It’s as simple as this: if you are lucky, very lucky with the weather, this is a great biking destination. The reality is this seldom happens. It’s amazing to us that so many bike tourists are here, suffering through awful weather, strong winds, the bad gravel roads, choking on dust, and loving it.
That said, Central Chile has good weather (maybe too hot in summer). On the old railroad line road from Salamaca to Illapel , you think it’s a top rated bike trip. It’s desert mountain scenery, with nice grades, tunnels at the crests, small towns, ranches and cowboys.
How We Rate This Trip
There is one road that runs north to south through Chile, Ruta 5 or the Pan American Highway. It’s mostly a four-lane road with a wide shoulder. You can ride on it, but there are few rewards. Many long distance bikers do it but we mostly avoided it; sometimes you have to use it to connect to smaller roads. Other paved highways are busy but often have a shoulder. The gravel roads can be very poor: pot holes, washboard, big loose stones. Occasionally they are okay. They are dusty.
Even on the gravel roads that are tourist routes, the traffic can be heavy. Around Santiago and Valparaiso, it is heavy. Ruta 5 or the Pan American Highway has heavy traffic but in places it is tolerable as a connector route because of the wide shoulder. Because of the terraitraffic.n, the roads tend to carry more traffic since there are few alternatives. Gravel roads are very dusty with
This is the rub, especially in the south. You can have weeks of bad weather. In the far south, a biker reported the following 30-day experience. Five good days, five absolutely miserable days, and twenty days of overcast and some rain. In the north, the coast is cold and often foggy. Inland it’s warm but it’s hard to get to.
It’s a long country so conditions vary a lot. Generally the winds were from the south in the north, from the west in the middle and from the northwest in the south. They get stronger later in the day and they get stronger further south. Winds vary in that if there are clouds or rain in the north, the winds shift, coming from the northwest. Also, we did encounter one day of south winds in the south. In the valleys, sometimes the winds came up valley and sometimes they go down even in the same valley. Hard to predict.
This is why people come to Chile. The south is spectacular mountain scenery. The north offers variety. The far south just gets better and better. There are fantastic back roadways through the Andes in the south. The only problem is being lucky enough to see this scenery because of the bad weather.
The worst part of information gathering is that the Chileans simply can’t relate to distances, hills, and road quality in regards to bikers. They will overestimate your speed and underestimate the distance. Maps are always available even from the tourist offices. We found a good source of road information on the Web at www.outthereliving.com. There were very accurate descriptions especially for the south. We used part of one description in the Chile lake district which was good. It fell short in its description of road quality (which changes each season). There’s a book, Latin America by Bike, A complete touring guide by Watler Sienko, that has good circle trips in South America. We used part of one of his routes in the Chile Lake district which was good. It fell short in its descriptions of the road quality (this is understandable, written in 1993). We hopped back and forth between Chile and Argentina two times.
Road Safety: 5
The drivers are generally courteous. On the paved roads with no shoulders, it feels treacherous when they are busy. Often, cars and trucks are fast moving on the gravel roads. You have to guard against flying gravel. The good shoulders on the main roads help a lot.
General Safety: 8
There is no sense of danger, but you have to take care in the big cities for petty theft. Even Santiago seemed safe to walk (ride) around even at night. It’s not perfect, but it’s very safe by Latin American standards.
Chile is prosperous especially by Latin American standards. Therefore, you get less for your money here. Compared to Argentina (after their devaluation) and Brazil, Chile is expensive. Hotels are priced high. Food is often expensive. Transportation, however, is still a relative bargain.
You can drink the tap water. Cold drinks are generally available, sodas, juices, and beer. Coffee is Nescafe. The wines are excellent and good value.
Meat and potatoes, limited choices, but the fish is generally very good. Basically prepared. Good cheese, ham and salami. Good breads, good sandwiches and hot dogs with the works (completos) and good empanadas. Some good distinctive local dishes like Choclo. Salads are good, especially with the avocados. Avocados are very popular.
In the bigger citites, there is variety but often in the smaller towns you accept whatever is available which often is basice and overpriced. This country lends itself more to camping which gives you more flexibility.
They are kind, generous and down to earth. If you need anything, they will help you. They drive pickup trucks so in case you need a ride, they will help. There are hitchhikers everywhere since they can get rides easily (especially in the summer).
The distinctive Indian culture of the northern Andes and the Altiplano is not here. There is the European influence which is more German in the south. The music and art are not distinctively Chilean.
Earthquakes have taken their toll on the historical buildings of Chile. Most towns have been rebuilt and little is left of the original buildings. So the cities and towns have little character. Also, there is little left of the original Indian civilization.
TOTAL SCORE 68
Route Descriptions and Maps
Chile to Brazil December 2003 – March 2004
Santiago to San Felipe 97Ks
Cross the river and ride out Independencia Avenue (It’s very quiet on Sunday AM) We used minor streets to the left (west) of Independencia Avenue after the bridge (4Ks) then 10Ks to start of Highway. Independencia is the best way. Sometimes a side road. Always a sidewalk. It’s direct but it can be very busy with lots of busses.
Go on highway, 4 lane expressway with a wide shoulder.
- Stay on the frontage road which is narrow and a little too much traffic
- Take the sidewalk but each driveway requires a curb up and down
- Take the wide shoulder of the Hwy 57 itself
- Take the frontage road on the other side of the Hwy.
After 17Ks, swing into Colina on 2 lane road, 4Ks. Then out 5Ks to rejoin Hwy 57 (the Expressway). Then there’s a steep 1K climb and then a slight descent and slight climb for 21Ks to Toll booth. Tail winds. Wide shoulder. 4Ks up to the tunnel. Get a ride at the office in a pick up since no bikes are allowed in the tunnel. Descend 6Ks to turn off for “Tierras Blancas.” Descend on 2 lanes with a wide shoulder and a bike path! At 14Ks left onto minor paved 2 lane road. Quiet. At 3Ks junction with Highway 60 left.Busy for 1.5Ks then right over bridge into San Felipe, 1.5Ks San Felipe to Los Andes via Santa Maria 23 Ks. This route is on the north side of the river. Proceed past the Hospital. It’s a busy road, it gets quieter as you go. We had a tailwind.
San Camilo, 1.5 Ks, circle 2.5 Ks. There is a slight climb with rough pavement. It is beautiful. Straight past Antonio de Padua through vineyards. At 7.5 Ks is Santa Maria. There are mountains in the background with light traffic on a straight road. There is a short hill then right at 9Ks. The Junction is at 13Ks then left on the main road. Good 2 lane road with more traffic and sometimes there is a shoulder. Find the junction at 19Ks then right to Los Andes. This section is narrow, busy, with a dirt shoulder, not good. At 21ks go across the bridge over river. There is truck traffic. The Plaza is at 23 Ks. Los Andes to Portillo, 62 Ks and 2400 vertical meters Out of Los Andes on a narrow road with trucks (reported 1000 trucks per day). Gradual up with a shoulder for awhile then mostly broken and only gravel on the side. Along a river you climb above the river at 24 Ks. up to 28 Ks then down to the river again. We had strong tailwinds, beautiful, moderate traffic but lots of trucks. Rio Blanco is at 36 Ks with stores. Now a better road and good shoulder, steeper and more climbs. There is the first of 3 narrow landslide protectors with dirt roads on the right 44 Ks. Beautiful, with less traffic but mostly trucks. 51 Ks starts the switch backs. They are steep and wide. At 57 Ks the road becomes a little more gradual right up to the ski area. 62 Ks to Portillo and 3100 vertical meters (9350 feet above sea level).
