5 July 2016 by Justine
Cycling in Chilean and Argentinean Patagonia – February to April 2016
As tourers, there are some classic routes in the World… The Pamir Highway (Tajikistan/Kirgiztan) and the Karakoram Highway (Pakistan/China) are probably the first ones to come in mind, so is the Carretera Australe in Chile. As long as we won’t cycle those ones, we’ll feel that we are missing something big. Being in Central America wow-less with all our gear in the exact right season for cycling that route was enough for us to book a flight (or two, or three). So here we are, at the beginning (or actually, at the end) of the mystical Carretera Australe.
That road was built by General Pinochet who ruled Chile for 16 years under a military dictatorship that led to thousands of dead, missing or tortured Chileans, and more than hundreds of thousands of exiled. The Carretera Australe, also known as road 7 was made to link Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, which was finally done in the year 2000 after 24 years of work by 10 000 soldiers who had to deal with cliffs, glaciers, fjords, mountains, thousands-year old forests and numerous large rivers. There are multiple passes on that road which are, at some point, only 4,5m wide. There are at least three ferries one needs to take to travel from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, and more for those who want to explore more and/or cross to Argentina (see below for a quick list of the ferries, of some of the good places where to fix your bicycle and of some interesting documentaries on Patagonia).
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When we changed our mind in Costa Rica about our route, we got heartbroken for one thing : not attending to the few psytrance festival that would have been on our road in Panama, Mexico and Guatemala (plus for leaving the abundance of fresh fruits, of course). It is with pleasure that we found the Patagonia Festival, and we bought a ticket from Salta to El Calafate especially to attend to that party. Being in the high deserts for more than a month without Internet, never we would have thought that that festival would be cancelled three weeks before the event. So we crossed Bolivia with the good times to come in mind, we boxed our bikes, took a plane, cycled to El Calafate, and after three hours on the Net, not able to look up the festival’s official page (because it got irresponsibly deleted), not able to contact anyone from the organization (because no one wanted to deal with people like us who had come a long way), we understood. The festival was off. Sure, we were going in Patagonia anyways. After attending psytrance festivals all around the world, this is by far the worst experience. Shoooo booo hoooo !
El Calafate is an over-touristic place where Internet Cafes ask for 10$/hour, and municipal camping, 15$/person. Being in such place as we hear the news that our festival is cancelled is quite depressing. We immerse our sadness with 5L Malbec wine jugs (yes, plural) in a kind of community house called Las Cuevas, and meet a bunch of cyclists who arrive from where we’re heading, either continuing to Ushuaia or finishing their trip. At one point, there is fifteen bikes at Las Cuevas… Fifteen tourers. This is SO weird! JP and I have never met that many tourers in one spot! And all types of them! (ALL types) The road 40 in Argentina is really popular, so is the Carretera Austral, and we are in the prime time of the year but still… Were we expecting that many cyclists? No – and we will run into much much more later on. It is now time to start our journey for real. First step : 223km of pure Pampas until Chalten.
Depending on the wind of the Pampas, those 223km can be done in one to six days. If it blows in our faces, we may cycle 15km in our day. If it blows in our backs, we may cycle the whole thing in one day! … How crazy is that! AND…. There is nothing in-between to buy supplies from, so we will need food for those, let’s say, five possible days. We’re lucky : we manage to cycle in three days, including a windy day where we cycled 50km. We now know that our tent isn’t great in the wind – thanks to an interesting experience camping on top of a pass in Bolivia (read Bowling Bolivia for that story), so we try every night to find a shelter. It’s not always easy, but we manage.
Half-way there, we stop in the only business on the road to fill our bottles of water and to NOT buy a 5$ coffee. A lady nervously smokes a cigarette outside. “You should put on your helmets“, she says, looking at our sun hats. “Just now, we were driving out of Chalten. There’s a car that hit a cyclist. They were two, one got hit. He was just laying there. The car didn’t stop. Our bus driver saw it too. No one stopped. No one… “. Crazy Argentinean drivers. Not only cyclists get hit around here. There are hare cadavers, here and there, along the road. Pampas are great for hares. Little thought for Claude Lanzmann’s incridible memoirs, Le Lièvre de Patagonie (Patagognia’s Hare).
