Chile, Top to Bottom, Upside Down

When Michelle Savacool set out to cycle Chile, top to bottom, a distance comparable to crossing the United States, she worried most about the weather. Indeed, the first unbearably hot days in the Atacama Desert turned her plans upside down, and she was forced to reassess the purpose of her trip. Abandoning her goal of pedaling the length of Chile, Michelle nonetheless had a fantastic experience as a solo female traveler that included cycling the famous Carretera Austral in Patagonia and continuing into Argentina along a little-known border crossing.

Episode Transcript

Michelle: After the first day, that I felt so tired and sick, it was like, “Maybe you weren’t prepared as much as you should be.” Obviously, I’ll keep the bike. We’ll start biking further south, when you’re not in the driest desert in the world.

Gabriel: You just heard Michelle Savacool, talking about the challenges of bicycling across the Atacama Desert. Michelle had planned to cycle Chile, top to bottom, but soon she discovered that in bicycle touring, even the best laid plans sometimes don’t survive more than a day. Although her trip had been immediately turned upside down, Michelle adapted quickly. By the time she returned home, she had memories to last a lifetime. 

Sandra: You’re listening to The Accidental Bicycle Tourist. In this podcast, you’ll meet people from all walks of life and learn about their most memorable bike touring experiences. This is your host, Gabriel Aldaz.

Gabriel: Hello cycle touring enthusiasts! Welcome to the first episode of the Accidental Bicycle Tourist. We are standing together at Kilometer 0 of the podcast, about to set in motion. I hope it will be a memorable and rewarding journey together. My guest today is Michelle Savacool, whom my wife Sandra and I met in Patagonia, the southernmost part of Chile and Argentina on the South American continent. Just the word Patagonia evokes thoughts of untamed nature and high adventure. During the planning phase of our trip, Sandra and I had considered crossing Patagonia by bicycle, of course, or with a camper van, but opted finally on backpacking and hitchhiking. As we were laying out our gear in the bedroom, I said to Sandra: “These days, people are busy packing their bags in various corners of the globe, and we’re all destined to meet in Patagonia. That’s wild!” Indeed, a few weeks later, a diverse and fascinating group of travelers would converge, not just in Patagonia, but specifically at a small campground called Turismo al Galope, located in the ramshackle hamlet of Villa Cerro Castillo, at the foot of the mountainous Cerro Castillo National Park. That November night in 2022, the common room at Turismo al Galope was packed with weary souls, huddled around their gas stoves, preparing their basic meals. One of those travelers was Michelle, who today is my very first guest on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist.

Michelle: Yeah, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to reminisce about our time down there.

Gabriel: Let’s start the reminiscing right away. What are your recollections of that night that we met in Villa Cerro Castillo?

Michelle: I remember being like, “Wow, like people are here from, like, all corners of the globe,” and some people had been there for a couple of days and were gonna leave soon, and some people were just arriving, and everyone talking about where they just were and were they’re going. “And are you headed north? And are you heading south? And what’s your mode of transportation?” And all this stuff. Also, the big news that the parks workers were on strike. “What’s everyone gonna do? Where are you gonna go?” I remember there’s a lot of talk about the hikes local to that town, right, because that’s some pretty spectacular hiking around there.

Gabriel: That’s right. We were having dinner with a Czech couple. They were extreme light packers. They were such light packers that they didn’t have any cooking equipment, and so they would eat crackers and tuna for dinner, and when we offered them some hot rice, they were just so grateful for something hot. We were talking, and we had found out that they had done that hike to the Cerro Castillo National Park, the big climb, and it wasn’t officially open, as you said, but they had gone up there, seen it, and come back, all in one day. And they reported, yes, there’s snow, and it is at least passable.

Michelle: Yeah, they didn’t have any plates or bowls or anything, but they did have plastic wine glasses.

Gabriel: Yes, they had their priorities straight.

Michelle: The only thing they had with them. And they said… someone asked, “Is it dangerous? Is it slippery?” or whatever, and they were like, “Well, it’s fine, but some parts could be a little bit fatal.”

Gabriel: Yeah, exactly. Slightly fatal.

Michelle: And we were like, “Oh, great.”

Gabriel: Yeah. And somehow, we were encouraged to do it. You were at first at another table, next to us, but then you got into the mix, and they had already done it, and they were moving on, and we thought, “Well, maybe we should do it.”

Michelle: Yeah, I think I was like, “Oh, that’s something I wanna do, but maybe is a little unwise to do alone.” So I was like, “Maybe these nice people would like to hike with me tomorrow.”

Gabriel: And we did it. It was a memorable day. There were parts that were definitely snowy, and you walked on this slope, and it was pretty much downhill as far as you could see, to the valley, and so that would be a very long way down from the mountain.

Michelle: Yes, but we made it.

Gabriel: We made it, and we’re here to talk about it. But that actually was a day that you were off your bicycle.

Michelle: Right.

Gabriel: I want to then back up from that very memorable experience and find out, how did you get there?

