Jan. 28, 2011: Santiago, Chile

Some advice for those planning to bike through Chile: don't bother. Nothing good can come of it.

Well, that's not entirely true. Some parts are very nice, and have great biking infrastructure. Others... well, I'm getting ahead of myself.

A lovely, leisurely, slightly-downhill-and-not-into-the-wind-for-once 12km from Los Andes through trees and glades and the village of Calle Larga brought me to the start of the autopista into Santiago.

And a big sign saying no bicycles on the highway.


No, seriously. Uh-oh.

It's not like there are any other roads. There are still mountains around and narrow passes through them, and there's only one road through the pass, and if bikes aren't allowed, then I'm not going that way, and the next alternate route is an extra 100km around and my plane leaves tomorrow and it's that kind of uh-oh.

I spend an hour or so exploring the side roads, wondering if any of them happen to parallel the freeway, but just not be marked as such on my map. Nope. I return to the sign, get off the bike and stand, staring at it. Sure this is Chile, but it's still Latin America. It's very possible that the sign is a piece of officialese; only there because the highway code says it has to be there, but not the sort of thing that anyone actually cares about? Am I just being too Canadian?

I keep looking back at my map. The next shortest alternative route is roughly 140km from here, back through Los Andes, swinging around west and coming at Santiago from the side. 140km. And it's still only just past 1:00.

I think I can do this! I'll get into Santiago late, but it's Santiago; not like there will be a shortage of hotels to pick from. And I'm not doing any biking tomorrow anyway.

Okay, let's get this road on the show.

I get back on my bike, head back towards Los Andes, swing around west, make it a futher 40km (again) out of town, and then discover that, in the year or three since my map was printed, the highway has been upgraded into an autopista and there is another big sign saying no bicycles on the highway.


I decide to chance it, in the hopes that maybe I really am being too Canadian.

I make it 4km. Then a local friendly carabinero (police officer) stops me. I'm about to break into my best "I'm just a stupid tourist and don't know what I'm doing" routine, but there's no need. He's not a jerk — is actually quite friendly and almost apologetic about it. But I really do need to get off the freeway at the next exit.

At the next exit, there are about 2 blocks of paved road, ten buildings and nothing else. The only roads out of the village are the onramps back to the autopista. I get off the bike and walk along the edge of a farm, parallel to the highway for the 1km or so until the following exit, to the town of Llay Llay.

Llay Llay is actually decently sized — about 20 thousand people. Nevertheless, there are only 3 highways of consequence leading out of town, and they are all... you guessed it.

So I suppose this is it, the end of the road. 85km and change from Santiago. It all feels... a little anticlimactic.

Most of Chile's older highways are great for biking; indeed many have bicycle routes along their length. Good signage. Bicycle signals in the towns, the whole works. But in their drive to modernize the whole country (Chile has recently been recognized as Latin America's first developed nation by the OECD), the older roads are being turned wholesale into freeways, and leaving bicycles and other sustainable means of transportation — quite literally — behind in the dust.

It's tempting to try to turn this into some kind of parable about the evils of modernization, but that would be too clichéd... and quite wrong. The many advancements in health care, housing, transparency in government, the whole works, more than make up for it.

But still... there are speed bumps around.

So I could take my bike with me when I get on the bus to Santiago, I suppose... but what would be the point? I make up a quick sign: "free to a good home," and leave it chained to a pole, with the keys in the lock. I hope it makes somebody's life better.
Posted on: Saturday Jan. 29, 2011 @ 23:31 MST
Re: Santiago, Chile
Sean, it is a great story - I hope you will hear from the new owner of your bicycle.
Welcome home!!!

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