RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Chile - Small Hazards in South America

by Ivan Viehoff


ChileI was 35. I was single. I was totally screwed up and stressed out. My hair was falling out. Why was I working every hour the devil sends? What was the money for? What was life for? I decided to give it up and go to South America with my bicycle.

"You'll be back in three months," said my therapist. "You need me."

"I can't come with you," said my old cycling friend Simon. "Zeneca Pharmaceuticals don't approve of career breaks."

"You'll lurve Australia, " said George the office Australian.

"Don't forget to take a packet of condoms, "said Brendan, a concert-going friend. "I'll be lucky to need them," I thought.

Anne said nothing. She didn't even know. She was my ex-girlfriend, but that didn't stop us checking each other out from time to time, just to make sure. But the last time really had been the last time. Finally, it seemed, I could start forgetting.

I went to the airport to catch my deep discount one-way flight to Santiago, Chile. My mother shed a few tears. Waiting through the traditional three hour delay, I went to Boots to buy a packet of condoms.

First Hazards

My first moments in Chile were no welcome. Leaving Santiago airport onto a busy dual carriageway, a 2" nail instantly speared my tyre. Hundreds of cars were honking horns with people hanging out of their sunroofs, waving flags and shouting. 10km later I had another puncture, my spare tube already used. Dripping in the humid 30 degree heat outside a stinking butcher's shop, it took three attempts to get a patch to stick.

Every 100 metres was a junction with traffic lights and soot-belching buses cutting me up. I was heading for a hostel, but when I got there I obviously had the wrong address. Standing by a park in the late afternoon sun, three policemen jumped out of a car and arrested a man just 20 metres from where I stood. Downtown, I could find nothing but hamburgers and hot-dogs to eat.

In mid-evening the city erupted. The 12-lane Alameda was completely blocked. The noise of horns and chanting washed all around. A political demonstration? Revolution? No, a football match. Chile beat Bolivia 3-0. The afternoon's madness was but mild anticipation for this. Welcome to South America.

I took a trip to Valparaiso, an attractive seaport 100km from Santiago. Here, in the main square, a young woman started chatting to me. Let us call her Carla, for it was the name she gave. We can say she was 28, for she volunteered it. Carla was morena, the colour of the dominant racial mix of colonist and native. I rather fancied her brown skin, her strong arms, her smallness. Within an hour she was showing me the contents of her handbag. A while later and I had an offer of marriage.

Carla wanted to leave the poverty of Chile. I could start by taking her to Santiago with me. There was no illusion about what might be on offer back in my hotel. I wanted to believe what she said. I was alone and lonely in a distant land. I had my packet of condoms. But eventually I twigged. I wonder who had bought her nice new clothes and her yellow suede shoes. Firmly I took my leave, lying as I promised to send a card. I have only her photo as a memory of my prudence.

First Friends

I phoned Kathryn, a kiwi backpacker I met on a stop-over in Buenos Aires. "You've got to meet Jose," she said. "I met him last night. He's a real Chileno cyclist, mad about the countryside. But don't mention Argentina."

So it was that a Chileno I had never met, and his Irish friend lain, took me out to dinner in an Argentinean restaurant in a wealthy suburb. We talked about cycling in Chile. It was made clear to me that Chile had all the great scenery I needed. Argentina wasn't worth the candle. We just ate its food. And a few days later, when my excess baggage finally arrived, I was on an overnight bus down to the green Chilean south. This is the land of volcanoes and lakes where the monkey-puzzle trees grow. But just now looking out of the bus window into the grey dawn and grassy fields, I could have been at home in England.

This was supposed to be an easy start, a paved road into the foothills. But things are rarely that simple. For 20km the road surface was lifted for repairs. Immediately I can see that things were not altogether right with the bike. Things are bending that shouldn't bend. Rack screws are working loose.

I locked the bike outside a grocer in Curacautin, a small town. "Who do you think we are?" said a young man. "We aren't thieves in this town." Suddenly the city seemed a long way away.

