A christmas comedy of errors: Chos Malal to Pucon

On a particularly hot and dull afternoon of cycling, somewhere in northern Argentina, we sat in the shade of one of the few available trees with our new friend Charles and dreamt of the Chilean Lakes district. Around Christmas we figured we’d be there, and we loosely decided a Christmas cabaña in Caburgua was in our futures. We’d each invite any kindred souls along that we encountered on the road. Surely we would be about 20 for a big Christmas feast…

Periodic check-ins with Charles revealed we were making faster progress south in Argentina, while he tackled the hilly Chilean coast, and that none of the kindred souls had yet been found. Not to worry though, as we had a handful of detours, hikes and challenging sections planned that would see us leisurely arriving around the same time.

What followed was two closed border passes from Argentina into Chile, sending us south to another border (not the next one, but the one after, as we convinced ourselves it would be nicer) then north again (southwards progress be damned, we wanted to see what was up there), some unexpected days off and recovery from a crash, demolishing our cash supplies on a lovely, cosy room on a rainy afternoon and doing an emergency ATM run with 3c in our collective pockets, then skipping all superior route options and choosing the fastest road to Pucon to make it for Christmas. But make it we did, and feasting was enjoyed, even if it was at a hostel in Pucon, not a cabin in Caburgua.

Our extra Argentine days took us from Chos Malal to the very tip of the lakes region, where the cost of everything hit an all time high. A quote of US $35 for camping had us nervous-laughing and pedalling just out of Villa Pehuenue to camp in a perfect forest of Monkey Puzzle trees. Take that, overpriced campgrounds, we didn’t need your showers anyway. The next day we pedalled a whole 11km over Paso Icalma into Chile while discussing some Patagonian accommodation tactics:

• Wild camp until we need to do laundry and have a shower

• Camp a few km’s before the place we want to take a rest day

• Arrive early enough that we can use their facilities for the maximum amount of time while just paying for one night.

What could possibly go wrong? The next day we’re clean and recharged, ready for a stretch of wild camping. It pisses with rain for the entire day and naturally we buckle and head straight for a hotel in Lonquimay. After a 16 day stretch of camping it is more amazing than I could have expected. The bed is a sea of crisp linen, down duvets and fluffy pillows, the shower is hot enough to bring a tear of joy to my eye and I have three in less than 24 hours. I have stored up so many shower credits on this journey that I feel no guilt.

The next day I slide out on a steep, tight, loose gravelly corner, gouging some nice chunks out of my knee and shin and filling them in with grit and dirt. Unable to pedal, I push and roll the 5km into the tiny pueblo of Troyo and pay a visit to the Carabineros. Every time we encounter these guys they’re a joy, despite appearing overly formal and bearing weapons at all times. We’re always greeted warmly and they seem happy for the distraction, quickly jumping on the task of finding us somewhere to rest up.

The crash, as well as putting holes in my body, tears a handful of holes into my riding tshirt. That’s riding tshirt, singular. The hobo cyclist transformation is now complete, and I have to say I don’t hate it. But this is just the icing on the long list of gear deterioration and failures which seem to be hitting all at once. A mysteriously failing camera that can only be used above F11, a leaking Thermarest mat and an exploded inflatable pillow (lest we share these inconveniences, these are all mine and Andy continues to sleep with body and head nicely cushioned and elevated, photos beautifully crisp). New holes appear in our clothes and socks faster than we can darn, stitching in crotches of pants hangs on dangerously by a literal thread. The bikes, thankfully and most importantly, roll on without complaint.

Despite hurdles and mishaps and a tediously drawn-out exit from Argentina we were quickly won over by Chile’s lushness, it’s mountains and trees and waterfalls and perfect dirt roads and… it’s hard to deny, the New Zealand-ness of it all. Even the pissing rain made us think fondly of home. Araucania is undoubtedly a favourite area, worthy of much more exploration.

This last hot and dry section in Argentina left us lusting after the lushness that we knew awaited on the Chilean side of the Andes

We climbed almost to the top of Paso Pino Hachado into a strong westerly headwind. A dull grind to start with, but Monkey Puzzle trees and rocky cliffs much improve the situation towards the top

Turning off towards Paso Icalma. The detour is already circuitous, what’s a few more kilometres?

Gauchito Gil, a familiar face throughout Argentina. He was a Robin Hood type fellow in the 1800s that has become a folk hero in Argentina. Apparently he had magic healing powers and was also impervious to bullets. People leave all sorts of offerings in his shrines – mostly booze, cigarettes and candles. This one also had a half leg plaster cast.

