Day 18: Puyuhuapi

Days 18 – Monday March 14: Puyuhaupi or bust; Rain!

From El Sueno we headed down the steep drive again towards the road to La Junta; from there we continued uninterrupted to the coastal town of Puyuhuapi. A reasonable ride today, 63km, again following a river valley and eventually passing by the huge lake of Queulat National Park. The road turns into a virtual roller coaster there, with steep steep uphills and downhills and treacherous potholes waiting to snap at our tires. The town itself appears from a hill two or three miles away, so that the final run into Puyuhuapi sweeps down a long curving road into the village streets, paved (oddly, we thought) with gray and tan concrete pavers.

For the first time we have ridden through an entire day of rain: some light, some heavy, but steady, unrelenting, cold, exhausting. Happily our cabins at the Cabanas Aonikenk were already warmed when we arrived, and we gratefully changed into dry clothes. Everyone took a nap and then went to scope out the town:  two short lanes, three or four supermercados, a community center and a restaurant. The only settlement for many miles in any direction. Puyuhapi, still part of the national park, is actually a tiny port located at the end of a fjord perhaps seventy five to a hundred miles from open water.

In any case, things are beginning to feel remote.

 

Days 19 & 20

Days 19 & 20 – Tuesday and Wednesday March 15 & 16: Puyuhaupi Pleasures

Tuesday morning dawned with continuing rain and fog, cold gray and grim. We felt pleased not to be riding, particularly after the grueling day getting into Puyuhuapi. We were lodged in small but cunningly contrived cabins, four riders in each, less than a hundred yards from the shore. The cabins each had a kerosene heater, but there was apparently a shortage of kerosene, so some went cold. The main communal space had a great room with tables for meals and an upper mezzanine level with further lounging space. So while we lounged, Dario and Tikka set about cleaning the drivetrains of the bicycles, which all had troublesome accumulations of grit and mud. In the afternoon all but Bram and John went off on a misty hike in the clouds and rain to catch sight of a hanging glacier. By the time they returned, wet and tired, it was dinnertime and we feasted again. 

Wednesday turned into an amazing treat. It was raining fairly energetically, but during a short pause in the showers we gathered outside on the road to pose a picture for Ray’s Mother, Rita, who turned 100 (!) today. Meantime, David arranged for us all to go by boat in the late morning to a hot springs about 10 miles up the fjord. So about 10:00 we set off in a covered boat maybe 25 feet long, powered by an old outboard Evinrude 50hp motor. It took an hour on the water, passing miles of deserted, lush and beautiful shoreline – even in the clouds and rain – to reach our destination. We expected something like the rather dilapidated hot springs we had visited on our trip from Lake Yelcho, but our first glimpse of what was in store for us was the sight of a huge white power yacht, perhaps 130 feet long, anchored near the mouth of an inlet. A sleek inflatable was zipping across the water towards the yacht; we thought it might be ferrying royalty.

In any case, as we rounded the heavily wooded edge of the protected inlet we saw our destination: the Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa. From half a mile away we could see that it sported wooden towers and sweeping verandas, that it was unmistakably upmarket. An iconic moment: among the boats moored at the dock off to the side was a pilothouse sailing ketch, cutter rigged, some 50 to 60 feet long. Imagine our amazement as we docked and disembarked our water taxi to enter this extremely luxurious resort, marvelously appointed and gracious. Oh, the sweetness.

Inside we were welcomed and shown the heated spas. The inside one, beneath a three-story glass roof, was perhaps thirty by forty feet, with a swim-up bar, a secondary jacuzzi, and yet another, smaller, private round spa. Three opted in for the indoor experience. The rest of us followed a long wooded path to a pool-like outside spa, and beyond that, a grotto spa just up the hill from a squarish very hot spa that looked out over the inlet. After an hour and a half, totally prunish, we showered and headed for a mid-afternoon lunch in the main lodge. The smiling waiters were dressed in tight bitten white jackets; the tables were covered with linen table clothes and napkins; the glasses sparkled even in the gray light.

By the time we returned to Puyuhuapi in our boat we were ready for a nap. Then it was time for packing, dinner, and getting set for our next ride. Rumor had it that it included riding up over a pass with 33 switchbacks. But for the moment we felt like Roman gladiators, paid ahead of time. 

Day 21: The Road to Villa Amengual

Day 21– Thursday March 17: The road to Villa Amengual

And so it was: a 91km ride, 50km on potholed gravel in the rain, including those 33 switchbacks over Quelat Pass. We started early out of Puyuhuapi and made our way along the edge of the fjord before turning inland. After about 40km we started up the steep road to the pass, which snaked back and forth while gaining over 1600 feet in about 4 miles. The way down was tricky, steep with loose rock and gravel mixed with mud, but at the foot of the road we found pavement waiting for us to finish the last 40km into Villa Amengual.