Michelle: Alright. Well, I’d been wanting to take a big trip for a while, not necessarily by bicycle, and the opportunity just hadn’t presented itself. In the summer of 2022, I decided to get a new job. Fortunately for me, my new job allowed me to sort of delay starting, so that I could go do something, take some time off, which I wanted to do after the pandemic. So, I was trying to figure out where I would go, and I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do, but I thought maybe the Galápagos, maybe somewhere in South America, and I remembered… I went to Croatia for a few weeks, in 2014, and met someone who said that he had, like, hiked Chile, I think it was south to north, and was saying, that was incredible, and like, terrain was different everywhere you went, and I don’t know, stuck in my head. So I looked it up, and I stumbled upon the Carretera Austral as a thing. And then I was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll maybe I’ll bring my bike, maybe I’ll do a bike thing,” and it came out organically from there. And I was gonna have three months, so I thought I could do potentially, like, the whole country. So I started far north of Patagonia, ’cause it was going to be September and so it was still cold in the south. I started in the north and aimed to cycle the whole way down.

Gabriel: The Carretera Austral, that’s a very famous road, and we might return to that road in future episodes. To give some context – austral meaning southern – that is a road that goes north-south from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, which is quite far south. Not at the very tip, not at Tierra del Fuego, but pretty far south. I do remember you mentioning this initial goal of cycling the whole of Chile, so I looked it up. Chile is 4,270 kilometers long. That’s 2,653 miles, roughly, and that was really your initial goal.

Michelle: I was like, “Oh, well, that’s about how wide the US is, and I know that people can cycle the coast-to-coast in the US in two and a half months or so.” So I thought, “Oh, this is maybe possible.” I also had a friend that was going to visit me in the middle, so I was like, “Maybe I’ll not cycle some of the middle parts.” But yeah, that was the initial, like, plan in my head when I went down there.

Gabriel: Right. If you superimpose Chile on the United States on its side, it pretty much goes coast to coast, and if you superimpose it on Europe, it goes from the North Cape diagonally to, basically, the tip of Portugal. With such a daunting task ahead of you, how did you prepare?

Michelle: Well, I looked a lot of stuff up on the internet. It was the first trip that I’d be doing where I felt like I needed a lot of extra bike parts, just in case. What kind of cooking gas can I get down there? What kind of stove do I need? Did a ton of research about weather, because what I had read about Chile is just that the weather can be so highly variable, especially, like, going through all the various terrains. I’m not the type of person who’s just like, “I’ll just go, it’ll be fine.” I was very nervous about the weather, and that was probably the biggest thing that I looked at. You can’t fully know, necessarily, what you’re getting yourself into until you get there. There’s just no way. You can just do as much as you can.

Gabriel: And what about physically?

Michelle: I ride my bike pretty regularly. I do, like, road cycling and such. My friends, that I know, that I do bike camping with, we go pretty regularly, and I think… I didn’t train, or something, for it, and I had seen on some of these groups about long-distance touring, and some people were like, “You know, you kinda get in shape as you go.”

Gabriel: Right.

Michelle: But I think it was actually kind of an issue, because the northern part of Chile is the Atacama Desert, and so it’s kind of far between places to stop, and so to start out up there was physically exhausting.

Gabriel: So basically, it sounds like from a planning point of view, you did a lot of research, and physically and mentally you felt like you had quite a bit of experience.

Michelle: Yes, I flew to the town of Arica, which is like, oh, I don’t know. It’s very, very close to the border of Peru. I took my bike from home, disassembled, put it in a box, and reassembled once I got down there. The man who ran the hostel I was staying at picked me up at the airport because he had like a bigger car, and he was like, “Oh, you’re coming with a box, I will come get you.” And this started a series of people being extremely, extremely hospitable in Chile. Anyways, I got there, I put my bike back together. I went to take it for a spin, and it did not function because the chainring had been bent in the plane. So I went and found a bike shop, and they’re like, “Oh, you know, we don’t have this part,” and I was like, “Can you bend it back into place?” And they took a hammer to it, and it worked for the rest of the trip. So that was a great start.

Gabriel: When in doubt, get a bigger hammer.

Michelle: Aha, yeah. And then I was getting ready to go. I was extremely, extremely nervous. It’s pretty empty between towns. I had packed up my bike. I had, I think, 13 liters of water. I had never carried that much weight on the bike before. I didn’t pack it very well, and so I went to set out, and the bike’s super wobbly. It was too late in the day, and I was like, “Hmm, I don’t feel comfortable. This is too late,” and I went back to the hostel and stayed another night. So the next morning I was like, “Alright, you gotta, you gotta go.” Yeah. And I set out and pretty quickly got chased by some dogs in the town, which is new for me, and then, yeah, I just started, like, basically biking out on the highway into the desert.

Gabriel: How did you carry the water? Obviously, you had your water bottles which can be mounted to the frame, but did you also have some sort of collapsible bladders?

Michelle: Yeah, I had several collapsible bladders. I had one six-liter, very kind of durable water bag, and then I had a couple of two-liter ones and then my little bottles, and like, and some other things. But it was a little difficult to, like, balance them and stuff them into the different bags.

Gabriel: That’s a lot of weight in water.

