Day 13: Westward Ho: to Chile and Futaleufu

Day 13 – Wednesday March 9: Westward Ho: Chile, Futaleufu; hey, is it windy in here or what?

And I don’t mean the blog. Today began with an excited after-breakfast rush to put fenders on the bikes because it had begun to rain in Trevelin. To everyone’s relief Ray recovered enough to give our trip to Futaleufu a go. It promised to be a relatively short ride – 54k (about 32 miles), though there would be the border control to deal with. All suited up, we left La Estancia hosteria by 10:30, setting off westward along the pitted gravel road. The scenery changed now from the blue and green glory of the lake district to more sere golden fields, farms and ranches.

The road snaked its way upwards slowly through the diminishing rain, and we took it easy. Far in the distance lay ranch houses perched on hillsides, and eventually we reached a narrow pass of sorts, a slot through the mountains, and, predictably perhaps, the headwind picked up. After some 42k we crossed a Rio Grande – very grande – and suddenly there was the border. It took longer than we anticipated to get through, facing both Argentinean and Chilean border guards. At the Chilean station we made a good friend of a border guard, Marcos, who educated us about a terrible river infestation in Chilean rivers called didymo. Dreadful stuff transferred by anything that moves from one river to the other, like fishing gear. The good news at the border was that Futaleufu was only 11k away and the road was completely paved.

Initially exuberant, we soon discovered that Chilean roads seem to be built to quite different standards than Argentinean roads. In Argentina the grades are never steep except in the national parks; here the grades simply follow the contours of the land, and that means some very serious grades. Plus the serious headwind on this road. Still, Futaleufu appeared soon enough and we moved into the little cottages of La Escondida.

The small town of Futaleufu, it turns out, is famous worldwide for kayaking and rafting on the sometimes raging Futaleufu river, still a wild and scenic and largely remote watercourse. With this news in fact, by dinnertime we had changed our plans for the following day travel.

As with the last post, I'll include some other photos in another post right away.

go Johnny go

Johnny, thank you for the wonderful descriptions. Not every blog features the word "sere." Thanks for the photos, too. Spectacular landscapes! Looks and sounds like some rough riding. All kinds of gravel and elevation gain going on, going on. 

Patagonia Posterous Personals

 Ray, are you better? How come you didn't ride in the sag wag when you were sick? Pride goeth.  Love from Seattle. P.S. The dog wants to know whether you'll be bringing her steak. She says chorizo is okay, too. 

Day 14: Paddles for Pedals

Day 14 – Thursday March 10: Exchanging Pedals for Paddles for a day

Greg and Joe scouted the town of Futaleufu late yesterday and made the acquaintance of an American kayak and rafting guide, Chris Spelius, who owns Expediciones Chile (http://exchile.com). Extremely personable and knowledgeable about kayaking (an Olympic kayaker in 1984; designed kayaks; pioneered river kayaking in Patagonia for over 25 years), Chris suggested that we do some serious whitewater rafting. Recent rain had just increased the flow of the Futaleufu River and it was challenging, but not impossible. In an eyeblink a tentative deal was made to raft down the class five rapids of the Futaleufu, and at dinner we decided for sure to go for it. By happy coincidence the river runs south along the route of the Carretera Austral that we were following, so we could raft for the whole day and then be close enough to our route be delivered to our next biking destination, a fishing lodge at Lake Yelcho. Within the group, because Bram’s back would not lend itself to this kind of effort, we made it a party of eight by including David (our main guide and owner of Dittmar Travel Adventures). Everyone wins!

In the morning, then, as our biking guides put our gear and bikes on the trailer to transport them to our next resting place, we headed over to Expediciones Chile to make final arrangements and meet our rafting guides. The arrangement was that eight of us would be in one raft while another rafter, Danny, who had just drifted in that morning, would go in a backup catamaran raft. Two kayaks would accompany us and scout out possible ways through the rapids. Soon we were all in a bus rattling downriver on pitted roads to the headquarters of Chris’s operation. We were given a snack, attended to wetsuit fittings, had our group picture taken, and got into the raft(s).

To describe the experience of running class V rapids is in some ways pointless, since everyone can remember a time when they were scared and excited at the same time, and this was it. No fooling around with this swift and violent water that runs 26k (16 miles). Chris’s photographer, Anna, recorded part of the trip with over 85 photographs from beside the only two bridges that spanned this section of the river, and I’m sending along a bunch of those to give some idea of what it looked like from afar. From inside the raft, tension rose a high pitch every time we approached a set of rapids. In all there must have been 35 to 40 rapids that we negotiated, with names like “Terminator,” “Kyber Pass,” “Last Wave is a Rock,” or “Condor.” Through all of it our pilot Josh barked directions for us to paddle. Simple directions like “Forward,” “Stop,” “Back,” “Left Back,” and such took on huge consequences in the crashing roar of the water. Also, it was outrageous fun and every one of us would do it again in a heartbeat.

