Southern Patagonia: Ice is nice

Ask any bike tourer to sum up cycling in Patagonia in a word – and that word will be ‘windy’.  Probably accompanied by a string of expletives, depending on the season and direction of travel.  Once we reached El Chaltén it was clear that it would be the wind, not us, that dictated when and where we rode for the next few weeks …

Off the boat and it’s a quick wind-propelled pedal in to El Chaltén

El Chaltén was a jumble of discarded bikes, as everyone shouldered backpacks and headed for the trails.  Forming the northern section of Los Glaciares National Park, and featuring the striking spires of Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy, the park is accessible via tracks straight out of the village.  Although the trails get busier later in the day it remains much less visited than the more famous and increasingly overcrowded Torres del Paine National Park a little further south.

Off on the trail to Mount Fitroy on a perfect, calm morning
Laguna de los Tres on a gorgeous day
Off to Laguna Torres
An endangered Huemul (south Andean) deer, trying hard to blend into the trees
One lump or two?
Tiny splashes of colour
Lazy lakeside lunching
When leaving town don’t forget to look back
It’s hard to ride away from somewhere as beautiful as El Chaltén, but a 50-60kph tailwind sure helps!

Leaving El Chaltén two became three when we met up with Adrià from Catalonia.  He spoke Spanish and carried a family-sized coffee pot so we were highly motivated to keep him in sight.  The evening cook-fest was raised to whole new heights as resources were pooled and multi pot meals became the norm.  Adrià was even more stoked to find that Ed did the dishes. 

We also saw our first guanacos along this stretch – the fourth and last camelid species for this trip.  The herds of these graceful animals kept us entertained with their extraordinary high pitched alarm call – a sort of cross between a bray and a neigh; and the speed and elegant disdain with which they leapt the endless fences of the pampas.  Although appearing effortless, a misjudged bound has potential for disaster – and one guanaco was fortunate that Ed happened to be cycling past as she caught a hind limb in wire and was trapped hanging by the foot.  Ed was able to free the distressed animal using two sticks to untwist the wire, but didn’t wait around for any thanks. 

Lots of guanacos
Shame I can’t fit that little one in my BOB trailer bag …

After being shoved along the highway with the wind howling behind us for 90 km out of El Chaltén, we reach a sharp right hand turn on to Ruta 40.  This is not quite so wonderful with the wind now trying to hurl us across two lanes of (thankfully light) traffic.  It takes an amazing amount of energy to simply try to hold the bike on the correct side of the road, and we are occasionally forced to push the bikes through particularly exposed sections.  Finally we reach the sanctuary of ‘The Pink Hotel’ – this abandoned building is no doubt of little interest to anyone else, but its location is a legacy passed up and down the roads of South America as countless completely knackered riders fall through the doorway seeking shelter from the incessant wind.

The famed ‘Pink Hotel’ – a shrine to cycle touring
Hours of entertainment reading the walls, recognising those who’ve gone before …
…and noting some useful advice
The sun goes down …
And once it’s back up again we head off, hoping to cover some ground before the wind picks up 
We make it to El Calafate in pretty good shape, and fire up the Argentinian version of a BBQ – the asado
After a late start the next day we plug away into the wind and camp just outside the National Park
So the next day we can leave our gear and zip in to see the incredible Perito Moreno glacier

We’re a little cynical entering the Park, with fairly low expectations – but we were blown away by the immensity of this humungous chunk of ice.  I’m also fascinated by just how auditory the whole glacier-watching thing is … the glacier creaks, growls, you hear the trickle of water, an almighty ‘crack’ followed by the splash as a huge lump of ice hits the smooth green waters of Lago Argentino.  It’s a regular ‘snap, crackle and pop’ experience.  We are lucky enough to hear and see a warehouse-sized slab of ice drop away, creating a monumental wave that sends the tour boats on the lake scuttling off to safety like chicks running back to the shelter of mother hen.  Kudos to the National Park for the fantastic network of boardwalks that allow for hours of close-up glacier viewing and spread people out so you don’t feel squished for space.  This particular glacier is unique in that it is advancing steadily (rather than retreating).  The 30 km long tongue of ice is fed from the Southern Patagonian Icefield, forming a wall 5 km wide and averaging a height of 70m above the lake.  Seriously impressive stuff.  Sightseeing is exhausting though so we only make it back to our previous camp before collapsing into our tents.

