Chile to Argentina and back (Carretera Austral, Part 3)

While I had been cycling from the North to the South, my final day of cycling reversed course and I returned back from Villa Cerro Castillo to Coyhaique (it means ‘mediocre city of some size’ in Chilean). That day let me experience the brutality of the winds. On the route to Villa Cerro Castillo, the section between the two 1100 meter passes was brutal. On the return, the 30ks after the 50k mark were incredibly tough. On flat asphault, I was working hard, and only going about 10–11 kph. One cyclist was pushing their bike on a flat stretch of smooth road. I tried to help one cyclist who was being blown back by the wind, but they could not move forward enough even with a draft.

This blog is a little bit more ‘journalesque’, so apologies for the bit by bit descriptions of the trip. It’s the one chapter of the trip where those details tell the real story.

Accelerating, Decelerating

For the next week days, the pace changed dramatically every day and wrestling the unknown was often the due course, and the ideal ground for testing my resilience to ambiguity. Some wins, some ‘lessons’…

In Coyhaique I grabbed supplies, hopped a cab to the not-so-nearby airport, and discovered that the rental car reserved for me was a dual cab 4x4 Volkswagen pickup truck with only 4,000 km on it. The race was on, as I needed to get to Puerto Ibañez in time to take the ferry to Chile Chico. Little did I know that spots on the ferry for autos are booked solid for days if not weeks. But there is also a waiting list, and I was the first on it thanks to lining up well before the opening time of the office.

I crossed into Chile Chico and the relief, combined with a stay at the Hosteria Patagonia, set me up well for a beautiful drive the next day. I then spent three slow days at Pared Sur Camp, where at first I seemed to be the only guest for a staff of 7 twenty-somethings. I felt like the campers and camp counselor roles had been reversed. I went kayaking around Los Catedrales de Marmol, hiking to Mallin Colorado, and enjoyed reading and relaxing next to the massive Laguna General Carrera.

Finally it was time to drive further South, to Caleta Tortel. Surprise awaited me when the road abruptly ended in a parking lot about 1.5k from the hotel. Caleta Tortel is very unique – a pueblo with no roads, but entirely built of wooden walkways and wooden staircases into the numerous lodges and restaurants. Like an Ewok village on the sea filled with Chileans.

That night, my brain locked on the belief that I did not have enough gas to reach Villa O’Higgins the next day. I tossed and turned and was happy to finally get up and get on the road, hopping in my massive beast-vehicle to discover I had more than half a tank and plenty for my final day of driving.

As I left town, I picked up a hitchhiker (my 10th of the trip) and returned him to his car, which he had driven off the road in a single car accident. I was about to move on after dropping him off, but then noticed that his wife and two kids were in the car deep into the brush. I told him I’d take him and his family back to town rather than leave them out there! As a result I missed the morning ferry, but was much happier knowing his family wasn’t sitting in the cold waiting for someone with room for three people going the opposite way, well before most Chileans are on the road.

I arrived in O’Higgins, planning for a hike the next day and then heading into Argentina, to learn that the ferries don’t run on Sundays, so I either needed to leave tomorrow or spend another day in O’Higgins. I opted to hop the ferry the next morning.

That next day was epic:

A 7k bike ride on gravel from the hostel to the ferry. The wind stung as we loaded 15 bikes onto the roof of the small ferry boat.

A 2 hour ferry ride across a lake with a windy swell. Some cyclists looked a bit green upon exiting the ferry.

An 11k “road” from Chile into Argentina. The first 2–3k were uphill in chunky, loose gravel, with most cyclists pushing their bikes all the way up, others attempting to ride and falling. Eventually you reach Chilean immigration and get your passport stamped to exit Chile. The road quality remains terrible, but the incline decreases and you can ride 80% of it and only stand a 20% chance of a bad crash.

An 11k “trail” in Argentina, that is not fit for biking. Some people had called it ‘single track’, and said that traditional touring bikes would have to be walked, but “maybe I could ride it all.” I laughed and laughed as huge trees blocked the trail, muddy swamps stopped you completely, and large roots sent you flying off the bike into the brush. I was launched off the bike more in a single day than during my previous 40+ years of cycling. At the end, you wait outside a small building in a deserted campground, and four guys from Argentian immigration materialize from no where, and run you through the process of entering Argentina legally.

A 1 hour ferry from Laguna del Desierto to a boat landing. (There is also a path if you want to save money and not buy the ferry ticket. The path is 12k, goes around the lake, and you can travel 1–2kph, because it is again, not made for bikes. The pictures I saw made me very happy with my ferry ticket purchase).

