South Patagonia: wind, pampas, mountains and glaciers

Published on February 9, 2020 at 10:00 AM

In this blog we describe our journey northwards from the most southern city of Chile, Punta Arenas, to the most southern place on the famous Carretera Austral, Villa O’Higgens. Between the Chilean city and the Chilean hamlet, we cycle through Argentina again.

 

 

We stay a few days in Punta Arenas. Some things need to be bought: Harry has been torn from his (zip off) pants and has to say goodbye with pain in his heart. The pants, his only one, have served him daily throughout the journey for one and a half year so far, in good and in bad times. So it's time for a new one and after purchasing a real 'the north face' Harry immediately misses his cheap but excellent Decathlon oldie. Furthermore, a new pair of sunglasses for Roelie (lost) and a windshield for our stew (too much wind here) must be purchased and new sim cards. We plan our route to Puerto Natales, which we expect to reach in three stages. The area promises zero highlights, it is no man's land and it is flat, bare and boring. Furthermore, it is a matter of waiting for the weather to improve slightly, but especially waiting for Roelie to feel better again. Probably due to cycling against the strong wind, a cold sore developed and "occupies" her entire lower lip. The lip is looking very ugly and because of the virus she feels a little ill. When we are just about ready to leave, the weather report comes in: storm and rain from the northwest (exactly the direction we are heading) for the coming days. In view of the tour that we want to make through the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Harry knows to convince Roelie to travel to Puerto Natales by bus. Yes, we know, we ended our previous blog with the promise to cycle more, and yet another bus, but we definitely will get to cycle more (less is not possible, hahaha). We now know that we can endure quite a bit, but our motto is that "it should be a least a little bit of fun". And waiting for better weather conditions here just costs time and may take a long. The wind and rain is quite common around here.

 

The bus with us and the bikes in it, reaches Puerto Natales in just over three hours. Along the way we see five cyclists who all cycle in the right direction, meaning with the wind in the back. If we had seen a cyclist who was so tough (or crazy) to crash into the storm, we would have felt guilty.


Puerto Natales is a cozy town with many tourists and there is a nice vibe. The tourists here are almost all backpackers and hikers. Puerto Natales is the starting point to visit the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, which is also on our wish list. We are planning a five-day trip through the area; three cycling days and two walking days. The campsites in the park must be booked in advance and you also have to pay an entrance fee to visit the park. There are hotels but they are fairly basic and wailing. Incidentally, the campsites also dare to ask for the multiple of what is customary here; the prices can be compared to top European campsites and have a level of facilities for camping at a farmer. Here and there food is also available in the form of a pizza point or sandwich, but they also dare to ask Michelin-star-worthy prices for it.

 

We buy supplies for seven days: muesli, milk powder, lemonade powder, coffee, tea, pasta, tuna, salami sausage, onion, carrot, muesli bars, apples, bread, snickers, etc. And to the frequently asked question in response to our message about this on Facebook: indeed no (crate) beer, (packing) wine or (bottle) whiskey.

 

 

Full of good spirits and courage we jump on the bike for the first stage that has to take us to a campsite on the border of the National Park, just 85 km away. The weather reports seem to contradict each other for the mountainous area. One predicts only wind, heavy clouds and rain for the next five days, the other also shows a bit of sun and indicates that it will not be too bad when it comes to the amount of rain. Of course the wind is stormy again from the opposite direction, but we expected that. What worries us is the dark gray to ink-black sky above the area to which we cycle. Once we cycle to the park on the gravel road it starts raining hard. The increasing wind ensures that we are "showered horizontally". There is no where to hide and twice we try to squat a little drier or sit under a bush. The road turns into a brown, creamy mass with lots of mud puddles. The speeding traffic repeatedly provides us with a mud bath as they drive through such a puddle. It is a lousy cycling day and soon we know that we will not achieve our goal of today. After 55 km, it's almost 7 pm, we decide to go wild camping at a waterfall. A beautiful location, if the weather would have been a little nicer. We look for a place that at least gives us some shelter from the wind, we pitch our tent in the rain, cook a pot in the rain and go to sleep quickly with the sound of the rain on out tent.

