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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. (http://www.panamericantour.net/tourbuddy/) 

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!
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