Bicycle vacation Chile
Between the snowy peaks of the Andes and the Pacific
Four weeks in Central Chile by bike and bus: between the snowy peaks of the Andes mountains and the Pacific, riding along volcanoes, lava fields, vineyards and deep-blue lakes from Santiago de Chile via Santa Cruz, Curico, Chillán, Buchupureo, Los Angeles, Rio Bio Bio, Cunco and Puerto Fuy to Valdivia. Drinks are sometimes hard to find and accomodations are often rickety, but people are extremely friendly.
Travelogue & photos: Pieter Parmentier
As opposed to biking, flying will never be our hobby. We have no complaints about the service during the flight, but to be in a box for 11 hours with 400 others, from Amsterdam, The Netherlands to Sao Paulo and then on to a connecting flight to Santiago de Chile; I guess this is how sardines feel in a can.
Chile is an impossible country: as wide as The Netherlands, with the same population, around 16 million, but 4,275 kilometers long. Too long to travel by bike in four weeks. We ride southward from Santiago and we will see how far we get. We want to visit the lake district 800 kilometers south from here, some national parks, see the Pacific, absorb some culture and we are curious to find out whatever else will cross our path.
Santiago de Chile
Visiting the big food markets is a sensation
We have breakfast early, because we are going to pick up our rental bikes and take a biking tour of the city. Especially visiting the big food markets in Santiago is a sensation. Our guide tells us a lot about the city and the food. No wonder, she has a degree in gastronomy.
I can't believe how many kinds of fruit there are. From strawberries to fruit that is completely unknown to us, all kinds of vegetables we've never seen before, an abundance from all seasons. It's kind of cool to have a country that is long enough to include all four seasons at once.
At two thirty in the morining we experience our first earthquake in Chile. But nothing even breaks and we don't hear sirens, so we go back to sleep.
Southward with the sun on our backs
We would like to get out of the city real quick and the best way to do that, is to take a bus. It takes us and our bikes to San Fernando, some 150 km's south of Santiago. Luckily the bus company doesn't require us to take the bikes apart or pack them up.
A bus assistant checks our tickets, so he can warn us when we need to get off the bus. He also brings us pillows. The seats are much more comfortable that those on the airplane.
The bus takes Ruta 5, Chile's main highway, which is part of the Panamerican Highway and connects every part of the country: from Arica on the border with Peru in the north to the isle of Chiloé south of Puerto Montt.
To our left we see the snowy peaks of the Andes mountains and to our right the coastal mountain range. The last one is higher than we expected. We'll find out in the afternoon if we have to cross them on our way to the vineyards.
Off the bus, prepare our bikes, coffee with cake (which will be our usual lunch) and then we ride to... the city dump of San Fernando. A mistake caused by our poor Spanish. Our next attempt succeeds to bring us via a tourist detour to Santa Cruz, some 50, 60 kilometers, half of which on unpaved roads. It's a dusty experience.
Dineke finds out we have the sun on our backs while riding southward. A good thing to remember, because there are no route signs, no signs with names of towns and in small towns there apparently is no need for street signs either.
Finding our general direction is made easier because the snowy Andes peaks are always spectacularly in view.
Thanks to the Lonely Planet, we soon find a nice hostel with shower in Santa Cruz. The village is at the center of the Colchagua Valley, one of Chile's wine producing regions.
Our route planner pretends nothing is wrong
If you are looking for adventure, you shouldn't be surprised when it happens to you. Our first complete day of biking begins at eight thirty. It's overcast and chilly for the first time, so we put on jackets. Our plan is to follow a pleasant route to Curico, a town some 65 kilometers to the south-east.
We mount our bike computers and Garmin route planner and we keep the detailed maps at hand, so what could happen? Well, for example, that an unpaved road ends in a river and our route planner pretends nothing is wrong.
Of course we want to know what the deal is, so I get into the water. With some effort I get to the other side, but it's clear that this won't work with our bikes and all of our luggage.
So we continue on using paved roads. Less fun, except the leg on the coastal mountains; a pretty mountain road like you find in the Spanish Pyrenees mountains.
The streets in Curico (mostly one-way) are arranged in squares around Plaza de Armas. There aren't a lot of old buildings here, probably because the earth crust isn't as quiet here as it is in our country, The Netherlands.
Off the Chilean coast, the oceanic Nazca tectonic plate pushes itself underneath the South-American tectonic plate by 6 centimeters/year. By doing this, it pushes up the Andes mountains. Every now and then, the accumulated tension releases itself by an earthquake or volcanic eruption. The last major earthquake took place in 2010. With its force of 8.8 Richter it caused a lot of mayhem and destruction in this region.
