There are good days and bad days on the Carretera Austral. During the good ones I see Patagonia at its picture-postcard best as I ride over glacial streams that really are that shade of blue; through luscious temperate rainforests, all under the shadow of snow-capped mountains. If the inhabitants of this isolated and remote part of Chile decided to break away from the rest of the country, the colours on their flag should be Green, White, and Turquoise.
The good days always end with a perfect campsite. It doesn’t get dark until 10pm, so there’s plenty of time to hold out and find a good one. After the arid, treeless landscapes of Peru, Bolivia, and the deserts of Northern Argentina, camping in a coniferous forest, one of my favourite places to spend a night, has been a long overdue change of scenery. I gather wood for a fire, more to pass the time than for warmth, and light it I when the twilight of the day finally comes around, when the valleys are dark but the glaciers way above still glimmer in the last moments of sunlight.
When the weather misbehaves – and it will – the whole place is tarnished to a barely visible greyscale. As my waterproofs no longer live up to their name, it’s quite a soggy and miserable experience. These bad days are ones of head-down riding for long periods of time in order to keep warm. Food breaks take place whenever there’s a bus stop but only take as long as it takes to shove some bread, cheese, and salami down my gullet.
But the bad days aren’t really the problem. A rainy day is just another day with a different sort of schedule that ends with wetter clothes. You get dry and warm eventually. The problem has been something brewing in my mind for a while now and on the Carretera Austral – a road one of the most famous cycling roads in the world, where people fly to from all corners just to ride – it’s started to materialise into something clear and undeniable.
Yes, it’s really stunning and beautiful. Yes, the rivers really are that colour. Yes, I am absolutely spoilt for saying this, for taking for granted an opportunity to ride this road. But after 42,000km of cycling across a plethora of environments, I’ve come to realise that there are places I thrive in and there are places I end up just passing through on autopilot. Unfortunately, The Carretera Austral falls into the latter category. As I ride through yet another perfect fjord, I’m a little overwhelmed just how much of everything photogenic there is around here, and how obvious everything is. There’s no enigmatic beauty that you have to figure out down here; there’s just in your face, picture-demanding beauty on a platter. If you ride past it, don’t worry too much because there’ll be another perfect vista a hundred meters down the road. You never earn it.
In contrast, the places I look back on so fondly have a more subtle tone. The appreciation I gain has to be figured out. The beauty of a place may be elusive at first glance, or the times I experience it may only come around once or twice a day. But this is enough to put everything into perspective, to reward me for the struggles of a day. Such an enigmatic beauty exists in dry, empty places. The deserts of Northern Argentina, the Aussie Outback, and Altiplano of Bolivia are all standout places to go for a bike ride. When you have to put in some work to figure out the beauty of a place, therein lies the personal connection with it, a unique understanding of the appeal to somewhere that only you truly understand. It’s a bit cultish, like knowing a secret.
The Carretera Austral doesn’t require any real work to appreciate it. There are resupply points every day or two, beauty spots are well signposted. and good two-wheeled company is inevitable. Yet solitude is impossible and any feeling of adventure is completely lacking. As a cycling holiday, it’s great, but don’t expect too much of a struggle on it or too much of a reward for completing it, if you’re on a big, transcontinental trip. There’s no secret to unlock.
That is where the Carretera Austral fails.
Or maybe I’ve been travelling for way too long, and completely spoilt, and this is just pretentious rubbish.
Go ride it, then go cycle across a desert, and I’ll let you decide.