After several days of rain, our long weekend dawned fine and airy, perfect conditions for our weekend ride to Argentina to renew our Chilean visas.

Because of work (drat!) we couldn’t ride the whole circuit, so Fernando drove us to Icalma via the La Fusta road for the start of the ride. A pity, because this road crosses a magnificent high plain through the Reserva Nacional Lago Galletué with volcano-studded ranges to distract the rider from the corrugated gravel with its slides of loose stones lying in wait in corners. This way takes you steeply over a ridge at about 1,250 metres above sea level, before dropping slowly to Icalma (about 1,100 metres).

Icalma was dozing in the midday heat; the immigration officials roused themselves reluctantly.

‘Where are you going?’ the border guard asked.

‘Villa Pehuenia.’

He grunted. Barely worth the paperwork. He stamped us out of Chile.

Generous staffing and underemployment are typical in this part of the country, and outside the office we chatted to a couple of young officials in army-green uniforms who had nothing better to do than slouch on one hip and appraise our bicycles. The locals know their sturdy bikes: the many who can’t afford cars ride.

‘Buen viaje,’ they waved us of. ‘Have a good journey.’

‘Hasta mañana. Until tomorrow,’ we replied.

The climb started immediately. It was steep, and we were slow. Almost immediately, I noticed my lack of fitness, and not just my legs, which were soon screaming: the climb was also playing havoc with my mind, reminding me how much stamina is a matter of mental fitness.

Cycling from Chile into Nequen, Argentina, on route 13, overlooking Lago Moquehue

Whizzing downhill as we enter Argentina, with Lago Moquehue in view

We persevered. It wasn’t for long. At the 3 km mark the gradient softened. A few kilometres on the quality of the paving increased, and we knew we were in Argentina. Another set of paperwork, and we whirred gleefully downhill. The dun of the landscape with its horizons soft-edged in the heat set off the lakes, Moquehue and Aluminé, swashes of ultramarine pigment.

The homes and businesses of Villa Pehuenia are broadcast along the bank of Lago Aluminé over 5 kilometres or so. Follow the road east for 110 km and you come to Zapala, and eventually to the regional capital, Nequén. But a lordly 13 km from Icalma, we turned down a side street to look for lunch, then a place to camp.

The municipal camping ground was closed, occupied only by birds and an electrician. He was busy repairing wiring.

‘It’s closed. It’ll be open in summer,’ he said.

It wasn’t summer yet? Perhaps he meant the solstice, the official start of summer here.

But Camping Don Cirilo was open.

‘Anywhere you like,’ our host said, sweeping her arm through an arc that took in the lake and a lagoon. The price was a bit steep at 120 Argentinean pesos ($17 Australian) for a tent site. But the grass was soft and young, and the showers hot and powerful. We had waterfront views, and in the evening two horses cropped their way companionably through the sweet grass at the water’s edge. We recognised familiar species from home at Malalcahuello: the scarlet flowers of the same small tree, notro, stood out against the green, and the same golondrinas (Chilean swallows) scythed the evening air.

It was great to be riding, and great to be camping. It’s been a long time, a much longer time than we had envisaged when we left Australia.

Entrance to picnic area on Lago Aluminé, Argentina

The end of the road at Villa Unión … fancy a picnic?

We explored the neighbourhood, rode back uphill for dinner, and managed to scratch up a total of 34 km for the day.

On Saturday, we had to work hard to achieve it, but we managed even fewer kilometres: 30. We pulled up 4 km east of our campsite on the small headland at Villa Unión. The road ended at a slouching fence and a picnic sign that was more rust than information. On the other side lay the crystal lake, marked off with flattish boulders that formed Lilliputian bays and sheltered skinks. A wizened tree looked as old as the rocks. Bright dots of flowering herbs hugged the rocks. The buzz of insects the only sound.

Lago Aluminé from the Villa Unión headland

Beyond the picnic sign on the Villa Unión headland lies beautiful Lago Aluminé

The late-morning stillness seeped into us, and we dawdled up the graceful climb back to the border, via coffee and cake in a wooden train carriage converted into a cafe. It wasn’t till we were whooping downhill into Icalma that we realised just how steep the slope is on the Chilean side. At the aduana, customs officials were searching incoming vehicles for contraband – like Australia, Chile has strict laws prohibiting individuals from importing fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy products, nuts and seeds, and honey.

