Hiking Futaleufú

posted Oct 10, 2011, 3:23 PM by Paul Gareau

Futaleufú, in Chilean Patagonia, is known for being one of the best whitewater rafting destinations in the world. Most people come for an average of 2.2 days (according to the tourism department) and then continue on to other places, missing out on the other opportunities that Futaluefú has to offer. It would be hard not to notice the incredible surroundings here, and because of the town's location in the mountains there is very accessible and scenic hiking in the area. Don't pass through this town without doing at least one!

La Bandera
A good starter hike is to Mirador "La Bandera". To find this trail, follow the street Pedro Aguirre Cerda to the western side of town, in the direction of Sector Noroeste. The road will bend to the right, descend and cross a bridge on a curve to the left before climbing again with another bend to the right. At the top of the hill, on the right, you'll see a sign for "Cabalgatas" and you'll want to follow that road to the trail. The trail isn't marked in any way and there are other trails around, but I found it easy enough to get to the top just by staying with what seemed to be the "right" trail, which was generally the widest and the one that was going up. You'll come around from the northeastern side of the hill, then you'll want to pass the small pond to get to the flag. The view is incredible, especially when there is still snow on the mountain tops, and it will definitely get you motivated to do more hiking in the area!

El Espolón Trek
This is an excellent and easily accessible short trek. I took a bus to Lago Espolón, which cost 300 pesos, and then a ferry to the port for El Espolón, which cost 2000 pesos. It may be possible to hike to El Espolón, since the tourism map shows a trail following Lago Espolón on it's eastern side, and Google Maps shows a trail on the western side. Looking from the boat, it is hard to believe that there is a trail on either side. From the port where the boat stops, you can follow the only road to El Espolón until you reach the school, then look for the switchback trail that goes over the hill behind the school. Don't underestimate the climb, it may take longer than you think. In general, you want to keep the fence and the small river on your left, and continue walking in the same direction as the fence. From the clearing at the top you will pass through a gate and then down through a dense forest before coming out into a large open area with a small house on the left. If you take the 3PM ferry and want to do the trek in two days this would be a good place to camp, but the farther you can go, the better. Next you continue towards the house on the left, but follow the path through the woods instead of walking towards the house. You'll come to a small farm next, with a house and some farm buildings. Follow the grassy area towards the mountains on the left (north east) until you reach the path next to the mountains. You will cross a log mud bridge, then ascend the side of the mountain. The path follows the side of the mountain until after Lago Las Rosas to avoid the lake, wetlands and thick forest. (The tourist cartoon map shows the trail on the other side - it's wrong!). The hiking is pretty easy between Lago Las Rosas and Lago Noroeste. When you look at the mountains on either side of Noroeste, it will seem impossible that there is a trail on either side - but there is! From the house on the north side of the lake, you want to stay on the right side of the lake (western side) and follow the trail into the mountains. The trail from here along the lake will go up and down for a while and you will never arrive at the south end of the lake. Instead you'll descend through the forest and follow power lines to a road. At the road take a LEFT over the bridge, following the power lines. If you take a right you'll come out at a farm and the end of the road. Continue following that road until it ends and meets another road, then turn left again and continue back to town.

If I could do this trek again, I would do it in a total of three days and two nights. The first would be the afternoon ferry and hike to El Espolón, camping there and exploring the dead end road north into the mountains. On the second I would do the pass behind the school, and the mountain section that goes next to Lago Las Rosas, camping at the old farm on the other side of the lake. On the third day I would do the mountain section next to Lago Noroeste (the hardest section) and finish in Futaleufú. This schedule would let you take your time, enjoy the scenery and not rush too much.

Top 5 Reasons to go Bicycle Touring in Ecuador

posted Oct 10, 2011, 3:19 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Oct 11, 2011, 3:19 PM ]

Written for

During my trip from Alaska to Argentina one of the most common questions has been: "Which country have you enjoyed the most?". Usually my answer is that they are all great in their own way, but when I was asked a few weeks ago and after giving it a little more thought, I added "... but, if I could only return to one, I think it would be Ecuador".

Ecuador has it all: mountains, volcanoes, jungle, ocean, culture, good food, incredible scenery and adventure at every turn. Picking my top 5 was no simple task.

People who enter Ecuador from the North are sure to be impressed by the large and modern, but still largely indigenous market town of Otavalo. Both men and woman here dress in their traditional attire, which includes strings of gold beads around the necks of the women, and short, white pants and ponytails on the men. Spanish is still a second language for many residents and it's not uncommon to overhear a conversation in their native tongue, Quichua. For a light-travelling cyclist, the only thing harder than leaving Otavalo would be to leave without one of the beautiful, locally made alpaca wool products.

