Biking (Mis)Adventures in Middle Chile

One day while in Puerto Varas (a town in the lake region of Chile), Christine said something that shocked me to my core, words I will never forget and probably never get over.

“I think tomorrow we should bike to Frutillar.”

And just like that, lives were changed.

You see, Christine not only intensely hates biking, she is also awful at it, to the point where I and every decent human being alive worry for her safety every time she so much as look as a bicycle (not to mention her lack of tricycle skills). Such inadequacies have prevented us from renting bikes in a number of exotic locales, forcing us to while away at sidestreet cafes, as the world rides by. I am not much one to talk, however, as I can barely ride a bike myself. But that ‘barely’ is what sets us apart by leaps and bounds.

A convincing impression of a biker

A convincing impression of a biker

At any rate, we were staying in Puerto Varas and our day trip options were limited to biking, taking an expensive tour to the volcano (but you cannot get in it or sacrifice goats there, I asked), or kayaking (our usual option of choice, but again we were influenced by high price dynamics, and the water was quite cold). Thus biking seemed to be the most economical choice, and in situations like these (i.e. life), the most economical choice tends to win out, even if it comes to the detriment of our own health.

As for Puerto Varas itself, its a nice little town situated in the shores of Lake Llanique, with two volcanoes in its midst. Quite popular with the tourists, Puerto Varas has developed downtown area (area might be a stretch, maybe more like a 1×1.5 block) of accompanying infrastructure, replete with Patagonia, North Face, Rockford, and more outdoor gear shops. Frutillar on the other hand, was supposed to be a pleasant smaller town a short distance away, still well-off and touristic in its own right, but stripped of some of the externally-influenced comforts found in Puerto Varas.

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

The oft-covered Osorno volcano, seen from Frutillar

Furthermore, many a Germanic folk have settled into this area of central Chile (prior to WWII, diminishing my hopes of starring in a Chilean Nazi hunting reality show), and Frutillar in particular was supposed to have retained much of its ‘Germanic roots,’ more than any of the surroundings areas. So in short, it would make a nice day trip destination from the ‘hustle’ of Puerto Varas, and serve as an interestingly cultural anomaly (though I guess it’s not really so much of an anomaly, as one Chilean worker we met along the bike ride would explain, “all the foreigners [i.e. Europeans] came here and bought the good land, leaving the rest of us with little,” – a similar story the world over).

So the main question of how to get there had been decided, surprisingly by Christine of all people. We visited a few bike rental places before deciding on the one that happened to be in front of us at the time of our decision, and reserved two mountain bikes for the next day. The bike shop employee assured us that we could do the trip and back in six hours (2 hours each way), the maximum amount you could rent the bikes until you were charged for the whole day, increasing the price by 50%. The scenic trip was supposed to be 25km there and 25km back, though there was a shortcut as well. Piece of cake (or kuchen) I figured.

Frutillar? or Germany?

Frutillar? or Germany?

Thinking about cake

Thinking about cake

The next morning we showed up at 9:30 to claim our bikes. The same bike employee gave us a helmet, lock, pump and flat tire gear (I feigned like I knew what I would do with such materials if the situation arose). He took us outside and pointed to the bikes we could use. I took mine out and was unable to adjust the seat; the latch literally didn’t budge at all. That was the point where the bike employee may have realized we were in over our heads here – he showed me how to do it with a quizzical look on his face, then also pointed out that on the makeshift laminated map he had given us, his cell phone number was written there in case we had any trouble – something I gathered he did not specifically point out to the majority of his clientele.

The path was supposed to be some sort of trail that eventually intersected with a backroad shared by man-powered vehicles, but only for a bit. To the north of town are railroad tracks (that I assume are now abandoned, but am not quite sure) – we were to ride along those to start out. We were given mountain bikes, but it was not necessarily to be a mountain biking trip. Or so we assumed.

We made it to the railroad tracks, where alongside it was a thin line filled with thick rocks. Describing it as a trail would be generous, I’d say it was more like a series of skinny jeans-thin areas where rocks were just too tired to pile on each other as high as they had next to it. Tall grass bounded the other side opposite the railroad tracks, so it really was a contained space. We started out by barely avoiding biting it on a number of occasions. We were unsure of if all 25km were going to be like this at this point – we nearly turned around and gave up less than 1km into the journey. But we preserved and made it out after a few treacherous (to us) kilometers, revealing both a sense of accomplishment but also the extremely limited nature of our biking abilities.

After coming onto the trail for a bit, we were supposed to just hug the coast, as the map depicted and eventually wind up in Frutillar. The bike employee confirmed as much, providing little further details on the route, a sense of calm that eased any anxieties we had about getting lost. Nonetheless, after hugging the coast as much as possible, the trail ran right into a thick black sand beach that ended at a grassy field with no worn areas. Probably less than 5km into the trip and we were already lost. A few other odd turns here and there, trying to stay on the coast as much as possible, forced us to back track a bit and confused us greatly.

Chileans, however, are nice people. While stopped at one point and looking at our pointless map, which told us to be next to the water while we were staring at a highway, one young man felt pity for our plight and pulled over in his car. He explained this was the route to Frutillar – the ‘trail’ of sorts was no more, we had to go onto this main road a bit before turning off to another side, but paved road.

