Original 1024px carretera austral   leones.jpg?1496795407?ixlib=rails 0.3
On a bicycle trip through Patagonia, one writer found more than just nature.

Rural Patagonia is legendary for its pristine and majestic nature. The jagged spur of the South American continent has come to represent one of the last remaining places where the footprint of mankind is faint and the wilderness is really still wild. When Rachel (my girlfriend) and I decided to spend several months bicycling through the area, that untamed landscape was exactly what we hoped to find.

A Google search for “bicycle tour Patagonia” led us to the Carretera Austral: a 770-mile stretch of mostly unpaved highway that traces the spine of the Andes through some of the most remote and beautiful Patagonian scenery. After months of preparation, we packed our bikes into boxes and flew to Puerto Montt, a port city some 650 miles south of Santiago. From there, we continued south for several days by local passenger ferry—our bikes tied down to the deck of the ship in the stormy Gulf of Corcovado—before we set foot on the Carretera in a tiny coastal town that felt completely unmoored from the familiar trappings of civilization.

It took about two weeks to trace the route through wild forests, windswept plains, and snow-capped mountains. On our last full day along the Carretera—and three days into a persistent rainstorm—we found ourselves at a loss for where to sleep.

We were cold and wet and had been riding for hours. The pelting rain had briefly ceased, but the darkening sky threatened an encore, and the rough-hewn dirt road was even rougher after several days of deluge.

We were still 30 miles from Villa O’Higgins, the remote Chilean outpost that marked the end of the Carretera, the border of Argentina, the promise of a hot shower, and the glorious return to pavement after weeks of dirt and gravel. From there, we’d ride about 600 miles further along somewhat better roads to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. 

There was no way we were going to make O’Higgins by nightfall. We’d been camping out almost every night, so pitching our tent in the rain was nothing new. But here, the land on either side of the road was fenced off by vast cattle ranches, and we hadn’t passed a viable campsite in hours. We’d just stopped beside a small stream to debate our options when we spotted a man walking out of the trees.

article continues below ad

He was wearing traditional Patagonian gaucho (cowboy) garb—boots, jeans, work shirt, wool vest, a red bandana tied loosely around the neck, as well as a red Northface jacket. He looked about 50 and had a stocky build and kind eyes. Three dogs trotted dutifully behind him, and we saw now that the stream led to a small house in a clearing. The gaucho hailed us and came to the road.

“Do you know a dry place to camp or a barn or shed?” Rachel asked in Spanish.

“We’re looking for a safe place to spend the night,” I added.

The man sized us up. After a few moments’ deliberation, he agreed to help and led us to a wooden shed behind the house. The room was musty and cluttered with saddles, tools, and animal hides, but it was dry, and we were happy to lay our gear down. 

The gaucho invited us into his home, a simple two-room structure of wood planks clad in corrugated metal. We shared sopaipillas, chocolate, and conversation in his warm, rough kitchen as the rain fell fiercely upon the tin roof.

After a while, he brought out an old copy of Patagon Journal, and we were amazed to see a photo of our host on the cover. It turns out that our new friend was Erasmo Betancourt, a well-known gaucho-turned-activist who, as a member of the “Patagonia Sin Represas” movement, had been an outspoken opponent of the damming of Patagonia’s rivers. He was featured in the adventure documentary 180 Degrees South, and there’s even a YouTube video of this guy performing a traditional Patagonian baguale folk song.

Later, Rachel and I drifted off to sleep to the sound of rainfall with handmade sheepskin rugs beneath us. It may not have been the soft bed and hot shower that awaited us in O’Higgins, but it was dry and safe. This was not the first time we’d asked a stranger for help in halting Spanish, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. We may have come to Patagonia for its famous nature, but we found so much unexpected hospitality in the warm, rugged folk who make their homes in the midst of this wilderness.

article continues below ad

Locals certainly saved our journey countless times with small acts of kindness, but the adventure itself wouldn’t have been possible if not for their fierce love of this spectacular land and dedication to its protection. Indeed, the story of the Patagonian wild is more a testament to human conservation efforts than it is a tale of “untouched wilderness.” In recent decades, local ranchers, fishermen, and conservationists—Betancourt included—have vehemently resisted the construction of hydroelectric dams on the region’s mighty rivers. Hundreds of square miles of land have been bought back from private interests and preserved as national parks thanks to the efforts of philanthropists like former Patagonia CEO Kristine Tompkins—who recently donated 10 million acres of grassland and forest to the Chilean park system—and her late husband, the conservationist Doug Tompkins.

In the morning, we awoke to find sunshine warming the puddles. The hearty smell of wood smoke wafted over the creek and between the trees, and we were thankful to wake up dry.

We made breakfast on the gaucho’s woodstove as he passed around the maté gourd and told us about the cattle trade. We thanked our host, packed our bicycle panniers, and hit the road. Is there anywhere on Earth so remote that one cannot encounter humanity?

>>Next: Water Is Life: Staring Climate Change in the Face on Mount Kilimanjaro