For me, it was impossible not to be amazed by the hillside, patchwork farms throughout the country. The colors and shapes they create add to what is already an amazing landscape. A bicycle traveler will also encounter snow-capped volcanoes, beautiful sweeping views over wide, green valleys, dense jungle and at times even desert! The unusual Frailejones, found in El Angel Ecological Reserve, will definitely remind you that you're in a very unique place.

Much of the fruit in Ecuador is unique to South America and nearly impossible to find elsewhere. From the common pineapples, bananas, and passion fruit, to the less well known granadillas and naranjillas, to the virtually unheard of pitahayas and uvillas, you're sure to be in for a treat if you enjoy trying exotic fruits.

With the variety of the landscapes and roads to be found in Ecuador, having a boring day will be nearly impossible. From the steep cobblestone climbs around the crater lake Quilotoa, to the rutted, unpaved downhill through the jungle after Sangay National Park, to the unimaginably steep climbs in southern Ecuador, you'll wake up every morning wondering what new adventure the day will bring.

Galapagos Islands
While you can't do a whole lot by bike on the Galapagos Islands, no "Ecuador Top 5" list would be complete without mentioning them. A truly unique place, the Galapagos Islands have made a big impression on Charles Darwin as well as everyone who has visited since. The curious Blue Footed boobies, giant tortoises, friendly sea lions and salt-spewing iguanas will be sure to leave an impact on you as well.

Resources for Learning Spanish

posted Oct 9, 2011, 4:06 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 3:21 PM ]

Here are a few lessons, websites and podcasts I've found helpful:

This website is awesome. I'd recommend starting here with the pronunciation lessons. DON'T underestimate the importance of pronunciation! I've met people in Latin America who have spent MONTHS studying Spanish and still don't even try to get the pronunciation right. If you aren't pronouncing the words correctly, you're not speaking Spanish. An accent, on the other hand, is something different, and I'd say not to worry too much about that. I strongly recommend learning pronunciation FIRST before moving on to anything else. This website also offers free lessons in grammar, vocabulary and verb drills.

This is another excellent website. It covers almost every topic imaginable from basic to advanced Spanish. I find myself on this site fairly frequently when I have a question about grammar. This is a great next step after you have your pronunciation down.

Spanish-English Cognates
A cognate is a word that is the same or similar between two languages. For example, most words that end in "al", "or" or "sion/cion" are the same or similar in both English or Spanish. Why not learn as many as you can from the start and make your job easier? There are many websites with Spanish-English Cognate lists, including:
  • has an excellent list of Spanish English cognates, organized by the "rules" the cognates follow 
  • has a small list of cognate "rules" with a few examples of each
  • There are good PDF lists here and here
Most Common Words
OK, so you have a pretty good handle on the cognates and want to keep building your vocabulary - but there are so many words, where do you start? Luckily there are lists of the most common Spanish words on the web, here are a few:
  • has a list of the 175 most commonly used words, also available as a PDF
  • has a list of the 1000 most commonly used words with audio, which is a great start towards a conversational vocabulary
  • has flashcards for the top 1000 words, possibly taken from the wordsgalore list
  • has lists of words ordered by how often they appeared in TV subtitles, but without definitions
Listening to Spanish
Now you have a good sense of pronunciation, grammar and a decent vocabulary. The next step is to listen to as much Spanish as possible. My favorite way to do this is a website called, which is exactly what you would guess - the news, read slowly and clearly, in Spanish! You can either subscribe to their podcast, or download individual files from their site. Each audio file has an accompanying lesson on the website.

Buena suerte!

Interesting Tents

posted Oct 7, 2011, 8:06 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 3:22 PM ]

This is a quick follow-up to my article "Designing the Perfect Tent". I've recently come across three interesting looking tents that might be good for touring, in addition to the Exped Auriga Mesh, which I mentioned in the last article.

Nusku 2P
This is a very interesting tent that I just came across. It's similar to the Exped Auriga Mesh in many ways, but unfortunately has a third pole. It's also a little on the heavy side. An advantage over the Auriga Mesh might be the longer rainfly.  
Hilleburg is generally considered to be one of the best brands in the business. This tent has many of the features I like, is available in green, but has a third pole and is quite expensive.  
Space Explorer
This tent used to be available in Green, but now appears to only be available in yellow. It's designed for winter use, has a fly-first pitch and snow/dust flaps. A disadvantage would be the single vestibule.  