While I generally like biking, I hate biking with cars. At the end of the day you are basically trusting other people not to run you over, and I just don’t trust other people at that mass of a rate. Not only that, but this was essentially a small highway, with minbuses and trucks plying down as decent speeds. A mountain trail indeed.

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

Taking out rented bikes out for a walk

We sucked it up and went down the highway, hugging the right side of the lane as much as possible. After some more confusion we found the backroad to turn onto, which led us back onto the coast. There was still traffic on this road, but significantly reduced. What we were not prepared for, however, was the amount of elevation changes – very steep hills that proved impossible to bike up and intimidating to bike down (Christine even walked her bike down most of them, not even taking advantage of the free speed).

We had been on the road probably about an hour and a half at this point – given the bike employees estimated of 2-2.5 hours (revised a bit once he realized we were small time), I figured we were well on our way. I shortly saw a sign though, telling us Frutillar was 18km away, meaning we had only made it about 7km! It couldn’t be right, but we kept chugging along the road – myself getting quite far ahead of Christine to the point were we could not see each other most of the time, and then stopping every other kilometer to have her catch up. Not really a fun shared experience.

At one point, after a number of steep seemingly mostly up hills, we came to a fork in a road. Both led to Frutillar, and the more gravel path was likely the shortcut the bike employee had filled us in on. He said normally it was unusable, but as it rained last night we could bike on the gravel. That was supposed to be 5km, but it started up hill. The longer path went by the coast for picturesque water scenes. It was along a paved road and began downhill. It was unclear how far it was, but I figured we had already biked a ton by now, we must be close. Opting for the short-term option, we headed right on the paved road, for what turned out to be a short down hill followed by some serious up hill climbs and nearly 15 more kilometers of biking action.

At any rate, we eventually made it to Frutillar, exhausted. We were around 3.5 hours, well over the maximum limit the biker employee had estimated. The other issue probably was there was no way that we could make it back with the bikes in the six hour time frame, meaning the price had just gone up – nor were we even sure given our limited biking experience if it was even physically possible to make it back. I toyed around with the idea of living on the lam with the bikes in Frutillar for the rest of our days, seemingly solving both problems of avoiding the increased bike price and having to make it back to Puerto Varas. While it was seriously pondered for a quick minute, ultimately we shot the idea down.

Success in Frutillar!

Success in Frutillar!

Regardless, we had made it to Frutillar and were starving, so might as well rest and enjoy our time here. It really was a picturesque little town right on the water with a volcano in the distance. The Germanic roots were in full display, via the architecture of the buildings aligning the street and limitless places offering kuchen (an cheesy cake type thing) for dessert. Of course that was all in Bajo Frutillar (lower) along the lake side, the rest of the town up above was more traditional Chilean and less touristy (as our Chilean friend on the trail had informed us).

Frutillar's main drag

Frutillar’s main drag

In fact the bike ride itself, as treacherous as it may have been at times, was beautiful as well. For the majority of the time the lake was present on the right side, with mountains and volcanoes in the distance, while large farms full of free range cows and chickens dotted the landscape on the left. Part of the inspirational statement for us of the journey to Frutillar being a “pretty little bike ride” provided accurate indeed.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 12.12.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 12.12.22 PM

After deciding to splurge and go to a semi-fancy place for their meal of the day (a stuffed tomato followed by fettuccini fresh seafood pasta and a flan-like substance for desert), we pondered our options as the reality of having to make it back to Puerto Varas began to set in. Maybe if we took the shortcut it would cut down the time a bit despite the gravel, but Puerto Varas still seemed eons away. In addition, I was sure we had biked more than the advertised 25km – all the road signs along the way telling us the distance of places did not add up with that figure in mind. So it likely meant at least another 30 km or so to return, a daunting task (for us with limited athletic capabilities).

Wussing out in action

Wussing out in action

There was public transport available, minibuses back to Puerto Varas – a possibility, but Christine did not think we’d be able to take our bike on as there was no bike racks and people didn’t really pile luggage on top of the vehicles here. So we had dismissed that option, but the bus stop was literally next to the restaurant we ate at, and upon exiting we saw a bus getting ready to leave with a sign for Puerto Varas. Might as well ask we figured, as we walked up somewhat dejectedly to the man in charge. He likely had no idea the impact his next words would have on us, when he said it would be easy to fit the bikes in if we took off the wheel, at double the ticket price. At that point, economics had gone out the window!

So we totally wused out, loaded up our bikes, and took the public bus back. There was still the possibility of making it back to the bike office before 5pm when it reopened after its five hour siesta (yes five hours, literally everything in that town closes from 12pm to 5pm), and thus avoid recognition of our stray into the more than six hour rental period. The transport took a while however and we didn’t make it in time, but luckily the bike employee took additional pity on us (a common theme) when I told him we had to take a transport rather than bike back, and didn’t charge us the extra fee.

In short, the attractive ‘biking to Frutillar option’ proved to be a pretty “little” bike ride indeed, and a good way to realize we should probably never bike again. It was a nice day all together though, while the fact that we are still alive is rather encouraging as well.

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