Trip Blog

El Chaltén, Argentina to Ushuaia, Argentina (and back home!)

posted Feb 10, 2012, 8:00 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Feb 15, 2012, 6:24 PM ]

Hello! Well, this is it - the last blog entry for my trip! I'm writing this more than one month after finishing and time has been flying by. As quickly as time has been going, it also seems like I left El Chaltén a lifetime ago. Since then I've seen the massive glacier Perito Moreno, hiked in Torres del Paine National Park, gone to a rodeo, celebrated Christmas in Punta Arenas, crossed the Straight of Magellan, and ridden to Ushuaia, the "End of the world", battling the worst headwind of the trip. Here's how it all went down...

Before leaving El Chaltén, I attempted another trek that I was really excited about. The most popular "extreme" adventure  in the area (maybe after scaling Fitz Roy itself), is trekking around the Fitz Roy massif, which requires traversing two tough passes and spending at least two days on the southern ice field - the largest non-poplar ice field in the world. Since I haven't had experience with that kind of thing, didn't have anyone knowledgeable to do it with, and didn't want to pay thousands of dollars for a guide, I decided to do my own version of it. I would head out the way most parties return, crossing the "Windy Pass" first, and then turn left, and walk next to the glacier from the relative comfort of land. 

I had just heard that someone else in town had done this route in two days - which I had no intention of doing - so I packed food for three and a half days and headed out of town after registering at the park office. The rangers there gave me some information about the route, including where to cross the melt-water river from the first glacier I'd encounter, then how to cross that glacier and loop around back to town. It was also encouraging to know that someone was able to do it so quickly. 

My first day was relatively short to an established camp, since the only other option would get crossing the pass and walking a couple hours more to a refuge. The second day I packed up and early on faced the braided river leaving the upstream glacier. Until the very end, I was able to hunt around for narrow or shallow spots, but the last was deep and wide enough that I had to remove my boots and pants to wade across to the other side. The air and water temperature were just a fraction of a degree above freezing, and by the time I got to the other side, my toes were completely numb. I got my socks back onto my wet feet as quickly as possible, then continued onward towards the pass. After that point the trail became almost impossible to follow - it was hard to believe anyone had been there before. Luckily just after I reached the glacier, an 8 person trekking expedition who had done the full loop over the previous 8 days, passed and I knew I could get on the glacier at that point. I talked to the leaders briefly, who gave me some useless information, and I continued on in the direction of the pass. I reached the end of the glacier without seeing any way to either get off of it, or up the steep, loose moraine (like sand) on the other side, and I walked back and forth for about half an hour trying to find some evidence of a trail, or even the footprints of the eight people who had just passed. Unfortunately, there was nothing. It was also windy and snowing and the visibility wasn't good enough to see the pass, so without a trail, and without being able to see the pass, I had to give up and turn around.

I met the expedition I had passed earlier that day when I got back to the camp and went right to the leaders asking about the trail. The said it wasn't really a trail at that point, and I would have just had to make my way up the moraine and towards the pass. The other group members later told me that even if I had been able to make it, there was too much snow on the other side of the pass, so it would have been impossible to continue after that. So, I guess this is why the trail is marked "Solamente con guia" on the maps. (Only with guide). I really would have liked to get a view of the ice field though, so not making it was disappointing.

After getting back to town I took a day off and prepared to leave, but I woke up with a terrible sore throat that lasted for four days and I was stuck in the hostel until I felt well enough to head out. The next stop was a town called El Calafate, where I would base myself while I made a side-trip to the Perito Moreno glacier. I thought it might take three days to get there, but with the wind, possibly much longer. I packed food for four and a half, hoping it would be enough, and luckily the wind forecast told me I'd have a good tailwind on the day I'd be heading east, not much of a crosswind on the day I was heading south, and only mild wind on the day I'd ride into El Calafate. 

The ride went perfectly according to plan and I got to the first junction the first day, about 10 miles from the next junction on the second, and then into El Calafate early on the third. I passed about 8 other cyclists in total on the second and third days - most of them were touring for a few months in South America, and one of the guys was doing the second leg of his 4.5 year round the world trip, and was heading north to Alaska. 

Some quick info for cyclists: You can get water about 45k from Chalten, there is a tin shack at the junction, behind the hills - after you turn onto the main road, there is a gate on the left and a dirt road heading towards a windmill, the shack is on the left. There is an estancia near the first junction after the lake with free water and expensive food, a highway department building about half way through the road where you can get water, and the two rivers before the junction for Calafate have potable water. The road to Calafate is pretty rolly and you can expect a headwind.

As I pulled into El Calafate I met two other guys who I had heard about, who had just started their northbound trip to Alaska - one had ridden from England to South Africa a year before. They were looking for a place to stay too and we all went to THE campground for cyclists, where a french couple and a french Canadian couple I had met in El Chaltén were already staying. There was a second French Canadian couple there, that was also headed north to Alaska.

