest, there isnt a decorated tree is sight, the hike up Fitz Roy is the golden standard of Christmas Day walks though. The previous days gloom giving way to pristine blue skies, perfect. With towering plinths of exposed rock, glaciers flowing downing its slopes and aqua marine blue lakes at its feet, Fitz Roy mountain is incredible. So much so that you almost have to queue to reach the natural theatre like viewing platform that a moraine has formed. But sometimes the tourist spots are there for a reason and cant be shied away from; I think it is the first time that I have ever lined up for a rock, the ideal picture spot. As we descend down the mountain on the seven hour return journey I almost strain my neck as I repeatedly cast me eyes behind to get one last look. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions, barely a cloud in the sky giving us a clear view of what is inarguably the most striking mountain in the world.

The Slovenia’s depart on Boxing Day morning and Australian Clive and I set off on the golden standard of Boxing Day hikes this time. The lengths we go to for a picture are ridiculous, 60 kilometres to be precise and a 1000m accent at the end. I think the furthest I have trekked just to see a vista. But what a sight, we crest the Heumul pass and before us is a vast expanse of ice, just a small portion of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is visible to us but its extent is mind blowing and gives just an idea of the mass of ice beyond. It is the third largest ice field in the world coming in behind Antarctica and Greenland. Dark mounds of debris on the surface look like tyre tracks revealing the flow of the ice as it makes its way out through Viedma glacier and the lake beyond.

I was sad to see the Slovenian depart, we have had a good week or so bumping into one another, camping and them letting this scavenger share their ratios. They were over on just a whirl wind cycle through Patagonia taking in some of the good bits. Not surprisingly they are advocates of cycle holidays. By the sound of it their life style in Slovenia is fantastic, not to many people and therefore lots of space. They save up their short annual leave for one three week holiday each year. Life on the road is far from romantic according to Mateja, you are confined to a small space, washing nothing but your pits and bits for a good week at a time in between showers, never left on your own and it can be tough going out in the elements. But you know you are with the right person when it still seems like a good idea on the return flight and you are still talking to one another as you plot your next adventure.

Our campsite on Boxing Day evening was nestled in a small bay to the north of the Viedma glacier. Full of ice bergs it acts like a baseball glove, catching these colossal snowy white balls, except they are neither snow nor balls. Huge icebergs some as big a multi story car park collect in the bay. Seemingly motionless it is a peaceful seen to sit, read a book or eat yet another pasta dinner. But this tranquillity is broken sporadically as the occasional ice fall, caved off by the afternoon sun great chunks or cliffs plung into the clear waters with an almighty clatter. The campers all quickly look for the source of the noise to witness the sceptical but it is futile for the noise if after the act, the action having already taken place by the time the sound reaches your ears. I was lucky enough to happen to be looking at the right spot at the right moment as one of the larger icebergs fell apart in a silent film, that is until the drum of sound reached my ears.

It was a special place to be camped. As you lay sleeping or reading in your tent you are reminded of the ice beyond the stony shore as the ice bergs go bump in the night, jostling and grinding against one another. It must be said that the hike out to the Bahia des los Tempanos campsite was great with the anticipation of the view but the trudge back in the wind was not so appealing. Over the past three days we have trekked a good 90 kilometres or so, my legs are stiff and my back sore, I’m not used to this walking lark or carrying weight on my back, it is far tougher than cycling.

En Chalten, as I have already said I really like, full of hikers, climbers and bikers. A small tumen of about fifteen cycle tourers went past Clive and I as we were trudging back to the pub, they must be the latest arrivals from the ferry. All like minded people; conversations are about equipment, routes, weather and the next adventure. Tent envy is a really issue, especially for me in my summer tent which as flattened on top of me one night as the katabatic winds draining from the mountains ravaged my tent. I was forced to spend two nights sleeping in a stairwell, amazed that my tent poles didn’t snap I decided not to risk any longer camped out in the wind in Fitz Roy’s foot hills.

