“We don’t always have to ride—it’s good for us to take a break sometimes…” My partner and I engaged in the usual dance, pretending like this time we really wouldn’t do a cycling-centered vacation.
“Yeah, that’s true…we could sit on a beach somewhere hot. Thailand? Hawaii?”
The energy around our conversation matched the slow, steady, cold drip of the rain outside.
“Trek Travel’s Lakes and Volcanoes District seven-day road riding trip in Chile.” And there it was. The words just tumbled out of my mouth and into the world. We lit up like toddlers at our first Christmas and made a beeline for the internet.
Eight weeks later we were pointing and cooing at the smoking, snow-laden Villarrica volcano presiding grandly over the bustling lakeside town of Pucon, the start of our seven-day tour. The sunset gave the snow on its apex a gleaming pink glow, offsetting the lazy, steady stream of smoke from the surrounding clouds. Suddenly summer, sunset was at 9:30 p.m.—an additional delight to our California hearts where at home one of the wettest, coldest winters on record was sloshing to and fro, uprooting trees and flooding roadways.
Chile in general and the central region near Pucon in particular is a hive of adventure travel activity. Before meeting our guides and the other ten guests on the first day, we headed into town to watch the start of a half-Ironman. The streets buzzed and jumped with the energy of the event — music blared, announcements were made, sinuous athletes numbered like cattle were funneled into chutes. The shoreline of the massive Lago Villarica sputtered and churned under the kicking and stroking of 2,000+ half-Ironman participants, one of whom would be our guide for the next seven days. Road biking, whitewater rafting and kayaking, mountaineering, mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding are big here, and the area is a popular destination for the “never summer” crowd, powder-hounds who travel year-round in order to stay wedded to the world’s ski slopes. Later in the trip we’d cross paths with the Trans Andes mountain bike race, a 5-day stage race in Huilo Huilo with 9,000 meters climbing over 300 kilometers through rainforest, waterfalls, and cow pastures, all overseen by one or more volcanoes.
The guests on the trip were of varying levels of fitness and pluck, and the itinerary was designed to accommodate us all. Two guides and one van rode and followed along, always nearby with jackets, snacks, sag if needed. Short options were generally 20+/- miles with 1,500-2,000 feet of climbing, the “avid” options averaged 60-70 miles with 4,000-5,000 feet of climbing. Most guests rode most of the miles on most of the days, while opting for shorter rides when storm clouds gathered or the sun was particularly menacing. There was only one “EFKM” on our trip — the bane of any guide’s existence, the guest who’s gonna get Every F*ing Kilometer. while everyone else is chilling poolside with an adult beverage.
The bikes, provided as part of the package, were the Trek Domane SL7, a delightful carbon mount with Shimano Ultegra Di2 shifters. I have long poo-poo’d electronic shifting as “a solution looking for a problem.” If it’s really that hard to exert the energy required to shift gears, how will you make it around the block, much less up the side of a volcano? It seems to me that shifting gears on a decent road bike is about akin to lifting a sandwich or a beer to your face, and presumably those chores will not soon be E-enabled. That said, it was dreamy. Every time I thought about shifting, it was already done, as if there were a Bluetooth connection to my brain. I’d smile a little half-smile and say to myself “well, okay, but it’s still stupid…”
Our first day’s ride culminated with an out-and-back to the Argentine border. The shimmery heat radiating off the pavement contributed to the dreamlike patina of those particular miles, my strange sense of déjà vu surely prompted by the novels of my youth — Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, House of the Spirits and Eva Luna by Isabelle Allende. Sharp, pointy and iconic Araucaria araucana, or monkey puzzle trees, so named “because it would puzzle a monkey to climb them,” dotted the route, their crazy limbs in the foreground of yet another volcano, upholding the narrative of this unique Andean landscape.
The South American sun in summer is not to be trifled with. I knew this, clucked hen-like to my partner regarding the liberal application of sunscreen, and promptly received a strangely arrow-shaped sunburn above my left eyebrow whose shadow lingers to this day. Because my body missed the “Ladies don’t sweat, they perspire…” memo, I learned long ago not to apply sunscreen to my forehead when riding in the heat, my sweat providing a direct conduit for sunscreen into my eyes. And yes, this could have been avoided if only I could have located the pink head/sweatband that coyly hid within my luggage until it was no longer needed. Despite multiple curse-laden rampages through my bag (his too), it failed to appear until Patagonia when I pulled out my ski clothes for the 32-degree-hiking part of our trip.
Chile has a vaguely nostalgic, Old West feel to it. While certainly the true-to-life vaqueros and oxen carts encountered roadside lent truth to this observation, there was something else that was harder to identify. Was it the picturesque weathered barns, rows of hay in the foreground, distant rugged peaks in the back? Was it the smell of fresh cut hay, the empty landscapes? The steak? All of the Chileans we met seemed to have come from Santiago—a vast, sprawling city of 7 million, hemmed in by the towering Andes that in the winter provide a snow-capped, iconic backdrop, and in the summer trap the dust and urban exhaust of those teeming masses in a pot of pollution with the lid left on. And while it’s no wonder athlete/adventurers might leave, Santiago is not without its charms. Street music, a thriving food and nightlife scene, street art and museum art to name but a few.