The road to Paso Icalma and our first encounter with the lakes district

Chile builds its roads mighty steep. Too much fun going fast ends in not so fun times

Luckily only 5km away at the time, I managed to hobble and roll my way into the tiny town of Troyo (the houses in the distance) where the wonderful Carabineros (police) greet me with a kiss on the cheek, raid their first aid supplies, call around for a place to stay and even get me picked up by the owner of the hospedaje.

Heading north to intersect with The Monkey Puzzle Trail bikepacking route

A more common sight than cars on our favourite Chilean and Argentine routes

The roads through Malalcahuello National Park are perfect bikepacking fodder – lava fields, volcanoes, forests and deserted dirt roads

Grey and moody weather and a fierce wind as we climbed over the shoulder of the spectacular Volcán Lonquimay

Leaving Malalcahuello via a cycle path overgrown with lupins

Heading towards Volcán Llaima and into Conguillio National Park

A wonderful day hike on the Sendero Sierra Nevada in Conguillio

A popular national park, the roads through Conguillio can apparently become dust baths in summer holiday season. Just before Christmas they’re a picture of tranquility.

Beautiful tiles of Monkey Puzzle tree bark

Not exactly the huge biker gang we’d envisaged on that hot day back in Argentina, but there were four of us in the end. Charles (right) found and lost several folks along the way, and we fortuitously found Lorenzo (left), who we’d met back in October in San Pedro de Atacama. We spent a few days doing what cyclists do best – eating.

Lorenzo and Charles riding off into the final sunsets of 2017 together, while we headed off for some hiking

We rode to Huerquehue in the rain, we rode out of Huerquehue in the rain, but in between we had some great days wandering between the many lakes

Route notes

Download our GPX file

Download a GPX file of our original planned route (at your own risk!)

Chos Malal – El Cholar – Loncopue – Villa Pehuenue – Icalma – Lonquimay – Troyo – Lolco – Malalcahuello – Curacautin – Melipeuco – Villarica – Pucon – Huerquehue – Pucon

778km over ~12 days cycling. Cycled December 2017.

This was obviously a really circuitous route that wouldn’t make any sense to follow! For what it’s worth though, a few comments:

After Chos Malal the Argentine ATMs in the little towns were all run by BPN, a regional bank, which wouldn’t accept our cards.

From Chos Malal roughly to Loncopue the road is unpaved, then paved after this all the way up Pino Hachado. The road to Pino Hachado is moderately busy with freight trucks.

Paso Icalma is paved in Argentina and is reasonably quiet and pleasant, if not the most adventurous crossing.

The two passes we wanted to cross are Paso Pichachen and Paso Copahue. Both were closed late it the season due to snow. Paso Pichachen is a dirt road which may be paved in the near future as they try to increase trade. Paso Copahue is a hike a bike of 10km or so that links dirt roads on either side of the border. It’s relatively unknown, to the point where the Gendarmeria in El Cholar tried to tell us it was an illegal border crossing (I’m sure it’s not). If going via Pichachen and wanting to link up to the Monkey Puzzle route, one could cut south via a section of the Greater Patagonian Trail. We have it on good authority that this is a great bit of singletrack and we’re disappointed to miss it.

The road north via Troyo was beautiful and lush, though if only riding one, the road through Malalcahuello National Park is unmissable.

Chile, it turns out, does not furnish its small towns with ATMs the way Argentina does. There’s nothing in Icalma, nor in Malalcahuello.

We opted to go through Conguillio National Park (6000 peso entry fee) rather than follow the Monkey Puzzle route after Volcán Lonquimay, due to a forest fire that affected much of that section. Conguillio was wonderful out of season, though the other option is likely más tranquilo in holiday season.

Huerquehue is a beautiful park that gets a lot of Pucon daytrippers (5000 peso entry fee) Camping is expensive at 15,000 per site (up to 6 people) at the Conaf site at the park entry. We found people to share with for a night. A nicer place is Camping Olga at 6000pp, but it’s run by a really wonderful family. Free camping if you hike, but you’ll need to go a reasonable way to escape the day hikers.

4 thoughts on “A christmas comedy of errors: Chos Malal to Pucon

  1. not sure if they told you, but parks that are “through roads” like Conguillio with its two entrances
    are obligated to let you through for free if you can reasonably prove you are just using the road. Obviously it’s not for also doing a hike, and rangers check for that.

    1. Interesting to know, thanks! I had no idea. We spent a couple of nights and did a hike there so I suppose we got our money’s worth, although I’m not a fan of charging for access to nature…

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