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People might wonder why travel so much? A holiday or two is enough, but travelling gives one an insight into the world and other cultures. Food is possibly the easiest culture to share with others and conversations about native cuisine is often discussed. Christmas is the ideal time to show case your nations favourites but with one oven in the hostel and about thirty guests there will be no roast potatoes and stuffed goose this year. Its mayhem. We celebrate the festivities on Christmas Eve, Clive and I are the only none mainland Europeans and it turns out those continental heathens celebrate on the 24th. My contribution, an apple crumble. The Dutch there tell of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) and Black Pete (Zwarte Pieten), in a somewhat controversial tradition today; Santa tours the country bestowing Christmas cheer and presents with his black assistant, Black Pete, dishing the punishment to the naughty lot.

On returning from the ice field I’m sat next to two hikers in hot debate; ways to reduce weight, cooking techniques and food, pros and cons of different cookers, rice vs pasta, noodles are apparently a no no (a staple of mine), protein sources, which tent is best, what routes to do and how to avoid the masses. The French chap impresses the other, he crushes packs of crisp so the entire thing is just the little shards at the bottom of a packet. Compact and full of calories beating both rice and pasta, the ideal space saving food. These chaps are carb, protein and calorie counters and more is best in this circle.

On the hole conversations are great and people talk enthusiastically about their passions for which they find themselves in Patagonia exchanging ideas and suggesting new places to explore. An outdoorsman’s think tank. But there is often an undercurrent of a not so sublet willy waving competition. I’ve hiked this trek, this fast, it was the furtherst possible from the beaten track, blah blah blah, we are all giulty of it from time to time. Clive asked a French couple if they have done any other big hikes, they had just finished the four day Huemul trek, and they responded, no not really. But the conversation continues and they are serious hikers, on an indefinite holiday hiking through South America and have done multiple 8 to 10 day treks. Pretty serious I’d say. Modesty to the point of bragging. That’s like me saying that I’m not a serious cycle tourer even now at this stage in the game, with tens of thousands of kilometres to my name, lots of countries and five continents; I’ve got a pretty big willy to wave.

 

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Christmas is Cancelled

Dated: 13 DEC 18

This place has a short temper. I’ve taken shelter in a refuge, at the back of a ladies house in a bare room, a stack of mattresses can be found against the back wall, the only break in the otherwise empty room, that and the cold steel of a wood burner. This is the Ritz as far as I am concerned or at least it will be once the lady has gone out there, chopped some wood and got the fire a burning. The windows are just sheets of thin clear tarp, flexing in the gusting winds and the pitter patter of rain on the corrugated roof adds to the din. I’m a head of time and no longer have the need or the drive to be outside despite of the inclement weather. Its the sort of weather that is only good for one thing, rugby; perfect for a forwards game, the sort of day when the backs freeze the bollocks off standing near stationary in the howling wind, the ball to slippery for them and their quick hands, it has to be kept in close.

One hour later and I’ve got a pot of tea boiling on the stove, a nest made on a mattress in a corner and a warm meal inside me. Bad weather is bliss when you have a fire and a window to the misery outside. I settle down to a good read and some me time, or I would if cyclist after cyclist didn’t keep ducking in to steal my warmth with a ghastly blast of cold wind as they stagger in dripping wet. I’m not the only one who isn’t up for getting cold and wet. The company is nice really.

The only problem with paying for accommodation is that when it comes to leaving the warm confines of a building in the morning going out into the elements it can be difficult; just one more cuppa then I will go; and one more to be on the safe side. Patagonia has a bleak beauty to it, even when the weather is a touch iffy and you are caught in a shower or two the cloud might permit short peeks at the peaks, it is stunning in a rugged fashion. But when the sun over comes the cloud if only for a minute it is transformed, beautiful, magnificent, nothing short of fantastico. At these moments my face breaks into a gaping smile, gaping because I’m often puffing for breath as I power up yet another short sharp slope whilst smiling, mouth wide open, all tonsils and teeth.

