Dash to the Coast Vol. 3: Chilean Edition

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I thought my days by the Pacific were over after the unrivaled shitfest of my Peruvian sojourn, but I just couldn’t resist giving it one more shot. There was no way this coastal venture could be worse than that, but then sitting in a bathtub of milk with Piers Morgan would be preferable to another trip to Barranca. I didn’t know a lot about the Chilean coast as it’s not too well traveled by gringo cyclists but after weeks stuck on La Cuarenta I was game for a bit of adventure so off I went.

Well, I can safely say made the right choice in crossing over to Chile. My two weeks here have not been the most memorable or exciting but in terms of cycling it’s been the closest thing I’ve had to a holiday. As it turns out coastal Chile is basically England with more hills and better weather and I’ve been treated to fresh sea breezes, quaint seaside towns, verdant countryside and mile after mile of pine scented forest road. The hills, while tough, have kept me entertained and provided a welcome respite from the boring flats of Northern Argentina. They’ve also given me a serious workout and I’ve never been in better shape.

It hasn’t all been great, though. While I’ve met some good people along the way, conversation has been scarce. I’ve been forever smiling and nodding at strangers throughout this whole trip but a lot of Chilenos just stared at me as blankly as the cows in the fields chewing their cud. As such I’ve become more selective with my friendliness of late. Internet access has been scarce in the coastal villages so I haven’t been on couchsurfing and as I’ve strayed from the typical route I haven’t met a single other cyclist. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken less in my life. Outside of swearing my way up hills and the occasional madman ramble to myself I’ve probably averaged like 200 words a day.

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I worked my way to the coast trying my best to avoid the busy motorways.
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Taking the backstreets wherever possible.
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Chile is such a string bean of a country that there’s far less empty expanse for wild camping. Hopping through holes in fences in search of usable spots became the norm as I tramped my way south. In Bolivia I was dreading nightfall and the onset of cold that it signified. In Chile I was rushing the sun down to hide my half hidden tent from homicidal farmers.
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I was just congratulating myself on not losing or destroying any of my devices in 8 months on the road when I realised my Kindle was cracked, forever stuck on the title page of Halldor Laxness’s Iceland’s Bell. While this kept me entertained for a few hours I doubt it will keep me going through Patagonia.

That evening I spilled wine on my laptop rendering the ‘a’ key useless, then my phone, feeling left out, decided to put itself into a coma . In the space of 3 hours I’d lost
my books, my maps, my podcasts and the letter ‘a’*. I couldn’t even tell the time without turning on my laptop.

I tried to see the positives. I’d go analogue. I’d buy a real life map and read books with actual pages like… practically every other cycle tourist ever. And without podcasts I could finally dedicate myself to appreciating jazz and listening to War and Peace (god, I’m such a cliche). The letter ‘a’ though. That was a big loss. Let’s just say that writing this blog took more copying and pasting than any human being should ever have to endure.

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I awoke to a world of fog and without knowing the time or where I was going I bungled my way towards the sea.
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My arrival on the coast was more Peruvian misery than Ecuadorian bliss. Cartagena was a far cry from its Colombian namesake, combining the worst qualities of off-season English seaside town and South American squalor.
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Looking and smelling like a wet dog I st down on a bench to eat my sad lunch of stale bread and processed meat and question my choices in life. A homeless man, no doubt recognising a kindred spirit, came over to ramble some nonsense at me. I wasn’t in the mood and got up and moved to another bench.
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At the tourist information in rainy San Antonio the friendly staff printed me out some maps and even gave me a plastic folder to keep them in.
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Doing things old school. The Isabel Allende book was practically the only one in the shop that cost less than £15. For some reason books are prohibitively expensive all over South America.
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The road South took me inland and suddenly I was in England.
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I camped at a pretty riverside campsite where a peacock roamed (in Spanish they call peacocks “royal turkeys”) and awoke to glorious sunshine. The weather was unerringly good for the following 10 days.
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The man at the campsite told me I only had one big hill to climb then it was flat all the way to the coast. He was right about the first part…
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…but he conveniently forgot about the countless steep climbs through the forest. It was beautiful but tough.
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Proper knackered. I should really know better than to trust the words of…well…anyone by now.
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In Pichelmu where the upper crust of Santiago have their holiday homes…
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…I snuck between the mansions and luxury cabanas to camp in sight of the sea…
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…and sip a beer while the sun set.
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From here on I spent a week cycling through towns like this.
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Past the empty off season resorts.
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Come January this place will be rammed.
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I wonder if the owner really hates Americans or just didn’t really think this through.
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Some of the backroad hill climbs were so steep that I almost couldn’t push the bike up, let alone cycle.
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I became a right frugal bastard, living solely on porridge, sandwiches, instant noodles, pasta and polenta (along with the obligatory fruit, biscuits and wine). I refused to visit any restaurants or fast food places, my one moment of weakness splurging £2.50 on this prawn empanada. To quote old templar in The Last Crusade, I chose poorly.
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When I crossed the border into Chile I was struck by the number of flags. Was this the most nationalistic country on earth? Outside practically every house hung the
Chilean flag. If it were England I’d have assumed we were under some kind of BNP coup. I asked around and it turned out I’d arrived a few days after the day of independence, on which every citizen must hang the flag in front of their house or face a public paddling. Then through either pride or procrastination they hadn’t bothered to take them down.
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Between Constitucion and Concepcion I found an empty campsite right by the beach with a skateramp and working electricity (!).
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I flung myself into the Pacific to flop around in the cold water for about 2 minutes. It was good.
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Always an encouraging sign.
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Then in Trehuaco I slept under the bridge like a trollman.
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I got fed up of the endless hills and strong south westerly wind in my face so in the bustling metropolis of Concepcion I crossed the Rio Bio Bio and headed inland.
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But unfortunately the narrow riverside road was rammed with trucks and weekend travelers.
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South of Santa Juana, as I braced myself for a day of horrific headwinds, old man Jose offered me a ride and who was I to resist?
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While trees did the limbo and crashed into the road around us, Jose told me of his days working in the local paper factory and the misery of the Pinochet regime. Once he dropped me off in Cuihue I realised I’d accidentally nicked his cap which looked much like my own. Sorry Jose.
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It was only 11.30am but I decided to call it a day and very slowly ground my way through lashings of windblown sand to the only campsite in town.
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While it was technically closed the owner let me stay in his overgrown riverside encampment.
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Later, due to the gale force winds, he offered me a bed in his beaten up old hall and in thanks I gave him Jose’s hat. The old man circle of kindness was complete.
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The ratty backroom mattress felt like luxury after 2 weeks of camping.
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When I heard the wind whistling outside the next morning I decided I’d fulfill my nonexistent dream of visiting Los Angeles and take the bus down to Pucon near the Argentine border. My 1000km Chilean detour had been fun but I’d seen enough and was ready to leave. Bring on Patagonia.
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Los Angeles: the city that only sleeps. It was so quiet and slow paced, as if the entire population had been chugging sedatives.
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Pigeon.

I am now safely ensconced in Pucon under the shadow of a volcano where I shall buy some boots and bike stuff in preparation for my return to Argentina through the Andes. My phone, excited by this news, has awoken from its coma.

Bring on Patagonia, baby!

Tunes: Blondie – Parallel Lines, Cyndi Lauper – Greatest Hits, The Band – Music From Big Pink, David Bowie – Hunky Dory, Talking Heads – Remain In Light, The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy and the Lash

Reads: War & Peace – Leo Tolstoy, In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin, Isabel Allende – Tales of Eva Luna

*the ‘q’ key also broke but who gives a shit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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