Chili, When the earth comes to life

The volcanoes Puntiagudo and Osorno, two beacons in the Chilean Southern Andes.

On the edge of the Casablanca volcano, near the Antillanca ski resort.

With flat track racing, you’re down to the basics. You’re always turning in the same direction, on a short, oval track. / On a bike with no brakes, just a helmet, gloves and an iron sole under your left boot to lean on in the bends, you’re defying gravity! / – It’s your body that balances the bike. With your body on the inside, you steer in the other direction to stay on the track. / Hugo made it to the final but fell on the second lap. His tank broke, but he was happy anyway. He went out with a bang! /

In Biarritz in June, the roar of the engines drowns out the sound of the ocean. And for four days, the wildest dreams come true.

Devant le monastère de laTrinité-Saint-Jonas.

In front of the TrinityMonastery of Saint Jonas.

Majestic Tronador, 3,491 meters high.

Y comme y compris Tout laisser derrière soi, y compris sa bibliothèque. Et faire feu de tout bois, y compris les anecdotes, les légendes. Collecter les histoires de la route, y compris des gestes, y compris des instants1.

1. Locus Solus passe pour un «livre amorphe et déconcertant décri(vant) minutieusement les curiosités abracadabrantes de la villa du savant Canterel», cf. François Caradec, Raymond Roussel, Fayard, 1997.

Y is for yes Leave everything behind. Including your library? Yes. Try anything and everything. Anecdotes, legends? Yes. Collect stories along the way. Gestures too? Yes. Moments? Yes.1

1. Locus Solus has been described as an “amorphous, somewhat bewildering book describing in detail the outlandish curiosities of the scientist Canterel’s villa.” Quoted by François Caradec in Raymond Roussel (Fayard, 1997).

Puyehue National Park, a land of snow, rock and scoria

Calafquén Lake, straddling Araucaníaand the Los Ríos region.

Calafquén Lake, straddling Araucanía

and the Los Ríos region.

Forest of coigües by the Liucura River.

Fly fisherman, near Pucón.

Puntiagudo (“sharp-pointed”), so named on account of its pointed cone.

From volcanoes to sulfurous peaks, author Tom Graffin, a fan of folk music, explores the harsh, mountainous beauty of Chile by motorcycle.

As a young schoolboy, I could situate it on a blank map. It was unmistakable. A thin strip, the chili pepper of America, the conquistador’s sword finally laid down. When I was even younger, I used to wonder about its shape. People there must feel like they’re in a long corridor, one foot in the ocean, the other brushing against the mountains when they pass each other. And if an airplane dropped me off there one day, how would I travel through it? By motorcycle, certainly. Balanced on two wheels, to thrum without a wobble along the thin line of Chile.

Región de Los Lagos, Ruta 215

The roads in Chile do not form a spiderweb, but a tree. Smooth paved branches stretch out from Ruta 5, the main trunk with a rugged bark, seeking passage wherever they can.

As you approach Puyehue National Park, the asphalt of the U-485 stops abruptly, replaced by gravel. Standing astride our bikes, we race through 13 kilometers of the lush, humid siempreverde forest, submerged in the bright green of the treestepas, mañiós and coigüeson the lookout for puma, heading as far as the Antillanca ski resort. For a handful of pesos, we continue on the area’s runs. In the springtime, it’s sandy gray dirt and slag. Patches of grass resist; the trees have capitulated.

We stop at Raihuén crater, beneath the towering Casablanca volcano. With its distinctive shape and rounded lines, it looks like a child’s drawing. The first rays of sunlight accentuate the contrasts as it shifts between snow and rock. A tiuque, a local falcon, flies overhead, mocking us. A hare bolts, freezes, then takes off again. In Chile, the unexpected is the norm.