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In Chalten, we realize that El Calafate isn’t the only over-touristic place in Patagonia. Chalten is just as crazy expansive. Beautiful restaurants to make us crave, shops and shops and shops of imported outdoor clothing 150% of their American prices, many bars with microbrewery beers sold at 10$ a glass… This place is a paradise for any cyclist with a good budget. For the rest, us included, it sucks ! (lol) EXCEPT that all the trails are free, well marked and they are amazing. We spend few days in Chalten at La Casa de Ciclistas, the home of Florencia who opens her door to cyclists for free (until she starts asking for money two days later because of three young French cyclists who don’t know how to live). We thought that Las Cuevas hosted a lot of cyclists… No. At one point, I count 21 bicycles in Florencia’s tiny backyard, plus four or six backpackers who take advantage of her generosity to crash for free at her place. Aluminum bike, steel bike, mountain bike, touring bike, road bike, trailers, tandems, laying bikes, external gears, internal gears, young people, older people, kids, long trips, small trips, new tourers, experienced tourers, stressed out people, easy going people… We see everything.
Hiking feels good. Even though we are in “okay” shape after two months cycling, my cardio could be ranked below zero. JP is always full of it (of energy) and runs in the trail instead of walking like everyone else. One day, he wants to hike the base camp of Fitz Roy, the biggest peak in the area. The hike is a good 28km, with really good climb. I choose a smoother one, and I go alone, following my own rhythm. JP manages to exit his trail after finishing Fitz Roy (running), ends up in mine (running), and makes me run the end of the trail I chose. Can’t get away from that crazy guy! Back at Florencia’s, we are twelve who decide to leave the next day to the big crossing.
Crossing from Chalten to Villa O’Higgins by Lago Desierto is the most popular way. It’s gorgeous, but it’s expansive. If we would have known that it would cost us 125$CAN each, we would have maybe taken another route. But hey… Lago Desierto is amazing. So here we are, cycling those 37km to the first ferry. No one in sight. We take the first ferry with two Swiss that weren’t staying at Florencia’s. We get on the other side. It’s five o’clock and JP is motivated. We drop our camera on the ground with two-month worth of pictures without back-ups, and we start climbing in the mountains. The first 5km are the worst, but completely doable. We have seen worst – and we are expecting worst. After one hour of pushing, JP grabs the camera case to take a picture… What a second. Where’s the camera? We get back down, and we find it – pffiou.That would have NOT been the first time, and would have really sucked. Today’s not the day. We go back up, keep on pushing. The trail is just wide enough for my big panniers. Big rocks are on the way, so are big roots. We cross few small creeks, and a big passage of sticky mud. The trail is really steep, slippery, narrow. For most of the first stretch, we take one bike at the time, to save our energy (I mean, my energy). After 9km, the night is coming, we haven’t reached the Argentinean borders, and I’m done. We camp in a mystic humid forest, full of sounds and life. Can’t imagine using that trail with many people waiting in front, waiting in the back, pushing trailers, etc. We really had the best conditions! The next day is an easy day. We were 400 meters away from the “road”. Now begins 14km of loose gravel road. First, pretty leveled, then, going down for us. So much fun! JP still only has one break (oh, haven’t I precised that he still hasn’t fixed his break since Bolivia?) but manages to not hurt himself on those steep loose gravel turns. We get to the borders, and then to the port. There awaits Didier, a Mexican-Californian who was also staying at Florencia’s. He’s riding a bike-packing set-up on a ECR Surly, with only two back panniers, a backpack and a handlebar bag. Hear this : we crossed those 24km in about 5 hours and probably cycled 50% of it, it took him 2hours 15minutes and cycled 85% of that trail. Yeah!
It’s 11:30AM and the ferry picks us up at 5PM. It’s time for a vegetarian Pâté Chinois in the pan, one of the best meal we will cook that trip on the stove. Little by little, cyclists show up. They all have the spark of adventure in their eye as they realize they have reached the port. Particularly six French elders who brag they have come from the trail in the mountains. There is only one way around here, so everyone is coming from the same trail, but whatever. They are still touring at 65 years old and for that they have all our respect – plus, they are proudly using the Quebecker products Arkel. On the other hand, we are a bit concerned about their small tires. Isn’t the Carretera a full dirt road? No time to think, the ferry arrives with a load of cyclists – going the other way. They are a good dozen, all very proud – they are on the finish line of the legendary Carretera. Some look overtired, others very social. We chat with a French group who question us about the trail to Lago Desierto. For them, it’s a good 10km of loose and steep gravel – going up. Nothing to discourage those French people who “have seen it all” and who will probably “cycle every single meter of it”. In the group, a couple on a tandem. We watch them go. Good luck ! For us, the fun starts !
