28 April 2015

El Chalten to Punta Arenas: Proper Patagonia, pura pampa

Upon leaving El Chalten we knew what  to expect: pura pampa. And lots of wind. Luckily though, Flor´s Casa de Ciclistas is a paradise that also supplies riding companions, which in turn can be exactly what you need for the leg to the South. As much as we love each others company, neither of us makes a good windshield. So, we teamed up with some strong, hairy and a bit smelly chicos to ride into the Pampa...

But then, as we learnt further along the way, the famous Patagonian winds are (mostly) a thing of the summer, and not so strong in the autumn. Despite that, our route South was somehow carefully planned to sleep at the well-known wind shelters that Patagonian-bound cyclists have been using for years. Long gone are those days where fancy hotels and estancias sprung up all over Patagonia...but do they make good shelters once they are abandoned!

And of course, despite some fellow cyclists complaining at the boredom of the Pampa, we learnt to love it and, in fact, it was a section we always looked forward to riding. It´s another right of passage for those going to Ushuaia or the other way. It is scenery that has to be seen also, and also experience passing through. The nothingness of the place feels good (ok, perhaps not for too many days in a row) and makes you notice how privileged we are to be able to live in "populated" places such as Europe. Imagine seeing the isolated pampa and experiencing the roughness of its weather all year round...

After several days of howling winds and torrential vertical rain (which left a few broken tents), we leave El Chaltén before it goes to hibernation for winter
And when one leaves El Chaltén in clear weather and turns around, that´s what you get. Cerro Torre is the highest on the left, and then the mighty Fitz Roy standing in the middle

Glaciar Viedma (of the Perito Moreno type) appears on your right as you speed out of town propelled by 60 km/h plus winds
The strong team of cyclists with Christophe (France-Basque Country) in the front, machaca Lucy, Rodrigo (Santiago, Chile) and Samuel (Valparaiso, Chile)
Eventually, and having cruised at more than 30 km/h average, we reached the Ruta 40, turn right sharply, and face some Patagonian crosswinds. Then, somewhere along the road, a woman gets out of car and shouts "Soy Flor soy Flor!". Indeed, she was the legendary Flor, who had been absent but left her house open to us smelly cyclists. We did not have enough words to thank her and wished we had stayed one more day to meet her properly. We all were touched when we saw her in tears as she headed back to El Chaltén - what a woman! Flor, si nos lees, mil gracias por todo y suerte con tu futuro viaje!

Our target for the day, the Casa Rosada. A well-known abandoned building that passing cyclists use to shelter from the elements

As we were cooking dinner, a cyclist shouts from across the fence asking if there was anybody in the house. It turns out it was Venezuelan Lesther, on his way North to cycle and surf. What a different setup and trip from ours...that surely inspired more than one of us. Maybe Bikeagliding next (cycling and paragliding?)

On top of our cycling buddies, we had plenty of guanacos for company

The following day we pressed on...and past the famous wind signs. Even though there was no wind, we still pretended...

On and on we rolled on the smooth pavement of the 40

5 km before the turnoff to  El Calafate (access town to the Perito Moreno glacier) we know of another abandoned building. We make ourselves comfortable in the only clean roofed room and relaxed... By this point we had already decided not to go to the glacier

Having lost Rodrigo due to a mechanical issue, the following morning we kept going onto a dirt road shortcut. A sign read "don´t do like me and leave a tip" at the entrance?

Only four left 

Knowing that there was a river 20 km into the dirt, we made progress and got there at almost sunset. There was also a handy police station that we used as a shelter.
A frosty night and a much appreciated morning invitation to come inside the station by the policía-gaucho 
Leaving the station we hit more pampa, which nows has turned into rolling pampa, with some mountains visible to our right 

As we eat up the kms I shout "joder, is that Torres del Paine?". Christophe, who had already been, confirmed. 

To the left of the Torres, some other peaks, with the odd flamenco thrown in

Late that evening we left Argentina once again, via Villa Cerro Castillo. The friendly border agents let us sleep in an abandoned house until the following morning.
After clearing Chilean immigration, we head for a dirt road that goes along Lago Toro, avoiding the hefty fee required to enter Torres del Paine national park
The dirt road felt like almost pavement, but without the traffic and with great views. That evening we camped early to enjoy an incredible wild camp, with a view of the Torres del Paine in the distance.
A lonely tree on the beach indicates the prevailing winds in our campsite. Yet, once again, another windless night!
And surely it was one of the best camp spots of the entire trip

We had a bit of rain overnight and so when it stopped in the morning, we quickly set off to cover the remaining 40 km to Puerto Natales...
Which, despite its touristy reputation being the access town to Torres del Paine, was very pleasant
Being relatively isolated from the rest of Chile, it Puerto Natales has all the facilities and a real small town feel - at least in the low season!
And some pretty cool fjord views

El Rey de la Bicicleta - no visit to Puerto Natales is complete without one to this legendary place, which has been serving the Puerto Natales cyclists for more than 40 years!
Having forgotten about riding a dirt road stretch out of Natales due to mud and flooded river crossings, we set off on the main road to Punta Arenas, again fearing the crazy Patagonian winds...that never materialised. These bus shelters have been known to be used as shelters, but do watch out for mice/human shit and other delicacies!

Arguably, the route wasn´t the most scenic, but with some music pounding out of Christophe´s speaker, we were all in good spriits!

Came mid afternoon and we had already reached our target for the day. Another shelter where cyclists are allowed to camp. Luxury - it even comes with a bench!

The following morning we ride another 100 km until a wonderful estancia, where owner Juan and gaucho Amadeo welcome us with loads of tea and a wood-fire kitchen. We are in heaven! That night it rained cats and dogs, and we were so grateful to be indoors - we need so little to be happy, really
Unfortunately, the rain does not abate and we ride the entire 70 km left in less than optimal conditions. We arrived wet and cold, but we had a wonderful host waiting for so nothing to worry about. This photo is therefore from the following day

Punta Arenas is a large town (for Southern Patagonian standards) that serves as a gateway to Antarctica. But it also has some cool sights, including an impressive cemetery. 
 Route notes:

We only had a strong tailwind out of El Chaltén, the rest of the ride was pretty windless.

- We followed the usual route South, stayed the night at the Casa Rosada (120 km out of El Chaltén) and then the other abandoned building by the river, 5 km before the turnoff to El Calafate. We loaded enough food in El Chalten to get us to Puerto Natales (6 days).

- The border crossing at Villa Cerro Castillo is quiet and rather scenic, plus you can ask to stay inside the abandoned station on the Argentinian side. Villa Cerro Castillo has a small shop.

. We followed a dirt road that goes along the shore of Lago Toro after leaving Villa Cerro Castillo and avoided entering Torres del Paine National Park. It adds about 40 km to the otherwise straightforward route to Natales. There´s fences everywhere, but Chilean law allows access to all waters, so we did just that. We know of a few others who have managed not to pay the hefty 18.000 chilean pesos fee to enter the Park on the road heading North from Villa Cerro Castillo (less if you are Chileno). We just don´t agree with neither the Chilean policy of overcharging visitors  nor sneaking in.

- Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas: we took the main road, as locals said the dirt roads to the South would be almost impassable at this time of the year, following heavy rain. There´s plenty of estancias on all the route, and some rivers/streams, and so we never needed to carry water for more than one overnight.

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).