Also waiting for us at the end of the day was our destination, the completely delightful Cabanas Lago Las Torres, where we arrived fairly exhausted, having climbed over 5100 feet. This ranch and fishing lodge had several cabins, all vintage. The largest one was a kind of lodge house where we ate dinner and breakfast at a long table and hung out rehydrating. On the walls were framed faded photos of men holding big fish up to the admiring camera, and next to the coffee table in front of the woodstove crouched a stuffed puma, four or five feet long. It had seen better times even as a stuffed animal; now it had only one glass eye and seemed to be running out of stuffing. Clearly the same taxidermist had been at work stuffing a large toothy fish about three feet long mounted over the dining room mantle; it sported a permanent grimace but gave off a vaguely cartoonish air.

The whole place was owned by woman in her thirties, well over six feet tall and always in a baseball cap, with a small Indian helper. Together they cooked up our food on a wood stove, and we came to learn that the ranch/fishing lodge itself existed completely off the grid, supplying its electricity needs with a stream generator, and all the rest of its energy needs for heating and cooking using wood.

It was an early night. Even though the next day was relatively short, we needed to recharge.

Day 22: to Manihuales

Day 22– Friday March 18: Villa Amengual to Manihuales

We rose in good time, fell in to hearty fare at our fishing lodge, checked the iffiness of the weather (rain; showers; sun?), and hit the road. A relatively short day ahead: 53km. We rolled down the paved road as it pitched and rolled through the amazing countryside; as usual we were spinning alongside a river, the valley lined with towering peaks, some snow covered, some with spires jutting skyward. The road repeatedly seemed to end in a box canyon ahead, only to slide cunningly through a gap and run in a new direction. For the last 10 or 15 kilometers we crouched low on our frames and flew downhill with the wind at our backs. And so by mid-afternoon we came speeding into the town of Manihuales, a gathering of nondescript buildings with corrugated tin roofs and siding, but in one of the most glorious settings imaginable: fields and forested foothills with snow covered peaks in the distance.

We stayed at a somewhat down-at-heels hostel, the Residentiale Manihuales, ate out nearby that evening, and went to sleep early. At three in the morning we were all awakened by the sound of torrential rain pounding down on the tin roof of our hostel and driven against windows by high high winds. Famous Patagonian weather. We had dark fears for riding the next day.  

Day 23: On the Road to Puerto Aysen

Day 23 – Saturday March 19: Manihuales yields to Puerto Aysen

Morning arrived and the rain persisted, but we headed gamely to a nearby café for breakfast. There we met a group of Italian cyclists from Modena, heading south like us. We spoke with one of their group, and he told a story of ambitious riding. What with the rush of coffee and early eats, it seemed inevitable that murmurs of international competition began to spread. Them or us. And still the rain persisted. We returned to our hostel, packed up and got ready to ride. And then, from our window, we caught sight of the Italians through the windows of their bus, their bikes tucked conveniently in the back. Jokes were made (of course!), but the question seemed well-resolved. Us. And with a happy cosmic nod the rain diminished as we set out, disappearing altogether within a few miles.

Perhaps because we were still tired from the long ride two days before, and certainly because of a nasty headwind, the ride to Puerto Aysen seemed longer than it was – about 60km. Still, as usual, each mile brought a new landscape to feast on. We passed through river valleys and finished with a long stretch of level road. Once in Puerto Aysen we repaired to our splendid digs – individual kitchens in each unit! – and we all got some washing done and enjoyed the rest of the day. Our guides catered another unbelievably good dinner and we slept, well. Tomorrow, Coyaique!

 

Day 24: A tunnel to Coyhaique

Day 24 – Sunday March 20: Puerto Aysen to Coyhaique

A beautiful day in the port town of Puerto Aysen, and a moderate day of riding ahead: 63km, all on paved roads. We swept out of town in late mid-morning and spun our way back to an intersection where we took the road to Coyhaique. Ups and downs, as usual – and in one valley an elaborate waterfall shrine, with a beautiful falls, a shelter, lit candles, all dedicated to Our Lady of the Cascades. We pressed ahead, making our way upwards towards a pass back over the bottom of the Andes into a different microclimate. A long fairly steep stretch of road passed through an impressive tunnel and then continued to climb for a nearly a thousand feet. Now, instead of the thick green countryside we came into a much dryer landscape with sparse straight pine forests, much like passing from Western to Eastern Washington. At the summit of the climb was a lookout platform, and we pulled over. Far below us, and still several miles away the town of Coyhaique – the largest community we had seen since the beginning of the ride – spread beneath towering peaks and hills. We mounted our bikes again and plummeted down towards our destination, the Salamander hostel.

