Cicloturismo: a new way to explore Chile’s Maule Region

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Pedaling along the southern coast of Duao, Chile, our leader Luis veered off the highway onto a path leading to the beach.  “C’mon!” he exclaimed, “let’s put these mountain bikes to work!”  We followed him in, plowing deep trails into the sand.  Like Icarus and the sun, I skirted the ocean’s receding white foam, confident in my and the bike’s ability to outpace an oncoming wave.  But, even before Luis’ warning cry reached my ears, a wave crashed down on my wheels, spilling sand over the frame.  The rest of the day to the group’s amusement my gears squeaked with every pedal stroke, the penalty for my brashness. 
I had the opportunity to beach-bike off the coast of Duao thanks to a recent invitation to participate in one of Chile’s newest tourism initiatives, “cicloturismo.” Launched by the Maule Tourism Office (Dirección Regional de Turismo en Maule) and sponsored by Sernatur (Chile’s national tourism agency), InnovaChile de Corfo (Chile's economic development agency), and others, the initiative’s goal is to implement an innovative form of eco-tourism in Maule, a coastal region three hours south of Santiago.  Although remnants of the destruction wrought on the region by the February 2010 earthquake remain, Maule has worked to re-stabilize its economy with an emphasis on its tourism potential. “Cicloturismo,” or bike tourism, aims to attract visitors who are looking for an active way to visit one of Chile’s most undervalued locales.  Programs will vary from do-it-yourself routes to guided tours with food and lodging to round out the experience.
I first heard of the project in an email from Luis Oteiza, a project director for the Chilean tourism consultant firm Alianza Creativa, who would be leading an all-inclusive press trip.  He briefly outlined the four days: the first would be spent riding in some of Chile’s largest and most accomplished vineyards, the second through kilometers of dunes at Putú and the coastline of Constitución, the third at the Lago Colbún and finishing in Rari, known for its traditional craftwork and the old town of Yerbas Buenas.  It being the winter season, we would be trading spring’s bloom and heightened tourist traffic for cool, tranquil bike rides.  I was in.
We met outside the train station of Curicó, about three hours south of Santiago, and after a quick round of introductions we hopped in a van and the journey began.  The first stop was the Mario Edwards vineyard and soon after our arrival we were foot to pedal, surrounded by the Sauvignon Blanc crop, planted in 1966.
We continued on to the vineyard AltaCima, stopping for a brief winetasting and a visit from the governor of the Maule region, Rodrigo Galilea, and other officials from Sernatur and Corfo.  But, we were just getting warmed up.  Upon our departure we encountered a course more fit for our rugged mountain bikes than paved gravel: ankle-deep mud.  Amid shouts, laughter, and some shrieks, we willed ourselves to the day’s final destination: the vineyards of San Pedro, first planted in 1865.  We were rewarded with a tour of the winery, including its 19th century underground cellar, which naturally provides ideal humidity and temperature for the wines.  A four-course meal awaited us, served in San Pedro’s casa de huéspedes, reserved for clients and tourists of the vineyard.  When my editor forwarded me the press invitation he said I would eat and drink like a king. He was right.
Although we were treated like royalty, the region’s recent devastation was not hidden from us.  The next day, as we ventured forth from our hotel Donde Gilberto in the town of Duao, evidence of the quake surrounded us.  However, the optimism of the local fisherman, interested and excited to hear about the new tourist initiatives planned for the town, spoke to the bright future the region had. 
After a short bus ride, we boarded an all-terrain truck to carry us into the dunes of Putú.  Ten minutes later, we were encompassed by 30-foot tall virgin sand dunes with clear skies and sun overhead, the rumble of the truck our only reminder of civilization.
Contradictory to our desert surroundings, a feast of soup, sausages, steaks, and chicken followed. We then piled back into our 10-passenger ATV and were back on the road. Our last stop of the day was the coast of Constitución, one of the most affected areas of the 2010 earthquake.
Like Duao, the after-effects of the earthquake are still present, and the 50,000 residents will forever remember its devastation.  But they are a resilient people, and through a plan dubbed “PRES” (Plan de Reconstrucción Sustentable), led by the town’s municipal authorities in conjunction with ARAUCO, an international renewable forestry firm, they are working toward a new, tourist-based Constitución with an emphasis on sustainability. Later on, as I hit my hand-brake to pause and admire the 400-foot-high jagged rock formations littered all along Constitución’s coast, I could not argue with their enthusiasm for the project.
Right on time, we were able to savor the sun’s array of reds, oranges and yellows as it sank under our handlebars into the Pacific.  Darkness upon us, we drove to our quarters for the night at the Hotel Los Caulles, where we finished the day in true Chilean style.  Upon our arrival, a local mariachi performed several songs original to the region.  Afterwards, we sampled one of Chile’s most traditional dishes: curanto, a hot stew filled with shellfish, sausage, potatoes, and vegetables.  We continued in Chilean custom, celebrating the meal and day with pisco and rum, to our delight even the chef joined in on our reverie. 
The next day promised another of Maule’s treasures: the Lago Colbún.  We arrived at midday, just in time for an early lunch of paella prepared in front of us at the eco-friendly Chez L’Habitant Lodge-Restaurant. 
A short bike ride from the restaurant brought us to the Vineyard Ribera del Lago, where we sampled its Sauvignon Blanc—voted Chile’s best white wine in 2010.  The vineyard portion of our tour finished, the journey was to end the next day in Rari, where we would be welcomed with chocolates and traditional artisanship.
Rari is famous for its crafts in “crin” (horsehair), constructed with intricate detail and bright colors forming various shapes.  I could not begin to decipher the riddle of their construction, which has been passed down for generations.
The history of Rari is present in the fingers of the many who still practice the art of crin.  After a twenty-minute van ride we piled out and grabbed our bikes to visit Yerbas Buenas, another town steeped in history.
A fitting end to a tour dedicated to celebrating Chile, Yerbas Buenas is the site of Chile’s first battle for independence in 1813.  Our guide, outfitted in tradition Chilean dress, impressed upon us the national pride present in the historical town.
As we biked through the old town square, artifacts and memorials were found on almost every corner, a large portion of the town’s antiquity thankfully spared from the 2010 earthquake.  However, the town was not entirely unscathed, and remains of cracked roofs and imploded houses were still visible. 
The 2010 quake was a terrible happening, resulting in more than 85 deaths in Maule alone. However, Yerbas Buenas and the region in general have taken advantage to pursue a new beginning.  Cicloturismo is but a small piece in what will make up Maule’s success in the coming years, each unique location visited playing its own role.  From the region’s internationally acclaimed vineyards to the dunes of Putú, Maule’s riches are a bike ride away.  
To learn more information about how to go on this very trip, please visit the website for Turismo Maule.  Another similar trip is offered by Viva Maule Adventure Tours