The best laid plans of cycle tourers often go awry. Usually this is due to tree felling winds, mechanical failures or biblical rainstorms, but every now and then one’s plans are laid aside due to more serendipitous circumstances. My stay at Nant y Fall was one such propitious twist of fate. Had the weather not been so crap, my phone been out of battery or my schedule been ever so slightly different, I would’ve passed right by the signpost to the uncommonly southern vineyard and made straight for the Chilean border. As it was I stopped by with the intention of staying for one night only to be so charmed by the eco-campsite (and the opportunity to stream the Spurs match) that I decided to stay for two. Then Sergio, who has spent the last 7 years transforming what was once forgotten scrub land into easily the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at, offered me room and board for a few hours of daily labour and I thought “Why not?”. I was set to cross the border a little earlier than intended and the weather was rubbish so a couple of days working and practising my Spanish couldn’t do any harm. 10 days later I was still there.
When I started the trip I’d never heard of the Carretera Austral but over the course of my many meetings with cyclists heading north the name popped up over and over again. Turns out its one of the most iconic cycle routes in the world and is always listed on those top 10 lists. Come the summer the 1240km route that winds down from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins is absolutely rammed with cycle tourers, bikers and Chilean holidaymakers. The campsites and cabanas fill to the brim as people scramble to enjoy some of the finest scenery that Patagonia has to offer. I arrived without too many expectations but it didn’t take long to find out why so many cyclists clamour to ride this road.
Tunes: The Damned – Very Best of, Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights, Weezer – Pacific Daydream, Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out , Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson
Reads: The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell, Happy – Derren Brown, Skagboys – Irvine Welsh
Note: I finally got round to calculating how far I’ve cycled using Google Maps and I estimate to date I’ve done around 11,000-11,500 kilometres not including the occasional bus ride.
With all the birthday jollities behind me I had a nice easy day heading south from San Ignacio. A forgiving incline gave way to 20km of downhill and soon I was down at the valley floor, only 400m above sea level, tracking the river as it zig-zagged south. With little to no traffic my attention was diverted by the legion of millipedes inching their way across the hot road and the eagles soaring above.
Travelling by bike is full of surprises. You cycle 200km relatively untroubled and look at the next 200km on the map and think “It can’t be that different, can it?” but of course it always is. I didn’t know much about the route from Loja to Peru other than that it was lower in altitude and I assumed that meant “easier”. I was wrong.
Taking the bus was easier than expected. All I had to do was detach all my panniers and pay the porter a small fee (I suspect this was a gringo tax) to store the bike. The road from Salinas to Guayaquil was just as I’d imagined: a boring, straight road past innumerable banana groves, and I felt further vindicated in taking the bus when the entire area around Guayaquil proved to be a swelteringly hot maelstrom of traffic and confusion.
Once I set my sights on the coastal route I thought it worthwhile to try another Workaway. Why bother taking such a big detour without putting aside some time to enjoy the fruits of the costeño culture…and twat around in the sea? Kimberly was looking for volunteers proficient in Spanish to work at her Cottages in the small town of San Jacinto and I signed right up.
Zumbahua: a fork in the roads. To continue south through the mountains or cut west to the coast? My mind was already made up. Due to El Nino it’s been an unseasonably wet rainy season and April is supposedly the worst month. The idea of day after day of camping in the wet wasn’t too appealing. On top of that I knew this would be my last opportunity to get some beach time for like 9 months and I simply couldn’t resist the prospect of checking out the ruta del sol and having a few beers on the way.
The ride from Laguna Yahuarcocha to the farm where I was due to volunteer was only 25km but it was all on the Panamericana. In the pouring rain. Unlike in Colombia where it’s not uncommon to have a single lane road linking 2 major cities, Ecuador has decent infrastructure and 3 lane highways. This is great if you’re in a car but not so hot for those on bikes. Trucks and buses whizz past at high speed and when there’s not much of a shoulder things get a little hairy. I put on some Black Flag and powered uphill through the rain, doing my best to ignore everything but the road immediately in front of me.