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Cycling with Didier is a good change ! Last time we had cycle with someone was in South Africa with our dear friend Ralf. The boys couldn’t ignore a single microbrewery and when sober, they could race for hours at full speed, leaving me behind with my thoughts (good times…). Dider has a different set-up then ours and it’s interesting to compare. We most likely read the same blogs because we have few identical items… I can feel a hint of competition in the air, and it’s all good. It pushes me to climb faster, with less breaks (I love my breaks), and to pedal standing – which I’m horrible at, while it seems that JP could climb-cycle standing up all day without an ooze of sweat. He can do it alllll day! Alllll day! The landscape of that part is simply gorgeous, full of diversity. The biggest climbs are in that section too, which make it even more grandiose, fed by dozens and dozens of waterfalls, springs and rivers. Wild camping is a pure pleasure, and a little camp fire are a great way to finish our day, with our daily liter of wine, of course. Within three days, we get to Cochrane and we feel great. Remember the French cyclists met at the ferry of Lago O’Higgins? Some were proudly ending the Carretera, others were proudly starting it. We hear from other cyclists that the French couple on the tandem broke their first handle bar by pushing in the first 10km of the trail to Lago Desierto. Just outside Cochrane, we see a pick-up truck with six bicycles in the back, and six French elders sitting on each others’ lap. They will be the firsts of a succession of quitters – quitting from breakage of bike parts and/or body parts, but most likely, of motivation parts. We will not see the other nine cyclists at Florencia’s in Chalten that were suppose to cross the same day as us.
In Cochrane, Didier takes his own side before running in us again in Coyhaique few days later. The Cochrane-Coyhaique section is great, and we finish it with one regret : not having the backpack we would have needed to hike the four-day Cerro Castillo trail. In Coiyaque, we keep our objective to not pay any accommodation for our time in Patagonia, and we pitch the tent with few alcoholic homeless Chileans that squat a park under tents made of tarps, cardboard and shopping carts. It’s free, their half dozen of dogs keep strangers away at night, their singing at night is quite refreshing and so is their company in the day time – until one lady (that has nothing of a lady) steels our cheap wine and keeps us out of her tent (in an attempt to get it back) by throwing us all sort of empty bottles and shoes.
Since we got in Patagonia, we notice one major thing : the locals are used of seeing cyclists – if not, tired. JP and I love that special consideration the local people are usually offering us. “You’re a tourist?” Would someone think or say, maybe suspicious, “Oh, a cyclist !” would he or she adds, changing completely his or her perception of us as he or she understands that we are on wheels. No doubt about that : a tourist on a bicycle will not project the same image as a tourist in a Jeep or in a bus – though at the end, it’s only a question of energy. Can’t blame the Patagonians for disliking our kind ! As we cycle more and more on the Carretera, we notice that 1. some are riding in the middle of the road ; 2. we can see garbage almost everywhere along the road ; 3. the typical camping sites along the road are littered with tuna cans, tomato sauce and spaghetti envelopes, fire pits with left over garbage, toilet paper and even piles of poop; 4. most of us don’t speak or try to speak Spanish with the locals, and 5. there’s so many of us. It’s the first time JP and I feel that cyclists aren’t as well seen as what they would be in most of the places. It’s a strange feeling.
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After Coyhaique, the easy cycling starts. We thought that the world known Carretera Austral would be fully dirt road, but is no longer. Actually, it will be entirely tared in 2020. From Coyhaique, it’s pretty leveled and entirely paved until the junction for Puerto Cisnes. Easy cycling, I said! During that stretch, we could be in so many different places, including Europe and North America. In Puerto Cisnes (after a quick trek in Bosque Encantado), we take a first-class, 24-hour public ferry to the very mystical island of Chiloe for 20 bucks. *Note for future tourers : a nice alternative would have been to get to
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The island of Chiloe. A mythical place for sea horses, witches, mermaids and giant snakes, party vessels only for the drowned ones, and forest gnomes that impregnate woman when the husbands are at sea (how convenient). For us, Chiloe will stay synonym of… Blackberry. Everywhere we go, there are blackberries. I have never seen so many blackberries of my life, and no one seems to care… No one picks them up! We could cycle by, stretch our arm and fill our hand with berries! Me and JP fill our 1.3L cooking pot in 5 minutes, plus eat just as much in the same time… And will have black fingers and lips for days. While eating berries, we chat with some Chilotes, people of Chiloe. One hand on the heart, the other wrist in the air, a tear in the eye, the people of Chiloe are the proudest Chilean around. They want to make sure we’re having a good time, and they all share a big curiosity on what brought us on their land. After dealing with locals living on the road 7 actually bored of cyclists (unless working in the tourism business), the people of Chiloe are glad to see us. We cross the island in few days without significant WOWs, except for the weather. Chiloe is known for its annual 360 days of rain, but somehow, we will only see Chiloe under the sun – a consequence, perhaps, of the El Nino.