Chile – November 2003
This is a two week trip in Chile Airport to Santiago Central 25 Ks
Take spur out of airport. Keep straight and pass over the ring road that is that is signed “Santiago”. Keep straight and there is a maze of new roads. Ask for San Pablo Avenue, it is the main road into the Centro. If you have time there are often parallel roads that we took for a quiet ride. Otherwise there are areas where you can take a frontage road, or the road is wide and sometimes we resort to the sidewalk. It’s ok if you have time. There are lots of busses on San Pablo Avenue that move fast. Santiago to Algarrobo by bus. Our plan was to get off in Casablanca and ride to Vina Del Mar but miscommunication put us on the bus that didn’t stop. Hwy 68 – Santiago to Vina Del Mar This route is a large divided highway with a shoulder and usually in the valleys there is a frontage road. There are 2 tunnels one long, 2ks with no shoulder and the other shorter ½ K with no shoulder going west but a shoulder going east. Bikes are not allowed in these tunnels and they are both before Casablanca, hence the idea of the bus to Casablanca then fly downhill to Vina Del mar. Algarrobo to Vina Del Mar 72 Ks We took the busy coast road through high-rises north & 7Ks to Mirasol. Continue toward Las Dichas 3 Ks, then turn right (inland) and climb for 9 Ks, then 12 more Ks of flat to Las Dichas. The scenery is ranches and new hosing developments, only o.k.. The road is good dirt and very quiet. The winds were from the west. It is 8 Ks to the junction on an asphalt road. Turn left at he junction (sign posted Valparaiso). This part is mostly flat, pretty and quiet for 9 Ks to Ruta 68. Left (west) on a 4-lane highway with a wide shoulder for 5 Ks to the turn off for Vina Del Mar. After 6 Ks continue straight on past the Las Palmas turn off (not good, narrow and busy). There are a couple of mild hills then down for 13 Ks into Vina Del Mar on Agua Santa Avenue.
Vina Del Mar to ConCon 20 Ks
Follow Avenida San Martin north along the coast. It’s better to stick to the sidewalk (like the local bikers) to Renaca 8 Ks. In Renaca the road is one-way south, so going north you have to take the sidewalk. After this the road is a good, quiet 2-lane along the coast with great sea views and moderate traffic. The winds are off the ocean. It’s 6 Ks to the Yacht Club of ConCon where there are lots of seafood restaurants and another 6 Ks to the end of ConCon and the junction (circle) with the Highway. This is all flat.
ConCon to La Laguna 45 Ks
Cross two narrow bridges on the busy highway north (there is a narrow walk way across the bridges), and cross RR tracks 1.5 Ks then turn right at the sign for Las Gravitas on a minor road and climb gradually then steeply for 6 Ks to a T junction. The road is good asphalt and quiet. At the T-junction, turn left on a new wide road toward Valle Alegre 11 Ks. (this road was under construction November 03 to be finished by April 04). The road is quiet with rolling hills. The scenery is o.k. 1 more K to a junction, turn right to Puchuncari on o.k. gravel with nice scenery an more rolling hills. 10 Ks to a junction and asphalt. Go straint 2 ks to Puchuncari and continue straight out of town toward Maitencello junction 8 Ks. This is a 2 lane road, with moderate traffic, some trucks and a narrow shoulder – nothing spcicial. You could try an option to or thru Maitencillo off highways (left) at top of gradual climb. Then ride 5 Ks down to the LaLaguna and a junction.
LaLaguna to LaLigua (via Papudo) 51 Ks
Out of LaLaguna there is a 3 K climb with great views and a 2 K descent, then 1 K to a side road (on the left) into Cachagna and out of town 3 Ks to a Highway then 1 K to a side road (left), which is gravel to start to Zapallar. This is an upscale area with beautiful homes. There is a 5 K climb back to a highway. The next 10 Ks into Papudo has moderate traffic, no trucks and great views. This is a nice town on the ocean. Then toward LaLingua it’s 16 Ks to Ruta 5 of long gradual rolling hills, 2 lanes with on/off shoulder and moderate traffic – no trucks. Cross over Ruta 5 to junction and 7 Ks into La Lingua, which is mostly flat with a should and moderate traffic. The first 3 Ks are on a narrow road.
LaLaguna to LaLigua via Catapilco 38 Ks
This is the route we took in January 2003. The traffic via Catapilco is heavier and big trucks diminishing the enjoyment of the ride. Also, you have to ride on Ruta 5, but this section is not bad with the usual wide shoulder. This trip is all inland so you miss the sea views, and beautiful towns.
LaLigua to Cabildo 20 Ks
Option – longer across the river and go thru Valle Hermosa then cross the river again (actually ford the river) back to Highway. 9.5 Ks verses 4 Ks on Highway. Nothing special. This route is by the main highway along the river with a very gradual rise.2-lanes with a shoulder thru the Avacado farms to the long narrow town of Cabildo. Cabildo to Caimanes see January 2003 trip. Cabildo to Alicahue 37 Ks East to bridge (junction for Putaendo and Gueyacan, see above) 8 Ks straight across. Slight climb, 2 lanes, no shoulder, quiet, good scenery. Junction 7 Ks at LaVega (right to Putaendo 57 Ks and 4 ks to junction with road taken above to Putaendo) Left ot Alicahue 20 Ks. Steady climb narrow road , tail wind, up valley. (about 1 K out of Alicahue, there’s a dirt road that fords the river and goes to Petorca. It’s a 12 K climb on an o.k. dirt road then down to Petorca.) one basic store in Alicahue.
Cabildo to San Felipe 90 Ks
East to bridge 8Ks on narrow, flat quiet road. Right (before bridge) to junction 12 Ks right to Putaendo (sign correctly says 53 Ks, to the left is La Vega 4Ks) 13 Ks to bridge and start construction (Scheduled to be finished up to the pass by 4/04). Tailwind, good scenery, greener. Up through a valley. Down a very rough road, under construction. (This section will take longer to complete) Down to a green valley. Junction 10 Ks right. Gradual descent on a rough asphalt road. Fast. narrow but quiet into Putaaendo 7 Ks. Then cross river to junction 1 K. Left on a quiet windy road. The perfect end to a hard day. Slightly down, very quiet rural life. Back over bridge to Main road 12 days right to San Felipe 5 Ks. Narrow with a shoulder, flat and busy. Two other options: San Felipe to Los Andes 18 Ks Across bridge then left (east) 1.5 Ks on Hwy. 60 (the route to Argentina). Go up the side of the river on a 2-lane road with sometimes marrow shoulder. Lots of traffic including trucks. The route is lightly rising and I had a tail wind.
