'Ripio' roads

We have been mainly travelling on goodish tar roads all the way south but recently we have been faced with some annoying choices. 200km on good tar or 50km on dirt roads is a fairly standard one. The tar roads nearly all seem to link up with the Pan American highway in a East/West direction so our journey is causing problems.
Quiet road ripio is absolutely fine, sometimes annoying, but then almost immediately is good again. What has made our journey worse is that the government are at long last upgrading the local roads in the Los Rios and Lakes District area so many of the roads have roadworks or are covered in shingle and waiting for tar. These roads are hell. Local traffic slows down for us poor cyclists and the dust clouds are negligible, delivery trucks just blast along creating clouds of dust that last for hundreds of metres and couldn't care less about us or the few pedestrians walking along. Most of the time these back roads are peaceful but unfortunately as soon as they are good they get bad again!

Lago Ranco

This lake was amazing, described poorly in the Lonely Planet of 2009 as a dusty frontier town with few shops and food options, we arrived after (and during) heavy rain and loved the place. There were supermarkets everywhere, cafés along the high street and a feeling of change and progress. In fact we spent 4 days circumnavigating its shoreline, staying in the many campsites on the way round and navigating the dirt roads (soon to be tar) that littered the eastern and southern edge. Our favourite place was the campsite at Saltos del Nilahue with its access to the large waterfall and the menagerie of animals for Leo's amusement. Cats, dogs, puppies, chickens and cockerels wandered the campsite, sheep, cows the adjacent fields, and these were joined by the wild birds and butterflies that fluttered through the trees above his head. Further round the lake, the town of Lago Ranco was ideallic although we have to remember never to camp on a Saturday night ever cagain, because the noise was terrible all night.

Lago Riñihue

On our way south from Lago Calafquen we saw a sign for a hotel on the shore of Lago Riñihue. We were intrigued because the road finished at the outflow of the lake and another road started on the other side and these two roads would cut 70km off our journey and allow us to miss out travelling along the Ruta Cinqo, the main highway south (part of the Pan-American highway). We wondered if there was a way across the river, maybe one for people but not cars. When we arrived we discovered that there was, but it was just a cable with a suspended pair of seats below it, and it was locked! Probably a good thing! The hotel was on the shore of the lake and had amazing grounds, owned by a family of French descent, and while it was a little expensive for us, proved to be a brilliant place for Leo to play. He just roamed the grounds like a wild child, played in the lake, climbed rocks and tree roots while we chilled.


'Botas de Goma'

With it raining a lot we realised that it is hard to keep Leo dry and entertained. He needs excitement and activities, something that involves inevitably getting wet. So we bought some boots.

We weren't sure that a child could have more fun. Leo walked around the town of Futrono in every gutter on almost every road, as the rain poured down. People came out of shops to watch him stamping his feet with a massive smile on his face as we protected him from cars. 3 hours later he finally slowed down, fell over twice, started crying and then ate a whole gigantic avocado, 30 grapes and a large piece of bread in one focused meal.

These boots are now his favourite things.


Los Rios & Lakes

Los Rios & Lakes, a set on Flickr.
South of Temuco, and stretching for the next few 100km is a region of Chile known as the gateway to the Lakes district. This is where many Santiago based Chileans have their summer holidays thanks to the cold ocean currents and winds that keep the coastal beaches relatively quiet. The whole area is full of snow-capped volcanoes and gorgeous warm lakes although each of the many lakes has its own character, our first, Lago Calafquen being known for its back volcanic sandy beaches, Lago Ranco for its islands and boat trips and Lago Riñihue for its peaceful fishing and birdwatching. Most of the roads are asphalt, a few 'ripio' or dirt, the landscape is fantastic.

Hotel Roger

We've arrived in Los Lagos, a quiet, lost town along the Ruta Cinco, too close to anywhere to thrive on tourism despite its wonderful location. It has one place to stay, 'Hotel Roger', a run down, once thriving place, with peeling paint, still stuck in the 1960s with shared bathrooms and an old matriarchal hotel owner who has lived in it alone for so long it feels as though you are imposing on her in her 30 bedroom home. Amazing and sad, it has seen better times. At least we brought some life to it for a couple of rainy days, fires were lit to dry our clothes, Cuban music played in the dining room, elderly maids returned from their homes and our 80 year old hostess got her hair done with the proceeds of our visit. She loved our little Leo, we loved parking our bikes in the ballroom and that there was no one to disturb apart from her.


