North Patagonia: Argentina lakes

Published on 10 March 2020 at 10:00

Our plan had long been to leave the Carretera Austral at Villa Santa Lucia and visit Argentina for the third time. The area around El Bolsón and Bariloche must be very beautiful, with dozens of lakes. The last idea, however, is not to return to Chile, but to continue to follow the Andes on the Argentinian side: first towards Mendoza and then on to Salta on the way to Bolivia. The Chilean alternative to cycle north, both along the coast and more inland to Santiago, is described by many cyclists as "boring". We'll see how long this new plan lasts, but for now it seems best.


A small practical point arises here: we still have a lot of Chilean pesos and we know that exchanging costs money. Partly for this reason we decide to stay another day in the nice village of Futaleufú (and on the very crowded nice little campsite) and do something we have never done before: rafting. The Futaleufú river is said to be the second best rafting river in the world! We decide to experience it and book the extensive route, which means that we will have to fight the rough water for more than three hours. The weather is beautiful, nice and warm and no cloud in the sky. Rain is predicted for the night, but there is no sign of that yet. Early in the afternoon we are taken to Rio Azul, a tributary of the Futaleufú river, where we hoist ourselves in wetsuits and receive extensive instructions and exercises. The organization is very professional and through all the exercises, but also because of the number of supervisors and paddling lifeboats, we realize that this is not going to be just a quiet and harmless boat trip. What follows is indeed an unforgettable, crazy adventure! Great and powerful rapids, from class 4 and 5 (which is meaningless to us) and with the appealing names such as "The Terminator", "Shark" and "Puma" make our hearts beat faster and make us scream with pleasure. Of course we sat right in the front, knowing that you are most assured of a big splash at this spot. Gradually, however, the weather changes radically: the wind is blowing hard (of course from the west, the direction to which we are pedaling), the sun disappears and the temperature plummets. We finally get ice cold, start chattering and shaking, and of course Harry's fingers are again white and completely numb. A pity, because it temperes somewhat the pleasure that the last rapids could have brought us. We are overjoyed if we reach the end point, put on dry clothes and have a hot tea.



Around nine o'clock in the evening we return to the campsite, where the Chilean youngsters are getting ready for another night of partying at a festival site (luckily a few kilometers away). One of those young people makes himself immortal when he introduces himself to us: "I am a walking supermarket, I have cigarets, whiskey, marijuana and XTC for you my friends". We thank him for the spontaneous offer, decline and when we crawl into the tent after a quick pasta, the "walking supermarket" has taken off to the festival grounds. With the uplifting sounds of a band, apparently best known in Chile, we fall deeply asleep and finally the last remnant of the Futaleufú River drips from Harry's ear.


The next day we cycle to the border with Argentina, but first we say goodbye to the now "horizontal supermarket" which, it seems, has consumed tho bottles of whiskey of his own goods. Before we leave Futaleufú we buy a few things in the local supermarket with the Chilean money. Ultimately, we still have four notes of 20,000 (almost € 90 in total) to exchange somewhere. The road to the border is - again - neatly paved and the road from the border on the Argentinian side is - again - a lousy gravel road as we have seen before.

It's not that easy to cross the border here. It takes us half an hour to get out of Chile and an hour and a half to get into Argentina. Outside the Argentinian customs office there are two queues, one with people who want to leave Argentina and ours with people who want to get into the country. The two queues must pass through the same narrow door. It is cold and windy and you are waiting here completely unprotected. We have long been happy that it is not raining or super hot. It is frustrating to see that the queue of "departers" is helped much faster than the queue of "entrants". When we finally get into the small office, we see that three counters are open for the departers and only one for the visitors. Pfff, what a hassle for a stamp; only for this reason is it a good idea not to hop between these two countries all the time.


