Breaking to the Bottom: A Strange Circuit to Coyhaique

2/20/2017.

Futaleufú, Chile.

I’ve been pedaling, pushing and grunting my way South for 14 straight days now. Having landed in the beautiful and inspiring rafting mecca of Futaleufú I decided to take advantage of the floor space at Guillermo’s house, do some bike repairs (there’s always something breaking!) and rest up a couple of days for the next push South. I’d be hopping on the Carretera Austral, a famous mixed-surface road that travels much of the length of Chilean Patagonia. Of course, there would be detours…

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Rolling in to Futaleufú from the valley above, this place is magic. Verdant, pastoral, simple, clean.

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After a night of settling in to Guillermo’s house of raft guides, I set out to replace my shifting cables/housing. I’d heard there was a bike shop outside of town and followed a variety of odd directions to get there: “Take the main dirt road out of town, then turn right on the second dirt road past a river, then follow that road to your first left track. Past a farm ask for the bike shop.” After a number of false turns, I notice a small shack with some old rusty bikes in front of it. Jackpot! The owner was a kind man who does his best to keep locals’ bikes running given a complete lack of access to parts and supplies. He let me purchase enough cable and housing to keep my hub shifting and we spent a lovely afternoon talking about the history of Futaleufú as I installed the stuff. 

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If you ever get stuck with a mechanical in Futa, this is your man of steel!

 Staying with Guillermo was great. He’s a true adventurer and free spirit, traveling all over Latin America and beyond to find the most technical waters to kayak. He’s also a skilled performer of many arts, including juggling, crystal ball balancing (think of David Bowie in Labyrinth), and these strange s-shaped planks. He’s busked for money on the streets of Santiago and all over Latin America. I’m so glad we’ve stayed in touch this whole time! 

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The mighty Rio Futaleufú. People travel from around the globe to come paddle this section of the river. Some of the biggest and gnarliest waves anywhere.

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All the local kayakers were preparing for a yearly kayak festival that would be starting in a few days. Guillermo’s house was slowly filling up with young paddlers from various parts of Chile and beyond. It was so interesting to be surrounded by elite athletes of a sport I knew so little about. While I did learn some introductory strokes and techniques from Guillermo back in Jalcomulco Mexico, these guys were true pros, eating, drinking and breathing all things kayak. At night they’d all huddle around the nearest laptop to watch each other’s videos of paddling the previous day, critiquing route choices and applauding near-misses. I loved their excitement but could only relate so much to the details as an outsider. 

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One afternoon Guillermo and his housemate wanted to run the Futa, so I rode down to a bridge overlook to watch them enter one set of rapids… 

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 Moments before they passed, a small guided group crossed under the bridge: one raft with clients, a kayak and a big rowing raft. They quickly shrank into tiny specs within the enormous raging waves of the rapids. 

Watching their tiny kayaks bounce around in those powerful currents was both inspiring and unnerving. Guillermo had initially offered to take me down the river in a tandem kayak but had already expressed a bit of reservation due to the river flow levels being unusually high. Most guiding companies had shut down operations for a couple of days to let the water levels drop after some recent intense storms. I wondered what was different about the one tour which had just passed through moments before…

As it turned out,  they had made the wrong choice. Their raft flipped a bit further down the long rapids, sending all the clients free-floating right in the middle of a kilometer long section of continuous rapids. Luckily Guillermo and his buddy were passing by immediately after and were able to rescue a lone client clinging to a boulder for dear life amidst the river flow! 

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3 relaxing days wandering around Futaleufú did the trick and I was ready to roll onward toward the Carretera Austral. Rolling out of Futa I decided to take on last night in the area as the big kayak festival was slated to begin the next day based out of a local farm downriver. I set up camp in an open field next to a few other travelers, struck up a great conversation with this sweet couple from Temuco (Northern Chile). They weren’t kayakers or boaters, just loved fishing and enjoying the beauty of the area. Upon expressing my latent interest in fishing among the myriad rivers here in Patagonia, the man emerged from his truck moments later with a spinner hook and a bit of line as a gift! He showed me how to use a tin can as a casting rod, and I was ready to rock! As I hopped onto my bike the woman chased me down with a handful  of hard candies, “you know, in case you need a sugar hit!” I always do. 