Warm Showers

As we have been traversing this long sliver of land called Chile, towards the cooler Lakes District and the daunting Careterra Austral, we have been trying to find out how this place actually works. One of the best ways to do this is to stay with Chilean people and the fantastic Warm Showers network makes this a relatively easy thing to do. So far we have stayed with Aldo and his family in Coya, just missed staying with Pascal (French) and his Chilean partner in Curacautin (they were on holiday) and the last couple of days we have been with the absolutely delightful family of Juan Jose, Carla and their 13 month old daughter Olivia in Pillanlelbún, just North of Temuco. The way it works is that people all over the world who are interested in cycling, or who have done their own cycle tour, or are just hospitable, register on www.warmshowers.org and their location is then shown on a map which other members can browse. You then make contact through the website if you want to stay. It works well and in Chile their are several lovely hosts spread throughout the country.


Food in the trailer

We put blackberries, blueberries, pieces of biscuit or even cereal in this cup while Leo is in the trailer. He has it next to him and apart from a few casualties in the bottom of the trailer it works quite well. The lid allows his hand in and stops food coming out. We bought it in a supermarket in Santiago. (we left his original one in a different airport on the way here)

Drinking while travelling

Before we went we had a wonderful drinking cup with a silicone straw that didn't leak at all. Thanks to the ridiculously long journey here we decided to leave it at the airport in Sao Paolo on the way here. It was so useful that we made it our first priority to get another one in Santiago.

We have now bought 3 replacement ones and finally found one like it (far left)
Leo has it next to him in the trailer and every night we also put it in his bed so that he can have a drink if he wakes up. He now does this regularly and goes straight back to sleep. Leo's favourite one is the middle one but it leaks a bit despite the promises on the packaging.


Leo's day

For Leo the day starts between about 6.30 and 7.30. He always sleeps in his baby bed which just fits in the tent with us, so there is some structure and certainty about his sleeping. The bed weighs about 3kg and is even more useful in hotels. Isabelle feeds him and then for anything up to an hour he plays inside the inner tent, climbing on us, eats a little snack from his cup, pulls our hair, slaps us as we try to rest, and often makes us laugh with his constant commentary on events.

First impressions

The last week has been an interesting start to our Chilean adventure and the learning curve has been steep. It always takes time to work out the rhythm of a place, when it's too hot to cycle, how far can we ride in a day, what street food we can buy, and all the extra complications that Leo brings to the trip.

We started with a wiggly ride along a calm back road with the only event being the gift of cold drinks and a lolly for Leo from a guy on a mountain bike, until eventually the road's indirectness irritated us, so we switched to a quiet dual carriageway with a perfect hard shoulder until the lack of exits became tiresome, and finally the highway service people told us that it was too dangerous for us and forced us to get a free lift into the nearest town. We headed for the quiet roads along the coast only to discover that they were all being rebuilt to stimulate investment into the rebellious Mapuche Indian land nearbye. The roads were ridiculously steep and the going was very slow. Nepalese roads look flat compared to these 13% gradient hills. Predictable roads don't seem to exist here.

We rode through one of the largest shanty towns in Chile, near Lota, the inhabitants victims of the collapse of the amazing undersea coal mine industry. We found the towns that suffered the brunt of the 2010 earthquake and tsunami, so places looked either new, broken or half finished. People still smiled and did a double-take at Leo in his trailer before announcing confidently 'bebe' to their friends. We also saw some beautiful towns and villages with charming tree-lined, grassy central squares perfect for Leo, with their collections of dogs and pigeons for him to chase and always an ideally placed ice-cream stall. Houses have been colourful, wooden and generally low, with peeling paint and leaning walls, sometimes propped up with supports. There are lots of fences around properties with razor sharp points and barred windows, a visible sign of the large disparity of wealth in Chile with its long history of rich landowners and poor tenant farmers dating back to long before Pinochet, despite the best efforts of governments to do some redistribution. People are generally a little reserved but Leo breaks the ice very quickly.

Sweat cools you quickly in this hot (20-30°C), dry climate, so we've not suffered, although we discovered the wind, created by the Humboldt current that flows from Antarctica up the coastline and brings early morning fog. In the morning it's gentle but then at midday it switches on like a fan, blowing North, the opposite to our travel direction and something to be avoided by earlier starts.