Can’t resist the temptation of trying some local draft beer when we reach Castro, the capital of the island of Chiloe. In a local bar that strangely looks like a place in Montreal, we take a seat, drink and observe – one of our favorite hobby. For 1$ we can choose 4 songs on the jukebox and watch the video clips on the TV. The playlist is very interesting : either classic rock or Latino pop. I’ll let you guess what type of music the other customer and staff are choosing form the list. Without any remorse, we feed the jukebox with as many pesos our pockets hold and select a bunch of old classics to escape what was making our ears bleed. The bar manager jumps on her feet after dealing with few unhappy customers and she tries to sabotage the jukebox to make sure the next hour of music is all hot pop, but couldn’t figure a way to delete our playlist, still 45 minute long with four long versions of Child In Time by Deep Purple. So much fun… Being in a city is nice, but camping is always tougher. We ask around and find out the vagabonds like us usually go camp next to the stadium, by the… Cemetery. Few drunk guys met on the way don’t encourage us to go there so we keep on going and thanks to JP’s sixth sens, we once again find a quiet spot full of… Blackberries.
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A beautiful stretch awaits us : Ensenada to Hornopiren. While most of the people stick to the road 7 and take the ferry at Caleta La Arena, we went further down the mouth of the river Puelo. Cochamo, Puerto Rio Puelo, Hornopiren, Chalten. Beautiful northern Patagonia close to the sea, very maritime while the southern part is more mountainous. Both parts are like twin sisters to British-Columbia, Canada – minus the wildlife. No bears in sight, no mouse, no elks, no wolves… But all that nature, all that space. A reality quite strange for us, Canadians. In Hornopiren, we get our first rainfall. We enjoy a comforting wood stove, Pink Floyd, our reading tablets, tea and the company of two Chileans who host us there, Andre and Philip. It’s the prime time of the salmon fishing, and they are inviting us tomorrow. How could we refuse such offer? We follow one of Hornopiren’s river upstream, looking for salmon silhouettes in the crystal clear water. Their style of fishing is quite primitive – and illegal, and although getting our first (and only) salmon is exciting, the roughness of the whole experience is too much for us, wildlife lovers. Will we go back tomorrow for more? No thanks – we’ll be busy eating that 15kg one.
After beautiful Hornopiren, we take the ferry to Caleta Gonzalo. Once again, the boat ride is outstanding. Compared to the glaciers and islands we were seeing on our previous cruise from Cisnes to Quellon, this one is all about fjords and hidden bays in that virgin mountainous land bought on time by the Tompkins (fonder of the clothing companies Esprit and The North Face) before anyone could destroy that natural 3250 square kilometer paradise – now called the Pumalin National Park. Located in volcano and primary humid forest territory, the park shelters multiple endemic species including the Cypress tree. All installations built in Pumalin are made of a beautiful rustic dark dyed cedar shake and checkered windows (www.parquepumalin.cl/en). I can’t resist sneaking at the Cafe’s kitchen in Caleta Gonzalo from the windows… For those who care, my dream kitchen is there. Stainless steel, wood, glass and rock… Sexy, modern, luxurious, organic AND functional. I stare at their installations, baked goods and espresso machine for a good 15 minutes with a wide open mouth and nervous hands while JP is going through a book on Chilean mushrooms, and then he pulls me out of my daydream and we get back on the saddle. With a bigger daily budget then 10$ for the both of us, we would have crashed in their fluffy beds, ate at that cafe and trekked in their well indicated trails for a week – or two. But… We hit the road and camp at one of their beautiful campground – free in this period of the year (March).
