Chile’s Lake District: The Monkey Puzzle Trail

We are going the Right Way and the wind is at our backs, pushing us towards Ralco. The road goes past crowded beaches and beneath steaming volcanoes.

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We camp on a cliff, overlooking the Bio Bio River. It is clear and blue.

In town I log into the library WiFi. Trump has become president. My family marched in Boston. My friends marched in DC and in Anchorage. I surpress an overwhelming need to be there marching, too.

A utilitarian gravel road takes us up into the mountains. A series of dams tames the Bio Bio into clear blue lakes.

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In between, it still rages. I count four holes in this rapid. Just looking at it brings a small surge of adrenaline.

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Volcan Callaqui steams.

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In Chenqueco we wait for the store to open. I think we have enough food. Tyndall doesn’t. I fear running out of water, he food. Others wait for the store to open too. Everyone seems surprised that it is not.

I help reunite some chicks with their momma. Shadows lengthen. Everyone else clears off. It seems we will have to make do with what we have, and so we leave too.

We are following the Monkey Puzzle Trail, and here it gets interesting, the gravel grinding soon forgotten. We go down a dusty ditch to a pedestrian bridge and haul ourselves out the other side.

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A short stretch of single track takes us to double track and on to some of the best camping we have had in awhile.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

The occasional piglet darts into the bushes, sheep roam around, curious caballos come by and later, a man on a horse with his dogs pushing cows. Just before sunset, a lady and her son walk by on their way home. They were in Chenqueco waiting for the store to open, too. They assure us it’s still closed.

I wake in the morning to watch the new moon rise, followed shortly by the sun. The two track turns right, and we go up. The trail does not disappoint.

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Two times we drop back down to Lago Ralco on grin inducing descents and two times we climb up and away.

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Late in the day we run into another cyclist going the other way. He is heavily loaded and says he would never ride a bike like ours. He tells us the best parts of the Carretera Austral and he tells us our friend Scott is a day ahead of us.

Known for leaving La Paz and magically resurfacing in San Pedro, Chile 12 days later and pushing 200km days through the desert in northern Argentina, I know we will never catch up to him. It’s still fun to pick out his tracks in the dirt.

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I come around a corner and see this.

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Piles and piles of what I think is a lava flow. It looks like vomit from the center of the earth.

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I think about Aniakchak Crater and how long ago that errupted. This looks recent, too but I don’t know enough about geology to really say what recent means. We pedal up and around in the diminishing daylight, camping on the edge of a cold, blue lake.

At the top of the climb in the morning we find a mirador with an information board. It IS a lava flow, and it happened in 1988. That is recent. The whole thing is 10km long and 60 meters deep. It came from a parasitic cone on the side of Volcan Lonquimay.

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In town we eat. I check the news and my heart breaks and my blood boils. It seems that truth is a relative concept these days. Not everyone had the benefit of 11th grade American Studies with Mr. Ronco. He wouldn’t accept a source that wasn’t validated. Ever.

I close the connection and we leave town. Ice cream can’t lift my dark mood and so I pedal, back up into the mountains, the monkey puzzle trees and the rushing creeks. We find a quiet camp and soak our hot feet.

In the morning a Chilean offers us a ride. He’s really just a kid, with braces and a fancy pickup truck. He can’t belive we are doing this by choice, that we turn down his offer of water. It rus everywhere, why carry it?

We leave the gravel road and inquiring minds behind, riding through Reserva China Muerta and more monkey puzzles. It’s tranquil and quiet. We linger, not wanting it to end.

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The descent takes us through burned forest. It’s coming back though, and wild flowers pop out all over the place.

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Mid afternoon the heat chases us down into Melipeuco, in search of cold drinks and a resupply.

Route information can be found from Bikepacking.com.

Chile’s Coastal Cordillera

We met Nancho in Malargüe. He invited us to his house in Romeral. It is on our route, and so stopping is a no brainer. He shares his house and his family and his stories and his food and his company with us. I learn a little bit more about Chile, how to choose a good bottle of wine and that Chilean women are given six months of maternity leave, the men none.

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We leave Romeral, aiming for the coast across the Central Valley, through orchards and vineyards. We need to ride just a few kilometers down Ruta 5, to cross Rio Teno. A no bikes sign gives us pause, but we go on, not intending to be on the highway long. But then we see our bridge. There’s no shoulder and two lanes of traffic hurtling down the road at 120kph. Even if I could convince myself that crossing here would be a good idea, I know I can’t convince Tyndall. His fear of traffic is healthier than mine.

