The original version of this story has been published in Eldorado Volume One, a limited edition travel bookzine curated by Folch Studio. With an aesthetic approach and a poetic yet informative writing, the publication gathers eleven stories from travellers that leave their safe homes and set off to explore.
PHOTOGRAPHY & WORDS : JEAN-MARC JOSEPH
I arrived in Puerto Montt, by bus crossing the border from Argentina to Chile. Puerto Montt is a port city in southern Chile. It is both the southern end point of the mythic Panamerican road and the northern starting point of the Carretera Austral.
After many hours of travel I was a bit disoriented and had no idea where to sleep. But then, I met Rosa.
When her husband died she decided to rent rooms in her house for travelers. Some days, after going to the market, she eventually pass by the bus station and waits there for potential guests, holding a little sign with the word "Hospedaje" (rooms) written on it.
The orginal idea for my trip through South America was to land in Buenos Aires, Argentina, go South to cycle the Chilean Patagonia, come back up North, cross Uruguay along the coast, reach Brazil and end up in Rio de Janeiro where I would take my return flight home. I didn’t want to plan much more than this. To be more free to improvise, I did not take my own bicycle from home. So I had to find one...
After two days of wandering considering second hand options, I finally got the 'safe' way and bought a new mountain bike from José and Cecilia, the owners of the only bikeshop in Puerto Montt.
The moment I got out of the José and Celilia's workshop, I remember that indescriptible sensation of freedom and simple joy when riding that new bicycle back to the hostal. Like a true Proust "Madeleine moment', it brought back burried childhood memories and feelings.
I managed to fit all my luggage without carrying paniers, using my flattened backpack as an extension of my luggage rack. The two drybags I brought from home would do the rest.
As I finally embarked on my journey and started pedaling, my head filled up with irrational negative thoughts like "the lack of phone signal", "hypothetical unsolvable mechanical problems" or "what if I can't find a place to sleep?". But very soon anxiety turned into euphoria and strength that made me surprisingly very much in control of the situation. Banana smile on my face.
EXIT OF PUERTO MONTT, CHILE, FIRST KILOMETERS OF THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL. I REMEMBER PERFECTLY THE FEELING OF FREEDOM AND EXCITEMENT, MIXED WITH FEAR AND JOY I FELT WHEN I STARTED TO PEDAL.
The sensation of isolation and solitude on the Carretera Austral is enhanced by the fact that it is interrupted in three locations by waterways constraining travellers to take ferries that only operate twice a day.
In the oldest hotel of Hornopirén, a wooden building next to the bay, I met Gonzalo, a former engineer that told me about the numerous workers that died during the construction of the road.
You can read the story in books and guides, but once you are on the Carretera, the history is a living being, right there, something that becomes part of your trip. During the first few years, the work conditions were inhumane as soldiers had three month shifts with only ten days of rest, a minimum salary, living in complete geographical isolation and sleeping in precarious campsites without basic services. Some of those campsites eventually remained and turned into villages, like Villa Santa Lucia, where I stopped for one night. Around 300 people live there today.
Scattered over its 1240 kilometers, heavy machines, trucks and working men are constantly maintaining the road, fighting against the forces of Nature. But not only is the road being maintained, it is also slowly being paved. And that, is not without consequences.
It’s not the asphalt in itself but everything that comes with it that has the biggest impact. The road signs, the safety equipment, the gas stations and other infrastructures, the increased and fastest traffic, the littering and air pollution provoke intense collateral damage.
The sudden accessibility of the region to anyone at anytime, is also transforming what was an adventure into a casual touristic experience. That can be perceived as a selfish statement as many locals impatiently await for the road surface to boost local economy and quality of life. Should the beauties of nature exclusively be available for a few healthy privileged ‘adventurous’ people?
Enrique studies tourism in Santiago de Chile. Puerto Aysen, his home town is still isolated from the North by long sections of gravel road. The pavement could help him to find work in his sector after he graduates. Nevertheless, as a nature lover, he’s also concerned about the impact on the environment. I met him as he was bikepacking with his friends Christobal and Felipe. We shared a part of road together.
In the little village of Puyuhuapi, I met Veronica, a local veterinary that does health control in the salmon farms all along the coast. She drives thousands of kilometers a year to reach remote locations and for her, the paved road would cut the time spent in her car by half. Nevertheless, she also confessed to enjoying those moments driving her 4X4 across the wild landscapes. Veronica accepted to give me a ride n her pick-up van during 30 kilometers in order to get me out of a section that was going to be closed due to the use of explosives. Without her, I wouldn’t have made it.