 

 

Early in the morning, when we wake up, it rains harder but it seems to be less windy. We decide to wait until it gets drier and fall asleep again. At nine we wake up again and have slept more than around the clock. It is still raining and we wait another hour. The result: it keeps raining and the wind is blowing as hard as usual. In the rain we make a pot of coffee and in the rain we break down our soaked tent. This is no fun! Anyway, yesterday's planned campsite is only 30 km away; if the weather does not improve, we will stop there and have to cancel one day walk because otherwise we will arrive to late at the campsite we reserved. Reservation of most of the campsites in the park is necessary and can only be done online, while there is no cell reception in the park.

 
Once on the bike, the strong wind swells into a real storm. After three kilometers we are already soaking wet and numb as we see a small shelter at a T-junction where we can hide, waiting for an improvement in the weather. It is not completely dry inside because most of the windows on the western side are missing. The storm continue and after three hours of waiting in our wet cloths, we are getting colder and colder whilst considering all options. We decide to give up our plan to cycle (and walk) through Torres del Paine. The beautiful mountains of Torres del Paine are all completely concealed by a thick gray cloud cover and will probably stay covered for the next few days... Almost depressed we turn east in the direction of Cerro Castillo, a small border village just before the Argentinian border. The wind is unexpectedly a nice tailwind and at some point it even stops raining, although the dark gray rain area continues to follow us and the Torres del Paine remain enveloped in dark clouds.

 

 

When we reach Cerro Castillo (which is protected by meters high windshields) someone gives us a brochure: aha, there's a fiesta in Cerro Castillo. It is Friday and from tonight to Sunday there is a rodeo. We first to go to the local hospedaje / hostel which of course is fully booked due to the rodeo. The lady of the hostel refers us to the bus station, where you can apparently pitch your tent. We check the app "iOverlander" and the bus station is indeed classified as a possible shelter for cyclists from wind and rain. When we arrive there (it's a really smaal town, so it's just around the corner) we see two cyclists standing there. They are Swiss and also cycle north. They hope to reach Central America in 6 months. They tell us that camping is not allowed this weekend at the bus station, because of the rodeo that is about to start 20 meters away. Through "iOverlander" we find someone in the village who allows cyclists to camp in her garden. And for a small payment (€ 2) we can even use the toilet, shower and kitchen in her house. We all go there and find out that she lives in the next house! Maritza, the lady in question shows up quickly and yes, we can camp in her garden. However, we are not the only ones, because we see several tents, campers, caravans and a few horses. Oh yes of course, the rodeo! Maritza indicates that more campers will arrive. We pitch our tent and, knowing that there will not be a shower, we walk to the rodeo terrain in cycling clothing. The area is build up quite nice: a few eateries, a cheerful audience, a lot of gauchos and some folkloric dance groups. The Swiss then leave us to go and eat at the chic hotel in the village. We stick to cheap sausage rolls from one of the food stalls. Around 10 o'clock at dusk, the dance groups are ending the show and the opening of the rodeo seems to have ended. We decide to walk back to our tent (about 50 meters as the crow flies) and find it strange that more people are arriving at the rodeo site. And when we crawl into our tent, we understand why, because by then the party really starts and we are treated with a variety of loud music and singers. And here of course no rules of "at midnight music off", here they continue to perform well until 4 am, after which the cheerful audience enjoy a good afterparty at their tents all over the village, and also in the garden of Maritza.

 

 

After a few hours of sleep we get up and see that the Swiss are already gone. We follow their example and pack the (dry!) ‚Äč‚Äčtent. At a small shop we eat a cheeseburger and ham empenada for breakfast and we drink a surprisingly good cappuccino from a vending machine. It is storming hard and we have heard that it will continue to storm today and tomorrow. But: today we will largely cycle in the right direction, namely towards the northeast!


When we report to the Chilean customs office we receive a form to be filled in. The form says "welcome to Chile" in Spanish and English. We try to explain to the official that we are leaving Chile, but he is not really listening and gesturing that we really have to fill in the form. First question: what is your residence address in Chile? Harry approaches the civil servant again and this time he listens. He apologizes and says that he was misled because he saw our bikes ... "Huh, why?" "Yes, they are parked on the Argentinian side of the wall!" Hahaha, how funny! Incidentally, that "Argentinian side" is still just Chilean land ownership, because we first have to climb a few kilometers before we reach the border on top of the hill.