At lunchtime the next day I was in a bus-shelter and I was freezing. The rain was pouring down, and only a little higher in the hills it was snowing. This was supposed to be practically summer. And I was not so far south, not yet. I didn't have many clothes because I thought I would buy them when I needed them. Without warning I already needed them. A logger was trying to say something to me, but I couldn't penetrate his accent.

Eventually another man came and invited me into a warm building for a hot drink. He was the headmaster of the village school. He invited me to lunch, then dinner. I helped his daughters with their English, and I stayed the night.

I learnt of the poverty of his village. Malalcahuello was a peasant agricultural community. Small scale agriculture was uneconomic, and animals wandered the village uncared for. The logging and road building only employed a fraction of community. The village was surrounded by national parks and nature reserves, but there was no tourist industry here yet. The population could no longer support itself. 5 years ago a volcano rained down ash on them. The village was evacuated for a month and a year's crops were lost.

First Disaster

In the morning mist the volcanoes were still hidden. I got a hitch through a singletrack tunnel, allegedly the longest on the continent. It used to be a rail tunnel, but today cars drive on gravel with the rails still showing through. We had to wait half an hour to get a slot in our direction.

The intermittent road surface soon ran out for good. I replaced a loose rack bolt with a stronger steel one. I turned onto a minor road to climb a pass. There was still snow on the ground at the top, among the monkey-puzzles. On the descent the first bottle-cage sheered off. The others were to follow within days. As the afternoon arrived, the sun occasionally showed its face, and I saw parrots chattering in the pines. The front rack sheered its new bolt. The scenery was changing to grassland. Goats wandered past. I waved at gauchos on horses.

And then suddenly I was on the ground, and the momentum of the bike gave me a blow in the chest I was to feel for a month. The front pannier rack flexed into the wheel and twisted round the axle. An hour later, time I could ill afford this late in the day, I was back on the road with all my luggage piled on the back rack.

I was lost. The junction wasn't on the map. The village wasn't on the map. There was no one to ask. I guessed the way. Finally I found someone to ask. The people round there were Mapuche natives, marking off their home-fields with lines of thick rough-hewn stakes. I was going the wrong way. I felt every corrugation, every rock, in the broken road as I struggled back through the wind to the junction to take the other turning.

Practically another hour, wasted. The dogs were a pain. Approaching another Mapuche village there was a huge black dog in the road. I was expecting trouble, because I was barely going faster than walking pace on the hill. As I got closer the dog turned into a thin pig and trotted off. Finally I made the remote resort village of Icalma, just a scattering of rude buildings, with one primitive guesthouse, and uncarpeted candle-lit rooms. I'd missed dinner, so I set up my camp stove in the garden.

In the morning sunshine I enjoyed the tranquillity of Icalma lake, right on the Argentina border. "You can't go this way," a local called. "It's flooded. You'd be better to go to Lonqufmay." Back the way I came. A detour of hundreds of kilometres. I would rather have crossed to Argentina. I bet he'd exaggerated. Sure enough, the muddy wading lasted only a few hundred metres and was no more than shin deep. The road was the worst yet, but the scenery the best. I got clear views of Llaima volcano, which I had been circumnavigating the past three days.


More Racks

A couple of days later I holed up at La Torre Suiza, a hostel run by Swiss cyclists. Claudia made real muesli for breakfast. The dining room had a fine view of Villarrica volcano. Since it was always raining, they had stuck a picture of the volcano on the window, so you knew what it looked like. They showed me their bicycles with many times rewelded front racks. You need a good steel rack they told me. But they didn't know how to get one in Chile. I bought a primitive rack from a bike shop that wouldn't have looked out of place in a 1930s period drama. It was a rear rack, but somehow we fitted it on the front. I bought a thick woolly jumper in the handicraft market.

A few days later I passed through ever poorer villages and struggled over a rough pass over the shoulder of the volcano. The monkey-puzzles and southern beech were of a size unknown in England. They astonished me and dripped on me. The weather was bad again, and there were no views. The new rack flexed like it was about to snap off on every pot-hole. Arriving in Pucon, a more up-market resort, I found a more modem bike shop. I bought a more modem rack. It was a Taiwanese copy of the real thing. It was alloy, but perhaps it would do for a while.