Michelle: It’s a lot of weight. It was definitely heavy. Yeah, so I set out. Some of the trucks would honk at me, and at first I thought, “Oh, no, I’m not supposed to be here.” They’re like, “Get off the road.” Then eventually I’d know they were waving, and it was great. So many people would just be like, “Yay! Good job! You’re doing it!” Where I wanted to stay was eighty-something miles, which is quite a lot. So at that point in my life, I had never camped alone before, and so I wasn’t really comfortable yet camping wherever, and also there just wasn’t that many places to camp on that road, just empty expanse to the right and left of you, and quite large rocks. So, the place I chose to camp was at this beach. It was a long day, a lot of climbing. I think I drank six or seven of those liters of water, mostly on, like, this large climb. That was my first day. It was intense.

Gabriel: Yeah, without many towns, like you said.

Michelle: Where you left the highway to go to the beach, there was a little area with a police checkpoint and several restaurants. But between there and when I left, I think I ate lunch in, like, a bus stop just to have some shade from the sun, but there wasn’t anywhere else to get water that I remember.

Gabriel: It paid off to have to have good supplies.

Michelle: I was pretty nervous. Also, it’s not like an official place to camp, where I chose to stay, and people I met in the hostel were like, “Oh, you’re doing what? Oh, it’s so dangerous. Be careful,” this kind of thing. And so, I didn’t sleep well. I was exhausted. I could tell that I overexerted because I wasn’t hungry, and I should have been very hungry.  I remember, in the middle of the night I thought I heard voices, because I was right by the ocean, and I’m like, “No, stop! Don’t be crazy!” But I still had my little Leatherman knife thing not far away. Anyway. And then, I peeked out my tent. There were, like, three people, not that far away with a car, and it was, like, two in the morning, and I was like, “Oh, God, what’s happening? Like, what is, what is going on?” Terrified! And then, you know, I looked again like fifteen minutes later, and they’re, like, setting up a tent, and it’s just a family, like coming for the weekend, or whatever. The next day, I was kind of sick, severely dehydrated, and I was like, “I can’t do today what I did yesterday.”  So I ended up asking this woman who came by – she had a truck – and I was like, “Could you drive me (to the next place that I wanted to stay)?” She was like, “Oh, yeah, sure.”  Very, very nice lady who drove me to my next stop. The third day, that day was extremely hot. My device was measuring 103 degrees Fahrenheit, riding in in the middle of the day. And I just felt like, “I don’t know… I don’t know if I can handle this heat.” So when I got to Iquique, I really started thinking about, do I really wanna ride in this desert for weeks? Is this really good for me?

Gabriel: An understandable question.

Michelle: Yeah. Ended up renting a car for a couple of weeks for this part of my trip, and I was highly conflicted about doing that because I had this sort of grand plan, and what do I want the trip to be? Like, is the trip supposed to be, like, an athletic feat? Is the trip supposed to…  What is it, what is it supposed to be here? I’m trying to definitely like, enjoy my time, but we all know, sometimes it’s difficult, sometimes it’s exhausting. It’s not always pleasant, these days on the bike. Some days it rains really hard, you know, yada yada. After the first day, that I felt so tired and sick, it was like, “Maybe you weren’t prepared as much as you should be.” Obviously, I’ll keep the bike. We’ll start biking further south, when you’re not in the driest desert in the world.

Gabriel: What were you feeling there? Were you… Was it heat? Was it the road? Briefly think back to what is it that made you say, “I’m getting a car.”

Michelle: Yeah. The big thing was the sun, not necessarily the temperature, but the intensity of the sun. I think my body just was not handling that well at all. I was like, “I don’t think this is a good idea for me. I don’t know if I’m physically able to do this right now.”

Gabriel: Did you feel lightheaded or…?

Michelle: Yeah, I felt dizzy and just, like, I was being, like, cooked, even though I was wearing, like, long sleeves. Everything in my body was just screaming that I need shade. Maybe if I did it again after having done the longer trip now, I would be in a better place mentally to do it, and I probably would do much shorter days, and I think it would be very different if I wasn’t alone. I think renting that car and being able to take my time and do spontaneous things was the right decision for me at the time.

Gabriel: Well, you had to decide what your goal was, like you were saying. And, if your goal was to cover the 4,000-plus kilometers or 3,000 miles, then it would have felt like a defeat, I guess. But if your goal was, you have a certain amount of time, and you want to enjoy the country and have a mix of experiences, then why not? And I don’t think you regret that today.

Michelle: No, I don’t. The desert’s hard. It’s harder than in the south, where we met. I did feel a little bit disappointed in myself, and then very quickly, when I got in the car and started heading inland, and it’s just, like, mining trucks and not much else, and where would I stay? And I met a guy in the south who had traveled through there, and he was like, “Well, I would just camp like in the little ditch between the roads after it got dark.” I don’t necessarily want to be doing that. It gave me more time in San Pedro to do other things that were really fun. I met some people because I was driving instead of biking, that I wouldn’t otherwise met that I still talk to. When I when I got to San Pedro, I was doing something with the bike in the back, and I noticed that my tire was flat, and I remembered that the last day that I was riding, I was riding as the sun was kind of starting to, like, set, and I really wanted to get into Iquique before it was dark, because I had to take this downhill highway. And I heard this wop, wop, wop, wop, wop noise, and I pulled over and, like, checked my bike, and I couldn’t figure anything was wrong. So I was like, “Whatever, I guess I’ll just figure it out when I get there.” Anyways, it turns out that I ran over this big tack, and my tire just hadn’t gone flat until I stopped. But it was like, “Oh, my God! I was so lucky that that didn’t blow out, or something, on this highway.”