Beneath a clear sky, the landscape has presence. Ahead lies a 2-kilometer track, at the end of which we continue on foot, ascending a last hill which, step after step, takes us by surprise. Three volcanoes appear, three beacon-like mountains, guardians of the Andes. The brown and white pyramids seem to be spaced logically apart, as if positioned on the plain by a brilliant architect who wanted them all to shine. This is the hallmark of the Chilean volcanoes; none of them steals the limelight. To the east, the three peaks of imposing Tronador point toward the border with Argentina. To the south, the summit of Puntiagudo seems to corkscrew around itself, while Osorno, an enormous Chinese hat, stands as a model of symmetry. It’s a spatial and geographic revelation: our flattened maps, squeezed into just two dimensions, conceal a crucial point. Chile is neither long nor narrow; it is immense.

Camino Puerto Octay, kilometro 9

In a pasture, a rider is resting his horse. We stop, extend greetings and ask him about his bay mount, a Criollo Chileno, a pure Chilean breed. He is flattered by our curiosity. The animal executes a slight levade, and with a wave the man invites us to follow him to his ranch.

In the courtyard, Luis Triviño introduces himself with a single word: huasonot the Castillian guaso, nor the Argentinian gaucho. In addition to watching over 700 head of cattle and 64 horses, the rancher also takes great care with his words. He wants to show us something. He steps away, then reappears wearing a ponchoor rather a manta, as he saysand braided black leather chaps. Large spurs gleam on his boots. Fired up, Luis explains that this is what he wears for the popular traditional Chilean rodeo, a national sport during which two huasos on horseback have to capture a bull without hurting it.

Región de la Araucanía, Ruta 199

We are heading eastward through the foothills when, on a long stretch of straight road, the land rises regally. With its plumes of hot gas, which I first see as a cloud, the inert rock comes to life. It breathes. In town, an old man had described the troubled sleep of their señor, which since 2014 has been putting on an impressive display of panache. On March 3, 2015, in the middle of the night, Villarrica spewed lumps and jets of incandescent lava 3 kilometers high. An open-air foundry. Since that eruptiona small one, apparentlythe 2,847-meter-high giant has been slumbering, allowing on its sides anyone who trusts it. A pilgrimage is called for. We climb it the following morning, together with three guides. The slope is steep; my feet slip. I turn my brain off, invoke the proud Araucanian Indians, to whom Chileans owe their bravery. The ice ax should not shake in my hands; it’s helping me to see what fire under ice looks like. I have a four-hour climb to ponder it.

At the summit, relieved, I don my mask and move to the edge. The reality is surreal. It’s impossible to name the color of what I discover, impossible to accurately describe its appearance and consistency. It is green, yellow, rust, brown, gray, hot, frozen, solid, liquid, gas. The elements are wavering. A viscous fire swims between two pools of water. The earth is pumping out unknown matter. The magma hardens; the snow melts. Or just the reverse. The air is pure and unbreathable. I am bowled over, move away, turn around and spot the Lanín and Llaima volcanoes. The umpteenth miracles. An aesthetic overload. Squeezed between the Pacific, the Andes and an underground furnace, Chile has forged an all-encompassing, overwhelming beauty. Below, the lava suddenly erupts several meters high. We cry out in amazement; we want to stay and watch the fire douse the rock once again. The guide shakes his head; it’s a no. The time spent in the sulfur vapors is restricted. We leave this hellish spot with heavy hearts. In a flash, we hurtle down the mountain on our shovel-sleds, in troughs of snow carved out by multiple passages.

What to do next?

Try to relax. We drive to the Liucura River and meet a fly fisherman. Felipe Matus, aka Pipe, 32 years old, learned from his father when he was just five. He pulls a large stone out of the water and turns it over. Our untrained eyes see only muddy twigs. Pipe tears one off, splits it with a fingernail and extracts a nymph, which in the adult stage would grow into a fly, perpetuating the cycle: “It’s a Trichoptera. You have to know which species live in the river to choose the right lure.” Felipe spends his winter making these flies: synthetic bodies disguised with peacock, goose or rooster feathers; fox, deer or squirrel fur. Four to five thousand perfect illusions that he sells or uses.

