The long way around (a shortcut) – Chos Malal to Lonquimay via Paso Copahue

We’d been emailing back and forth with Tam and Danny, some cycle-friends of ours (bikesandbackpacks.blogspot.com). Since we’d bumped into them in San Pedro de Atacama, it seemed only fitting that we do some riding together due to the nature of our lightweight setups. In Chos Malal, we finally ended up making a plan for the four of us to ride (or should I say push) our way over Paso Copahue.

We’d made our way down to Chos Malal mainly following the nightmarish route 40 which only redeeming factor was meeting a bunch of other friendly cyclists. We deviated wherever possible onto the sections of the old route 40 which have been long forgotten by most, but are in reality much more enjoyable to ride. The old route clings to the foothills of the Andes, bumping us up into a much cooler and refreshing climate. Riding the old road through El Tromen provincial park, it was difficult to understand why it was so untransitted by cyclists. Yes, it is dirt, but the quality is good and the rewarding views and lack of traffic are all conducive to a brilliant ride. It was here we waited for Danny and Tam to join us. Remnants of an old ski resort have been taken over by the Provincial Park, and the buildings are used as refugios for passers-by. Special thanks have to be given to Rodi and Coco, the guardaparques who work in the area, who were both extremely kind and helpful.

We left El Tromen and with a brief brownie break in Chos Malal we were on our way south in search of the relatively unofficial Copahue border crossing. We were expecting our ride to Copahue to be on quiet roads with poor surfaces. We certainly got the poor surfaces, but the road was rather busy. Our constant attempts to avoid the dust of speeding vehicles proved impossible, and we spent the following couple of days feeling demotivated and dehydrated by the dusty heat. Finally, as we began our climb into the town of Copahue our spirits were lifted by the smoldering peak of Volcan Copahue. A sign of better things to come.

Copahue is a weird little tourist town, known for its thermal mud baths with “healing” properties. It’s also a very strange place for the beginning of a hike a bike, but sure enough after a quick stop into the aduanas we began the climb on a short and populated trail. It was a strange sensation, bikes stuck to our backs as we carried them past retired couples on an afternoon stroll. We stood out like bird shit on a black shoe, but thankfully a quick half kilometer later the foot traffic thinned and dissappeared. We rode down the valley with the volcano puffing away above us. The initial riding was fairly straightforward through a beautiful valley, but then we came to a canyon with some very steep and dodgy sidling. The narrow trail wound up and down the sides of sulphur covered mountains, and we fought with our bikes so as not to slide the hundred meters down into the raging river. It was slow going, and sometimes a rear tire would slip out and you would pray for your footing to hold as you pulled your bike up back on track. In fact, it was with disbelief that we watched multiple people pass by on horse without a hitch.

Once we arrived in Trapa Trapa we sorted out the Chilean paperwork and tried to restock in the tiny mini store. Then we began our “shortcut” via laguna El Barco, a section from the Greater Patagonian Trail (http://www.wikiexplora.com/index.php/Greater_Patagonian_Trail). The track consisted of nothing more than small and steep horse trail which gradually became overgrown and at times difficult to follow. Yet again we’d been decieved by the short on paper distance of the trail, and we realized we may have to turn around due to lack of supplies. As moods became sour and in a last ditch effort to push forward, we began asking at puestos if they had any food to sell. We’d heard rumors of a puesto that sold bread and cheese, but after constant rejection it seemed unlikely. Finally just as we were about to turn back, we found a family who would bake us 6 loaves of bread. Our moods lifted immediately and we resumed our trail in high spirits…until we realized it involved a 450 vertical meter push/carry.

So far we had not been treated to very inhospitable terrain, but on the other side of the pass, things were looking up. We bumped into a very confused looking group of Chilean soldiers who sent us on our way with sweets, juice packets, and a guarantee that the trail would be getting better. Sure enough they were on point, and soon the technical rocky undulations turned into much smoother dirt singletrack. We were soon blazing a “road” looking to set ourselves up to merge onto the famed “monkey puzzle trail” the following day.