San Felipe to Los Andes 24 Ks
This is a better, quieter way that passes thru Santa Maria on the San Felipe side of the river. This is a beautiful ride thru vineyards with views of snow -capped Andes. Plus it’s mostly flat. Cross the river to Los Andes and Hwy. 60.
San Felipe to Santiago 97 Ks
Leave town heading south on the main road and cross the bridge to Hwy 60 (1.5Ks) then left on 2 lane busy road with a shoulder and slightly rising. After 1.5Ks turn right on a minor road marked “Tierras Blancas”. A nice 3Ks to the highway to Santiago, slightly rising, 2 lanes with a wide shoulder and a bike path! Snow capped mountains in the background. It’s 14 Ks to junction with Hwy 57 (the expressway to Santiago). Right to 4 lanes but only a narrow shoulder. Climb 2.4Ks to Tunnel 6 Ks. Get ride at office in a pick up (great service, fast and they even helped put my bike in back of the pick up). Down to toll booth 4 Ks, now a wider shoulder. I had head winds. The route is slight down then slight up 21ks. Start down for 1K then off for Colina right. 2 lanes with a shoulder. Some traffic. 5Ks into Colina, straight thru and back to Hwy 57 – 4ks. A Choice
- Stay on the frontage road which is narrow and a little too much traffic
- Take the sidewalk but each driveway requires a curb up and down
- Take the wide shoulder of the Hwy 57 itself
- Take the frontage road on the other side of the Hwy.
If on the other side the road ends, and then you cross over after 10 Ks on foot-bridge. The Expressway ends, 17Ks, at Avenida Independencia on the out skirts of Santiago. Independenica runs straight into central Santiago. It’s terrible riding because there is too much traffic, no shoulder and lots of local buses but it’s the most simple way and alternatives are hard to find. I just winged it. A lot of extra Ks. 20 Ks to center.
Chile – December 2003
This is the first part of our trip Chile, Argentina & Uruguay
Airport to Santiago 25Ks±
Out of airport to Ring Road. There is a shoulder. Okay, a fairly busy road. Right on Ring Road for 5Ks to red light. This is San Pablo Avenue before turn on Ruta 68 (to Vina Del Mar and Santiago). San Pablo varies from wide to sometimes narrow, occasionally there is a road aside for parking, etc. This gets busier with buses but goes straight into the Centro.
Santiago to La Serena 470Ks
Via the Pan American Highway (we went by bus) and out of Santiago, you can take side roads for awhile. Then for about 40Ks, there is often a service road (not continuous). After 100Ks the four lane-divided Pan American is quieter with a good shoulder. The scenery is good. It’s hilly. Many ups and downs even along the ocean. Down to the ocean long distances between facilities (i.e., water). Winds from west and strong. Often a head wind going north. Busy again toward La Serena from Coquimbo. You can go along the beaches to La Serena.
La Serena to Vicuna 65Ks
Highway 41 climbs out of La Serena for 2Ks past airport, then down into the valley again. There is more traffic on this road than on the Pan American Highway. It’s a good road with easy grades. Vicuna is at 623 meters so you climb. A strong tail wind. There is a good shoulder to ride on. About half way, El Molle has stores and restaurants. Good scenery. We returned to La Serena. Down into the wind was equally hard as up with the wind. There is an alternative quiet route on the other side of the river. For 30Ks occasional bridges to Highway 41. Last 15Ks are paved. Before it’s okay dirt road. 90% less of the traffic than on the main road, otherwise there is little difference. Connect back to La Serena from La Campania.
Viacuna to Pisco Elqui to Vicuna (side trip) 76 Ks (38Ks one way)
18 Ks on Highway 41 to Rivadavia (818 meters). Gradual climb, very good scenery. A green ribbon of grapes through bone dry mountains along the river. Right turn and up steeper. Winds are behind and strengthen through the day. Excellent scenery. Road a little quieter, but there is no shoulder after you turnoff on Highway 41 (which continues toward Argentina). 8Ks to Paihuano (987 meters) then 10Ks to Monte Grande (1,1000 meters) and then 3.5Ks to Pisco Elqui (1247 meters). Out of Monte Grande, it’s steep for 2Ks. All towns have stores, etc. Pisco Elqui is a pretty town. On return, head winds negate the downhill.
Vicuna to Hurtado 46Ks (failure)
On dirt roads into the mountains. Very hard. 5Ks up through grapes initially. Great views back toward Vicuna. Steep. Then a short 2Ks descent, then climb again, steep. Lots of curves toward top, still climb, less steep, another top at about 30Ks. Steep descent for 3 Ks. The third stair step pass was not possible for us, very high. We turned back. Failure. There was no traffic going through so there was no chance for a ride. It was five and one-half hours up to the second pass, two hour down. Beautiful.
La Serena to Ovalle 86Ks
Out of town on four-lane road, busy. Some hills. Urban sprawl for 8Ks. Traffic gets lighter until just before Ovalle. There’s a shoulder. Gradually up until Cuesta Las Cardas. Climb 5Ks to top, tailwinds. At top it’s 38Ks to Ovalle. Gradual descent, good desert scenery. Tailwind makes for 15 very fast Ks. Continue gradually down to a short climb 8Ks before Ovalle. 2K climb, then down to town. A strange wind shift at about 20Ks before Ovalle. An abrupt switch to a strong head wind.
Ovalle to Samo Alto 38Ks
All paved, full tailwind. 7Ks back toward La Serena, then right at junction. Up onto a ridge with good vistas. Over a dam at 16Ks from Ovalle. Generally climb along the river but often climb for one or two Ks above river. Then drop down again. Cross river 6Ks before Samo Alto. Then climb into Samo Alto (we returned form here to Ovalle). After Samo Alto, it’s 38Ks to Hurtado. A dirt road. Generally climbing higher above the river. After Hurtado, a big climb to the pass on the way to Vicuna where we failed. Ovalle to Combarbala 103Ks 33Ks to junction just before Monte Patria up along side of the river. Some traffic, some trucks, a shoulder. Climb up to dam and reservoir at junction, right to Combarbala, left to Monte Patria (1 K into town, no shops except in town). 5K climb, then down 5Ks to El Palqui (supermarket, etc.) good views. Generally climb to Combarbala but many climbs and descents. Some are 5K climbs. Lots of curves. Good scenery. Through green ribbon of a valley for 20Ks. Narrow shoulder and some trucks. Less and less traffic. Almost none at end. More long climbs into Combarbala. Winds follow to Monte Patria, then a head wind for 15Ks. Then a tailwind again. Very good ride. Nice town.
Ovalle to Samo Alto 38Ks
All paved, full tailwind. 7Ks back toward La Serena, then right at junction. Up onto a ridge with good vistas. Over a dam at 16Ks from Ovalle. Generally climb along the river but often climb for one or two Ks above river. Then drop down again. Cross river 6Ks before Samo Alto. Then climb into Samo Alto (we returned form here to Ovalle). After Samo Alto, it’s 38Ks to Hurtado. A dirt road. Generally climbing higher above the river. After Hurtado, a big climb to the pass on the way to Vicuna where we failed.