We search in vain for a drink
The train from Curico to Chillán (both towns are on Ruta 5) has comfortable seats, a working bathroom, a restaurant and a very charming female conductor from Guatemala. We can't take our eyes off the landscape with the Andes in the background.
Chillán is a different kind of city at first sight. Like Santiago, it has a spectacular background with white volcanoes, but the city itself is much more open and green.
We stay in Hotel Libertador, from where we bicycle to the Plaza de Armas, our starting point in every town. Our goal is to find a place where they will serve drinks for a fee for two dehydrated travelers. It takes us two hours to find a kind of McDonalds where they are willing to serve a decent meal, but alcoholic drinks? Absolutely not.
Strange people, those Chileans. Outdoor cafés and restaurants are rare in cities. We are really modest, but a glass of beer every now and then should be an option. We see lots of people who are eating icecream outdoors.
Along the Pacific
We take a bus to the coast. This is our strategy: first get the lay of the land and then ride back by bicycle. The bus leaves on time, as usual, and it's packed. I just fit between the breasts of a fellow passenger.
The bus has no problem crossing the coastal mountains. It also serves as a schoolbus which drops off children at home. At last we get a view of the Pacific. Sometimes the bus is close to the sea and we drive between green fields. When the bus reaches its final destination, we are the only passengers left.
We are standing on a sand road; no view of the sea, let alone a promenade with nice outdoor cafés. Buchupureo is supposed to be a tourist resort, but in reality there are only a few houses and no amenities one would expect in a place like this.
But we are not easily discouraged and bicycle to the black sand beach, where we have a view of thousands of kilometers of ocean under a blue sky. We trudge on through the sand, cross a walkbridge and see a restaurant-like building on a slope. Let's ask if they have rooms.
It turns out there are spacious cabañas behind the restaurant and we can move in immediately. It's a paradise: the view of the ocean is wonderful, the restaurant is excellent and we have eight places to sleep. The last is somewhat redundant, but we don't complain and decide to stay for more than one night. Tomorrow we can ride along the coast and afterwards have a beer in an outdoor café. This is the main advantage of traveling without a fixed plan. If it's nice somewhere, you can just stay longer.
There is a full moon over the Pacific. From our warm beds we listen to the regularly swelling sound of the surf and to a dog that is barking at its own echo in the distance.
At eight in the morning, I am up and out to find a bakery, which I haven't done so far. If you know where to look, finding stores really isn't all that difficult. Every village has its supermercado or little neighorhood botega. After a short ride in the sun along the Pacific I find one that bakes its own bread.
After breakfast we get on our bikes for a southbound exploration. Near the town of Cobquecura are several sights. Thanks to the cool, or rather cold ocean and lots of clouds, it's chilly in the mornings, but in the afternoon, in the sun, it's pleasant.
In Cobquecura we ride to the Iglesia de Piedra (Church of Stone), a cave carved out by the waves. When I try to explore it further, I am almost washed away by an extra large wave. Maybe I have to thank the statue of Mary for being spared a worse fate.
Farther south on Ruta 5
Today it's All Souls Day. That must be why we have see many people carrying bouquets of flowers over the past few days. Our alarm goes off at 7:15 am, because today we have to cross the mountains. We have one roll each and two cups of tea in our wooden house, that will have to do for the time being.
Immediately after we leave, we have to climb a steep road but are compensated by wonderful views. It's a taxing ride; the coastal mountains aren't higher than 900 meters, but they are wide, which means we'll be bicycling here for a long while. The route is quiet and leads through woods. Again, it's a mix of suffering and pleasure.
Around noon we arrive in Quirihue where we take a look at the bus station to find out if there are buses to Chillán, because after all this climbing another 70 kilometers is a bit much of a good thing. We're in luck: a bus leaves in half an hour and we can take our bikes with us.
Public bus transportation is huge in Chile, but many buses are too small to take bikes with them. We are amazed at public transportation in general: it's cheap, flexible and the staff is very helpful. Regional buses stop everywhere in the countryside where people want to get on or off the bus and everywhere new bus stops are being built.
After our arrival in Chillán we ride around to find a bus station with buses to Los Angeles. Forty-five minutes later we sit in the next comfortable touring car which takes us farther south along Ruta 5.
Tomorrow we want to visit Laguna de Laja, a national park. But first we need to find accomodation in Los Angeles. We bicycle into the city center and almost immediately find the simple and friendly Hotel del Centro.
