When I started this trip through South America almost 3 years ago I had no idea what to expect. My bicycle “touring” experience could all be summed up in a tumultuous three week trip to Perú where I spent half of the time with my head hovering over a toilet while suffering from typhoid and a quick one week trip through Norway that resulted in an emergency room visit with frostbite on my toes that still affects me today. I was working on roughly a 5% success rate. Would I quit my “stable job” of almost ten years only to head off into the Andes all by myself and realize that this just wasn’t my thing? Come crawling back a few weeks later, asking for a do-over? I honestly had no idea and these were extremely realistic possibilities in my mind. All I knew was that I’d regret it if I didn’t try.
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.
If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be riding across a 7-foot deep river in Argentinian Patagonia on a horse with a bike hoisted on top, I would have probably said you’ve gone off the deep end, yet here we are.
While I’d already been into the area that is technically considered Patagonia a couple of times by this point, entering towns like Pucón in Chile, and San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina marked a noticeable shift from all of the regions I’d been in previously, which still felt largely unchanged by tourism. It was still quite early in the season for the hordes of travelers to have taken over these places, but the signs are there. Fancy chocolate shops. Overpriced hostels. Cafes on every street corner selling $8 artisanal muffins to a looping soundtrack of Adele and Sam Smith.
“Every new trail you travel on or off the beaten path brings uncertainty. Riding bikes in a place like this forces you to pay attention to the terrain, listen closely to suggestions on how to move through it. Instead of success and failure you became to think in terms of adaptation and forward motion.”
Lorraine Blancher explores the mountain bike trails on the border of Argentina and Chile, known as the Atacama.