I make it seem that the weather is always a touch English but that isnt the case, I just happen to catch a week of weather before summer takes hold again. I move south along the Austral, tarmac gives way to graded road of stone and dust. In some ways I like the more rugged bone shaking endurance of poor road conditions. I’m in Patagonia after all, it adds to the wild feel of the place. But in reality tarmac would be a damn sight easier and I don’t really feel like I’m in the wilds, not like in Mongolia or parts of the Stans. I’m merely on the edge, despite being the least populated region of Chile, I am never far from a shop (at east once every few hundred k’s), never on single track and at least once an hour a truck will pass; transforming my face from the wide mouthed grin to being pursed like a cats arse, eyes squinting and mouth tightly shut as clouds of thick dust fill the air, kicked up from the wheels of the vehicle.

I can see the wilds from the road, the mountains, forests and ice but to get out in to it I would need to be on a different bike or on foot. One morning when I have decided to take a half day, I’ve earned it after cycling for the last ten or twelve days straight, I run into a chap coming the other direction. He has almost nothing with him on his carbon bike; pretty much just a change of underwear and a rain coat. We stop and chat for a good half an hour or so. Its one of those fantastico days so why not take a moment. Jonas Deichmann is on a half day himself, he is doing a casual 150km, that’s almost as much as a full day for me and I often get a “gee whiz” or a sceptically raised eyebrow when I mention how far I go each day. Jonas as it turns out has just got the world record for cycling from the northern most cycle-able point of Alaska to the Southern most city in South America, Ushaia. He did this in just 97 days if I remember correctly. A reminder for me that there is always someone out there better than you. He is a great guy, smiling almost constantly and clearly passionate about life; he lives by the idea that what has he done this month that he will bore my grandchildren with when he’s old? Not a bad life philosophy though a touch hard for most people.

A few days later, I arrived in Puerto Tranquilo and explored the Catedral Marmol, a formation of marble caves carved out by the waters of Lago Carrera. It is a rare tourist day out when I ditch the bike and get on the water with my camera in hand. The caves are stunning, marble caverns carved out over millions of years revealing layers of coloured rock polished by water and time in to a cave system like no other. It is only improved by the tranquil blue of the water here, you could be in the Caribbean if it weren’t for the temperature.

It was here on this lake where Douglas Tompkins lost his life in a kayaking accident. As the founder of North Face he was a pioneer of Patagonia conservation and together with his wife they donated 10 million acres of privately owned land to Chile to establish five new National Parks and expand three others; an area roughly the size of Switzerland is an unprecedented private effort of conservation. The day I am out on the water it is hard to imagine that these calm waters can turn nasty. It just goes to show that there is no taming Patagonia and it can catch even the most experienced adventurer out. 72 might be cutting it short but at least his lights went out doing what he loved where he loved.

I’ve teamed up with two Slavonians, Mateja and Mitja, and an Australian named Clive. We are on a push to reach the town of El Chalten for Christmas but have three ferries, some of that uncomfortable road and the weather to contend with. On our way we could be in for a treat, puma have been spotted here recently, it would be great to catch a sight of one of these shy animals.

Ferry number one is a simple affair, its free and runs regularly. It is the next one that proves problematic. The main company said flat out “no,” the wind is forecast to remain above the 15kt cut off for the next few days. Looks like Christmas is cancelled. But never fear, where there are desperate tourists there is always someone willing to bend the rules. Pedro owns the alternative option, tucked out of sight behind the lake worthy vessel a smaller craft, sausage shaped and made of fibre glass it is essentially an escape craft, pretty solid but uncomfortable. So together with a gabble of other cyclists, two dogs, a few locals and a sheep we embark.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is a reason that the limit if 15kts wind. It is horrendous, the bow of the boat plunges in the troughs of wave after wave as we head south, the neck jolting impact is enough to bring any sleepers to their senses (we had a few the night before) and I can only think thank god that we are going with the waves not against them. There is no enjoying the vista of glaciers and mountains out of the small port holes, you have to concentrated and tense your body with each crash into the waves. But after a bump of two we make the far shore and spot a good twenty tourists awaiting the return journey north.