Gabriel: That was lucky. And crazy that you only found out about it in San Pedro. I remember you saying that San Pedro de Atacama was actually a very pleasant town.

Michelle: Yeah, it’s fun. It’s beautiful. It’s pretty touristy, but just surrounded by, like, so many different scenic natural formations of various kinds: salt pools and mountains and geysers. Yeah, it’s quite beautiful.

Gabriel: I seem to recall also, the blooming desert was going on?

Michelle: So that was a little further south in the desert. In years of high rainfall, I think it is, the winter before, the desert will erupt in these, like, flowers, and it happens maybe every seven – I think I read like seven years or so, give or take – but this year was a really, like, big blooming year. So yeah, when I was a little further south, I could see it off the edge of the highway, and people had pulled over to, like, take pictures with these flowers. You know, instead of the desert being this light brown, sandy color, it’s just these blankets of purple, white, or dense red areas. Yeah, it was very pretty.

Gabriel: It sounded like you were having a good driving tour. And how did you then alter your plans and decide to get back on the bike, in terms of timing, in terms of location?

Michelle: Yeah, so I was looking to try to see where the sort of high sun intensity desert part would be a little less intense, and so I decided to try starting again in La Serena. I returned the car there.

Gabriel: I remember you had talked about this exorbitant one-way fee, and I think that’s something that would be good to warn people about.

Michelle: Oh, my gosh, yes. Yeah, it is wild. I’m trying to remember how much it was. It was like… I feel like, almost embarrassed to have paid it, because it was, I think, upwards of 500 dollars, just to drop it off at a different location than you picked it up.

Gabriel: I think it was 800 dollars.

Michelle: Was it 800 dollars?

Gabriel: Well, I didn’t pay it, but I think it was 800 dollars, because we actually met another person in Chile who said, “Yeah, I did a one-way rental,” and I asked, “Did you pay 800 dollars?” and they said, “Yes.”

Michelle: Yeah.

Gabriel: You’re not alone, Michelle.

Michelle: My stress and anxiety was so much that it was like, “Okay, I’m just gonna do it. I’ll just do it.” If I did it again, knowing what I know now, being a little more comfortable, I might have tried to do, like, a bus thing, knowing how it’s not so complicated to bring your bike on the bus, necessarily, if you talk to the company ahead of time. But anyways, it happened. I got to La Serena and I spent some time there because it was the national holidays at that time. So there were, like, celebrations going on everywhere, and that was really, really fun, to be to be in a place where I could celebrate that with people. But yeah, I started again there and then I cycled to Viña del Mar, which is on the coast just west of Santiago, and that took about a week, or week and a half. It was quite windy. I’ve never cycled in wind like that. It was very, very strong, coming from the south, so right in your face. And, a lot of things were closed because it was still technically winter. One thing that I struggled with, I didn’t plan where I was going to stay ahead of the trip, but kinda when I set out for the day, I kinda liked to have an idea of where I might stay. It’s not like there’s a lot of places to just put your tent. It was a little stressful, with so many things closed, trying to find a place where I was gonna stay. So that that part was, I think, physically difficult.

Gabriel: How would you approach it?

Michelle: I used I used an app called iOverlander, which is like a user-input sort of places where people have stayed. Definitely for people who, like, use RVs, but also it can be for, like, hiking, bicycling, and it has a lot of information about areas where people have pitched their tent, and things like this. So that was really helpful. And I also looked up places along the way, or would call places and say, you know, “Okay, you’re not open, but do you know anywhere that is?” And that worked out, that worked out pretty well.

Gabriel: And were you speaking Spanish or English?

Michelle: I don’t speak Spanish. I picked up, you know, what I could when I was down there and I was quite happily surprised, like, how quickly you learn things when you have to use it. Anytime I knew what I could say in Spanish, I would obviously try to speak in Spanish, but it becomes quite difficult, if you’re trying to talk to someone over the phone, because you can’t see them. What I would do is I would find, like the phone number that was listed with that place, or sometimes in this app, you know, they might be like, “Oh, ask for this guy. Here’s his number,” and I would see if they were on WhatsApp, so that I could type, and then I would type in Spanish. And that worked out a lot of the time, actually. That was quite helpful. But a couple of times I did make arrangements in Spanish on the phone… crudely.

Gabriel: Yeah, it was interesting from our own experiences. So many places had the WhatsApp logo and the number. In Chile, they really wanted WhatsApp communication and advertised it very prominently.

Michelle: Yeah, it was extremely helpful. I was in Viña del Mar for about a week: beautiful, on the beach, really nice people. So, I had a friend who was gonna come down and visit me for about a week, in the middle of this trip, was not going to be biking with me. And so, with her, we drove around, this time not with the one-way… not with the one-way fee, though. And that was lovely. And so at that point, I had been in Chile for, I don’t know, six or seven weeks, and that ended me in Puerto Montt, which is when the Patagonia part started.

Gabriel: The start of the Carretera Austral.

