Fuchsia Magellanica

Alongside almost every forested road here in Patagonia, you can spot the beautiful red and blue flowers (there are many other less common colour combinations) of Fuchsia Megallanica, competing with the invasive blackberry brambles mistakenly brought here by the Germans to make hedges to protect land. What's really interesting is that it is more regularly known as the Hummingbird Fuchsia and it's amazingly common to see beautiful little hummingbirds hovering next to you supping on nectar as you sit near a shady hedgerow. At first when we saw them out of the corner of our eye in Ralun we thought they were large insects and then looked more carefully. They seem completely unafraid, like many of the birds here, perhaps protected by their speed and agility. Leo loves picking the little flowers if they hang low enough and walks around with them for hours clutching proudly to his little treasures.


We need a rest - thank you Coyhaique

We've been following river valleys in various zig-zagging directions, nipping across passes, through National Parks, or around the coast, and then up or down the next valley for what feels like forever, each day finishing with a wild camp whenever we feel as though we've gone far enough, or we see an amazing place to stop. It's been challenging but fantastic, and best of all our little lazy passenger Leo has been loving it......fires, camping, rivers, beaches, throwing stones, climbing, walking along all the huge dead trees that are everywhere and meeting new people constantly. We cannot imagine how it will all affect him in the future!

The only problem is that with such amazing scenery around us we've actually forgotten to have a rest. We're now completely knackered having cycled about 750km of the Carretera Austral with no breaks over the last 16 days, me pulling about 65kg of trailer, Leo and luggage, and Isa another 35kg, nearly all of it on dirt and gravel roads which really takes its toll. One 32km section before La Junta was perhaps the worse road we have ridden on in 37,000km all over the world. A fellow Dutch cyclist with around 50,000km under his belt voted it the worst he'd seen. It was hell, with big sharp slippy rocks, corrugations and loads of dust. Most cyclists seem to have hitch-biked to avoid it, we just didn't get the opportunity as it's hard to wait for a lift in hot sun, on a quiet road, with an energetic Leo. It just seemed easier to cycle. Then just after it finished we had the 600m climb up 19 hairpin bends, averaging 8% gradient, to really rub it in.

It crept up on us, one minute we were fine, the next we were aching and exhausted, desperate to reach Coyhaique, the only major town for hundreds of km, and to gorge ourselves on protein and be as lazy as Leo allows us. Now we are here we've done nothing, just shopped for food and taken it in turns to sleep. We've also eaten tins of fish and made burgers. YEAH!!!

Leo also seems happy with the new lazy routine, his new games are putting coins in bottles, or collecting flowers from the lovely gardens around our cozy cabaña. 'Tranquillo com una taza de leche', as the Chileans say about a good baby.

A devastated landscape

We've been noticing the number of dead large trees lying in the fields around us as we follow the valleys south. The river banks are covered in them and they even reach the sea. There is so much dead wood left on the ground with farm animals grazing around it, like the remnants of a colonising war that these majestic trees and the original wild forests quite blatantly lost to the pioneers who came here to settle.
We have read that the forests were actually burned and that the remaining stumps and cut trees were the ones that were left. Apparently settlers were given more land for each area that they cleared. Sadly much of the forest was only found in Chile and now that the dirt roads are being tarred there is a danger that more forest will be 'harvested'


How can this get more beautiful?

We are told by everyone we meet that the Carretera Austral route gets better the further South you go. We find this hard to imagine as the scenery is astonishing in almost every direction and we are only about half way along the road.

There's no bad ripio, there's just bad speeds.

'Ripio' or dirt roads are the one topic that always makes its way into conversation with every cyclist or driver that we meet. Everyone wants the latest update on the conditions ahead, 'Is it badly corrugated?'; 'Are the rocks big?'; 'How bad is the dust?'; 'Is there much volcanic grit in it?; 'Is there much traffic?'; 'Are their any road works?'; 'Are there any asphalt sections?'.

We're beginning to realise that the conversation is a pointless one. Everybody has a different perspective:

People with two wheel trailers hate pot holes, car drivers know nothing about the road however well meaning they are, cyclists in a hurry hate it all, and people going North think each new day's road is worse than yesterday's. If you are tired or hungry it's all terrible, or if you expected a flat road and got a climb instead it's definitely a bad surface! Sometimes we meet people who have flown in to an area and just started, they think it's all hell and look shell-shocked.

We've just started trundling along, it's a bit like bumbling. The road is what it is. If it's bad we go slow, but every really bad bit gets better, in the same way that the smooth asphalt eventually finishes. We're very lucky because we don't have a timetable, we don't have to be anywhere on a particular day, we can just ride until we're bored of it, or we see a great view.

Why should the road surface even matter?