I spent one day seeing the glacier, which was amazing. It's enormous and is one of the few advancing glaciers in South America. Another day was spent looking for a place to get my cracked trailer repaired, but after going to five places and always being sent to another, I gave up and decided to get it fixed in Puerto Natales instead. On the third day I got a late start and tried to leave, but the wind was so strong the police stopped me and told me I couldn't go because it was too dangerous. Before I could even leave, they changed their mind, got my passport number for some reason and told me just to be careful. I had changed my mind though, since even if I survived the wind, there would be no shelter that night and I'd have been blown away in my tent.

The next day was perfect and I did about 80 miles, with a great tailwind helping me over a small pass. During the day I met  another French couple who was touring with backpacks on ultralight road bikes. The guy asked me if they'd be able to do the Carretera Austral, which for most people is hard on mountain bikes. I said it might be possible, but even if their bikes survived, it wouldn't be fun. It actually upset me that people would come to a place like this being so unprepared - I wonder how far they made it.

I stayed at a police outpost that night where I was able to pitch my tent in the wind shadow of a small building, and use the indoor kitchen while the on-duty officer stared at me the whole time. Another one for my "most uncomfortable experiences" list. As I was leaving that morning, I met a couple from Oregon, who had started in Alaska a year after me, and had already caught up. If someone I met in Peru hadn't just finished after 3.5 years on the road, I'd have felt even slower! Amazingly, we had already been talking through the panam-riders email group about an end of the world/end of the year party for cyclists in Ushuaia. We rode together for a few days into Torres Del Paine, where they continued on and I stayed to hike. 

More stuff for cyclists: There is a river and campamento between the left turn back towards Chalten and the climb - but this is more useful for northbound cyclists. At the junction of the route 40 shortcut there's a highway department building where you can stay. In the middle of the shortcut there is a river and the police station. At Tapi Aike, there is a gas station with drinks and snacks, a police station and the Tapi Aike estancia, where you can ask permission to camp in the grassy area near a very dirty stream (get water at the gas station). Cerro Castillo has a small but well-stocked store where you can get everything you need, without paying the outrageous prices that are found inside the park. There is also a restaurant "El Ovejero" (if I remember correctly), where you can overpay for cookies, or buy bread. You can also exchange Argentinian Pesos at a horrible rate, or "buy" Chilean Pesos with a credit card for a 4% fee. You can loop through the park without backtracking, see the map I posted previously. 

I spent five days in the park hiking and was constantly amazed by the scenery. As always, I was more impressed by the "unknown" parts of the park, than the most famous. The two-tone "Los Cuernos" (The horns), were the most impressive feature - better than the Torres (towers) themselves, and the best overall views from the hike were the view of the blue-green lake with islands and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, which was before Campamento Italiano, and the Campamento Britanico area afterwards, with a massive, multi-colored amphitheater of granite. The day I hiked out to Britanico was my favorite of the five. The weather was great, I could go slowly and enjoy the scenery and spend as much time as I wanted at the viewpoint, before turning back. That night I went back down the trail to try to catch some avalanches from what I think was called the French Glacier (it's in the French Valley anyway), where I found a trail that goes all the way to the base of the glacier. I got to do some great exploring that was off the beaten path, which is hard to do in a park so crowded it's become known as "Tourists del Paine". 

From the park it took me two days to get to the next town, Puerto Natales. I spent a day riding out of the park, slowed down partly by the rolling hills and dirt road, and partly by the fantastic scenery and wildlife, and I camped just outside the park in a small "town" (Villa Sorrata) that was little more than a cluster of hotels. A couple people told me that I could buy food there, and that it would be cheaper than inside the park, but when I got there there wasn't a store to be found. Desperately, I went from hotel to hotel, seeing if one had some food they could sell me. Finally I stopped at the Hotel Tyndall, where they gave me all the food I needed (and more!) for a great price. I rode back to a great looking camp spot that I had noticed on my way into town and as I pulled in, I heard a "snap!" from my trailer - it had finally broken. I unloaded everything and made sure it was reasonably well hidden, and rode back to the hotel, where I had noticed a good sized tool shed as I left earlier. I met one of the maintenance guys right away, explained my situation, and asked if he, or someone around could weld the trailer. He said sure, and that it would cost the equivalent of $10 US. After traveling for so long, you get very tuned into the common "micro-expressions" that people make when they're trying to charge you more than they know the service is worth. Not missing his, I said "Wow - that's a lot!", and he quickly said "OK, four dollars!". He was obviously new at this. I told him I'd pay him six (the amount I had paid for my last repair in Chile), but only if it worked - if he broke my trailer, he'd get nothing. We agreed and he got to work. About 15 minutes later he had made the ugliest, but perfectly adequate, weld I had ever seen, so I paid him and rode off. Broken to fixed in such a remote place in under 45 minutes - amazing luck!

The next day was a nice, but relatively uneventful ride into Puerto Natales, where I was looking forward to a few days off after so many back to back days of cycling and hiking (11 in total I think). I met two guys I had met back in Chalten, and we decided to go to the rodeo in town the next day. It was the real deal, with local cowboys and untamed young horses. It was interesting to watch. I checked the wind forecast that night, which was perfect for me to leave the next morning, so unfortunately I didn't get the rest day I had hoped for. 