Then starts our last stretch on Chilean soil : Chaiten, its active volcano and the exiting Futaleufu pass. I was looking forward to cross that area and maybe see anything left of the 2008 eruption. Indeed, the old town of Chaiten had been covered by ash mud, up to one meter at some points, and nearby forests, burned. Apparently, some residents refused until the last minute to leave their homes, and even dig their houses out of the mud instead of moving to a new build town 10km away, also called Chaiten. We sleep on the beach of the new Chaiten, filled with amazing deer meat homemade empenadas that nice people gave us, and after running into two cyclists living 25km away from JP’s parents in Québec (!!!). We make a beautiful beach wood fire with two other tourists, and I can’t help thinking of an emergency plan in case of eruption… What would we do? Where would we go? … Wow, the stars are great! Futaleufu is as beautiful as everyone who had taken it had told us at the Casa de Ciclistas in Chalten. We are slowly climbing back in the “mountains” (note that Futaleufu town AND passage to Argentina isn’t even 500m above sea level) after staying on sea level since Puerto Cisnes. We meet the right person in Futaleufu, a guy named Pablo for some, Christian for others (…), and get to harvest potato for a day. When friends warned us of a bad road back to Argentina, we were expecting big climbs, but finally, it’s the damn washboard that welcomes us. Really, washboard does rime with Argentinean dirt roads.
We had left Argentina six weeks before and the Argentinean Peso kept on dropping meanwhile. It isn’t going so well in here. We choose to stick to dirt roads and cross the Alerces National Park. It’s rainy, humid and cold. Yeah, winter’s coming. No way we are spending a night without a fire – anyways we have decided not to buy any more burning alcohol to cook since Puerto Montt – and without our daily 1L of wine. After the park we get to Cholila and meet the lovely Dario and Laura at their Piuke Mapu Hostel. We were looking for a place to crash for few days/weeks. We thought for months it would be in El Bolson – but this is it. We set up our broken palace at the hostel, and will take it down ten days later. Ten days of nice dinners cooked on a stove (by nice I mean, pasta and fried eggs three times a day), sleeping with extra heavy blankets, with access to Internet, a warm shower and people with great ideas. Small pleasures, great joys. Oh! And Dario brews his beer and Laura’s bees brew honey. And how is his beer named? Butch Cassidy – both hard to get, the man and the beer. Two things to mention here : first, we have been witnessing footprints of the Old West here in the Andes, traveling on Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy’s territory. The two American bandits were apparently hiding in the area for years before being found in the mining town of San Vicente, Bolivia (where we were some weeks before) and killing themselves with their own bullets instead of the authorities’. Second, Patagonia is filled with microbrewery beers. Unbelievably numerous, and unbelievably expansive – damn ! JP is torn between is genetic passion for brews and his now timid budget. Surprisingly, he resists. JP resists a ten dollar 300ml microbrewery beer. Maybe he is gaining wisdom after all… Not.
We kick ourselves in the but to get back on the saddle. We leave Dario and Laura’s piece of paradise after some holidays spent picking fruits, building clay walls, taking care of the hostel, gathering fire wood and enjoying the taking view of the Andes, wishing we had the boots and backpacks we would have needed to go explore those mountains with Dario. We are back on the road 40, on asphalt and with traffic. Great… We make it fast to El Bolson, and don’t even stop oven night. We prefer the back of a community center, and cook 1kg of ricotta pasta over the fire, drink 1L of apple cider plus a bottle of wine and eat up 1kg of cookies without noticing it. The next day, we catch up with other cyclists. They pass us while we take care of an exploded tire (!!!) and get arrested by firefighters for cooking over the fire for lunch, but we pass them later on. We can see their tent in the back yard of the Nahuel Huapi National Park’s headquarters at the entrance of the park, it’s 6PM, we still have light for another hour and we still have energy. We’ll find a camp spot a bit further… Right ?! We then start a gentle, endless and unexpected ascension. Of course, since El Bolson is at 422m above sea level and Bariloche, 893. We can see (or think we can) the end of the pass, up there, where the car’s lights disappear in a last tight turn… Should we continue? Darkness is coming, there is no shoulder, and it’s freeeezing cold. Ok, time for wine. No need to test Argentinian’s driving at night, we know it’s bad during day time. We camp along the road, build a tiny fire on gravel, and get under the blankets (I wish!), or rather our thin sleeping bags (remember, we were suppose to stay in Central America all winter?!?). The next morning, all is frozen. Water bottles, tent tarp, wild flowers. We start to get a good morning routine that includes starting a fire – which JP lovely takes care of, and is getting better at – while I dismantle our frosted tent. Damn, metal poles are cold and stiff! We are ready to go, and will get to Bariloche early in the afternoon, under cold showers. We enter what is called the Switzerland of Argentina from grey and depressing suburbs. We finally get to the city center and go dry up in a heated mall filled with expansive touristic crap. Bariloche. That is it… We are taking the plane from here in ten days from now. Compared to our finale in South Africa or Croatia for our previous cycling trips, this one SUCKS. But luck quick turns in our favour.