A starting-at-7-PM bike ride on a 36k stretch of mediocre gravel road into El Chalten.

The day had begun at 5:30 AM, crossed two lakes, covered 65k of cycling/portage, two border control stations, and ended at 9 PM as I rode into El Chalten.

It’s the most beautiful town I’ve seen in South America.

El Chalten, mi amor

The next four days of hiking were incredible. The first day I ascended to Laguna de los Tres via Pilar and Rio Bravo. After the descent I took a wrong turn and a 15k hike turned into a 25k hike. No matter.

The hike to Loma de Pliegue Tumbado was rainy and I couldn’t see anything. No matter! I went back two days later and could see the entire panoramic countryside.

I left early and only saw two other people before I reached the overlook, and then ascended to the nearby hilltop to enjoy my favorite viewpoint of the trip so far.

Believe it or not, I’m hiking on ice

It’s really blue. It’s also cold.

Hopping a bus to El Calafate the next day, I didn’t think much of the town, and with the exception of it being near the Perito Moreno glacier, there’s not much reason to be in this town. The Ice Hike on the glacier was a new experience despite having kayaked around glaciers in Alaska on a few occasions.

I would not put the town of El Calafate on my list of places to visit, though the Perito Moreno glacier is very beautiful. The glacier in the John Gardner pass puts it to shame, in my opinion

However, the ice hike was a great experience – warm jackets, hiking boots, crampons, even strange extreme-ice-hiking Winter finger coverings they call “gloves.” I now understand 1% of what it takes, and I’m happy to make that the end of my ice hiking career.

The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing Backpack

Behind the scenes of the last week was the knowledge that ChileExpress, the shipping company that my tour company had used to ship my backpack again to Torres del Paine, could not find my backpack.

My backpack had my hiking boots, all of my non-cycling clothes, my travel kit including my Aussie passport, and my transplant meds for March. It had been lost for almost three weeks, but it was the first I had heard about it. (Quick aside: You will ask why I put my Aussie passport and meds for March – it was in case I lost my US passport and current set of meds. So ‘the backup’ was lost.)

Despite attempts by two different tour companies that I had worked with on shipping the bag, we heard nothing. I reached out to the three people I had become friends with in Chile, and asked for any help. One of them, who I still have not met in person, had a friend of a friend of a friend (and so on) who gave me the contact for the General Manager for the company.

The previous night I had cataloged the contents of the bag, because one tour company was meeting with ChileExpress the next day to deal with how to compensate me for the lost bag. That next morning, I sent the GM a Whatsapp message, before going out for a hike. By the afternoon, they had found the bag, and apologized for the mistakes of their local office. I had been told that ChileExpress was a reliable company, and at the end of it all, I do believe it was just the incompetence of the local Puerto Natales office of their business. In a country as long as Chile, I am sure it’s hard to maintain quality everywhere.

After reaching Puerto Natales, I was reunited with my bag. In the hotel room, when we (the bag and I) were alone, I celebrated each item one by one, happy that we were together again, and that I did not have to spend a week in Santiago replacing the passport and medication. Huzzah!

Part of this trip has been about being resilient in the aftermath of changes great and small, being calm as I step into the unknown, to smile through dealing with in evitable setbacks. So this was a great test. In a matter of 48–72 hours, I went through the following stages:

  • Anger that my bag is lost
  • More anger, wanting to rent a dragon to burn everything down
  • Annoyance, that dragons are not available for rent in Southern Chile.
  • Acceptance, that I shouldn’t watch Game Of Thrones before bed
  • Anxiety, that I won’t be able to get my meds in time and would have to fly back to Oz (which I need my Aussie passport to do)
  • Planning! Building a plan which involved the Puerto Natales police, a social media campaign (like the “United Breaks Guitars” of old), and 10 other ridiculous (but honestly creatively fun) approaches to pressuring the company to #findBJRsbackpacknow.
  • Pressure! Pressuring everyone involved to DO MORE.
  • Questioning. Building a list of everything I wanted to know (“Is there a video camera in the store and can I review the video from the last month. Also do you have wifi?”)
  • Acceptance. I’ll live. It really is just stuff. But I would still keep an eye out for a dragon-rental agency once I reached town.

The day of the BJR-bag reunion (the 20th of January), I dropped off my bike, and then the next morning, headed into the magical land of Torres del Paine (which will be the subject of my next blog).

Sometimes, you do sweat the small stuff. Because if you say it’s all small stuff, then I’m definitely going to sweat some of it.

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