Twenty days since Puerto Montt and the end of the Carretera Austral the UTA team have made it to Santiago! Nearly a third of the way through the trip, Santiago has been a huge milestone in our minds since we started back in Ushuaia. Having covered 4005km and 32,982 vertical metres (4 x the height of Everest) in 50 long days of cycling, we were all ecstatic to finally arrive!
Since bidding farewell to the Carretera Austral we have become accustomed to some very different types of cycling. Puerto Montt was our first visit to a major city and the experience of leaving will certainly stay with us for a long time. In stark contrast to the complete isolation of the Careterra Austral and Tierra De Fuego, we were suddenly surrounded by rushing traffic and huge lorries. After gathering ourselves we began a terrifying cycle along Ruta 5. With only a 4 foot hard shoulder to play with, the proximity and speed of passing lorries is something that you never get used to. Despite covering some serious distances along Ruta 5 in very quick time, a decision was unanimously made to leave the highway behind and head inland towards Puerto Octay, vouching to only return if truly necessary.
Nearly two months on the road has improved us as cyclists far more than we could have imagined on day one. Our daily distance targets have gradually increased and long days in the saddle are now much more the norm. However, the phrase ‘long day’ does not always adequately explain the true extent of the struggle. With some days totalling distances of over 150km with more than 10 hours spent on the bike, we have had a lot of thinking time to ourselves. On the more arduous sections of the trip we have found listening to music or book tapes a real saviour, although in Toms case, thinking about average speed, seat post position and his pedal cadence keeps him occupied for days.
On a particularly long day we woke to the 5.30 alarm and the usual invasive tones of Guthrie’s snoring. With darkness and a morning mist still hanging heavily in the air we set out. A mind-numbing 130kms on busy roads followed and with the evening drawing in we pulled off the road to inspect a potential campsite. With our bodies urging us to eat and rest we were still not convinced of immediate roadside camping. The idea was proposed to reach Panguipulli, a further 40kms down the road. Stopping only to set up the stove and cook some essential food fuel we pushed our weary bodies to cycle into the darkness for several hours before finally collapsing in the much longed for welcome of civilisation and a lovely Chilean couple who took us in and sent us on our way the next morning complete with freshly baked bread.
As the mighty Volcan Villarrica came into to view shortly after departing Panguipulli. Toby, Guthrie and Archie were leading the way leaving Senor Pro Tom adjusting his seat a few kilometres behind. After the usual routine that is Tom catching up in no time at all, the three leaders came to the realisation that Technical Tom had probably come across some serious issues with his bike. With this in mind Toby, Archie and Guthrie settled in to a refreshing roadside Mote Con Huesillo in the sun and waited, unashamedly convincing themselves that going back to offer assistance would be completely pointless, similar to Jason Leonard offering Jonny Wilkinson a helping hand in front of goal. However Tom was taking far too long at this point and we decided to retrace our steps and look for him. On our way back we spotted the great big gaping sign pointing us towards Lican Ray and we assumed that Tom had taken it first time round and was steaming on ahead. After being greeted by “You utter muppets, did you not see the sign?” we pushed on.
We expected nothing in Lican Ray, just a small lazy town making up a crossroads on the shores of Calafquen Lake with not much to offer…we were so wrong. Freewheeling down into the town was met by huge numbers of Chilean tourists all making their way to the shores of the Lake. Inflatables, flip flops, travel agencies, outward bounds stores, kayaks and ice cream stalls lined the main road and monopolised the town. Our first taste of the tourist trail was short lived. We nailed a succulent Lomo a la pobre and got out of there bracing ourselves for Pucon, an even bigger, busier holiday resort.
Pucon sat between Lake Villaricca and the snow-capped smoking Volcan Villaricca, two stunning geographic wonders attracting the whole of Santiago and his wife to revel in the array of outdoor activities. With our first full day off since Chaiten ahead of us we were keen to lose our lycra and relax like normal travellers. All revved up to take on the hike up the volcano we were quickly brought down to earth when the tour operator enlightened us to the fact that the volcano was currently active and on constant watch for an eruption (it has since erupted!!! – see BBC). Instead, with perhaps a small sigh of relief, we headed to the nearest sports bar and settled in for an afternoon of Six Nations.
Our day-long taste of a busy tourist scene was a real shock to the system and we were all more than happy to return to our nomadic ways and wanting to avoid more major roads we headed towards the coast. Some fantastic, although difficult days cycling followed with unbelievable coastal campsites. Starlit skies that stretched all the way down to the distant horizon were amongst the most amazing we will ever see. So despite having to take on another 50kms of ‘ripio’ (gravel road) which we have come to abhor, our decision to head off the beaten track was entirely justified! As 3 tall blonde men (with Guthrie in tow) we stood out like sore thumbs and we could not enter a town or shop without all eyes being firmly fixed upon us, but the genuine interest, kindness, and willingness to help of the Chileans in this area was astounding, and has left us all feeling humbled, especially considering our non-existent Spanish.
On approaching the outskirts of Santiago we all had an overwhelming realisation of how far we had come and what we had undergone to make it this far. Despite a terrifying entry to the city, dodging oversized pickups and overladen log trucks, we were overjoyed by the promise of putting our feet up after over 50 days of the toughest challenges any of us has ever endured. However, our time on the bikes was somewhat overshadowed by a Japanese cyclist named ‘Watari’ who we met 10km from the centre of Santiago. He was on his final South American leg having already completed most of his 100,000km trip around the world…a man so accustomed to cycling that his legs were as hard as cement.
For the final few one hundred kilometres approaching Santiago we had been nursing Guthrie’s rear sprocket (this makes the chain go round…) which had suffered severe wear and tear. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the very specific German-made tool we needed to change it and neither did anywhere else in South America! Knowing this, we had planned for the tool to be sent to Santiago where we could collect it and complete the fix but to our horror the tool didn’t fit!! With our Plan B to replace the whole gear system and Plan C to buy Guthrie a new bike our prospects of a quick and cheap fix were quickly diminishing. Some frantic googling and some stressful/tense group conversations lead to a last ditch attempt to make a new tool out of some brass piping. Practical legend Archie, designed, cut, and moulded a perfectly made tool to do the job. Hearts in our mouths we fitted the tool to the wheel and began pushing and jerking with spanners for several attempts to no avail. Eventually, after being able to use the facilities of a local garage the sprocket came loose. We danced, hugged and squawked in overexcitement. The fairly bleak outlook of wasting days, spending lots of money on a new bike, and Guthrie being forced to bus to Mendoza had been prevented! The UTA team were back on the road!
We’d like to massively thank John and Mitzi Bell for their incredible hospitality while we’ve been in Santiago. Not only did they give us a place to rest our legs and heads, and some imported English beer(!) but they took us back in only hours after leaving once every bike shop in Santiago had had their say on Guthrie’s bike and we had returned with tails between our legs empty-handed and broken biked! We are all very excited to be back on the road after a tense few days, though some of us are dreading the 4000-metre Paso Cristo Redentor over the Andes and the prospect of 12 straight days in the saddle.
Thanks again to everyone from Vancouver to Hong-Kong, and everywhere in between for bending over backwards to help during a very frustrating situation – we are so grateful, and thank you also to everyone at home who have shown us so much support. Our fundraising is powering on well, but we need all the help we can get, and all donations are hugely appreciated!!