In Punta Arenas Tom and I went our separate ways. By chance we’d arrived in the city late in the week, and the parts I needed for my Panniers would need to be sourced on European time after the weekend. It meant that Tom had the luxury of planning his departure time, whereas I would need to stick around long enough to organise the shipment from Germany.
In typical German efficiency, the parts were couriered immediately to be sent ahead to Puerto Natales, about 250km down the road. The ride took 4 days, with a pleasant mix of calm and windy days. I took the opportunity to bunk down in a few different places, camped out by a coastal inlet one night, in an abandoned house the second and finally jumping a fence and discreetly hiding away in the brush near an estancia.
The only real excitement was offered when I lay down in the shade half a day out of Puerto Natales to realise I’d left my phone in a bus shelter 30km’s behind me. I quickly negotiated with the Chilean police to mind my bike while I traded the bike for my thumb and backtracked to find it. The phone is largely useless to me here since I don’t have a number, but I’ve been using it for online mapping and to track elevation changes which are useful to know a few days out.
I’d made good time to Puerto Natales and arrived a day earlier than I’d told the hostel that was receiving my parts. The hostel had technically not opened for the season, but the owners were kind enough to let me stay – it meant I had the whole place to myself and the following day was spent watching the Rugby World Cup final with the Argentine owners, drinking tea and yelling at the television. Puerto Natales also offered a few options to fix some other issues I was having, the local bike store offered to service my bike for free, and I found a little Chilean woman to patch some wounds in my tent.
Leaving Puerto Natales, it was immediately obvious that the mountains were fast approaching. The scale of the mountains in Torres del Paine only fully being realised as it dawns on you that no matter which way the road tracks, they always seem to be straight on in your field of vision.
Eventually the defined shape of the peaks of Torres del Paine took over and the kilometres dripped away as all focus was taken away from the wind, road surface (mostly ripio) and elevation. I paused briefly at the park entrance and boiled up pasta, much to the fascination and enjoyment of all the beautiful Chilean park rangers, who came outside to enjoy some tea with me between tourists entering the park.
Tom was a few days ahead of me at this point, and I’d seen photos pop up online of a wind battered soldier, desperate for some respite in the park. I think I probably had a clean run in comparison, with the exception of one corner in the park which blew a gale as I rounded it – I accidentally turned right on to the wind and was blown clean off my bike and some ways down the hill. When I finally collected myself I looked around, bewildered as to how the bike could be so far away. Once again, I can’t overstate the weather down here – it’s a reckoning force.
All forgotten quickly when I got to the first campground I saw, offering spectacular views across Lago Pehoe to the peaks in the distance, and an inviting set of Torres peaking from over the top.
Pushing off the following day I headed towards Torres official. Though the route through the park is short, the day was spent climbing through loosely compacted gravel with stiff head winds. Large parts of the track were too soft to get traction uphill and a healthy part of the day was spent pushing the bike, taking photographs and waiting out the worst of the weather. When I finally reached the basecamp at Torres del Paine I was more or less ready for a day off, and luckily the following day the sun delivered so I spent a day lazing around in the shade reading my books and snoozing intermittently with the intention of hiking up into the mountains the following day.
Of course then the weather the following day was of the mountain variety, with a thick low hanging cloud moving in through the ranges. By the time I’d made the ascent up to the true base of Torres, they were completely hidden in the clouds. No amount of waiting was going to clear this, and after a few hours and lunch on the top of the mountain I decided to come down slowly. Halfway down I stopped for a rest at a refugio amongst some horses used to carry supplies up through the pass, and I watched the towers clear above me.
At the bottom of the mountain I felt the last of my cold coming back, and hopped into bed with a fever coming on. It was a restless sleep spent sweating into my sleeping bag, and the following day I could only manage to get out of bed briefly to stand under a shower and feel sorry for myself. In all I was out of action for almost 36 hours before I could find the strength the get on the bike and head towards Cerro Castillo and the crossing back into Argentina.
In Cerro Castillo I stopped into a local Cafe which had received some food supplies on my behalf during the week. Juan-Carlo greeted me with a big healthy ‘JESSE JAMES’ as I walked through the door. My bag of food was labelled with my name and he took liberty to rename me as he saw fit. He gave me a good tip for a place to sleep in the small border town, and I headed towards the local bus terminus to bed down. It ended up being the best bus stop I’ve slept in (not just on this trip), it was equipped with leather couches, a TV, woodfire heater and even got a scratch of wifi from the small library across the road.
I cautiously crossed the border back into Argentina later than anticipated. I’d arrived at the border at the same time as all of the tourist buses, who decided they all needed photographs of me for their scrapbooking endeavours. When I finally got across the border and made it through the early part of the day I found myself back on paved roads and tracking with good speed. I watched the dial creep up to 40km/h, then 50, 60, 65km/h. It wasn’t a very convincing grade but I became convinced the road surface must be spectacular, it felt good. It wasn’t until pulled off the road for some water that I realised I had the wind behind me. 60km/h without pedalling on a small descent meant that I chewed up the paved section of road in a little over an hour and well before lunchtime. I started on a testing gravel section of road to shortcut the main highway on the way to El Calafate. The road was 65km total and was a hard bit of riding, by the time I’d finished for the day I had set a new daily record on the trip of a touch over 120km. Special thanks go to a number of motorists and motorcycle tourers who pulled over to make sure my water bottles were always full – it was a hot dry afternoon of riding.
