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Crossing mountains and cultures (with a bicycle for two)

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By Katie Nicoll 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

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

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

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

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.

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