I made good time to Morro Chico, a strange outcropping at a junction in the road, where I was again able to stay at a police station, this time in one of the unused buildings out back. The next day I met a German couple early on, who also happened to be panam-riders members, and they knew me before I even introduced myself. We traveled together for the next two days to Punta Arenas, but since they already had a reservation at a hotel in town, we stayed in different places, and didn't meet up again until Ushuaia. I wasn't particularly attracted to Punta Arenas, and being a port town, the only noteworthy thing is the huge number of strip clubs throughout the town. I met the French couple Seb and Laeti for the third time there, and went penguin viewing with them the next day. They had a flight out to New Zealand that afternoon where they'd ride during the next part of their one-year world tour. I stayed at the Hostel Independencia, where there was a huge BBQ on Christmas Eve, then I headed out the following morning (Christmas Day), hoping to arrive in Ushuaia before New Year's Eve. 

From Punta Arenas, I took a ferry across the straight of Magellan, to Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), the island that contains Ushuaia. From there it was a surprising 6 days of riding to the end, but mostly because I had a headache one of the days and didn't ride far, and because of terrible wind leaving Rio Grande on the next day. Before I left town I ran into a woman named Holly who was also heading North towards Alaska! As always, when you meet these people you have to do a brain dump and give them advice on what's to come. We talked for 2 hours before I finally decided to head out and face what may have been the worst wind of the trip. I had a 5 mile upwind section, before the road turned south and crossed the river. I tried cycling for the first 2 miles or so, then gave up and pushed my bike the rest of the way - even that was hard and I had to stop several times to rest and eat (of course!). After turning the wind was more to my back and I made great time, but I spent so much time on the first 5 miles, and since I got such a late start, I didn't get very far overall. There was a great spot at the river Ewan Sur, where I camped, regretting that I wouldn't make it to the famous Panaderia La Union, a famous bakery that gives cyclists a free place to stay and all the pastries they can eat. 

The next day I stopped in Tohluin to get some empanadas from La Union and to buy some food for the rest of my ride to Ushuaia. That night I got a little farther than I planned - to the base of the last pass of my trip, where I found a nice grassy place to pitch my tent. 

The next morning I got packed up, squeezed everything through the fence I had come in through, snapped a quick "happy face" picture of myself on the last (928th) day of my trip, and started the easy climb over the final pass (Paso Garibaldi). Unfortunately the weather got worse throughout the day, and it started to rain just as I began the descent. It was cold and miserable - not how I would have liked to end my trip. I also didn't get to see much of the purportedly fantastic scenery on the last part of the road into Ushuaia, and upon arriving to town, I didn't see the famous sign greeting travelers and reminding them they were in the southernmost city in the world (I later learned that it had been taken town and replaced by a more modern looking, but less photo-friendly structure at the town border). I was able to find a "Fin del Mundo" (End of the world), sign on harbor, and settled for a picture there, taken by someone who was asking me about my trip and I figured they could do me a little favor.

So that was it - my trip was finally over. And the big question has been "how did it feel?". Honestly, I can't say it felt like anything at all. As with most people who have done this trip it was just another end of another day, no different than any of the others that had come before it; this day was only different because there wouldn't be another one following it. I wouldn't call it anticlimactic though, since I wasn't expecting there to be a sudden feeling of relief or accomplishment, and I think part of this underwhelming reaction has to do with the sheer size of the trip. It's too big to get your head around in the beginning, and it's too big to get your head around at the end. It didn't feel like one trip or one experience as much as many small trips and many experiences that I began to see more as my life than something separate from it with a clear beginning and end. Arriving in Ushuaia also really reminds you of what a personal mission it has been, since when you arrive, there is no finish line, no one waiting at the end to congratulate you, no one you pass on the street knows what you've done - and if there had been, all they would know is the time you've spent and the distance you've covered, which to me are so insignificant compared to the depth of the experiences that this trip was really about. Traveling this way, you can live 10 lifetimes in two and a half years and to focus on something as insignificant as a number would mean that I had totally missed the point. 

I had hoped to find a cheap boat to Antarctica from Ushuaia, but the boats that were leaving soon were too expensive, and the boats that were less expensive left three weeks from when I got there, so sadly, I had to decide that I had seen enough, and a trip to Antarctica would have to wait. I was in town for about a week and a half, mostly looking for boats, selling my bike, trailer, tent and sleeping bag, doing some souvenir shopping, and making trips to the national park and through the harbor on a boat tour. I wanted to leave sooner, but all the flights were booked until January 15th, and even the buses were full for a few days, so I had to occupy myself until I could get out of the city. I opted for taking buses up the coast to Buenos Aires for a few reasons, even though the cost was about the same as a flight and they take 50 hours instead of 3.5 - I could head north much sooner by bus, I wanted to stop at a beach town before Buenos Aires (and without a parachute, this wouldn't have been possible from a plane), and maybe most importantly I wasn't ready to leave the ground and miss seeing everything on the way up the coast. After seeing everything in such detail on the way down, deciding that nothing else was worth seeing on the return trip just didn't seem right - why should I not care just because I had stopped pedaling?

