La Carretera Austral:
The Carretera Austral was an Eat, Pray, Love experience for Abbie Stirling, an extreme adventurer. Cycling 1240 gruelling kilometres, Abbie admits to a sense of wonder and raw freedom.'I changed in a way that people today cannot see on the outside,' says Abbie, emphatically.
The Carretera Austral in English means: the Final Highway or the Last Highway. It was built throughout the 70s and 80s by a horrific dictator to unite a large portion of the country that was disconnected due to turquoise fjords, thick rainforests, soaring mountains, hanging glaciers, volcanoes, and the second largest lake in South America. Today, this highway is nothing like what we think of as a highway in the USA. Over half of it is rough, unpaved gravel roads. The portions that are paved, my favourite portions, are single lanes for traffic in both directions. There are 17 national parks encompassing millions of jaw-dropping acres of land and multiple ferry crossings because there is no option for a road. Peak season for travellers is in January and February when I was told the roads would be packed. I hadn’t even heard of the Carretera Austral until I was in Chile. Each hostel I stayed at, people were talking about this epic highway, considered one of the best road trips in the world by National Geographic. Every car and RV in Chile was rented out for the peak season, all the buses and ferries were full. I was told there would be no chance of me going. However, I wouldn’t have quit my job to spend half a year in Patagonia if I was that easily defeated. My trip came to fruition when I met a cyclist from France who told me that the Carretera Austral is also one of the toughest, stunning bike rides known among the cycling world. So, it was then that I decided to buy a bicycle and ride the 1,240 kilometres of the Carretera Austral. Bikes get to walk onto the ferries for free and there is endless wild camping. Had I ever gone wild camping? No. Did I feel confident in my cycling skills? Not exactly. I knew it was going to be difficult, obviously, and hopefully transformative yet nothing can quite mentally or physically prepare one for the greatest adventure of all time.
I set out on my first day, every pedal moving me forward. It was one of those pristine summer days where the sun was warm, but the air was still cool. I had to hop on a ferry that held hundreds of vehicles and over one thousand people. As I sat on the top deck enjoying the mesmerizing view a man approached me and asked if I would be willing to share the table with him and his sons. I obliged and the next thing I knew I was lost in conversation with a family who owns a well-established fishing lodge on Laguna de Los Torres. They invited me to stay on their land once my bike and I made it. Little did I know that that was the beginning of a love story. Not the kind of romantic love one often thinks of but rather the love of a country and its people. There were a lot of angels along the way like this family. People who fed me, allowed me to camp on their land, people who made sure I had extra blankets during storms and gave me rides when I could no longer walk my bike up steep gravel mountain passes. The land also supported me with its plethora of avocados, blackberry plants and endless cherry, apple and pear trees. I was able to drink water from every river, stream, and waterfall. I was given a loving brace by Chile and her people. Looking back now I am able to fully understand that this is the only way I was able to do what I did.
Every day I yo-yoed back and forth between thinking I made the best and worst choice of my life. Riding this beast was like taking the hardest spin class you have ever done but for 5 to 8 hours a day. In the saddle, out of the saddle, soaked in sweat. There were two heat waves where the temperature peaked to 35 Celsius, dumping rain and of course snow. The thing that stood out to me the most was how remote, wild, untouched and pristine this part of the world still is. Recently, Barack Obama hosted a television series called ‘Our National Parks and the second episode showcases Chile’s Patagonia. What I enjoyed about this episode after having been there myself is how Obama highlights the drastic change in the landscape. During the first portion of the Carretera Austral I was surrounded by rainforests with leaves bigger than my body, lizards that are colours I have never seen before and massive, towering active volcanoes. Once I reached my friends at the fishing lodge, not quite halfway, I was met by lakes that looked as big and blue as the ocean, hanging glaciers, pumping waterfalls and jagged mountains. In the middle the land turns into dry, high desert and the largest town on the Carretera Austral, Coyhaique, seems to appear out of nowhere. Yet, true to the saying save the best for last, the end of this ride was by far the most gruelling and exquisite.
One month into this bike ride I was about three fourths of the way done. I found it increasingly difficult to sleep as the temperature was starting to drop, agonizing leg cramps kept me up at night and I could not eat enough food to satisfy my appetite. Each day brought about frustration due to the fact that the roads were covered in thick gravel which made my bike tires spin out beneath me. When I began my journey, I was cycling 75 kilometres a day yet with the conditions of the roads at the end I was down to 40. Now, there were days where I would not come across a town and the wild camping no longer felt invigorating but terrifying because of just how far I truly was from any connection to the human world. It was in this place I learned my limits are far greater than I ever thought imaginable. Nature teaches you the importance of being humble and slowing down. Here at the end of the journey, all my limits being pushed, I found myself in Patagonia National Park.
Patagonia National Park on the southern end of the Carretera is 800,000 acres of land in the actual middle of nowhere. This park is full of guanacos, pumas, condors and eagles. It was once a cattle ranch that destroyed topsoil and polluted the water systems. In the early 90s the former owner and founder of The North Face, Doug Thompkins and his wife Kris, purchased 5 separate ranches with the goal of rehabilitating the land back to its natural habitat. This endeavour took over 25 years and in 2018 Patagonia National Park was donated to the country of Chile expanding their already extensive network of national parks. When I arrived here there was no one else camping in the soccer sized field area designated for camping. I felt as though I had stumbled upon the most immaculate part of the planet and that I wasn’t supposed to be there. It was here that I was overcome by a sense of surrender and peace. It was here that I sat for a week and truly realized how much I grew through this experience. I changed in a way that people today cannot see on the outside. I now prioritize nature and alone time whereas before these things fell behind culture, restaurants, and socializing. The Carretera Austral in all its glory, suffering, and grandeur still leaves me speechless. It was an Eat, Pray, Love experience for an extreme adventurer. I experienced wild, raw freedom and in the end, I want nothing more than to go back and do it again. I fell in love, I changed, and I want more.