Rio Bio Bio
The Rio Bio Bio panorama is fabelous
Back to the bus station, where we ask in our best Spanish what time the bus to Laguna de Laja in the Andes leaves. It doesn't. We have become more flexible and pick Santa Barbara, the honey capital of the country, as our new destination.
We should be able to bicycle for 50 kilometers, especially when it turns out that there is a bike path along the road. It looks like a shoulder and that's what it actually is, but there also is a sign that it's a bike path. It's a beautiful route towards snowy mountain peaks, especially the Colaqui volcano, and Rio Bio Bio.
Our plan is to play it by ear. We have some overnight stuff with us, the rest of our luggage is in Hotel del Centro, so we have the option to either stay in Santa Barbara or to keep going. The only thing is, we don't know if there are any places to spend the night up in the mountains. The advantage of traveling in the off-season is that it's quiet and every hotel, as long as it's open, has rooms available.
We are not disappointed, the Rio Bio Bio panorama is fabulous. We explore the surroundings and find out that our best option is to take the bus back to Los Angeles from here, also because we want to keep moving towards the famous lake district of Chile.
Conguillío National Park
In Los Angeles we take a bus farther south on Ruta 5 to Temuco. There we take a bus eastward to Cunco. It leaves on time but stops after a few hundred meters in the bus terminal and doesn't move for 45 minutes. None of the passengers ask what is going on.
The driver is sleeping on his steering wheel. We think this has to do with limitations on how long they are allowed to drive without resting. It's just a little odd to fall asleep in a full bus and in the burning sunshine.
Eventually we arrive somewhere near Cunco and from there we take a bumpy country road to a mountain refuge. It turns out to be a place you normally only can dream about. The house is beautiful, the views fantastic, the food delicious and there are plenty hiking and biking routes. We don't mind staying with our hosts, Adela and Helmut, for a couple of days.
Our cheery and chainsmoking host is eager to be our guide in the Conguillío National Park. It turns out to be a long and impressive day-long hike over lava fields, along drowned woods, araucaria woods with 1500-2000 years old trees, crystal-clear lakes, waterfalls and views of the 3,125 meters high Llaima volcano.
The Llaima ('veins' in the Mapuche language, because of its red lava streams) is a rather active volcano, but fortunately not now. The last time it erupted was in 2008, with 35 major eruptions since 1640. There are signs pointing to escape routes everywhere. But once the mud and gas start streaming, they won't do you any good, because they flow at 300 k/p/h.
The Lake District
There's not a lot to do and we like it!
Today we ride a beautiful route to the lake district. 50 kilometers is not much of a distance, but 20 of those lead through gravel and shingle, which make this a taxing bike ride. On top of that there are lots of 20 per cent inclines. We really feel we have earned the reward of an asphalt road and the city of Villarica on the lake with the same name.
The araucaria trees, which give this province its name, are supposed to grow only one millimeter in width every year. So, if you are not careful, you may trample a 20 years old tree. They belong to a family of living fossils and are found in some places in South America, North America, Australia and New Guinnea.
We ride over the mountain ridge around Lago Calafquén to a second lake. Hotel Becker in Licán Ray has everything we want: on the beach, a view of the lake, a restaurant that serves salmon, a friendly and helpful staff (which actually is standard in this country), cheery and noisy ibises (which we see and hear a lot these days), only two tourists and no traffic at all. Dineke and I sit on the balcony, we can live with this.
Licán Ray isn't much more than a wide main street and lots of delapidated summer cottages. Buses bring lots of old people, mostly women, who walk with difficulty; they board tour boats and leave again. Other than that, there isn't much to do here and we like it.
We wonder how this country got so green. So far we only had good weather: 20 - 24 degrees centigrade and sunny. Today it's different and that could be a good thing.
We want to continue on farther south toward Punahue and Neltume, at a distance of 45 kilometers on unpaved roads. We took a look yesterday and the road is accessible, but very dusty. So we don't mind sitting out the dust-cleaning shower in Hotel Becker on Lago Calafquén.
Even though I don't really mind scantily clad women, the TV-shows we can't ignore whenever we are in a restaurant aren't interesting at all. Both the soaps and the incomprehensible game shows are more about feminine beauty than anything else. It's a sharp contrast with reality: women here wear trousers, rarely dresses and certainly not bikinis.
A night in a spectacular wooden construction
Today beats everything I have experienced in years. The route is tough, 75 kilometers on mostly unpaved roads, and the last 12 kilometers are a constant climb on a foothill of the Andes mountains. But even with 15 kilos of luggage each it's still an incredibly beautiful route.
