Villa O’Higgins to Cochrane (Chile)

Day 1 Villa O’Higgins to Refugio (57km in)
After our epic trip from El Chalten to Villa O’Higgins, we decided to take a rest day. Our travel buddies Marie and Miguel decided to continue cycling and we said our goodbyes mid-morning. We almost immediately thanked our lucky stars, whilst feeling bad for the 2 of them as the wind picked up and it rained continuously for the rest of the day.

We had already looked at the weather report and knew that an early start the following day would be necessary to miss the worst of the weather. Therefore, we were up and on the road by 8am. Luckily for us the skies were clear and little wind.

We knew that the weather would turn at some point, so we tried to get as much behind us as possible. We also had been told that at around the 57km mark there would a refugio and to look out for a bike tyre on the right hand side of the road. The 57km ride on dirt road involved steep climbs, avoiding potholes, huge impressive waterfalls, picturesque mountains and determination.

Don’t get wet!
We did come across lots of cows/oxes. At one point there was a small herd blocking our path, Jon reassured Vanessa that it was safe and just to pedal past, however Vanessa’s panniers were red and irrational thoughts entered her head, preventing her from passing. This went on for at least five minutes. Jon cycled passed them then came back and had to shoo them away (unknown herding talent), so that Vanessa could build up the courage to pedal past.

Around 30km mark it started raining and got progressively worse as the day went on. At 55km we were both soaked through and had had enough. We stopped at a small shelter and noticed there was a house at the end of a pebbled driveway. We decided to ask the owner if we could shelter to eat our lunch. He was extremely welcoming and already had two hitch hikers drying off in his house. Clothing was hanging above the large woodfired stove. We thanked him for his kindness and also hung our clothing to dry, Shared mate and ate our lunch. The two hitchhikers (names unknown) left, knowing the 1pm ferry had just arrived and were hoping to hitch a ride with some kind soul to Villa O’Higgins. In the meantime, our host proudly showed us the front cover of the summer 2016 edition of the ‘Patagonian journal’ where he was featured on the front page. We were very impressed and read the article, an Australian journalist/photographer had interviewed him about traditional farming and had also taken lots of stunning photos of him on horseback in the surrounding countryside. Very cool !

Vanessa and famous Goucho
He confirmed that the refugio did indeed exist and that it was only 2km away on the right hand side of the road. We said our farewells and braved the miserable weather for the next 2 km. We reached a gate and thought this could possibly be it but it had no bike tyre. Jon investigated and to our delight there was refuge. We promptly walked our bikes down the path, chopped wood for the fire, swept the floor, got the bed ready and made dinner, feeling very fortunate to have discovered this place, as the bike wheel we had been told about was nowhere to be seen. Someone had taken it and placed it in the hut (we both agreed we should place it back on the gate for other cyclists).

Refugio and Jon getting very excited with his machete

For the remainder of the day and overnight we listened to torrention rain and wind. We went to sleep hoping that things would improve for the following day.

Day 2 – Refugio to Rio Baker dock

The rain and wind continued overnight and we woke up late in our refugio hut. This didn’t matter too much as we had no plans to start until the weather abated. We stoked up the fire whilst waiting which allowed us to dry some still wet clothes from the day before.

By 10am it had stopped raining and the wind was relatively calm, so we set off. We had 45km to go before the 8.5km ferry crossing from Rio Bravo to Port Yungay and had already looked at the profile of the road on Mapme, so we knew it would be tough. It was. We climbed 450m on dirt road in the first few kms, only to descend rapidly back down the other side of the mountain and repeat the same exercise again. This went on for 3 hours and was a battle of attrition, with the only distraction being the spectacular waterfalls which plunged from every gulley following the previous 2 days of heavy rain.

By 1am we had knocked off most of the climbing and had a relatively flat 8km left to the port. We had avoided the heavy rain and winds, althiugh these picked up a little as we arrived at the ferry waiting hut shortly before 2pm. We had a 2 hour wait for the ferry so set about making lunch and also discussing the merits of cycling on after the ferry reached the far side of the lake, as the profile for the next 20km indicated similar climbs to those we had covered earlier in the day.

Boarding the ferry, there was only the 2 of us with our bikes and 2 vehicles for the 45 minute crossing.