Ovalle to Combarbala 103Ks
33Ks to junction just before Monte Patria up along side of the river. Some traffic, some trucks, a shoulder. Climb up to dam and reservoir at junction, right to Combarbala, left to Monte Patria (1 K into town, no shops except in town). 5K climb, then down 5Ks to El Palqui (supermarket, etc.) good views. Generally climb to Combarbala but many climbs and descents. Some are 5K climbs. Lots of curves. Good scenery. Through green ribbon of a valley for 20Ks. Narrow shoulder and some trucks. Less and less traffic. Almost none at end. More long climbs into Combarbala. Winds follow to Monte Patria, then a head wind for 15Ks. Then a tailwind again. Very good ride. Nice town.
Combarbala to Illapel 95Ks (by new roads, not on map)
This is the route we wish we had taken. 73 Ks by backroad (on map) on dirt. This route goes over a pass on a road that was reported to be adequate. It seemed impossible to fully understand what people were telling us about the new road. In retrospect I would have chosen the back road route to Auco but I got talked out of it. From Combarbala, south west out of town 6 Ks to a junction then 51 Ks of dirt road to Auco then 16 Ks on a good paved road to Illapel. Out of town southwest 6 Ks on a new good road to junction (not marked in 1/03) with the back road (old & dirt) to Auco. We continued on the new paved road up the pass with spectacular vista. Now a great 20 K descent. Then flatter with a head wind. Total of 50 Ks to La Pazza and junction with the road to Auco, left. Start climb with a tail wind up a valley but soon the wind turns to a head wind. Then 29 Ks to Auco. 16 K climb from the junction on good paved road. Great vistas then down steeply for 6 Ks, then 7 Ks on a rough road , literally down a river bed to Auco and the junction with back road from Combarbalo. Right to Illapel, 16 Ks on a good paved road which was quiet and still a head wind.
Illapel to Salamanca 35Ks
8Ks up to Cuesta Los Cristales, 6Ks down. No shoulder, moderate traffic, good views. Tail wind! At 18K, at the river, then gradually up the green valley to Salamanca.
Salamanca to Caimanes 55Ks
From Salamanca to Limahuida is 25Ks, cross the river and right. After 5Ks, you are on an old railroad bed. Very flat. Some traffic at start. Very good dirt road. Store in old railway station has snacks and drinks. Then to Caimanes, 30Ks. Climb at 6-7% grades to tunnel. Great views. Road at times is rocky and sometimes soft but all is rideable. Up to the 1000 meter long tunnel. You will need a light. A little wet, some bats. Two more shorter tunnels and curvy down to Caimanes. No places to stay. We were put up by a woman in the town. In Caimanes, there’s a store, a restaurant and a small pension (full when we were there).
Caimanes to LaLigua 95Ks
Continue on old railroad bed road. 6% grades up and down. 10Ks up out of Caimanes, 9Ks down to Tilama (one little store), 11 Ks up to tunnel Las Palmas. 1K tunnel (it’s wet), great scenery. Good dirt to tunnel, then poorer on other side. Mostly a tail wind, then after tunnel, winds are flucky. Down to Pedegua. Total of 58Ks, last 14Ks are paved. Right to tunnel, 8Ks to tunnel. Up 3Ks (6% grade). 1K through tunnel, one way traffic with a red light. Three minutes to get through. Safer in back of pickups. Then down 8Ks to Cabildo. Along river for 21Ks to LaLigua. Easy winds here.
LaLigua to Vina del Mar 95Ks
This is a mixed bag. To avoid Route 5 (Pan American Highway), it’s about 10Ks longer through Quinquimo. At intersection, 2Ks west of La Ligua, it’s straight to Route 5 (Quiquimo) or left to Santiago. We went left (shorter). 5Ks to Pam American Highway. 9Ks on Pan American Highway to first exit (very wide shoulder, not bad) to Catapilco, mostly flat. An easy cross wind. Past Catapilco to coast road (19Ks). Rolling hills, then through a winding river valley (pretty) to the coast road. Mild head winds. Narrow road but light traffic. Left toward Puchuncavi (13Ks). Hilly, wide road with shoulder. Moderate traffic until near Quintero, 15Ks. Road narrows and traffic increases, especially trucks. Scary and awful to ConCon (20Ks). In retrospect, the inland road through Valle Alegre must be better. From ConCon, take the coast road. Curvy and beautiful. Flat, windy, slow but great to north Vina 7Ks. Now four lanes with lots of traffic. We sometimes walked or rode on the sidewalk to avoid the crowded boulevard (5Ks). (See Nov. 2003 trip above for maps)
Vina Del Mar to Valparaiso 12Ks
On sidewalk along coast highway, slow but safe. Sometimes narrow. Very good views.
Valparaiso to Santiago 120Ks
On Highway 68 (by bus). Most of the way there is a shoulder to ride on, but there is lots of traffic. Climb out of Valparaiso. Through two valleys and two tunnels after 5-6K climbs. First tunnel has a shoulder and is lit. The second tunnel is narrow with no shoulder. Dangerous. Not a recommended ride.
Santiago to Rancagua 87Ks (by bus)
On Route 5 (Pan American Highway), always a shoulder. Often a side service road. Pretty flat. Head winds. Lots of traffic. Not worth it. New road construction out of Santiago for 20Ks.
Rancagua to Curico 108Ks (by bus)
On Route 5 (Pan American Highway), always a shoulder. Sometimes a side service road, mostly flat. Head winds. Lots of traffic. Forget it. Curico to Talca 62Ks (by bus) On Route 5. Always a shoulder. Occasionally a side service road. Mostly flat. Head wind. Why?
Talca to Constitucion 108Ks
One Route 5 for 18Ks. A shoulder and often a side service road. Off to San Javier, 3Ks, then 5Ks to Coast Road to Constitucion. Variable road, variable shoulder, after 20Ks, 3K climb. A few other small climbs. Through pine forest. Variable strong winds. Quite a bit of tail wind. So-so scenery. Toward Constitucion, hillier, intersection with coast highway. 5Ks before Constitucion. Big steep down into Constitucion. Rode on Sunday and avoided the log trucks.
Constitucion to Cauquenes 110Ks
5K climb to coast road. Right to Chanco. Total of 65Ks. One third through pine forests with hills. One third along coast, great vistas. One third through agriculture, mostly flat with steep ups and downs to rivers. Light traffic but log trucks. No shoulder. Take care. Chanco, nice town. 45K to Cauquenes. 9Ks to road inland. Good ride. Easy grades up with views of coast. One third mostly flat, one third mostly down. Start with tail winds and end with head winds. Tough ride into town, up and into the wind, but basically an easy trip inland.
Cauquenes to Coelemu 85Ks
Good road, with shoulder, little traffic, a few trucks. Head winds. Flat, then hills till Quirihue. Some 2K climbs and descents. Okay scenery. Quirihue to Coelemu, 35Ks (to Concepcion 105Ks). 4Ks quick down, then right and up and down, rolling hills. 23Ks to Trehuaco. Road busier and no shoulder. Trucks, take care. Fast 2Ks down to river at Trehuaco. 8Ks to Coelemu River. Over long bridge and 3Ks into town.
