23 April 2015

Days off in El Chalten: Hiking, eating, and waiting

We arrived to El Chalten in glorious weather and found our way to the famous Casa de Ciclistas there. Amazingly, even though Flor was out of town, she made it possible for the casa to remain open and receive cyclists. We were so grateful for this space to relax and share with other cyclists, and did our best to keep its spirit alive in Flor's absence.

El Chalten is located at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy and is the base for lots of hiking in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Knowing that the good weather would not last forever, we lost no time and went on two day hikes right away. This turned out to be a wise decision as the weather soon closed in and we waited out several days of rain and very high winds, passing the time by devising ever more ambitious communal meals with our fellow cyclists. Ten days later, our cabin fever was almost at its limit when the weather finally broke and we could continue our route south.

Our walk up to Lago Los Tres featured fall colors and great views almost the whole way

A late departure guarantees you lots of company. The hike only got steep at the very end!

With every new view of Fitz Roy it seems more impressive

We can't believe our luck with the weather!

Next up a walk to Lago Torre and Cerro Torre - apparently even tougher to climb than Fitz Roy itself?

The lake has big and small ice chunks floating from the glacier all the way to the shore (and brave aussies swimming in it!)

Some pretty impressive clouds start to form as we leave Lago Torre... or is that a UFO?

If it's a UFO, now there are two of them...Or maybe even four?

Waiting out the bad weather is made easier by the two friendliest, happiest, calmest, cuddliest kittens we've ever met

And of course the communal dinners!

But with the sun shining again it's time to set off...

We leave with Rodrigo (Chile), Samuel (Chile), and Christophe (France-Basque Country) to share the work of riding in the winds that are sure to follow.

- El Chaltén was entirely built for the tourism industry. We were lucky to be out of the tourist season, so things were a bit more relaxed. Florencia´s Casa de Ciclistas is a gem of a place, even though we did not have the chance to meet her. Someone who leaves her house opened to all passing cyclists, in her absence, is someone special. Then there´s the "almazen" next to her house, where there´s loads of interesting stuff for purchase - all imaginable seeds, avenas, flours, honey etc. Just one word of caution for passing tourists - they tried to trick us several times in some of the supermarkets in town, when doing the calculations (be specially careful with the supermakert "el gringuito"). Also, prices vary as much as 500% for the very same product, so do shop around. Padería "K Rica" was also very good.

- The trekking was great, accessible for day hikes and probably very good for multi-day hikes. Almost everything is free of charge (learn from that, Chilean National Parks!) and there´s plenty of info around. We were told the multi-day walk to Paso de Los Vientos was incredible, yet you do need a harness to cross a river.

22 April 2015

Villa O'Higgins to El Chalten via the most expensive border crossing ever: Wow!

The border crossing between Villa O'Higgins, Chile, and El Chalten, Argentina is legendary amongst cycle tourists. We can remember hearing about it from northbound cyclists way back in the first months of our trip. The crossing is not possible in a car, making it only accessible to cyclists and hikers, giving it a very special feeling. Perhaps not special enough to warrant the price tag, which when all is said and done is roughly $100 US per person depending on a few different options you might take, because the crossing involves two very touristy boat rides.

We debated turning off of the Austral earlier in order to avoid this totally excessive fee, but ultimately decided that it was the best, and certainly most beautiful, option available to us. Although we still think the boat operators take unfair advantage of those wanting to make the crossing, we have to admit we are very glad we did it.

Our wait for the somewhat unpredictable ferry from Villa O'Higgins coincided with some truly horrible cold and wet weather, so lots of time was spent inside at the eco-camping, trying (ultimately unsuccesfully) to figure out a way to avoid the expensive boat.

On the bright side, we had time to whip up delicious meals every night like this pizza in the campsite's wood burning stove. Four cyclists, four pizzas.

On the last day before the boat, the weather finally cleared and we discovered that Villa O'Higgins is surrounded by stunning mountains.

Finally, the morning of the crossing arrives. We have to leave before dawn to ride the 7km to the port for the morning departure.

As we said, it's a pretty popular route with cyclists!

Faced with the choice between paying a lot to cross the lake, and paying a little bit more than a lot to visit Glaciar O'Higgins AND cross the lake, we decide for the latter. On the way to the glaciar, we pass impressive icebergs...

...and then finally approach the glaciar itself.
Perhaps not as big as the Perito Moreno, but still quite impressive compared to a tiny inflatable zodiac...

We spent a lot of time staring silently at the glaciar...