We crash on the four square meter floor of a very nice friend’s friend for two days, watching the rain poor down and learning how to bake bread. Then, we find our Warmshower host and guess who’s welcoming us? Jarek, the Quebecer met in the desert of Uyuni last February! We took a flight down South and cycled back up while he cycled down South! We couldn’t be more spoiled at Miguel’s, the most passionate host ever met. He’s passionate about so many things, but mainly music and bicycles. His house is a museum as he rebuilds old Tour de France bikes part by part by rummaging through old bike and Antique shops all over the country, and he built a guest house on the back of his propriety, dedicated for cyclists. Yes, you read right. He hosts cyclists in an apartment equipped of a double-bed futon, a shower-toilet room and a kitchen, fully hand-built with funky decorations made of bicycle parts and old wooden chests filled with old cycling magazines from all over the world. In his work shop next door, he accumulates all possible spare parts and works on different projects like building new frames (!) or new racks (!!!!!!!) from scratch. Yeah, you read right – once again. Miguel and Alessandra, Muchas Grasias. When I will write back to Miguel from home, will he want maple syrup as a small gift? “No, it will never pass customs. Argentineans are crazy, they will think it’s a fruit. Send me cycling magazines“. Done.
I couldn’t be happier to leave. Three major things are on my mind. First, winter’s coming. We go hiking the Frey trail and finish the last 4km in the snow. I’m so glad to sleep indoor in the warmth. Second, we have been looking for stuff we haven’t found here (I know, it’s vague). Maybe expecting too much? Maybe not being opportunists at the right moment? We tried something else this year and stayed longer in different places… Was it conclusive? Should we have stayed in Central America? Will we be back in South America soon? Not too sure. Third, my new niece had now tripled in size and cuteness since last November and I can’t wait to see those beautiful blue eyes again. We are now starting en endless three-day transit back to North America and will suffer from the worst lag ever : the hemisphere lag.
Indeed, the end of our trip is celebrated with five flights to get back to North America, spread on almost three days – the real price of cheap flights. We leave Bariloche in the dark, on our bicycle, with each a 5kg pile of cardboard strapped on our rear rack. Bicycle boxes were no where to be found in town, not even in one of the four or five bicycle shops. As you could imagine, we are very excited to use those dozens of shitty pieces of cardboard, tape, patience and couple of hours to build a decent box that will hold for 5 flights. We get to the airport four hours before our flight. At the information center, the ladies are used of dirty cyclists. They put us in a corner and… Surprise, surprise ! open a side door where we find all sizes of bicycle boxes. This is the first airport where bicycle boxes are stocked and shared! In 25min flat (a record), we are ready to go: pedals are off, handlebar is side-ways, tires are deflated (bicycle box being the 23kg checked baggage number 1), the gear is centralized in one 10kg dry bag (10kg carry-on) and in our 2 big panniers (23kg checked baggage number 2), strapped together. Flight one : getting to Buenos Aires. There, we have 25 hours to change airports. Should we keep the bikes in their box and pay 40$ each of shuttle and go have a good night of sleep in a 25$/person hostel downtown? …
We get to Buenos Aires’ Aeroparque, take the bikes off their beautiful recycled box that we brake down, roll and strap on our gear rack. Downtown is only few clicks away and it’s Friday night. Buenos Aires is a great city. Vibrant, young, modern and wealthy, it seems. There are six car lanes in each main roads, intersperse with a middle corridor for public transport and another for cyclists! Even Montréal or New York aren’t so well organized! The town planning is impressive… And we are looking for some good beer… We get to a hip neighborhood called Soho. Good name : we could easily be in New York – where we will be in exactly 48 hours. Bars, restaurants, hypsters… Are we really in the same country then San Antonio de Los Cobres, the little Andes village where ended Paso Sico ?! Difficult to believe it. We do find craft beer (more expensive then in Montréal and less good – can’t wait to be home) and we enjoy few pints as we spend a three-day budget for a couple of malt beverages. At 1:30AM, we figure we might as well cycle to the other airport, almost 50km away. Cycling in a city at night can be so much fun and crossing Buenos Aires surely is. As we go, the neighborhoods change. Soon, no more hypters are to be seen. We cycle a good pace for a good hour before entering the suburbs. Our biggest mistake : not checking where our dear GPS was sending us.
