Crossing mountains and cultures (with a bicycle for two)
By Katie Nicoll Explorebigsky.com Contributor
We woke at the edge of Lago Puelo, our tent hidden in the trees. We were at the base of an unnamed pass separating Chile and Argentina, and had spent the last month riding our tandem bicycle through Chile.
The sky was streaked with warm pinks and reds, and sunlight had just begun to strike the tops of green mountains, rising straight up from the water’s edge. We rose and scouted the braided river we had to cross on our way to Chile, the Rio Puelo. The full moon was just starting to set.
Since starting our adventure in Coyhaique, Chile my fiancé Sam and I had pedaled more than 1,000 kilometers, some dirt, some paved. We endured pouring rain and basked in warm sun. We saw hanging glaciers, rode through the desert, swam in the Atlantic, and experienced incredibly fast and slow travel.
On a daily basis we practiced trust: Switching places on the tandem allowed each of us to follow, attentive to the other’s movements, anticipating shifting, standing and coasting as we danced around potholes at warp speed. However, we had yet to hike with our gear, and spending the next five days carrying our bike, trailer and camping equipment over the rugged pass made it clear why the local mode of travel—by horse and on foot—had prevailed in this rough country.
Across Rio Puelo, the land took on infinite shades of green. The forest was dominated by Coihue and Cypress trees, and water seemed to seep from everywhere. This tunnel of green pummeled us with rain, mud, rocks, waterfalls and occasionally, we were gifted with stunning views across the river valley at rocky cliffs and mountains blanketed in green.
Because this border crossing is one of only a handful between the two countries accessible only to primitive travel, the countryside has seen little outside influence. Every day, we passed quiet campos where the farmers’ way of life had hardly changed since the first settlers arrived decades ago.
One afternoon, we shared the path with a poblador moving his cattle. The wrinkles on his face and hands sagged with the weight of a long life lived outside, and his eyes disappeared as we exchanged slow smiles. The rhythm of his voice encouraging the cattle forward never skipped a beat, and he seemed at peace outside moving among the sunlight and shade.
And then suddenly, change was upon us. We were nearing the end of our fifth day and pausing to eat the only food we had left—plain oats. We heard a grumble, and then a string of 12 dirt bikes zoomed past. We were so surprised our oats flew to the ground, so now we had little left to do but keep hiking.
After a half-hour we came to a river crossing to find an immense road cut. Although the road construction had been slowed by high water, it seemed an obvious metaphor for the change that was looming and inevitable.
I looked back over my shoulder toward the quiet world of non-motorized travel, and then we rolled the bike across the footbridge. On the other side, we encountered a pickup truck, and four men circled around a campfire. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see a vehicle.
We exchanged greetings, and we soon had beers in our hands. They fed us incredibly delicious meat and bread, and started telling us their story. They’d been coming to the nearby town of Llanada Grande for six years, and were involved in the Chilean cattle industry. This was their yearly business retreat (a.k.a. man-camp).
With a rev of motorcycle engines, the rest of the crew returned. Men, ranging in age from 40–65, were transformed into teenage boys, giddy with the glee of riding fast. In Spanish, they simultaneously exchanged war stories and welcomed us. They must have known we hadn’t eaten, and they pulled more meat from the grill and delivered it to our hands.
Convinced our stomachs would soon protest the abrupt change, we pulled away with promises of a reunion and more stories to be shared later that evening.
We swung our legs over the tandem for the first time in five days and rode 20 kilometers into Llanada Grande. Our new friends had left us a paper sign on a post leading toward their “cabin.”
Instead of finding the campfire and cabin we expected, we were greeted at a beautiful guest lodge with warmth and hospitality. The lodge owners, born and raised in Llanda Grande, served us hot maté and then showed us to our indoor sleeping quarters. We dressed as best we could and arrived back to the main building for dinner. The surprises continued.
Everyone was seated, and two places at the center of long table were left open for the “guests of honor.” Wine glasses were full, toasts were made, and women shuffled around bringing delectable meat, perfectly seasoned potatoes, vegetables and baskets of fresh warm bread. The room was packed with good cheer and full bellies.
Chocolates accompanied nightcaps, then guitars appeared Three men played, and everyone sang slow, lyrical classic Chilean ballads. One of the men playing had the most beautiful voice—deep, soft and unwavering. His notes filled the room with warmth, and then some of the more inebriated voices bellowed out the chorus.
On our way to bed that evening, I thought I might burst. I was so full of warmth, generosity, laughs, music, and wonderful food and drink. The following morning, after our bellies were filled one last time, we exchanged contact information. Our new friends waved goodbye as we pedaled, in awe, out through the gate.