El Camino de Los Huasos: A Ride Through the Central Chilean Andes
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
More than anything else, I’ve learned two things in my time in Northern Argentina and Chile. First and foremost, never trust a zipper. Little known fact: over 8.9 million zippers have been destroyed in Argentina’s desert in 2018 alone. OK, so maybe I made that up, but if I owned 8.9 million zippers that would definitely be true. The second lesson? Avoid shipping here at all costs, but if you must, you’d better have it planned out well in advance. Unfortunately, after damaging my derailleur and a number of other pieces of equipment in the harsh northern desert, planning and shipping in advance were not really on the table, so upon arriving in the sprawling urban center of Chile known as Santiago, my trip was in the notoriously slow hands of the Chilean customs offices and postal system.
In the end, the package with my precious parts sat in the Santiago airport for almost 6 weeks before they magically showed up one day at random. In that period of time, my shot at riding to the southern tip of South America before winter the way I had planned was wiped out and a decision regarding the rest of my trip had to be made… Eventually, I decided rather than rushing to Patagonia on a bus to hit the “highlights” of the south, I’d ignore the changing seasons and make my way down like I’ve got all the time in the world. Zig-zagging across the Andes with every opportunity. When winter comes? I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.
There are certainly benefits to this approach, and in this area, it is particularly helpful to have time, as most of the best riding requires routing that isn’t exactly time-efficient for those traveling north-south. Timing is also key. During the summer, locals flock from Chilean and Argentinian cities to enjoy the many national parks filled with lakes, waterfalls, forests, and volcanoes. However, once school kicks off at the end of summer, these places empty out, making fall a prime time to enjoy quiet Chilean mountain roads dotted with small, smokey villages.
While I would consider myself a desert person by nature, after months in the dry and high altitude mountains of the north, I was really looking forward to this part of the Andes, as water (and oxygen!) are slowly re-introduced into the equation. By this point, it really felt like I hadn’t seen a proper forest in years, so this place suddenly felt very exotic and new to me. The sound of the water cascading down the cliffside around seemingly every corner. The scent of the trees. They were familiar, but only from places that felt like a distant memory.
Central Chile had one other quirk to throw into the works of my normal routine… Fences. They sure love their fences down here! Often times these seem to be fencing nothing in particular in-or-out, but needless to say, they become a major pain in the ass when trying to find a campsite. It is particularly jarring after the free-for-all camping that can be found in places like Peru and Bolivia. If I had to guess, I probably end up stealth camping behind fenced in “private property” around half of the time since entering this part of the country. It isn’t ideal, but despite the added complication, the people are generally pretty lenient on someone riding through with their entire life strapped to their bike. If you get spotted, they probably won’t come by aiming a shotgun at your tent like they might back in The States.
This was also my introduction to the famed Chilean cowboys known locally as “Huasos”. Often they’re seen roaming the countryside, herding animals, or simply click-clacking their way through the streets of the town square. Occasionally, they come from darkness. Sauntering out of a tunnel of trees on horseback along a foot-trail in the middle of nowhere, just after nightfall. Barely giving my half-setup campsite a brief side-glance, I freeze. They fix their eyes on the trail ahead, dip their head in acknowledgment, and casually disappear into the forest once again, like a ghost.
I think to myself… Damn, I wish I was that cool.
My Route is on Ride with GPS.