Yungay/Rio Bravo ferry
Neither of us fancied the next 20km ride, particularly as it was nearly 5pm and we had no guarantee of a reasonable place to sleep at the end of it. One of the 2 vehicles on the ferry was a ute with an empty rear tray, so Vanessa enquired with the owner if we could jump in with them for the 20km ride to the junction. He actually had little option but to say yes, as there is only one road from the ferry and we were blocking his path from disembarking with our bikes. Jumping in the back of the ute we climbed some serious inclines and made some treacherous descents and we were both releaved to have chosen that small section to ‘cheat’. We also had the the bonus of spotting a ‘huemul’ (local deer which are reasonably rare).

An elusive Huemul

At the junction we thanked our driver and grabbed our bikes and panniers from the back of the ute (unfortunately Jon managed to lose a water bottle in the process). We reassessed our position and using a combination of our newly discovered app. ‘iOverlander” and ‘Mapme’ (neither of which need Internet to operate) we established that there was a probable ex-dock waiting terminal 11km further along our route towards Cochrane, which was recommended as a good place to stop for the night. So we cycled off heading for that. The 11km was pretty straightforward on reasonable dirt road and only a spot or two of rain, with the spotting of a wild bore on the road side and more spectacular waterfalls the only talking points. To our delight the iOverlander recommended spot came up trumps and we had a sweet home for the night next to the dock, complete with toilets, chairs and outside covered area for our bikes, which meant the tent wasn’t needed.

Home for the night, thanks to IOverlander

Day 3 Rio Baker dock to Lago Chabuco wild camp

The rain came down all night and continued in the early morning. We were packed and ready to go in our cosy refuge but not wanting to leave we decided to watch a previously downloaded but unwatched movie on the tablet. 1 and a half hours later there were signs of the sky clearing and at about the same time, 2 maintenance men arrived to check something in the porta-cabin next to us. We managed to establish from them that the weather was forecast to be clear for the afternoon so we set off.

The Chilean government had clearly decided to spend a little money on improving the next section of the carreterra, as the had thrown tons of new dirt on it. Unfortunately they had not yet got around to compacting it, so the first 10km or so was flat but extremely tough going as we slipped and slid over all sections of the muddy dirt. At a river crossing we saw the unattended steamroller by the side of the road which, fortunately for us, meant that the next section was compact and a lot easier going.

We rolled along for a couple of hours and the weather improved, all the while with great views of fast flowing rivers and thunderous waterfalls, stopping only once when Vanessa and a white horse had a stand off, until Jon rang his bell and the horse moved gracefully aside.

Excuse me
Shortly before our planned lunch break we stopped to talk to 2 cyclists heading in the opposite direction (after a few weeks on the road we have learnt to exchange info when the opportunity arises), who advised that i approximately 4km there was a small home next to the road where the owner sold homemade bread, jam and tea for passing cyclists…too good an opportunity to miss!

Ten minutes later we pulled off the road, introduced ourselves to the owners and sat down in their very small but cosy home for tea with bread and jam. We almost felt to cosy to leave withthe stove on but were reminded of the need to keep moving when a very slightly built Japanese cyclist stopped to buy some bread and continued on his way. He had cycled from Alaska to Patagonia on his own over 18 months and spoke barely any English and even less Spanish!

Te y pan
The rest of the day was pretty routine, although we knew we would have a pretty tough climb of 4km before the end of the day. When we reached the climb the road surface was a little loose but we had the assistance of a tail wind which made the task slightly less daunting.

The long and winding road
Reaching the top of the climb we knew that the majority of work was done for the day and set about finding a camp spot. We hit it lucky when we found a grassy patch set back from the road, with views of the lake and distant mountain peaks.

Excellent camp spot
We had less than 30km to cover to reach Cochrane the following morning so went to sleep very pleased with ourselves.

Day 4 Lago Chabuco wild camp to Cochrane

We were woken at dawn by the first car we had heard on the road all night. After initially finding the temperature cold (only 2 degrees showing on the tablet), we were warmed by the stunning sight of the sun hitting the tops of the distant mountain range.

Early morning sun hitting the Andes Mountain range
The clear sky signalled a beautiful day ahead and we set off knowing we had only 28km left to Cochrane which was mainly flat or downhill.

The views throughout the ride were spectacular.

Road and magnificent views before reaching Cochrane
We would like to have been able to say that the ride was perfect but it was tainted slightly by the poor and corrugated road over the last 15km which meant the downhill portion was bone jarring and that we needed to concentrate on the road rather than enjoying the views. That said, we were pleased with our lot as we rolled into the town of Cochrane.

Cochrane’s cheesy Hollywood sign