And nearby it, the Glaciar "chico"
We are really surprised by how close we feel to the glaciar, although we know we are a safe distance away.
As ever in Patagonia, you can't take a sunny day like this for granted and we are very glad to be able to see the amazing blues of the ice.
Once you've paid tourist prices, you might as well go all in and take cheesy touristy pictures

Many of the other cyclists also opted to take the glaciar trip, so we were in good company. Check out those long beards!
To complete the full silly tourist experience, we are served a (cheap) whiskey with ice from the glaciar.
Arriving into Candelario Mansilla in the late afternoon, we made ourselves at home in the refugio nearby, which had been left fully stocked with wood and has an amazing wood burning stove.

With blue skies and yet more incredible views of Lago O'Higgins the next morning, we set off to get our passports stamped out of Chile.

The climb out of carabineros is a short but steep one...but what a reward it was when we catch the first glimpse of the famous Fitz Roy

From there on it is a delight to ride such a beautiful road towards the Argentinian side

In Argentina we swapped dirt roads for singletrack and meet up with the other cyclists
But sometimes the singletrack becomes unrideable, slippery and muddy. We fell many times and got wet, but still it was so much fun

Eventually we hit the famous narrow section. At this point our V-brakes are useless due to mud and water, so we pretty much freewheel down to Lago del Desierto

After our long days of rain in Villa O'Higgins, we can't quite believe how lucky we are. And those views of the Fitz Roy will be in our memories for a very long time
At night we camped by the lake, and enjoy yet another magnificent sunset. Things don't get much better than this...
But before it gets dark, one last chance to try out the (broken) fishing rod
In the morning we decide to walk the length of the Lago del Desierto, thus avoiding the hefty fee to cross it by boat (the bikes did go on the boat though, at half the price of a person)
The walk was tough but stunning...and we were glad we did not attempt it with the bikes, as it would have been really rough to say the least!
We stuffed our faces with tasty calafates, the famous berry that grows around this part of the world.

And as we see our cycling buddies go past on the boat, we take a lunch break and enjoy the views. By now, seeing a glacier right in front of you was so so common...

After a night with the friendly gendarme on the southern side of Lago del Desierto, we set off for the last 40 km before El Chalten, again, in glorious weather.

Route notes:

- The ferry ride across Lago O'Higgins is ridiculously expensive no matter what you do. In January and February there's an alternative at 33.000 pesos chilenos instead of 44.000 (as of this April 2015). There's another boat for the villagers, which technically cannot be used by tourists, but we've known of some who have and have paid from zero to 30.000 pesos. Ask around Villa O'Higgins.

- Then there's another boat to cross Lago del Desierto in Argentina. It costs 420 pesos Argentinos. If buying directly from Robinson Crusoe it's possible to pay 30 USD or 18,000 CHP. If buying from the other boat operator directly at the lake, the exchange rates are less favorable (42 USD). Paying just to ferry the bike across seems to be a new trend this year and the prices seem to be in flux. When we passed it was half the cost of a passenger. (Of course if there are backpackers crossing in the same boat they can pretend the bike is theirs...) The hike is 16km along the lake, very pleasant but with plenty of ups and downs - it took us about 5 hours. We would not attempt it with a loaded bike though - maybe with a lightweight setting and lots of patience (be prepared to camp en route).

Coyhaique to Villa O´Higgins: Riding the carretera austral (part 2)

Our time on the famed Carretera Austral until Coyhaique had been pleasant, uncomplicated, and sunny. But with the casa de ciclistas closing on the First of March, it was time to head South again into Autumn on the Austral. Grayer skies accompanied us for most of the way now, but with the end of the high season also came quieter roads, and as we moved further away from Coyhaique, the Austral began to take on a more remote feeling. We really felt privileged to ride through such a special landscape and, as the weather deteriorated, grateful for the small bits of infrastructure that do exist to make things a bit easier for cyclists.

We pass through Cerro Castillo in the late afternoon and start looking for a place to camp-- it proves surpisingly hard as there are plenty of fences all around, and the unfenced land is filled with spiky plants that are the enemy of bike tires, inflatable mattresses, tent floors, and of course legs. Finally, we find a spot and set up camp just as the sun is going down...

...and in the morning we enjoy breakfast with a view of the Cerro Castillo

Then keep pedalling into greener and lumpier terrain

Also the rivers are getting big now...Here with Lucas and Martina taking in the views of the emerald waters that would accompany us for the remainder of the Austral

The number of cyclists on the road went down dramatically after Coyhaique, but still we met a few more. These two gringos were full of enthusiasm for the road ahead, even though they had had pouring rain in the last few days.

The dramatic scenery increased the further south we got..

... especially as we join Lago General Carrera

...the second largest lake in South America (we have already pedalled past the largest, Lake Titicaca).

Its waters shine turquoise even with quite a bit of clouds in the sky!
Getting closer to Puerto Rio Tranquilo we find more evidence of the local backlash against Douglas Tompkins, who has created several parks in the area. While an avid environmentalist, his way of dealing with locals has won him quite a bit of animosity.

We camp just outside of town under a gorgeous full moon.

