Just a cool breeze

It’s amazing how quickly things change. I woke up in El Chalten, in the mountains, to drizzle. It would probably rain all day. By nightfall I was in a place that receives only 20mm of rain per year.

I had been considering a day off in El Chalten, but listening to the rain I decided I’d had enough of it. I knew I didn’t have far east to go, and within 10km I was pulling off the raingear. I was also riding on pavement for the first time in a couple of weeks, with a strong tailwind, and a gentle downhill. Very, very easy going, and such a change to the last few weeks.

The countryside changed very quickly, from lush forest, to dry country. Not many houses, to almost none. Just a few estancias along the way. The estancias are a mystery to me. They are generally large, with multiple buildings, and they appear to control a large area. However, I saw almost no sheep or cattle in the ride from El Chalten to El Calafate. A few horses, a guanaco, an armadillo, but only two sheep. Where are they all? My guess is that there used to be thousands of sheep, and large sums of money were made, but they destroyed the land. It’s too fragile out here, and when the sheep eat the grass low, the soil just blows away in the relentless wind. It will probably take thousands of years to recover.

Some people struggle with the bleakness here, but so far it’s OK for me. There are still mountain ranges, glacier fed lakes, and a handful of buildings. I’ve seen much, much bleaker than this.

I’m joined by Marko today, and we have a very easy ride for the first 90km. We then turn around the end of the lake, and it’s a different story. The wind is hammering us, pushing us all over the road. Thankfully there’s little traffic. After 20km of that, we stop at one of two places to stop along the whole 220km, at Hotel La Leona. It’s a very nice place, and we’re grateful when we shut the door and get relief from the wind. But we know there’s another place 10km down the road, and decide to push on, since we know the next day will be tough. So we just have cake and a drink.

Down the road we get to Parador Luz Divina (Divine Light), where it seems the proprietors are chasing a different sort of divine light. It seems to be run by a bunch of stoners, and is not so fancy, but it ends up being a good place. I would prefer if the owners spent more time clearing up the dead cattle and empty beer bottles from the camping area, than getting stoned. Walking around inside with a hoody on and wearing sunglasses is a bit odd too. But one guy speaks English, and is nice to us. I have a shower under a dribble of water, but at least it’s warm.

A couple stay in the hammock near our tents, talking and giggling all night. I don’t understand the way the locals manage time. It’s not that hot at day, so why sleep all day, and do things at night? Doesn’t make sense.

The next day I fill my bottles with very silty water – but it’s silty from the glacier feeding the lake at the other end, so it will be fine to drink. We set off early, knowing it will be a long day. Starts out OK, but then we climb, straight into the wind. At the top is a gentle downhill, but I can’t roll down it – I have to pedal, or I won’t move. But we can see the road turning just ahead, and crawl towards it. Speed again, and on a longer downhill I hit 73km/h. The road turns ahead though, so I brake, knowing that if I’m going to fast, the crosswind will fling me over the corner.

We all stop for lunch, Marko and I, and Neil and Victoria, a Scottish/NZ couple riding this way. We’re sheltering in a ditch, apparently also used as a toilet, to get out of the wind, before the intersection where we turn directly into the wind. We’re all apprehensive about the next 32km.

Can’t be put off forever though, so we try and get it out of the way. It is a ridiculous headwind, at least 40km/h, and we can barely move into it. Sometimes we’re reduced to pushing the bikes. One couple of cyclists will stop for a break, 10 minutes later you can still see the others, only a kilometre ahead.

All I can do is put my head down and focus on the white line under my tires. Sometimes 4km/h, occasionally up to 10. Drafting helps, but it still hurts. It will take us 5 hours to cover the 32km into town. Reaching the municipal campsite, we’re all shattered. You’re happy to have made it, so don’t quite realise how tired you are at first, until later that night, when you’re falling asleep at the restaurant. We all slept well.

I’ve been having 3 days off in El Calafate, preparing for the next leg, which will probably have both headwinds and tailwinds. The best I can hope for is light winds. That or I could head east to Rio Gallegos, instead of east, south, west to Puerto Natales.

While here, I went on a daytrip to Perito Moreno Glacier. This is the main reason for this town existing, and it really is remarkable. Just an enormous river of ice, 5km wide, 60m high, 30m long, and moving 1-2m per day. I’ve now seen a few glaciers on this trip, but this really is the most impressive. You might just be able to make out a boat to the right of this photo. That’s quite a large catamaran (at least 65ft), but it looks tiny.

