Autumn Amongst the Araucarias
Photos and words by Ryan Wilson
After committing to spending another winter cruising around South America, I figured I might as well go all-in. With no focus on getting much further south where the weather would be turning toward ‘unpleasant for bike touring’ even sooner, I instead looked to embrace the short window of perfect Autumn riding that was dropped in front of me, and go over Chile’s mountainous Araucanía region with a fine-tooth comb.
This area is often overlooked by folks making a bee-line for Southern Patagonia, but it is a favorite amongst the local Chileans looking to escape the city during the summer, highlighted by a seemingly endless string of volcanoes, lakes, and forests filled with Araucaria trees. These tall and spiky evergreens, sometimes referred to as “monkey puzzle trees” give the region its name, and are often considered sacred to the natives of this area who are known as the Mapuche.
Being able to focus in on one area and thoroughly discover all of the little nooks and crannies it has to offer without having to pass up interesting places just because of time restrictions is one of my favorite parts about traveling this way by bike. Circling back to a small town for a 2nd or 3rd time almost makes it feel like a home away from home. You stop by the same stores or restaurants and see a few familiar faces hanging around the town square. Often these faces are giving that “Ohh.. you’re still here?” look of surprise that you haven’t simply passed through like the other handfuls of foreigners that come through the area at this point in the year.
Typically, this is when the locals let their guard down a bit and might even be willing to spill the lentejas on a nice little road or trail that is unlikely to show up on any map, often leading to some of the most rewarding riding in the area… “When you get to the red house, tell them I said hello, they’ll unlock the gate for you, and point you in the right direction!” (…If you’re looking, these won’t show up on my gpx track at the bottom of this article, so you’ll have to head to Lonquimay for a couple weeks and chat up some folks near the plaza ;)
All of this meandering comes at a cost of course. First in time, having eaten up 98% of my 90 day Chilean visa, I was tasked with heading to the nearest Argentinian border crossing, needing to make re-entering the next day just a stone’s throw to the south seem totally natural (not that I was going for the often frowned upon visa “reset”!). The second cost being the rapidly escalating price of living that comes with these Patagonia-adjacent regions. Long gone are the days of $1.50 meals in menu del día restaurants, rock-bottom prices in the village market, and $5-7 for a night in basic accommodation. Now, when you’re in desperate need of a warm shower and a (literal) battery recharge, it’s probably going to set you back three times that or more.
It may not seem like a lot, but when you’re on the “multi-year leisure cruise” budget, $20 a night feels a bit like you’re dropping a down-payment on a house. Suddenly, the strategy has to change a bit. No more rolling into a town and finding a bed at 8pm just for convenience. Now you’re left to master the art of strategically camping just before entering a town and heading in early the next morning to handle all of the ‘chores’ that come with the rest day, while only having to pay for one night in the hotel…
7:00am: Wake up and fumble together your last scraps of food (who says yesterday’s leftover rice and some peanut butter isn’t breakfast?!)
7:30am: Pack up the tent and sneak out of the private property you camped on last night.
8:30am: Ride into town.
9:00am: Start prowling around the plaza asking where the cheapest “alojamiento” is.
9:15am: Have that place tell you that you have to leave the bike outside overnight. “It’s totally safe here, trust us”.
9:16am: Go somewhere else
9:30am: Settle on the first accommodation with a legit spot to keep the bike.
9:35am: The best shower of your life (since the last one, a week or two ago… you can’t remember)
9:50am: Lay on the bed and contemplate never moving again, ever.
10:30am: Remember that if you don’t clean your clothes now it will set off a chain of events that will ruin your week.
11:00am: Eventually slosh your dirtiest clothes around in a bucket filled with water for a while until it becomes a thick brown texture that is nearing the consistency of a chocolate milkshake.
12:00pm: Plug in the 95 batteries you have that need charging.
1:30pm: Swipe around on your phone a bit until you realize the internet doesn’t work here.
1:35pm: The always important South American “siesta” (aka nap time)
2:45pm: Put on the still-damp clothes you cleaned earlier (close enough!) and wash the others.
3:30pm: 2nd Lunch because why not?
4:30pm: Grocery shopping time (usually means patrolling every shop in town looking for more peanut butter)
8:00pm: [swipes around on phone again]… “Still no internet…” (That’s for folks staying at the fancier hotels)
Having your bank account survive Southern Chile and Argentina is a bit more difficult than some of the countries to the north, but the snow-capped volcanoes, quiet villages, and the narrow forest roads that connect them make a few sacrifices and tweaks to the routine a small price to pay. Without a doubt, fall in the Araucanía region offers some of the finest times on two wheels that South America has to offer.
(Most of) My Route is on Ride with GPS.