 

For a moment while climbing that hill even the towers of the Torres del Paine can be seen behind us in the distance. Shortly thereafter the clouds embrace the towers again and the clouds develop into a gloomy dark thick mess. But that is there and we are here at a border crossing. Just like the previous border passage between Argentina and Chile, the road on the Argentinian side is simply lousy with mud, dust, boulders and coarse gravel, while the road on the Chilean side is close to perfect. We check in at the Argentinian customs and struggle a bit on the gravel road, before we wind around 40 kilometers on the asphalt with the wind in our back and the sun shines on us. Oh how beautiful is this!

 

Chilean road to the border

the Argentina version of the same road

 

We know we have to turn left at a tiny petrol station to take a shortcut to the town of El Calafate. This shortcut is a rough gravel road and drivers with a normal car are strongly advised against driving it. Before we turn off, we buy water at the petrol station and meet the Swiss cyclists again. We decide to follow their example and to make a sandwich inside (out of the wind). The windows of the gas station are completely filled with stickers of motorcyclists in particular who drive the ruta 40, the Argentinian counterpart of the famous American route 66. Of course we stick our sticker in between. The Swiss will take the same gravel road, but their final goal for today is about 20 kilometers further than ours. When they leave, we will probably say goodbye for the last time: their timetable is rather ambitious and their intended daily stages consequently longer than ours.


We stay around for a while before we start the gravel road to have lunch and to use the WiFi; an hour later we also start the last 50 kilometers of the day. What follows is a new cycling experience for us: we are pushed forward by the stormy wind! The "only" thing we need to do is keep track in the treacherous loose and coarse gravel and repeatedly hit the brakes. Pedaling is (almost) not necessary, even if it sometimes goes uphill! Not completely harmless and even Harry is putting on his helmet again. As said; never experienced before. Just before our intended place to spend the night we bend to the north and get the storm full in the flank that repeatedly makes us end up on the roadside and get off the bike on a slight slope. That shows what tomorrow will bring if we will cycle 35 kilometers in this direction (and then more than 50 full headwind). But Harry says: "One day cycling with tail wind covers my mental resistance for several days of a headwind."

 

 

And what is our intended overnight place? A police station! Well, in fact an abandoned police station in the middle of nowhere. Via iOverlander we know that this place is a true mecca for cyclists who cycle to the south or to the north. We are curious! If it is a bad ruin with dust, traces of 'toilet' use and other junk, then we - just like the Swiss - also cycle 20 kilometers further to the end of the gravel road, where you seem to be allowed to camp at a road worker building.


But the police station is not a ruin: the walls are still standing, the windows are almost all intact and the roof is still on top. And on the floor ..., lies a hardwooden floor. And on the walls ..., there are names, stories, drawings, Instagram accounts, you name it of cyclists who spent the night here. Great to see! Also on a wall are the "house rules" and a floor plan where every room has been given a nice name as if you were staying in a resort. Furthermore, no luxury of course, there is no water, toilet or other facilities. For water you go to the nearby river (do filter and boil, because we see two Alpaca carcasses half in the water) and for the toilet you dig a hole further down. We set up our inner tent in a room named the "river view suite". We naturally place our own "tag" in this room. Although we have read that sometimes five or more cyclists are finding shelter here at the same time, we are and remain the only ones. When we go to bed after dinner, Harry knows that he is wondering how to explain to his mother that he spent a night at a police station.

 

 

The next morning we are flying another 20 kilometers over the same gravel road thanks to the wind from behind. We replenish water at the road workers' office (where the Swiss camped) and then we back to the - for north bounders usual headwind. Very slowly, however, the wind is decreasing. We hardly dare to share this phenomenon with each other, because of the often proven superstition or rule "you shouldn't have said that!". The sun is shining, everywhere groups of alpacas, here and there a "nandu" (a large rat or ostrich, it depends on how you look at it) and we are having a great time. We realize that we have already spotted a lot of wildlife in South America. We already saw several condors floating high in the sky and groups of flamingos stood in several shallow puddles. On the side of the road, a "Pichi", the Patagonian armadillo, and a second crossed the road hesitantly as a truck crashed and barely brought his armored body across. Several times we saw a beige colored and always hungry fox that is called the "Zorro" here.

