I wake up feeling rested and invigorated. The first view out of the window shows crystalline blue skies and glaring sunshine. It is only out of respect for the other hotel guests that I manage to suppress a loud cheer as I get ready to jump on the bike. The plan is to go to Pucón, a short distance to the east, and a purported mekka for all kinds of outdoor activities. Also for cycling?
During the last days, I often asked myself why all sources I had consulted spoke so fondly of the wonderful landscape of the Sur Chico. It was nice and hilly, sure, but I had seen a lot of beautiful hill country during the Vuelta. When I turn onto the main road leading to Pucón, I suddenly understand what all the fuss is about. With the heavy rainclouds gone, I see mighty Volcán Villarrica looming in the distance. My jaw literally drops, and with a very audible loud cheer, I set into a more spirited pace. The owners of the splendid pizza parlor I discovered yesterday told me of a friend, an avid road cyclist who was killed in a hit-and-run accident on one of his training rides on the road to Pucón. Having had plenty of unpleasant experiences with Chilean drivers myself, I am nervous, but soon relax as I realize there is almost no traffic at this early hour and fully enjoy the marvelous ride.
When I arrive at Pucón, the town is just waking up. There are outdoor shops on every street and every corner, and soon I find a bike shop where I ask for recommendations on where to go. After a look at my bike, the employees advise against following any of the mountainbike trails in the region, as these require a serious bicycle with suspension and considerably more aggressive tires. When they see my disappointment, they add that there are many great roads that I can explore. I am gripped by excitement when they tell me that there is a road up Volcán Villarrica, and that it is partly unpaved. The only thing that keeps me from starting the climb right away is a delicious piece of lemon pie.
The climb is severe, especially since I am still carrying all my gear. But it is certainly doable, and I work my way up steadily. After a while, the asphalt turns into gravel, just as the boys at the bike shop had described it. Suddenly, I find myself surrounded by snow. I smile as I zigzag my way up the steep volcano slope.
Centro de Esquí Pucón, 12:28
When I arrive at the ski lift, it is not only the view that takes my breath away, but also the aftermath of the loaded climb. The road disappears into the snow just before a large ski center, and people take pictures of me pushing my bike through the last meters of snow. Some of them come close for a friendly chat, and they cannot believe that I came up here by bike. When I tell them of the entire Vuelta, they shake their heads, smiling and obviously unable to grasp the magnitude of our undertaking.
I do not linger for long, since the climb has shown me that I am back at full strength. Making the most of the gorgeous weather seems imperative, since the forecast for the next days looks dire once more. The next stop on the list is Lago Caburgua, a large body of water to the northeast.
Somewhere southwest of Caburgua, 16:48
The descent from the volcano is rapid and scary, particularly when my tires slip on the muddy gravel. In spite of layering up before the descent, the cold wind chills me. However, I make to back to Pucón safely and take a short break in the warm sunshine to get rid of my jacket.
The trip towards Lago Caburgua begins pleasant enough. The nice dirt path I discover is crisscrossed by secret singletracks that I assume the local cycling youth has carved into the woods surrounding Pucón. Today, however, they are nowhere to be seen, and instead, I pass riders on their horses as the path quickly gains elevation.
In Pucón, I was told that I should make sure to visit the famous Ojos del Caburgua, a natural pool fed by a waterfall. Purportedly, it is particularly beautiful after prolonged rainfall. Eager to get something positive out of the ghastly weather I suffered during the first two days, I follow the first sign bearing a pictogram of a waterfall. The track now goes up at a ridiculous gradient, and my tires fail to get traction on the loose rocks and roots still slippery from the rain. Determined to reach the pools and waterfall, I get off the bike and push. My reward for this effort is a closed wooden gate, turning this detour into a dead end. The only pools in the vicinity are at my feet, formed by my sweat. I turn around and get on the bike to get back on the main path with the aid of gravity. It turns out that I underestimated just how steep the path is, and the descent is simply terrifying.
Lago Caburgua, 18:39
Time goes on mercilessly, and I have to continue without ever seeing the Ojos del Caburgua. My next destination is the Lago de Caburgua, and I make it to the eponymous shore town just before dusk. My stomach is empty, so I stop at the first store I find and ask for empanadas. Unfortunately, the lady running the store has none, but is happy to recommend the perfect spot for concluding my trip to the lake: the white-sanded beach of Playa Blanca. From the city center, it is just one more hard climb before I traverse a maze of narrow dirt paths through the forest. On the white shore of Lago Caburgua, I sit down on an overturned boat to catch my breath and look out into dusk engulfing a cloudy horizon.
After a few minutes of silent contemplation, I decide that it is time to go back to Pucón and find a place to stay. Shall my adventure truly end so unceremoniously? But upon leaving Caburgua, I see a pier that leads into the lake. A perfect opportunity for symbolically dipping the wheels of my bike into water once more – only that this time, it is sweet water.
Night settles as I follow the paved road from Caburgua to Pucón, happily cycling my last kilometers on this continent. The increasingly dense clouds above serve as a confirmation to the pessimistic weather forecast. I make it to a cozy hostel just as raindrops start falling again, deeply grateful for this perfect day of splendid cycling in the sun to round off my solo adventure. Tomorrow evening, a night bus will take me back to Valparaíso.