It turns out that the weather has held them trapped in the no mans land at the border with Argentina, there is no shop, just a long drop and trees, some of the eager passengers have been stranded four days with rations running low they are elated our arrival. They almost cheer.

Next they almost cry, there is no chance Pedro can be talked into the return journey no matter how many peso waving desperate tourists there are. Looks like Christmas is cancelled for some.

Patagonia

Dated: 13 DEC 18

Patagonia…I’m here in the northern reaches at last. To reach the start or what I am deciding is the start of my Patagonian experience I have taken a ferry from the town of Hornopiren. It is a delightful day slowly making the way south the skimming along the length of the Leptepu and Largo Fjords. My passage or I should say our passage is graced with calm winds and smooth seas. Plural because the hordes have arrived, four other cyclists are making the trip with me and a number of overlanders as well. We pass through the fjords with their towering slopes with valleys giving glances into the interior where snow caped mountains loom with glaciers nestled in their upper reaches. Waterfalls are the only break in the thick blanket of forest which covers every surface until the snow line. I’m eager to get going after months of excitedly saying “I’m en route to Patagonia.” There is time to put my feet up and have a good few celebratory cups of tea before the start whilst taking in the passing vistas.

Over the next few days I will realise just how popular a cycle route the Carretera Austral is, the road that winds its way south through Patagonia and eventually the “end of the world” at the most southern tip of land before Antarctica. Three days in and I have passed no fewer that fifteen fellow riders, some on long haul tours others on three or four week vacations. I’ve always wondered if I would ever make Patagonia, it wasn’t on my original plan but I thought I couldn’t miss it out if I’m on the continent, so southward I turned; but two or three weeks is enough to do a fantastic tour of the Chilean Part of Patagonia, don’t let the apparent isolation put you off a visit. So consider it for a future holiday, put on you hiking boots and trek through the mountains, along glacial streams and stand at the foot of vast glaciers; be sure to pack your anorak though the weather can take a turn at any minute even in summer.

A German couple Sven and Mia may not be on a global tour but over the twenty years of their marriage they have cycled everywhere imaginable and more. Not everyone can take a casual year off and I cant help but envy all the spots they have been that I haven’t and they tell me that they still aren’t finished; they are always imagining new places to add to the ever growing bucket list. Responsibilities of children and mortgages don‘t have to hold us back if we want.

So ramp down and I’m off. The northern reaches of Patagonia in the Aysén region or the “last frontier,” its all a dense mass vegitation in the Valdivian temperate rain forest; seemingly impenetrable unless you have an elephant and they aren’t to common in these here parts. Wild camping may prove tricky. It is a lush region thick with veggies, well trees, bracken, bamboo, plants with vast leaves bigger than any golfing umbrella and vines; none of which look to edible to me.

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We stop, the Germans and I, to walk a trail through the forest where a glade of ancient Alerce trees survive. These giants of the botanical world are over three thousand years old and are similar to the North American sequoia with reddish bark spiralling up their lofts trunks with just a small cusp of branches at their tops, they are strange looking trees. But barely an inch of the bark is visible for almost on every surface; be it tree trunk or vine, a blanket of moss, lichen and greenery grows as thick as any lawn. It is like a vertical garden, perhaps the inspiration for Singapore’s Garden’s of the Bay. This little gem is an amazing environment like no woods I have ever seen. But its sad at the same time for I assume it once covered vast areas and we humans got a touch to liberal with the use of saws, these trees would make a lovely chair or two hundred.