The hostel was located some 3km from the town, down across the Rio Simpson, famous for fishing. It was mainly a backpacker and cyclist hostel, and it had a distinctly counterculture feel about it. The rooms were small but adequate, and after we’d cleaned up we sat outside on a sunny deck rehydrating. Dinner turned out to be a massive barbeque put on by our guides. Laura, our main guide David’s partner, was arriving the next day from their home in Puerto Natales, so there was further cause for celebration.

The next day would be another moderate ride, so we decided to spend the morning in Coyhaique, visiting a bicycle shop and starting out after Laura arrived and we’d had lunch.

Day 25: Shopping, descending

Day 25 – Monday March 21: Coyhaique shopping and a long descent

Early the next day we rose to breakfast and packing up our gear; the plan was to taxi into Coyhaique and after lunch return to the Salamander and set off on our relatively short ride to El Blanco, just shy of Balmaceda. All went according to plan: we visited a bike shop in Coyhaique and then wandered into the main part of town, stunned by the abundance of goods and number of shops. Coffee, not Nescafe, at a café with pastries and cakes. A North Face store. Craft stalls selling everything from alpaca wool things to silver jewelry.

Laura had arrived, and we all got to greet her, now own our best behavior. We all met for a splendid lunch at a small restaurant and then taxied back out to our Salamander b&b to get into our riding gear and start riding towards El Blanco, our next stop. The route climbed uphill for a very long time, following the course of the Rio Simpson; then, after a number of false summits, plunged downwards for miles to the little community of El Blanco, our destination. The descent can only be described as epic; some of us reached over 70km/hr on our mountain bikes with knobby tires. Happy days…

The El Blanco Hotel turned out to be a real find. For many years a fishing lodge, it had fallen on hard times and virtually closed, only to be rescued by a Santiago businessman who refurbished it. It had just opened in January and there were still some tags on the furniture. The main floor consisted of a brand new, vast kitchen, a large dining room and a big communal living room with a glowing fire. The bedrooms all had private baths, and it was near good fishing. We relaxed into it, preparing ourselves for the last of six consecutive days of riding. We hardly knew what awaited us.

Day 26 -- no pix

Here's the blog from Day 26. Alas, we can't get to a place where the internet signal is fast enough to support sending pictures, even resized ones. And it's impossible to tell when a blog has been sent -- hence the doubling up.
I'll send along a couple more if this works. We can save the pictures for later.
It's very very remote here -- and wonderful. But we pay the price in modern conveniences...
--John

Day 26 – Tuesday March 22: One epic ride from El Blanco to Villa Cerro Castillo

During the night the temperature dropped into the thirties; it rained some too, and the wind picked up. Still, we met for breakfast hoping that our forecasts about stormy weather ahead might be faulty.  After breakfast we received good luck send-off hugs by the cheerful white-haired ladies who ran the hotel; then we headed out. Our luck held for a while:  the rain dropped off entirely and a tail wind chased us up towards a high pass through the mountains. After summiting the first 1000 foot hill, however, the long winding road became the long windy road:  we dropped elevation for a bit but now had to gain back what we’d lost, and more, making our way westward right into the teeth of a considerable headwind. The going was tedious and slow even on the downhills. Sometimes we were buffeted so powerfully that our bikes were blown right into the center of the road, with us leaning into the wind to keep from being blown away. At last we turned south again and began climbing with the wind at our backs. We were now at snow level: it lay on the pine shrubs next to the highway and tiny flakes drifted down. All around us towered steep rock walls that reached hundreds of feet in the air. We finished the last uphill part of the ride shaking with cold.

Our descent began just after we passed through a narrow cut in the rock, and the scene that spread out below us was astonishing. We had broken through the side of the mountains, and the road switchbacked downwards in an unbroken serpentine for nearly two thousand feet. We could see for miles below to the valley of the Rio Ibanez, where the village of Villa Cerro Castillo was located, and beyond to other ranges and valleys. The epic struggle was over; now we could collect our reward, plunging down the steep grade for the last few miles of the ride, stopping only for pictures.

We arrived at Villa Cerro Castillo (The Village at the base of Castle Mountain), a ramshackle collection of buildings marking the end of the paved road. Still cold from the mountain pass, we gathered for coffee in the only café and then proceeded to our hostel, the Teushenkenk, where we’d be staying for three nights. Mario and Soledad Ruiz, our delightful hosts, opened up their home to our tired crew. The electricity was off for the whole village and it was growing dark. We rehydrated by candlelight, ate in camplamplight, and collapsed into bed just as the electricity surged back on. A good sign…

This was not our biggest day: 66km and 3244 vertical, but it was our sixth day of riding in a row, and we all needed a couple days off. R & R was coming up. We were looking forward to each R.