Photos from the ride to Calafate here, and a few of the Perito Moreno Glacier

The hard way back to Argentina

I’m back in Argentina, after one of the more interesting border crossings I’ve done. I’ve crossed many, many borders now, and usually the fun and games come with the customs formalities. But this time customs on both sides were very quick, and the fun was the physical crossing.

The ferry leaves from about 8km out of town, so we (Susan, Martin and I) had a short ride to warm up. Early start for me these days, on the road by 7:45. Usually it’s been closer to 9 I’ve been getting away. Easy ride down to the ferry, where the bikes are loaded on. As we’re getting on, an old guy with crutches is being lifted onto the boat. Hmmm, is this crossing as hard as people make it out to be? Later turns out that he’s going to the estancia – he was probably one of the early people breaking in this land.

After everyone is aboard, another cyclist appears – he’s a Brazilian, who has been riding very long days for weeks, as he’s been short on time. Short on planning too, as he arrived at Villa O’Higgins on Wednesday, the day the last boat left. He also had no more Chilean money, so he had been camping for three days in a disused boat near the ferry. Despite being closest to the departure point, he is somehow late.

The ferry is straightforward enough – strong winds, but mostly behind us. On the way down the long narrow arm of the lake, we stop to drop supplies at one place, and drop a passenger (and his 3 dogs, who had crapped on the deck) at another. These are extraordinarily isolated spots – little regular transport in summer, none in winter. Guess they like their own company.

At the other side of Lago O’Higgins, we stop for lunch, before completing border formalities, and starting the trek. The Chilean side starts out very steep, but it’s dry, and the 4WD track is mostly rideable. A bit of pushing, but things are going OK. At the top, the track levels out, for some good riding. At one point, the road is diverted through a runway. The only time I’ve ridden on a runway before was on the emergency landing strips on the Stuart Highway. Strange runway to have in an isolated place, complete with fence and all – must have been military. Can’t see what Argentina would want to invade for. We meet a couple of cyclists coming down. They said it was tough, but OK. They don’t look too much the worse for wear.

We reach the actual border around 3pm, and so far we’re all OK. We could have camped right there, but figure we should make a start on the Argentine side. As we find out though, once you start, you can’t stop – you have to push on. It started to rain at this point, and the 4WD track became an ugly horse track.

What had been a manageable bike ride became something that would be a fun adventure on an unloaded mountainbike. Except now I’ve got panniers to deal with as I slog through the mud, across streams, sometimes with a few branches as a bridge, bash the bike on rocks, snag the front panniers on bushes…all while being rained on constantly. It’s a…challenge. Sometimes I have to leave the panniers behind, take the bike, come back for the panniers. Other times I sink in the mud up to my knees. Waterproof socks don’t work when they get flooded from the top.

At one point, the track was so deeply rutted that the sides were almost at the level of my handlebars. Sometimes I have the bike down in the ruts, while I walk with my feet on the bank above. How come the other cyclists we met weren’t filthy? I think they must have stopped off for a wash in the river somewhere. It would have been much harder for them, some parts were very steep. The track is also very slippery, so even when I want to ride on the level parts, I have trouble with the wheel slipping. My shoe tread is also full of mud, so they slip too. But there was a perverse enjoyment in it. I just wish I wasn’t bashing the hell out of my panniers – they’re at the end of their life, but I need them to last a couple more months.

Finally I make it to the Argentinian customs, on the north side of Lago del Desierto, at about 6pm. We hadn’t planned on making this crossing on the same day, but the boat is supposed to be due in 30 minutes. The hikers are hanging around waiting, so we join them. Thinking the boat won’t be far away, we don’t get fully changed into dry clothes. We wait, and we wait…finally the boat turns up, around 7pm. We get on the boat and wait some more. All four cyclists are very cold at this point, sitting still, trying to concentrate on staying alive. Other tourists open the windows to look out, we have to move around the boat to find somewhere no windows are open.

Finally the engines start…then die. A little later, the mate goes up to the bridge, holding a pair of pliers. A few minutes later, the engines start again, and we’re moving. We start moving down the lake. Gusts of wind coming roaring down the mountain, bringing up a lot of spray. It’s all quite interesting, but I can’t focus enough to get the camera out, and I don’t want to hang out the window, in the wind, to get a picture.

In front of me are a young Argentine couple. She has her eyes painted like a doll, or maybe like a young girl playing with makeup might. They keep kissing, but she keeps her eyes open, staring coldly at him. It’s very disturbing. It’s like she’s a Thai or Russian bride, pretending to get along with her suitor. The captain comes to talk to them. He looks like Maradona, although maybe not so fat. Could be he’s dressed to look more like him, and I can definitely see him doing a swan dive on the turf. He keeps opening the window to point out things you can’t see in the mist, and I’m thinking “Shut the ****ing window or I’ll die of hypothermia here.”