This sign, like here on the border, is found everywhere in Argentina


Because of all this waiting and because of the extremely poor gravel road on the Argentinian side, which ensures that we hardly get along, we quickly adjust our goal: not 90 km today but 45 and that brings us to the town of Trevelin. Just after us, Richard and Janet from England arrive. They were also at the same campsite in Futaleufú and we spoke briefly with them and now we have the opportunity to talk a little longer. Richard admires our bikes but declares us crazy that we have a heavy lock and a kickstand. We admire Richard because he has all the luggage on the bike today. Janet wasn't feeling well. His bike is extremely heavy. While Richard proclaims himself the day winner, Janet laughs at him because he is actually the biggest loser with all that weight.


Fortunately in real life not so steep (find our 'tag')


The next day we jump on the bike around noon after another long chat with Richard and Janet. We cycle into the National Park Los Armarces on delicious and highly valued asphalt. Just before the entrance gate we see a small shop where bread, cheese and salami are sold. We have taken enough food, but Roelie cannot resist the temptation to take a look inside and comes out with fresh white bread and a soft salami. That tastes better than the long lasting factory bread with long lasting ultra-young plastic cheese that we have with us. In the park the asphalt makes way for loose gravel again, but fortunately not of the worst kind, so that we can also look around us. Among the high, mighty peaks, the colors green and blue dominate, respectively from the dense wooded slopes and the large lakes in between.


The first lake is coming up


Now that we have left the Carretera Austral behind, we hardly encounter any cyclists, but when we take a steep path down (that will be pushed tomorrow morning) to the campsite we have chosen, we see a well-known tent and a well-known bicycle. It is Daniel from Spain who we have met three times before in recent weeks. The meeting is cordial and is celebrated with a bottle of beer from Daniel and a package of wine from us. Together we cook a one-pan dishes: Daniel pasta, we pasta. Daniel writes books and hopes to sell around 100 on the street in El Bolsón and / or Bariloche for the financing of his further adventure. He has a huge beard that probably goes off in Bariloche. On his website he is without a picture: unrecognizable!

The next day we take it easy, or should we say Harry. We have time, because today we will cycle no further than the next village of Cholila, which is 45 kilometers away. However, the road there promises to be tough, with quite a few altimeters and only gravel. Anyway, we don't have to leave before noon. Harry breaks down the tent and starts working on this blog and Roelie goes for a nice, short walk to get some more of the beauty that this national park offers.


A few snapshots of Roelie's hike


Around 1 pm we also jump on our bikes and we are so proud that we manage to overcome the enormously steep trail that offers us 50 extra altimeters, without having to walk. We will cover the 45 kilometers to Cholila in about four hours, so yes it was pretty tough. Cholila is a town of nothing, but has a central roundabout of an idiotic size, to which many a metropolis can be jealous, but where you can also shoot a cannon without hitting anyone. The village is also known for - again - Butch Cassidy, the notorious American outlaw who lived in a small ranch nearby, if he wasn't robbing a bank somewhere. A mini museum keeps his history alive. We cycle to a hostel where you could also camp in the garden. Fortunately we find out on time that you are not allowed to use the facilities that the hostel offers. Our gas can is almost empty and we like to use the cozy kitchen. The fact that a private room costs hardly more than a tent in the garden makes us decide to keep the tent packed.


Cholila means the end of gravel for the time being and to thank our bikes for the loyal service we give them a nice cool rinse in the morning sun at the hostel. When we put Harry's bike out of the puddles for drying, something very strange happens. The kick-stand is just about straight down and the bike falls over. If we put the bike up, we are shocked. A crack can be seen in the frame just above the standard. That is not possible! The frame is made of titanium and the most important characteristic of titanium is that it is very strong. It is simply not possible, but there really is a crack in it. We are basically ready to leave but we don't dare. The crack should not be broken, because then the bicycle will be useless. Plan A is to find a welder in Cholila. That plan can almost immediately be thrown away, because titanium welding requires specialist craftsmanship and in this village they mainly understand how to forge horseshoes. Plan B is to find a (titanium) welder in El Bolsón, a hip town at 80 kilometers with several bike shops and, moreover, a pleasant place to linger for a few days if you have to. If plan B is unsuccessful then plan C will find a welder in the large city of Bariloche another 120 km away.