Coelemu to Concepcion 70Ks
5Ks flat, then lots of hills and curves. At 12Ks, climb for 20Ks, some downs, some steep. Good views. Light to moderate traffic. Narrow, no shoulder. Trucks. 42Ks to Tome. At Rafael (20Ks) a new road to main road for Concepcion. We go to Tome, Down steeply for 6Ks to ocean. Left to Concepcion. Steep up on curvy narrow road for 2Ks. Some of the way is new, some is old concrete in rough shape. Some nice views. Down to Lirquen, then up on four lanes. Some two lanes. Poor ride. Down. Busy. I tried after Lirquen along the coast. Eventually ending on a dirt track slopping though a garbage dump.
Concepcion to Nacimiento 104Ks
Over river. Possible to use old bridge with bicycle to road along river 5Ks. Left along river moderate traffic, soon light. Tail wind. Shoulder flat. Good views over river. On highway, 50Ks to Santa Juana along river. No shops on highway. Turn inland on good road. Rolling hills. Good scenery, shoulder usually. We had following winds due to rain in front of us. So north winds, not typical. Last 10Ks down another river to Nacimiento. Town is off the road.
Nacimiento to Angol 45Ks
9Ks to junction. Busy road. Trucks, shoulder, flat. Head wind (normal). Right to Angol 36Ks. Less traffic but still busy. Shoulder. Okay scenery. Flat for 20Ks then rolling hills. Turn for Angol. 4Ks into city.
Angol to Traiguen 73Ks
Angol to the highway 4 Ks then 28 Ks to Los Sauces. Then 25 Ks to Puran and finally 16 Ks to Traiguen. After Angol, quieter road. Head winds. No or small shoulder, trucks, some hills, okay scenery to Sauces. After Sauces, bigger hills, beautiful views over wheat fields. Green foot hills and snow covered volcanoes. Fast trucks, no room to be doubled up, but the traffic is light. Head winds, no shoulder.
Traiguen to Temuco 84Ks
1K to highway, left 4K to junction up. Right to Galvarino 25Ks. 6Ks on a ridge. Good views, quiet road. Narrow, a few trucks. Down to river and up 25K down, 2.5K up. Beautiful. Flat going, then 4Ks down to Galvarino over bridge, through Galvarino, up 3Ks, right to Chol Chol. 23Ks, wider road. Mostly flat for 15Ks , then same rolling hills, down to valley for 2 Ks, then two more Ks into Chol Chol left at junction to Temuco 28Ks,. Next 8Ks mostly climbing. Good views (another abnormal wind, a tail wind). Road narrows again. Quiet. Rolling hills until 5Ks out of Temuco, then mostly down. More traffic into town. Good scenery. Pedio de Valdivia Avenue into center.
Temuco to Villarrica 101Ks
27Ks to Freire on Pan American Highway. Flat, fast, uninteresting, busy with shoulder. Off to Villarrica on Highway 199. Narrow shoulder, busy, a few hills, generally flat up the valley. Cloudy, rainy day so limited views but nice scenery. 59Ks down to river before town.
Villarrica to Pucan 27Ks (around lake)
The worst ride through beauty. Narrow road. Almost no shoulder, very busy. Mostly flat with a hill before Pucan, then down to town. Not recommended. Return, much better. Three mild hills. Okay scenery, occasional views. Better because of early departure, less traffic and west bound, better and wider shoulder.
Villarrica to Lican Ray 30Ks on Highway S95
2Ks out of town, then 1K climb, flat for 7Ks. No shoulder. Then shoulder, up 3Ks. Moderate traffic. Some views. 3Ks down 2Ks up. 2Ks down rolling hills, then 3 Ks down to Lican Ray. Great views on descent. To beach 1K.
Lican Ray to Conaripe 18Ks
1K to S95 right. Rolling hills along lake. Views of lake. Occasional views of volcano. Wide shoulder light traffic, good ride. Tail wind this day (winds are reported to be usually light and variable). Lican Ray is the better town.
Conaripe to Puerto Fuy 59Ks (short way)
Out of town 2Ks to junction, (right, west to Panguipulli), left, east toward Liquine. Go left. Gravel road, loose rocks, traffic to Terminas. Steep 4K climb, then 4K descent to end of lake. Rolling hills till junction to Neltume 24Ks, tough ride, chunky road, traffic and dust. Great scenery. After junction 2Ks flat to river bridge. Then steep chunky rocky hard climb for 3Ks. Great scenery. Little traffic. After 3Ks up, road improves and next 14Ks are on a good dirt road. T junction left on road from Panguipulli. 6Ks up on soft gravel. Tough. Traffic, dusty to Neltume. Another 8Ks to Puerto Fuy for ferry. 4Ks flat, less traffic, harder surface. 2K steep climb then a little down to Puerto Fuy. Alternative route and distances ending up in Puerto Fuy. Lican Ray to Panguipulli is 35 Ks the direct way. Lican Ray to Panguipulli thru Conaripe (the prettier way) is 21 Ks further on dirt roads, then your can go to Puerto Fuy from Pangon, a better gravel road. It has more traffic and dust.
Puerto Fuy to Border 14Ks
One and one-half hour ferry ride to the end of the lake, the ride. Beautiful. Almost flat, a few short climbs to Chilean customs, 8Ks. Then a little more up to Argentine customs, 6 more Ks. Better roads in Argentina.
Border to San Martin de los Andes (In Argentina) 46Ks
A flat 5Ks to Nonthue (no town on road). Then a 3K climb. Road is wide, harder, but washboard and dirt covered rocks. More traffic, more dust. Very good scenery. Hills. At 16Ks from border a 5K climb is scrabble. Tough. Light winds in A.M. Stronger winds behind toward San Martin. Down at little then climb again to 27Ks from border, better road. Gradual down mostly on harder road. Bumpy. Steeper into town.
San Martin de los Andes to Villa la Angostura (In Argentina) 112Ks
1K out of town, 6Ks along lake, then inland and up for 11Ks to top. Good road, wide, no shoulder. Tourist traffic, slow cars, great scenery. Easy grades all the way. Winds variable. Down 10Ks to junction Highway 63 continue on route 234. 10Ks for junction Lago Hermosa. Restaurant. Rolling Hills. At 53Ks from San Martin, the pavement ends. Begin 50Ks of dirt road. Mostly down rolling hills. Beautiful, variable winds, and temperature depending on sun, clouds or rain. Variable. Another 8Ks on a good dirt road mostly down to Hotel Pichi Tufel (a Christian foundation runs it; we stayed here). Climb up choppy steep hills 10Ks. Tourist traffic, no trucks, but lots of cars. Dirt road usually okay. Dusty at times. Gradual down ( mostly) for 10Ks to junction with Highway 65 to Villa Tufel (26Ks from junction). Villa Angostura (37Ks). 4 more Ks down. There’s a hosteria (food) off road 1K on the lake. Along the lake for 5Ks. A steep 1K climb off of lake. Some buses. Steep ups and downs. After 50Ks of dirt, left to Villa la Angostura (right to Chile). 11Ks on good paved road. Rolling hills, great scenery, moderate traffic until in Villa la Angostura. Right 3Ks to Puerto.