"Lahar is an Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments flowing down the slopes of an erupting volcano, typically along a river valley."
The nearby town of Chalten was destroyed. Volcanic ash spewed upwards landed throughout Patagonia and across the Atlantic.
Residents were evacuated and the town was abandoned by the government, declaring Futaleufú the new capital of the Palena Province. In 2014, 6 years after the disaster, many inhabitants came back an try to illegaly reconstruct the city by their own means.
When you travel by car bus or even train (not to mention plane), you tend to forget the journey in itself and focus on the destination. The time spent actually travelling is something you will try to reduce at maximum. The landscapes that unfold behind the window are like a movie on TV, something external to yourself.
On a bicycle, it's about being here, not getting there. Sure it sounds cheesy, but there is no other way to put it.
Then, there is another benefit that is really hard to describe if you haven't experiencied it yourself. Tom Allen from Tom's Bike Trip wrote about this in such an accurate way that I simply can't find better words. Here it goes:
Travel solo, not lonely
When you arrive in a village riding your bicycle packed with luggage, generally people notice you, smile, and eventually interact. Enter that same village driving a car and nobody would ever realize you're there. Paradoxically, because you are travelling alone, the probability to meet someone is much higher.
The benefit of not carrying a tent, apart from the weight gain, is again social; you're forced to talk with locals in order to find a bed to sleep. By doing so, you meet people who you never would have spoken to if you would have pitched your tent in the woods. No stove to cook is another opportunity to meet people, during your quest for food.
In this remote part of Patagonia, food trucks or buses are popular. Most of them are old buses that have been reformed into small restaurants, but in Cochrane, Rachel’s food bus is still working. Most of the time she is parked in between the houses of Cochrane but sometimes, they bring it to special events, to the football field or other villages along the Carretera Austral.
I was determined to reach the town of Cerro Castillo before dusk in order to find a roof to sleep under. En route, I met British cyclist Janie and Fabian from Switzerland who had been travelling for months. We had a quick chat, then I moved on as they were slower and, unlike me, with no need to reach a town as they carried a tent. I ultimately reached Cero Castillo, exhausted.
The next morning I woke up in a fantastic hostal I was surprised to find in such a small place like Cerro Castillo. 120km were separating me from the next inhabited place, I had already travelled more than a week non-stop and I felt tired and lazy. Somehow I was postponing my departure, watching the road workers leave, taking one coffee after another and re-reading the map all over again until it was definitely too late to reach my destination on time. I had no other option now than take a rest day to start fresh the next morning. I still felt a bit torn apart by my decision… and didn’t really know what to do. Maybe I should go on a hike? Or just stay at the hostel?
Janie and Fabian had spent the night in the forest and after the long downhill that leads to Cerro Castillo they got caught by the morning frost and only had one thing in mind: a warm bowl of soup.
I shared my concerns about the route that was ahead of me, meanwhile they regained some colour eating their bowl of soup. It wasn’t long before Fabian said:
“Why don’t you join us now? We buy some extra food here, we cycle 60km together today and tonight you camp with us, we have a three person tent. That cuts your journey of tomorrow to Puerto Tranquilo in half.”
Everything had radically shifted now. Never could I have imagined this opportunity just a few hours before.
– Tom Allen, bikepacker
On the morning of Christmas eve, I left the little town of Cochrane: ahead of me was the 140km needed to reach Caleta Tortel, the Patagonian Venice, an isolated coastal village founded in 1955 by timbers and had only air and boat access until 2003.
The road was deserted and I felt like I was in a lonely race against time. I was so focused on the effort that I don’t remember much from the first 100km until I reached the crossroad with the sign pointing to Caleta Tortel.
I was doubting, make an extra 40km detour to follow my plan and see this unique village or continue on the Carretera Austral for another 25 km until the Rio Bravo where I could probably find a shelter at the military base and take the ferry at midday the next morning. The weather had changed and a misty continuous rain was falling. I am cold.
I took this picture on December 24th at the end of almost 130km cycling through rain and without seeing a human soul. Yet, these virgin landscapes were among the most spectaculars I've seen, and the sense of loneliness and desolation participated to the uniqueness and intensity of the moment. I knew that after a few days, I would only remember the good side of all this.
The Patagonian Venice
In the evening of December 24th, I finally reached Caleta Tortel without having crossed anyone on my way.
The village founded by timbers to exploit the cypress trees is built along the coast for several kilometres with no conventional streets - instead there are wooden walkways build with Cypress trees.