 

 

It is unprecedentedly clear and the view to the snow-capped peaks of the mountains in the west must certainly be over 100 kilometers. Reverting and enjoying, we slowly feel the wind pick up again. We are getting closer to "the curve", the place where the westerly wind will turn against us. Arriving at the curve, the wind is unfortunately again at full Patagonian strength, or simply downright stormy. Just after - we climbed almost unnoticed to a height of almost 800 meters - we are treated to a fantastic view over a valley with a meandering turquoise river that flows from a huge lake of the same color and behind it a breathtaking horizon of a long series of snowy and rough-pointed mountain tops. We descend to the valley and yell at each other above the wind that this may be the descent with the best view to date. Of course we don't understand each other with that screaming wind around our ears. After the descent we fight against the wind and after ten kilometers we stop at a river, actually the intended camping spot for today. It looks pretty okay, you can even pitch your tent under the bridge, but it is only half past three and we think it is too early to stop cycling and "to call it a day". It is another 40 km to El Calafate, a tourist town with all amenities. "What was our speed in the past ten kilometers?", asks Roelie. "Around 10 km / h", Harry's answer is. Okay, so we can get a hot shower in four hours and with that in mind we'll get back on the bikes again. After a few kilometers we have to conclude that 40 kilometers is very far if we keep up the pace at which we are currently stomping through the wind: 6 to 8 km / h. The idea is to keep on cycling and if we are overtaken by vans and pick-up trucks to give a  thumb up asking and hoping for a ride to town. It is hilarious to see that the drivers, without exception, think that we are giving them a thumbs up for the space they give us when passing. People are happily honking and waving, and therefore unfortunately nobody stops, nobody offers a lift. With 20 km to go, we leave that worthless and misunderstood thumb behind and with the view of the finish we just want to reach El Calafate by bike. The legs indicate that we are already doing 40 kilometers with a mass sprint, time trial or Alpine stage, but we are persistent. And so we arrive more than five hours later, it is after half past eight in the town and stop at a brewery for a beer and a well-earned hamburger. Instead of camping, we allow ourselves a roof over our heads and we check in at an affordable apartment that is well outside the center. What strikes us is that by ten o'clock the wind has gone to rest. Good plan. We will do the same: lie down and sleep. But first take a shower and wash the scented armpits, the mud from four days ago and the dust of the gravel road yesterday off us.

 

To the west of El Calafate is the Perito Moreno glacier. That is actually the only reason for us to cycle to El Calafate. The town itself is what you could call a tourist trap (lots of tourists and everything is expensive) with a strikingly high number of stray dogs, which makes the weather somewhat authentic. We visit the glacier on the day of rest. Booking it takes almost as much time as the 80-kilometer drive itself: checking passports and typing, filling in forms and a long pile of ticking on the computer with a long explanation of the printed tickets. Those tickets are idle and the bus very old. Anyway, that is quickly forgotten when we finally stand at the foot of the glacier. It is overwhelmingly beautiful! We have seen quite a lot by now, also a lot of glaciers, but this one is of unparalleled beauty and exudes serenity, power, eternity and at the same time finitude. The glacier wall at the end is a massive wall of ice that is 5 kilometers wide and 50 to 70 meters high. Behind it an unprecedented rough glacier tongue that squeaks and sighs. We walk past all this beauty, but eventually we sit down on a bench and absorb all this beauty for more than an hour. We are silent ...

 

 

Eventually we have to get on the bus again and are confronted with how things sometimes go or don't go in Argentina. Waiting takes up a large part of daily life here. Even now the driver does not want to drive away, after an hour of waiting we understand that he found it strange that a seat remained vacant. Eventually we drive away with a seat still unoccupied. Two minutes later, another passenger enters a junction. The ride with this bus takes longer than average, because this oldie has difficulty with slopes from an average ascent rate. On a single slope, after a few unsuccessful attempts to get up, the driver must roll the bus all the way back down to make a new approach. On the way down the driver practices the incline test several times in vain. When the bus finally reaches the top, there is a loud applause among the passengers; hilarious!