I had two nice days in the Necochea area on the coast, but the water was too cold to spend much time in, and the waves weren't good for surfing. I got to see a little of Buenos Aires, which is an enormous city of 13 million people, with some great architecture and an 18 lane highway that's said to be the widest in the world. It's another place that I could see myself living in - but not now. From there I flew to Santiago for a connection and got to experience a 5.6 earthquake while waiting in the airport, then my next connection was in Toronto where it was snowing, then finally I flew to New Orleans where I arrived at the same time as my friend Cher, who was awesome enough to bring me my favorite pizza in her luggage! We spent 6 days seeing four of the Gulf states, Louisiana, Missisippi, Alabama and a little of Florida. Next I flew to my Mom's place farther south in Florida and spent a few days there with her and her boyfriend, before finally flying back north to Rhode Island where I've been staying with my Dad and step-mom. 

Since I got to Rhode Island I've been almost constantly busy looking for jobs, a place to live, a car, buying clothes and other things I need to get started again and trying to catch up on the latest changes in IT, since I'm hoping to go back to a job in that field. Tomorrow I'll be checking out a temporary apartment in Boston, where I can pay week to week while I continue my search for a job and a permanent place to live. I'm still considering a move to another part of the country, with San Diego, Denver and Portland high on the list.

I want to thank my family for their support and encouragement before and during the trip, for giving me places to stay since I've been back, my Dad for driving me around everywhere and letting me use his car (amazingly, I can still drive a car!) and I also wanted to congratulate my sister and her husband for giving me my first niece! I tried hard to get home in time, but they were just a few days too early! Lastly, I want to thank everyone who has followed along, and everyone who has donated to my fundraisers - every donation was greatly appreciated! Thank you all.

Again, if you'd like to be notified of my next trips, please join my mailing list using the form below. I'll send a brief update when I make changes to this website, create one for other trips, or when there is any other noteworthy travel-related news.

More updates coming!

posted Jan 27, 2012, 12:31 PM by Paul Gareau

Hi all! I'm writing this from Florida, where I'm visiting my Mom on my way home. Just wanted to let everyone know that I'll be finishing my blog and posting more pictures once I get back to Mass/RI, and I'm hoping to write some more articles and get some other pages up about my gear and recommendations.

I have a few other trips in mind, so if you'd like to be notified about those, you can sign up for my personal mailing list below. It just takes a few seconds, and you'll receive a periodic email about my future trips and where to find their blogs and photos.

Lastly, the NKF fundraiser is currently at $915, which is soooo close to my goal of $1000. If you haven't donated yet, time is running out!

See you soon!

Ushuaia, Argentina - Fin del Mundo!

posted Dec 31, 2011, 11:04 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Jan 1, 2012, 7:43 AM ]

I'm done! 928 days in total. I rolled into Ushuaia yesterday afternoon in the rain, took the obligatory photo in front of the Fin del Mundo (End of the world) sign and then went to my hostel.

I want to thank everyone who has donated since my last request - only $240 to go before I update my blog and pictures!

Torres del Paine Loop Road

posted Dec 24, 2011, 1:06 PM by Paul Gareau

It's possible to ride into and out of Torres del Paine without backtracking. Since it seems that no maps show this route, I'm posting the map from my GPS along with some distances and place names.

Since it might not be obvious, the distances correspond to each color of the route, Laguna Amarga and Villa Serrano are at the start/end of the colored lines, and Cerro Castillo is at the junction. The gray line to the east of Rte 9 is the Chile/Argentina border.

Happy Holidays!

posted Dec 24, 2011, 9:20 AM by Paul Gareau

Last update ever...

posted Dec 18, 2011, 4:18 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Dec 18, 2011, 4:21 PM ]

Rocket boots. It was the only explanation. After all, I had walked across the glacier four times and still couldn't find a single trace of the 8 person expedition that had passed just half an hour earlier. All that I could see was ice to my right, a massive wall of glacial moraine to my left and a white abyss in the direction of the pass I was heading for. At times I had to stop and brace myself against the fierce, cold wind that seemed determined to break my spirit.

And it did. But returning to my last camp wouldn't be easy either. Now I was standing bearfoot and in my underwear in a gusty snowstorm on the bank of the river I had crossed earlier that morning. A battle was playing out in my mind between my cowardice and my growing hypothermia. I squinted hard as if to silence the dissenting voice and took the first step, nearly losing my balance as my foot slipped on a round rock hidden below the icy, turbid surface...

THE END - possibly forever.

It's true. I'm holding this website hostage until I receive $1000 in donations for the National Kidney Foundation. I announced this fundraiser about 6 months ago and have received less than 10% of my goal, from only 8 of the 400 monthly visitors to this site. To be honest, I'm embarrassed to set the bar so low. Since my final destination, Ushuaia, is now less than one week of riding away, if you haven't donated yet, now would be a really good time! 

Managing this website requires a fairly significant amount of time and money (spent on food and lodging during the days off while I'm working on it) and I'm not even asking for direct compensation - only a small donation to a charity that I have a personal interest in (if you don't know why, read my Donate! page more closely). If you have enjoyed reading my blog or viewing my pictures, think of your donation as a small token of appreciation for the time I've spent. So please give what you can: $5, $10, $20... If a friend or family member told you about this site, but they haven't visited recently themselves, a gentle reminder would be appreciated.

