Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Altos Del Lircay (Temuco to Santiago)

(next page: Santiago - off the bike)

The highlight of this next section is definitely hiking at Los Altos del Lircay, so feel free to scroll down if photos of roads bore you!

Going Solo
It was strange saying goodbye to Vijay the morning I set off from Temuco. We had been travelling together for about six weeks so I had come accustomed to having company on the rides.

Riding alone can sometimes be a very introspective affair. In the past I have found it quite depressing, usually because of the circumstances in my life at the time - moments of massive change. However this time it felt very comfortable, like it was supposed to be this way. It also allowed me to set myself some goals. Riding can become pretty monotonous so it is good to challenge yourself to add another dimension to your tour. Prior to leaving Temuco I had not ridden a single 100km day. I think the most had been 97km. At first this was fine, but as you get stronger it just becomes too easy. Here are the three goals I set myself:
  1. Ride at least 100km a day.
  2. Reach Santiago within 10 days.
  3. Try and do it for less than £100 (GBP)
I'll let you know right now that I failed on the third challenge rather quickly. I simply have a far too voracious appetite. I could have done this easily by just eating porridge, pasta and rice, but what is the point? I'm experiencing a different culture and by cutting out the food experience you are missing out on so much. Hostals have also proved to be quite expensive at times. I'm not too bothered at failing to achieve this goal. They are to aim for. That's it. If you constantly achieve all of your goals, then I think you might be setting the bar a little too low.

Day one: Temuco to Los Sauces (123 km)
The ride out of Temuco was wonderful. It was pretty much a perfect ride through a voluptuous landscape. Climbing uphill for some time, you eventually ride high above the valleys around you, gazing over golden fields of wheat and pine forests. It was harvest time too, so the land was being worked around the clock. Combine harvesters were everywhere.

altos01 altos02
As you approach Chol Chol you are gifted a sweet downhill of gentle switchbacks.

altos03 altos04
This guy's name is Ramon. I bumped into him in Galvarino. It was getting pretty hot so I made the decision to take a short break for a lager Shandy. Nothing is quite as refreshing on a roasting day! I grabbed a can of sprite and a can of Becker lager and mixed it up in my empty water bottle. No sooner had I started sipping on my beverage Ramon popped out of nowhere. It was a Sunday, so not much was going on in this sleepy little village. I think the prospect of livening up an otherwise dull day might have proved a little too much for our Ramon. LOCO DOMINGO! Before I knew it he had popped into the store and returned with two cans of Becker. One for me and one for himself. I was taken by surprise at his generosity. We made some attempts to converse, but my Spanish is rather appalling. I managed to be understood, but once he started firing away, I was screwed. I don't think many gringos roll through this neck of the woods and the concept of grading language, or speaking slowly, is probably an alien one. Nonetheless, the patchy dialogue continued. The beers were sunk with ease and Ramon was back into the store to fetch another two cans of Becker. I wasn't asked if I wanted another one. It was a given. So with the volume of a can a sprite and three beers inside me I was getting remarkably gassy. My stomach was bloated. I think Ramon had plans to keep me in town and get me as pissed as a fart. I had to make my excuses and leave before things became a little too much fun.
altos06 altos07 altos08
One of my favourite things about cycling trips are the impromptu food stops. I spotted this little family food stand outside Traiguén, so I hit the breaks and pretty much inhaled a Completo Italiano (hot dog, Chilean style) and coca cola.

This is it. I love the feeling of just rolling at your own pace, soaking up everything around you. I can't express how free it makes you feel to just be doing your own thing. No work to worry about. No destination in mind. You're just moving along without a care in the world. Riding alone actually makes the experience more fluid. You can set your own pace, stop when your body feels like it, eat what you want where you want, sleep wherever you feel like it. You can live by impulse, do your own navigation and take your own risks. Nothing has ever given me more freedom. There are the occasional downsides though.

Before I set off I decided that I would simply ride for 100km and then look for a spot to wild camp. I aimed for a little town called "Los Sauces" where I could get some water and some pasta sauce. I thought that was quite an appropriate place considering the town's name.

I have been navigating using a cheap road atlas published by COPEC, the Chilean petrol company. I spotted that there was a river after Los Sauces so it seemed that it could be a good spot to camp. I had a vision of a beautiful camp spot for my first night of solo wild camping. Oh how wrong I was. Check the photo out below.
The river was pretty pathetic, but I decided to camp there anyway as I was getting tired after 123km of cycling. The camp spot was quite secluded as it was under a bridge. This would be ideal as I wouldn't get spotted and moved on. It was actually a really ghetto spot and not very pleasant at all. I barely managed to get any sleep due to the traffic overhead. It was not a busy a road, but when trucks thundered past the noise was deafening.

