Chile is the most popular destination in South America for cycling tours, offering lush scenery, mountain trails and the famous Carretera Austral.

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Cycling the Carretera Austral

The Carretera Austral is one of the world’s most challenging bike routes. This scenic highway, also known as “Ruta 7”, is 1,240km of paved and gravel roads that explore wild and unpredictable Patagonia.

The time it takes the complete the Carretera Austral is completely up to you. There is a famous saying in Patagonia that goes: "Quien se apura en la Patagonia, pierde su tiempo", which translates as “Whoever goes too fast in Patagonia, wastes their time”. However many days that you decide to cycle for, the best time of year to tackle the Carretera Austral is between November and March.

Most people cycle between 50-60km a day and take additional days to explore the area or just rest. Riding the entire route from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins takes a minimum of 20 days, but that’s without enjoying the stunning scenery and taking rest days.

Routes for cycling the Carretera Austral
Most cyclists travel from north to south, as the prevailing winds will be in your favour. There is no right way to ride along the Carretera Austral but here are some routes that cyclists follow:

  1. Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins: The full route involves several ferry crossings and a gradually worsening track as you head south. Lodges and camping are the best places to stay. Try rafting in Futaleufú or visit the hot springs at Termas de Amarillo along the way.
  2. Go through Chiloe: This route starts from Puerto Montt but follows Ruta 5 to the island of Chiloe, a UNESCO World Heritage site best known for its beautiful wooden churches and birdwatching. Cycle Ruta 5 until you reach Castro or Quellon, from where you can sail to the of ports Puerto Aysen, Puerto Chacabuco, Raul Marin Balmaceda, Puerto Cisnes or Chaiten.
  3. Continue through Argentina: Many cyclists will fly into Balmaceda and travel down to Villa O’Higgins and then cross over to Argentina until they reach El Chalten. The majority of this route is on gravel and is closer to off-roading. Make sure you make a detour to explore Tortel, a beautiful little town that can only be explored on foot.

Be aware that the path winds through some of Chile’s most beautiful — but isolated — spots. Take cash, repair kits and emergency supplies.

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Colchagua Valley and vineyards

The perfect match for cycling fans and oenophiles — or just those that want to work off the wine. Most Chilean vineyards require reservations in order to visit so the majority of cycling trips are done through organised tours. Tours can range from a day trip from Santiago to the nearby vineyards of the Ruta Maipo Alto to week-long rides through the famous Colchagua Valley, 100 miles (160km) south of the capital.

The big vineyards are open year-round. You’ll find a number of harvest festivals during the late summer and early autumn months which are worth visiting. Most cycling routes are easy, with a mixture of paved and dirt roads between the vineyards. If you’re looking for more than a day’s bike ride, then Colchagua Valley is your best bet.

Colchagua Valley
Colchagua Valley is one of Chile’s most famous wine regions, offering many different vineyards and a large variety of grapes. The quiet roads into its small villages allow you to savour the dramatic landscapes overlooking the Andes mountains. Colchagua Valley is perfect for growing excellent Sauvignon Blanc and strong red wine grapes such as Carmenère, which was thought to be extinct for more than a century before being rediscovered.

The valley’s biggest city, Santa Cruz, is the best option for renting bicycles. Many wineries will include bike rental if you book directly with them, but booking independently gives you the freedom to travel around and explore smaller vineyards too. The Colchagua Valley is a small and compact area which can easily be explored over a couple of days. If you start and end in Santa Cruz, you should be able to visit 4-5 high-quality vineyards within 10km. Bike rentals are around 10,000CLP per person for 48 hours.

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Lake Llanquihue

Llanquihue is Chile’s second largest lake in the Lake District region and is home to the largest paved bike path in the country. With the freedom to ride on the self-guided trip around the lake, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the water (which changes colour from turquoise to dark blue/grey) and explore some of the region’s historic towns.

Most cyclists complete the route in 3-4 days, starting and finishing in Puerto Varas. Visitors can either travel as part of a tour, which will include accommodation and meals, or you can travel independently, staying in campsites and cabins around the lake.

The best time to complete this trail is between November and April, with January and February being the busiest months as holidaying Chileans head into Puerto Varas. This is easy cycling, with a large part of the route having its own paved bike path.

Look for hostels and information centres along the route that are ‘bike friendly’. These spaces welcome cyclists and allow you to repair your bikes or store them safely.

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Atacama Desert

Cyclists — or more specifically mountain bikers — come to the Atacama Desert to challenge themselves. This parched inner-desert region spans roughly 130,000sq/km of dry and dusty conditions with beautiful orange-rust coloured mountains, caves and valleys. Most travel to San Pedro de Atacama, but the desert extends all the way towards the Pacific coast and as far south as the Salado-Copiapó drainage basins.

Valle de la Luna
Just 17km outside of San Pedro de Atacama in the Salt Mountains range lies Valle de la Luna, also known as the Moon Valley. The valley is filled with lunar landscapes, sand dunes, and salt caves that are worth exploring.

The path to the valley is well sign-posted, flat and on paved roads, so it is easy to find your way from San Pedro. Make sure you enter the park’s main entrance before 4pm, as they won't let riders in after that time.

Once inside the park, just follow the signs. The bike ride from the Great Sand Dunes to Las Tres Marias is the most fun and if you're looking for something more challenging, try riding up to the Quedabra del Diablo. This three-hour journey from a dried-up riverbed through red clay mountains leads to spectacular views over surreal landscapes.

Garganta del Diablo
Another great bike path near San Pedro de Atacama is Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). Just 18km from San Pedro, you’ll find the entrance a little bit further on from the ancient fortress of Pukara del Quitor. This ride is considered easy to intermediate, but does involve some ascents and rocky sections. Mostly, you’ll cruise along the river, passing through an area known as Catarpe, which has a small church and then finish the route at La Garganta del Diablo. You’ll go through strange caves and curious rock formations until you reach a narrow passage surrounded by hills, known as El Tunel, before returning to San Pedro

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Elqui Valley

The Elqui Valley might just be one of the most peaceful places to ride your bike in Chile. Known worldwide for its clear skies and being the centre of pisco production, Valle del Elqui (Elqui Valley) is the ideal place to escape the city. This is a good destination for families who want to ride bikes with kids.

The Elqui River runs along the valley for 140km, cooling the air and offering plenty of places to stop and admire the view. The easiest places to hire bikes are the towns of La Serena and Vicuña. Paths in the valley are well-marked, but if you don't want to go on your own, there are plenty of guided tours offering single or multiple day bike trips.

Vicuña
This sleepy town is a great stop along the Elqui Valley. It’s home to the Gabriela Mistral museum, one of only two Nobel Prize for Literature winners in Chile. There are also several pisco distilleries that offer free pisco tours and tastings. Make sure that you ride through San Isidro and Diagutas — these small towns are colourful and make a great place to stop for lunch.

Guayacan Brewery
If beer is more to your liking then the Guayacan Brewery might exceed your expectations. This local craft beer is sold nationwide and is well worth trying. Park your bike outside and head into their open-air beer garden.

Pisco Elqui
Pisco Elqui sits at an altitude of 1,250m above sea level. Located in the heart of the valley, this charming village offers the best tourist infrastructure in the region. Make sure that you ride down to Montegrande, the hometown of Gabriela Mistral, then ride uphill for a gruelling 20km to an amazing lookout over the Cochiguaz River.

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