What would Nony do? Part 2/3

RÍO GALLEGOS, Argentina, 27/03/20

Well what do you know, I’m blogging this second installment of my Patagonian journey while detained in Rio Gallegos during Argentina’s initial national Covid-19 lockdown! Notwithstanding occasional interruptions to print superheroes for my seven-year-old fellow inmate to colour-in, I may as well use this desktop and this time to record how the journey was going before the world changed, back in the months BC (before C-19)! This post describes the section of the journey Nony considered doing with me, from Coyhaique to El Calafate.

Carretera Austral: Coyhaique to Villa O’Higgins

After a dose of civilisation in Coyhaique (the only city on the Carretera Austral) I got back on the road. I gave myself a bit of pep talk to try and focus on being grateful for the privilege of experiencing the positive aspects of Patagonia in spite of its considerable challenges. I guess if I’d known then what I know now my intention would have been even stronger! Overall I think I succeeded in being positive more of the time during Part 2.

The first couple of days south from Coyhaique were my last on pavement until I got back to Argentina. I still had about 500km of the Carretera to ride, on dirt/gravel (ripio in Spanish) that was incredibly dusty and often scream-inducingly corrugated. Soon after the asphalt ended there was a long stretch of earth-works to widen the road, presumably in preparation for asphalting the next section. This stretch was being closed for 4-5 hours each afternoon to enable the works to happen. Given my exasperation at the state of the road wherever still unpaved, it was actually very interesting to see what modernising such a road entails. I was also impressed by people’s patience!

I met some really nice people on this section. The first was Alex, a Frenchman on his first bicycle trip carrying an inflatable kayak! After camping at an abandoned house it was fun to watch him launch in the river the following morning, along with a delightfully eccentric couple, Ishita and Atticus. With these two I had a great conversation about travelling while Other, then Ishita showed me her spice collection and gave me a Chilean cacho de cabra chilli in return for one of my Mexican chipotles (which we’ve since both used).

For a couple of days I cycled around huge, jaw-droppingly turquoise (because glacier-fed) Laguna General Carrera, then there were some tough days to Cochrane. At one point I even had to flag down vehicles with an “I need water” gesture. I was standing on a bridge at the time but the fencing is so comprehensive in this part of the world I could not reach the water. People stopped instantly.

A favourite stop was at a riverside campsite where the elderly owner was digging a huge pit by hand while wearing what looked like his teenage granddaughter’s extremely short denim shorts. Each pitch had a broken top-loading washing machine to use as a bin! For some reason he reminded me of someone I know quite well...

During this stretch of the journey I couldn’t help but wonder why this 500km stretch of farm-track that passes for a ‘highway’ is quite so popular. I mean sure, some of the scenery is really spectacular, but the road and tourist services really are quite remarkably bad considering the volume of summer visitors. South of Coyhaique and especially south of Cochrane there is practically nothing.

At a riverside wild camp I met Alan and Bernie from Scotland and we had a lovely chat while eating our respective suppers. I met them again briefly in El Chalten but sadly have no contact details so I have no idea where their journey ended. I imagine they made it at least as far as Punta Arenas.

I decided to skip Tortel since it would have meant extra, unnecessary ripio and I’d read it’s even more expensive than elsewhere in southern Chile. At the Tortel turnoff I pitched my tent overnight inside a small bus shelter to avoid heavy rain. Thinking about it, there was quite a bit of rain during this southern section of the Carretera Austral, which I guess made for less dust! Near here I first met Jeroen from the Netherlands, and we rode together for a bit. I was whinging a lot and he said this was a good time to ride the Carretera because in five years it will all have been asphalted and the experience will change completely. Then we had to wait for ages due to some road works and when we finally got through and saw the scale of the works he made me laugh out loud by saying “Maybe I need to revise my estimate. I mean, if that’s how they’re upgrading the road... with three guys and one shovel”! Between Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins all traffic must board a small twice-a-day car-ferry for part of the route. As Jeroen and I were boarding we met for the first time a French couple biking with all the usual gear PLUS children weighing 13kg and 20kg. Uf!

Cochrane and Villa O’Higgins both really felt like the end of the earth. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like actually to live there. In the latter I had a surprisingly good pizza in a well-heated, friendly place where the owner told me he would be closing for the next 2-3 days while he drove all the way to Coyhaique to buy a new keg of beer! (I did my annual almost-a-month-off-booze on the Carretera but broke my fast to celebrate reaching the end of the road, a few days short of a month.) There is also a surprisingly good French-run restaurant that offers crepes and raclette (which I didn’t try). Otherwise, it seemed as much as the town could do to open enough shops and cafes simultaneously to feed all the travellers stuck there for four or more days while we waited for the weather to improve enough to be able to make the infamous crossing back into Argentina. It was in VoH that I met Sally and Tim a young retired couple from Croydon, who were great company while we all waited at a windy campsite.

Villa O’Higgins to El Calafate

Finally the day arrived when it was my turn to begin the notoriously ‘adventurous’ crossing back to Argentina. Only cyclists and pedestrians can attempt this crossing; even motorcyclists have to turn back.

