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).


  1. Hi my friend... I was wondering if is possible to cross the river in August, do you know ? I can´t find information about that..

    1. In August there is no boats betwen O'Higgins - Candelária Mancilla fron Robinson Crusoe
      Maybe local people

  2. Any idea if there is any way to get motorcycles on the ferry?

    1. Yes for a small Motorbike.
      But....i dont nos how you can cross Rivers And mud with that.
      If you wanna try..... Os últimos tô you. Isso know a friend that Made It with a Honda Bis, The First people to Cross with Motorbike....