We have now been in South America for 2 weeks and it just gets better and better. From Viña we rode south to Chillan, picking up the Pan American Highway for the first time. It has the appearance of a motorway – dual carriageway in very good condition, with toll sections in places. However unlike motorways in Europe, it comes complete with pedestrians, cyclists (going the wrong way of course on the hard shoulder) chickens, geese and all manner of critters and animals. Not in vast quantities but they are there occasionally and you need to look out for them. For services, just pull over at one of the many food shacks that line the way around major towns and tuck in to some tasty empanadas (a bit like delicious Cornish pasties) or lovely salads & fruit. We’ve been taking it easy, content to cruise along at 60 mph with both BM’s yielding a very respectable 70mpg at this low speed. From Chillan we headed next to Conception where we visited the Talcahuano Naval Base where the old Ironclad, the Huascar, is kept in pristine condition as a museum ship. She was built in Birkenhead in 1865 for the Peruvian Navy but subsequently captured by the Chileans in 1879 during the War of the Pacific and they’ve kept her ever since. We met the ex-base commander, the charming Mario Mulsow – Captain (retd) Chilean Navy – who insisted on giving us his contact details in case we should need any help. We have been quite staggered by the hospitality of the Chilean people. They are very open and friendly, with warm smiling faces and everyone says Hi! In restaurants & cafes, you don’t just get good service; you get good service plus that little bit extra that makes your visit feel special.
We rode next to Pucon in the Chilean Lake District through ever increasingly beautiful scenery. Pucon sits at the foot of the Volcan Villarica. We found stunning camping under an apricot tree in the Camping Parque La Poza and were so taken in by this beautiful place we stayed for 6 nights. In the middle of our stay we spent a day ascending the volcano. Neither of us had ever seen a real live volcano before but Volcan Villarica fits the bill for a first. It is your classic volcano – a big pointy mountain that juts well above the surrounding scenery with snow on the top & a whiff of smoke coming out of it. The ascent involved going with a tour group of 9 people. The trip cost around ₤25 each including the services of some excellent guides, the bus to the volcano & ski lift up the first part and all special kit required – good snow boots, waterproof jacket & trousers, mitts, backpack and a wicked ice pick. It took us about 4 hours to climb to the top through snowfields and over volcanic rock & debris fields. It was relatively easy but the views from the top were out of this world, both looking out at the surrounding country and looking in to the smouldering & sulphurous crater. But the best it of all was coming down! Our trousers encompassed plastic bums and we used these to slide down the mountain via a series of chutes in the snow using the ice pick as a brake. Big smiles all round at the bottom, which we reached in just over an hour thoroughly exhilarated by the slides. It was with great sadness that we left Pucon. It was a real paradise and at nights the town itself was very lively with a variety of bars & restaurants. It is quite cheap here in Chile. Petrol is 43p a litre (Beer is slightly more expensive at 50p a litre!) and a cracking top-rate meal for 2 can be had for around ₤20 with all drinks & wine included. Not that we are living the high life – we had some good evenings in the campsite where we cooked our own grub and supermarket prices are very low – again a top-rate dinner for 2 with beer & wine costs around ₤4 – ₤5.
From Pucon we rode south to Osorno, then turned inland to head to Argentina over the Andes for the first time. At this early stage of the trip we are running out of superlatives. Pucon, with the Volcan Villarica, was lovely, stunning, beautiful, wicked, cool. Now as we rode to Puyehue we were met by a fantail spread of 5 Volcanoes across our horizon, including the pointy witches hat that is Volcan Puntiagado and the awesome Volcan Osorno. How can we describe this vista? It sent electric shivers down our backs – making hairs stand on end at the thrill of seeing all this beauty. The Andes backdrop – stunning in it’s own right was simply ordinary against this lot. Check out also, the cool blue Lake Puyehue running past us on our left as we ascended past the volcano of the same name. Add to that a road that was pure motorcycling nirvana, bending and twisting up into and over the Andes. All under a cobalt blue South American summer early evening sky.
The border crossing to Argentina was a simple transaction with very polite policemen and customs officials on both sides. Then we were off to San Carlos de Bariloche, gateway to Patagonia, twisting down into yet further changing scenery – the mountain roads lined with powerfully scented lupins in the late evening as we trotted down through a pink & purple sunset and around lake Nahuel Huapi, to our destination. As we arrived late, we found a decent hotel room for 80 pesos a night. We had no idea what the exchange rate was (the decision to cross into Argentina was made at the last minute today) and were a bit worried that it would blow away our daily budget allowance. We got some local money from an ATM and then had the best meal of the trip so far – Trucha con Hongos with some excellent local Patagonian wine – at the Breogan, a Spanish Celtic restaurant near the hotel. The meal was recommended by our waiter – a very professional Brazilian called Jose Alfredo Ost – and was local trout in a sauce made from Hongos – a local tree growing mushroom. Never tasted trout like it, never tasted mushrooms like it! With obligatory Pisco Sours as a starter (made from Pisco – a grape brandy – egg white, sugar & lemon or lime juice) it all came to 45 pesos, including the tip. You can imagine our surprise and delight when we found out next morning that there are just under 5 Argentine Pesos to the pound, so that stunning meal for 2 came to less than ₤10! San Carlos de Bariloche is a delightful place, a small city with a very Bavarian/Germanic feel to it on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi and we decided to stay for a few days to familiarise ourselves with Argentina and Patagonia before heading further south. We have completed just over 1000 miles in the 2 weeks – a slow pace, but we are loving and savouring every minute of it.