Villa la Angostura to Bariloche (In Argentina) 87Ks
3Ks to highway from Puerto. 64Ks to junction with Route 237. Mild climbs and descents along the lake. Beautiful. Moderate traffic, dirt shoulder, good road, some trucks, tail wind (from west). Away from lake after 48Ks. A 3K climb and a 5K climb , then drift lower. Great ride with a tail wind. Views of Bariloche across lake. Terrain changes and becomes arid. Right 20Ks to Bariloche. More traffic. Over river, now head west, head winds. Last 20Ks, just to get there. Head wind.
Bariloche to Llao Llao (In Argentina) 28 Ks
Busy road with tourist busses. Beautiful views. Some hills. Narrow with dirt shoulder. Timing is everything. Early or late is better and avoid the bus traffic. A hellish ride but lots of bikers on the road. Head winds.
Llao Llao (Argentina) to Ensenada (Chile)
49 Ks on bike Boat, bike, boat, bike, boat to Petrohue, Chile
Doable in one day going west. One and one-half hours in boat to Puerto Blest. 3Ks flat on good dirt road to connect with next boat. Twenty minutes between. Easy to connect. Twenty minute boat ride to Puerto Frias then 29Ks to Peulla, Chile on a pretty good dirt road. Argentine customs first, then 3.5Ks up, some steep, okay surface, 8Ks down, some steep, a little rocky but rideable, then gradual down along river for 15Ks, a few hills at end. Chilean customs, then two more Ks to port for last boat. Scenery is great, weather is variable, winds are light because of the deep valley. At Petrohue at 5:30. It’s 17Ks to Ensenada, 5Ks on a dirt (lava) road , then paved. Gradual descent down a river to Lake Llanquihue. All is easy going west. The other way, Puerto Varas to Boriloche, requires two days since you only get two hours to make 29Ks, 26 of which is up, 8 Ks of which is steep. The road is stoney at times. Very difficult to do in two hours, also add in customs time.
Ensenada to Puerto Varas 50Ks
Paved with a shoulder (small). Along lake, flat, hills for 15Ks before Puerto Varas. If clear (seldom) good views. Light traffic. Heavier into Puerto Varas. Mostly a cross wind (winds are northwest here).
Bus to Osorno
We took advantage of a rain day and got the fast bust north to Osorno with our bikes.
Osorno to Puerto Oktay 57Ks
6Ks out of Osorno across Highway 5. 40Ks to junction. Mostly flat. A few hills, good road with shoulder until 10Ks before junction. Tail wind, dairy farms, so-so scenery. Right at junction. 8Ks to Puerto Oktay. 2Ks down to town. Alternative: From junction before Puerto Oktay, it’s 10Ks paved , the left 13Ks on dirt road to Entre Lagos. The route around the lake is paved to Las Cascades, the sand (volcanic) for 18Ks to Ensenada. Reported as good but with some traffic.
Puerto Oktay to Frutillar Baja 25Ks
Back up 3Ks. Some great views. Again, down and up, steep, then road goes more inland. No views. Much flatter, light traffic, 3Ks steep down to Frutillar Baja from Frutillar Alto.
Frutillar Baja to Puerto Montt 55Ks
Follow coast road 25Ks to Llanquihue (7Ks shorter if you take right after 3Ks. For the more inland alternative route). Hilly, stoney, and slow sometimes dusty. (There’s a lot of construction). Excellent scenery. Left to Puerto Varas 10Ks on Ruta 5. (We took a road on the coast which eventually ended and we walked along the railroad tracks for 2Ks, picked up another road just outside of Puerto Varas. Not recommended.) Very slow and hard. 4Ks out along lake from Puerto Varas, then right on road to Alerce (8Ks) and Puerto Montt (16Ks). Excellent road, busy, hilly, not pretty, good shoulder. 3Ks steep into Puerto Montt. Puerto Montt to Hornopiren 106Ks Follow road long coast toward La Arena. Mostly flat but two hills before pavement ends 21Ks. Gravel road, stony, but often a hard surface though bumpy. It’s an average dirt road. More traffic than you would think. Not that dusty. Some minor hills. La Arena, 45Ks from Puerto Montt. Ferry about every 30 minutes across Estuary. It’s another 61Ks to Hornopiren. I rode out 30Ks. The rest is from reports of others. From Caleta Puelche to Contao along the coast, okay gravel road. Turn inland on a poor rocky road. Hills, tough ride. Puerto Montt to Ancud on Route 5 93Ks First, follow coast to Chinquihue up steep 1K hill at 13Ks. Then right to Ruta 5. Paved narrow, some traffic. Good views especially at top of hill. 18Ks junction with Highway 5. (If on Highway 5 all the way ,17Ks. It’s a narrow road to Highway 5 junction from Puerto Montt.) After Puerto Montt, Ruta 5 is two lanes with wide shoulder. No scenery, flat. 60Ks to ferry. Northwest winds, therefore cross winds. After ferry 33Ks to Ancud 6 Ks before Ancud a beautiful vista of the city. Over bridge 4 more Ks off Ruta 5 to city. Some hills.
Ancud to Castro 87Ks
4Ks back to Ruta 5, now with a narrow shoulder. Surprise: a head wind (south). Hills, so-so scenery, road construction for last 35Ks, no shoulder (2/03). This will be improved. Some flat sections. Moderate traffic. Some trucks. Castro to Chaiten (ferry) Alternative Scheduled six hours but took eight hours. Got in late. Best is the Catamaran. Both are expensive but one is fast and reliable.
Chaiten to Puerto Cardenas 46Ks
A glorious ride. Sun, tail wind, fantastic scenery. Light traffic, mostly flat. 13Ks of perfect paved road. Another 11Ks of construction (road being paved 2/03). Then good dirt road. Hard, dusty last 4Ks hilly and stony to lake.
Puerto Cardenas to Villa Santa Lucia 32Ks
Over the suspension bridge, along lake, cutting higher, away from lake slow climb to 25Ks. Last 5Ks are steeper. Great scenery, tail winds (west) mostly a hard dirt road, but sometimes stony. Light traffic. No dust if it’s raining. 7Ks on a roller coaster down. Slow, stony road.
Villa Santa Lucia to Puerto Ramirez 32Ks
Roller coaster down, small ups, hard road mostly, good scenery, along Lake Yelcho for 10 Ks, then up the river valley, gradual stony road in part. Light traffic. 30Ks from Villa Santa Lucia, Puerto Ramirez over bridge and 2Ks to junction. From junction 44Ks to Futaleufu and 43Ks to Palena Puerto Ramirez (junction) to Futaleufu 46Ks. Up the river valley, first 18Ks the road is good, light traffic, dusty, excellent scenery. After walking bridge (watching rafters and kayakers) road is worse, hilly, more up than down. Stony or washboard. Slow going. Store on other side of walking bridge. A couple steep hills just before Futaleufu. Also busier road after walking bridge. Futaleufu at only 350 meters.