We soon get to darker and darker streets. Is the “cyclotourism – quiet roads” option on or what?! We just keep cycling. It’s 3AM and we get to very dark streets. Better, it’s a dirt road. I’m not getting there! “Let’s take the next one“, I say. The next one is the last one, it follows a brick wall and it’s a muddy trail. Great… No turning back, let’s go. We put our headlamps and we start cycling. We can see that 300 meters further, the street lights start again. Dogs are barking, some try to follow us – Argentinean style. We keep a pace. I keep sliding on the sticky mud… I can’t believe I actually washed that bike before leaving Bariloche! Would I ever thought of riding dirt roads in those 25 hours of transit? Not for a second. The trail follows the back of small and sad houses. All sorts of junk lay here and there including dozens of broke down cars. The trails crosses a dump, and there, 15 meters away, we see the light of a garbage fire. Fucckkkk… JP takes the lead. If there’s people hanging there, we better cross fast. We get closer and closer, dogs are still following us. I don’t even want to look. I can feel my heart beats in my hands. Luck : no one in sight. Garbage is just… Burning, with that awful burned plastic smell that will always remind us of India. We get to some kind of main street and I wonder where the f**k our GPS is leading us now, and how far we are still from Ezezia’s airport. Dark streets, barking dogs and garbage fires are still part of the background. We couldn’t be further than the beautiful downtown of Buenos Aires. We pass a house where about fifteen young adults seem to be meeting. It’s 3:30AM. They all look us pass by, without moving an inch. WTF. In my head, I’m thinking : “there is no f**king way we’re making it to the airport without someone being opportunist. We’ll get mugged. We’ll get mugged! Just be ready…”. But we keep cycling until we get to a bigger main street. I calmly scream to JP if there’s any way we could follow some kind of main road to the airport, which is still a good 15km away. A police patrol car passes by, probably notices my ping pong eyes and ask us to stop. Now what… They ask us where we go, “A el aeropuerto” (to the airport) we say. They nod with empathy – we’re still quite away. With no specific comment on the danger of the area, we assume that there’s no reason to worry and I swallow for the first time in two hours. A car slows down as it passes us and I can feel electricity run down my spine. I don’t want to look through those tinted windows – and I couldn’t anyways. The car keeps going. It’s 4AM and mist is condensing on us. My shoes are soaked and muddy and I realize we haven’t eaten anything but the little basket of popcorn that came with the beers. 4:30AM, we enter the airport with our dirty bikes, soaked with sports sweat, fear sweat and rain. Huge clash. 30 minutes ago, we were crossing sketchy dark Latino neighborhood. In front of us, people in suits are sprinting around, families on holiday pull their colorful luggage, a neutral voice calls the approximate names of unlucky people that might be missing their flight, employees are pushing dozen of caddies and there we see it, the savior of the day. I timidly wait in line to buy 5 breakfast sandwiches at McDonald’s for 15$, that we devour. Out of energy, we install our dirty selves for a quick nap. On the edge of big windows of the second floor, JP sleeps on our last mattress while I unfold our bicycle boxes. Ear plugs, alarm to wake-up in four hours, sleeping bags, lavender essential oil, scarf on our eyes – we are professionals at this. We probably look and smell like hell, but who cares – I know I don’t.
I wake-up with the voice of JP. Did we miss our alarm? As I stand-up, my weight moves on the big boxes and I’m off the edge. BAM! Wake-up! JP starts laughing while a stranger, sorry, gives him a heavy plastic bag as he leaves. “That guy woke me up to give me this” “What’s in the bag ?” “Six huge sandwiches that he packed for his flight and won’t eat” That bag weights 5kg and we are STARVING. We didn’t eat meat for weeks and this morning we devoured bacon in our breakfast sandwiches, and we are about to eat up any cyclist’s dream : a free chicken-ham-cheese-egg-lettuce-tomato sandwich. I’m sorry body! We are now in shape for the next 34 hours… Buenos Aires, Lima. Lima, Bogota. Bogota, JFK. JFK, home (by car, with my parents). Here we are, changing hemispheres and chasing summer. I couldn’t be happier to get home.
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TO KNOW MORE ABOUT PATAGONIA
- 180 South, a 2010 documentary that retraces the 1968 trip of Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, the co-fonder of The North Face Inc.
- Nostalgia For The Light, a 2010 documentary on the lasting impacts of Pinochet’s dictatorship.
- The Pearl Button, a 2015 documentary on Chilean settlements in the Land of Fire.