We began early in the morning so as to avoid the blazing midday heat. It was fairly straightforward compared to our last couple of days and when we finally reached the junction where track turned to road we enthusiastically hopped on the bikes. “That’ll be the last of the pushing” exclaimed Danny, and 5 minutes later we were off the bikes pushing. This became an ongoing joke as we carried on with the steep ups and downs. The grades being so steep that from time to time we were forced off the saddles for a quick push up to the top. As we climbed up towards Volcan Lonquimay, the undulations gave way to a straight climb. Unfortunately this was also about the time that Danny’s rear hub seized. Not long after, his freewheel decided to join the seizure party and we decided to bail down to Malalcahuello in search of a bike shop.

ROUTE NOTES

Thanks to Paul and Sam for their notes on this route!

Chos Malal to Copahue via El Cholar around 170KM (3 shortish days).
For some reason Chos Malal is a bit pricier than surrounding towns, biggish town also has a bike shop. Stock up in El Huecu, Copahue is touristy and thus pricier (has a shop with delicious fresh bread for 30 pesos though) and Trapa Trapa has very little to choose from. In Copahue we were lucky that the lady from aduanas was present to stamp us out of Argentina. Apparently she was only going to be there for 10 minutes that day and not present at all the day before…

Getting over the pass (1 day): Short carry up a trail, then mostly rideable down a valley until you get to a valley. Carry or push from here on until you reach two buildings near some thermals. Apparently camping is charged for if the owner sees you, luckily a man who owns some land just a few riding minutes further down offered us to pitch up there. A partially steep, rocky and sandy downhill brings you into Trapa Trapa. At the carabineros we were able to get our entry stamps for Chile after the carabinero did a phone call. We did meet a cyclist who was not able to get an exit stamp there, even though the carabinero told us cyclists were able to cross either way.

For more detailed information about each town look at our friends’ blog.

Greater Patagonian Trail: Gina had been in touch with the trail’s founder Jan to figure out whether parts of the Patagonia trail are cycleable. Together they compiled a route that included sections 4,5,8,9,10 and 11. You can approach the trail from Los Angeles, Chile, or Chos Malal, Argentina. To start with section 4 coming from Atgentina go over pass Pichachen (stamp in in Antuco in Chile, backtrack around 50k for the GPT), or if you’re up for some adventure go for Copahue and merge onto section 5 for even more hikabike. We found section 5 pretty draining and couldn’t imagine doing hikabikes every day for weeks, so choose wisely and maybe get in touch with Jan for more information, apparently sections 8 and 9 are a bit easier by bike.

Section 5 (3 days): Trapa Trapa has a tiny shop (cookies, pasta, potatoes, ice cream, no gas). The trail starts off as steep undulating dirt road and then changes into a little dirt trail, undulating through forests. It flattens out and gets more rideable. Some stream and river crossings. We managed 14k in the afternoon (4.5h) and camped just before a river crossing. Strong riders could ride about 50%, rest pushing. From our camp it was another 5k of rather rideable single track to the bottom of the climb. There’s a number of puestos, we managed to find someone who baked us some big fresh tortillas (around 1000-1500 pesos each). This is the last time you’ll be able to collect water at some streams until the downhill. We started the climb after lunch, it took us around 3.5 hours to get to the plateau at arohnd 1630m elevation where you’ll be able to find campspots. since we did these two days in two afternoons you might be able to get here from Trapa Trapa in one day.
Two km further starts the second climb, only around 100m, you then go down again and have one more similar climb – all up 5km until you can finally ride downhill. Merge onto road after 14k, a bit further on are a few dtreams, and then your first shop is at k23. We kept going for another 10k to the start of the monkey trail.

Monkey trail
Steep push up after river crossing (bridge), at 2.5 stream and camp option, at 6.5ish downhill starts (steep and sandy but mostly rideable), after that undulating.