Wilderness begins

We turned a corner and all of a sudden it was different. The Valdivian rain forest was gone, the valleys bigger and the mountains more majestic.  Now there are wild places, the fences are mostly gone and the gates open, there are choices of rivers to camp next to or swim in. Houses are empty or ruined, a legacy of times past, with the remnants of orchards providing tasty treats if we spot them. Bad roads feel like they are taking us towards more excitement rather than more bumps. This is good but a little troubling. Progress south might stall for a while with great campsites and views every few km.

We don't know what happened.


First breakage

The steel mount for my handlebar bag broke the other day, 35,000 km isn't bad, especially when the bag is definitely overloaded with a heavy SLR, a tablet and assorted junk and we are riding on really poor dirt roads. Leo has been riding with his feet on it in the trailer but yesterday we found a friendly old guy who welded it back together for £3. I wonder what will be next?

Chaiten's airport

This might need upgrading a little! The road was about 5 times wider for no obvious reason, and then we saw the wind sock.

New things that amuse Leo

Licking his plate (he just copied his mother)

Watching waves while on ferries
Attempting to run
Climbing into his baby carrier rucksack
Standing up in the trailer (a special treat)

Eating  volcanic sand to help with new teeth coming through

Parque Pumalin

This amazing park is actually owned by an American - Douglas Tompkins (the guy who co-founded North Face), who bought the land because he didn't want it to be developed. The park is beautiful and really well thought out. There are plenty of campsites and lots of paths created to allow access to viewpoints, lakes or forest. Apart from the Valdivian temperate rain forest with its giant ferns and moss covered trees, and the ancient Alerce trees (3000 years old), a major feature of the park is Volcan Chaiten which erupted in 2008, causing the evacuation of the town of Chaiten (where we are now staying). Pyroclastic flows destroyed large areas of forest in the park (see the fist picture), and mud flows completely blocked the river Chaiten which then changed its course and began to flow directly through the centre of the town destroying many buildings in the process. All the residents were relocated to a new town 10km away but they have gradually moved back to the old  town as infrastructure has improved. We liked the airport which was just the middle of a very wide dirt road with a wind sock on one side, and took great pleasure cycling down the middle of it just because we could. The volcano is actually still active as can be seen from the gases emerging from its top. If you don't hear from us again.........

Seeing double

Two weeks ago we met a Chilean couple: Sophie and Felipe, they arrived just after us at a guest house in Futrono, we spent the evening chatting and the next day went our separate ways. They were both really nice and we promised to go and stay with them in Santiago on our way back.
Two days ago we arrived at a small campsite in Parque Pumalin and a few minutes later a couple arrived and started to put their tent next to us. Isabelle turned to me and said 'doesn't she look just like Sophie from Futrono'! Amazingly it was Sophie's twin Gabi, with her boyfriend Pablo, who happened to be cycling a small section of the Carretera Austral at exactly the same time as us. The world is crazy small!


Chile´s wealth distribution

Looking at the way people surround themselves with aggressive sharp fences, seeing all the 'Privado' signs, and noticing the incredible number of barking guard dogs, reminds us constantly that wealth in Chile isn't fairly distributed. The sound of dogs barking permeates most towns at night and made wild camping on the outskirts of villages very difficult between Santiago and Patagonia. This is the only place in the world where we have seen elevated rubbish platforms on the street to prevent dustbins being tipped over and ransacked by stray dogs.

According to the OECD, the top 10% of earners receive close to 43% of the money, whereas in Norway it's 23% and even in the US it's only 30%. 

Things have been slightly improving over the last 10 years according to this recently published study: www.ecineq.org/ecineq_bari13/FILESxBari13/CR2/p105.pdf. At the moment the top 2% of earners take nearly 20% of the money, although in Chile there is a commonly held belief that: 'only 6 families own 90% of the wealth', something that we have heard several times although not supported by any evidence that we can find.

For average earners the Chile tax burden is an incredible 7% which compares with the highest in the world of 55% in Belgium, 37.5% in Norway and 29% in the US. (Source: OECD) This incredibly low tax burden means that social provisions are very poor and that most services are private. We've met many doctors and dentists originally from Peru or Uruguay who came here because they could make so much more money in Chile than at home. The newest buildings that we see are always hospitals and it is not unusual to find a street with many chemists within a hundred metre stretch. In the Lakes District the people with holiday homes are almost exclusively medical people based on the people that talked to us on our travels. 

This very low tax burden probably exacerbates the already skewed wealth distribution, with richer people able to afford the US style health care, life insurance, school fees and nice houses, which they then protect with big fences and guard dogs, while the rest make do with very poor public schools and a consequent lack of opportunity in later life. We've met many people who have talked about setting up their own schools as an alternative to those locally available.