Michelle: Yeah, so then I started cycling south. And that was like, I think, when it finally started to feel like, you’re bike touring, ‘cause before that, you know, it was, like, I did three days, and then abandoned ship, and then sort of did a week and a half, and then decided to spend some time doing other things. It was kind of cool, actually, like, being in Puerto Montt, looking at the sign for Route 7. These are the pictures that you saw that other people post when they start, and you’re here. Like, you’re right here, ready to go.

Gabriel: A good feeling! Kilometer 0.

Michelle: Kilometer 0, yeah. So a lot of people start in Argentina, and they connect to the route a little further south, but I decided to start here. I thought it would be nice to do the entire Route 7. And there’s, like, a series of ferries you take in the north that are beautiful. Luckily, being by bike, you don’t need to make reservations far ahead of time or anything. Even getting ready to do the southern part, even though it wasn’t the heat now, I was still unsure about the unpredictability of the weather down there.

Gabriel: Talking about the ferries, I know that one ferry is a shorter one, and it ends up at Caleta Gonzalo. Caleta Gonzalo has this fancy lodge. I remember, you said you stayed at the lodge, so what were the circumstances?

Michelle: Yeah, the circumstances were… so, the national park was not open, the campgrounds were not open.

Gabriel: That didn’t stop everybody from camping.

Michelle: That did not stop everybody. It did not. I didn’t want to end up in a situation where I had to leave, and didn’t have anywhere to go. Because of the timing of the ferries, it’s not like you had all day. It gets in, like, sort of the late afternoon, and the road there is quite muddy. It’s a little bit like slow going.

Gabriel: It’s gravel. It’s not paved.

Michelle: No, it’s definitely not paved, but that particular portion gets muddy, and you can trudge through and they’re doing construction, and it’s kinda slow. I had decided to stay in this place. It’s another thing where, if I were to do it again, I would probably feel more comfortable, like, “I’ll just find somewhere to camp.” But at the time, it was like, “I don’t know what it’s gonna be like.”  Maybe I’m just not good at this, like, maybe I’m just too nervous, because there was this couple that I met on the boat, also had bikes, and they had been going for like a month. I was like, “Where you guys gonna stay, ’cause the park’s closed?” And they’re like, “Ahhh, whatever, like, we’ll find somewhere.” And I’m like, “Okay, well, I’m gonna stay here.” But as the weeks went on in the trip, I got way more comfortable doing stuff like that, too.

Gabriel: From what I remember, you’re a cautious person, because when we went on our hike, you didn’t want to go on your own, which is totally understandable. But when we went on our hike, you pulled out your little water filter. Michelle, one of the amazing things about Patagonia, as you know, is that all the water from every single stream is pristine and drinkable. And that, for me, is so incredible. Anywhere you want, you just take water, you fill your water bottle, and you drink it, and it’s wonderful. It tastes so good. And we said, “Michelle. it’s okay. This is not polluted in any way.” And you said, “I know it’s probably the case, but…” and you were filtering your water.

Michelle: I had a water filter. You know, there’s quite a lot of farms, and there’s cattle and things, and so that’s just what I was doing, and it didn’t take very long. I remember you guys being like, “What is this girl doing? This is ridiculous.”

Gabriel: Because we were on top of a mountain, and there was not a farm around.

Michelle: I just had it with me.

Gabriel: Just because you use it sometimes, doesn’t mean you have to use it every time. But we could not convince you. You were just, “I don’t wanna get sick.” The filter was only one of multiple safety devices that you had. Can you remember the other ones that you had?

Michelle: Well, I just I think I just had one other. I had a Garmin inReach, which is a GPS thing. So you can message people if you need or whatever the case, and you can also track. It’ll track your trip. My friends at home got that for me before I left, which is nice. That was really sweet, I thought.

Gabriel: Yeah, and luckily you didn’t really need any…

Michelle: No, no, no, no, and people rarely do, you know. When you read about people who do these things, oftentimes they just don’t worry about anything. It seems like nothing really fazes them. It’s not necessarily like I go in, and I think, “I’m going to need this. It is going to be dangerous.” But you just don’t know. You haven’t been there before. I don’t wanna have a situation where, like, someone needs to come save me because I was foolish, just went off, you know.

Gabriel: That’s a good way to put it. You don’t want to be irresponsible, and then need to get help. Speaking of that, did you have, as a solo female traveler, any negative experiences?

Michelle: Just one. It was, like, slightly uncomfortable, with someone who ran, not a hostel, but like some place to stay. Nothing bad happened, it was just, it was uncomfortable. I would never want that to, like, deter me from doing more things, but also other women travelers. I think this is a hot topic because some people will be like, “It’s just not smart. There’s bad people everywhere.” In my opinion, the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of people that you run into are just extremely nice, helpful, caring people.

Gabriel: Good you had a good experience. We were not in the north, but Patagonia seems, at least at the moment, very safe and welcoming, and that’s wonderful.

Michelle: Yeah, definitely. I did get a lot of people being like, “You’re traveling alone, as a woman? You need to be careful!” And I was like, “Yes, thank you, thank you,” you know. But no, it was extremely… felt extremely safe my whole trip. Yeah.

