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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.