Days 27 & 28 -- still no pix

Now we're getting somewhere! Sorry about the lack of pix...

Days 27 & 28 – Wednesday and Thursday March 23 & 24: R & R in Villa Cerro Castillo; an injury!

Although there was no access to internet, there were some great possibilities on our list of R/R activities in Villa Cerro Castillo. On the first day some of us went for a short ride and hike to Los Manos National Reserve, others went horseback riding with a guide along the Rio Ibanez. Three (Ray, Steve Jahn, John) opted for the Gaucho horseback excitements, while the other five decided to see Los Manos. Meantime, just taking in the breathtaking views of Cerro Castillo with its snow covered spires was awe inspiring.

The horseback outing turned out to be terrific. We were driven about two miles to a ranch where our gaucho host, Manuel, was waiting. Each of us was given suede chaps that fastened below the knee; then we mounted our saddled horses and trotted off upriver. None of us had ridden in years and we had a hilarious time settling in. Our guide, who had been to Idaho and California, clearly enjoyed taking us on the roads and showing us the beauty of the countryside. Part way into the ride we spotted a pair of rare woodpeckers that resembled our own northwest Pileated Woodpecker – the Magellanic Woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in South America. These were huge black birds, and the male had a bright red head. For the rest of the morning the sound of hooves combined with the sight of snow peaked mountains ringing the narrow river valley to give us a real high. We ventured onto trails that climbed up to vantage points overlooking the river and down to the sandy stretches along the shore. We finished, a little saddle sore, back in Villa Cerro Castillo with a small barbeque at our guide’s little restaurant.

The other group left for the Los Manos Park to view prehistoric handprints on an overhanging cliff four or five kilometers away. They rode there and found a gatehouse and a guide, Domingo, who took them to the rock face of a towering cliff. Thousands of years ago a native tribe had used the rock overhang as shelter and they left a number of handprints, some positive (paint on the hand pressed onto the rock) and some negative (paint blown around a hand to produce an outline.  They also hunted guanacos – a kind of wild alpaca nearly extinct now –which they also drew on the wall. No one knows today what the significance of the handprints might be, but the interest in seeing the remains of a culture several thousand years old is intense.   

We returned to the b & b that afternoon to discover that our dashing guide Dario had nearly cut off part of his finger while working on the bikes and was en route to a hospital back in Coyhaique to have it treated. Bad news; everyone was upset, and we wouldn’t know what the damage was until later that evening.

At eight thirty we started off to a small local restaurant nearby for a barbeque. With exquisite timing, Dario and Tikka, who had driven, returned from Coyhaique at the same time. The end of Dario’s finger had been stitched back on and the prognosis was good, though it would be several weeks before he could ride again. With relief we proceeded to dinner, and were ushered into a building with an enormous fireplace at one end; there, fastened onto an iron spit and grill about five feet high and four feet wide was an entire flayed lamb.  We drank wine and feasted on it, returning to our cozy b & b with the leftovers for sandwiches the next day.

The following day Ray and John and Steve Jahn went to see Los Manos Park while the others went for a hike up towards Cerro Castillo. It was a fairly serious hike, gaining 3400 feet of elevation to a turquoise lake just below the snowfield of the mountain. The guide took the group along trails and cow paths and a stony climbers’ track to vistas that were simply stupendous.

That night we ate ravenously and went to bed early. Tomorrow was the trip back towards the coast, over the pass to Bahia Murta (Murta Bay).

Day 29; short, no pix

Day 29– Friday March 25: Back in Gunerra country

In the morning we showed up early for breakfast and to bid farewell to Laura, who was going back to Puerto Natales. Some claimed she had brought a civilizing influence to the group, but not all agreed and it wasn’t clear what she thought. When we see her again in two weeks we’ll ask. Afterwards we packed up and bid farewell to our hosts at Villa Cerro Castillo, heading to Bahia Murta. About halfway there the rain began, and it was clear that we had passed back over to the western slope microclimate with its lush vegetation. The surrounding peaks were all dusted with snow, and the temperature remained cold. The scenery was beautiful, even in cold gray rain.

We arrived mid-afternoon at Residentiale Patagonia, four kilometers from Murta, and settled in. After a refreshing beverage or two we napped, dined at eight and went to bed. Steve found a feline companion. The next day would be short, taking us to Puerto Tranquillo, and we decided to check out Bahia Murta before setting out the next morning.