During the summer, Pipe teaches his technique of dry fly fishing, where the fly floats on the surface, to anyone who stops by. It’s the ultimate technique of this art. In Pucón, “all the men are fishermen,” he says out of modesty, but the fact is, Pipe is in a league of his own. Legs braced against the current, feet against the rocks, he flicks his wrist, forming a perfect loop in his line. The fly alights; the water roils. The rainbow trout never had a chance.

A place to write

A journey by motorcycle is different. The body is freed from the fortress of the car. The mind wanders, the eyes record. Colors, surfaces, odors, voices and landscapes are etched deeply into the memory. The people we pass by are somehow with us. On sidewalks and roadsides, in the back of cars and at bus stops, children wave. The adults imitate them. Invitations are exchanged, curiosity cuts both ways. From pan-American paved roads to rough tracks, all paths in Chile lead to something, especially dead ends. Because before turning back, you pause to look at the surrounding nature that compels you to stop. With the card she has just played (lake, volcano, river, hill, torrents), nature has decided to interrupt the journey. A sign that it is high time to write down what the road has just whispered to you.

Vira Vira Hacienda Hotel

Vira Vira appears at the end of a long road, in the middle of a 23-hectare farm dominated by mountains. Surrounded by immense gardens filled with ibis, your large room with a lenga wood decor faces Liucura River. The gourmet restaurant sits in front of a Zen-like pool stocked with trout. The chef uses ingredients sourced exclusively from the property, creating a memorable experience. The local beer at the bar is served with merkén-roasted Chilean hazelnuts (merkén is the characteristic spice blend of the Mapuche Indians), while the friendly, attentive staff is on hand to custom-design your adventure: a climb up Villarrica, a kayak outing, bird-watching, horseback riding, fly fishing and all the activities available in the nearby untamed national parks.

Vira Vira Hacienda Hotel

Parcela 22a Quetroleufu, Pucón.
Tél. +56 45 237 4000.

Alcohol abuse is harmful to your health. Drink in moderation


Architectural dreams

Carnet d’adresses

Vira Vira Hacienda Hotel

Parcela 22a Quetroleufu, Pucón.
Tél. +56 45 237 4000.


Hotel Cabaña del Lago

This four-star hotel, 30 minutes from Puerto Montt  airport, is built on the banks of Lake Llanquihue  and boasts spectacular views of the region’s two large  volcanoes, Osorno and Calbuco. The multiple open-air facilities include a private spa, a fitness space, pool,  a wooded park and excursions for all activity levels.

Luis Wellmann 195, Puerto Varas.
Tél. +56 65 2200 100.

Planning your trip


Tegualda 1352, Providencia, Santiago.
Tél. +56 2 2244 2750.

MotoAventura Chile

With 16 years of experience and 85 BMW motorcycles, MotoAventura is the largest company in this sector  in Latin America. BMW Motorrad-certified guides  and instructors provide unforgettable experiences through Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina.  They also organize road trips in Europe, Russia, Morocco, Kenya and Thailand.

Tél. +56 64 2 249 127.
Address Book

Going There


AIR FRANCE has 1 daily flight to Santiago from Paris-CDG.

KLMhas 1 daily flight to Santiago from Amsterdam.

Arrival airport

Aéroport international  Arturo-Merino-Benítez

Tél. +56 2 2690 1752.


À l’aéroport.


— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

Car rental

Hertz, à l'aéroport.
Tél. +56 2 2601 0477.

Further reading

Auteur-compositeur, Tom Graffin a adapté «Bonnie & Clyde» pour Scarlett Johansson sur l’album de Lulu Gainsbourg, et écrit pour Petula Clark ou Joyce Jonathan. Son premier roman, Jukebox Motel, est paru en 2016 chez JC Lattès.
Chili Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque du voyageur.
Chili Lonely Planet

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only