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 Final view of the great Futaleufú. This is the lowest pullout before a major waterfall, where most kayakers pull out. 

 

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Amazing basalt cliffs are everywhere around here. 

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Funny to see a bike warning sign. While this is the main road to the Futaleufú border crossing I wondered how popular bikes were along here… I never saw one. 

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Lunchtime! A desolate lakeside beach with just a little bit better than average view.

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 I reached an intersection, actually more of a crossroads for me, in which a left would have taken me back across the Argentinian border to start an extra very rough route across the Andes to return to Lago Verde and the dirt route to La Tapera. A right would bring me out to the Carretera Austral. This was a hard choice as I knew my open window for Southbound travel was tightening every day. The weather would get colder, but I was feeling a pressure from another source: Future plans. I’d been cavorting with a guiding outfit based in Cusco Peru to return and guide with them for the busy season (May-October) and as that month crept closer I was feeling stress about the timing in which to reach Ushuaia, fly home to the USA to see friends/family, somehow replace my bike with a more modern one fit for mountain bike guiding, and fly back to Peru. In order to follow through on the plan I’d need to be flying North by the first week of April, less than 2 months away. This meant I couldn’t keep saying yes to EVERY detour opportunity and still make it to Ushuaia in time. Was it a mistake to make a plan so soon after a 3 year open-ended journey? Was I even ready to stop traveling? Hard questions. No clear answers. 

In the meantime I had to either turn left, toward unknown adventure, or right, toward the most popular cycling route in Patagonia. The Carretera Austral has been the talk of the town amongst every biker I met heading for Patagonia. It’s 1200km length was the first major road on which cars could travel the length of Chilean Patagonia.  It was at one point extremely rough and desolate but as tourism has flooded the area it now felt to me more like adventuring lite. But Ushuaia was still a long way to go. With more than slight reservation, I turned right toward the carretera, trying to stay hopeful that adventure could find me where I less expected it, even among comparative crowds of cyclists. Little did I know I’d made the right choice for a variety of reasons…

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Reaching the small town of Villa Santa Lucia, I found internet outside a small corner store, receiving a message from my old Austrian cyclist friends Nici and Phillip. You remember them. I met them first outside of Fairbanks Alaska, then in Mexico various times, then we circumvented the Darien Gap together by motor boat. Our last encounter was back in Santiago about a month prior, so I was excited to hear what adventures they’d had. Still a little sore about missing the La Tapera adventure route, I was slightly consoled by the opportunity to connect with these good friends camped just 110km South in Puyuhuapi.

So I jammed on the carretera until night fall, just outside of La Junta. Found an open swampy lot, as everything else was fenced and locked. Within I found a tiny flat area on a ridge within a large wet marsh and set up camp on the only dry land I could find.

I was awakened in the middle of night by a crinkling of plastic sound outside of my tent. Instinctively, I leapt up and popped my flashlight out of the tent to get a glimpse of my encampment intruder. Meters away two small eyes were reflected back at me, behind them a long bushy tail. Not a dog. An andean fox. Really beautiful animal, but it had my Stevia sweetener bottle IN it’s mouth. I jumped out of the tent but it took off too fast. Shit. I really hoped the fox didn’t get into the bottle as this sweetener was extremely concentrated and I worried it might damage his little foxy organs with all that sweetness. Alas, not much I could do. I packed up the rest of the food I’d left outside by my tent and hung it in a tree. Luckily and randomly a 2 minute scout around my camp the next morning turned up the stevia bottle, intact, but with a few teeth marks… 

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Puyuhuapi is a sweet little lakeside town with a strong fishing culture and a palatably minimal amount of tourism. Lovely. 

