Bikerafting along the Carretera Austral, Chile
An epic adventure by packraft and bike
1180km on bike - 360km on packraft - 30 days riding, from Puerto Montt to El Chaltén!
Guest Post by Alexandre Gorski
I first heard about Packrafting some year ago as I came across an online video: guys bikepacking upriver through mountains and forests, carrying within their gear tiny, ultralight inflatable boats that would help them pump up their adrenaline while rafting all the way back down to wherever they had come from... and it just shook my world... I had finally found a great way to spice up my adventures.
I have always been more of a hiker, but it goes without saying that from the very beginning, to me, packrafting seemed to be inherently linked to bikepacking. Of course some will say that the bike requires some well-trodden trails and therefore hinders access to a lot of hidden rivers… and they might be right. But the mobility that the bike offers, this capacity to cover large distances, to painlessly carry more weight, to pop off the grid and still be able to reach any place within a few hours for shelter or supplies… this just opened up a whole new spectrum of opportunities, and that combination seemed perfect for an extended trip in the wilderness.
Altogether, the sense of self-sufficiency the bike and packraft provide, that’s also a sense of freedom I must say I had never experienced until I tried it myself…
Of course, I’ve had my share of mishaps until I could tame that beast. I guess I managed to turn it upside down in all imaginable ways before I could learn to paddle with confidence. Understanding how to glide down moving water bodies without losing your shit is no small feat. I guess it’s all part of the usual learning process, but just try to picture that with a bike on top and you’ll see that I broke into cold sweat more than once. However, after carrying my new toy around Europe during a whole summer, I felt I was (or thought I was) ready to take on a bigger challenge. And that’s when I felt drawn to the “Carretera Austral”, for the second time.
Initiated in 1976, the Carretera Austral is a still partially unpaved road that provides access to the remote communities, valleys, rivers and fjords of Southern Chile. Originally foreseen as a strategic road to ascertain the country’s control over these large expanses of land, the Carretera Austral is today what should be on every cyclist’s radar: a gem.
The 1240 km of asphalt and dirt roads of the Carretera Austral lead you through areas of incredible scenic beauty, from lush forests to snow-covered peaks, waterfalls and lagoons, while these images spark within you a sense of adventure like only such remoteness can arouse.
Countless glaciers are also lurking in the valleys along the way, including the “Campo de hielo”, one of Earth’s biggest freshwater reserves. I guess you caught my drift: Southern Chile is indeed criss-crossed by a massive network of lakes and rivers, some of which flow along the Carretera Austral and therefore make it a bikerafter’s heaven.
Starting in Puerto Montt, a mid-size, bustling port town at the Northern end of Patagonia, most choose to progress at the rhythm of the few villages, bakeries and camp sites they come across on the way. But with a packraft strapped on your bike, there is nothing that keeps you from escaping what’s left of civilisation. Grab your fishing rod, pitch your tent on a beach, embrace a Pionero’s lifestyle… the possibilities are endless. From a few hours spent on Rio Yelcho to multi-day trips on Rio Palena or Rio Baker, you can easily pack over 350km of rafting while slowly progressing, past mountains and wetlands, towards your destination: the small, isolated, end-of-the-world-like town of Villa O’Higgins.
But before going any further, you should keep in mind that packrafting bears its share of hazards. A split second of inattention in a gentle rapid or even just high wind on a lake, that is all you need to get your head tossed upside down in icy water, with the dramatic consequences it would have, were you not prepared. Therefore, do not plan a trip out there without a proper set of equipment (PFD, drysuit, a helmet in rapids…) and a minimum set of skills. Going solo should also somewhat have you trim your river bucket-list, as the poor cellphone coverage in that area and the remoteness of some valleys could turn an otherwise small incident into a serious ordeal. As a consequence, only Class I/II rivers were considered on this trip.
Now without further ado, I hope you’ll feel somewhat inspired by the following video series. And if you are, I’d sure be glad to meet you down the road the next time around… because I’m pretty sure I’ll be back.
Bikerafting trip along the Carretera Austral from Puerto Montt to El Chalten, over the Argentinian border. Section from La Junta to Río Mañihualues. Click here for the complete video series.
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