After nine hours of bicycling over mountain ranges and a few kilometers before we reach Puerto Fuy, we see Hotel Nothofagus, a spectacular wooden construction which is also aptly called Hotel Baobab.
We hadn't planned to stay here, it's way too expensive. But we are exhausted; we haven't celebrated our wedding anniversary yet this year; as a board member of the Tree Foundation in our town I can't just pass by; one luxury accomodation in a vacation should be allowed en also: isn't this a once in a lifetime kind of thing?
So we enjoy our pretty room, the good food, perfect service, the incredible view, a great shower, central heating, English speaking staff, swimming pool, sauna, door and windows that actually close, bird songs as backgroud music (as opposed to the usual crappy music and TV-noise)and an activity program. We pass on the activities, though. We have been active enough for one day.
The next day we ride on three-starred asphalt. The landscape is wonderful: bright blue lakes, snow-white volcanoes, woods in many shades of green, farmlands, azaleas in bloom, rhododendrons, buttercups, vinca (periwinkle), lilacs, broom, hydrangea, etc.
Four o'clock we arrive at Hostal Hua-Hum, with a view of Lago Panguipulli. The hostel is run by an old lady. A room: no problem. Dinner and a bottle of wine: no problem either..
Descent to the Pacific
The contrast couldn't be greater: from hugs at our farewell in the B&B at the quiet lake in the Andes foothills to Valdivia, a large city on the estuary of the Rio Calle Calle near the Pacific. The bus takes us there in only two hours.
What we didn't expect, was a huge sports event in Valdivia this week. All hotels, hostals and hospedajes are booked up. Still we find accomodation, in a B&B on a major approach road.
Chile is definitely not a developing country. It has a superior economy. Everyhting is for sale and everyone has a cell phone. But construction is terrible. We are used to that by now.
In this B&B we have to be careful with opening or closing windows. It's very possible they will fall from their grooves. The electrical installation could use an upgrade as well, just like the attachment of the curtain rods, the sink, the wall tiles, etc. The door won't close completely and the windows, if they open at all, cannot be fastened. The roof has loose parts. No wonder with those thin corrugated sheets. When it rains, the noise is deafening.
Almost every building in which we stay is extremely combustible. They are usually built with chipboards and have no insulation whatsoever. There are electric and wood stoves everywhere and also candles for a romantic atmosphere.
All that traffic in our bedroom, it should be outlawed. That's how we felt last night. Today we are going to find out if there is quieter accomodation near the Pacific. The helpful girl at the Tourist Office makes a few calls and finds a place with a view of the Bahía de Corral in Los Molinos.
As soon as the fish arrives in the wharf of Los Molinos, women throw themselves on them with a zeal we so far only have seen with the pelicans here. We eat fish, drink a cool white wine on the terrace of a restaurant and listen to the surf. Not a regular November day but certainly something we could get used to.
Santiago de Chile
800 kilometers back on a sleeper bus
It takes the sleeper bus nine hours (800 kilometers) from Valdivia to Santiago, mostly on Ruta 5. The ride is surprisingly comfortable; the seats fold out almost flat and we are relatively rested when we arrive. We immediately try to find our next bus.
We planned to continue on to the Andes mountains. There should be a pretty canyon through which you can bicycle into the mountains. The bus terminal in Santiago is huge, it has breakfast restaurants and dozens of bus companies have their offices there. It's difficult to get a clear view of the situation, so it takes a while for us to find out where the eastbound buses are.
After about 11 hours in different buses we finally ride our bikes in the mountains. At 70 kilometers east of Santiago, between San José de Maipo and San Alfonso we find the best cabaña so far: Tres Continentes. A wild river flows along our terrace.
The Maipo river (chocolate milk colored) in its canyon of the same name is an impressive sight. It originates from a glacier on the almost 6,000 meters high San José volcano, not far from here.
After a 54 kilometers descent we are back at Hotel Vegas in Santiago, where our trip in Chile also started. It's about 36 degrees centigrade and in the malls people are decorating X-mas trees. We prepare to leave Chile.
The people at Becicleta Verde are happy to get their bikes back in one piece. They (the bikes) have suffered from the unpaved roads and especially from transportation by bus. The men are amazed to hear our stories, because their bikes usually don't get far from the city center, let alone 800 kilometers south.
We leave with a positive impression of Chile. Enjoying our trip together and being flexible in changing situations, finding solutions for problems together: these are the ingredients for the success of our trip. We had no plan when we arrived, other than biking south of Santiago. It became a wonderful exploration of the country. And of each other: we have known each other for almost forty years, but we have never before, at the age of sixty, traveled through South America.