Designing the Perfect Tent

posted Oct 6, 2011, 9:28 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Oct 10, 2011, 3:23 PM ]

Back in 2009, I wrote another article on my idea of what a perfect touring tent would be. My list of requirements included:
  • Tall enough to sit in
  • Fly-first pitch, or single wall
  • At least one large vestibule
  • Equal length poles
  • Free standing
  • Pole sleeves - not clips
  • No bright colors - specifically, GREEN!
  • Relatively light
  • 3/4 season
  • Stability in wind
I recommended the Exped Auriga Mesh in the previous article, which I've been using on this trip since southern California after a very disappointing experience with an REI brand tent. After travelling with the Auriga Mesh for around two years, I can honestly say that I've been very happy with it, but as with any product there is room for improvement, and there are features that I would find useful, that might not be useful to other bike travelers. To the list above, I would add the following, some of which may be surprising at first:
  • No floor
  • No zippers on bug net
  • Snow/dust flaps
  • Nothing rigid attached to rainfly
  • Pole tensioners
No floor? Yes, really. The problem is you don't just end up with one floor in a tent like this, you end up with three: a "footprint" layer, the floor of the tent itself, and the pad that you sleep on. The footprint generally serves two purposes - it helps prevent abrasion of the tent floor, and it adds an extra waterproof layer. Since the footprint is in contact with the ground, it gets all the abrasion and is essentially disposable. I've used a footprint with a reflective layer that is meant to reflect heat, which was great at first until the layers started separating and water would get trapped between them. In Perú I changed to a relatively thick plastic "tarp", that I purchased for about 80 cents in a market. After time it too started to get holes, and after all this time there are the inevitable holes in the floor of my tent. So, my opinion at this time is that I'd be better off with no floor at all - who needs them?! 

Another perceived advantage of a tent floor is to protect an inflatable air mattress from sharp objects on the ground. Sure, they might help a little, but the material of the air mattress is almost definitely more puncture-resistant than the footprint and tent floor, which aren't going to do much to save your mattress. If you want to keep your air mattress clean, carry a piece of shower curtain, cut to the size of your mattress. If you want something that actually could help prevent punctures, it will need to be thick more than anything else, so get one of the corrugated windshield reflectors that people use to keep their parked cars cool. They're light, will be a good barrier between your mattress and the sharp stuff, and will reflect your body heat a bit as well. You could also consider the interesting-looking LuxuryLite Cot to protect your air mattress, or just use a closed-cell foam mattress instead - the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite looks pretty nice.

No zippers on the bug net? You bet. I'd like to have a tent with no zippers at all, but zippers on the fly might be unavoidable. Since the bug net doesn't have a floor attached to it anymore, you would just have to lift it up when climbing in, and drop it behind you. Additionally, zippers have possibly been the biggest problem for me during this trip. Even the best brands only come with a one year warranty, and there are ways to stretch their life a little (pinching the ends with pliers), but they eventually wear out and you end up with a bug net that you can't close. Just like with the tent floor, it's not long before they're unable to serve their intended purpose - get rid of them!

Snow/dust flaps? Yeah! On a trip like this, you're camping in every possible condition. I've camped on dirt in heavy rain and had the mud splash under the rainfly and into my tent. In cold weather the cold wind will blow in, making you colder and requiring you to carry a heavier sleeping bag. When camping in a sandy place, the tent will fill up with sand every time the wind blows. A perfect tent would have the normal amount of airspace under the fly for airflow in hot-weather camping, with optional flaps that could be unfurled and pegged into the ground when conditions are less than ideal.

Nothing rigid attached to the rainfly? Yep - having even short, rigid poles or the plastic bands that hold the air flaps open make packing the tent just a little more difficult. I have told fold or roll my Auriga instead of stuffing it because of this, adding a few minutes to my packing time. Don't need 'em, don't want 'em!

Having pole tensioners is also important. The Auriga Mesh has this and I've really seen how the length of the tent fabric changes over time and in different conditions. People riding through the salt deserts in Bolivia always comment on how much their tent has shrunk because of the salty air. In order to deal with these conditions, pole tensioners are required.

With all these simplifications, what you end up with is little more than a tarp and bug net - which would be fine if there was always a place to tie your tarp to! Most times, you will still want a free-standing tent, so poles are required, and I still think two equal-length poles with pole sleeves are the best. I would prefer that the poles ran inside the rainfly though - like with some of Exped's other tents, than outside, as with the Auriga Mesh. This would require a little less fabric and will make the tent better in the wind.

I also still think a two-vestibule design is best. Most times I cook from inside my tent, so it's good to have my gear stashed in the vestibule behind me, while I do my cooking in the other. It's also partly for security, when I don't want to leave anything on my bike, and partly to keep everything dry in the rain.

Well, that's my latest idea for a "perfect tent". Maybe some day someone will make it, or maybe some day I will. If after reading this you're inspired to make one, I'll be more than happy to test it out for you. 

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