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That evening we camp on a well groomed lawn complete with showers…such luxury was unexpected. I am once again reminded of how the other half live. Zee Germans start putting on a spread, frying up onions and chorizo with aromas far better than the finest perfumes and into the pan it goes with their lavishly parmesan sprinkled pasta and to accompany, a smooth fruity Malbec. I look down upon yet another dinner of noodles with a sigh but of course they let me have a sip or to of vino. In the morning after being on the road for a few hours I can imagines them sat having a leisurely breakfast complete with a hot coffee to hold off the morning chill, I’m doing this all wrong.

The shower queue at the camp site was quite comical. I am at the back of the line. The three in front are somewhat despondent, eyes on the ground and not really chatting to one another or even looking each in the eyes. Its like being in the waiting room of the local STI clinic (I should imagine). We all shift our weight from foot to foot with the occasional outbreak of nervous laughter. We know what we are in for; from within the small enclosure of the shower block comes the sound of running water, fitful breaths and high pitched gasping profanities. I’ve had my share of cold showers this year but this one is Patagonian cold, water fed straight from the glacial stream running along the camp boundary. Fresh and yelp inducing.

Over the next few days as I meander south I have to pinch myself each morning to make sure I am really here. It is truly breath taking. The rainforest gives way to dense pine forests, not in organised parades like forestry’s but wild and unkempt. Countless waterfalls tumble down steep granite cliffs and form tributaries which flow into the valleys rivers. The water fresh from the glaciers is crystal clear, the clarity of which can only be found in such untouched mountain regions. You can drink straight from the streams, or even the rivers. And nestled up on the mountain sides and some not even far away are vast tongues of ice reaching towards the valley floors.

Glaciers galore and I’m not even in the thick of it yet. No picture can give justice to the majesty of a glacier or the indescribable blue which comes deep from within, photos are just a weak imitation, a shadow of the real thing. For me they have an aura which I will never tire of. Unlike glaciers I’ve seen in Europe of Asia which are high above the tree line some of these plunge into the forests creating a contrasting environment of ice and trees.

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As I near the town of Villa Santa Lucia I come across a vast stretch of forest which has been decimated. I am shocked that they would allow the logging industry to get their dirty mits on these beautiful forests. Almost as far as the eye can see is mud and debris but it doesn’t look quite right, there are no tree stumps nor tyre tracks. I don’t pause to take a snap shot for I’m on a down hill stretch and I have discovered that my brakes are on the fritz, I resort of the manual brakes, feet to the floor trailing my heels like a child trying to stem the speed. As I approach what is left of Villa Santa Lucia I realise that a rather large flood has obliterated the village not loggers. It turns out that just over a year ago a flood swept through the valley obliterating 70% of the village but some how only taking 20 lives. Beauty has its costs.

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Twin Peaks

Dated: 09 Dec 18

I’m pitched on the shores of Villarrica lake in a secluded spot but essentially in the town centre. I don’t mind urban camping but it comes at a risk of being debunked by the Policia and pestered by the locals. Its worth it though because the views are sublime. Across the water rising out of the flat landscape is the volcano Villarrica. I’m in the town of Villarrica, they aren’t very imaginative with names. What I quickly realise is that this scenic secluded spot attracts a certain clientele, not drug addicts and vagabonds such as myself but young lovers. Around my tent are couples in sweet or not so sweet embraces. I attract the odd whisper followed by a giggle as I get about my chores. Its laundry day and there is the perfect rock in the water to act as my wash board.

 

I first spotted the volcano in the morning and some eight hours later I’m finally near-ish the base, well its still 80km to the summit. It sits at just under 3000m but despite this not so impressive height it seems ginormous in the expanse of flat land and its white summit is in contrast to the rich green vegetation of its surroundings. There is a chain of similar volcanos dotted about the region. From its top I can jut make out wisps of smoke or at least I think I can, I’ve never had the chance to visit an active volcano and I’m slight dubious, am I wishing a passing cloud to be putrid fumes from the depths of the earth or is it actually an active beast? A search engine, the destroyer of imagination, shall be used to decide if I am hallucinating or not.