 

The next day we start the stretch to El Chaltén, a town that is just 220 kilometers away. We hope to bridge this piece in two days. Of those 220 kilometers, we are allowed to cycle 32 kilometers back on the same road and that means wind now! The remaining kilometers we will have to fight again with the strong to stormy wind, which first comes from diagonally and wants to blow us into the roadside and the last 90 kilometers will be against us. At the end of the "piece of the wind" we catch up with two French young ladies. They are working on their first stage on the South American continent and are also cycling north. In this way we look a bit fragile and inexperienced and when we hit the wind against the wind, we wonder how French young ladies are doing. The answer will not be long before we are overtaken by a pick-up truck with two cheerfully waving French ladies with their bikes in his back ...

 

 

Halfway. after a little over 110 kilometers we spend the night on a campground near a hotel with history: La Leona. In 1905, the isolated hotel offered shelter to the famous American outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who were on the run after robbing a bank in nearby Rio Gallegos. It is the only stopping point between El Calafate and El Chaltén, so buses stop here for passengers in need and / or simply a coffee. We pitch our tent and meet two introvert German cyclists from Freiburg (cycling to the south) and later two extroverted Dutch cyclists (father and son), who also cycle to the south. Son Jelle has been cycling from Canada and his father Peter is affiliated with him from Santiago. We talk a lot, after which a restless night follows because the Leona staff apparently have a party (although we think they are so noisy every night). We realize that we have actually only had no noise nuisance twice since we were camping in South America, both when we camped "in-the-middle-of-nowhere". Not that we have camped so much, only five times so far.


The next morning we see that another tent has been added. A bicycle is parked next to the tent and a young man is brushing his teeth; he looks dull. It appears (yes, again) to be a Dutchman who cycled the part from El Calafate at night when the wind subsided. He is completely fed up with the headwind. Smart to cycle at night, but not something for us.


We did get up extra early because, as a rule, the wind gradually increases in the morning to the wind speeds that are customary for Patagonia. Incidentally, we have read somewhere that especially in the months of December and January the wind blows above average and let it be the last day of January! Less wind tomorrow, we joke. Well, the stage to El Chaltén will be remembered for a long time. Let us suffice here with the fact that the honorable title "toughest day so far" changes dates and stages again and is now in the name of this stage. A little further from 110 kilometers and 11 hours later we arrive in El Chaltén fatally tired. Harry is tired and has a wish list: "a good bed, heating to prevent the cold, a shower with hot water and for which you don't have to stand in line and finally a pizza in the oven". He therefore exchanges his parents-in-law's birthday gift and books an apartment that meets his wishes, even though the pizza is exchanged for a pasta.

 

 

The next day we continue cycling and soon we leave the nice village of El Chaltén. On the outskirts of the town the asphalt gives way to gravel and we cycle through beautiful surroundings to Lago del Desierto. It is raining a little bit but still there is sufficient view of the virtually untouched nature and mighty mountains around us. At Lago del Desierto we take the ferry that brings us to the north side of the elongated lake. There is an alternative to this ferry and that is a technical hiking trail of something of 15 kilometers. By bike (pushing, not cycling) it takes two days. That's what we are told by the Spanish Daniel who did it. On the north side is the office of the Argentinian customs and at the office is a large meadow where you can camp for free without further facilities. The meadow is full of horse poo and goose-like bird poo, but the view is amazing. On the field we meet that Spanish Daniël and later also two hiker couples. Unfortunately for us it starts to rain more and the view is taken away by clouds. Still clumsy we try to cook our dinner in the shelter of the tent canopy. Let's summarize the tinkering with the hope that you can eat from the groundsheet.
It rains all night long and it is pretty cold. When we get up the next morning we see that Daniel has already left and that the snow line is only a few hundred meters above us. The mountains around are provided with a fresh layer of snow. We look hopefully to the south: the view of Lago del Desierto on the mighty mountain Fitz Roy is indescribably beautiful, we now know from cousin Tim who cycled and camped here nine years ago. Unfortunately, Frits (of course another corruption from Harry) remains hidden, but the view remains beautiful.

