Puerto Natales, El Calafate, El Chalten, Villa o’Higgins – 85km (Total 790Km cycled)
Highlights : The fork finally arrived, we met some great people who kept us sane while waiting, rough off-road, hilly and tough single-track, rainstorms, beautiful and stunning wilderness, hanging glaciers, boats that actually appeared!
Day 45-63: 22nd February – 11 March 2012 – good things come to those who wait!
The fork finally arrived! If we hadn’t had a great team in the UK (Basecamp Mum and Basecamp Sister – thank you!) to help us out, I really wonder if the fork, and our other goodies, would ever have reached us in remote Puerto Natales.
We spent four weeks at Camping Josmar 2, saw many people arrive, head off to trek in the park and then return to the campsite to greet us with, “Are you two still here?!”. I stopped counting how many times we told our story. I’m sure that we’ve passed into travellers’ folklore by now.
It was a day of great relief when the DHL Special Delivery man finally handed over our parcel and Peli signed on the dotted line. Over the next few days, the fork and the bike were put together and test-ridden. All was well. Now it was time to pack up the tent and “leave home”. We were leaving behind all the good people we’d met in Puerto Natales, to head north towards El Calafate and the Carretera Austral.
We had to swiftly switch gears from being obliged to hang around, to having to get a shift on in order to catch one of the very few ferries left to Villa O’Higgins, and the start of the Carretera Austral. There are two ferries to come: one across the Lago Desierto and one across Lago O’Higgins. They only run in good weather and the end of their season is close. And there is of course the added problem of the protests happening in Southern Chile which mean that there is very little fuel getting through to the remote areas. Being in a rush is not how we like to travel, but we don’t have much choice!
We therefore decided to book a bus to El Calafate just to get some miles under our belts and get moving again. Of course, we’d prefer to get on our bikes and pedal again, but it will take nearly two weeks to get to the boat, leaving it too close for comfort.
Thinking purely selfishly, here’s hoping that the protests in southern Chile are resolved before we get there, BBC News report. We hear stories that buses are getting stranded and boats are not running because of the lack of fuel. It should still be possible to pass the blockades by bicycle but getting food and a ferry over the lakes will be hard.
It really is time to ride again and see this beautiful country from behind our handlebars.
Day 64-70: 12th March – 18th March 2012 – We are riding again!
We arrived on the bus in El Calafate to only find confusion, no one could or would give us a answer. Never ask in Argentina about tourist information in Chile, you will just be meet with a stonewall.
So, after one night in the very wet garden of a friendly hostel (Hospedaje Jorgito, with cherry trees in the garden) we decided, reluctantly, to jump on yet another bus to get to El Chalten to get as close as possible to our ferry. The general consensus amongst cycle tourists, tourist information staff (on that note, we’ve never spoken to such rude people as in those in the tourist information centres in El Calafate!) and the locals, was that the ferry was about to stop for the season. Some even said that it had stopped entirely. We decided to chance it.
Once in El Chalten, we had a little three hour walk in stunning weather up to the Mirador de las Aguilas (the Eagles’ Viewpoint) and the Mirador de Los Condors. Both gave us stunning views over Fitz Roy and the glaciers. We linked the two miradors by walking down the wide ridge, which took us off the tourist route and gave a different view with every turn. I’m glad that we didn’t walk any further, even when the views and weather were asking for it, since we haven’t moved much the last three weeks. We decided to save our strength for the challenging section ahead!
On 14 March we set off early into a light wind, the wilderness and the unknown (where the ferry was concerned, at least). The ripio and wind did wake us up a bit and gave our bodies a shake-up. Every time there was a gust of wind we slowed down and prepared ourselves for something that didn’t happen. It was quite a relief.
Then Fitz Roy appeared on the horizon in its full glory. What a magnificent lump of rock, and a fantastic backdrop to our ride. We enjoyed cycling with the impressive Swiss family, Nicolas, Sylvia and their delightful children Joey and Laura, www.wild-lights.com/travels and a French couple on their beautiful tandem.
We’d been told that there was a boat at 15.00, so really pushed with our untrained legs and arrived gasping at 14.56. Again, the information we’d been given was cruelly false! It actually sailed at 17.00, so we leisurely cooked up some pancakes on our Trangia, using up eggs and vegetables which we expected to be seized at the Chilean border.
We stacked all our bikes neatly on a little touring boat and set sail on a 45 minute journey across the lake. While looking at the glaciers we spotted an avalanche. I had just taken a photo of the hanging glaciers and taken the camera away from my eye to see that something was different. Then I figured out what was going on. It was quite a sight.
We camped up in an idyllic spot near a little wood, right next to the border crossing for the night. We had a fantastic view over the lake and Fitz Roy. We got woken up to heavy rain in the night, but the tent was only lightly damp when we were ready to depart the next morning.
We knew that the following day would be one of the toughest we’d experienced since arriving in South America, or possibly in the history of our cycle touring adventures. We faced 6km of uphill singletrack over a steep col to reach the border with Chile. Even the Argentine border guards expressed concern for us, particularly when they saw that two small kids were in our party (as it turned out, they were the quickest and most agile of the lot!). Not content with being steep and muddy, the singletrack was deeply rutted in many places, and narrower than our panniers. So, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, puffing and panting as we went. Did I mention how out of condition we were having spent three weeks sitting on a campsite in Puerto Natales? This is when it caught up with us!
