Lagos, Volcanes, y Araucaria, oh my! (Cycling tour of Lakes and Volcanos)
The ten days from December 8–17, I spent on a cycling tour in Chile, starting in Temuco and ending in Puerto Varas. I had never done anything like this before.
In Texas, I had done several years of the Lone Star Circle of Life rides, where 12 people ride around Texas to raise awareness of the need for organ, blood, tissue, and marrow donation. Double pace line, support van, lead car, clear agenda, just pedal and do a good job in your daily presentation, and all will be well.
In Cambodia, Khanh and I had hired a guide from Grasshopper adventures to take us on a 5 day cycling tour along the Mekong, and that was incredible. I highly recommend Grasshopper.
A Taste of Commercial Tour Riding
This was different – five of us, all American in origin, arrived in Temuco and would spend almost every waking minute eating, cycling, or riding in a van together. Everyone else seemed to be a veteran of these rides, talking about different guides, routes, tour companies, while I sat wide eyed wondering how much my butt was going to hurt after today.
I was the youngest by at least 13 years, and everyone on the trip was retired. The level of cycling varied across our group, but everyone loved to ride and enjoyed whatever challenge the day would bring.
We were kept alive by two guides: David, a cycling / running / white-water-kayaking enthusiast, formerly Belgian, but married to a Chilean woman, and full of life and fun. Orlando, a Chilean, was our driver and rescuer for the week, always with a smile and food for us when we needed it.
The roads were decent, the traffic light, and the scenery phenomenal. I sounded like Keanu with every “Whoa” and “Wow” and “@#$% that’s amazing” that escaped from my lips. Especially after living in Australia, the mountains and the green landscapes are spectacular and inflate your mood, as well as anesthetizing any pain in your muscles as the kilometers go by.
Since we were in Southern Chile, we experienced rain, some wind, and a wide variety in temperature, especially given the altitude (though we were never over 2,000 meters above sea level). The variety in each day made the other days interesting. Each was its’ own unique gem to be polished off and admired. And sometimes you hat to pull that gem out of your butt. Just sayin’.
Mi Estomago, Mi Enemigo
Unfortunately, the stomach issues that had begun in the Atacama desert became much worse when I arrived in Temuco. My first day is one of the worst episodes of gastro I’ve ever had, though I didn’t have the all over achy feeling that normally comes with a stomach virus or bacterial infection.
The first day of cycling, I felt weak at the end of the big climb, and wondered if I had lost fitness despite the training that I had done over the last few weeks in different spots in South America. The second day I flat out bonked 20 minutes from the end of the final climb, and my eyes were rolling back into my head, as my sugar levels crashed. At that point I realized I wasn’t absorbing any of the nutrition I was eating, and that I’d been dropping weight steadily for 7 days despite taking some over-the-counter meds since I’d first had symptoms.
After a day where I began to have reflux and dry heave during the second hour of riding, I decided it might be time to see a doctor. David (guide) and Lee (who used to do medical translations in Spanish) came with me, and the doctor was awesome. He explained that the meds I was taking were an antibiotic (which I was surprised you could get over the counter) and that I just needed to stop the meds (which were causing a lot of the problem), go on a super strict diet of rice, bread, potatoes and chicken (all plain), take some probiotics, and I’d likely be fine within a few days. All this is Spanish, and I could handle 90% of it.
While the next three days were not great in terms of the behavior of my stomach, I was clearly absorbing nutrition and no longer wanting to refund everything I consumed. My appetite returned. I had energy for pushing the pace (I attacked on one climb, just for fun). By day 4 of the strict diet of pollo asado con arroz, I felt normal in all aspects of the abnormal life of BJR, and could start eating exotic foods like yogurt. Thanks heaps to David for taking me to his family doctor in Pucón, who was fantastic and clear, and even tolerated my Spanish.
Before I left on my 30 day solo adventure, I decided to see another doctor just to talk about what I should do if the issue recurs while I’m on the Carretera Austral. The second doctor asked me if it smelled bad when I used the toilet, which initially I took as a test of my Spanish rather than a serious medical question. I’m pretty sure I’m going to say “Si”. I left with a small emergency supply of probiotics and the same dietary advice I already had.
The final ride, climb, and can of Pringles
We all knew there was a big climb on the final day of the tour. We’d seen the altitude profile and had been sharing our personal guesses of what grade it would be throughout the climb.
It turns out it was rough.
I’d had a flat, and thanks to Dave (cyclist, not the guide David) I had a patched tire and was off and riding again.
When the climb began, it didn’t being softly. The gradient jumped to 10 almost immediately, and went straight up a canopied road with plenty of long stretches. In that first 5K, I never left my lowest gear, and only one felt like I could spin at my usual cadence, the rest of the time spent near 60 RPM.
I took a break with David at the mid way point, and watched the 71-year-old Robert smile as he kept grinding (no, not that type of grinding) past us. The second half had some breaks with flat spots, but we were out of the canopy, the temperatures dropped, the wind whipped around us, and the fog began to descend from the top. I popped on my rain jacket to stay warm and kept riding.
The fatigue in my legs built with each turn of the crank, but I knew I could keep this up. Then, I entered the thick fog, and both lost visibility of the road ahead, as well as starting to feel my front tyre lift up from the increasing slope of the climb. I was both desperate to get to the top of the climb, and not in a hurry because I didn’t want to wait up there for the van in the fog and wind. Soon, Orlando drove by, and disappeared into the fog ahead. The road was slippery from the wet fog, and I started to seriously doubt if I had another kilometer in my legs. I started to worry about the biking sliding out from under me, and thought that no car could probably see me if they were coming up the road. But in just moments, I saw the headlights of the van parked ahead. Eureka! The last 30m to the van were not easy, but my body released a bit of adrenaline and I was at the top, changing out of my clothes and speed-eating an entire can of Pringles.
I think it’s the toughest climb I’ve done, certainly with the elements.
Time to move on: La Carretera Austral
It was fantastic to have this week before heading out solo. While I definitely prefer the solo adventure (especially since a big part of this adventure is to spend some time alone), my travel companions were friendly and amiable people, and I left the experience in better spirits, better health, and better shape.
Next, I begin 30 days solo along the Carretera Austral, the Southern highway of Chile, with plenty of gravel roads and other new experiences to absorb.