In the evening when you stop in a crappy spot like this, that's when you start to feel lonely and wish for company. If your camping somewhere more serene, you couldn't care less about company. You just take in the surroundings and recharge, wallowing in your own thoughts.

Day two: Los Sauces to Tucapel (131km)
I woke up very early. I was keen to get away from that rubbish campsite as quickly as possible. It was a grim day as well, just grey skies, so that motivated me to get on the road and get the hell out of there.

The grey skies didn't last long. For about 30 minutes I could see bright blue skies ahead. It was like having a carrot dangled in front of you for motivation, so I bolted towards it.
The landscape started much like the previous day, then it flattened out. I only intended to ride little over 100km just so I could achieve that goal I had set. I took a huge afternoon break in Los Angeles then got back on the road at 5pm to seek out another camping spot. I asked a few people on the road about "camping agreste". I was under the impression that this meant wild camping, but I don't quite think it's what I had in mind. Everybody spoke of Tucapel, so I headed in that direction to check it out. There was a dirt cheap campsite there and it was by the perfect river for bathing. It felt so good to wade into the cool waters and go for a swim and rinse all the sweaty salt from my skin.
altos13 altos14
After a 131km of cycling I like to replenish my spirits with 1 litre of red wine, like any self respecting athlete!
I met this fella at my campsite. There were a few stray dogs on the campsite, all very friendly. He lay here in a fire pit to get a little shelter from the breeze. Later in the middle of the night I awoke to a noise, so I decided to investigate. This dog had crawled into the vestibule of my tent! I shouted at him and shone my light in his face. His reaction was hilarious. He pretended I wasn't there. He looked in the other direction, but his eyes kept peering back nervously. It was as if he thought that I wouldn't notice him, if only he didn't move. I thought it was funny, but being the scrooge that I am I had to move him out of there. Shouting hadn't worked, so I took it to the next level and grabbed my water bottle. After a couple of seconds of being squirted on, with a look of confusion he dashed out from the tent. He couldn't understand where all this water was coming from. "This is supposed to be a shelter!" I can hear him shouting inside his head. Poor guy. He was so sweet and came looking for me in the morning when I went to the showers.

Which reminds me. I managed to shit my pants that morning! The last time I did that was also in South America, when I visited Colombia in 2010, but that's another story. I was in my twenties then, but now I'm thirty three, for christ's sake! How did this happen? Quite simple really. I went a little overboard on the aji chileno (chilli sauce) the day before.

I knew trouble was brewing, so I made a dash for the bathroom. It was the butt clench run, when you're essentially moving along like a really anxious penguin. The problem is that when you get really close to the toilet your mind decides that now is the time to go. I was there. I was in the cubicle. I had made it! Hooray! But on closer inspection I saw that my undies were full of shit. Aww bollocks! Fortunately the shower cubicle was next to the toilet, so I jumped straight in to clean off. No big deal.

I would like to say that I will learn from my mistakes, but I really love spicy food, so don't be surprised if there are more tales like this later in the trip. I truly hope that you're not eating your breakfast right now. "Couch on wheels" is not a blog for reading at mealtimes I'm afraid. YOU learn from YOUR mistakes! HAHA!

Day three: Tucapel to Chillán (93km)
"Only 93 km? Wait a minute. But what about goal number one?"

I knew nothing about what lay ahead when I left Temuco two days before, but after doing a little reading I discovered that there was going to be some cool things to do. I also added another goal to my list of things to do - to do a 100 mile ride (161km).

I rode 123km on day one and 131km on day two. The wine region of Maule valley was just two days ahead of me near Talca which I was really keen to visit, So I had two days to get there. Chillán to Talca was 150km on the Pan American highway, but there was a little detour through Maule town which would add a few extra kilometres. So if I was going to attempt to ride 100 miles (161km) on day four, then day three would have to be slightly under 100km. This was not really a big issue to me. I have no one to answer to and these goals are personal. Personally I was pretty excited to try and ride so far and it seemed like a more significant challenge than riding 100km everyday.

Once I got to Talca I would have a rest day to recover and drink in some of the local wine! YAY!

I saw this sad but cool memorial in Huépil as I started my ride.

altos17 altos18
The roads undulated and there were a few tough little climbs and a little wind, but nothing nasty. The Andes were constantly on the horizon keeping me distracted. Must keep my eyes on the road!

