South America Blog Posts

Weeks 5 & 6 – Bikepacking Chile. Rest and Recuperation with a kind local family in Cachagua.

We spent weeks 5 and 6 staying in Cachagua with the super kind and awesome family who helped us when Huong fell off her bike. We were staying with Cote, she is a teacher in her local school in Cachagua. She teaches History and Geography. Her English is good, so we would spend the evenings cooking together and then eating, drinking wine and talking until late. Cote supports the new constitution, I mentioned in my last blog post, and has been somewhat active politically. We talked about the mass protests and demonstrations that were happening in Chile just before the Covid lockdowns. It sounds like a really exciting time for Chile, they have a young left wing president who is trying to improve the country for everyone. There are still so many policies and systems which are left over from the dictatorship. I was shocked to hear that rivers in Chile can be privately owned. So a company can buy the rights to all the water in a river and use it in their farms. Towns along the river are not allowed to use it for their citizens. This is especially troubling as the northern half of Chile is desert.

Some Regional History

We also talked about the troubled history between Chile and Bolivia. Previously, Bolivia wasn’t landlocked. They had land all the way to the Pacific Ocean. There were many foreign companies based there, mining salt and other minerals. The Bolivian government tried to increase the taxation for these companies and somehow this resulted in Chile and Bolivia going to war. Unbeknownst to Chile, Peru and Bolivia had signed a mutual protection agreement. This meant that Chile was now at war with Peru as well as Bolivia.

Bolivia’s military wasn’t very advanced at that time and they quickly asked for peace. For some reason, Peru stayed in the fight. Chile continued to take land, bit by bit, until they captured the capital of Peru and then Peru asked for peace. It was at this time that Chile gained the land that Bolivia previously had, with access to the ocean. Leaving Bolivia landlocked and facing difficulties importing and exporting anything. Chile also gained some land that previously belonged to Peru. In the map (above) you can see the modern borders in dark black, with the pre-war borders shown by the coloured areas. I didn’t know any of this history from this region of South America, I’m really glad to be learning about it while I’m here.

Exploring Cachagua and Zapallar

We also explored the area around Cachagua. They have a colony of penguins on a small island off the beach. We went down to see them and I flew the drone to get a closer look. This area of Chile is popular with wealthy Chileans during the holiday times. There are a lot of really nice houses along the coast with views out over the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, even though the beaches are beautiful, the water is cold. But the ocean is so powerful, every evening when the tide is changing the waves smash against the rocks which results in really dramatic sunset views. Every couple of days we drove to the neighbouring town, Zapallar, which is larger than Cachagua, for Huong to have her wounds cleaned and dressed. We took the opportunity to visit the beaches there and eat some ice cream.

Spending Time with the Family

At the beginning of week 6, Cote’s sister Maria-Jesus returned home from a trip to Europe. It was really nice to get to know her and all of the family. We loved playing with their dogs and meeting their younger sister and little nephew Pedro. The weather had been unusually wet in central Chile, which meant rain near the coast and snow in the mountains. So on one of our last days in Cachagua, we drove out into the mountains to see the snow.

I cannot express how welcome we felt while we stayed with Cote and her family. They were all so warm and happy to meet us. We shared so many meals together and tried our best to share stories even when there was a language barrier. It truly renews my faith in humanity to have experiences like this as I travel around the world.

South America Blog Posts

Weeks 3 & 4 – Bikepacking Chile. Leaving Vina del Mar heading north, a fall, injury and the kindness of strangers.

We left Valparaiso and cycled north around the bay to the tip of Vina del Mar, where we stayed with another Couchsurfing host. Gaby is a German immigrant who has lived in Chile since she was a teenager. We stayed with her for just one night as we were heading north. She lives in a beautiful area which is popular for local tourism during the summer months. This part of the bay used to have a large colony of sealions along the coast. But as hotels and restaurants spread along the bay, the sealions have become fewer and fewer. They now have one small rocky island where they breed.

Chile’s Troubled Past

From Vina Del Mar we cycled north, unfortunately we hadn’t planned ahead properly and we ran out of water. We assumed that there would be plenty of small shops along the road. But when we left Vina del Mar, the road was quite remote. This meant that we couldn’t camp at some of the beautiful spots we saw on the way. We headed into a town called Ventanas to buy some water, eat some food and possibly camp on the beach there. In the restaurant we were told it isn’t safe to camp in that town, so I looked for an official campsite close by. I just finished a call with the owner of the campsite, when a woman came over to our table and asked if I spoke English. Of course, I said yes. She then offered to help us with any translation. I thanked her but explained that I was just speaking to the campsite owner to find a place to stay. She looked at her husband and asked if she could invite us. He agreed and then they invited us to stay in their place.

That evening we talked with this couple and found out the interesting history of their lives and of Chile’s politics. They met when they were teenagers, through an organised church group. They would have meetings to raise money and help the less fortunate members of their community. Unfortunately, it was during the dictatorship of General Pinochet. At that time the government was very suspicious of any public gatherings and would arrest people. Some people would disappear and have never been found to this day. So this couple were arrested and it took a while for them to be released. After they were released they managed to go to Australia as refugees. They have lived in Australia ever since.

Chile is going through an interesting time politically. The country will soon vote on a new constitution. This is a big moment in their history as the current constitution was made during the dictatorship. It has been really interesting talking to the different people we have met and asking their opinions about it. Most people seem to support the ideas of the new constitution, however, some people are concerned about how it will be implemented. There are some groups who are saying that the new constitution is communist and that it will ruin Chile. However, as with other countries, communism is often used as a scary thing to scare people away from voting for real change. The couple we stayed with had only returned to Chile because of the new constitution. They see it as a new era in Chile’s history and they want to be here to see it. They plan to open a small farmstay and help homeless people to get back on their feet.