That’s a lot of ice-cubes … G & T anyone?
The next morning we take the dirt road alternative back to town …
Now accompanied by a frisky tailwind
And watched over by the local population of southern crested caracaras
Not a bad day to be in the saddle

After a day off back in El Calafate, we hit the road again, rocketing back out to the main road.  There’s a short climb, ludicrously fast with the wind up your clacker, and then we go back into slo-mo as we turn sideways to the wind and there’s no place to hide.  The best way I can describe it is feeling like a plastic plaything in the hands of a petulant giant – likely to get tossed aside without warning.  We pull up early at a road depot where Mario lets us camp in the shelter of shed walls, spending the afternoon fending off the attentions of two kittens.  Overnight we were woken by high-volume purring – so loud it felt like the kittens were in bed with us.  Possibly because they were, having snuck in past our dodgy tent zips.  Sorry kittens, I’d prefer a pet guanaco.

A gray and drizzly day as we take the shortcut ..
Back out on the highway and we overnight at the only type of hotel we can afford in Patagonia …

And then it’s back into Chile (again).  The ‘sniffer dog’ at this border must have had a terrible cold as he completely failed to detect Adrià’s stash of cheese, salami, onion and garlic, smuggled into the country in defiance of the draconian food import regulations.  Well, only smuggled about 1 km over the border as we ate it all for dinner …

I think these barriers are to stop the wind from destroying the village of Cerro Castillo …

In Cerro Castillo we hung out the white flag of surrender to the wind gods and settled in at the bus station waiting room.  This little oasis provided a big room with large comfy sofas and free wifi(!!).  Cyclists claim to have been pinned down at this spot for days, which is understandable given that stepping outside the room was likely to result in becoming airborne in a sudden 100+ kph gust of wind.  With a three-day forecast of ridiculous winds, heavy rain and ‘highs’ of 2C, we elected to push on the following day and seek shelter in Puerto Natales.

After battling our way out of town at about 5 kph, we turned just enough to gain shelter from some low hills – even better were the snug little bus shelters that draw cyclists in like moths to a flame
Some nice views too
The wind is raging as we roll into Puerto Natales …
A rough and bleak little town, but oddly appealing
Happy to hole up indoors as the rain comes in …
Leaving the outdoors to the birds

After a couple of days and around a dozen pizzas, we’re off again – admiring the teensiest of bus shelters and enjoying another ripping tailwind as we blast down the highway to Morro Chico.  

All smiles – must be a tailwind
Adrià – loving the tailwind this much
Camping in the rodeo ground stables
Before turning off on to a series of back roads
Towards the coast at Rio Verde
There’s a few buildings but no-one seems to be home
They’re probably all out with the sheep …
After poking around some interesting old buildings we retreat
And continue to the mouth of the Fitzroy canal which links Seno Skyring and Seno Otway
Another day, another roadside picnic
Perfect riding conditions
We’re delighted to find ourselves a comfy little ‘refugio’ for the night
With sea views and a preview of tomorrow’s track down to the coast
And then we’re at the beach
‘Bikeshacking’ opportunities abound
Time for some coastal contemplation
And surprisingly rideable beach meanderings
This is nice
No cars here
We’re huge fans of locked gates these days – tossing the bikes over is small price to pay for traffic-free riding
An old office is a perfect lunch stop on a rainy day
No prizes for guessing the prevailing wind direction
Climbing away from Seno Otway …
We encounter a couple of horsemen with ALL the dogs
And a battered old bus
And after navigating a series of gates, we descend to the outskirts of Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is the last major city of the trip – we load up with a weeks food, book the ferry for the trip across the Magellan Strait and prepare to leave the mainland for the final section of the trip on Tierra del Fuego … El Fin del Mundo (the End of the World) here we come!


Until next time


Rubber side down,

Ed & Gaye

*Cheers Adrià for giving us permission to use some of his pics on the site

5 comments on “Southern Patagonia: Ice is nice

  1. Just INCREDIBLE!!
    Hard to imagine the freedom you two feel!
    If I could only turn off the daily news here in the USA I’m sure worry and stress level would vanish and I would riding my bike even more than I do.
    Safe travels!!

    1. Cheers Bob. Yes, it’s definitely good to be disconnected sometimes & escape the 24/7 ‘news’ feed …

  2. You have made me smile several times :) Love how you write this days we have biked together. So much fun we spent. Big hug to you two!

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