I left my bag in a perfectly empty hostel and wandered the boardwalks just before dusk, climbing up and down the stairs. The atmosphere was gloomy and completely surreal.
People were buying massive quantities of alcohol in the local grocery store. The night promised to be long, but not for me. I had to be at Rio Bravo before midday the next day to catch the ferry. Despite my exhaustion it took me awhile to get to sleep. My mind was still processing all the emotions and images from the day.
On December 25th, I managed to reach Puerto Yungay, the ferry Terminal of Rio Bravo, where I met again with my new friends. That day, the weather was rainy and cold, we didn’t really feel like getting off the boat.
The end of the road
Villa O’Higgins, the official end of the Carretera Austral, is actually a dead end. The only way you can continue is by taking a boat to Candelario Mansilla where a 22km path leads to the Argentinian border. The boat crosses the O’Higgins lake, the deepest in the Americas, and passes in front of the majestuous O’Higgins glacier, more than 80 meters high.
In Candelario Mansilla, at 3h by boat from Villa O'higgins, endpoint of the Carretera Austral, Manzilla lives with her son, in the only house you will find, apart from the migration office. The house was build by her parents and she never lived anywhere else. To get food and supplies she relies on the boat that makes the connection to Villa O'higgins only once a week in low season.
With no mobile phone signal, she uses a radio to communicate with town and order what she need. Manzilla offers a few beds to passing bikers and hikers that wants to make the border crossing.
I was slowly pedaling in on that steep, muddy and rocky part of the path leading to the Lago del Desierto, when suddenly, a herd of running cows appeared right in front me.
Instinctively, I grabbed the camera that was hanging from my neck and pressed the shutter button.
As this surreal scene unfolded through the viewfinder, I could only hope the animals would be able to avoid me. They did.
The border crossing
The 22 kilometers path to the Argentinian Border located on the shore of Lake Desierto is is infamous among cyclists. The trail is a narrow muddy single track with many streams to cross and dense vegetation to slalom around, not suited for heavy loaded bikes which obliges you to unmount your bicycle for the last 5 kilometers. Despite the bad weather and harsh conditions, the landscapes and luxurious forests are magnificent.
Once in Lago del desierto you must jump on another ferry which will take you across the lake in about 50 minutes and finally cycle another 40km to the final destination in Argentina, El Chalten.
I managed to reach the Argentinian immigration office to get the boat that crosses the lago del Desierto after an epic race against time. On the boat, where, me and a couple of American cyclists, are the only passengers, I talk to Melissa, the ticket girl.
I wonder if she knows about a bicycle store in El Chalten, our end destination, where I want to try to sell my bike. “I might be interested” she replied. The next day, on New year’s eve, we met in town and she bought my bicycle.
Sepulveda works on the boat that crosses once a week the O'Higgins lake and eventually make the detour to the glacier.
On the zodiac he used to get us closer to the ice blocs, he would make sure to fill a big bottle of water directly from the lake to make a warm 'mate' (traditional infusion) on the way back to Villa O'higgins.
Paula is an English teacher and lives 500km north, in Coyaique, the biggest city (50.000) of the Carretera Austral. Although she is the daughter the mayor of Villa O'Higgins, she had never seen the glacier so she took advantage of her visit to her parents for the summer holidays, to finaly see this natural wonder that she has in her back garden.
Melisa studies to become a teacher. During the summer holiday, she controls and sells the tickets on the boat that crosses the Lago del Desierto.
I casualy asked her if there were any bike rental shops in El Chalten, the first town we had ahead of us, as I had the necessity to sell my bicycle in order to continue the journey to the North.
She was casualy looking for a second hand bike to make her first big trip across Uruguay and Brazil in April. She is the first person I talked to (after the immigration officer) in Argentina and she is the person that bought my bicycle.
TO BE CONTINUED
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Arnette - Back to OriginBranded
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Nike - Freakest WeekendBranded
San Miguel ManilaBranded
Barcelona on LockdownDocumentary
Arnette - Get On BoardBranded
Flath Earth FCDocumentary
Behind the scenes of AstraeaPhotography
Uganda's War Affected PeoplePhotography
Naked - PowerFul CityBranded
Life in QuarriesEducational
Hollywood Pornstars - MoneyMusic Video
Chasing Muskox in NorwayDocumentary
Namibia - Extraordinary AfricaPHOTOGRAPHY
Vice Meets Apolonia LapiedraDocumentary
The Man Swimming Around The WorldDocumentary
Primavera Sound FestivalPhotography