 

 

We check out at the Argentinian customs (at first sight we see three civil servants sitting while at most ten walkers and cyclists cross the border here every day) and we ensure that we get the necessary stamps. What follows is a great adventure and the best border crossing "ever" on a hikers track that takes us to the border on top of a mountain ridge. We have already read and heard a lot about it, but apparently you have to experience this in person to get the idea. At first we thought that we will be able to cycle a few parts, but the heavy rain has made the game trail (a better name than walking trail) a muddy and sometimes swampy whole with very regular streams and streams that (we will hear later) could easily be waded out a few days ago, but now they are often knee deep. These are the moments when Harry can almost be happy that he has to take medication that has the side effect that he has abnormally fast problems with "dead" toes and fingers. So heroine Roelie swaps her shoes and socks for sandals and repeatedly brings the bikes to the other side, while Harry balances over a pair of slippery tree trunks.

 

 

Almost at the end we catch up with Daniel, who is on his own and regularly had to remove his luggage from his bike in the event of an obstacle. Furthermore, we encounter a total of seven hikers on the trail who return from the campsite where the ferry to Villa O'Higgings sails from. They all have the same story: 1. The ferry has not sailed for about five days and the latest reports are that it will certainly take another two days before the ferry may arrive; 2. The large (er) ferry is broken, there are still two little ones that can take 20 people at most; 3. At least 40 to 50 people camp at the lake, all awaiting the ferry; 4. The returnees could no longer wait any longer, because they run out of money, food, time and patience.

 

When we reach the border after 6 kilometers, the game trail turns into a gravel road and there are 16 kilometers to go to the Chilean customs. Here too we are collecting stamps and important inserts that we must never lose, that is how we understand the customs officer who, by looking at his eyes, either has hay fever or looked too deeply into the glass yesterday.

 

 

A kilometer further we arrive at the campsite at an Estancia, a kind of farm. There are indeed a few dozen tents. Next to many tents we see bicycles lying or standing. We also meet up again with our Swiss friends, who we last saw a week ago. We set up our tent and immediately have nice conversations with other cyclists present. In addition to a tent field, the "campsite" has a heated shed with a wood stove, one toilet and one wood-fired shower. The pressure on these facilities will be high, given the number of campers. If after a while we want to prepare our dinner in the heated shed, a car from the carabanieries comes onto the site and a little later we hear that there will be two small ferries that will take a big part (not all!!) of those waiting and then return 'mañana' to pick up the rest. The longest-waiting will be the first to board. A list has been kept for this purpose by customs. That's good news, so we can get on the boat tomorrow. Although, "mañana" is a very flexible concept. "The boat comes when it comes", is said more often ... A little later, however, we hear that the version that the carabanieries have told the co-campers present at the soccer match of the customs officers is a bit different. The first ferry is a boat from the travel organization "Robinson Crusoe" and the people who are in possession of a ticket from this travel organization are given priority. Let us now have such a ticket!


Okay, two different messages, a waiting list of chosen ones that nobody gets to see or hear and ticket holders who get priority. What follows is that everyone breaks down the tent in the rain and rushes to the jetty with all his luggage. We are still looking a bit dazed, but after we have quickly worked our pasta away, we also follow the rest, in which we expect that we will now break down the wet tent and be allowed to set up again in an hour. When we arrive at the jetty we have the feeling that most people look at us with a look of “what are they doing here, they have arrived last?” But our ticket gives us direct access to the first boat and a little awkward we step on board. But we know that the second boat (not from our travel company) will also arrive soon and we hope that the people who stay behind can board that boat.


When we reach the mooring place at Villa O’Higgens, we have to cycle another eight kilometers until we reach the village. It is late and now dark and we are happy with our good lighting on the bike that ensures that we can avoid most potholes in the gravel road. On board we consulted iOverlander and set our sights on a hostel that, in addition to a bed in a dormitory, also rents camping sites, private rooms and cabañas (cabins). We opt for a tiny bedroom and after a wonderful shower we arrive "in no time" in to dreamland.

 

Villa O'Higgins is at the end (or for us at the start) of the Carretera Austral, a road praised by cyclists. That is what our next blog will be about and so we close this blog in a windy, cold and rainy Villa O'Higgins.

 


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