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.

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