Cycling the conquistadors' graveyard

In May this year my friend Alan came to visit me in Chile. Our plan was to ride an enormous, ambitious loop through the land of volcanoes and monkey puzzle trees in the south of this long, thin country. The region is known as the Araucania. For over 300 years in this inhospitable terrain of ice and fire and mountains, the entrenched indigenous Mapuche people repeatedly slaughtered the advancing Spanish armies who had otherwise conquered South America. With good reason historians today call it the “Spanish Graveyard.” With our bikes loaded with everything needed for our six day, 268 mile backcountry trip, we hoped our incursion would fare somewhat better.


From the city of Temuco we rode directly towards the Andes mountains. Snow covered volcanos peppered the horizon, steaming gently on the ride east. By the second morning however, as we pulled up to the Conguillio National Park guard hut, our tires were already biting into fresh snow on the ground. It was clear that southern hemisphere winter was near.


The ranger woke from his early morning doze, clearly startled by the apparition of two gringos so early in the morning and so late in the season. Inside the hut, heat was piling out of the log-burning stove and I yawned and rubbed eucalyptus smoke from my eyes as I traced a line around the map on the wall of the monumental journey that lay ahead. We signed the register, paid a small fee with our brilliant coloured Chilean bank notes and then, with little else to distract us, we stepped back out into the snow.


We rode hard that day. Our progress though was interrupted repeatedly by mechanical issues with my bike. I was to blame and with each re-start, Alan pushed the pace progressively harder to make up for lost time and unspoken frustration. At nightfall we were hungry and the temperature had dropped close to freezing. We rode onto a wide plain where smoke could be made out through the dregs of twilight. We stopped in the small mountain settlement of Malalcahuello and warmed ourselves indoors for an hour with unexpected homemade pizza and beer. All too soon it was decided we had to push-on to make up time. The roads were empty now. Our bike lights cut through dark spaces which had long since settled into the privateness of night.


Next morning we breakfasted standing up, banging our gloved hands together in-between mouthfuls of hot tea. The night ride had taken us far around the backside of Volcan LLaima. Daylight crawled over a giant granite rock face and then trickled down through the canopy of silver birch and fluorescent green lichen to where our bicycles lay frosted in the grass. As we pedaled ever higher into the increasingly frigid Araucania that morning, the frozen mud cracked under our weight, then became solid and silent. Snow covered tundra threatened to block the way over the ominously named Dead Chinese National Reserve, but the temperature rose and the dying canopy of coigues trees soon returned, casting a golden light over the sodden mountain trail.

This was the very heart of the Andes mountains a frighteningly beautiful and lonely place.

By the start of the fourth day we had left the Dead Chinese National Reserve long behind with almost a kilometre of vertical descent down to the Zahuelhue river near Melipeuco, and then climbed the majority of the almost vertiginous dirt track to camp on the remote eastern side of the Sollipuli volcano. Arriving late at night, we had pitched our tents and then stood in a creek on polished pebbles, washing ourselves in the darkness. Our route now took us south up a narrow glacial valley. Water swashed everywhere, carrying trees downstream and the wind whipped the remainder of the leaves of the stark trees. Argentina was at the top of the eastern rock escarpment to our left. This was the very heart of the Andes mountains a frighteningly beautiful and lonely place.


Slowly the single-track reemerged from the riverbed we had been following. It was another 15miles and several hours of rocky downhill before we saw another human being. In the weak afternoon sunshine, a family were hauling hay bales into their winter loft. Loose stalks spindled away in the commotion, carried away over the barn and towards distant snowy volcanoes. Very soon that snow would be here.


We shared a little of our story with the hay balers and they in turn proudly showed the hide of a wild boar, whose meat was now certainly being cured for winter rations. Beneath us lay a rattling 50mile descent to the town of Pucon. Half-way down, I had to let Alan go on ahead. My patched-up inner tubes refused to stand up to the onslaught any longer and were now puncturing every few kilometres. Hoping to pick up parts for the relatively straightforward remainder of the journey, I hitched a ride to Pucon. My bike and body lay tangled in the bed of the dusty pickup. Both exhausted by the ravages of the conquistadors’s graveyard.

Call for comment

  • Been on your own wild bike tour this year?
  • Ever had to hitch a ride because your bike’s got so banged up?

Next Month: How to fly (on a plane) with a bicycle / What you find when biking beyond the edge of your own village

Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website

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