We look at an old dam just up river, but it won’t go. Tyndall looks at the map and picks out a different bridge. One melon and 35 kilometers later we’re back on track.

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We stop in Santa Cruz to visit the Colchagua Museum. It has fossils and pre Incan artifacts and jewels and even a few things from not so far away.

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The Central Valley is hot and a bit crowded. We stop for another roadside melon and then get serious. It’s time to get out of here. We head for the coast, hoping for cool sea breezes. Past Lolol we take off down a sandy side road. It rollercoasters through vast pine plantations.

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In Llico we watch fisherman bring in the days catch, and then find empanadas to eat.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

It’s a laid back little seaside town. Late in the day we return to the hills. Here they don’t mess about. The roads go straight up, or straight down.

Past Vichuquen we watch a small wildfire burn on the hillside. We ask about it, and are told it’s fine. It’s controlled. Skeptical, we go on, finding camp by a creek. I figure we can jump in the water if the fire turns.

Sitting on the ground, Tyndall turns to see this guy.

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I see a flock of geese coming up the creek. People are scarce, but the wild life is not. It’s a good thing we fixed the tent zipper.

Late in the night, I wake to see the geese sneaking past the tent, single file in stealth mode. In the morning they are hanging out in the road, making a commotion. I suspect they are not actually wild.

The climbs here are steep, the descents the same, but in between, we roll along ridegtops.

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From the forest we aim for the beach. I look at Constitucion from afar and am wary of entering. It looks big, but the beach beckons.

At the end of the road we find a dune to camp in. I put my feet in the Pacific and watch the sunset over the water. Lines of cars go up and down the road, doing the same thing. This particular place is crowded and trashy. Tomorrow we’ll move on.

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I wake up feeling wet. In an effort to prolong the life of our tent fly zipper, we haven’t been using it. Clear skis mean it’s generally safe to sleep without, but here on the coast, the fog has rolled in and the air is damp. We’ll dry the quilt out later. For now, it still insulates.

People are curious, wanting to know where we’re going and how we’re getting there. Advice and opinions are offered whether requested or not.

Here aguacates are paltas, frijoles are porotoes and fresas are frutillas. No matter, they still taste the same. Fresh food is plentiful.

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Each section of the Central Valley seems to have a specialty. Here’s it’s strawberries, and they happen to be in season. It’s easy to buy a box and stash it away for later.

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We eat strawberries for dinner, breakfast and lunch. They don’t last any longer as we roll through the mountains, taking advantage of long summer days. We intend to drop out at Buchupureo but miss a turn and end up 5km north, in Pullay. For our error, we are gifted a bonus hill.

From Buchupureo we go to Cobquecura, finding a place worth staying for a bit. We listen to sea lions roar and drink wine on the beach as the sun slowly sets. Locals play ball with a portable speaker blasting American rap music. What’s not to like?

Past town the pavement on the coast road runs out. Wheat fields abound. Oxen, too.

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We turn inland, having lunch in Trehuaco. On TV I see Michelle Obama and Sunny and Bo take one last walk through the White House. I see protests against Trump that look more like large dance parties. I wonder what Chileans see.

Cool sea breezes gone, we pass the afternoon in the shade of the town park. I buy a chocolate bar for later, hoping it won’t melt. It does, a sure sign it’s too hot.

From here, we work our way back across the industrial Central Valley, towards the mountains.

Where we rode: Romeral – Santa Cruz – Llico – Vichuquén – Constitución – Curanipe – Cobquecura – Trehuaco – Ñipas

We found a vast network of well kept dirt roads in the Coast Mountains, between the Central Valley and the sea. The camping in the mountains was easy but dry, and the fresh fruit and seafood in the coastal towns plentiful. Not all the roads were on our maps, and there’s more to be explored.

Paso Vargara to Chile

The Municipal Campground in Malargüe is quieter than anticipated. What I didn’t anticipate is the 31st annual Festival de Chivo happening while we were in town. The campground residents are quiet, but the music blasts next door.

We share our space with two Chilenos out on a trip. Nancho teaches grade school and has a 90 year old mother. His cousin Miguel hauls produce by truck around the country. They ask about Donald Trump. We say we didn’t vote for him. They say he will be bad for Latin America. We don’t disagree, and stumble on, trying to have a complex conversation in Spanish. It mostly works and we move on to other topics. They give us Chilean wine in a bottle with a label in Chinese. It’s the best in the world they say.