We arrived at the final stretch of slack water completely spent and soaked; we helped carry the boats up the bank to a waiting trailer, got back into some dry clothes, and were driven for two hours in driving rain to Lake Yelcho Lodge arriving in time for dinner. We have two days of rest before us, and everyone is ready for that.

Days 15 & 16

Days 15 & 16 – Friday and Saturday March 11 & 12: R & R at Yelcho Fishing Lodge Slow days both, resting from the whitewater rafting and preparing for the next days of riding. On Friday we did little but get our gear sorted and dry ourselves out. It was windy and rainy, but still a few in our party tried fishing – with some success: a bunch of small rainbows that they tossed right back into the lake. Others went for a hike but couldn’t find the proper trailhead. Our guides started work on the bikes, getting rid of grit and lubing the drivetrains. Lake Yelcho Lodge (LakeYelcho.com) has a large main lodge and perhaps seven or eight self-catering cabins. We divided the group into four people apiece in two cabins and our three guides in a third. Each place has splendid views out over the lake, wood stoves for heating the large living space, kitchens and decks for lounging in good weather. We all eat breakfast and dinner in the main lodge, with its high beamed ceilings and lovely space with couches and a bar. Luxury compared with what we’ve grown accustomed to. The evening of our first day here brought us to the main lodge bar, waiting for dinner to start. We met two fishermen from Colorado, one of whom was a fishing guide and has been coming here for about 15 years. This day they both had caught rainbow trout as big as large salmon: the biggest weighed 22kg (over 45 lbs.). Of course there were photos. In the picture the guide holds the fish sideways towards the camera, and it stretched nearly three feet long. They released both fish. Maybe they have a date for next year? The eyes of our guide Tikka, also an avid fisherman, were out on stalks. Our second day at Lake Yelcho involved an afternoon trip to the Parque Pumelin, some twenty-five miles north of the lake. We hiked a beautiful trail through the forests and gawked at hanging glaciers we could see far up on a volcano. The vegetation is dense and lush, and the most outstanding plants are the gunnera with their gigantic leaves, some easily six feet across. And there are vined fuchsias that cover the trunks of trees like English Ivy. As it turns out, crossing the Andes from Bariloche brought us to a really different microclimate.
At the end of the hike we traveled up a long side road that led to a huge hot spring, where we jumped in for a true spa finish. Tomorrow it’s off on a fairly serious day of riding – between 80 and 95k on gravel, so we’ll need to be rested.

Days 14 and 15

Days 15 & 16 – Friday and Saturday March 11 & 12: R & R at Yelcho Fishing Lodge

Slow days both, resting from the whitewater rafting and preparing for the next days of riding. On Friday we did little but get our gear sorted and dry ourselves out. It was windy and rainy, but still a few in our party tried fishing – with some success:  a bunch of small rainbows that they tossed right back into the lake. Others went for a hike but couldn’t find the proper trailhead. Our guides started work on the bikes, getting rid of grit and lubing the drivetrains.

Lake Yelcho Lodge (LakeYelcho.com) has a large main lodge and perhaps seven or eight self-catering cabins. We divided the group into four people apiece in two cabins and our three guides in a third. Each place has splendid views out over the lake, wood stoves for heating the large living space, kitchens and decks for lounging in good weather. We all eat breakfast and dinner in the main lodge, with its high beamed ceilings and lovely space with couches and a bar. Luxury compared with what we’ve grown accustomed to.

The evening of our first day here brought us to the main lodge bar, waiting for dinner to start. We met two fishermen from Colorado, one of whom was a fishing guide and has been coming here for about 15 years. This day they both had caught rainbow trout as big as large salmon: the biggest weighed 22kg (over 45 lbs.). Of course there were photos. In the picture the guide holds the fish sideways towards the camera, and it stretched nearly three feet long. They released both fish. Maybe they have a date for next year? The eyes of our guide Tikka, also an avid fisherman, were out on stalks.