Gabriel: So then let’s pick it up after we say goodbye. The following day, you got on the bicycle and we stuck out our thumbs.

Michelle: You left, I don’t know, a while before me, maybe an hour or more. An so I set out, and I’m going, and I immediately run into you guys at the bus stop, waiting for the bus.

Gabriel: Waiting for the bus, that’s an interesting thing. Since that was low season, sometimes you would find out that the bus only runs two or three times per week. So, “bus stop,” it’s a bit loosely used, because you’d have to wait at the bus stop for two or three days, and that was actually the case. So we waited at the bus stop for convenience, but we needed to stick out our thumbs because there wasn’t a bus coming. We arrived at the stop maybe an hour before you and we were still waiting at the stop when you passed, and we thought, “Oh, we should have been biking.” But then we got picked up by a very friendly woman, and then we saw you.

Michelle: Yeah, you would have passed me again, right? Yeah.

Gabriel: And we passed you and we thought, “Good thing we’re not biking. We’re way faster.” That’s the gamble when you’re hitchhiking.

Michelle: Right.

Gabriel: Villa Cerro Castillo is maybe roughly about halfway through the Carretera Austral.

Michelle: That sounds right.

Gabriel: So how was the last stretch?

Michelle: So, immediately after Cerro Castillo, the pavement ends. In the top half, most of it is paved now, but then the pavement ends, and I was actually really looking forward to gravel, because that’s you know, really what I wanted to ride. It’s as if you go from pavement to gravel and everything all of a sudden becomes just way more remote. That was really cool, to have that sort of transition happen. There were a lot of these, I don’t know if I’d call them a campground, but, like, camping on people’s land. So people would have a large land, and then they would be like, “I’m gonna offer camping on my property,” and then they would have a little, like, building, refugio place, where you could escape the weather, and then a bathroom, or whatever, and then you could pitch your tent, and so I think that next night I stayed at one of those places. It was lovely, like, the people that ran these places were so nice, and they would sell you eggs from their chickens, if you wanted to buy that, or they would sell you bread or cheese, if you wanted it. So I made my way to Puerto Río Tranquilo, and there I took a couple of days because my legs needed a break. Especially because during my “rest day,” we did a fifteen-mile hike.

Gabriel: Right. That was your rest day.

Michelle: That was my rest day. So I stayed in Puerto Río Tranquilo for a couple of days. I visited the glacier, visited the marble caves. That was so beautiful. I think in Puerto Río Tranquilo is when I started seeing the same people. People that we had seen in our campground in Cerro Castillo were there, and then it was sort of like as I moved south, you’d sort of keep crossing paths with the same set, and then you’d check in with people, and you’d be like, “Did you see the Argentinian couple pass? Oh, no. Oh, they must have stopped here,” and it became this community, where you’re not really traveling together, but you know where each other are, you’re all headed down. So that was really fun, ’cause I started seeing more and more cyclists. My last night before I got to Villa O’Higgins, I stopped at a river to get some water, and there was two people that were setting up to camp there for the night. And they were like, “Oh, you’re Michelle! You’re from New York.” And I was like, “Oh my… I forgot these people I met, obviously. Oh no.” And they’re like, “Oh, yeah, like, we ran into Jerome.” It’s like everybody kind of knew each other. So many things were, like, word of mouth between people down there, not so much like you’re looking something up. That was that was really cool, to meet those people and to feel like, “Oh, we’re all doing this thing.”

Gabriel: Yeah, that goes back to my introduction. It’s crazy. These people come from all over the world, and suddenly, for this time, it’s this informal network. And I know, we tried to send you a couple of text messages…

Michelle: Yeah.

Gabriel: If we found something out in advance.

Michelle: No, it was quite helpful.

Gabriel: The bicycle bell means that I have to interrupt the interview to give more information. You see, Villa O’Higgins really is the end of the road. Any kind of motor vehicle needs to turn around and drive north for hours until the first way off the Carretera Austral. Hikers and cyclists, however, have the option of continuing to El Chaltén in Argentina through a challenging border crossing. First there’s a small ferry (also known as “the boat”) that departs from a few kilometers south of Villa O’Higgins, crossing Lago O’Higgins to the Candelario Mancilla dock. A path leads to the Chilean border guard building, where your passport will be stamped. A winding, rocky road continues 15 kilometers until the actual border with Argentina. Here, vehicles can continue no further, and a narrow path cuts across a dense forest with several streams to be forded. At the end of the 6-kilometer cross-country trek, you reach the Argentinian border guards on the shores of the Lago del Desierto. Then, a second small ferry across this lake must be taken, and finally there’s a dusty road to El Chaltén. Even though we were assured that the border had just been opened, nobody really knew if the ferries were going so early in the season, and if they did want to depart, would the weather even permit it?

Michelle: I think the woman at the campground in Cochrane knew the lady who ran the boat out of Villa O’Higgins. She had called down and was like, “Oh, what’s the deal? Are you… what’s the weather? Are you gonna run it?”

Gabriel: We were there a few days before you. So that was the first boat that left, because of the pandemic, in two years. We met people who had been stuck at Villa O’Higgins for a week, and then, on the other side, we met people who had been stuck on the Argentinian side. We were so lucky. We’re arriving, and then the next day we’re going. It could have been a week of waiting. Will it go today? Will it go tomorrow? How was it to finally reach Villa O’Higgins?