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Morning comes too soon. We decide today will be a half day, passing the afternoon in the shade, only leaving late in the day to find a place to sleep. I ask at a small finca if we can set up our tent. The Abuela says yes, and so we do, only hindered by two small puppies intent on climbing in with us.

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We compromise, and I fall asleep with a puppy pile by my head. They stay there all night.

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The road in the morning is covered in goat tracks. We follow them up into the mountains.

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The road surface is good, the grade reasonable but the wind not. Today it’s blowing in the wrong direction. I get off my bike, hunker down beside it and walk. There’s no other way.

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Flowers and green things abound. Water pours out of the ground and rushes down. It’s clear and cold. We soak our feet and have an afternoon wine.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

It almost looks like home, except there are no alders.

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Then press on, finding a calm home for the night.

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We descend to the mighty Rio Grande. At first the valley is wide, offering little protection. Dust devils engulf me, then move on. I get an exfoliation free of charge.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

Then it narrows and we go up.

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I watch the clouds build all night. Later, rain drops wake us up. We scramble to put on the tent fly. The wind still blows. In the morning the rain has turned to snow and hail. We dig out long forgotten layers, pack up and press on.

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The Argentinian immigration official greets us, as do 20 geologists from the University of Wisconsin and one cyclist from Belgium. The official tells us we can’t proceed because of the weather, but even when pressed, he doesn’t offer us a warm place to stay inside. We press back and they relent, stamping our passports and allowing us to go. It’s too cold to stand around outside.

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Photo by Tyndall Ellis.

The Chilean immigration post is 16 kilometers away. We go there, and are offered a place to stay, wifi and water. Tyndall tells them they have a much nicer building than the Argentinians. They say it is called Progress.

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The sun is out and the road goes down. We head on.

Where we rode: Malargüe – Los Queñes – Romeral via Paso Vargara

Route notes from Andes by Bike, except we went straight west from Malargüe on a dirt road instead of going to Bardas Blancas on pavement, then turning west.

South from Mendoza

We kill a few dinosaurs to travel fast. The first day of summer has past. Despite the heat and long days I already feel the season closing in. Life in Anchorage has shown me that nothing lasts in these extreme climates, least of all long summer days. The desert holds little appeal to me and to Tyndall. We’re captivated by the coast, rumors of smoked salmon, lakes, rivers and trees.

The treelined streets of Mendoza are a pleasure to ride.

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It’s New Year’s Day and we have the place to ourselves. Old cars are parked in front of modern houses.

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After noon a handful of small shops start to open. We fill our bags with empanadas and cold drinks, taking it all to the park for a picnic.

Everyone returns to work on Monday, but still, the streets are incredibly civilized. Drivers stay in their lanes. They yield for bikes. They give us space as we work our way south past bodegas and vineyards. Snowy peaks can just be picked out through the hot hazy valley.

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Trucks filled with produce pass. Irrigation ditches run every which way. I smell peaches and apples and wet earth. A Weatherford Wireline Services truck goes the other way. Tyndall gets excited. Soon, a handful of pump jacks dot the landscape. We spot a derrick a ways off. Progress comes easy today.

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In Perditas we ask about the condition of Ruta 40 to Malargüe. While Tyndall talks, three Schlumberger trucks past. Conditions confirmed, we leave town. It’s not hard to leave the pavement and turn down a small dirt road.

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I see a coyote and watch birds flit about. After lunch the wind kicks up, mostly aiding our southerly progress. Butterflies get tossed about. The grasses shimmer and sway. It’s wild and empty here.

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At Arroyo Honda we find water and a cluster of trees to camp in. Hobbled horses mill about, along with a lone goat.

The wind is still at it in the morning. We climb out of the arroyo and descend into another. This one has water too, although it’s also silty. The next one is clear and we fill up our bottles before climbing out again.

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Rio Diamante looks like the Colorado a bit. Wide, brown, frothy. I imagine the rapids that must be on it.

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A couple of Swiss overlanders pass in their fancy rig, but otherwise we see no one.

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Looking for a quiet place to sleep, we stop short of El Sosneado.

I catch a glimpse of an elusive big bird. I see the brown feathers bounce off, spot a long neck poking above the brush and then it’s gone. We share the remaining kilometers to El Sosneado with oil field service trucks, then turn right onto pavement for Malargüe.

Where we rode: Mendoza – Eugenio Bustos – Perditas – El Sosneado – Malargüe

Route details from Andes by Bike.