 

The occasional dog walker totters by my campsite and one seems to have taken an interest, on his second pass he comes over. A friendly chap with a little French to match my petite française. It concludes in “mi casa es su casa” in an invitation to stay at his (I’m fully aware that that isn’t French), as I said he has very little. Now that sounds grand but I’ve literally just blown my mattress up and it is a pain in the arse to squeeze it back in the unnecessarily snug bag. So I politely decline.

 

A short while later he walks past with a wave and then again. But he is persistent and apparently that is all it takes to get me into a bed. Persistence. His warning of the police moving me on and the fact that in the morning I will have to decamp anyway which will involve squeezing the life out of my mattress, I decide to accept his kindly offer.

 

On my way through the streets a loud wailing siren breaks the tranquillity, I won’t be needing the internet to find out if it is an active volcano the eruption alarm drill is obvious enough. A short while later after my ear drums have recovered I knock on the door to a ramshackle of a building, he shows me into a small cabin in which he clearly sleeps, there are three bunks one definitely slept in. Oh joy it looks like we are bunking together like a couple of kids at a sleep over. This is not what I had in mind. But I had jumped the gun. I’m promptly shown into the main casa and introduced to his brother, who is in fact his sister, like his French his English isnt so good.

 

Sprung on the sister, she quickly sets about making me a cuppa and produces some bread and butter. It is a small kitchen space with an amazing steel cooker, not unlike an aga but in miniature. The flume must run up through the rooms circulating the heat. Pigeon conversations as I think of them when there is very little common tongue quickly become tremendously tedious which is why I tend to shy away from built up areas; like a hermit I sometimes shy away from people. But an atlas does provide a fantastic means of pictorial conversation and we whittle away some time by examining the pages and pointing with accompanying smiles and nods.

 

He is a bubbly character, often bursting into song when wondering about the house, energetic at times he seems to be on the cusp of spontaneous dancing. With a shock of white hair high up on his head, wide eyes and an infectious smile of slightly crooked teeth. He produces a children’s English book with more smiles and nodding in which Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse team up to teach English. It proves a useful tool in our conversation, that is until he starts just point and things and announcing spoon or fork in English; but always with that smile.

 
What do you call a male spinster who really isn’t what we would normally call a bachelor? Him and his spinster sister live together they are in their 60s with a lovely German Shepard. A bachelor, a spinster and a German Shepard sounds like the opening of a bad joke.

 
That night lit up in the moon light the pyramid that is the Villarrica Volcano looms in the distance its snow caped summit reflecting the moons pale silvery light. She is in fact Chile’s most active volcano having last erupted in 2015. I can’t help but be a little disappointed that in the cratered summit I cannot see the glow of the lava within.
I decide to take a closer look and seeing as I may never be in this neck of the woods again I better scale this smouldering mound. After all I’ve never climbed a volcano before and there is a chance I can tick off an item on my bucket list, seeing molten rock….lava. But its not meant to be; I’ve not even put on my crampons or swung my ice axe before the weather swoops in obliterating the peak and the trek to the crater is called off. Typical, the weather has been gleaming all week but the moment I actually need clear skies the clouds make their move. I am bitterly disappointed but will just have to come back.

 

To perk up my mood I am ushered on a night out and make a discovery, my new career, and there isnt a desk insight. Excellent. I get chatting to a professional surfer, living in Hawaii and touring the world year in year out sounds perfect; plus if all the women are as stunning as she it is a life I could put up with. We are chatting away and things are going well (so to speak), perhaps I will be summiting twin peaks that evening after all; as I have this thought or something similar the chap sat on her right, as if my telepathy, pauses in mid conversation, glances over with a sly smile whilst casually linking arms with the lady in question before carrying on with his story. The alpha claims his mate.