Flowering gorse on the bank of Lago Aluminé, Nequen, Argentina

Flowering gorse on the bank of Lago Aluminé

While we filled in yet another form, we chatted to the young man on duty, surprised that in this dusty outpost of 300 souls someone spoke good English. Then he astonished us when he said had lived for 18 months on the Gold Coast, an hour’s drive from our home in Brisbane.

Most of the people who live on the lakefront in Icalma rent their land for camping, and 5,000 pesos (less than $10 Aussie) saw us fixed up in someone’s back yard for the night. School children on a day’s excursion emerged from the lake, blue-skinned with cold, and ran the showers out of hot water. As we leaned against trees on the edge of the water and sipped a beer, four little girls and a boy stood within earshot and, with sidelong glances our way, practised aloud their few words of English, but giggled shyly and ran off when we answered them.

Lago Icalma, Región Araucanía, Chile, from lakeside trees

Lago Icalma … and a lovely grassy spot for a cold beer

Sunday at last was a proper riding day, 70 km to Lonquimay via Liucura. The road out of Icalma was steep and the gravel skiddy and corrugated. But it improved after only 3 km, and on a clean, hard surface we tripled our speed – and our spirits – despite discovering some invisible surprises of soft sand or gravel on the inside of bends. At 18 km, we came into a narrow valley, through which the River Biobío flows towards Lonquimay. The vegetation is sparse. Initially we thought it had been routed by lava or volcanic ash, but the old araucarias gave this the lie: we suppose the forest has been felled, the land given over to farming. This ancient species has been protected in Chile since 1971, but it continues to decline and is formally listed as endangered. These ones were lucky survivors. Lucky us, too: they are magnificent trees.

Stand of Araucaria araucana trees, Liucura, Región Araucanía, Chile

Araucarias between Icalma and Liucura provided a good spot to top up the sun screen

Río Biobío meandering through valley south of Liucura, Región Araucanía, Chile

Río Biobío, south of Liucura

At 26 km the valley lost its intimacy as it opened out; the road became stonier and was slower going. The horizon ahead of us was a invitingly mysterious haze of mountains out of which remnant snow gleamed. Behind us it was imposing, with a high table-topped mountain above us, and a volcano dominating that.

At kilometre 32, we cheered as we reached bitumen and Liucura, the access point to another border post. Lunch, being the most important meal of the day in Chile, is usually a three-course affair, and we were just in time for it. We tucked into comida casera served in the back room of someone’s home.

Liucura to Lonquimay is a flat 38 km along the valley floor, and we set off into a developing storm front that quickly filled the sky and, after a few warning rumbles, started flinging lightning about. Luckily, because many of the locals travel by bus, there is a plentiful supply of bus shelters along the road. We holed up and ate chocolate while the rain and lightning fell all around. Behind us, the sky over Icalma was still blue.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. Fernando picked us up in his ute, and we were home, via the Túnel Las Raíces, which is unsuitable for bikes, in time for dinner (and work the next day), with permission to stay in Chile for another three months.

Cyclists waiting out a storm in a bus shelter, Highway 181, Región Araucanía, Chile

Waiting out the storm in a convenient bus shelter

Cycling notes

Malalcahuello to Villa Unión circuit, 213 km, of which 72 km is gravel

Malalcahuello (970 metres above sea level) to La Fusta turn-off (900 masl), via highway 181 and Túnel Las Raíces – paved, 18 km
La Fusta turn-off to Icalma (1,100 masl), route R-955 – gravel, 40 km
Icalma to pass (border) (1,260 masl), route 61 – paved, 5 km
Pass to Villa Pehuenia, route 13 – paved, 13 km
Villa Pehuenia to Villa Unión, route 13 – paved, 6 km
Villa Unión to Icalma, routes 13 (Argentina) and 61 (Chile) – paved, 24 km
Icalma to Liucura, route R95-S – gravel, 32 km
Liucura to Lonquimay (865 masl), via highway 181 – paved, 38 km
Lonquimay to Malalcahuello (via Túnel Las Raíces), highway 181 – paved, 35 km

 

We recommend off-road tyres because of the gravel stretches with corrugations, soft sand and deep, loose stone.

Food, drinks, meals and accommodation available in Malalcahuello, Lonquimay, Icalma, Liucura, Villa Pehuenia. It is fine to drink the tap water in all these towns.

To cross into Argentina, Australians (and, as far as I know, people from Canada and the USA) need to have paid a reciprocity fee online before arriving at the border post. You cannot pay at the border, and must have a printed page showing the bar-coded receipt for your payment. You won’t be allowed into the country without it.