Michelle: Oh, it felt awesome. It felt great. It was like, “Oh, no, wait! I don’t want it to be over. Can we just slow this down a little bit?” But that last road, that last stretch to Villa O’Higgins is gorgeous, absolutely beautiful. Obviously, there’s towns, and they’re built up, or whatever, but in between the towns, it hasn’t been touched, it seems. It’s like it’s just left to be what it is, and not just in Patagonia. And I really liked that. It wasn’t just over, sort of, I don’t know what you call it…

Gabriel: Developed.

Michelle: Yeah. Yeah. It was just left to be, like, natural. Even though you have this gravel road, it’s just the road. Coming into Villa O’Higgins was great. Like, I felt really proud of myself. It’s obvious what you’re doing when you’re reaching that town, and so a lot of, like, fist pumps, support, people going by. That was nice. And, of course, I like get into town, and I went to the hostel that you recommended. I think it was Mosco, right?

Gabriel: It was a legendary place, because the hosts were really well-known as really taking care of people, and it had also this communal area, and people were making their dinner and boiling their water. I remember there was always this hot water going. It was this amazing sense of community. Again, a little bit like in the Villa Cerro Castillo, where we me. It was also that same feel. Those are the special places for us, where these travelers met and exchanged stories, and I know that when we were there the weather was horrible, which is partly why they didn’t know if the boat was going to go, because of the winds, and even though it was a lake, the winds can be so strong that the boat can’t go.

Michelle: It’s like a gamble. My flight home was, I think, a couple of weeks from when I was getting to Villa O’Higgins, and so I remember having to decide if I would even continue to Villa O’Higgins, because there’s a ferry, from a little bit north of that, that left, like, once a week or something, and it would take you all the way to Puerto Natales. You know, you could buy a ticket, and it was leaving. It was, it was a large boat. But, you wouldn’t make it to the end, you wouldn’t be able to go all the way to the end, and I wanted to do the boat that you guys took that was, like, the border crossing and end up in El Chaltén.

Gabriel: Right.

Michelle: So I decided to take the gamble, right, and go and see if this boat would run. And I got there, and it was gonna leave, I think, not the next day, but the day after. But then, they called everyone who was there, all the places people were staying, and were like, “Actually, we might go tonight. If you’re here, we might go tonight.”

Gabriel: Typical.

Michelle: Yeah. It was Sunday, I think, and I remember it was like, “And you guys should get food, in case you have to camp on the other side for, like, however long.” But then, because it was Sunday, like, not a lot was open, and so everyone was going around, like, trying to, like, get food and, like, make food, if people needed to make food ahead of time. And we’re all getting ready, and we go over there, to the place where the office for the boat is, and they’re looking at the weather, and they’re like, “Ugh, I don’t know. It’s looking really windy.” Because I think the wind funnels, it funnels through over the lake there. And so, you know, eventually they were like, “I don’t think it’s gonna happen, and I don’t think it’ll happen for another at least five days.” All of us are like, “What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?” Well, I guess, the only thing to do is take a take a bus back – if you don’t have a car – is to take a bus or ride your bicycle backwards or wait. And so everyone’s trying to figure out what they are going to do. A guy that I had seen at several locations along the route was there. This couple that I had seen by the river, who knew who I was, before I met them, they were there, and this other guy, and we decided to do an alternate border crossing, that’s near Villa O’Higgins, but not via boat, and that puts you into Argentina a little further north. It’s kind of similar-ish to the one you did, in that it’s not for cars.

Gabriel: When we did it, there was, of course, all of this uncertainty, like with you, and there was a couple on bicycles who had been waiting at Villa O’Higgins for one week. They just thought, “No, we can’t handle this anymore. And so we’re going to take this alternate crossing.” It must be the one that you did. And the host said, “Yes, but there’s a part that’s through private lands, and there’s a bridge that is very sketchy…”

Michelle: There is a bridge!

Gabriel: They took their chance on it, and of course the boat, our boat, did end up going. I’m sure they had an adventure, but it was interesting to find out that you did the same, because I don’t think this is highly known, this other alternative.

Michelle: Right. You probably go back ten miles, maybe, north of Villa O’Higgins. It’s called the Paso Mayer.

Gabriel: Yes, exactly!

Michelle: Right, so you make your way to, like, the Chilean border control, and they were so lovely. They gave us coffee. They’re like, “Oh, you guys look cold. You want some coffee?” you know. We asked the border people there, like, “How many people like are coming through here?” And they’re like, “Seven a month.” The thing I think that makes it difficult is that you sort of have to find your way to the Argentinian border control, and there’s some maps that you can find, and you can kinda see the trails, and there is this, like, bridge, ‘cause you have to cross this big river and, it was built for sheep. So we had to take our stuff over, like one bag at a time.

Gabriel: How many of you were there?

