By Erhard Kraus



At the Bariloche Tourist Information, I have joined two cyclists, Marianne and Werner. He's an athletic type who's cycled all over Europe, even the Carretera Austral, four years ago. He "eats long distance for breakfast, lunch and dinner" and had once pushed 200 km per day on the Carretera. Not so tough is Marianne; she is happy to be with him and on previous vacations has joined him cycling in Norway and Majorca. On this trip, she carries only about 30 pounds of gear in two rear panniers while Werner lugs 90 lbs. in towering packs. Not to miss a beat, he's added four one-liter-bottles of red wine to the food for the next few days. We three all want to take the "boat route" to Chile and decide to travel together. There is detailed advice from the Tourist Information office in Bariloche: the boat will leave at 10:00 the following morning from Llao Llao, a village about 20 km west of Bariloche, and tickets should be bought in advance to guarantee a seat. So, we visit a travel agency to get the tickets. We hear that a boat different from the usual one serves tomorrows run, and no one in the office knows whether they will take the bikes. But by 5:00 p.m. it's all sorted out and we have a booking as well as food for maybe two days. We decide not to stay in town but get as close as possible to Llao Llao so nothing unforeseen will interfere the next morning. The ride to Llao Llao is the busiest  I have cycled so far: cars are constantly passing us on a road lined with houses, stores and driveways. We are glad to reach the country-like setting of our destination and obtain confirmation from some employees of the little port that the information about the boat is correct.

llao.jpg (31413 bytes) Llao Llao, with the hotel Llao Llao as the brightest building near the bottom of the photo, and  the boat landing as the 2nd brightest spot just to its left . We camped illegally in one of the dark spots....(photo from Pablo D. Zavattieri's Gallery )

Where to stay overnight? There is this monstrous hotel on the hill overlooking lake and golf course and, of course, it will be out of reach for our limited budgets. We ask locals where there might be a suitable camp site and we are directed to a meadow near the boat landing. On close inspection, we decide against it as there are glass shards and other trash. Werner is really good at locating "alternatives": he does this all the time in Europe, he says. He takes off into the dusk to scout and returns 15 minutes later, all beaming with success. He's found a neat site amongst tall trees, away from the road and just a little distance along an unused path, behind a breached fence. We pass a peaceful night and, while brushing teeth in the morning, watch work crews from the golf course pass our little hide-away no more than 100m away, without noticing us.

The next morning finds us on the sleek catamaran motoring towards Puerto Blest, the end of this westward bay. The boat could go much faster, I suspect, but why offer the tourists less than a 1-hour ride on this spectacular lake.Patag_bariloch_boat.jpg (110068 bytes) The boat passes the mausoleum of Perito Morenas, the Argentinean explorer, and the ship blows its whistle in respect. Once arrived, we forgo the reasonably-priced meal, advertised by the big hotel at the landing, so that we may race across the 3 km dirt road towards Lago Frias. There, another, smaller boat waits to ferry us across Lago Frias. It's the only run today and we can't afford to miss it. Lago Frias is emerald green, with vertical shores that prohibit the building of any road along its shores. patag_bariloch_frias.jpg (75043 bytes)After a half hour jaunt, we are at the start of a steep dirt road. It goes for 4 km up to reach the pass that marks the international border and then down for about 20 km into Chile. It's the border personnel's day off as it's Sunday, but the casually shirt-sleeved official processes our papers anyways. We are cleared to go on and cross the mountains.

The road is much easier to deal with than we thought, at least the short piece on the Argentinean side. We soon have pushed our bikes for about 3 km and make camp. It's a nice spot, underneath big trees, between the road and a rushing creek. We want to hike the trail that starts here. In the border checkpoint, we had seen it listed as one of the hiking places nearby: I think it was called Sendero Rigi, and it was listed as difficult. So, the three of us take off onto the little-used side trail, which soon dips towards the creek and then runs up the creek bed itself. Marianne has had enough when the trail demands clambering over and under fallen trees and she returns to the tents, but Werner and I push on. Soon we are in a bamboo thicket (quila) that obscures the trail. Patag_bariloch_werner.jpg (230986 bytes)That's probably the reason why the trail is marked difficult. I rely a lot on the feel of the ground underneath; if it gets soft, I know I am off the trail. Fallen trees present a special challenge: the trail will go right up onto the horizontal trunk to take advantage of the level "bridge". But then it's not obvious where to get off the huge trunk in order to continue on the path: all you see are dense tufts of green bamboo leaves and there's no gap indicating a trail. Blazes on trees help, every 50 ft or so, and many times, one of us stays at the last seen blaze while the other scrambles forward and tries to pick up the trail again, calling unseen from 20 feet away: "this is not it!" or "it ain't it either". Just the wiggle of the bamboo gives away the location of the caller.  The trees are tall, and moss hangs off the branches. As we get higher, the bamboo thins out and there are now bushes with various flowers and berries.patag_bariloch_orangefl.jpg (204093 bytes) I  discover murta, a berry I had eaten in Puerto Montt as topping of cakes (kuchen), an orange flower like a trumpet on a plant resembling holly, and some plant with bright orange berries.Patag_flowers.jpg (76792 bytes) The picture shows some dried leaves that I brought home: quila (Bamboo) is in the middle bottom, lenga (Southern Beech)to its right, two of the orange blossoms above and at the very top, a wild fuchsia blossom. I am not sure about the bottom left leaves: probably cohaique and nirre... Eventually, the trees thin out, the trail levels and we burst out onto a meadow as level and as unobstructed as a soccer field. This may be the result of volcanic ash and pumice accumulating into a terrace, and I am perplexed enough to finish the last remaining pictures in the camera right here. It's late and we should turn back in ten minutes, so we'll not be forced to hike the lower trail in the dark.