We periodically removed the panniers, pushed the bikes, returned for the panniers… and rinse-and-repeat. We were not really prepared for how hard this section was. We do carry an awful lot of stuff, so our bikes were heavier than the others’. Also, the ‘Ushuaia Plague’ that I caught from our friends in Puerto Natales (thanks, Grant and Ange! ;) ) made it even harder work for me. Peli had to give the back of my bike a good heave-ho on a number of occasions, or I wouldn’t have made it up and over at all.
The Swiss family stormed ahead, the little ones just loved the forest and the glorious mud. We played leapfrog (or should that be saut-mouton?) with the French tandem through rivers, swamps and very steep forest tracks. After two hours we were tired and had only eaten around 1-2km into the track. Lift, push, swear and shove our panniers and bags along. Then a little rest and it began again: pull, carry, swear and drag the bikes through the undergrowth. I was reminded of Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen“.
After four hours, I was wasted, gone, no more in the tank. I could just about lift the front wheel off the ground when all the panniers were off my bicycle. This wasn’t made better with having a flu in full fever cycle. And we still had four kilometres to go!
The Swiss family had settled down to do some fishing and the kids came hurtling back towards us to ask if we needed any help. In hindsight we probably should have bitten their hands off! We gritted our teeth and fought on. Peli often had to come back and help me to push the bicycle up over tree roots and stones as there wasen’t anything left in me. It really felt like miles to go. That little distance left that the kids had described, wasn’t!
We finally got out of the worst of the forest and found the old Argentine border control. I had hoped that we could have made the full 20km to the ferry port and had a day in hand to rest out my illness. But the fever and tiredness had taken it all out of me and when I spotted a place to pitch our tent – even with the GPS telling me that there was only 500m to a unpaved road (ripio) – I could do nothing more than collapse into the tent, shivering and sweating at the same time.
At that point we had done 6km in seven hours. Even fit Peli was tired but she didn’t let it show. She started to cook dinner while I was too tired and sick to actually fall asleep. Around an hour after our arrival the French tandem arrived, also looking rather knackered. Then, 15 minutes later, the French couple gave an astonished cry, to see Fernando arrive – a Portuguese chap whom we’d met back in El Chalten. He’d taken off from El Chalten that same morning and had managed 37km riding, a ferry ride and the hard 6km in less time that it had taken us to do the last bit. OK, he did look a bit tired, but three hours compared to our seven hours?! We decided he must be superhuman.
Then the rain set in big time and my fever gave me some funny dreams as I fell in and out of sleep. We stayed in bed as long as possible, trying to wait out the rain, but it looked like it was set in for the duration. So we again gritted our teeth, wrapped up in all our waterproofs and got ready to get wet.
We walked the first 2-3km of ripio as it was just too waterlogged and deeply rutted to fight against in our tired state. The French tandem then came sailing past and they told us about their bad night as their brand new Mountain Hardware tent was letting in the rain. Spurred on by seeing the tandem being ridden, we got back in the saddle and made good progress through the sopping wet forest.
The last 4km was downhill on bad ripio with a precipitous drop on the left-hand side, but we had great views. The rain gave way to blue skies and a fantastic panorama across the lakes. The sodden morning seemed like a distant memory.
We arrived at the Chilean border control and prepared to be checked for contamination (fruit, veg and other fresh products). But, that didn’t happen. Why, we have no idea. Having quickly scoffed the remainder of our fresh produce the previous day, we wished we’d kept hold of it!
We met a couple of French hitchhikers keeping warm in a refugio who told us about the lovely people at the local estancia, at the top of another big hill overlooking the bay, where you could also camp for a few pesos. We hauled ourselves up the hill and quickly set up camp to dry out the tent, and get some food inside us. The estancia sold us some amazing fresh bread – right out of the oven and very dense. Drizzled with olive oil, they really hit the spot. Peli was also lucky enough to have a steaming slice of apple pie thrust into her hand by the lady at the estancia when she went for a much-needed shower. She must have looked in need of both.
As we packed in the morning a gentleman from the estancia came by telling us that the ferry would be arriving at noon, and that when we spotted it across the bay, we had another hour to get ready.
We sat and waited for the ferry and enjoyed the view for a few hours before we spotted it round the headland at around noon (so right on time – not). But at least it was coming. Others had been waiting for ten days for it, since the normal tour boat run by Robinson Crusoe tours is out of petrol and the little one only sets sail in good weather.
Around 12 other cycle tourers came off the boat and while we waited for the boat to let us board. Route facts, maps and other useful titbits were shared between those going north and then going south.
The three hours crossing turned into a five hours boat ride at a snail’s pace. It was good it wan’t too windy for Peli but it was rather cold when we were in the shadows of the tall mountains. We were happy to see dry land at last.
We again created a chain gain to get all the panniers and 11 bicycles and one tandem off the little boat. Not so easy when the only way was to get it off the bow (front) of the boat, down the very narrow pathway at the boat’s flanks.
In the company of the Swiss family and the French tandem – often wit the little girl, Laura, leading out the peloton on her little yellow mountain bike – we cycled into a stunning sunset towards Villa o’Higgins. There, we camped up at Hostel El Mosco, run by a friendly chap originally from northern Spain, had a quick meal of instant spuds and lentils, and got ready for a very cold night. Our little thermometer in the outer tent showed 3c at half past two in the morning and there was thick frost all over the tent.
Sunday was a rest day and I checked our bikes over, under the dirt I found that our breaks were worn but not worn out and nearly every thing else was ok. Guess what?, I found yet an other broken spoke number 3. I also tried to loosen all the spokes by a half turn, since they all were rather tight. I hope that having a little more flex/bounce in the wheel will stop them snapping so often, nearly one every 40km.