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:

  • On the ferry, heading down Lago O'Higgins
  • This was actually an easy part. Note the wide, dry road, even if we did have to push
  • Looking back to Lago O'Higgins. The colour is because it's glacier fed
  • Susan riding up a manageable part
  • The truck stopped just before this bridge
  • Not every day you ride down a runway
  • This was a good bridge
  • Here it started getting ugly
  • Like this
  • Joke of a bridge
  • The ruts got deeper a little further down
  • Woke up the following morning, to realise a glacier was very close to the campsite.
  • Rare clear view of Mt Fitzroy. Too steep for snow to stick to it.
  • Not so nice in the mountains

Like Jeff Kruys says, I would have taken more photos, but it was too damn hard.