Finally we make it to the other side, around 8:30pm now, and hurry off the boat. A sign says “Camping 200m”, so we head that way. There’s no showers at the campsite – well there were, but they’ve been broken a while(years probably…), and there’s a pile of turds in one of them. But we’re too cold to argue about paying for not much, and then the guy hauls us all into the office in front of the fire…we all make the same sound, as some warmth finally returns.

As I put up the tent, some hail falls on me. I change into dry clothes, and we head to the cooking shelter, where a couple of Argentines have a fire going. They appear to be cooking half a beast, but it’s just dinner for the two of them. Not minding the smoke in our eyes, we cook dinner. Half an hour later, warm(ish), dry, sheltered from the wind and rain, with warm food inside us, the world is a different place.

The next morning we have clear skies, but it’s still cold. Clear skies show the glacier close to our campsite, and we are rewarded with views of Mt Fitzroy – normally covered in cloud 4 days out of 5. We have a strong tailwind pushing us down the rough road to El Chalten. Good campsite there too, lots of hot water. The only casualty is I lose my Icebreaker hat to the wind somewhere – didn’t notice until later that it had blown out of my barbag. Sunshine, pizza and beer in El Chalten, and things are looking up. I also catch up with Marko, who I last saw in Coyhaique.

One more note – the place next to the campsite had a sign up “All the pizza you can eat for $28” (about $7USD). But when we go past later, it’s gone – I think they saw 5 hungry cyclists ride past, and decide it might break the budget…

Some photos from the crossing here. Like Jeff Kruys, I would have taken more photos, but it was too damn hard.

Villa O’Higgins

I’ll keep this brief, because the Internet connection is flaky, but I’ve made it to Villa O’Higgins, at the end of the Carretera Austral. A few good days travelling down from Cochrane, on some very quiet roads.

At one point I needed to catch a ferry, from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo. I had seen a sign indicating they left at 8:00, 10:00, 13:00 and 18:15. I arrived just before 13:00, to find it had left at 12:00, and the next one was at 18:00. It was pouring down at this stage, but there was a little cafe, with a fireplace, and the owner was quite happy for me to sit there for 5 hours, drying out. At one stage he went home, leaving there by myself. I only helped myself to one extra slice of cake, but I did tell him about it when it came time to pay.

On the other side, on a road that only opened 10 years ago, there is very little traffic. By this time I was riding with Susan and Martin, a Dutch couple who started in Alaska. Empty roads, a few climbs, and so many condors! Plus any time you ran out of water, you just went to the side of the road, and found a stream of pure snow-melt, no treatment required. You could see the ice and snow, and where the stream ran down the mountainside to your bottle. Perfect.

From here, I’m crossing to El Chalten in Argentina. Will take two or three days, assuming the boat leaves tomorrow. It’s an interesting crossing – see here for details.

Oh and I must look it up on the map, but I do believe this is the furthest south I’ve ever been – I must be very close to the southernmost point of New Zealand by now.

Photos here

That’s more like it

Things have been going much better the last few days – I’m in Cochrane, the last major (2,000+) people town on the Carretera Austral, less than 250km from the end. This part of the Carretera Austral has a different climate, much drier than a little bit north, but with manageable amounts of wind. There’s still been some rain, but there’s been mostly sunshine for the last 3 days. Such a change to ride in just shirt and shorts.

Not all plain sailing of course – the first leg to Villa Cerro Castillo was paved, but it’s been rough roads since, with a lot of corrugations. Sometimes you don’t see them coming, hit them too fast, and just about get shaken apart. With all the shaking going on, I’ve been surprised that more things have not broken. Two things I’ve noticed – one was a rack bolt in the same place as before, but this time I could extract it myself. Lucky. Not sure why that side keeps breaking though.

The second thing was something I never expected to fail – my pot. I was cooking my dinner, and couldn’t understand why my stove kept going out. Multifuel stoves can be temperamental, so at first I didn’t think much of it. Then I realised the water was slowly draining out a small hole in the side of my pot. I had to tilt it at 45° and not put too much into it, to cook my dinner. I just managed.