The Careterra Austral

Finally we're on this great road. It's hard, the dirt surface ranges from great to terrible, and in some places is even tar, but the surroundings are amazing, and they're only going to get better. Tomorrow a ferry to the next section and then hundreds of km of wilderness with small towns dotted along the way. Can't wait.


The new Patagonian pioneers

This is the story of one family: Pepe & Caro and their 3 sons Angel (10), Felix (7) and Noel (3)

Pepe is 52 years old and is a climber and mountain guide who grew up in Santiago but whose parents came from the south. About 25 years ago a friend of his set up a company guiding people into the mountains all over Chile and as they became more successful they expanded and set up an office in Puerto Veras, about 60km away from where they now live, and Pepe started to bring clients to the volcanoes and the area around Cochamo.  He got to know the area really well.


Goodbye and thankyou to Sergio, Claudia and Diego

These lovely people rescued us from being drowned by constant rain, made us welcome in their home, fed us lovely food and fresh bread, got us drunk, and showed us a little bit of their fascinating life and their plans for the future. We so hope we get to see them again, especially when they build their house and Sergio invents something else that the whole of Patagonia won't be able to live without. We miss them already. Claudia was Leo's first crush and he had a huge smile and started clapping when he saw a photo of her today! Kindred spirits in this crazy world.


Leo videos in Chile

On a beautiful campsite by the shore of Lago Puyehue we discovered that Leo would swing in the hammock for hours.
On a day visit with Claudia and Sergio to visit Pepe and Caro's amazing place in the forest, Leo showed everyone 'rice power'
Leo loved throwing stones into Lago Riñihue, an area like a warm Scotland. He is naked because it is warm enough despite the poor weather.
Because of the rain we had to buy wellies for Leo. He became obsessed with them and has spent the last few days carrying them to the back door of Sergio and Claudia's waiting to be let out and play in the rain.
The pleasure of wading became taking on deeper and deeper challenges.
Leo learned very quickly what to do on a slide. The way children learn stuff so quickly is amazing.


Teledata.cl and the recolonisation of rural Patagonia

Beka and Jose in Santiago put us in touch with some lovely people close to Ensenada. Sergio and his Swiss girlfriend Claudia have made a life for themselves in an amazing location on the shore of Lago Llanquihue opposite Volcan Osorno, running a little  telecommunications business bringing internet to rural communities, using some clever technology and line of sight antennae erected on hills, volcanoes and buildings all over the surrounding area. http://www.internetruralchile.com/

They transmit signals over incredible distances of up to 100km and then erect repeaters to spread the signals. They have 37 antennae and are helping communities stay alive in isolated places. Rural schools now have internet access despite being incredibly isolated and many professional people are now repopulating wild places and working over the fast internet that they now have access to, doing jobs like translating, or writing, or architecture.
A university friend of Sergio's called Diego who has moved South from Santiago explained to me how he uses software and Google Earth to work out the best locations to put towers, as their system relies on direct line of sight and even tree coverage can affect this. Diego's dream is that their network covers all of rural Patagonia even as far south as Villa O'Higgins! By chance the only place in southern Chile that can galvanise the steel towers that they make is 20 minutes down the road in Puerto Varas. We're sleeping in the small house where they paint the towers and it also serves as a place for the workers to have lunch.
They rent a small house directly from the local landowner who lives 100m away, and have built a rather stylish 'laboratory' on top of an old container, where Sergio tries out new ideas. There are aerials and towers lying around all over the place. It feels like a fun place to work, always new problems to solve and new ideas to be had. The new experiments involve using model helicopters and aeroplanes to possibly monitor wildlife, fires, volcanoes, salmon fisheries, farms and private houses and the 'lab' is stuffed with flight simulators, computers, control pads, VR glasses, home made kit for monitoring the aircraft and cases for moving them around. Sergio is waiting for better battery technology and is planning ahead.
They have also bought some land and are hoping to build a house on it in the next couple of years. The site is incredible, high in the hills surrounded by natural forest they have cleared space for gardens, outbuildings, vegetables, animals and a place for a house with views directly across to Volcan Osorno. We visited the land and trekked around the maze of paths and bamboo hillsides between their newly made road and the gorgeous clearing where they will build their simple house. This really is the land of opportunity!

Sunset on Volcan OsornoIMG_20140201_134038IMG_20140201_134132IMG_20140201_134144_MG_8903_MG_8906 _MG_8905_MG_8908_MG_8907IMG_20140201_134002IMG_20140201_133930IMG_20140201_134217 IMG_20140201_134205IMG_20140201_134247_MG_8923IMG_3451IMG_3454IMG_3453 IMG_3452_MG_8944_MG_8941_MG_8942_MG_8940_MG_8938
Sergio & Claudia's, a set on Flickr.