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.

No comments:

Post a Comment