The first three days were all on country roads. Generally the rides on these roads are much more attractive, but the traffic not so much fun. The worst are the timber trucks. They blast past you giving you barely an inch of space and scare the living daylights out of you, then just as you are about to scream bloody murder at them, they leave a delightful waft of pine in their wake. It's so calming. It's like being mugged at knife point, but then the assailant busts out some essential oils and whispers some sweet words in your ear as you gently melt back into your chair all soothed and revitalised.

The audacity!

Riding into Chillán I took the cycle path and came across this guy blasting along with a horse in tow. I was not expecting that. He was pretty nonchalant about it.

Day three: Chillán to Talca (163km)
What is that? That is my breakfast and yes, it is a hot dog, smothered in avocado, mayo, mustard and the dreaded aji chileno. I told you I wouldn't learn from my mistakes. I love this fast food, but the avocado gives you the worst farts. On many mornings I have awoken in a gas chamber - my tent.

There weren't many other food options en route to the highway and this only cost £1. As I was going to have a stab at riding 100 miles, there was no way that I was going to start the day on an empty stomach. I like to keep my engine constantly fuelled up. I don't wait until I'm hungry to eat, I just eat all day, that way I don't get tired so easily. I like to think of it like a fire. You need to keep putting logs on the fire. You don't wait for the fire to die then fire it up again.

Seeing as I like to eat all day I stop whenever I see something interesting. Ruta 5 (the pan american highway) is pretty dull, so food stops are to be enjoyed.

altos21 altos22
The first stop was for some mote con huesillo. I don't know if this is a drink or a dessert, but it is cold, sweet and refreshing. It is full of barley and comes with a peach or an apricot in it. It is the perfect thing on a hot day and puts your energy levels through the roof. In Chillán there was a whole street with food stalls that only sold mote con huesillo.

This guy had a flat on the side of the highway, so I lent him some of my tools.

It was a long day -  mostly flat - and I was beginning to get rather bored and tired around 110km until this guy caught up with me. His name is Christian. We got chatting in Spanish and ended up riding together for ages. He was one his road bike, so he set a good pace a for me. It was like having my own personal domestique! I told him that I was going to take the next day off to visit a vineyard and had some wine, so he called up his friend to let him know about the gringo he was riding with. He arranged for me to visit the Balduzzi in San Javier, so we took a little detour where he dropped me off in the hands of Luis.

This is Luis! He works at the Balduzzi vineyard and also as an English teacher, so we got talking about cycling in the area. After Talca I was planning on visiting Las Siete Tazas for a little hiking, but Luis suggested doing something else instead - ride up to Los Altos del Lircay national reserve. It seemed like a challenging ride so I thought I would give it a go. It was a decision that I would not regret. I am really thankful to Luis for pointing me in the right direction.

I sampled a couple of gorgeous white wines and bought a bottle of red cabernet sauvignon reserve for later.

Chillán is still recovering from a massive earthquake that struck in 2010. I was in New Zealand at the time. Lots of buildings were destroyed and you can still see the scars. So much of the city is under construction.

As I rode into town I was a little under 100 miles, so I explored the city looking for places to stay and finally clocked up 163km. Boom! Now where's that wine bottle opener?

Day five: Rest day, Maule Valley, Viña Gillmore

Plaza de Armas

Luis also recommended that I visited the Gillmore vineyard, so I took his word and went to check it out. It is in a lovely setting and they have a load of bizarre animals there too. A German girl was doing some work there, so I asked for the tour to be done in Spanish by her. That was she could practice it a little more and I could try and improve my listening.
altos28 altos29 altos30 altos31 altos32
What did I buy? A cabernet franc. I went back to the hostel, bought a massive chorizo and a block of strong Dutch Montana cheese, then ate the lots. Freaky dreams ensued.

Day six. Talca to Altos del Lircay Reserva Nacional (70km).
70km seems like a pretty easy ride these days, however this ride came with a sting in its tail. All will be revealed.

I stopped off from some food in San Clemente at restaurant "El Bigote". Before consulting my dictionary I thought this name must mean "The Bigot". Turns out that it means "The moustache"- most appropriate given the owner's facial hair. He reminded me of a Chilean verison of my Dad in his later years.

I ended up ordering Pollo Mariscal. Mussel soup with chicken and a healthy dose of papas fritas. It's like a Chilean moules frites with a twist.
altos33 altos36
That sting in the tail is coming up soon!

This was my last stop before pressing on to Altos Del Lircay. Lager shandy and lots of natter. The lady gave me a massive bag of blueberries for free to put in my porridge. Yes, porridge was a topic of discussion. That's the kind of chat I like to indulge in. Call me up if you want to talk oats.