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So great to see these bright shining faces! Nici und Philip showed me to their little campground near the edge of town where we spent the evening drinking beer, telling stories and near endless laughter. Every moment with these two is a pleasure. 

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We rolled out the next day with the goal of reaching a national park with the enormous Ventisquero Colgante glacier. I felt like riding a hotrod by comparison to these two, having forgotten how much stuff they had lashed to their bikes despite Phillip’s occasional text messages that he’d cut another 1-2 kilos of weight off of his rig! The sky wept freezing rain, but accompanied by such lovely folks my spirits were high…

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Until of course we hit a long line of parked cars going up the road… never a good sign. It turned out there was a very large landslide due to the rain and while the road could be cleared there was an enormous boulder still precariously clinging to the cliffside above the road. It would need to be cleared before they let anyone pass, even on bikes. We watched as a bulldozer deposited a small wooden shack in the middle of the road, just beyond the line of cars. It was so the construction worker blocking traffic could stay dry. translation: we’d be here for a while. So we did what any bike tourist would do in this situation. Made máte. We shared some with the road worker hoping to get on his good side, perhaps he’d let us walk through… but no dice. 

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An hour later he said it’d be at least another 4-5 hours before the road would open. So we turned around and returned to our comfy campground in Puyuhuapi, by way of the liquor store. Probably a good idea any way since I’d noticed an increasingly loud grinding noise somewhere in my drivetrain over the last day. I assumed I’d just gotten mud somewhere from all the rains and river crossings these last couple of weeks, so popped some grease into the bottom bracket, with minimal effect. Hm… 

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The campground owner was cooking an aside that night, and to my delight shared some portions. Sooooo good. 

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We rolled again the next day, hearing that the road had been cleared. Damn. That was a big boulder indeed. Glad it didn’t fall on ME!

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I ended up rolling ahead of Nici and Philip, knowing we’d meet up later at the glacier. Since I’d lost an extra day to the boulder affair, I decided not to camp at the glacier and just do a shorter hike, pushing on to make up time. Views along the way were pretty fabulous! 

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Just as I got to the turnoff for Ventisquero Colgante, an odd grinding noise which I’d been hearing come out while pedaling got much much louder. It was a loud squeaking screech with intermittent clunking and crackling noises. At first I thought it was just a a lot of dirt and fine gravel in the chain and gears, but a quick clean cleared that cause. No, this was a bottom bracket problem. After a quick assessment, I felt a whole lot of something in those bearings, far from smooth rotations. This was frustrating as I’d just replaced this bottom bracket in Santiago. It was a pretty cheap replacement, but still! By the time I reached the parking area 3km up a small dirt road, my cranks were shreiking unbearably with every pedal stroke and the increasing resistance I had begun feeling while pedaling had led to a complete lock down of the cranks. I was pedaling with all my force just to ride on flat ground. In proper avoidant behavior, I ignored the whole issue and locked the bike up at the visitor center to hike up to the glacier.  Ignorance can occasionally be accompanied by minute components of bliss… or so I hoped.

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 As I’ve written many times prior, I’m not a huge fan of dense tourism. This park, despite it’s vast size and beauty, only had a handful of hiking trails within it. The parking lots were full of cars, so I prepared to encounter scads of people along the route. Again, it’s not that I don’t like people. I love people. I just don’t like feeling like a sheep within the herd. Any possible sensation of adventure and discovery when encountering a new trail is lost for me when I’m surrounded by scads of tourists, the vast majority of which are in brand-new “outdoor” clothing/gear, taking selfies in front of everything they can. I must sound bitter. Perhaps I am. I just so cherish that cacophonous silence of nature. But I want to see the pretty thing up ahead too… So a way I go, another sheep following the flock. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaah… humbug.

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Beautiful trail through complex route systems. 