Note: this blog was written in a bit of a rush so apologies for errors and convoluted route notes, will be organised when we have better internet!

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Kitten had been abandoned in the middle or nowhere on route 40. This rescue mission along with some great cyclists were a silver lining on an otherwise boring ride.

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Upon merging off onto a section of the old route 40, it became apparent that it was a much better match for us.

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In certain spots, it seemed the old route had been abandoned by motor traffic completely. However, for us the riding was nice and peaceful.

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On my way to El Tromen provincial park. We got caught out in some pretty bad hail. This lovely gentlemen invited us into his puesto to warm my bones by the fire.

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The old skifield buildings found in the park provide a plush spot to rest. They are apparently open all the time even if the guardaparques aren’t around.

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El Tromen, the second highest peak in Patagonia at a hair over 4100m. It seemed quite unimpressive in elevation compared to its northern brothers, but it’s prominence was still tremendous.

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Despite our strict riding schedule, we managed to sneak in a bit of “fun” without Gina noticing.

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Gardaparque Rodi. Both him and Coco were highlights of the El Tromen experience.

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Face-off: Note how the 26″ fat tire is ever so slightly larger than the 29er.

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Approaching Copahue, we began to see patches of farmed pine. Here a bit of burnt forest provided a nice contrast with the bright flowers.

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Point-White

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Soviet?

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Copahue is pissed off, positively fuming

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The initial hike out of Copahue had us feeling like superstars. The looks of shock we got from passers-by was rewarding in itself.

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I’m not sure what’s nicer to be honest, this or the route 40.

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The official Argentinian border limit. Now entering Chile for the first time since San Pedro. Questions nagging in our minds. Can we buy peanut butter in Chilean supermarkets!

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The dodgy canyon on the Chilean side of Copahue had a few horses feeling hesitant. Danny was asked to lead an unwilling horse across this river.

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Pushing the bikes up the steep canyon sides was a challenge in itself.

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Definitely in Chile now. The arid Argentinian side gives way to the lush Chilean environment.

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Nothing is nicer than a bit of morning dust. Especially when you’re in front of everyone else.

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Battle scars. Often times hike-a-bikes require a fair amount of agility and getting away without a few cuts is nearly impossible.

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Tam shredding up some singletrack.

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Despite low elevations, we were definitely moving into a cooler climate. Frost at 1500m seemed crazy.

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Even the rivers were icy in the morning.

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These little jerks. Every time we found a perfect spot to relax they would come and join the party.

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Nice bit of morning riding.

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Definitely more in line with my perceptions of Patagonia.

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The pedestrian footbridge that marks the beginning of the Monkey Puzzle trail.

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Unimpressed. Danny and Tam are riding stoveless which is actually pretty cool. It forces them to be pretty creative with their meals. Unfortunately the small shops were a bit limiting and they were forced to use our stove for pasta. Waiting is not something they’re used to.

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Volcan Lonquimay

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Fun session round 2

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Danny descends to the main road with his rear hub in desperate need of replacement.

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4 thoughts on “The long way around (a shortcut) – Chos Malal to Lonquimay via Paso Copahue

  1. Hola over there,

    What an exciting entry to Chile! …. but safe. We know Chos Malal and Lonquimay but our route there was a bit different from the excitment of your bush-bashing. The photos looked great. From where you are now we made our way through the National Park with V. Llaima – it’s very nice although we were there just after the Volcan had erupted (it was still having small eruptions) and the road in the north of the Park was totally non-extistent in places. Travel well and have fun, Love, Margy & Lindsay

    Date: Mon, 25 Jan 2016 20:21:33 +0000 To: peddlepower@hotmail.com

    • Lovely to hear from you guys! Sounds like your route was quite the adventure with the eruptions and all. We’re planning some more rough stuff coming up but I guess we will see how it pans out! Hope the bikepacking setups are treating you well. Best wishes from Dan and Gina

    • Haha we found the kitten in the middle of nowhere on a highway so I took it with us to the nearest town 🙂

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