Suffering imminent...

POW!!!!! Look at that sign! It tells no lies.

The first 40km of this ride were virtually flat, perhaps a slight upwards incline as I was riding up a valley. The next 10km were undulating hills, but on really nice roads. The final 19km was  a very steep climb up gravel roads (ripio) at some time quite corrugated. It took a LONG time to get up there. My legs haven't felt that kind of pain in a very long time. I was exhausted the whole time, just dripping with sweat. The trees provided little shelter from the sun.

As I approached Vilches Alto I started to feel somewhat relieved that I was getting close. It was to be short lived. Once you get to the park it's at least another 2km to get to the campsite and the road quality is simply shocking. It's not a road, it's a rocky and dusty trail and almost unridable one a fully loaded touring bike. I invite you to take a peek...
Yeah, that bad!
At this point I got off to push, only I couldn't! The road was so steep and my bike so heavy that I basically started moonwalking in the slippery dust. Riding was a better option, but it was terrible. The rocks were huge that steering became almost impossible. It was certainly the slowest 2km I have ever "cycled", if you can call it that. There were lots of incredibly shorts burst of frantic pedalling, usually resulting in near crashes, followed by moments of quasi-cardiac arrest. It was intensely frustrating.

Look at that sweaty saddle. That's how tough the ride was.

And this is how bad sweat can destroy your Brooks saddle.

Settling down at the camp spot felt heavenly though. It was nice to just relax and watch the sunset. The stars were so bright up there.
altos43 altos44

Day seven. "Rest day, haha" Los Altos Del Lircay.
Calling this a rest day is a joke. I simply wasn't on my bicycle. I set off on an 8 hour hike up to Enladrillado and La Laguna reaching heights of over 2,200 metres. It was one of the most satisfying hikes I have ever done - completely different to Volcán Villrrica.

Peruvian Lily (Alstroemeria)

Oh, the wildlife!
Don't know what this is, but I would like to find out.

Black Green Tree Iguana (Liolaemus nigroviridis)

These were everywhere, but they are very skittish. They range in the vibrancy of their colours.

FINALLY!!!! I've been waiting to see one of these birds ever since I got to South America. It's the Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus Magellanicus). They are apparently pretty common, but somehow I hadn't been able to see a single one until I got to Altos Del Lircay. I could hear them pecking away in the morning as they looked for grubs behind the bark of the trees. Eventually I saw one flying past, but didn't get the opportunity to take a photo. Nonetheless I was just happy that I had seen it.

Later I got the opportunity to snap one! Such a cool bird. It reminds me a lot of the Steller's Jay because of its bright color and it's "hairstyle".
altos49 altos50
The first couple of hours of hiking winds through forests up the side of the valley until eventually you get above the tree line.

altos52 altos53
As you reach the top of the first trail these black rock formations appear.

Looking back down the valley.

This is Enladrillado, a mountain top plateau which overlooks the Andes and the valley of Rio Claro. Just look at these views. It was very hard to find a good reason to leave this place.

altos56 altos57 altos58 altos59 altos60
Looking back towards Enladrillado plateau.

altos61 altos62 altos63 altos64
I caught up with a herd of goats. They ran away. Such is life. I'm no Dr Doolittle.

altos65 altos66 altos67
La Laguna. A popular place for camping. If I didn't have my bike and loads of panniers I would love to have camped here. The stars in the sky at night are amazing in this park, but the trees blocked the view in my campsite. At the Laguna nothing blocks the view.

The descent.
Heading back down to the treeline.

Day eight. Altos Del Lircay to, err, a petrol station somewhere after Curicó. (137km)
Waking up on day seven I could hardly move. The combination of the cycle up to Altos del Lircay and the 8 hour hike wiped me out. I would have stayed another day and rested, but I was eager to make that goal of reaching Santiago in ten days. I also had to respond to some couchsurfing requests for my arrival in Santiago, so I needed to get down to somewhere with wifi. I reluctantly packed up my stuff and got prepared to leave camp.

I wanted to get to Curicó, but it would be a really long day, so I set off without a destination in mind. I could just go back to Talca and stay there. That would be an easy ride.

The descent from Altos Del Lircay down to Vilches Baja took just one hour. It was about 19km, but I had to spend the whole time on the breaks, so my hands were in pain from gripping the entire way down. The first 2km at the top of the descent really sucked. The surface was erratic, slippery and it was hard to see the rocks because of the sunlight. At some points I had to push downhill just so I wouldn't lose control!