Click here to go directly to my fundraising page at the National Kidney Foundation website.

Thanks! Hope to see you all again soon!

Futaleufú, Chile to El Chaltén, Argentina

posted Nov 21, 2011, 10:10 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Nov 21, 2011, 10:46 AM ]

Hellooooo from Argentina. Another month has passed and I've ridden over 600 miles / 1000 km from Futaleufú, down the famous Carretera Austral to Villa O'Higgins where I crossed into Argentina the "adventurous way" (more on that later...). I did almost no research on the Austral, since logistically it didn't seem too hard and I thought it would be better to be surprised by the scenery along the way. All I knew was that everyone I've met on this trip who has done it has told me that I have to go that way, so that was all the encouragement I needed!

The Carretera Austral is, for the most part, a one lane dirt road through Chilean Patagonia. It passes through mostly small towns and some settlements of several small houses, as well as through forests and mountains, near glaciers, fjiords, rivers, lakes and volcanoes. It's no surprise that it's a common trip for adventurous cyclists and possibly the only part more challenging than the cycling is remembering all the names that start with the letter "C". So let's "c"... It's the Carretera Austral, through Chilean Patagonia, and passes through Chaitén, Chacabuco, Coihaique, Cerro Castillo and Cochrane. Cyclists crossing by boat will arrive at Candelario Mancilla, where they'll cross to El Chaltén, and possibly continue on to El Calafate and later to another Cerro Castillo. Luckily after that things get a little simpler again...

I feel like I used up all the good adjectives a long time ago, and recycling them to give you an idea of what this road and area are like couldn't possibly do it justice. It's heartbreaking that work is already underway to dam the rivers in this part of Patagonia (which will of course flood certain areas), construct hydroelectric plants, and run power lines next to the road, which will soon be paved. It's a tragedy. You can go here: for more information.

I've already written an overview of the Austral and the crossing into Argentina for cyclists, and I think my pictures tell the story pretty well, so I won't try to explain the scenery or road conditions.

After about four months without a single cyclist sighting, I've met a bunch on the Austral and afterwards. The first was Miguel, a Chilean guy from Santiago who is riding the Austral on his vacation. We met between Cerro Castillo and Rio Tranquilo and rode together a bit, then went to the impressive eroded rocks of Capilla del Marmol, where the boat sometimes pulls right into the caves and lets passengers out to explore. We met a Chilean girl named Nidia on the boat, and her and I went to the Exploradores glacier that afternoon as Miguel continued on. I planned to leave the next day, but there was rain in the morning and by the time it stopped I was just too lazy to leave. I also met two more cyclists during the day, this time a couple from Italy who are riding the Austral, then hiking in Argentina and returning to Chile by one of the coastal ferries. We stayed at the same hotel in town, but because they don't speak much English or Spanish we couldn't talk much and only leap-frogged each other a few times after getting back on our bikes the next day.

The big "city" along the Austral is called "Coyhaique", which I came within about 15 miles of before having to hitch for the first time due to a mechanical problem. My extremely expensive, US-made hub (*ahem* - 'nuff info?) had finally died and getting up the last hill before town would have been nearly impossible. The freehub started skipping a little north of Mendoza, and some clever guys at a bike shop in town there were able to temporarily repair it by using some metal shims to fill in the extra space between the sealed bearings and the freehub body. Being only a temporary fix, it bought me some time, but by Coyhaique the teeth inside the freehub were severely damaged and the only option was to replace the hub. The timing was extremely fortunate since Coyhaique is the only place with a bike shop (there is only one) along the Austral and they had only one hub that would work with my bike (36 spoke and disc breaks). The manufacturer of the first hub is going to replace it for free and cover the shipping costs, but I still had to buy the new one to finish this trip. Incidentally, I could have bought 8 of the new hubs for what I paid for my first. 

As always I had a bunch of other things to do on my day off, including repairing my fender, replacing my break pads, uploading my pictures, doing an extensive cleaning of my DSLR camera's sensor (and I still can't get all the dust off!!!), laundry, food shopping, etc... Like most of my "days off" I had to make myself a To Do list to make sure I wouldn't forget anything. Also, as luck would have it my kickstand had finally broken (I had been wondering when it would happen) and the bike shop in town had a kickstand almost exactly like mine on the workbench, which had broken in a different place, so I was able to fix mine for free.

Another case of good luck following bad luck was that I lost my gloves (nice Marmots) in Puyuguapi, and found a pair laying on a trail the next day. They're not quite as good, but at least my hands won't be cold.

Along with the glaciers (Exploradores and Ventisquero Colgante), Capilla de Marmol, the Bosque Encantado and the mountain Cerro Castillo, one of the attractions of the Austral is the small town "Tortel". Until about 2003 there was no road connecting to this coastal town, and without cars there was no need for streets, so a network of about 4 miles of boardwalks connects all the houses, stores, etc. It's a very unique place and definitely worth the small side trip from the main road. The only problem for a tired cyclist is the 100s of stairs that you must go down and back up to get to the food stores. 