Futaleufu to Argentine Border 10Ks
Stony road, poor condition, some traffic, some small hills, great scenery, mostly flat.
Information Gathering in Cambarbala
Gun shy due to perilous misinformation previously gleaned from an intelligent, English speaking native on the actual route. We prudently made multiple inquiries about the route to Illapel. The reality was there is a direct dirt road (shown on our map) or a newly created cement road. This created road to Illapel is not shown on our map. However, on the new route, there’s a 10K climb, then a 20K descent, then a 15K climb and finally a 15K descent that turns abruptly into a rough track down an actual riverbed for 8Ks. 25 inquiries begat 25 answers or variations of answers. They ran from “Take the direct route, it is easy and beautiful” to “Don’t go there.” We didn’t realize the Spanish speaking car drivers’ disregard for the hills. It was either so easy for them in their cars or it simply escaped our limited Spanish comprehension. We went wrong, got there, and enjoyed some ports, but we did choose. How wrong. We simply followed the map and hoped for the best. Language Limitations and car drivers’ cavalier disregard for long steep grades (it’s easy for them) took us to the mostly open road.
Arriving in Santiago Chile
We arrive in Santiago in the morning after a rain that has left patches of puddles on the road. Peter has a flat tire not one mile from the airport. I bask in the warm sun, while he mutters over his repairs. The temperature is about 80. The open green valley where the airport lies is surrounded by snow-capped Andes. Peter has been muttering all morning, starting with a one hundred dollar per person reciprocal tax when we arrived and now the flat. The tax had to be paid in new bills and cash. The taxman tossed one bill back to us, “ not acceptable”. “But I just got it from the bank” Peter complained fishing for another bill. His flat fixed, Peter looks around and all mutterings stop “What a majestic sight.”
We follow other local bicyclers on to an expressway that has a “no bicycles” sign. We are only on this treacherous road for about two miles and then there is a nice route into Santiago. The city is very European with wide tree-lined boulevards and gothic stone buildings. There are many round-abouts. There is usually a huge statue of a general on horseback in the middle. The street names are an odd mix such as: Bernardo O’Higgins, General Mackenna, Edison, along with San Martin and Bandera. It’s Sunday so there isn’t too much traffic. There are lots of green parks, with walking and bicycle paths. The trees here are similar to northern California, Redwoods, evergreens and one called the monkey puzzle tree because the top looks like an umbrella and the limbs seem to take the shape of a monkey’s curled tail. The parks are full of people, walking dogs, biking, and kids playing. As we reach the city center we find street performers at stoplights. As soon as the light turns red, jugglers with faces painted clown-like in bright red and yellow tights, run into the crosswalk and perform before the stopped cars. Their performances are timed to the second, and they quickly run to the drivers for money just before the light turns green.
In the city center here is an eight-block square, where no cars are allowed. This area has outside cafes with green and white stripped umbrellas, restaurants, and shops. The city feels sophisticated with the women looking slender, chic and fit and the men casual, smart and fit. We find a funky area in the evenings with sidewalks crowded with tables and old rock music pouring out of open doors and windows. The language is so beautiful, the area is called Barrio Bellavista on a street called Pio Nono. We feel safe walking home in the warm evenings late at night. After three days in this perfect climate, and beautiful views of snow-capped Andes, Peter exudes, “I could live here.”
We found out later that Chile is the second safest country in the Americas (Cuba is number one) and Santiago is the second most polluted city in the Americans (Mexico City is number one). Santiago has the same inversion problem as L.A., but we were lucky to experience the city after the rain cleaned the air.
Tried but failed Route
The original plan was to ride our bikes south from Santiago. But no – we took a bus north 300 Ks to La Serena. Our new plan is to stay off the Pan American Highway and stick to quiet roads. Chile is a thin mountainous country. The Andes are the backbone to the east and literally go west right down to the sea. There are mountains and valleys, and very little flat. From La Serena we rode inland up a dry parched valley that looks just like southern California around Palm Springs to a town called Vicuna. Excellent irrigation systems make the valley green with grapevines, and fruit trees. The views are of deep green trees nestling in the valley of the pink desert mountains.
After many inquiries we decided to start south on a dirt road called “Three Crosses”. (Much later we discovered the name meant three stair-step passes). We start up through the grapevines, fruit trees and then the dry mountainside. As we reach the first pass we meet a man in a small black pick-up truck who speaks perfect English. He apparently mistook Peter for Lance Armstrong. He told us we should crest the next pass in two and a half hours. We have to get off and push our bikes up the extreme incline of the last zigzags to reach the top of the second pass, six hours later. My legs are shaking; I am feeling lightheaded and exhausted. This is as close to hitting the wall as I have ever been. I sit on a rock while Peter scouts out the next pass. We are so high I can see the world famous mountain top Observatory two valleys over. We have not seen another soul since the truck driver. Peter returns with the bad news that even he can’t even make the next pass.
We have to turn back to Vicuna. This is contrary to Peter’s nature. After an hour, out of nowhere, but really out of a desert ranch hidden in the hills and cactus, a red pick-up truck appears. There is a man driving with a women and baby in the front cab. He slows and I am off my bike lifting it into the back before he completely stops. Peter prefers to ride back.
That perfect starry night sitting in an outside café in the Plaza, Peter says,” We failed and it was great!” I say nothing.
Best bike trip in Chile
Our “Moon” guidebook suggested a scenic driving route off the beaten track, on the old highland railroad route. After our last fiasco I was leery, but assumed the grades would not be too steep because the road was built over a railroad bed. In our search for the beginning of this route we were told countless times that it didn’t exist and directed to one of the main highways. However Peter persisted and 5 feet, from the last man who pointed back in the direction from which we had just come, we spotted the general store described in our guidebook. This store was once the train station and is the start of this former railroad route. The store is very small and no traffic passes while we drink sodas sitting on a front bench. Lower in the valley are grapevines. We climb and skirt scrubby ranches of steers and horses. Toward the top of the valley, the ranches give way to sheer pink gray granite. Cowboys are the major traffic on this route. We feel the hot sun while we wait as they urge a heard of horses past us. The cowboys sit tall and elegant, mustached, with wide dark flat brimmed hats with chinstraps, blousy blue shirts and brown leather vests. They are all business, directing the horses with short hoots and whistles. We receive a single nod as they prance past looking down at us.
We can’t imagine where the road goes. It looks like it hits the mountain and stops. We encounter our first tunnel and it is short, wet and smelling of bats. We come out into another valley, surrounded by gray elephantine mountains. It looks like a vast bowl. We loop down and up again to another tunnel. This tunnel is long and takes a jog so it is pitch black in the middle. One arm on the damp wall, the other balancing our bikes we feel our way through the dark to the next valley. This is a great ride.