The journey from VoH to El Chalten can be done in one very long day, but I chose to do it in three. It’s physically tough, the weather was good again and the scenery gets really spectacular at that point. Step One is to take a small enclosed boat about three hours south along Lago O’Higgins to a Chilean border post that’s only accessible via the (huge) lake. The lake was extremely rough but luckily I took a pill beforehand (and had given one to Sally in advance for her crossing earlier the same day). At this point I met ‘The Belgians’ Els and John, who again were terrific, upbeat company. There were about 12 cyclists/bikes on board, and a couple of backpackers. The French family was also on my boat.

After camping a night, Step Two is to stamp out of Chile, push/ride up a huge hill to the actual border, then drag your heavily-loaded bike about five kilometres along/down an unmaintained, muddy hiking trail criss-crossed with tree-trunks and substantial streams to the Argentine border police on Lago del Desierto. It is recommended to do this section in a team so you can help each other but it didn’t work out that way for me, perhaps for the best. Except for one or two of the streams I left all my panniers on the bike and used every ounce of strength to hoik it over all the obstacles. I have to say that given the popularity of this trail with cyclists I think the dangerousness of it shows considerable contempt on Argentina’s part. Someone is going to break their neck before too long.

Notwithstanding, I was extraordinarily lucky with the weather. As I began the final ascent to the second lake-crossing the sky was blue and I had a clear view of Mount FitzRoy and its neighbours that locals say only happens a couple of times a year. Next to the border post is a large grassy area for free camping. Many people (including the Belgians and the French family who had taken 4.5 hours to cover the 5km with one helper) were already installed, cleaning all the mud off their bikes/ panniers, washing themselves off in the freezing lake, and sunbathing. The atmosphere was great, and by dawn the view was still completely clear.

Step Three of this leg involved another boat trip and a scenic ride down the valley (albeit on one of the worst roads yet) to the hiking capital of Argentina El Chalten. Though it’s very striking I didn’t fall in love with Chile and felt happy to be back in Argentina with its warmer people and much better food! (Food-wise the only thing I found to be better in Chile was salami!)

I checked in at the expensive but good main campsite for five nights, some hiking, eating and drinking, and backing up a gazillion photos – slowly! I did two all-day hikes, one to Loma del Pliegue Tumbado and the really famous one up to Laguna de los Tres. The former was long but involved only steady climbing and afforded me a fantastic panoramic view of the main peaks while listening to Proust. The latter was rather more eventful. I hitched a lift out of town to a good starting point for this walk at Hosteria El Pilar. During the first, easy part of the walk back towards El Chalten I was gawping at the Piedras Blancas glacier when I must have lost my footing, twisted my left ankle (ow!) and landed heavily on my right knee and right elbow. I don’t think my Crocs were to blame. As the adrenalin rush subsided I was worried I might have done something serious to my ankle, but after a few moments it seemed alright to walk on so long as I was extra careful. My right knee had a dramatic-looking hole in it that took several weeks to heal completely. It wouldn’t have been the done thing to wash the wound in a stream within the National Park so I got a lot of funny looks (and a couple of offers of plasters) for the rest of the walk!

The final 400m climb to the Laguna de los Tres is extremely steep and busy. Not very enjoyable but really worth the effort for the extraordinary view at the top, including two lakes of different levels and colours, various bits of glaciar, and the peaks behind. In fact this is the view on the front of the ‘Lonely Planet Argentina’. The semi-tame resident fox and bird of prey add extra interest for trippers! Unfortunately a few days later my SD card failed (again) and I lost my photos from this spectacular walk. In spite of my injuries I enjoyed my two all-day walks enormously – far more than cycling, which I’m frankly over!

After leaving El Chalten I had the memorable experience of being blown at 30-60kmph along a smooth, straight road for 90km! Unfortunately I then had to turn into the wind and actually had to push my bike for a while because I couldn’t even stay on it. This was my first experience of the Patagonian ‘steppe’ which is no fun on a bike on account of the wind, lack of sheltered places to camp, and lack of water. Three days and two fairly gross abandoned buildings later I reached El Calafate where I had booked an AirBnB for a week’s rest.

Knowing what I know now I rather wish I had not spent that week in El Calafate. I enjoyed it at the time, but if I had just pushed on I might even have got into the Argentine part of Tierra del Fuego before the Covid-19 lockdown and maybe even made it to Ushuaia. Oh well, I guess there’s no point dwelling on what-ifs.

Would Nony have enjoyed this stretch from Coyhaique to El Calafate? I don’t doubt he’d have enjoyed the scenery. He’d probably have enjoyed meeting other cyclists, as I also did during Part 2. He might have struggled to find sufficient vegan nourishment. I’m not sure how keen he is on rough camping, which typically is the only option. I am certain he wouldn’t have sworn as much as me. I’d probably have driven him mad with my whinging! But overall yeah he’d have enjoyed it for sure.