Acute stomachache 


There seems to be a bus in the afternoon, but it does not run to El Bolsón but to a village further from where buses do go to El Bolsón. Whether the bicycles can come along is not very likely. Half an hour later we are therefore on the exit road of Cholila with our thumbs up in the hope of hitchhiking to El Bolsón. That works wonderfully well for us. After half an hour when hardly any traffic passes by, Carlos stops his pick-up truck and takes us to the busier Ruta 40. Along the way he proudly tells that in the year 2000 his Hospedaja was hosted by Willem Alexander and then his girlfriend Maxima (king and queen of The Netherlands).


Hitch-hiking without kick stand


Once dropped on the Ruta 40 we choose to hike the bikes in the direction of the next village and to keep our thumbs up when passing pick-up trucks. In this way we also make it clear that we are unlucky not to cycle and not that we no longer feel like it, possibly that this will convince someone to stop faster. And indeed we are offered a lift again quite quickly. The driver has to go to Puelo, a village about 10 kilometers below El Bolsón. We like to go with him, if necessary we walk the last 10. At a crossroads the man tells us that it is the turn to Puelo while he drives on. What an angel, he drives around for us and drops us off in the heart of El Bolsón. Incidentally, the route is breathtakingly beautiful and what would we have liked to cycle this stretch ...


Mr. 'Lotto', who just drove 20 km, to take us to El Bolsón


El Bolsón is (or was) known as a hippie town. It appears that the hospitality industry is at least booming. We will leave that for what it is and we will immediately start looking for the three bicycle shops in the center. Unfortunately they are closed due to the daily siesta and only open again at the end of the afternoon. There is nothing else to do but to bridge the time by visiting a Cervezeria and using the available WiFi to review the plans. If we think about it again, we expect that no titanium welder will be found in El Bolsón either. If someone claims to be able to do it, he is probably high and / or drunk, because in addition to walking, that is just about the daily routine here and not so much titanium welding. We have since heard that there are two skilled welders in Bariloche, whether they can weld titanium remains the question for the time being. Instead of walking back to the bike shops, we walk to the bus station with the idea to travel directly to the big city. Unfortunately there is no place on the bus. It is the last Friday of the summer vacation and many holidaymakers have to return home and that means peak crowds. We buy the last two tickets for the bus for tomorrow and check in at a huge campsite. There are many small tents with young people scattered around the site and we realize that camping in Chile and Argentina is very popular among young people. There are many campsites in this part of the country. If we go further north and cycle outside the high season, it will certainly be different.


The bus trip to Bariloche is another one that we would have preferred to cycle, the route is in any case very beautiful. The first impression of Bariloche is not good: messy, dusty, faded and poor. We have an apartment on the edge of the center in the transition zone to the chic shopping street. A greater contrast with the rest of the city is almost impossible: Swiss-style wooden buildings and a succession of luxury chocolates, designer clothing stores, sports / outdoor shops and hotels.

The next day we visit Lucas from #cyclingpatagonia, a bicycle rental company for long trips. We have been in contact with Lucas via Instagram since Ushuaia and he has already done a lot for us, in particular by making his address available for the new parts of our tent. It appears that the Argentinian customs have done extremely difficult and wanted to levy import duties. Lucas has put a stop to that. More importantly, Michel, Lucas' brother, knows a welder who can weld titanium. The man is already old, has no telephone or internet and works at home in an old garage. We actually don't believe he can do the job. The night before we had contact with the other skilled welder who was tipped off by a Colombian cyclist from the whatsapp group "biking to patagonia activ". This welder indicates that he cannot weld the crack and that there is no titanium for the weld in Bariloche. He advises to weld a stainless steel casing around it.