Not unique to Chile but annoyingly present were canine menaces of varying sizes and shapes. The first one was on our second day of riding. Some very pro-looking dudes who had probably just won the Ironman the day before were out spinning their legs, heading back as we headed out. They clipped along in tidy formation, a pleasure to watch. But then they got all jittery and blown apart, this one jogging left, that one zigging right. Why? Ahhh, a giant Golden Lab gamboling alongside. “Hey! Hey! This is super fun guys! Wait up! I can go fast too—let’s play!” Fast dudes seemed to not believe what Golden Lab was implying, that it was all in good cheer. Sheesh, what a bunch of pansies. That dog was sweet as banana cream pie.
Fast forward 24 hours and I am cresting a hill before a well-deserved long descent, another of Chile’s vast, deep lakes to my right, emerald forests sweeping up and away to my left. A guardrail separates pavement from grassy shoulder. And now that grassy shoulder contains one very large, muscular Rottweiler who appeared somewhat magically and is now keeping pace with me. Um, are we…playing? I can’t quite read his intentions. What I can read however, based on my grand powers of deduction, is that our current separation is short-lived. The end of the guardrail is nigh. My former willingness to give the dog the benefit of the doubt seems suddenly foolish as its frothy growl ramps up to a breathless and sustained tirade of toothy menace that is now zeroing in on my right ankle.
I’m so offended and shocked that I forget what you’re supposed to do when chased by a dog while riding. The shock and attendant adrenaline spike produce an involuntary surge forward, an impressive jump to 120 rpms, a number that I flatly refuse to achieve when the perky spin instructor insists it can be done —must be done— at 6:23 in the morning. The thing that finally awakens me to the proper course of action is not what one might suppose. It’s not his hurtling 130+ pounds of muscular mal intent. It’s not his gleaming incisors now displayed in full relief against slippery pink gums. It’s the realization that he might bite my fancy new bike shoe.
These bike shoes, procured particularly for this trip, were half a rent payment. Okay, maybe half a rent payment if you were still in college living with five human and countless cockroach roomates, but you get my point. They were expensive. So damned if I was gonna let this cur mar their pretty, dappled white surface. My face turned red, I slammed on the brakes and a primal roar escaped from my depths, a human volcano of defiance. I don’t think they were actual words, more like the old cartoon depictions of rage.
He pulled up short, more than a little surprised, and seemed to deflate right there in front of me. Mr. Bad-Ass Cujo reduced to an ordinary Chile-dog. He skulked back to his lair and I, the victor with the pretty shoes, got on with my now-supercharged descent.
Trek Travel guides are anything you want them to be. Attentive or hands-off. Chatty or leave-it-be. Chelsea rode alongside me for 30 seconds, cocked her head to the side zeroing in on the faint “tick-tick-ticking” of something in the vicinity of my rear wheel. “Hey, pull over here…” She was off the bike yanking her rear wheel off and swapping it for mine like I was a pro-racer in the Tour de France. I mean the Tour de Femme. Or, you know, the pinnacle of women’s road racing. Nevermind. Anyway, the pit-crew level of service was delightful and not unlike electronic shifting – a thing I’d earlier poo-poo’d as an extraneous frill but now found to be the last piece in a puzzle of happiness.
While a Trek Travel vacation is not for the faint of wallet, putting together a trip of this caliber on your own would be a tall order. The van support. The route planning. The accommodations. The bikes. The food. The camaraderie. Yes, you can do all of these things on your own—I have and will again. But it’s a lot of work, and you might get lucky, or you might not. Each of the hotels were just the right mix of whimsy, style and comfort, never fussy or grandiose (the crooked, knotted path through the woods to the room with the wood-burning hot tub being just one example). The local knowledge provided by Ruben-the-erstwhile-volcano-guide/Ironman competitor brought the country to life in a way one cannot divine from a guide book or website. Volcanic eruption stories. Roadside empanada knowledge. CIA coup history. Precision bike fit on the fly. Chile doesn’t allow foreign companies to operate within its borders, thus a strong relationship with the local tour company is being built as Trek moves into its third season offering the Lakes and Volcanoes tour. This law also means no Amazon. Imagine that.
Trek Travel’s trips range from “I rode a bike once!” to “I’m most comfortable on the podium” (my descriptions, not theirs). Here are theirs:
- LEISURE: You are relatively fit and you want to ride on your vacation, but not every day.
- RECREATIONAL: You ride your bike on a regular basis either for fitness, to commute to work, or just for fun.
- ACTIVE: You ride your bike on a weekly basis and are comfortable with rides of 2 hours or more at a relatively strong pace.
- AVID: You ride your bike an average of 100 miles per week and enjoy a fast pace for an extended period of time.
Though none were available on our “Active” level trip, they have begun offering e-bikes on some trips, and the website denotes trips that have good non-rider options, too. This makes it easy to mix and match skill/fitness levels and accommodate friends or partners who want to share the trip with you but don’t care about riding.
The hotel types are described as:
- EXPLORER: These casual boutique hotels provide real relaxation and creature comforts in a casual environment. Delicious cuisine, striking views and unmatched service mix perfectly for an unforgettable stay.
- LUXURY: Treat yourself to total luxury in accommodations handpicked for your ultimate enjoyment. From signature spa treatments to Michelin-starred restaurants, you’ll be more than provided for. You’ll be pampered.
Trek Travel’s Lakes and Volcanoes District tour runs $4,999 Per Person for 7 Days & 6 Nights of fully supported riding and guiding. It falls under the “Active” rider type and “Explorer” hotel category.
This is a guest post by Maureen Gaffney, who paid for this Trek Travel trip and all travel costs on her own. Neither she nor Bikerumor was compensated for their participation or for posting this story.