Saturday, 15 January 2011

Castro, Chiloe Island - Did the earth move for you?

As a single woman in my early forties, I never thought I´d utter the words "the earth moved for me". But indeed it did.

I was at the campsite in Pucon enjoying the luxury of eating my dinner sitting on one of those ubiquitous plastic garden chairs. Suddenly the whole thing started to wobble. I know they are not the sturdiest constructions at the best of times but this was not right. I stood up and sure enough the ground was gyrating under my feet - an earthquake! What a remarkable sensation to feel the planet´s crust on the move, like trying to stand on a water bed - not that I've ever had that experience either! It was slightly scary at first but then I realised that a tent in the middle of a field is probably a safe place to be in an earthquake. The quake lasted for several minutes, then it was gone and I went back to munching my supper on my plastic chair as if this happened to me every day.

The day of the earthquake it had rained quite a lot. In fact, it has rained quite a lot since I arrived in Chile. This leads me onto my second natural disaster. One afternoon I met an American woman also cycling around Chile and we camped together at a lovely campsite on the shores of Lake Calafquen. Little wooded islands floated offshore in the gloom and there was just a suggestion of big peaks behind the clouds. Afternoon drizzle turned to torrential rain but we cooked supper and had a good chat under the cover of overhanging lakeside trees. However, when we returned to our camp spot, torrents of rain were flooding through the campsite and our tents were afloat in a pool of water. We threw all our kit up into the toilet blocks and the senora who ran the site came to our aid, lighting a fire in the boiler room and giving us an annex with two bunk beds to sleep in. Once we were sorted we went to help a Chilean family, also flooded but trying to erect a new tent on higher ground. The problem was that the tent was the size of a bungalow with as many rooms but no instructions. We were fumbling with poles and guylines in torrential rain with only the light from their car headlamps - the quake had disrupted some power. Then the car battery died and I had one of those slightly surreal moments - it was midnight; it was pitch black; it was pouring with rain and I was pushing a car up a Chilean hillside!
Fortunately sunny skies were back as I arrived on the shores of Lake Llanquihue. I had quite an amusing arrival in the first town, Puerto Octay. A big cycle road-racing event was on with commentators on tannoys and a radio broadcast. I pulled up to watch and before I knew it, a microphone was thrust in my face and I was asked what I thought of Puerto Octay. I´d only been there about 10 seconds! I think I said it was beautiful but if they´d asked me later, once I´d had a walk around this scruffy town trying in vain to find decent groceries, then my answer might have been different.
However, the next town, Frutillar, was a gorgeous little spot. It was the first place in Chile colonised by Germans and pretty wooden houses from that era still line the lakeside above the beach of black volcanic sand. There´s even a quaint little pier. Across the water is the rather splendid snow-capped Volcan Osorno. I had a bit of a treat in Frutillar, a Christmas present from base camp manager Graham, and enjoyed a lakeside hotel with a view to the volcano and a steak lunch on the terrace. I think I deserve a treat every now and then.

I was now cycling south on the Pan Amercan Highway, a route that in theory links Alaska with Tierra del Fuego. Here it´s badged as a motorway but in the broad hard shoulder you can walk, cycle or even tango. Amazingly on this motorway there are roadside fruit and grocery stalls - can you imagine commuters on the M8 being allowed to pull over to pick up some milk on the way home? I passed other cyclists heading north but four lanes of traffic and a central reservation aren't really conducive to having a blether.

Isn't it funny how sometimes your plans don´t work but things turn out for the better. At the end of a long day I was looking for a speficic campsite off the highway near Puerto Montt, the first city I´d hit since Buenos Aires. I simply couldn't find it and stopped to ask a couple of carabineros. They didn't know where it was either but sent me down a back road and along a gravel trail. I found myself in an idyllic spot by a pebble beach with fishing boats bobbing in the bay and a view to three volcanoes - Osorno, Puntiagudo and Calbuco. This alternative campsite was hosting live folk music and a traditional curanto where meats and fish are cooked in a pit with rocks heated by fire. What a spot of luck! I also realised here that if I was at the beach on the west coast of Chile, I must have cycled across a continent, albeit a skinny one!

The Pan American Highway or the Pan Am (as us veterans of the route call it) delivered me to a place I´d always dreamed of visiting - Chiloe Island. Really an archipelago of several islands that float in the Pacific about halfway down Chile. Having resisted Spanish colonisation, the islands maintained a unique culture and architecture. On the ferry there was one other cyclist - Simon from Canada. What a strange coincidence that we should both end up on the same boat because he was also riding a Thorn bicycle put together by the same person back in Britain. We spent a lovely few days cycling together on Chiloe and cooking some great meals - he had packed a full-size frying pan.
Chiloe was idyllic. At Ancud, in the north of the island, we camped on a grassy shelf looking over the Pacific. At night wild winds and rain swept in from the ocean. We cycled to the sheltered east coast of the island where there were little bays of white sand and clear blue water with colourful fishing boats tied up and rows of brightly-painted palafitos, the traditional houses built on stilts at the edge of the sea.

Chiloe is the furthest south I will cycle in South America. I now really must start heading north, back through lakes and volcanoes, up through the Andes. There are mountains and deserts to cross but hopefully no more earthquakes to side-step!

There are photos from Chile on my Flickr page.

Click on map to enlarge:

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