Over the past week, as I’ve proceeded south on Chile’s Carretera Austral, I’ve seen many cyclists on what is one of most scenic routes in the Americas – a decade ago, it was still a little unusual but, as the highway has gained notoriety, I’ve seen dozens or more every day. Leaving the town of La Junta, though, I spotted something so unusual that, at first, I thought I might have been hallucinating: on a rise ahead of me, there appeared to be an upright human figure waving his arms in the middle of the route as he advanced south.
If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought it was a skier and, as I overtook him, I was surprised to see that my guess was correct, in a way. Pulling off onto the roadside and engaging him in conversation, I learned it was a young man from Viña del Mar wearing wheeled “skis” as he attempts to travel the road from Chaitén (about 150 km north) to Villa O’Higgins (another 840 km south).
In effect, it’s cross-country skiing without the snow, fairly easy when the road is smooth but more difficult when there’s loose gravel (as there so often is). Traveling by car, I doubt I’ll see him again, but everybody else on the highway should keep an eye out for him and, if you should see him, please let me know.
Meanwhile, I did manage to spend a night in volcano-ravaged Chaitén for the first time since late 2010, when the ash-clogged town was a mess. While there’s still some evidence of that, as the photograph above suggests, most of the town shows signs of revival, though the population is certainly less than half the 4,000 it was before the eruption and evacuation. There is now daily subsidized bus service to and from Puerto Montt via Caleta Gonzalo and Hornopirén that includes two ferry connections.
Southbound connectivity, though, is not nearly so good. There are daily buses (also subsidized) to the white-water Mecca of Futaleufú, but only three per week southbound to Coyhaique (where I arrived yesterday afternoon by car). That accounts, in part at least, for the number of hitchhikers along the road.
As I proceed south, the pavement is advancing between Puerto Cárdenas and the turnoff to Puerto Cisnes, a distance of some 200 km, and there are frequent stops for construction.. Beyond Cisnes, there’s smooth two-lane blacktop all the way to Coyhaique (where I arrived yesterday afternoon). After a couple days here, I look forward toward continuing south but, as I understand it, floods along the Río Baker have blocked the highway so that it’s presently impossible to reach Caleta Tortel and Villa O’Higgins overland from the town of Cochrane. This wouldn’t be the first time that rain and flooding slowed or stopped my progress on this memorable route.