(December 12 – written by “Just Dave”)
Today’s blog covers two days, two really hard days of riding, pushing, schlepping and falling under our bikes. As I said, they were two hard days.
I’ll start first with the ride from Villa O’Higgins to the Argentina border. We left our hostel yesterday at about 6:40 with a posse of 8 riders. For company we had Joe and Sarah from the UK, Andy and Sarah from the UK, Heike from Germany and Detlef from Germany. We were all staying at the same hostel and all taking the 8:30 ferry across Lago O’Higgins so we agreed to form a riding posse towards the ferry. The ride to the ferry was pretty gentle with relatively smooth gravel, the last we’d see of that kind of road for the next full two day.
We reached the ferry early with plenty of time for photos at the official end of the Carretera Austral sign. It would have been more fitting to have the last 8k of the CA require ropes, safety harnesses and the like but we were more than happy to have a relaxed ride and make the ferry with time to spare.
There were two boats at the ferry dock and some good wind kicking up waves. We were quite happy to be riding the larger Robinson Crusoe boat as the little small boat from the other company looked like it could get rocked around a bit. Our ride across the lake took a little over 3 hours and was not too bumpy other than the very end where we left the protection of the narrow part of the lake and entered part of the lake open to the direct westerly winds. There was some spray over the bow and bumps but everyone on the boat made it fine without issue – including Nancy!
We had to remove all of our bags for the ferry and then regather then on the far side. We made quick work of this task by forming a human chain with crew and riders passing bikes and bags off the boat to shore – it was nice having such a big group to ride and share the work with. In no time we were pushing our bikes up the 1k steep loose gravel track to the Chilean immigrations exit station.
Exiting Chile took some time but mostly due to the large number from people at the ferry arriving at the same time. Plus we waited until all of the cyclists cleared so we could work together getting over the hill to Argentina immigration. We left Chile immigration about 1pm as a group but soon lost Sarah and Joe as they stopped to eat lunch. The remaining six of us carried on, more or less pushing the next 6k uphill to a plateau in no-man’s land. This section had some rideable bits but the surface was a bit loose – so team pushing the loaded bikes was the go.
Once on top, the next 8k were mostly flat and fully rideable, a slight rise to a saddle and a drop back to the formal border signs. It was gravel but at least we didn’t have to push. The views were mostly alpine beech forest and the old mountain top – nice but not overly stunning. At the crest however, we got our first look at Mt Fitz Roy and boy is it something. Even with some clouds and a distant view it is so distinct that it jumps out at you. We caught glimpses of it for the rest of the afternoon whenever the trees cleared and we weren’t too busy trying not to fall over.
At the end of the plateau, just before we started the descent down to Argentina, we came across the formal country border signs. This was basically in the middle of the forest, with no guards of any type. It was nice to be able to take lots of photos and muck about – you can’t normally do this in international no-man’s land.
Once past the border, the ride got a whole lot harder. Our road became a rutted, rocky single track, with the odd stream crossing thrown in for good measure. It was a slugfest to get through. We were lucky to have the other riders with us as Nancy and I have the heaviest two bikes and we had several sections where it took two, and even three, people to get our bikes through.
The stream crossings were very difficult as they had no formal bridges, mostly just the old log that you could walk across but nothing that would support our heavy bikes. We worked as a relay team at these to get everyone and their bikes safely across. No bikes were dropped but most everyone ended up with muddy feet.
Aside from the streams, the downhill had a bunch of bobsled sections as well. That is, the track was only as wide as a touring bike but about as deep as the handlebars. You had to walk on the top, reach down grab your brakes and guide the bike through. It all worked fine until one of the bags would get hung up on the sidewall and the bike would get jerked to a sideways halt in the trench. Our hands and arms got so sore but luckily, our hips and knees got beat up enough by the bikes running into us that we almost forgot about our hands and arms. It would be hard for us to think of a harder 6k of “riding” that we’ve done on loaded touring bikes – back breaking!
It took a good two hours to cover the last 6k. We only reached Argentina immigration at 6PM – 5 hours of tough work. The immigration office was still open but the last Lago Desierto ferry had left so we had to camp on their lawn. Not that it was chore, as the views out to Lago Desierto and Mount Fitz Roy were great. And by that time, we are all well and truly shattered. It was a very hard day. It was all we could do to get the tent set up, water filtered and dinner cooked. We both slept like rocks – as did everyone else in our party (Joe and Sarah arrived at camp only a short time after the first six of us did).
We were all pretty slow moving this morning – we used muscles yesterday that we hadn’t used in a long time – plus all the bruising from the bikes running us over. We didn’t have to rush as the first ferry was at 11AM. We had to remove bags again but by now, we were a well oiled team loading and unloading the ferry. The ride was very scenic and mostly calm, as Lago Desierto is much narrower and protected by tall mountains. Plus it was only 45 minutes long. It wasn’t long before we were pedalling away from the far end and riding the last 38k to El Chalten.
This section of road started out very potholed but mostly smooth if you dodged the potholes. It was along the Rio Electrico all the way to El Chalten. About 10k into the ride the road surface was recently graded and became much less fun to ride. The road base was made of smooth river rock and it might look smooth in a car but on a bike it was like riding over lots of little boulders. It was a slow, bumpy ride to El Chalten – our easy day became another slog just to get through.
While the road surface was bad, the scenery was world class. Mt Fitz Roy was off to our right for most of this section. Unfortunately the peak was covered in clouds but even the flanks of this famous landmark are worth looking at. I stopped for a few too many photos but it was a good way to take my mind off the road surface. We also had some nice views of the Rio Electrico, and a tailwind. If the road were sealed, it would be 5-star.
We arrived in El Chalten about 4PM and tried to find a place to stay. We’d seen the others but sort of assumed that we would end up in different places. We looked at a couple cabanas but they were full. I was starting to get nervous when I stumbled on an apartment that looked ok, and had a pretty good rate. Nancy checked out and approved so we’ve settled into La Avenida Apartments for two, maybe three nights. We are pretty tired. Even though we didn’t ride too far the last couple days, they have been tough days.
After showers, we headed out to B&B (Burgers and Beers), a local restaurant where we met Joe, Andy and the Sarahs for a celebratory pint and burger. We lost track of the other guys but still enjoy reliving the last couple days with the four Brits.
El Chalten is a fun looking town. There are all sorts of artesian beer places, coffee shops and general yuppy, climbing-town food and drink establishments. We’ll run out of time here before we run out of things to try. It is odd being back in Argentina and having to adjust to a different currency again but also nice that prices are maybe a little lower than Chile.
That’s it for now – we conquered the Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten leg. It was hard. Probably harder than we thought it would be. But we did it and can look forward now to a few days of riding on sealed roads, after a rest of course. The adventure continues.