Around Puerto Bertrand, there are plenty of flash lodges, aimed at well-heeled fly fisherman. Oddly though, some are closed up, empty, in the middle of what should be the high season. I don’t know if this is because they would never have been economic, or if it’s recent events. I have heard tourist numbers are down 30-40 percent, and I’ve never had a problem finding a place to stay. This even though guidebooks tell you to book ahead at this time of year. Could be that people are put off by the high costs. I paid $50USD for a room the other night, which was OK, but didn’t even provide a towel. So it’s back to camping, which I’m doing in someone’s backyard in Cochrane, for the more reasonable amount of $6USD. Hot showers too, or at least there should be when they finish painting and unlock it again.

In Coyhaique, there were camping stores where I could get perfect replacement pots, made by MSR. I didn’t want to get a bus back there though, so thought I would look around here. This town used to be the end of the line, so there is a true general store – Casa Melero. This sells everything, from toothpaste to toilets, from chainsaws to chickens, nails to nail polish. A true old style general store. They have camping gear too, so I thought I would be in luck – but no joy. The only pots I could find were too large. I’m not going to carry a 20L soup tureen on my bike, to cook my noodles. However, I bashed over the hole, and testing last night indicated that it will now hold water. So I’ll keep using it until I can find a replacement.

I’ll need it the next few nights too, as I’m heading to Villa O’Higgins, and I’m not going to make the detour to Caleta Tortel. This means 4 days of riding until the next town. I’ve stocked up on food, so I should be OK, but it’s going to be some long empty stretches. Perhaps a little more rain too, as I head west a bit, before going east again. Because of the topography here, a few kilometres each way can make a big difference in rainfall. With luck, I’ll get the Saturday ferry from O’Higgins, to make the trek across to Argentina. If I don’t have time to do web stuff in O’Higgins, it may be 7-10 days before I’m online again.

Photos from this leg here

Drying out

I’m back in Chile, and have just completed my first week on the Carretera Austral, riding to Coyhaique. It’s been an interesting week, covering all the main bases of riding here – rain, shocking roads, spectacular scenery, plenty of cyclists, and the odd mechanical failure.

From Trevelin I went back across the border to Chile, via Futaleufu. Right at the border it began to rain. I kid you not. I went into the border control building, went through processing, came out and I had to put the jacket on. It’s stayed on for most of the next week.

I could have stayed in Futaleufu, but it was full of stereotypical loud Americans, and it was a crappy place if you weren’t rafting or kayaking. The road from Futaleufu to the main road is not good, especially when it has been raining, and it becomes soft and sticky. Little traffic, but the roads soon took their toll – a bolt on my rack has sheared off, and I can’t get it out. So I stuck a bunch of cable ties on there, and hoped for the best. It lasted a week, and the bike is now at the shop getting fixed. I’ll go there soon, hopefully it will be sorted.

Joining the main road at Villa Santa Lucia, I ran into Marko, a German who has just started his trip, also headed south. We’ve stuck together for the last week. It’s been quite different having some company, especially when you are so used to riding by yourself.

We had a couple of good days heading to Puyuhuapi. Not much rain, just overcast. Long clear sunny spells is too much to hope for in this part. We met a young Englishman who had left Ushuaia 3 weeks ago, and was riding long distances every day. We thought he was mad, and you could see the toll it was taking – he was confused, forgetful, and clearly in need of a rest. What’s the point in trying to go so far every day? If you don’t have a lot of time, then just aim to do a shorter trip. There’s no prize for going fast.

From Puyuhuapi we had a tough time of it. We knew we had a pass to cover, and around 90km to the next town. We were happy to camp, but then it started raining, and there wasn’t really much in the way of camping opportunities. The road was shocking, narrow, loose surfaces, with something like 15 switchbacks heading up the pass. At this stage it was pouring down, and we just wanted to get over the pass, and down. There would have been fabulous views, and great photos, but it was too wet, with the clouds too low to see much.

Our timing was not so good, and it was about 6pm we were coming down the pass. We met a Canadian pushing his narrow-tyred bike up the pass. There’s a certain schadenfreude when you meet someone having an even worse day than you. He still had to get over the pass, it was a long way to the next town, and he had a only a couple of camping places – oh and his tent was leaking.

Reaching the bottom of the pass, we still had 24km to go, and it was getting late. Two things though: Sunset is late at this time of year (about 9:30pm), and they had extended the pavement to the intersection with the Puerto Cisnes road! So we had smooth smooth tarmac, and we thought we could make it. Still tough though, and we didn’t reach Villa Amengual until about 9pm. Everything was wet – my panniers have too many holes in them, so they tend to get water in them, which then can’t drain out. The Goretex shoes were full of water – but the Sealskinz socks worked perfectly, keeping my feet dry. The jacket/overtrousers had a bit of dampness inside them, but that is at least in part from sweat. We were so grateful to be warm and dry, and not camping, as we listened to the rain pour down overnight. A French couple arrived after us – they were having a tough day. Disturbingly, he reminded me strongly of Mr Bean with a French accent.