Michelle: There was five. So one bag at a time, and we really didn’t want two people on the bridge at the same time, ‘cause it looked like it might be a little… We didn’t want it to be too heavy, you know. Took the bikes over and stuff. Then you’re in a part of Argentina that’s way further north than where you were trying to go. So, if you’re trying to continue on and go to like El Chaltén, and then go to, like, El Calafate, and then eventually, like, Torres del Paine, you’re going way, way far out of the way. You might add as many days riding to your trip as you would waiting, you know. It was cool. It was, like, fun. So I feel happy to have had the experience I had, even though it wasn’t the ferry that you took.

Gabriel: There are very few people who attempt that crossing, at least nowadays. Who knows, it might become more popular. You’re in a select group, I think. It’s a very unknown crossing. And then somehow, on the Argentinean side, you got back to civilization. Did you make it to Route 40?

Michelle: Yeah, so made it to Route 40, and then we ended up in Gobernador Gregores, and from there we ran into these people who had some trucks. They had, like, bike toured before, and they ended up at the place we were staying. There was only three of us at that point, and they were like, “Oh, we’re going to El Chaltén, if you guys wanna just go with us.” And so, we threw our bikes, you know, in their car, and we ended up at El Chaltén.

Gabriel: Nice.

Michelle: Right where we wanted to go. Of course, this is perfect, you know. Great, we made it! Yeah, things like that happened the whole time, where you’re like, “Oh, gosh! What am I gonna do?” And then something would come up, and it would be great and amazing.

Gabriel: Definitely. And I think it’s this very interesting philosophy, where what you have to give up is your sense of rushing and everything scheduled which is so ingrained in us. You give that up, because who knows, there might be a storm, and now the ferry is not running. Or there might be a landslide, and the Carretera Austral is closed for two days. So just sit back and relax, and in two days you can keep going. And so that’s very difficult for, I know for someone like myself, or I think maybe most people in the United States, or maybe Europe. So, you give up that expectation that everything will happen on time, and what you get back is these incredible meetings with people and amazing experiences that happen, and it seems like a good trade-off to me.

Michelle: Yeah, it’s like a good reminder. There are cool things happening all the time, and maybe you don’t get to do the thing you wanted to do initially, but then, instead, you get this other thing that is equal or better. I remember, I went to Futaleufú, which is in the north part of the Carretera, and It was raining for, like, three days. Heavy, heavy rain. And this town is known for, like, rafting and this kind of stuff. It’s right by the border, so I just went to Argentina for a few days and went to the national parks there, where it wasn’t so rainy. And that was super fun. And then I came back.

Gabriel: Yeah, we were also in Futaleufú, and we were really looking forward to doing the rafting trip in the rapids. But it turned out that at that time, the water comes from the Argentinian side, and the Argentinian dam had let out so much water that it was absolutely impossible to raft on there.

Michelle: Oh, wow!

Gabriel: Instead, we ended up doing a kayak trip on a much more relaxed river, but we did it with some people that we had met, and it was a great experience as well. So it was completely different than why we had gone there, but it was still great. So it’s funny you mentioned Futaleufú, because we also had a change of plans, and it was fine.

Michelle: Yeah.

Gabriel: After El Chaltén, I guess you just went home the normal way, by bus or something.

Michelle: Yeah. What I felt when I got to the south was that I was really happy that I didn’t use my experience that I had when I first started to think like, “Day One. We’re already off book, you know. Oh, no, this isn’t for you.” I was like, I think you’re gonna want… you’re going to wanna have your bike. You’re gonna wanna start again further south, and to not make a drastic decision about the whole trip, and just sort of take it day by day and see how you feel and feel like, it’s okay if I change my plans.

Gabriel: I love your honesty. And you said, “You know what, I was cooked. I was cooked. I didn’t want to do it. So I got a car,” and there’s no shame in that, and it’s a change of plans, and that experience helped you in the southern part of your trip, and you were still able to have that amazing bicycle touring experience, even though, okay, maybe it wasn’t all of Chile, but it was still a lot of amazing experiences.

Michelle: Yeah. And I got to experience the country, north to south, for sure. And that’s what I wanted, and it was like, “I’m not going to have any time to do anything spontaneous if I have a time pressure on the bike. I’m gonna have less experiences this way than I would if I changed plans right now.” It’s okay if I change my plans, my choice, and it’s okay if I change my plans because circumstances dictate that I have to change my plans. Feeling really happy that I continued to do that. I had an amazing, amazing time, met amazing people – like yourself – and was sad to leave, wanted to keep going.

Gabriel: It’s a special place for sure.

Michelle: Yeah.

Gabriel: And I’m also sure we’ll be back sometime.

Michelle: Yeah, I would love to go back.

Gabriel: The transcript for this episode is available on the Accidental Bicycle Tourist website. I welcome feedback and suggestions for this and other episodes. You’ll find a link to all contact information in the show notes.  If you would like to rate or review the show, you can do that on your favorite podcast platform. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram. Thank you to Anna Lindenmeier for the cover artwork and to Timothy Shortell for the original music. This podcast would not be possible without continuous support from my wife Sandra. And thank you so much for listening. I hope the episode will inspire you to get out and see where the road leads you.   

Michelle: And on the way, I went to, like, the area where they grow a lot of the grapes for pisco. Actually, this Chilean guy that I met, was telling me all about pisco, and he was like, “Don’t tell anyone, but I think the Peruvian ones are better.”