Lips, Nipples & More

Travellers, myself included, love a good whinge about the escalating costs of travel. “Chile is unbelievably expensive,” is a common turn of phrase and “watch out for Patagonia.” I’m sure noodles, bread and cheese cant be that expensive. Though now in a new country the first important thing for me to do is go to the supermarket and gauge the price of fish. It is an important process and not to be rushed. Decisions must be made, which shall be my go to biscuit? Ideally not cheap and lacking substance but nor can they be top of the range that would be at least 30 pence over budget, somewhere in the middle, preferably with oats. I have a lot of stress in my life with all these big decisions. Chocolate is a no go here at well over a quid. It turns out Chile is expensive, its plain cheese sarnies for me, ham and salami are just a few bob more than I’m able. And don’t get me started on honey…its over a fiver!

The supermarkets are playing the below par Christmas music, the likes of frosty the snow man, I even saw my first distastefully decorated giant fake Christmas tree yesterday. It doesn’t matter how much tat you through at the problem of a hot Christmas it just doesn’t have the same festive feel as a wintery season.

We travellers are a touch self entitled, mainly from Europe, Australia and a few of the Americans who actually have a passport – coming from the “developed” world we feel that everywhere else is cheap or should be. When a traveller visits somewhere which is expensive they are taken aback, how can this be? You were rubbing sticks together to make fire a few years ago, things should be cheap. Well Chile doesn’t do to bad for its self, though I must admit I do wish that it was cheaper than things are at home. Once again I am reminded of how very affordable things are in the UK despite our complaints, whether people are actually complaining I do not know but the media often tells us that we are or comments on the sky rocketing price of a pint of milk; farmers are practically giving the stuff away. One thing that is cheap here is the fruit and my god it is good. The strawberries, simply magnificent. Life will never be the same again. I actually regret having them for I may never bother buying a great British strawberry again.

You don’t travel to Chile for the food though. Completo Italiano o Salsa sounds exotic, well Italian, which is perhaps exotic if you are a Chilean. But what it in fact is, is a “Italian” style hot dog. They are famous for them after all. You know, the sort you might feed to a lover whilst slowly cruising the canals of Venice and supping Prosecco. Oh wait no, its in fact the sort that you might nosh down at a ball game in New York or perhaps drunkenly purchase from a new hipster street vendor. Come the light of day the following morning you realise that your bearded hipster is actually the local homeless man using a shopping trolley as a make shift grill positioned above a steaming vent from the subway on which he also lives.

These hot dogs are everywhere and I cant help but think that the ingredients can only comprise of lips, nipples an another unappetising body part. Just look at the end of one and you can probably guess which. They are however disguised, hidden beneath an ample layer of tomatoes and smashed avocado; squint as you eat them, I always buy two, and it could be an Italian ciauscolo on focaccia with fresh tomatoes drizzled in olive oil and avocado to top it off.

The national dish is a mountain of chips, non descript meat, with two fried eggs on top. The cyclists dream but more the sort of thing you might have with a pint whilst watching the footy rather than in a place with table clothes.

Cuisine aside and Chile is proving nice, all country lanes and vast vineyards; in the distant the snow caped mountains loom, a number of them are that typical conical shape of now dormant or extinct volcanoes. Occasionally you see one with its top lopped off, a reminder of a more volatile time when it lost its head with and almighty pop.

The food might be questionable but the wine has a good reputation. Casablanca is their answer to their rivals Mendoza. They don’t always get on with their neighbouring Argentina. It dates back I believe to the Islas Malvinas translate the colloquialism, the Falklands. I have now however left the tranquil settling of winding roads through vineyards and fruit plantations and have moved on to the Pan Americana, the main highway through Chile. It is part of the longest road network in the world, linking the two continents of North and South America it stretches 19,000miles from Alaska to Patagonia. It does however have a small blip in the Darien Gap between Panama and Columbia; so it doesn’t really connect the two land masses. I’m in a rush to get to Patagonia and its the most direct route, I’m very excited.

You might think that a motorway or highway is frightfully dangerous but there is ample space in the hard shoulder and I am highly visible. Its the blind corners of the country lanes and the perilous edges of the mountain roads that pose the most danger. Plus the motorway is straight and flat just how I like it. That and I want to make sure that I am somewhere decent for Christmas, not camping on my tod in the sticks with nothing but mozzies company.