Michel knows how to convince us and tells us that "his man" has already helped him once with a titanium welding job. He brings us and Harry's bike to the welder's address, hoping that he will be home. It is Saturday and the welder doesn't work at the weekend. "If not, we will drive this way again later in the day to see if he is at home", says Michel, who is no longer the norm for Europeans. But luckily we meet the man in his garden. His name is Roberto Hansel, who was originally a Dane and lives almost all his life in Argentina. Just like his garage, he is indeed a bit old, but somehow he radiates a craftsmanship that gives us the confidence that this welder may well work out. The job is discussed and it is agreed that we bring the bike to him on Monday morning and then pick it up again in the evening. Michel offers to free the bicycle for us around the welding area from everything that should not be exposed to the heat. How lucky that we met these two wonderfully helpful brothers Lucas and Michel!


Michel and Lucas


In the afternoon we take it easy and buy a card and a new pair of sunglasses for Roelie. The sunglasses that we bought in Punta Arenas in a souvenir shop for just € 2 appear to be resistant to daily use. We also limit our activities to an afternoon of "hanging out" with a few new episodes of "Peaky Blinders" on Netflix.


On the Sunday morning Harry unfolds the newly purchased map of the Ruta 40, with its nearly 5200 kilometers one of the longest roads in the world. With the help of the iOverlander, and Komoot apps and this "good old" paper map, he maps out the further route to Mendoza. The tour will take at least three weeks. Harry would like to present his findings and choices to Roelie, but is looking for something to indicate the route and possible camping spots on the map. He soon finds nothing and Roelie proposes to tear off an arm from her old cheap sunglasses. Good idea and Harry breaks the arm and throws the rest of the sunnies in the bin. Only later in the day, when we want to go out to watch the "IronMan" sporting event in the center and Harry is looking for his sunglasses, Harry finds out that he has taken off an arm of his own (still great) sunglasses. The dismay quickly gives way to hilarity, which, strangely enough, continues for two more days giggling at Roelie.


And then Monday comes, the day that Harry's bike has to go under surgery and, like his owner when he had his heart surgery, it will leave an unmissable scar on the otherwise smooth skin. Michel brings us back to Mr. Hansel. In the garage he has already prepared his high-quality surgical equipment. What Harry forgot to say to his surgeon before the anesthesia, he now whispers to Hansel: "you are my savior!" Hansel feels clearly flattered and gives a quote (something of € 60) and the expected duration (half a day) of the operation. Both are great. When we drive back Michel says that Hansel has a weakness for Europeans: “because if I bring something to weld, I am always told that I have to come by again at the end of the week to see if Mr. Hansel has found time to do the job ”. Indeed, a few hours later we can jump into Michel's car and pick up the bike, Michel is again provided with his configuration and the rest of the day is dominated by the journey: new provisions, new tires on the cycling, new sense to continue cycling and oh yes, a new pair of sunglasses for Harry!


Mr Hansel, the savior / welder


The sun is shining brightly and with new sunglasses on our nose we cycle up the Ruta 40 to the north. The coming part of the Ruta 40 is called the Ruta Los 7 Lagos; that predicts something beautiful! The first stage takes us to the other side of the large and wide-branched lake, with the beautiful name Nahuel Huapi, to the village of Villa La Angostura. It is a short distance as the crow flies, but almost 90 kilometers by road. According to Lucas, we could take a ferry, but that is not what we want: the weather is so beautiful and the legs must be urgently activated again. We first cycle east to get to the end of the lake. It is striking how different the landscape is further to the dry east: bare and indeed dry. If we turn to the west and cycle into the (higher) Andes again, we are quickly surrounded by greenery. At a certain moment we can see Bariloche, covered with a layer of smog, on the other side again. Goodbye Bariloche!


Goodbye Bariloche!


