The high or the low road in Chile
Chile is a long, skinny country, bordered on the east by the Andes and the west by the Pacific, which makes for some good cycling. Our problem on leaving Santiago was what we wanted to see more, the ocean or the hills and the pros and cons of each.
Leaving the capital our choice was easy. We headed to the coast and the pretty town of Valpariso, with it’s brightly coloured houses and funiculars built on steep hills overlooking the sea. Where we dipped our wheels in the water, so we had both the Pacific and the Atlantic ticked.
From there though the choice was trickier. Did we start cycling along Ruta 5, or as it is more famously known, the PanAmerican Highway, which heads north along the coast? Or did we stick to minor roads, heading inland over the hills and some of Chile’s national parks?
On the recommendation of a friendly bookshop owner in Valpariso we decided to pedal about in the hills for a while, leaving Ruta 5 for later on in the journey.
It was a good decision. The scenery was stunning. We climbed up over ridges into expansive valleys of avocado plantations and past copper mines. The road was ours alone, and we cycled along at our own pace taking in the views of snow-topped summits and wide rivers.
The road was built in the early 1900s for the local mining industry and includes a series of tunnels. Doning head torches, luminous vests and with flashing lights we would wait until the coast was clear and then race through them as fast as we could. ‘Tunnel Curvo’ being the most memorable, as it’s twisting meant the light at the end of the tunnel wasn’t always there. The relief on reaching the other side and the subsequent descent added to the fun.
At some point the road turned into dirt and we bounced along slowly. The distances between big towns meant that we needed to wild camp, but there were plenty of suitable spots to choose from. Once the tarmac returned, there were also campsites too.
One such spot near Canela Alta was the craziest place. The owner had a large collection of animals, but we were amused and at times terrified by the pantomine played out by the peacock, the St Bernard dog and his side-kick the goose. These two bestfriends did not like the peacock and proceeded to attack him from all angles around us as we cooked dinner. In the end we climbed onto the kids’ climbing-frame to escape, and sat eating as they circled us below.
In spite of the adventures, beautiful scenery and quiet road, we were finding the hills slow going though. We struggled to cover 60km each day and were beginning to find the long climbs ar 4km per hour monotanous, craving the opportunity to get up some speed.
So we took the decision to head back to the coast and try out the main road. It definitely helped us cover longer distances even though it’s still hilly. Our first two days on the road we made over 110km each day. There were also more official camp sites on the route, friendly tooting lorry drivers and a good hard-shoulder which gave us room to ourelves.
Although at times the scenery was spectacular, the road was admittedly less stimulating and we ploughed through episodes of Desert Island Discs. This road was much more about getting miles under our belt and we missed the changing scenery that the inland roads offered.
It is one of the things we are realising, that even allowing 15 months to cycle around South America, it isn’t long enough to see everything there is here. The trip requires a fine balance between covering the distances to progress and taking time to explore the heart of the countries we visit.
From La Serena, from where we are taking a few days off, we head north into the Atacama region, where the only way is along Ruta 5. For now, we can relax in the fact that there are few options for us along the next stretch of the journey and enjoy the simplicity of pedalling about by bike.