Somewhere along the track I crossed 1000km for the tour so far and I collapsed near the end of the road in a dry creek bed and inhaled 4 portions of rice and curry and inducing a coma.
Heading off the following day, I stopped at a road workers cottage to fill up my bottles for the day. It was a long taxing morning, slowly climbing to 800m elevation with the wind in every direction except the one I wanted. Eventually the road rounded a corner and opened up through to the valley below. Despite the wind rattling through the pass, it was nice to spend half an hour descending into the valley and take the load off of the legs. Shortly after reaching the valley floor I scouted for a place near a river to sleep. As I was about to set up my tent, I heard a holler from the road above me that it wasn’t the best idea. Luis promptly told me the river was quite an unpredictable one, and that I might lose my gear if I camped there. Instead he offered me a space on the floor of a shed on his property to sleep for the night.
He offered me a shower and gave me the grand tour of his beautiful property along Rio Bote, introducing me to 5 dogs, 6 cats and a lamb called Toto along the way. He told me about working on the land with his horses and I helped feeding some of his animals and collecting eggs from the chooks as a thankyou before I left the following day. It was a long day in the saddle for a relatively short distance, but a number of travellers which I had met in Torres del Paine pulled over to say hi, take photos and offer water and supplies which broke up the day.
When I finally made it to El Calafate, I had a quiet few days. Quickly making friends with some international overlanders who had driven down from the USA and Canada. I managed to avoid the hefty bus fare out to the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier and instead hopped in the car with them to take in the sites. It was nice to be in one place for a few days and spend some proper time with other travellers, at this point I’d been in my tent for close to 3 weeks and spending time with hikers throughout the national park. A few nights were spent drinking wine and eating nice food and introducing the Americans to damper before pushing off further to El Chalten where Tom was holed up waiting for a boat into Chile.
The 220km between El Calafate and El Chalten has been perhaps my most lucky for local hospitality. Initially fuelled by salami and egg sandwiches gifted to me by the overlanders, I chewed up a fast 60km in the early morning as I left town. Somewhere around here a ’66 motorhome pulled up on the other side of the road and beckoned me to come over. The driver was Juan, a molecular biologist from Buenos Aires and avid bicycle tourist. He had been acting as a support vehicle for a friend running the length of Argentina’s Ruta 40 for the past few months, and decided to take a moment to invite me in for tea and bizcocho.
We spoke for a number of hours about the project we were each undertaking, and he told me in earnest of his Eastern European bicycle travels last year, and his ambitions to ride through the steppe to Asia in the future. All in all a really great afternoon spent out of the wind and I was sent on my way hydrated and with snacks to fuel the afternoon.
As the counter clocked 100km for the day I noticed an old observatory over a small hill nearby which Tom had clued me in to as what might be a nice place to try my luck for a bed. I gingerly let myself into the property and found a small hut nearby which was seemingly empty. As I crawled up the hill for a better vantage point I noticed an elderly chap marching up from Rio Leona with a number of trout in tow.
I quickly intoduced myself to Roberto, who invited me inside where he started the woodfire stove to warm the place up. Roberto only had every second tooth, and a lone dread spilled out from the back of his cap. Despite wearing a back brace he was a spritely as a young teen and was jumping up and down from chairs sat on the ground in the small hut. He explained that the land was owned by Gaucho Ramon, and that he and 4 others were given permission to run an agricultural cooperative on the land and to grow potatoes, garlic and a number of other vegetables. Soon, the hut was full as Gaucho Ramon arrived with all the other members of the cooperative. Liquor was passed one way around the room and maté was passed the other as Roberto told me about his life in New York, Miami and Mexico as a hippie. He told me the history of the land here and sang Gaucho Ramon’s praises as someone who could tame horses in the wild. Ramon eventually offered me the observatory to sleep in and Roberto took me up there to show me around. It was a good thing he did, since there were a number of slabs of beef hanging and curing inside which I otherwise would have mistaken for unfortunate bicycle travellers.
I bunked down for the night on the floor of the observatory in view of the salted meats, and was woken after 11pm to come down to the hut for trout from the day’s catch (Argentinian’s eat dinner very late). The following morning I ambled down to the hut for coffee and to say my farewell to everyone. I really have no idea where they all might have slept in the small space but they were all there and moving at 8am. Thinking this was the last I would see of them I hit the road and made good distance towards El Chalten. As it got later, windier and colder I thought of setting up the tent for the night, when the whole gang drove past in their car and delivered me a care package of oranges for the road – enough energy to get me into town shortly after 8pm in the snow and with no view of what I know are spectacular mountains in the ranges surrounding me here.
I’ve also reunited with Tom for the first time in over 3 weeks and the intention is to head into the local national park nearby tomorrow to camp and wait for our boat across the border closer to the end of the week. Here in the mountain ranges there is a route which allows you to cross Lago del Desierto by boat, before a gruelling hike (with bike) up to a border crossing at the top of a pass which will allow you on foot into Chile. From here there is just one more boat crossing to reach Villa O’Higgins.
Villa O’Higgins is officially Kilometre 1240 of Chile’s Carratera Austral, Ruta 7. The path is largely gravel and snakes north through rainforests and mountains before ending in Puerto Monte. Once there it will serve as a useful jump point to Chiloe and the first major pass across la Cordillera de los Andes to Bariloche. The next post should cover a good part of the Southern section of the trail.