A few kilometers before the village of Villa La Angostura we see huge expensive resorts and other tourist accommodations that all give a completely extinct impression. The restaurants and shops along the road are also all closed. It is Tuesday and yesterday the schools started again. Would the tourist season end here so strictly? The answer is no, because when we cycle into the village it suddenly teems with people and the cozy bars and cafes. Here too we see many wooden buildings that we call Swiss style, or German, because the Germans (who came here in large numbers around Bariloche after WWII) may have introduced it. The campsite is located 1.5 kilometers after all that liveliness on the edge of the village.
We get a spacious place with a bbq and picnic table and when we are in the supermarket we realise that we would like to use that bbq. We buy a steak, a few hamburgers, hamburger buns and charcoal. The latter with the unforgettable words of Roelie: "una boleta carbon, por favor". The checkout lady looks at us strangely, but sees that we are pointing at the bags at the exit. She bursts out laughing and we quickly correct ourselves: una bolsa carbon. Oh well, a ticket (boleta) or a bag (bolsa), isn't that almost the same? Ahum, more Spanish lessons ...
What follows is a delicious feast, which we once again end up as a couple of scouts with a nice fire. If we crawl into our tent around ten, we will have neighbors. That has happened so often, it remains questionable how late people arrive at a campsite in Chile and Argentina. We have no idea whether our neighbors have taken it easy because we fall asleep like quickly. When we wake up in the morning we see that the neighborhoods have also used their bbq, which is two meters from our tent. We have the experience that barbecuing with the Chileans and Argentines is not a silent happening, but we have not noticed it!


Lago Espejo, Mirror Lake, lives up to its name


The new stage brings us a lot of beautiful things and therefore especially many lakes: Lago Espejo, Lago Correntoso, Lago Escondido, Lago Villarino and Lago Falkner, where we want to pitch our tent. We do not expect much from the campsite there, although we have read that a new toilet block was built a few years ago. But when we arrive at the campsite we are greeted by the wonderful sounds of Bob Marley and the reception is also a small shop (a Proveedurio they call it here) that sells delicious cold beers. While Bob is playing “I am jamming” we settle down on a terrace and ENJOY. After the beer we earned, we pitch our tent, this time with a stunning view. The high season is over and we have the world, well okay the campsite, (almost) for ourselves. When it gets dark… yep, a couple sets up a tent next to us, but again we are not bothered by that. In the morning we buy a loaf of bread at the proveeedurio and pay a "gringo price" for it, because we have the idea that the Argentines before us had to pay half for the same bread. But yes, complaining in Spanish is still a bridge too far for us and we would rather have that sandwich for breakfast than the muesli-milk powder back-up.


Camping with a view


And then on to the beautiful Ruta de Los 7 Lagos. We climb a few times until we see the seventh and therefore the last lake in the depth, Lago Huenchulafquen. The descent is one to remember because it goes down continuously. We don't have to pedal and we don't have to brake until we end up on the shore of the lake. Via the tourist town of San Martin de los Andes on the lake we cycle to the less attractive Junin de los Andes. When we leave San Martin, the landscape becomes barren and drier, but at a certain moment we notice a gigantic volcano in the west, the 3,750 meter high Lanín. It is almost perfectly conical and thickly covered with eternal snow. The distance to the volcano is large and it almost looks as if someone has painted a giant volcano in the background of the existing landscape.


"Harry, that sign!" "Which sign?"