I was really excited to arrive in Villa O'Higgins, literally at the "end of the road" in this part of Patagonian Chile. I imagine getting to Ushuaia will feel almost the same, with the exception that after I get there there will be nowhere left to go but home (wherever that will be!). In town the Italians had already arrived, as well as a French couple who I hadn't seen before, and late in the evening a Czech guy rolled in, so there would be a group of 6 cyclists on the boat to Argentina. In the hostel there were also two backpacking couples, as well as a solo guy from France. It was a great group and it's good to finally be in places not only with other cyclists, but just adventurous people in general. 

As always, I had more things to do before the boat left Villa O'Higgins. The "floor" of my trailer was detaching and I had to find someone to weld it. After looking around town I finally found a guy who claimed to have "some experience" welding - he charged me $6 for what must be the ugliest welding job ever done. I also had to replace a shifter cable, some cable housing, repair my themarest (inflatable mattress), do my laundry and put my pictures online. Day off? Ha! I also helped the owner of the hostel (El Mosco) move his website to a different provider that would let him make changes more easily, and since internet access on the Austral only comes from 3G USB dongles and the cell company tells you that it's not possible to share the connection (of course), I set up the computer as a wireless access point so that guests with laptops could connect to the computer with WiFi, to get internet access through the 3G connection. It's relatively easy with Windows 7 (except it was in Spanish of course), and the only tricky part was getting the Ad-Hoc network started when the computer starts (a scheduled task takes care of that). Anyway, for helping with those two things, I didn't have to pay for my three nights there.

Our boat across Lago O'Higgins was delayed for a day due to wind, so we departed on Sunday morning and got to the other side of the lake after 2.5-3 hours, which is where the fun starts for cyclists. The Chilean customs station is close to the port, so the first thing to do is stamp out of Chile, then begin a big climb on a loose dirt road to the pass, during which most cyclists will be pushing half the time. After the pass it's possible to ride again - for a while - before passing an airstrip in the middle of nowhere, and later a sign in the forest saying that you've arrived in Argentina. From that point the "road" (more of a 4x4 track) turns into a trail and for the next 3 hours and 7km or so, cyclists will be pushing their bikes, carrying them over fallen trees, crossing icy and sometimes knee-high rivers barefoot, and navigating rocks, roots and deep, narrow ruts made by horses and erosion. 

To make things more interesting it was raining most of the time, and we had a 6PM deadline since the ferry for the next lake (Lago del Desierto) doesn't run on Mondays. It was a great group though, and we were able to work as a team, helping the others with their bikes and luggage, and managing to stay in pretty good spirits. We all managed to get to the lake a little before or a little after 6PM, but because of the bad weather the boat didn't arrive. The incredibly stupid (don't get me started) guys at the Argentinian immigration station/ferry dock, assured us the ferry would arrive the next day, even though we had been told before that it NEVER comes on Mondays. The boat didn't come of course and since we had very little food the backpackers left to hike around the lake. 

On Tuesday we still had no guarantee that the boat would be coming, but the smart immigration guys didn't think to ask why, or when it would arrive, so the Italian couple and the Czech guy also left to attempt the trail next to the lake. The scheduled 12AM boat didn't arrive, and myself and the other two cyclists started making other plans including hiking without the bikes and returning when the ferry was running again, or doing the trip 3 times, once with the bikes, and again with the luggage. Then, while I was walking around I noticed that there were horses and asked the immigration guys if they could carry our gear to the other side of the trail, if we carried our bikes. They said "sure, but you should have asked yesterday, because we can't take you today or tomorrow!". They hadn't told anyone that it was an option even though they knew we had very little food and very little Argentinian currency to keep waiting - and the only reason they couldn't take us was that "maybe tourists will come on the boat". Yes, the same boat we had been waiting for and we still had no idea when it would arrive. You can see how frustrating this would be I'm sure. At last, we were told at a little after 4PM that the boat would be arriving at about 5:30, so we scrambled to pack our stuff and get back out to the dock.

As hard as the trail was from the border to the lake, the trail along the side of the lake is supposed to be 3-4 times harder, which is why the cyclists were so reluctant to do it. We all met up after finally arriving in El Chalten and learned that the Italians, who were traveling very light, were able to put their gear into their backpacks and carry their unloaded bikes - arriving at the other end of the lake in only 6 hours. The Czech guy had four panniers and a rack bag and needed 13 HOURS to do the trail. We heard that it usually takes about 12 hours for cyclists to go this way.

Since I had already had some time off waiting for the boat, I headed right out to the trails the day after arriving in El Chalten, the "trekking capital of Argentina", and best known for the amazing peaks of the Fitz Roy Range. I decided to do a three day circuit, first out to the Laguna Torre, with a glacier and Cerro Torre in the background, then to a hike-in campground (Campamento Poincenot), where I'd base camp for two nights while visiting the awesome, thundering glacier Piedras Blancas, and the Laguna de Los Tres, which is one of two lakes right below Fitz Roy itself. The last day was a relatively short two hour hike back to town. 

