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

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.

The campsite, through which the river Nantifall flows, is easy on the eye.
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.
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.
They sell all sorts of locally produced jams, honeys, craft beers and oils.
Along with their own wine (when there’s any left to sell).
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.
They then process the grapes over in the bodega…
…above which I slept in a cubby hole like some maligned stepchild.
The work was simple enough. I chopped vegetables, mowed the lawn, threw stuff in the wood chipper, pulled weeds and helped translate.
And along with a bed I was repaid with delicious, healthy food, including actual bonafide pies! PIES I TELL THEE!!
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile Martina danced around me for hours like a demented speed freak while I mowed the lawn.
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.
I purposefully departed on a crisp, clear day…
…and was soon making my 4th crossing between Argentina and Chile.
After a brief stop in Futalefeu.
I rolled down past stunning lakes and volcanoes.
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.

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.
Along with Jordi, a Spanish cyclist, we pooled our cash and spent the night in a cabana…
…before heading south to see if the carretera was all it’s made out to be.
It was.
The road, which alternates between pavement and ripio snakes its way through some of the most stupidly pretty landscapes I’ve ever seen.
A collapsed road had us taking the first of many ferries on the route south to Ushuaia.
Adolfo, who we kept bumping into en route south, gave us tips and cigarettes.
We saw dolphins in the bay and camped on lakesides.
Stocked up supplies in small towns.
And ate lunch on hillsides and on the beach.
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.
We teamed up with a Swiss couple and had a coffee break in a converted bus to shelter from the rain.
Then set our eyes on what can only be described as a “movie mountain”.
Which acted as our focal point on another glorious sunny day of cycling.
The occasional empanada stop was necessary.
Mince, egg, olive and chili sauce make for one tasty bastard.
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.
The blossoming flowers gave the mountainsides a certain autumnal tint.
And after a rainy day riding through a valley, we emerged from a tunnel.
Above Coyaique. The main hub in the central carretera.
The kids on BMXs in the square hinting at a town with its own internal life outside of tourism.
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.


In Patagonia: Lakes, More Lakes and Welsh Tea Shops


I didn’t think I’d make it this far. Patagonia was a mirage shimmering so far in the distance that I assumed I’d give up or die of thirst before I reached it. At the beginning of my trip I was unsure if I even wanted to go this far. What if I had crippling back pain, got really lonely or my bike exploded? When people asked about my destintion I’d always say Montevideo with an added “maybe via Patagonia…but we’ll see”.

Accordingly I didn’t do much research about the ruggedly beautiful region that draws so many people to this part of the world, nor did I spend hours poring over earthporn photos of the Torres del Paine or the Carretera Austral, preferring to leave an air of mystery around it. Or maybe I was just lazy. Either way, when I emerged from the bus in Pucon it was clear that I was entering a whole other world – one of log cabins, crystalline lakes and the kind of raw, uncaring wild that Jack London wrote about.

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Dash to the Coast Vol. 3: Chilean Edition


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.

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Salty Dogs: Cycling Through Bolivia’s Salars


I added a little poem to all the inspirational waffle on the walls. I think the work of Eggman Jones holds up well against the neighbouring Emily Dickinson quote.

When I returned to the Casa de Ciclistas it had been invaded by French, Swiss and Belgians. All very nice people I’m sure, but the lingua franca was no longer English and I found myself drowning in a sea of French chatter. Even the one other English guy was fluent in French. It was time to leave.

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To Huaraz: an Englishman, a German, 2 Bikes and 36 Tunnels


Deciding not to push on to Cajamarca proved to be a blessing in disguise when Miguel, noticing my beleaguered state, offered me a discounted room at his Tetem Backpackers. He proved to be an absolute mensch and the place, with its huge rooms and heated pool was the perfect place to spend a day off. If you’re in the area check it out!

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A Broken Bike, a Broken Body and Peru Showing its True Colours


A couple of days before I arrived in Chachapoyas I noticed some paint peeling on the frame of the bike. It was only later while giving it a clean I realised it was something much more serious. The welding at the join between one of the seat stays and the seat tube had completely cracked and the two were no longer attached. I went online to find out how bad this was and, much like how WebMD can make a mild rash seem like a virulent case of smallpox, the various cycling forums soon led me to believe that I had no choice but to give up on my frame or else suffer the dreaded “catastrophic failure”. There was never any mention of partial or slight failure, it just had to be catastrophic. It was clear that if I rode my bike again it would instantly explode and I would die. On the other hand replacing the frame would be time consuming, expensive and a logistical nightmare. As I lay there in my hostel bed I saw my whole trip flash before my eyes. Surely there had to be a way to fix this.

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Ecuador: Land of Hitler Dwarves and The Super Police


Ecuador: home of The Galapagos, volcanoes and, uh… Antonio Valencia. It’s safe to say I didn’t know much about the equatorial meat in the Colombia/Peru sandwich and was curious to find out more. The Colombians I’d asked unsurprisingly told me Colombia is far more bacano (cool) and that while Ecuadorians are friendly they’re not as warm as their northern neighbours. Oh, and their food sucks (uh, pot kettle black?).

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