International Bike Travel
ExperiencePlus! owner Maria Elena Price cruises along a rare downhill on Qinchao Island, Chile, on the final day of the tour. Photo by Jeff Bartlett.
Amazing Andes AdventureBy Jeff Bartlett - Published February 7, 2012
At the end of a long day of riding, I couldn’t get off my bike fast enough. I pedalled from asphalt onto gravel and then, just before the path hit the South Pacific Ocean, I dropped my bike between two pastel-painted wooden fishing boats. From there, I simply followed my nose towards our latest feast: grilled lamb. Instead of a state-of-the-art kitchen, our lamb is skewered above wood coals contained in half an oil barrel. It’s rustic, but so is Patagonia.
After nine days on ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours’ Pedal the Andes Plus Chiloe Island trip, I trusted our guides’ judgments. By the way the nine other cyclists were crowding the makeshift picnic tables, the feeling was mutual. By the end of the tour, one rider claimed it was the best culinary ride of his life, despite having done cycle tours in Italy, Spain and France.
We started our journey across Patagonia’s Lakes District in similar fashion. Our first dinner – famed Argentine Asado at El Boliche de Alberto in Bariloche, Argentina – set the tone for our ride. Everything came off the grill: tenderloin and sirloin steaks, Patagonian lamb and juicy pork sausages. Even wheels of provolone cheese came grilled and doused in olive oil. Heaps of salad sat untouched amid this carnivorous feast.
For the four Canadians on tour, it wasn’t just the fact we would spend the next eleven days getting a jump start on both our cycling legs and tan lines while dining on local specialties that glued smiles on our faces. We had also traded in our snow-shovelling duties and abandoned our spin classes for 700 km on asphalt.
After circling Nahuel Huapi Lake, it’s rolling shoreline luring our legs back into cycling shape while the myth of prehistoric monsters lingering beneath its surface seduced our imaginations, we exited Argentina. All that stood between us and Chile was a 42 km no mans land across the Cardinal Antonio Samore Pass that separates the border posts. The climb was a battle against winter-trained legs; the descent a reckless fight against gravity.
The next morning, we pedalled into Chile’s lush green farmland. Pastures littered with dairy cows lined the roadsides, broken up by berry patches and clumps of rhubarb. By mid morning, the Osorno Volcano appeared on the horizon and became our silent guide. We kept turning towards it as we rode from town to town, circling Llanquihue Lake, but it took four days to reach.
ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours runs trips around the world and prides themselves on using local guides who help make time off the bike an authentic local experience. In our case, they are Tika and Javier. Both portray common Patagonian heritage in fitting ways.
While Spaniards settled most of Argentina and Chile, they mostly landed in urban areas. Both governments feared their empty southern territories would be susceptible to invasion by the other, so each country adopted aggressive plans to populate Patagonia. In Argentina, English, Scottish and Welsh sheep farmers came in droves. In Chile, it was swarms of Germans who settled vast stretches of the land around the shores of Llanquihue (Yankee-way) Lake before spilling into Rio Negro and Neuquén provinces of Argentina. Today, their blond hair, bratwursts and names populate the area and each town has its own German school. Although he arrived long after the 1846-1914 immigration boom, Tika moved to a small homestead in Argentinean Patagonia from Germany as a young boy.
Javier, on the other hand, depicts a newer era of migration. He recently fled a stressful career in the USA to return to his native Patagonia. It’s a growing trend and both Buenos Aires and Santiago are losing more residents to quiet southern towns each year.
Both guides know this route and manage to add in side trips to impressive viewpoints throughout the entire tour. When unexpected road construction closed a portion of the standard route, they managed to squeeze in a detour that added more kilometres on quieter roads.
After seven days, we’d completed our ride on the mainland and shuttled to Chiloe Island. Most of us had come to see the Andes, lakes and vastness of Patagonia and we had few expectations about Chiloe. It stole the show.
The mestizo culture that exists on Chiloe Island is a rare mix of indigenous and Jesuit missionaries and island culture speaks of hardy equality. It’s the type of place where visitors are invited into homes, not businesses. Our first meal on the island was Corantu, served on a local farm. Similar to a New England clambake, corantu starts by digging up somebody’s backyard. Fire-heated stones line the bottom and ingredients are piled in: shellfish, pork, chicken, potatoes and milcaos (a potato bread). Chilean rhubarb leaves seal everything in to steam.
Our hotel in Castro stood on stilts above the bay and vibrant-coloured wooden shingles covered every visible wall around the island. When cathedral plans calling for brick and mortar first arrived from Europe, the locals still chose to build with wood. The result? Fourteen wooden cathedrals protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, which have withstood centuries of pacific storms despite being built without nails.
For our last ride, we ferry hopped to Qinchao Island. We’d climbed the Andes, crossed the lakes district and circled a volcano, but the near vertical climbs on this island demanded the granny-gear.
By the time I’d finished my grilled lamb and taken the requisite photo of the rustic oil-barrel-turned-barbeque, my legs were shot. A few people opted to jump in the van, but most of us struggled onto the saddle one last time.
Like a mid-summer ride at home, this climb became a race. Whoever reached the top first would have a straight-line descent to the finish line. I stood up and attacked. The whole group gave chase. Legs churned as the pace quickened and the final Chilean landscapes streaked by in a peloton-driven fury. It didn’t matter who won. After all, we’d all just be that much better prepared to beat the crew back home once the snow melted and they dusted off their bikes for spring.
How to get there:
Air Canada runs a daily redeye from Toronto to Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Connections to Puerto Montt with Lan Airlines are available from Santiago, while connections between Buenos Aires and Bariloche are possible with either Lan or Aerolineas Argentinas.
Where to stay:
Patagonia’s Lakes District has many small towns and a seemingly-endless supply of hotels. However, a few Spanish terms will help point cyclists to the right choice. Campings are campgrounds, residenciales are budget options with shared bathrooms and kitchens, and hosterias are similar to bed and breakfasts.
What to eat:
In Argentina, it’s all about barbeque and Malbec wine. From the grill, order Cordero to try Patagonian Lamb, Bife de chorizo to discover why Argentina is known for its beef, Choripan for a sausage on a bun, or Provolone to satisfy a cheese craving. Adventurous eaters can opt for parrillada, but beware, it’ll include beef, kidneys, intestine and blood sausage at the very least.
In Chile, salmon, hake and shellfish are abundant and cheap. Chupe is a seafood bread pudding and Curanto is a culinary experience. Chiloe Island is the birthplace of the potato, too, so try to sample more than one of its 400 native varieties.
When to go:
The best time to visit Patagonia is when you’re sick and tired of riding a stationary bike or shovelling the driveway. Summer runs from November to March, but February and March offer plenty of sunny weather without the crowds.
ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours (experienceplus.com) is the only company with a road-bike friendly trip. The 11-day Pedal the Andes Plus the Island of Chiloe tour takes in the main highlights of the lakes district in both Argentina and Chile while removing the headache of route planning and gear hauling.