I waited until about 4PM to go up to Laguna de Los Tres, and when I arrived it was snowing. Just as I was about to leave it started clearing up, so I stuck around, and finally stayed to watch the sun set. Here's what I saw:

Pretty huh? After the sun fell behind the mountains it started getting cold fast, and I literally ran back to camp with my camping neighbor, a French girl named Sandrine, which was a mistake that my quads weren't going to let me forget about. I took the day off yesterday to recover and I've done the same today, even though I'm feeling much better. (Gotta be careful with the knees after all). There's another hike that I really want to do, but I might end up doing a shorter version of it instead. It will be from 3-5 days and will give me views of the Campo Heilo Sur icefield, which is one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. The forecast says it will be raining tomorrow though, so I don't know what I'll do yet.

The Carretera Austral and Crossing from Villa O'Higgins into Argentina

posted Nov 17, 2011, 4:58 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Mar 25, 2012, 7:48 AM ]

Hi all! This is just a summary of the Austral and the crossing into Argentina for the people behind me.

I crossed from Trevelin, Argentina to Futaleufu, Chile and got on the Austral at Villa Santa Lucia. 

South of Santa Lucia the road is narrow, with steep sides and loose gravel. My front tire had almost no traction for most of that section and I lost control of my bike on a descent because of it. (I just ran off my bike so I was OK).

The whole route was more hilly than I expected. The days that stand out are the pass south of Queulat, the paved pass after Coyhaique (not too hard, but the highest of the Austral), the day before Rio Tranquilo was pretty rolly, with one section that almost everyone has to push on. From Puerto Bertrand to Cochrane was the hardest day probably, with several very steep sections - if you do Rio Tranquilo to Cochrane in two days, try to get a little past Bertrand on the first, in order to make the second day easier - there was good camping along the river after Bertrand. From the junction to Puerto Yungay there is some climbing - it took me about 5 hours to get from Tortel to the boat, including a break for lunch. The ferry schedule will be changing soon, and should be running 3 times per day (10, 12 and 6 I think) - ask when you're in the area. The first half of Rio Bravo to Villa O'Higgins had about three big climbs. After that it is pretty flat.

Some good things to do/see are the glacier at Queulat (Ventisquero Colgante), the Bosque Encandado after the pass south of Queulat, Capilla de Marmol at Rio Tranquilo, and Tortel.

There is a casa de cyclistas in Maniguales - from there it's a one day ride to Coyhaique. There is a bike shop in Coyhaique. There is a building at Rio Bravo with bathrooms where you can sleep. There are good free maps and an informational book at the visitor center in Puyuguapi. The road is almost always one lane, and dusty - you'll have to get off the road for each passing truck.

Most towns have places to stay, some for as little as 4000 pesos. Finding food also isn't much of a problem, and on average I had to carry food for two days. There is water everywhere. Free-camping is harder than you would think because of all the damn fences (Patagonia ¡Sin Cercas!). I'll be updating TourBuddy soon with info on the towns on the Austral. ( 

To get from Villa O'Higgins to Argentina you need to take the boat run by Hielo Sur (they never answer email - make a reservation, but don't expect it to be confirmed). The boat runs once a week in November, and two to three times per week starting in December. I don't recommend the Saturday departure because if it is delayed and you can't get to Lago Del Desierto by 6PM on Sunday, you will have to wait until Tuesday at 12 for the next boat across Lago del Desierto. At the north end of Lago del Desierto there is a refuge for 20 pesos per night, or you can camp for free, but there is no food available and it can be very windy. The Hielo Sur boat costs 40,000 pesos (Chilean). The Lago del Desierto boat costs 100 pesos (Argentinian). Everyone seems to stay at El Mosco in Villa O'Higgins, which is a great hostel. It costs 7000 per night.

To get from the port where Hielo Sur leaves you (Candelario Mancillo), to Lago Del Desierto, you will have to push, pull, carry and drag your bike for about 6 hours. From the port there is a steep climb where you'll be pushing half the time. From the top you can ride for a while, until you reach the Argentinian border where the road turns into a trail. When you see the sign for the aerodromo before the border, you should go that way instead of along the road, since the bridge has been washed away. After the aerodromo there is a bridge, then take a left where the road splits. Before the border is about 15km and will take about 3 hours. 

After the border there is a trail all the way to Lago Del Desierto. This section is only 7km, but will take about 3 hours without stopping - hardly any of it is rideable. There are two big fallen trees that you'll have to lift your bike over, one smaller tree, three unbridged rivers where you'll probably want to take your shoes off to cross - one is knee-deep. All the water is very cold. There are deep "ruts" made by horses and erosion that are too narrow for a bike with two low front panniers, you'll have to remove at least one pannier to get through. A bob trailer just barely fits.

It's POSSIBLE to follow the trail along the east side of Lago Del Desierto, but I STRONGLY discourage it. The group I was with had six cyclists. We were stranded for a while at the north end of the lake because the ferry didn't come (it should come at 12 and 6 every day except for monday). Three of us had enough food to stay and wait, three others took the trail. One couple was traveling very light (two rear panniers each), and they were able to carry most of their gear in backpacks to make their bikes lighter. They did the trail in 6 hours. A man traveling solo with four panniers and a rack bag needed 13 hours to get from one end to the other. For most of the trail he had to carry his unloaded bike, then go back to carry his gear.