Nevertheless, we ignore the time and push on to discover two more such meadows, and then are overwhelmed when we step out of the forests into the open: we have reached the tree line and are near a little peak protruding from a rocky wasteland.  We have stepped out into an Andean stage set, with the majestic Volcan Tronador looming over us in icy grandeur. Werner is off to take pictures of the volcano and I move around to get a bearing of the other valleys and lakes around us. Maybe we instinctively want to savor the scene alone; what I feel can best be described as a religious experience...
Lago Frias is partially visible to the left, and, on the plateau that I cross to get a better view, I find the tracks of some animal with small split hooves. Back, near the little peak, I take out the binoculars and scan first the valleys, then the blue and white glaciers of Tronador, and eventually turn my gaze over to the hazy valley in the south. As I scan back, I notice a bird, soaring in large circles. It is coming towards me, it is huge and the term airplane comes to mind more readily than bird. When it is close enough, I can make out it has a white collar and now know for sure it is a condor, a bird I had known about, but not seen yet on this trip. I do not let it out of my sight: it comes as close as 100m and I am thankful that I have the binoculars with me. Eventually, the circles shift to the left and the condor disappears behind the ridges in the north. I am still under the spell of this experience when Werner comes back. He has also seen the bird and is just as elated as I am. picarg.jpg (33585 bytes)


Volcan Tronador (photo from Pablo D. Zavattieri's Gallery)

Now we are eager to return to the valley and we head back down. The descent is uneventful and fast; even the trail in the bamboo is not so difficult to find as we both have learned how to navigate there. The only loser in this event are my legs: I had not bothered to change into long pants before the hike, and thus my shins are covered in cuts, scratches and bruises from the thicket. Marianne wishes she had been able to stay with us on this hike and share in the adventure.

Patag_bariloch_marianne.jpg (112317 bytes)The next morning sees us up early as we must catch a boat at the other end of this road, in a spot called Peulla. As we have camped close to the highest point of the pass, most of today's cycling is downhill and the challenge is to keep the bike under control on the steep downward sections. The road has many places with soft gravel and it's similar to the Carretera Austral, I am told. Werner has no problems with his soft mountain bike tires, but mine and Marianne's wheels keep slipping into the occasional skid.  On two occasions, buses pass us, its occupants staring from behind dusty glass at us three cyclists. If I was trekking here, I would not to use the busses at all, just use the boats, and hike the road. A tent and food would be necessary, but the experience on foot is so much richer than the bus trip.
After a 700m descent, the road flattens out and we pedal towards Peulla, where the boat will leave. We pass several abandoned buildings that, some time ago, served the border administration, and, around 1 p.m., we arrive at the Chilenean border post. We pass Immigration and Customs successfully (duties are performed by a friendly couple that interrupt their house chores to handle this business), but are nearly mired down at the last check. The two carabineros are bent on finding fault and claim a stamp is missing in one passport. When we point to the "missing" passport entry, they switch story and want us go back and repeat the customs inspection. I am annoyed at the delay and afraid that something might be discovered that could give us grief. Who knows what an overly zealous official might object to? I talk our way out of it, and insist that we three put a healthy distance between us and the police stop before we take a break and discuss what happened.

Patag_bariloch_dosantos.jpg (103252 bytes)In Peulla, day visitors have arrived and come strolling up the hot and dusty road, and at the pier, the large catamaran waits for the appointed departure time. We buy tickets, and Werner and I clamber up a stream bed to wash in the pristine waterfall above it. Back at the boat, we get impatient as it does not move at the appointed hour. What we do not know at this time is that Chile had shifted from Daylight Savings to Standard Time over the weekend and thus our watches are one hour ahead. Eventually, the boat moves out and we cross the large turquoise Lago Todos los Santos. The mountains rise right out of the lake, and we pass below the volcano Puntiagudo.Patag_bariloch_puntiagudo.jpg (93990 bytes) Twice the boat stops to meet a small craft: it's the end of the summer holidays, and in both cases a youngster was being rowed from a farm beside the lake to meet the catamaran so he or she can return to school. The boat arrives a Petrohué, which is just a landing with a huge hotel. We have gotten the name of a farmer that offers more humble abode, and are being ferried across the Petrohué river to his small house.
I am afraid I might get fleas from the free-running farm animals and thus take a room. Marianne and Werner think such danger is more likely to be found in the rooms and they pitch their tent outside. Whatever is the right decision, I am happy to report that I picked up no such vermin. In the morning, my companions want to stay behind to spend a few days hiking near Volcan Osorno and I thus cycle on, alone. The road is paved, but frequently, long stretches are covered with gray mud. In places, jagged gullies, straight off the Volcano's cone, meet the road and dump their generous load of ash and dirt. At the bottom of the valley races the powerful Petrohué river, and in one place tumbles over a barrier of twisted lave to for its famous falls. But I have my mind set on returning and am impatient to make distance.

Around noon, I have lunch in Puerto Varas, and then, along a rather monotonous stretch of Routa 5, I cycle into Puerto Montt. The loop has come to a close.

Back to Trip Overview
Back to Erhard's Home page