Cochrane (24th June 2017) to Villa O’HIggins (29th June 2017)
Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral and the start of our planned escape route out of Chile: to wade across the multiple freezing water channels of Paso Rio Mayer (next post). 16 kilometres before Cochrane offers an easier rideable road alternative to Argentina but it also means missing arguably the best and least transited section of the Carretera Austral.
The last few posts are all centred around Patagonia’s favourite subject: the weather. But down here in Winter it really is the primary consideration for any day’s activity and it’s a topic that’s hard to avoid. The stretch from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins certainly offered no exception. Several ‘rest’ days holed up in Hospedaje Ana Luz gave us time to contemplate how bloody cold it might get. Dropping to -10C and lower at night with undeniable consistency, we woke each morning to predictably frozen water pipes.
But this stretch was very much a tale of two halves. The first to Yungay went to our expectations, vast amounts of snow and nights well below freezing (with the added ‘twist’ of a rather undesirable mouse invasion at night). The second half from Rio Bravo to Villa O’Higgins, however, surprised us with some rather grim weather conditions: rain in 0C. Warm enough to rain but not enough to defrost the icy roads, progress was slow. I found myself soaked and slipping around with little control. Stopping meant an almost instantaneous reduction in body temperature and, with no shelters available, was not an option. Rain was something I thought I’d not see again until after Ushuaia. But I was….errr…wrong. (In fact it’s raining heavily here in El Chalten as I write this at the end of July!)
What follows is a photo diary of our route to Villa O’Higgins:
Mouse infestation: The evening drops to -11C with a clear starry night that changes into heavy snowfall within a few hours. In the early hours of the morning I wake to a rustling noise. I am absolutely disgusted when my torchlight reveals a mouse standing on my bread bag on its hind legs sniffing the air in the vestibule of my tent. It quickly becomes obvious it’s not alone. Searching for food and trying to nibble through my bags I decide not to take the situation lightly. These little critters can only offer disease. I am on guard for two hours fighting the buggers off. I manage to stun one with my shoe and I finish it off with my bicycle pump, somewhat violently, outside in the snow, I’m not proud to admit. (I get my punishment a few weeks later when my bicycle pump breaks in freezing horizontal sleet outside of El Chalten).
Route: straight down the Carretera Austral from Cochrane to Rio Bravo taking the obligatory 1 hour free ferry from Yungay (it’s one hour and leaves at 12pm and 3pm in Winter but double check).
Supply Options in Winter on the Carretera Austral:
Coyhaique is your last major supply point with reasonably (but not extensively) stocked adventure stores such as North Face and Patagonia. Plus you have cheap market options for basic warm socks, buffs, long johns etc (which is what I did) if you don’t want to spend big dollars . There are a few bicycle stores which are OK but not limitless (I struggled to find a good replacement 26inch MTB tyre for example, although I was successful eventually with a secondhand 26x2in Bontrager donated to me by Una Velocidad bicycle store). Cochrane has a couple of all purpose stores that can tie you over with very basic bicycle accessories, hardware items and some limited warm clothes options. And then Villa O’Higgins is the next place with an even more limited supply of basic stock. In Villa O’Higgins there were limited accommodation options, all having shut down for the winter; we only managed to find one paid option for 10000 pesos. However we ended up staying with Don Hugo (recommended), who offers cyclist friendly digs at very cheap prices.
Further route notes:
Normally progress south of Villa O’Higgins requires use of a ferry across Lago O’Higgins followed by a rough dirt track / road and then another ferry across Lago Desierto and then a road to El Chalten. It is this second ferry that shuts down in Winter. However, it sounds feasible to hike and carry your bicycle around Lago Desierto several kilometres if you’re packing light. Cherry hiked this section (three or four hours) although sent her bike on the boat. We didn’t since the next Lago O’Higgins ferry was 12 days ahead (it seems to be every 15 days or so in Winter, check ahead). Plus we were somewhat intrigued by Paso Rio Mayer (next post).