I'm using a BOB trailer with a backpack on top. Wearing the backpack between Candelario and Lago Del Desierto helped me a lot since it made the trailer more manageable. I think it would also help people with panniers. There was a surprisingly good selection of Doite backpacks at the general store in Cochrane if you're interested in this option.

There are ATMs in Futaleufu, Coyhaique, Cochrane. Others are off-route in Aysen and Chacabuco. There is an ATM in El Chalten. You will need to pay for the Lago del Desierto ferry with either USD or Argentinian Pesos - they don't accept Chilean Pesos - the same is true for the refuge at the north shore of the lake.

Good luck!

Quick Update #2 from Futaleufú, Chile

posted Oct 16, 2011, 4:21 PM by Paul Gareau

Hello again! Just wanted to write another quick update before leaving town. I'm in love - Futaleufú is awesome and it's hard to leave, but there are more amazing places ahead and I need to keep moving. Yesterday I got back from my three day trek to Lago Azul and I'm actually feeling pretty good today - my last two day hike did a good job of getting me in shape apparently. The hiking was relatively flat, but where there was a trail there was a lot of mud, and after branching off the main valley the trail vanished and a fair amount of bushwhacking was required. The effort paid off though, and I arrived at Lago Azul just in time to catch part of the glacier give way and the following cascade of snow down a sheer granite face. I stayed at the lake for more than an hour while there were more booms from the breaking ice, and the kind of cracking you would hear during a great thunder storm. 

At least one tour company in town advertises trips to Lago Azul, but I'm not assuming that means they've actually GONE there, because getting through the thick forests wasn't easy (understatement of the year) and there were absolutely no signs that anyone had ever been there before. The fact that I made it to such a remote, unvisited place definitely added to the experience. I'd love to go back and check out the other lakes in the valley. A girl working in the area and living at the hotel I've been staying at has some contacts in town, and if I can get a job leading hikes or bike tours this tourist season, I'll definitely be back!

Futaleufú from Cerro de la Bandera The reason I stayed!

Lago Azul from Space! When I got back the first thing I did was check my GPS Logger to make sure I got to the right lake! (The white spots on the lake are floating ice!)

Snow cascade! This was happening just as I arrived.

First Cairn! I had to mark my territory by erecting the first cairn at the lake!

Quick Update from Futaleufú, Chile

posted Oct 11, 2011, 3:16 PM by Paul Gareau

Well, I managed to get one short day of riding in since my last blog entry. Between Trevelin and here was probably the easiest Andes crossing of the trip, and since there was no one else around, the customs process was also a breeze. I planned on spending just one night in Futaleufú, and I actually did try to leave the following morning, but it started raining heavily and after only 30 minutes I turned around. Things cleared up enough that by around 5PM I was able to hike to the Mirador de la Bandera (viewpoint of the flag), where the amazing panoramic view convinced me that leaving this area without exploring it more would be a bad idea! 

Not wasting any time, the next day I caught a boat to a remote village on the far side of Lago Espolón, and hiked back to Futa that afternoon and the next day. Other than some soreness from my backpack and my soft feet, it was a pretty awesome trek. I took a "recovery" day after, then had a rain day yesterday, which was also a holiday here so I couldn't do any route-investigation. Today I finally was able to get more info about the other routes in the area (really so little that I shouldn't have bothered) and I did another short hike to Piedra del Aguila (Eagle Stone), where there was another mind blowing view. Tomorrow I'll head out to the Rio Azul valley, which I spotted in Google Earth and later learned is hikeable, where I'll base camp after a day of hiking and spend one or two days exploring two or three amazing looking lakes in the area - at least one of which has floating ice, and presumably a small glacier!

Futaleufú is famous for the great rafting in the area and during the summer people come from all over the world to experience the rapids. Since I'm a few months too early for the party I seem to be the only tourist in town, which is great because the hotel here gave me a special deal - if I don't sleep here, I don't pay! I can just leave all my stuff in the room and come and go as I please. It's really a shame that Futa isn't considered a hiking destination, since in my experience (over a year in the Andes!) it's a pretty unique place. It's right in the mountains, with valleys radiating in every direction, and a short walk or "hitch" will get you to any trailhead. The trails are also great, they're unsigned and generally not designed with trekking in mind, but instead are used by all the locals who live in remote places throughout the area - many of which are subsistence farmers. There are so many hiking possibilities I could spend weeks here.

During my rest and rain days I looked a little more into my plan for the remainder of my trip. The route I REALLY wanted to take back to Argentina requires taking a boat, then possibly a few horses (for my gear), then another boat - and the boats only start running in November. So I get to spend a little time here hiking, and then a little farther south I'll do another trek of about three days in a place called Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo, which is supposed to have some of the best self-guided hiking in Patagonia. After that I'll take the boat to El Chaltén, the "hiking capital of Argentina", where I'll hike through Los Glaciares National Park and around Fitz Roy. Not long after that I'll check out Perito Moreno Glacier and just a little farther on I'll arrive in Torres del Paine, where I think I'll have to do some more trekking. :)

Here's a Google Earth pic of where I'll be heading to tomorrow - wish me luck!

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