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Four hours later I´m in Puerto Montt. What a striking difference to rural Patagonia. I´m happy to be in a city again and move into a nice Swiss run hospedaje. Here the streets are bustling with life. The street markets are crammed, street vendors try selling their goods and many doors are open. Things I was missing in the Great South of Chile.

Hospedaje Suiza

Algae sellers

Two days later I take a bus to Villarica. 300 km on the motorway in pouring rain. There is a German bakery in town and their apple strudel is delicious. In the evening the skies clear a little and I pedal along Lake Villarica to Pucon. During high season there is a lot of traffic on the roads and both cities are crowded with tourists. The vegetation is mainly made of Araucaries, 30 to 50 m tall conifers. The needles are big, they look more like leaves.

Araucaria araucana

After three days the weather is finally clearing and I join a small group to climb the active volcano Villarica. The summit is only 2.840 m and in normal years snow free in summer. But this is an El Niño year. And we start at 1.700 m on hard packed snow. After a strenuous climb I´m at the crater around noon. The hot magma is barely visible through thick clouds of bad smelling sulfur vapour. But the views from the summit are stunning with the chain of volcanos along the Andes and the blue Pacific Ozean to the west. I stay for two hours and descend quickly sliding downhill on the back of my pants.

Volcano Villarica


Back in Pucon I move into a quieter hostal and spend the evening with Chilean friends in a bar until late at night.

Next morning it´s raining again and I opt for the bus to Temuco. A vivid town of around 200.000 people without tourists. The markets around the central plaza are worth a visit by themselves. In the evening I put my bike on the freight train to Santiago and take the sleeper train to Chile´s capital. The wagons were built in 1929 in Breslau, then Prussia and preserve the luxurious atmosphere of the 1920s. Even the conductor with his uniform fits perfectly into the picture. I sleep well while the train is rattling through the night.


Inside the night coach

After a good breakfast on the train I arrive in Santiago de Chile, the large and vibrating capital of the country. The city has more than 5.000.000 inhabitans and is the political and cultural center of Chile, even though the parliament is in Valparaíso. For a cyclist the city is cruel, there are no cycle paths and I have to fight for space with taxis and 15.000 crazy bus drivers. I don´t want to stay for long and buy a bus ticket to La Serena for the following day. Finding a hotel isn´t as easy. But finally I check into a nice, quiet hostal with a cool patio. I go shopping and copy a detailed map of Llullaillaco (a volcano in Northern Chile) from the Instituto Geografico Militar.

In a crowded side street to the Plaza des Armas I meet a German cyclist who is just back from Northern Chile and is waiting for his flight home. A good opportunity to get some first hand information about the roads in the Atacama. We are sitting in a street café and are waiting for our drinks, when his bag is stolen below his chair. He had his passport, ticket, money and his camera in his bag. The thief disappears in the crowds.

This incident doesn´t increase my confidence in the security of Santiago´s streets. Even though there are armed police forces present. My camera and valuables stay in the hotel safe. In the evening I take the subway to the posh suburb Las Condes to visit friends that run the Chilean branch of a large German insurance company. They have a six room penthouse with beautiful views over the city and the Andes costing 1.200 US $ a month. What a striking contrast to life of the homeless downtown.

Bus companies in Chile are surprisingly well organised. Booking is online, the fares are cheap and the service is fast and convenient. But their schedule surprises me most, they never seem to be late. North of Santiago the landscape is soon getting arid. La Serena has an average annual rainfall of just 90 mm, outside of the watered oases the landscape is bare. In the evening breeze I pedal 65 km uphill to Vicuña. The surrounding mountains are 3.000 to 4.000 m high and totally bare of vegetation.

Valle del Elqui

Vicuña is a small city living off small size Chilean tourism and many orchards that are watered from the river. Most Chilean wines are grown here.

The following morning I pedal to Pisco Elqui, famous for its Pisco grapes that make the Chilean national drink. It´s 40 km uphill and the sun is beating down. Here Gabriela Mistral the Chilean Nobel Prize winner was born. The atmosphere is relaxed and the sky is of an unbelievable blue. At 1.265 m the pavement ends and it´s another 180 km uphill to the border with Argentina at the Paso del Agua Nera 4.765 m above sea level. Maybe next time...

Pisco Elqui

In Pisco Elqui there is a friendly German café with good cakes and cold drinks. The owner´s son takes me to a narrow canyon with a waterfall. A beautiful spot for a swim and idle away the warmest hours of the day. The downhill back to Vicuna is strenuous because of a strong wind coming from the Pacific. In the evening I join a tour to the observatory of Vicuña. Due to the clear dust-free air some of the biggest telescopes in the world are here. Vicuña has only small telescopes but visitors can look through the lenses at night. So I see the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn for the first time.

To avoid the headwind from the coast I´m leaving early to La Serena and spend the day below shady trees and on the beach. Despite its latitude 30° south, like Brisbane in Australia, there is no one swimming here. Not surprising since the waters of the Humboldt current are only 15°C and the air is 20°C. At 9 p.m. I take the night bus to Taltal 700 km further north.

Light house in La Serena

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