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Despite being surrounded by chatty tourists from around the globe, the hike did lead to an amazing view of the immense glacier and waterfall. I wanted to get closer. Away from the crowds, looking up at those roaring falls as I felt the spray of mist blowing me off balance from its force. That unfortunately would have required returning all the way back and bushwacking through unknown terrain up the river valley as there was no trail marked on my maps that would approach any further. Alas, I waited in line to take my requisite photo from the “ideal” perch overlooking the falls and turned back to focus on enjoying the fabulous lush forest. 

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I encountered Nici und Phillip near the bottom of the trail, they were just beginning their ascent. As they continued their climb I returned to investigate my failing bike…

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Returning to my rig at the visitor center, I got to work pulling the crank off of the bike. In the place where the drive-side bearing should have been was a small assortment of metal shards, only 2 actual balls remained inside (see video below).

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Returning to the river’s edge to ponder my options, I was frustrated. The nearest town that would have a replacement bottom bracket was Coyhaique, some 150km South of here. My bike was unrideable. I considered leaving it, hitching down for the part so I could return and ride this section of the carretera which I KNEW would be beyond stunning. But that would add at least 2 days… Sigh. Hard to accept that a few tiny pieces of metal can stand in between me and open adventure. It’s moments like these that I wish I were just hiking. Less things to brake. Less dependence upon them. I do love bikes though. 

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Walking out of the park I began my hitching search. Unfortunately it was late in the afternoon and traffic was rare. I also needed a vehicle which had space for my enormous, dirty bike and bags. Most were small sedans not worthy of thumb protrusion. 

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A few kilometers down the road, a pickup truck kindly stopped for me. The small family inside was heading directly to Coyhaique and offered me a ride the whole way! 

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The only catch: no room in the cab. I pinched my legs against the bike to keep it steady on the bouncy dirt road as we climbed through various frigid passes.

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Not my ideal way of experiencing this gigantic range of towering peaks, but at least I was outside still! 

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We reached Coyhaique around 10pm that night. It was dark and cold in town, and while I had some directions from a Northbound cyclist I’d recently met about where to camp, it was a few kilometers from town. Not going to happen with this broken down rig. I sat in the public park for a while, using the free internet to call in a lifeline… 

Dalila had lived in Coyhaique for many years before moving up to Santiago. When I shared my story with her she graciously called an old friend of hers who still lived in town. With luck, Ricardo was still awake and was so kind as to let me crash with him for a couple days while fixing my bike problem. Amazing! Thank you so much Ricardo and Dalila!! Arriving to his house by shroud of darkness, I was first “greeted” by a ferociously snarling bulldog, barreling against his fencing, apparently boring a hole in it to get out and attack me (so I thought). Turns out he’s just REALLY friendly and wanted to come say hello. Sweet pup.  

The following day I headed straight to a local bike shop and sighed with relief after laying eyes upon my replacement bottom bracket. A quick transfer and I was back in business!! Yay! 

Next up: emails and research. It was time to find a flight North, as cheap flights were in high demand. A full scale meltdown ensued upon realizing that in order to buy a plane ticket you had to pick a DATE to fly. I needed to pick, now, which would be my last in South America. The combination of acknowledging my suddenly finite time in South America and similarly limited time in the US before hightailing to Cusco to guide bike trips was overwhelming. I closed my computer and hit the procrastinate button in my mind. 

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So… now what? Do I hitch back up to the Ventisquero and continue from where I left off? Do I just head South from here? Sigh. Time is tight, but I decided to let go of the tension between either option, vying for a 3rd. Just outside of town is a large park La Reserva Nacional Coyhaique. Inside were rumored to be a web of mountain bike trails. YES. 

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BeaUtiful forests and trails in the reserve! I spent a full day exploring in almost complete solitude. I met a couple of downhill  mountain bikers just before the final descent and followed them through a section unmapped section of trail. 

After a full day’s rest and a good-as-new bike (I hope), I was ready to push Southward. I’d been offered a fun route idea by my friend Campbell to cut off of the Carretera Austral, hopscotching to Argentina and back via Paso Roballos… Coming soon to a travel blog near you! 

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