Volunteering at the Most Southern Vineyard in South America and Cycling the Carretera Austral

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Nant y Fall – where one night of camping turned into 10 Days of volunteering

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.

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The campsite, through which the river Nantifall flows, is easy on the eye.
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It’s run by the softly spoken Sergio and his son Manuel who over the course of my stay treated me like a member of the family.
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In the galpon they serve campers homemade pizzas, empanadas and salami platters. In my role as resident translator I was the beneficiary of many a free meal and good conversation with fellow gringos passing through.
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They sell all sorts of locally produced jams, honeys, craft beers and oils.
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Along with their own wine (when there’s any left to sell).
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The vineyard would be the most southern in the world were it not for a few New Zealanders beating it to that accolade. In order to withstand the cold they have special alarms installed that alert them to the onset of sub-zero temperatures and spray the grapes with water to create an igloo-like layer of ice to protect them.
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They then process the grapes over in the bodega…
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…above which I slept in a cubby hole like some maligned stepchild.
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The work was simple enough. I chopped vegetables, mowed the lawn, threw stuff in the wood chipper, pulled weeds and helped translate.
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And along with a bed I was repaid with delicious, healthy food, including actual bonafide pies! PIES I TELL THEE!!
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Graciela taught me how to make the perfect mate – the national drink of Argentina. Practically everyone has their own little mate cup (confusingly also named mate) and thermos sales must be at a worldwide high.
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I’d hitherto refrained from making it in fear I’d balls it up – like a confused Frenchman bastardising a cup of tea by neglecting to add milk or something.
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Nelson, the haughtiest dog in Argentina, acted like his namesake Lord and would prod me with a raised paw while I worked, like a Victorian gentleman demanding a shoeshine. Then when I tried to walk away he’d repeatedly lie in my path expecting a belly rub. Like a good little human I whored myself to his every whim.
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Meanwhile Martina danced around me for hours like a demented speed freak while I mowed the lawn.
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All good things come to an end and eventually I tired of pulling weeds and decided it was time to pry myself from the rural idyll and resume the life of the nomad.
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I purposefully departed on a crisp, clear day…
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…and was soon making my 4th crossing between Argentina and Chile.
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After a brief stop in Futalefeu.
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I rolled down past stunning lakes and volcanoes.
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Before putting wheel to the Carretera Austral.

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.

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Within seconds of reaching the carretera I met Sylvie and Vince, two Americans who live in New Zealand and Nepal respectively, and we ended up spending a great week cycling together.
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Along with Jordi, a Spanish cyclist, we pooled our cash and spent the night in a cabana…
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…before heading south to see if the carretera was all it’s made out to be.
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It was.
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The road, which alternates between pavement and ripio snakes its way through some of the most stupidly pretty landscapes I’ve ever seen.
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A collapsed road had us taking the first of many ferries on the route south to Ushuaia.
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Adolfo, who we kept bumping into en route south, gave us tips and cigarettes.
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We saw dolphins in the bay and camped on lakesides.
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Stocked up supplies in small towns.
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And ate lunch on hillsides and on the beach.
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Sylvie, along with being a bike mechanic, is a great cook. While I’m lazy and uncreative – content to live off pasta, polenta and avena – she rustled up bibimbap, fried fish and all manner of other tasty stuff.
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We teamed up with a Swiss couple and had a coffee break in a converted bus to shelter from the rain.
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Then set our eyes on what can only be described as a “movie mountain”.
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Which acted as our focal point on another glorious sunny day of cycling.
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The occasional empanada stop was necessary.
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Mince, egg, olive and chili sauce make for one tasty bastard.
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And speaking of tasty bastards I shaved off my beard and went full mustachioed vagabond. French postman?  80s hairmetal disaster? Just…a dick? You decide.
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The blossoming flowers gave the mountainsides a certain autumnal tint.
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And after a rainy day riding through a valley, we emerged from a tunnel.
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Above Coyaique. The main hub in the central carretera.
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The kids on BMXs in the square hinting at a town with its own internal life outside of tourism.
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Craft beer and burgers. Fine way to spend a day off.

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.

 

Sleeping in a Cock Fighting Ring and Visiting the Pre-Incan Fortress of Kuelap

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Following the river south from San Ignacio.

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.

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Hippyville, Crossing the Border and a Peruvian Birthday

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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.

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Giant Dogs, Trays of Grubs and Saying “Aloha” to Loja

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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.

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Getting Lucky in San Jacinto

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And now for something completely different.

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.

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“Goin’ Down Down Down Down”

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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.

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Porco Rosso: 2 Weeks Volunteering on a Pig Farm in Northern Ecuador

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Panamericana – Ecuador style

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.

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