The Carretera Austral, Fitzroy, and the road to Punta Arenas

March 15th, 2007 by David

   Since last entry, I have zig zagged south, following the Andes to the tip of South America (see map). I am now in Punta Arenas, a city at the southern end of Chile.

   The first segement of this journey, riding south from Coyhaique, Chile, involved riding Chile’s carretera austral, which was ordered built by the dictator Pinochet in the 1980s. The road is famous among cycle tourists, and I soon learned why. I camped every night, often next to giant turquoise lakes or rivers, or within sight of glaciated peaks and the nearby ice fields of Patagonia.

Carretera Austral, near Cerro Castillo
Campsite over Lago General Carrera - South America's second largest lake
Micheal ahead on the Carretera Austral
Couple from France crossing South America, south to north

   I met many cyclists on this route, almost all of whom were also on long journeys. It was a little strange to meet people who were crossing all of South America and think nothing of it – just give casual advice about the many months ahead.

Cyclist from the Netherlands - biked across Asia, then Australia, and is now going from Argentina to Alaska.

   I met Peter from the Netherlands, who left the Netherlands well over a year ago and biked across Asia. He realized he had some money left over, so he flew to Argentina and is now biking to Alaska. And that is nothing – If I had been on this road just two weeks earlier, I would have met the famous Heinz Stücke, who started bicycling 1962, and hasn’t stopped since. He was in South America because he was trying to get a boat to bike part of Antarctica, one of the very few places he has never biked. His boat fell through, so decided to bike the carretera austral, because last time he biked Chile, the road had not yet been built.

Local mountain guide Yoani explains that this section of the Rio Baker is going to be damed
Debate in Patagonia about dam building

   Along the carretera austral, I had a number of conversations with locals about the hydroelectric dams that will likely be built in the region. Most seem to support building the dams, as it would bring more infrastructure and development, while others complained that giant beautiful valleys would be flooded. These dams, though, would also provide incredible amounts of carbon dioxide-free electricity to Chile’s cities. No power source is without its drawbacks, and while I support dams over the use of coal, seeing such projects reminds me that energy efficiency–reducing our energy needs–is one of the most important investments we can make.

The melting face of Glacier O'Higgins

   The carretera austral ends at lake O’higgins, which you can cross by boat. I paid a little extra to see the O’higgins glacier, which you can see on the left and which has melted 9 miles over the past century. Once we reached the far end of the lake, I had to take a trail through the woods (sometimes pushing the bike and getting rained on) to another lake, which, when crossed by a boat, brought me to the roads of Argentina and the mountains of Fitz Roy, shown below.

Fitz Roy
Cerro Torre through the trees
Departing El Chalten

   (A thanks to the people at Cerro Torre Cabañas – a great place to stay in El Chalten).

   From these mountains, I headed south once more, crossing the dry steppe of Argentina before once more crossing over to Chile, where I stayed with families in Puerto Natales and Punto Arenas. In Punta Arenas, I visited my first school, Liceo Sara Braun, in many months, as the summer vacation for Argentina and Chile has just ended.

Sandra, Felipe, Carlos, Yara, Karen, Jonathen, Gloria, Juan Carlos in Puerto Natales
Liceo Sara Baun, Punta Arenas
Liceo Sara Baun, Punta Arenas

   I am now at the end of South America. From here, I take a boat across the Straight of Magellan, and bike a few days across the island of Tierra del Fuego to the Argentine city of Ushuaia. And then there will be no more road left.

One Response to “The Carretera Austral, Fitzroy, and the road to Punta Arenas”

  1. Kate says:

    I can’t believe that you will be home soon! I hope you are savoring your last days of this adventure. Can’t wait to see you at the many weddings this summer.

    -Kate and Eric

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