This morning we take it easy because we only have 60 kilometers ahead. After Junin we leave the Ruta 40 and turn left onto the Ruta 23. We have decided to continue cycling through the Andes as much as possible and not over the Ruta 40 that runs parallel to the east of the Andes. This means more climbing and gravel. Harry is a bit nervous, because gravel means washboards and washboards mean a lot of bumps and he fears the weld. Fortunately, señor Hansel has done a good job, because the weld is fine. What also helps is that the gravel road is to a large extent equipped with brand new asphalt. Today we have a big climb on the program and on top of the summit we meet the only cyclist of today. A Canadian guy from Quebec started 18 months ago from his home town with the aim of Ushuaia. We keep talking for fifteen minutes and, as always, a lot of information is exchanged. He started today in Aluminé and his goal is Junin, which is about 110 kilometers with gravel and a lot of altitude meters, at least from our direction. We are impressed because we have labeled that distance as too large. A large part of the descent has also recently been provided with asphalt and we look forward to a wonderful descent. Unfortunately, the wind is stopping that and we still have to work hard before we find a place for free camping. Ah, the Canadian has had a nice push! We filter a few liters of water from the river and wash the dust off our legs. Unfortunately, the shore is not suitable for splashing in the water and on the other side a few fly-fishermen are staring at us, so let's just leave it at that. Tomorrow another hot shower at a campsite!
That route along the river Aluminé, through a gorge to the town of the same name, is again incredibly beautiful, but it is tough: it only goes up, whereby short descents ensure that we can climb more again. According to Lucas from Bariloche, Aluminé should be a nice little town, but we don't agree with that. With difficulty we find a "super" market that is open in the afternoon and then cycle back to the campsite a few kilometers below the town. The campsite is large and has huge camping spots. But as said, the high season is over and there is hardly anyone. Again we can choose a beautiful place, while we cannot see any other campers around us. And this time ... no no neighbors appearing after sunset.


Araucaria trees that grows everywhere here


Yesterday we decided to leave the Ruta 23 and cycle further into the Andes over the Ruta 11. This Ruta 11 brings us to the last Argentinian lakes that feature this blog. The gravel of the Ruta 11 is a lot worse than that of the Ruta 23, but the surroundings are sooo beautiful again! We cycle all day along a small river that literally brings life and greenery to this area. Many places lend themselves to wild camping, but we have set our sights on a campsite at Lago Norquinco. The last 20 kilometers we are again quite opposed by the, still dominant, westerly wind. When we stop to fill the bottles, someone stops asking if we need anything. Chileans and Argentines do not do that spontaneously, at least we have not experienced that yet. The driver is not Chilean or Argentinian, but none other than Gunther Holtorf from Germany. Who? Yes, Mr. Holtorf is a real Guinness World Record holder: he drove around the world between 1988 and 2014 with his Mercedes-Benz G-wagon, nicknamed Otto, and visited 180 countries. He then continued to travel with Otto2. He shows us a map of the world with his route and - as far as we can see - he has not (yet) visited Chad and Somalia. Gunther, now 82 years old, loves a chat and we are talking to him for half an hour next to his Mercedes. Great guy!
Our campsite on Lago Norquino is, so far, the nicest we have visited in South America. A large site with excellent and fast WiFi everywhere, a modern (and clean!) toilet block, a common room with cold beers and youtube on a flat screen, and the entire campsite for us alone, because we are the only guests. Perhaps partly because of that we are pampered by Sonja, the hostess. When we have picked out the nicest spot, she comes to bring us chairs (from the Dutch brand Heineken!) and a table, and when Roelie drops the pan of macaroni to the floor later in the common room, she is already ready with the mop...


Todo solo @ camping 'Sonja'


Our satisfaction with the choice to ride the Ruta 11 is put to the test the next day. The road is getting worse and old washboards have apparently been tried to cover up on long sections with a new layer of gravel and pebble with an extremely lousy result. It is not possible to cycle at a "speed" higher than 7 km / h. As a cyclist you can put a considerable headwind to the test mentally, but this "road" certainly does! If we count the height centimeters over the washboards, we have today at least climbed the height of the volcano Lanín. Sixty kilometers further and six hours later we arrive exhausted, sweaty and dusty at a campsite on Lago Aluminé. It is the last lake and we are now at 39th latitude and have thus officially left Patagonia. So it's time to finish this blog and also see if we can make a video about Patagonia.


When it was all better with the washboards on the Ruta 11


In the virtually untouched landscape of the Patagonian Andes, fjords, sharply pointed mountains, glaciers, rivers and lakes compete for which is the most beautiful or which impresses us the most. It is the most impressive region of our world trip so far. We have cursed the wind, met many cyclists, camped beautifully and ENJOYED. Thank you Patagonia!