The Carretera Austral is without a doubt South America’s bicycle touring capital. No place on this continent sees a higher influx of Ortlieb-clad folks from around the world looking to enjoy Patagonia’s natural wonders. With good reason too. There’s a more advanced tourist infrastructure, bringing more luxuries from back home more frequently along the way (toilets and hot showers are cool). The challenge-to-scenery ratio along the Austral is also extremely generous, and the road surface suits just about any bike you can strap a few bags to. You don’t have to suffer too much to have a good time in nature here.
After years of rare encounters with other cyclists on the road, the Austral does a full 180. Here I meet new faces on bikes a dozen times per day or more. Sometimes with multiple groups converging simultaneously at random points in the road. With hotel prices climbing to even higher heights, I take to the omnipresent established campgrounds along the road for my showering and device-charging needs. Here you meet an assortment of RV-goers, hitchhikers, cyclists, moto-tourists, and the occasional local family out for a weekend of fishing and barbecuing. At some point I hit 2 months in a row without a night in a real bed, which is probably a PR that I’ll never break… not that I wouldn’t want to.
The change of pace is welcome at first, the road is reasonably quiet and the people are very friendly. Swapping stories from the road with new friends is always a good time. However, the riding on the Austral can lean toward uninspiring if you’re used to the areas of the Andes that are north of Santiago de Chile, which feel a bit more rugged and off-the-beaten-path. This is the point when I realized just how spoiled I’d become by the last 2 years of riding on remote tracks that zig-zag up and down mountains all day. I was in this amazing place, but found myself day-dreaming about future destinations that might bring back the feeling of pure-freedom that I felt to the north. Still, I find inspiration from the smaller side-tracks that often veer off from the main road and end at a towering wall of rock and ice or one of the infinite lakes that fill the landscape. There are few places in the world where sights like these can be accessed so easily, and these side-trips give an idea of what the Carretera Austral must have been like back in its glory day, around twenty to thirty years ago.
Amidst a flurry of mechanical issues, I spend a few days trying to track down a large wrench to tighten my crank arms, which are at this point working themselves free every kilometer or two. It’s big and seemingly oddly-sized, so no one in these small towns has anything that works. Along the way, I get pointed toward a bush plane Pilot named Vince in the tiny end-of-the-road village called Villa O’Higgins. “Maybe he’d have the tool?”… We searched his tool-bags, but couldn’t find anything.
While waiting for a couple of days for the town’s lone auto-mechanic to return and make me a tool, I watched in awe of the pilot taking off in his small 6-seater prop plane, soaring off toward the Southern Ice Fields. Looking over the map I spotted a small unmarked runway on a remote strip of land between two lakes at the Chile and Argentine border that leads straight to the single-track I was trying to get to. Inspiration strikes!
I run back over to the Pilot’s house and point out the strip on the map… “Can you land here?”. Vince nodded. “And can we fit a bike on board?” I asked. Again Vince nodded, intrigued by the idea. We’d have to find a couple of other passengers to bring the cost down, and we’d have to wait for the perfect weather window if we wanted to make the plan work. We’d fly in the evening, detour over the Southern Icefields, and buzz by the famed peaks of Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy at sunset before being dropped off on a gravel runway in the middle of nowhere. With the notorious Patagonian winds in full-force near these peaks, the timing had to be perfect to get close, so we waited, constantly scanning the mountain forecast and wind patterns of the area as rainstorms pummeled Villa O’Higgins.
After one week of impatiently staring at the forecast, the stars aligned, we loaded up the bike and took off toward the Patagonian icons of Torre and Fitz Roy. The conditions were as perfect as you could ask for. To be honest, it’s impossible to put the scale of the Southern Icefields into words or photos. The glimpses you get from the ground are amazing, but the view from above is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ice as far as the eye can see in seemingly every direction.
At one point Vince asks if we want to open the windows… He slows the plane to a crawl in mid-air and we pop open the flip-up windows to feel the frigid air coming off of the ice and get an even clearer view of the mountains that seem just beyond our reach as the sun creeps toward the horizon beside us. I don’t want to sound hyperbolic… I’ve had the good-fortune to see a lot of really amazing places over the last couple of years on this trip through the Andes, but nothing can compare to the hour we spent in the air here.
With dusk approaching, we made a quick landing and yanked all of the gear out of the plane in a matter of minutes before Vince lifted off once again and I pitched my tent just off the runway for the night. To add a cherry on top of this whole thing, a lovely bit of single-track with a Fitz Roy backdrop awaited in the morning en-route to the first big destination of Southern Patagonia, El Chaltén.
See my route at Ride with GPS.
BIG thanks to the folks at La Casa Films (https://www.lacasafilms.com), who helped to make this dream a reality! They also do an amazing ride for a great cause every year with Fireflies Patagonia. Be sure to check them out!
If you’re headed down to this area, I cannot recommend doing this flight enough! In my mind it is the coolest experience in all of Patagonia. If you’re interested, shoot me an email and I will put you in contact with the Pilot.