Driving this would be a day trip, but on a bike we have to spend the night. The biggest town is Caimanes. We arrive about 5 pm and discover that the restaurant/hotel is full. The workmen for the Electric Company have all 6 rooms. They have been here for weeks installing electricity for the first time to the next town. The man who owns the hotel/restaurant also owns the only bar and bakery in town. We do not encounter anyone in this town who speaks English. The owner directs us to a small house.
We knock and wait a long time. A middle age women in a housedress, hands and arms wet with suds comes to the door. Peter explains in what I call baby Spanish that we will pay for a room for the night. She is boxy on top with quick bird legs. Her name is Maria and the prospect of added income puts her into high gear. We think she says she doesn’t have room in her house but will take us where we can stay. We wait while she goes back into the house. She walks us two blocks from her house to a door across the street from the restaurant. The entire street consists of one-story stucco houses with brown shuttered windows, big wood doors and orange roof tiles. She didn’t bring the right key and has to run home. She unlocks the padlock that connects the thick brown double doors. I inhale must as I walk into a dining room that has a beamed ceiling. Thick dust covers everything. The bedroom is off the dining room; mattresses are rolled on rusted springs. Maria becomes animated, like a real estate agent selling a house, as she shows us around. She jabbers constantly, neither of us understands a word, but the gestures tell all. She takes us out back to an overgrown garden where there is a shack with a real toilet and shower. She seems to think the gas water heater on the outside of the shack is a major selling point. Pointing this out she nods and smiles,” O.K?” We have no choice. Peter asks “Cuanto?” “Dies pesos” (the equivalent of $5). Peter nods. Maria gets to work, jabbering all the time. Each time she passes Peter, she pats him on the shoulder. We busy ourselves with putting our bikes in the garden and cleaning off the dining room chairs for our panniers. Maria makes numerous trips to her house for cleaning supplies, sheets, and towels. Our next project becomes starting the hot water heater in the garden. Maria catches us, takes the matches out of Peter’s hand and with quick motions tries to light the heater. The matches aren’t long enough so she quickly tears pages from the calendar on the bathroom door, year 2000, and lights them. A grapevine, dangling in her face, is batted away between lighting attempts, but swings back at her. She gives it a big yank and a scramble of vines fall covering the water heater and Maria. She doesn’t miss a beat, pushes the vines off of her and turns to Peter and jabbers. Peter begs “Senora, despacho y otra palabras, por favor” (slowly and different words). She just speaks louder and faster. He lowers his voice. She stands on tiptoes, places her sweaty face and gap teeth, nose to nose with him and yells. Then she just throws up her arms, laughs and leaves. We wait confused, looking at family photos in sepia of Maria as a child, her brother and parents. She returns with a man to fix the water heater. We read and write in the dining room and an hour plus later the place is clean, beds made and hot shower waiting. Maria leaves long enough for us to shower but is back before we go out with a kerosene lamp for the night.
Dinner is across the street in the only restaurant. After dinner we walk around town, running into the hot water heater fixer and Maria. We return to our house and by the time I get the door locked for the night Maria is back. She has brought her 3 children to meet us. They are all scrubbed and neatly dressed and Maria has changed to a nice flowered dress, with her short hair, still wet, combed back. Her oldest is a pretty girl, about 13, with long straight brown hair pulled back with a black headband. She comes in first and greets us with a handshake and cheek kisses, next is a pudgy 10-year-old boy, dragged to this occasion with a limp handshake. Maria nudges her baby boy who is 5 years old. He walks in like a little man, thick black hair slicked back, dressed in khakis and a polo shirt. He walks directly to me with a big smile arms out stretched for a hugs and kisses, then turns to Peter. Our limited Spanish makes the entire encounter about five minutes.
The next morning while we are eating breakfast in the restaurant, we spot Maria going to our door; she sees the key we left in the padlock and quickly looks around. She spots our bikes in front of the restaurant and hurries over. She explodes into the restaurant. Peter doesn’t have time to stand before she is embracing him. We kiss and hug good-by like long lost friends. The restaurant owner says as we leave “ La proxima vez que vengas aqui, espero que te quedes conmigo.”(Next time you come, I hope you stay with me). Peter replies, “Cuando estamos en Caimanes, siempre nos quedamos con Maria.” (When we return, we always stay with Maria). This won him another hug from Maria.
For What It’s Worth
In retrospect. Best bike trip in Chile (written in Temuco 1-19-03). Go north same route to Constitucion, then north on new coast road (now paved) to Curico. Bus to Vina. North on same route to La Serena (end) better for winds. Skip Pan American Highway. Stay in Angal (nice town). Try Huartado to Vicuna going north.
Here is a reprint of the description of the old rail bed road that we so much enjoyed. This is copied from Chile, the Moon Handbook, by Wayne Bernhardson, 2002.
For motorists, bikers, and cyclists really intent on getting off the beaten track, there’s no better alternative than the old highland railroad route that, until the opening of the Panamericana in the early 1950s, connected the Chilean heartland with the Norte Chico and the Norte Grande. Passing through five former train tunnels with countless ups and downs along the isolated Andean foothills between La Ligua and Ovalle, it’s one of the country’s unappreciated gems for Chileans and foreigners alike.
From the city of La Ligua, in Region V (Valparaiso), a paved roads heads east to the town of Cabildo, where the Tunnel las Grupas continues north towar Petorca; a semaphore regulates the traffic through it, as las Grupas is the only tunnel in a well-populated area. At Pedegua, 10 ks north of Cabido, the paved road continues northweat to Petorca, but the former rial route heads north-northwest as a good gravel road—4WD is unnecessary—toward Salamaca and Illapel. Perhaps the most scenic segment is Cuesta Las Palmas, about 20 km north of Pedegua, where the road has been improved to provide better access to the avocado and citus orchards in the area. At the Region IV (Coquimbo) border, it passes through the Tunel las Pamas, surrounded by mature palm trees in the valley.
About 35 km north of Tunel las Palmas, the largest settlement until Illapel is the strangely named Caimanes—there are no large aquatic reptimes here—where Diego de Almagro passed in 1536. Just north of Caimantes, in quick succession, the road passes through three tunnels; the longest is the Tunnel las Astas, dating from 1912, whose ceilings drip with groundwater. Its length makes it the likeliest in which to encounter a vehicle heading the other direction.
At Limahuida, the turnoff for the old road to Salamanca about 30 km north of Caimanes, the last standing station building on the line serves as a small grocery. Along the route, huasos in their characteristic flat-brimmed sombreros are a common sight, as are flocks of goats on the dry hillsides, but Salamanca inhabits a lush green valley. From Salamanca, a paved highway heads northwest to the city Illapel.
From Illapel north toward Combarbala, evidence of the rail route is rare, through the road through Reserva Nacional Las Chinchillas passes the foundations of the station at Auco, but from there the road diverges—though the embankments are often visible in the distance. From Combarbala, a paved road goes to Monte Patria and Ovalle, while a slightly shorter alternative takes a gravel road to Punitaqui and paved road to Ovalle.
Look for condors, though—that enduring symbol of the Andes that serves as a reminder that the erstwhile route was, first and foremost, an Inka road.