Puerto Tranquilo to Cochrane

Well, my camera and its three spare batteries ran out two days ago. I forgot to recharge fully in Puerto Tranquilo, and I always forget to turn it off as I put it away. So, shucks. I ripped a big hole in my tent window last night, my tire tubes are patched in multiple places, and I need to replace both sets of brake pads. This should give you some indication of how tough going the last 120km were. Up (walking a lot), down (carefully) , sideways (blown off the road), stop (in rainstorms), go (with a tail wind), laugh (at swanky resorts), curse (all of the above). Nonetheless, I’ve reached Cochrane, the capital of the General Prat region and the “final frontier” of the Carretera. The road did not extend to Villa O’Higgins until 20 years ago.

The Last Frontier. Very Gaucho-esque.
The Last Frontier. Very Gaucho-esque.

But with pain, comes pleasure. These 120km brought the best views and sights I’ve seen yet. Soon after Puerto Tranquilo and Lago General Carerra, the Carretera meets up with and follows the majestic Rio Baker, a brilliant turquoise river carving through canyons and valleys and into the ocean south of here at the town of Tortel. This is the most remote I’ve been, and this combined with a much dryer climate has brought many opportunities for incredible wild camping spots. My progress has slowed as a result, as I tend to come around a lot of curves in the road and just go “wow, I want to camp there.” It’s obvious most of the time that I’m not the first person to think this, as the best locations sometimes have campfire pits and grills.

Rio Baker is also at the center of political controversy in Patagonia. The Hidroaysen megaproject is an extremely controversial plan to construct five dams on Patagonian rivers, two on Rio Baker. It was approved by the previous administration in 2011, placed on hold in 2012, and rejected after a huge environmentalist campaign earlier this year in 2014. The slogan “Patagonia Sin Represas” is everwhere, and I’ve uploaded one of their billboards below. One of the largest and most well-financed voices behind the effort, as you can probably guess, is Doug Tompkins.

This billboard is everywhere.
This billboard is everywhere.

Anyways, I’m over 950km, with about 230km before the end of the Carretera and my turn northwards into Argentina. Since I last posted, I’ve gone from Lago General Carrera, past swanky lodges for people traveling on a better budget than me, green lakes, icecaps, and through torrential downpours that had me huddling in bus stops to stay dry. The scenery here is dramatically different, and the weather changes almost hourly. On one day, I started in rain and ended, caked in mud, under clear blue skies. Go figure.

Pic 3
Lago General Carrera.
Pic 2
Las Capillas de Marmol. Cathedrals of Marble. Big tourist attraction, but takes a boat trip to get there that I didn’t have the money for.
Pic 1
Leaving Lago General Carrera.

I drew personal inspiration for this trip from a lot of different sources. From Ernest Shackleton and his ill-fated trip across the South Pole I got ingenuity and “because it’s there.” I got the open endedness and one-way-ticket spirit from Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. From Christopher McCandless’s Into the Wild, I got solitude and what can come from being alone.

One day I was watching Chilean news when I saw something pop up about the TV show Top Gear filming in Argentina. Top Gear is a car show, where once per season the three British presenters buy cheap cars in remote places get into a lot of trouble generally for being naive Brits deep in foreign countries. They’ve gone deep into dangerous areas of Myanmar, across the Middle East during wartime, over the Andes in Bolivia, and many more remote places. It’s a favorite show of mine, and their special trips occupy a small place in the large cloud of inspiration that led to this trip. Well, this season the rumor is that they’re filming a trip with three old sports cars down Ruta 40 in Argentina on the other side of the Andes from the Carretera. I will be crossing to that road in a matter of days to go the rest of the distance to the bottom of South America. Last week they got into trouble in Ushuaia, my destination, for having cars with license plates of H982 FLK. They claim that it wasn’t, but it clearly was an allusion to the 1982 Falkland Islands war. There is still a lot of bad blood between Argentina and the UK over that war, and a bunch of locals got pissed off and threw rocks at their cars. You can read more about it and see pictures of the busted up cars anywhere you want with a simple Google search.

From Top Gear, I got the spirit of boneheaded confidence in new surroundings and a healthy dose of general naiveté. The guys are the biggest of petrolheads, meaning that they have a sort of irrational hatred for bikes. If I had gone two weeks earlier I’m positive I would have been passed by them driving down Ruta 40. What a shame.

Swanky lodge from afar. Seemed a little out of place, but it had all sorts of amenities. Deserted in this season, of course.
Swanky lodge from afar. Seemed a little out of place, but it had all sorts of amenities. Deserted in this season, of course.
Shaka brah.
Shaka brah.
Another orange suspension bridge.
Another orange suspension bridge.

The road from Lago Bertrand, the headwaters of Rio Baker, to Cochrane is pretty intense. The ripio isn’t very bad, partly because it’s been improved a lot in the last two years. However, it’s very hilly, with very steep sections that were difficult to climb even while pushing my bike on foot.

Twin snakes cutting through a canyon. The Carretera and Rio Baker.
Twin snakes cutting through a canyon. The Carretera and Rio Baker.

They’ve dynamited mountains to widen the road and soften the hills recently, and you can see that the old road used to be much worse. However, it’s still a chore, and my progress slowed to about 30km/day in this section. This was partly my choosing however, because the wild campsites along the Rio Baker were just stunning. I was planning to go to Cochrane yesterday, but didn’t. In the words of Kanye West, now immortalized in my mind as coming into my headphones just as I rounded a bend and saw the view and campsite below, “drive slow, homie.”

More turquoise.
More turquoise.
Yeah, it's that turquoise.
Yeah, it’s that turquoise.
Last road to the last pass before Villa O'Higgins.
Last road to the last pass before Villa O’Higgins.
Old and new Carretera.
Old and new Carretera.
Cochrane, and distances to Villa O'Higgins. Puerto Yungay is a house with a ferry, and Tortel is off my route. Nothing else between here and O'Higgins.
Cochrane, and distances to Villa O’Higgins. Puerto Yungay is a house with a ferry, and Tortel is off my route. Nothing else between here and O’Higgins.

I’ve got to load up on food, and I might do an update that shows how I do that tomorrow. Lots of carbohydrates and cans of tuna. The food selections down here are not the best. You don’t really come 950km down the Carretera to experience authentic Chilean cuisine.

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