Our second day at Lake Yelcho involved an afternoon trip to the Parque Pumelin, some twenty-five miles north of the lake. We hiked a beautiful trail through the forests and gawked at hanging glaciers we could see far up on a volcano. The vegetation is dense and lush, and the most outstanding plants are the Gunnera with their gigantic leaves, some easily six feet across. And there are vined fuchsias that cover the trunks of trees like English Ivy. As it turns out, crossing the Andes from Bariloche brought us into a really different microclimate.

 At the end of the hike we traveled up a long side road that led to a huge hot spring, where we jumped in for a true spa finish.

Tomorrow it’s off on a fairly serious day of riding – between 80 and 95k on gravel, so we’ll need to be rested.

PS. This on Tuesday morning: we have been far from any internet connection for three days, and this one is very slow. Hope it makes it!

Day 17: Long road to La Junta

Days 17 – Saturday March 13: The long road to La Junta

We began early, screaming down a steep grade into Santa Lucia, 70km from La Junta, where we thought our next night’s stay was located. Later we were to be disabused of that notion. In the meantime the road was unpaved but reasonably well-graded; the weather was cool but not raining, and we made steady progress along relatively flat terrain. Winding its way along a river valley, the road dipped and rolled with the scenery, with mountains ranging off in the distance and forested foothills on either side. Two dogs from Santa Lucia – a large brindle and a small terrier – followed us for miles, happily running alongside the bikes. Oddly, towards the end the larger dog seemed exhausted while the little guy kept scampering gamely on short legs. On our entire trip we have yet to meet an unfriendly dog. 

Two or three hours into the ride, near the top of a long dusty grade, we came across a small tin-roofed cabin with a fenced yard and a sign proclaiming “Fundo Violeta” and another one promising “English spoken here.” There were chickens in the yard and cats on the porch. Otherwise it seemed deserted and we stopped if only to get a picture. But as we approached we heard music blaring from inside, so we mounted the steps and knocked. The door was opened by Violeta herself, a welcoming woman with plenty of frizzy black hair that she unsuccessfully tried to secure in an unruly bun. Clearly she lived alone in the small cabin, sleeping on a narrow cot near the stove. As our party arrived by bike and truck and trailer we all piled inside for some fresh Nescafe, the perfect cheerful late morning break. Forty five minutes later we left in a great mood. From Violeta’s, by the way, I’m sending a picture of Tom trying on a hat in his continuing search for the perfect one.

So time passed and we pedaled on; about 30km outside of La Junta we took a short break for lunch, and as we stood eating our sandwiches and drinking the mysterious blue fluid supplied by our guides, we spied a couple of bicycle riders approaching from the opposite direction. The first, a woman, passed by without stopping, but the young man a few hundred yards back pulled up to chat. He was Israeli, like Danny who came on our rafting trip, and he was traveling for six months through South America by bike. I noticed that he was really thin (who wouldn’t be, pedaling with that load), and as we talked he kept eying our slices of ham and cheese intently. Early on someone offered him and olive, which he snapped up, but I could see that he kept watching the tray with unusual interest. Then the food was gone; we said goodbye, he pedaled away and we pressed on.

After what seemed like a long time later the road began to climb in a more pronounced fashion, and finally, after a long downhill and a quick shot across a new orange bridge, we arrived at the edge of the village of La Junta. Alas, there was bad news:  our hostel, La Suena, still lay 16km away, off on a side road. So we pressed forward again, passing the spectacular scenery of Lake Rossilot until we came to a small stony lane leading upwards to the left. This was it: the sting in the end of the ride’s tail. We groaned our way steeply upward (too steep to haul the trailer) a little over a kilometer to find a strangely Alpine scene:  a meadow set on a shelf overlooking a river valley and surrounded by towering snowcapped peaks. Here was the farmhouse of La Suena, a farm covering thousands of hectares, mostly still wooded. The celebratory beer was delivered to the sunny deck where we basked in wonder.

There were sheep and cows in the fields around, and a couple horses, plus a vast chicken coop and a greenhouse. The place was clearly self-sufficient. Just down from the main house was a structure that had windows looking out over the valley below and, inside, a huge cement-lined fire pit with a metal hood perhaps seven feet wide and five feet deep. A long table with benches on either side sat next to the windows. This was where supper was to be prepared and eaten, and we watched as our host spitted huge pieces of lamb and began to roast them over the fire. Hours later – at 9:00 – we began our most memorable feast so far. Fresh lamb, done to perfection, with all the trimmings.

Finally we retired, greasy-faced and smiling. This had been our longest day so far:  93km. And we’d need our rest for the next day’s ride, which was now 16km longer than we had anticipated.