We stayed on a municipal campsite and lay awake all night watching Leo snoring, while drunk people sang loudly and badly to over amplified dance music, but then the following morning lovely fellow campers came and shared their time and their maps with us. We ran out of energy on a horrible sandy, muddy stretch of roadworks and were then given Spanish lessons, Chilean wine lessons, huge amounts of meat, and treated hospitably by Diego, who just happened to be staying at his holiday home North of Lebu. We've camped at 'Playa Blanca', a Mapuche run holiday place by a lake and relaxed under the trees while Leo slept outside in his bed. Hotels on the other hand are a bit expensive at around £25 to £35 for a varying quality double room, some look surprised to have guests, others feel like someone's house, some actually are. Most have idiosyncratic touches such as doors that have locked a sobbing Leo in bathrooms, front entrances that lock us out, and nowhere is there a plug (El Tampon) to be found in any of the sinks, despite an acknowledged water shortage in these parts.

Despite all our worries about Leo, he's been easy. As long as he doesn't do more than 4 or 5 hours in the trailer each day and for no longer than 2 hours at a time, plus gets to play, walk around, explore, then he's just fantastic. He's even started 'singing' although his skill is obviously inherited from his mother. We're now back on quiet good roads with 5% gradients and we know where we're heading. We're getting the hang of the place, it's quite exciting! Soon we might even see another tourist. Bring on the Lakes District and then the legendary 1200km of dirt road known as the Carretera Austral.


Some serious roads

We've just ridden from Concepción to Lebu along the coast rather than taking the major inland roads. It really feels like we are on our way now, no highways, no cities, more our style. No one mentioned that the whole road was being upgraded between Arauca and Lebu, or that gradients of 12% were the norm. We climbed well over 1000m yesterday and this morning climbed 700m in 13km, the majority on sandy dirt roads. It felt like a very steep Mongolia and neither of us quite have our mountain legs yet.


Baby food in Chile

Feeding a 13month old child isn't that difficult in Chile. Big towns have supermarkets that sell porridge, cereals, dried fruit and normal baby food (we carry one bottle for emergencies) but the best thing is the street food - humitas, a moist mix of corn and polenta wrapped in a corn husk are almost ideal and Leo eats lots of them. There are also  bags of cooked beans which he likes and pasty-like snacks called empañadas. 


Heading south to escape the heat

After a gorgeous short and steep, hot uphill ride followed by a long, relaxing 50km/hr brakeless descent, we reached the busy town of Rancagua, too close to Santiago to have many tourists, but interesting none the less. We stayed (on Aldo's recommendation) in Hotel Turismo Santiago, in the heart of the market area, and ate fantastic street food; kebabs; avocados for £1 a kilo; gorgeous mashed corn and polenta snacks wrapped in corn husks - perfect baby food. 
The guy at the hotel helped us find a cool little bike shop to get spare inner tubes, brake pads, and outer cabling, and we even managed to mend Isa's Tevas. We also bought a cheap mobile phone so we can now contact people on Warm Showers which almost feels liberating.


Coya, with Aldo, Rosario, Samuel, Silvestre and Mathilde

We had a great day with the family, sitting around, playing and feeding the kids, went for a two trailer cycle ride around Coya with 3 kids, hung out at the park, came home and met 13 year old Samuel and later Rosario and really enjoyed ourselves.
The whole family speak good English, so our shameful Spanish isn't getting better. They both work on projects to do with the community of Coya and its links with the gigantic copper mine a few km above the town. Samuel's English is amazing for a 13year old and it was really interesting to hear what people here know about the UK...fish and chips, Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Man Utd and Chelsea, The Thames, Whisky....…


And they're off!

Yesterday we went and spent the day at Laguna de Aculeo, a man-made lake used by windsurfers with a really nice shaded grassy area under trees. Mark and Mandi also turned up which was great, although we really spent the day Leo minding. It was hot, but by 4pm the wind picked up and by 8pm it was fresh again...the climate here is fantastic!

After a perfect few days with Jose and Becca, playing with their hilarious kids, Sam and Diego, and getting Leo used to pushy 2 and 4yr olds, it was finally time to leave. Becca eventually gave us a lift about 30km south so that we could actually start riding our bikes and reach our next destination before dark. We were aiming for Aldo and his family in the foothills of the Andes, a recommended host from Warm Showers.


Perfect start to 2014

We are staying in an amazing place with lovely people about 20min drive from central Santiago.

Jose and Beka and their two kids Sam and Diego live on a Cherry farm and also run a horticultural business supplying plants to major landscaping projects. Isabelle discovered them by accident on a forum for expat mums and recognised Beka's name as someone she knew from years ago in New Zealand, a relative of close friends. Beka picked us up in her truck and we had a great New Year's outside in their beautiful garden.