Old Ways

Curarrehue was a traditional colonial village up a terrible road. The roads always got worse as you got near the border. This time I was truly on my way to Argentina. I was still not happy with the rack, and I wanted to see if they had better bike shops over there before I got to really remote places. I gave the campsite a once over. I could cope with the complete destruction of the lavatory. I could cope with asking householders for water. I decided that I could not cope with the free-range horses. So I headed back into the village to look for the only guesthouse.

They pointed at the Big House, an enormous yellow-painted wooden affair. I was not sure I believed it. A maid greeted me at the back door. I was at the right place. The price was high, but I was stuck. A rivet in my pannier had broken, and a workman said he would lead me down to the cobbler. As we walked down through the front garden, a parade of twelve men came the other way, two by two. One at the front was wearing a suit and tie, the first I had seen since Santiago, and he looked more like an accountant than a farmer. "That's the duefio," said the workman. "And the others?" "They're his men." "What do they do?" "They collect the rent. He owns all the land round here." The cobbler had no rivets to mend my pannier. We fixed it back at the house with a nut and bolt. As time passed, I was to fix every rivet in my panniers in this way.

As I cooked my dinner in the kitchen, the duefio came in and chatted to me for a while. Although in his forties, he wasn't married, which is unusual in Chile. He ate en familia with his men. A well dressed broad-shouldered 12-year-old boy joined them, the son of his first-in command. They were served by the maid, the only woman I saw in the house, who ate in the kitchen with me. Upstairs, next to the guest room, there was a dormitory where the men all slept. This was the traditional pattern of rural control in Chile which Allende strove to break so disastrously 25 years before.

Into Argentina with Luck

It took most of the day to climb the pass to Argentina. The road hadn't seen any recent maintenance, and was a mess. Further on, they were maintaining it, and that was mess too. The border lay under the shadow of Lanin volcano, the tallest of the region. The border guards took their time. They created some bureaucracy for entertainment's sake. There was no traffic, so what was the hurry?

It was different in Argentina. The dense forests and green fields gave way to more open woods, and then to arid plains of steppe grasses and spiny cushion plants, the pampa patagonica. The rainclouds gave way to sun. The houses were brick, not wood. Cars stopped and people leant out to pass the time of day. The better kept towns could have been in Europe. The prices could have been European too. In Chile practically all the travellers were outsiders, but in Argentina most of the travellers were Argentineans. It was not just the greater wealth of the country, for in truth the difference was not so large, but it was symptomatic of a more worldly view.

The chilenos live in a narrow strip between mountain and sea, desert at one end and ice at the other, isolated from the world, with little thought of broadening the mind, and little thought that the outside world matters except as a market for their products. The argentinos live on a vast wide plain, just as remote, but dreaming of the world outside, somehow forgetting that they need to find an economic raison d' etre if the trips to Paris are to carryon.

Near the chocolate-box resort of San Martin de los Andes, I climbed the pass of Arroyo Partido, the divided stream. The rivers on each side of the pass somehow join in the middle. One side goes to the Atlantic, the other to the Pacific. The beautiful Siete Lagos, or Seven Lakes, road starts here.

My new rack soon showed its distaste for its terrible surface. As I fixed it up for the fourth time, I spotted the design fault the Taiwanese copyists have added to the original specification. In Bariloche I stayed in a hostel run by Belgian cyclist Carlos Vlaene. The bike shops in town couldn't fix me up. But he told me of a frame builder just outside town. When he wasn't playing the saxophone, Miguel Nitzsche worked out of his garden shed to build custom bicycles with home-made tools. And he did a line in custom steel racks. I was rescued. I couldn't believe my luck.

Small Hazards

Back in Chile the sun was now shining on the volcanoes and lakes. I was riding through flat farmland, but the roads were still terrible. After a hot day, I emptied my water bottle and a small unidentified animal, about the size of my thumb came out, cooked. Its presence explained the persistent bowel trouble I had been suffering. I was almost sick when I saw it. I asked the landlady for bleach.

In the morning there was a small earthquake, and I cycled off into the sunshine.