I asked a bunch of different people about the best route to Curicó and I got several different answers. The winding country road would probably have been the most scenic route, but I had just had overdosed on mountains and nature, so I was happy to take the flat, duller, but more importantly, easier route. As my legs warmed up I flew back towards Talca. It is an ever so slight downhill as it follows a river valley, so I made fast progress. Soon I was on route 5 heading north towards Curicó.

At the beginning of the day I could hardly stomach the idea of riding, but as the day went on I found my groove and got more and more excited about the cycle ahead. On this trip I have been able to see myself get stronger and the rides become easier. I love feeling the progression. It is 200 km, from Curicó to Santiago. Previously I thought this would be a two day ride. My change in mentality meant other plans were coming to the surface. The heat was ridiculous, but it really didn't bother me. There's a thermometer on my bicycle's speedometer and it read 43ºC, but as long as I was moving at a decent speed the breeze kept me feeling cool. It goes without saying that I drank a LOT of water.


"Screw Curicó! I just want to keep on riding."

So I did. I just kept pedalling. It reminded me of a scene from the British TV series "Peep Show" where Super Hans (a drug addict) goes clean. He takes up exercise and decides to run to the local store, Londis, but ends up all the way in Windsor. When asked why he says "I didn't mean to, the endorphins kicked in and I couldn't stop!"

Endorphins. Powerful stuff!

I had no idea where I was going to sleep. In the end I just rolled up to a COPEC petrol station, stuffed my face with food, took a shower in the bathrooms (an aspect I love about these petrol stations) and pitched my tent on the grass behind the car park.

So... two more days to Santiago. Sod that. I can do it in one day.Why the hell not, I'll have a bash at it.

I actually didn't sleep well. Not because of noise, but because of excitement about trying to do this mammoth ride (for me it's mammoth anyway). I haven't got this worked up about soemthing since my skateboarding days.

My filthy legs and cyclists tan line pre shower.

Day Santiago (approximately 190km)
7:40am I set off. The petrol station was at mile 187km on route 5, so in theory it would be about that far to get to Santiago. I was really hyped to try and ride this far. Riding 100 miles was a huge landmark for me, so this was even better. It would be the last day of riding on this leg of the trip before I take the bus up to Antofagasta to ride across the Atacama desert. There was nothing to lose and plenty of time to rest up in Santiago. I hoped to get there before 8pm. There was no rush however.

I had been told there was nothing to see as you approach Santiago but the mountains close in on you as get get further north. Despite just being a ride along a highway I thought the views were great.

I did see a lot of roadkill though. All of them were dogs. It's pretty horrendous to witness. One dog had just been torn apart and its entrails were strewn along the highway for at least twenty metres. It was undoubtedly one of the most gruesome things I have ever seen.

After 22km of riding my front pannier just snapped off. I have no idea why. I just saw it dragging along on the floor.

I managed to jimmy rig it together so it would last the distance to Santiago.

There was one other problem. My odometer stopped working. Somehow the pannier must have knocked the magnet off my spokes. It is an essential part of the device for measuring how far you travelled. So I had to estimate the distances travelled from here on. Fortunately there are markers on the highway every 100 metres on the central reservation.

Sharing the shoulder.

"Strolling down the highway. I'm gonna get there my way" (Bert Jansch)


The day went surprisingly quickly. About 40km before Santiago signs start to appear saying that there is no cycling on the highway. That was news to me. I rode along on a parallel road until it stopped and there were no options. There was a bit of getting lost here, then I thought "fuck it" and rode along the highway regardless. I saw loads of other people doing it too. All right, I saw two other people doing it. But if they didn't care, neither did I.

Navigating my way into Santiago was relatively easy, but not fun. It's not a great city for cycling. The traffic sucks, especially the collectivo taxis.

altos78 altos79
6:30pm. 190km done! Nice work! I stopped off at this bar on the cobbled streets of Paris and Londrés for a couple of pale ales. Never has a beer tasted so good!

I set myself the goal of getting to Santiago in ten days, but I did it in nine. 900km over 7 days of cycling. I'm pretty chuffed! The thing that has really surprised me is just how quickly the last nine days have flown by.

I'm going to spend probably about 4 days in Santiago resting up and getting my bike ready for the next phase of my trip. Santiago is certainly going to be the last place I can get decent equipment for some time. There is one street, San Diego, that has a stupid amount of bicycle shops, so I shouldn't have any trouble finding stuff.

I'm going to stop typing and start relaxing!

(next page: Santiago - off the bike)