We started again in the rain the next day, but along the way the rain stopped, and later there was even a little sun. Things started to try out, we had downhill and tailwinds through gorgeous valleys…things started looking up. Pity the woman running Residencial Manihuales was such a cow. Luckily we weren’t cold, and didn’t need a hot shower anyway.

The fine weather continued for the leg to Coyhaique. Longer than previous legs, but smooth roads and favourable winds. It was a shock to reach a large city, to wander around in amazement at the shelves and shelves of goods at the supermarket, to see such an array of places to eat. Such a change. So strange too, a large city with seemingly nothing around it for miles.

Two final thoughts: If this is such an isolated area, with so few people, why is it that everywhere is fenced off? Wild camping is not as easy here as I thought it would have been. And secondly, why is it that Chilenos have such a lack of attention to detail? Nothing is finished off properly, doors don’t quite line up, windows don’t work right. It’s not like they’re too busy doing other stuff, and lack of money is only an excuse for poor materials, not poor workmanship.

Photos from this leg here.

Keeping up with the Jones

Well New Years wasn’t quite alone in a forest, but it wasn’t too far off. I was in a nice little riverside campsite, along with maybe 10 others. I had had a tough day on the bike, so although I could have joined them in the cabin, I ended up drinking some wine from the Tetrapak I was carrying, and falling asleep by 10pm. People talk about noisy Argentinian campsites, and I was a little worried about that, but it was no problem. I would have been too deeply asleep to notice anyway.

After Bariloche, I headed south in the wind and rain to Lago Steffen. This is a 10km dirt road detour off the main road. 4 of those 10km are very steep, with multiple switchbacks. I lost 400m in altitude, coming down to just below 600m. I think that this, combined with being more sheltered, made it feel warmer at the campsite. Still cold though – the temperature inside my tent dropped to 5 degrees overnight. It was a simple campsite, but with a shower block. There was a wood burner attached, that heated the water. There was no fire at first, but later someone lit it – lucky for me, because I didn’t think they would, since so few people were there. I was pretty grateful though, as I was too cold to face a cold shower.

In El Bolson, I stopped at the brewery, which has a campsite. Only one other person was camping, but plenty of locals were eating at the restaurant. Hot water, shelters, food, beer and Wifi – I was pretty happy.

More cold, wind and rain the next day, interspersed with hot sunshine, and some bad roads, made for a tough New Years Eve. New Years Day was a shorter day, but still a lot more climbing than I would have liked. At one stage I picked up a stray dog, that decided to follow me for 5km. It was mostly climbing, so it could keep up. Couldn’t seem to shake it, until I hit a long downhill. Kept trying to discourage it, because I didn’t want the skinny thing following me for miles, only to luck out on food.

Finally the sun came out for extended periods, as I rolled into Trevelin a former Welsh colony. First time in short sleeves for weeks. Nice easy day too, and a nice hostel – Casa Verde.

I was planning a quiet night, but some others encouraged me to go out. At first we sat by the main plaza/roundabout watching the same cars go by again and again. Turns out there’s not a lot happening in this town of 5-10,000. It has one bar, the “San Patricio Irish Pub” which would be the least Irish Irish pub I’ve ever seen. The only Irish thing was the green curtains.

The problem of course is that Argentinians don’t go out until quite late – we got there at 1:30, but it didn’t pick up until at least 2am. I have no idea where all these people were the rest of the night, but they were still going strong at 5am when we pulled the plug. A note to others going to this pub – do not order the “Cuban Mojiti” – rather than use fresh mint, they appeared to have used toothpaste for flavour. We’re not sure what was in the “destornallido” either, but it was strong. Another note is that you should be wary of places that let you pour your own vodka mix. Perhaps we should have done what the locals did, and stuck to beer.

So today was spent recovering, and wandering about this town. Odd place, with fair Welsh-looking people speaking Spanish. It’s also interesting seeing the places with immaculately groomed and watered lawns, something you don’t often see here. It rains a lot, but the dry winds seem to strip the moisture rapidly.

Tomorrow I will head back to Chile, to join the famed Carretera Austral. Not sure what communications will be like for the next week or so. Will update the blog, and add photos when possible.

Photos from this leg here.