Disaster Strikes

We left Las Ventanas and continued cycling north. The weather was pretty bad, wind and rain. But not for too long. Then we were cycling towards a small town called Cachagua when disaster struck. I was cycling behind Huong, heading down a long hill, when I saw her front wheel swerving from side to side as she started to lose control. She went down and slid a little before coming to a stop. I cycled to her and jumped off my bike to see how she was. I moved her stuff out of the road and got out my first aid kit. She had a cut on her chin, her hand and a pretty bad cut on her left knee. But luckily nothing was broken. A few cars stopped and asked if we were ok. But then a guy in a truck stopped and asked if we needed help. He offered to take us to a hospital, but we just asked if there were any cheap hotels where we could rest. We got the bikes into the truck and drove into Cachagua. He pulled up next to the hospital and his daughter, Cote, just happened to be walking in the street there. She spoke English and we explained that we were looking for a cheap place to rest. She thought for a moment and then offered to let us stay in her house with her.

The Kindness of Strangers

We were blown away with the kindness of this family. We went to their house and rested. The next day we took Huong to a local clinic where they cleaned and dressed the wounds but they told her she would need to rest for a few weeks until she could start cycling again. Cote said we could stay with her as long as we needed. Huong spent some time resting around the house and working online. I would also stay in the house, but also explore Cachagua a little. The town is a really beautiful little coastal town with two beaches and a penguin colony.

We were so lucky that Huong wasn’t hurt more seriously and that we met such a generous and welcoming family. These kinds of things never seem to happen when I’m living my normal life living in one place. But out on the road I am always surprised by how wonderful people can be.

South America Blog Posts

Weeks 1 & 2 – Arriving in South America. Bikepacking Santiago to Valparaiso, Chile

On the 6th of June I started travelling again. Now I’m bikepacking on a continent that I’ve never visited before, South America. I packed up my touring bike (Vivente World Randonneur) and a backpack full of gear, then flew from Manchester to Santiago de Chile, via Toronto and Bogota. But, as I went through security in Manchester I realised I’d left my laptop charger behind. It has taken a month for me to get it back, so my posts have a bit of catching up to do.

Requirements for entering Chile

It was a long flight and arriving in Chile was more complicated than most of the countries I’ve visited before. This was partly due to some Coronavirus restrictions still being in place, but also an extra entry requirement that I haven’t dealt with before. With a UK passport, I get a free 3-month tourist visa on arrival. However, before arriving in the country, there were a couple of requirements to prepare for the Coronavirus situation. First was registering my vaccines. I got both of my vaccines in Vietnam, but luckily I registered them with the NHS while I was in the UK. I just needed to upload the PDFs of my certificates, from the NHS app. They checked them and gave me a vaccine passport for Chile. This vaccine passport is needed to go into some restaurants and public buildings. But it seems that they aren’t really used so much now. I also needed to fill in a C19 declaration form, which gave some of my personal details and an address that I would be staying at in Chile. After I landed in Santiago, there were a few lines of people sat at desks. They checked the C19 and vaccination passport as well as my actual passport. I got a yellow sticker and continued on to immigration. Immigration was just normal, nothing complicated. Then everyone lined up to be sniffed by a police dog before going through to collect my luggage. There was one other requirement for entering Chile, an onward ticket. I was only asked for this when I transited in Bogota. They wouldn’t let me board the flight to Chile unless I could show that I had a ticket to leave Chile. I quickly booked a bus ticket to Bolivia online, then I was allowed on the flight.

This process was simple enough for me, but Huong is from Vietnam and although the requirements are supposed to be the same for her. She was stopped for ‘random checks’ when she got to the immigration desk. They took her into a side office, turned out the lights and used a UV light to check her passport, which they seemed to think was fake. Admittedly, the Vietnamese passports are a lot simpler than other passports I have seen. But I think this was mostly down to a young Vietnamese woman entering the country alone. They then got her luggage and searched everything before letting her go. Quite the welcome.

A week in Santiago de Chile

Santiago is a great city and felt really European to me. However, this may have been because we stayed in some of the nicer areas of town. We stayed with a really cool Couchsurfing host while we were in the city. Byron was super welcoming and helped us settle into the city. We hiked to the top of a hill in the middle of the city, visited an open-air graffiti museum and visited the Persian market at the weekend. But the main mission was for Huong to get a bicycle. We went to an area called San Diego which has an area specialising in bicycle shops and managed to get a decent bike there.

Bikepacking Chile

With the bikes ready, we left Byron’s place and headed across town to another host before we left Santiago heading towards the coast. We decided to take a mountain road because it was supposed to be a lot more scenic than going the long way round. On the second day of cycling through the mountains we reached a really steep section and started looking for a truck to hitch a lift to the top. We were really lucky. Someone stopped and they were actually really kind, he tried to help us find a campsite, but then offered to let us stay with his family. The next morning he was working in the same town we were headed to, so he also gave us a lift to Vina del Mar.

Vina Del Mar is a tourist city with a beautiful beach, lots of hotels and restaurants. We stayed with a Couchsurfing host while we got the bicycles serviced. The bikes had a couple of small issues after being in the back of the truck.

On the south side of the bay from Vina del Mar there’s an older city, Valparaiso. This city has an interesting past and a bit of a shady reputation, but I think most port towns and cities have that kind of reputation. Our host in Valparaiso runs a sustainable tourism company. In exchange for staying in his place, we painted over graffiti in the neighbourhood.

I really like Chile so far. I didn’t know much about Chile before I arrived and I didn’t really know what to expect. But the culture is much more European than I was expecting. The only part that I knew about was the south of the country. The south is beautiful with mountains, rivers and forests. But we have arrived in winter time, so the south is much too cold now. So the plan is to head north through the desert and back into the tropics.