The Great Train Robbery

The morning started well, weaving down from the Uspallata Pass which divides the Andes from the South Atlantic side and the Pacific facing slopes and I cross from Argentina into neighbouring Chile. It is the third time that I have crossed this mountain range in the past two months. The climb up there is a winding dirt road occasionally dissected by the remnants of a recent landslide or expanse of snow. Above the fern line the snow is crunchy on top, but a foot then plunges through wet unstable snow beneath. To reach the pass I have to traverse a rather precarious stretch of this stuff to reach Chile.

Fortunately for me someone has beat me to it and has trodden stepping stone like foot prints across the steep incline giving me a sure footing. But its off the bike, I have to decant each bag over one by one and then finally the bike. I better not slip or drop the bike for that matter as its a bloody long way down. At first it might be a fun slide albeit a wet one with cold snow getting down your underpants but once the snow runs out it is a near sheer slope of bone breaking jagged looking rocks.

A few hours later and there I was sat in the sun enjoying a good coffee all in one piece when things to a slip for the worse. I’m stood at my bike having a good rummage through a bag as I’m about to get back to it, when a women approaches me and mumbles something, my go to phrase “pardon no Espanola” is repeated a few times (I’m really mastering the language at this stage); I reside to ignore her and the long tanned legs, so I avert my eyes from her somewhat exposed cleavage and take my seat. God she is stunning, one more look wont hurt but she’s gone, I didn’t even blink. Time to pay the bill and get going.

The next minute I am running round the corner in pursuit of this mystery women and accomplice. Whilst she fluttered her eyes at me her partner in crime snatched my wallet from the table and casually strolled off. So now I am knocking shoulders with disgruntled by standers as I make chase. A head of me they split up, the women left down an alley and the man clambers over a fence. Decision made, I go for the man. The last thing I need is to detain a women down a back alley and for her to cry wolf a the top of her voice, “help……rape..” before you know it an angary Spanish mob could form and pleas of “pardon no Espanola” would do little to quell the discord directed at the gringo. “I’m not a sex offender” hasn’t made it into my Spanish vocab yet.

So its over the fence. As the 1 o’clock from La Calera to Valparaiso rhythmically trundles along the tracks picking up speed the train sounds its horn, if the passengers happened to be looking out of the window they would have seen myself and a man locked in the clutches of a fight. I had tackled the man to the ground, we both clattered down a rocky slope off the tracks but as the train rolls passed with its deafening din the passengers would have then witnessed the thief making off along fence line with his bounty secure; I myself was left lying on my back, catching my breath and putting a hand to my head. As we tumbled down the slope he had clasped his fingers around a rock and before I knew it I was lying back slightly dazed with a trickle of blood at my temple after my attempted heroics failed in their execution.

….. what in fact happened was that a distinctly average looking women with her dark her in a ponytail high up on the crown of her head pulling her forehead taught, exposing her large gold hooped earrings and wearing an all in one red tracksuit, distracted me whilst her partner pinched my wallet which I had carelessly placed on the table when waiting for the bill to come. I sat down to finish the dregs of my coffee when it finally dawned on me that the buggers had done one on me I did dash round the corner but nearly knocking an elderly gentleman to the floor, it was to late. They had seen an opportunity and pinched the wallet carelessly placed there and disappeared into the streets of La Calera with my wallet and my dignity. What a stupid way to get robbed. On the up side I did get a free coffee out of it for I had no money to pay my bill.

A poor start to my Chilean leg, to add salt to the wound I had just been to the bank and had not had the opportunity to split my funds between the various places I keep cash so that it cant all be stolen at once. Ah well such is life, looks like I will be on an even tighter budget for the foreseeable. I doubt Chile is a land of criminals, the generosity I’ve been shown still far out ways this one instance of criminality though last night in the early hours someone was shot and killed just 20m up from my hostel.