FERRIES IN PATAGONIA
The ones one needs to take to travel on the Chilean side from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, from North to South :
- Hornipiren/Leptepu + Leptepu/Caleta Gonzalo, Fjord Largo (with a 10,2km to cycle/drive/walk in-between the two ports). 1-2 a day depending on the season. 2300 CPesos/cyclist for the whole trip. First ferry takes 3hrs, the second, 30min or so, with a 30-45min cycle on the island.
- Puerto Yungay, Rio Bravo. 3 times a day. Free. Takes 45min.
The one one needs to take to stay on the route 7 :
- Caleta La Arena/Caleta Puelche. Many times a day. 2500 CPesos/cyclist. Can be avoided by passing through Puerto Varas, Cochamo and Puerto Rio Puelo, a beautiful alternative.
Some of the ones one can take to cross to Argentina, from North to South :
- Puerto Ibanez (if going Chile Chico). Can be avoided by passing through Puerto Guadal.
- Lago O’Higgins + Lago Desierto (with a 24km of no men’s land between the Chilean and Argentinean border between the two ferries, including 14km of steep loose gravel road + 10km of hiking trail wide enough to pass with a fully loaded bike but very steep and obstructed). 40 000 CPesos/person for Lago O’Higgins (the double for those who want to go see a glacier), 1-2 a day depending the time in the season (check the schedule because it only runs in the summer) (only one company runs that ferry, plus another man with a smaller but cheaper boat) (tickets are bought on the boat if coming from Argentina – by VISA, Americans or Chileans). Takes 3 hours. 400 APesos/person for Lago Desierto. Twice a day. Tickets are bought on the boat to the captain in Argentinean. Takes 30min. That ferry can be avoided by using a 11km trail – apparently in very bad conditions.
Ideas for people crossing Chile-Argentina on less beaten tracks, from North to South :
- Petrohue. Beautiful crossing, well promoted by traveling agencies. Information in Puerto Montt.
- Rio Puelo. Beautiful and non touristic alternative. Information in Cochamo (but need to dig for it). Be ready to cycle 70km-ish to the end of the road, hike 5km-ish of trail and take two boats (one in Chile, one in Argentina) which will lead you to Argentina. Boats could be expansive, but less than Lago Desierto. In Cochamo, one can also cross through the rock-climbing meca La Junta, though only hikers can consider that way. It has been done by tourers on bikes, and is not recommended.
- Paso Mayer. Just before Villa O’Higgins, Paso Mayer can also bring pedestrians and cyclists to Argentina. While all the cyclist pass through Lago Desierto, that way could also be considered. We’ve met no cyclists who have passed through Paso Mayer, but we heard that a motorcyclist had done it : cyclist should too. Be ready for some major pushing and steep trails.
TOURERS WITH WHOM WE SHARED THE CARRETERA AUSTRAL
- Didier Jourdain, California. Met in Chalten, Argentina. Cycled in Asia before flying to Ushuaia, and now cycling back to California. http://www.thereandbikeagain.com
- Flor & Lucia (France), Alex (Spain), Simon (Switzerland), Conor (Ireland), Henry (NZ), Ruby (Turkey), Kamil (Poland), Sylvie (Quebec) and so many more…
NEED TO FIX YOUR BIKE IN PATAGONIA?
Chalten, Argentina. Go see Geraldo (Gerry) who owns the restaurant Nipo-Nino, at the end of Avenue San Martin (in direction of Lago Desierto). He’s a sports teacher at the elementary school and fixes bicycles for fun. He works well, knowledgeable, and has good prices.
San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. Ask Miguel from WarmShowers for his help. He is a music teacher. He used to have a bicycle shop and is fully, completely passionate with cycling. He can weld broken/damage racks or frames, and also has his own brand (!!!). He works well, is entirely trustworthy and makes good prices – especially for Argentina where everything that is imported is out of price.
Cholila, Argentina. Go to Piuke Mapu Hostel and meet with Dario. Dario is passionate with outdoors in general – mainly cycling and climbing. He’s the fonder of Piuke Mapu, the best spot where to relax and charge back batteries. With Laura, their hostel is ecofriendly and lovely situated at the bottom of the Andes. Multiple peaks to explore in the area, which is still out off beaten tracks – for now. Dario has multiple spare parts and could probably give you a hand if needed.
Coyhaique, Chile. Two-story bicycle shop with new and used parts! We didn’t need their services, but heard they are trustworthy .
Puerto Montt, Chile. Multiple shops. Be careful – some will be opportunists…