In the morning, we say goodbye to Martina and Lucas to take a side trip to the Valle Exploradores, passing the village's cemetery on the way out.

Although we might normally shy away from an out-and-back route like this, a few different locals told us it was one of the most beautiful roads in the area, so we just had to check it out.
It certainly was impressive, with a new glaciar appearing at every bend in the road.
Coupled with almost zero traffic and pretty respectable ripio quality, we were in heaven.

In the afternoon, the skies opened up in a cold, drenching rain. We backtracked one kilometer to a roadside shack we had passed and pitched our tent nearby, grateful for the covered area to cook under.

In the morning, we finish the few kilometers to the Glaciar Exploradores lookout under gray but thankfully dry skies.

It's a short 15 minute walk to the viewpoint for the glaciar, an impressive sight even in such low visibility.
As always, riding the same road in the opposite direction feels like a totally different road altogether. On our way back the sun made a brief appearance, lifting our moods and making us scramble for the camera.

We just can't get enough of the glaciar views

And the beautiful green lakes

The next day, we ride to Fred and Tomoko's house, friends of a friend of Lucy's mom who live on the Austral. We spend a few days resting in their amazingly comfortable cabin, eating delicious food and learning about life in this part of the world.

But before long, it's time to head off again, helped by the delicious local cheese and homemade bread and corn muffins we are sent off with.
This section of the Austral is never far from a beautful lake or river.

We camp by the Rio Baker, Chile's biggest river, and Alberto has a go with his newly purchased fishing rod from Coyhaique. Spoiler alert - he doesn't catch anything.
The next day, we arrive in Cochrane, the second biggest town on the Austral, which with around 3,000 people feels like a big metropolis to us.
In Cochrane, Alvaro, from Vittoria (Spanish Basque Country) catches up to us, and we ride on South with him. A tip off from an unknown cyclist on an email chain takes us on a two minute diversion to see this impressive waterfall south of Cochrane.

We camp by a river with a French family headed in the opposite direction. A three year old and an eight year old  on a six month cycle tour, and both girls might we add -- what an inspiration!

The next few days are filled with green trees...
...snowy mountain peaks...

...and quiet roads...

..not to mention great camp spots.

Knowing that we have a five day stretch from Cochrane to Villa O'Higgins without supplies, we take advantage of the Austral's many fire pits to cook with, saving fuel.

It also keeps us warm and toasty as we chat into the night.

The dreaded rain of the Austral finally arrives just in time for our climb up and over to Puerto Yungay.

...where luckily, we are able to take refuge for the night in the waiting room of the free ferry we need to catch the following morning to continue on the Austral. Here, bikepacking Brits Mackenzie and Laura catch up to us too.

As the ferry pulls away from the dock in the rain, three brightly colored blobs on bicycles come speeding down the hill. Amazingly, the captain actually turns the boat back to pick them up! We can't really imagine that happening in Europe!

The weather is pretty miserable the next day, so we are very excited when in the early afternoon we arrive to the next refugio, not visible from the road but marked by a handy bicycle tire and drawing.

With eight of us heading south and six heading north converging in the refugio that night...

..the area around the refugio turns into somewhat of a basecamp, which turns out not to be ideal as high winds overnight lead to one broken tent pole (not ours thankfully, although Alberto did have to get out of the tent at 3am to re-peg the guy-lines as they had all come free).

At least there was somewhere warm to sit, cook, and most importantly dry the shoes and socks of fourteen cyclists.

It's still raining and windy the next day, but we know we only have about 50km to Villa O'Higgins and the end of the Carretera Austral so we push on in high spirits regardless

...leapfrogging with other cyclists throughout the day.

As we approach Villa O'Higgins, the weather clears a bit giving us a great celebratory rainbow to say goodbye to the Carretera Austral

And in Villa O'Higgins, the band is out to welcome us to town!

Route notes:
We won't go into too much detail as again, there is plenty of information available.

Valle Exploradores:
The road is only about five years old so not much information is available, but we highly recommend this beautiful side trip. The path to the Glaciar Exploradores viewpoint is located at km 52 which is comfortably achievable in a day's ride from Puerto Rio Tranquilo. There is a park ranger station there (water available) and technically the viewpoint path (about 20 minutes walking) has a fee of CHP 3500 per person. We were curious about continuing all the way to Bahia Exploradores but were told that there is an unfinished bridge further down the road, but it might be possible for the man who lives by the crossing to take a person and bike across in his boat (for a fee) - we didn't try.

- In Puerto Yungay it is possible to sleep in the ferry waiting room, which has electricity but no bathrooms. On the other side of the fjord the waiting room has bathrooms but no electricity.

- The refugio with the bike tire marking the entrance is located 47km from the ferry terminal. There is a second identical refugio clearly visible from the road 21km further on.