Patagonia day 24-25: Villa O'Higgins to El Chaltén (plus a lazy rainy rest day)
January 21, 2020. 65km (plus a couple boats).
I managed to get to bed by 9 or so, and set my alarm for 4:45am to get ready and bike the 7ish km to the ferry. Somehow I woke up before my alarm, but I still resented being on an actual schedule. It’s been a while since I had to be at a place at any particular time.
I saw the Alaskan couple in the kitchen when I made myself oatmeal at 5:15 or so. They had disappeared (to pack up their tent, it turned out) when I was ready to leave, so I set off for the port as it was just starting to get a little bit light. Made for some nice views over the lake as I looped arount toward the boat.
The road was ok, and not particularly hilly, so I actually enjoyed the ride despite the early hour. The Alaskans passed me while I was stopped to take a photo. They are packed a lot lighter than me, and probably just go faster anyway. Though when I reached the port I found that one of then had wiped out on one of the small downhills on the way. He was a bit scraped up but said he was ok. Didn’t make me want to get less cautious on the unpaved descents.
The Robinson Crusoe boats were waiting at the dock. There were also some folks waiting for a boat from the other company that was going a bit later. The people who had been waiting for 3-4 days in Villa O’Higgins were all pretty eager to get out of there.
Once the bus arrived, boarding was pretty efficient. They didn’t actually check my ticket, but I guess they ended up with the right number of people and figured everything was good.
The reason they give for the unreliability of the boat is wind, and I can imagine that the ride would get a bit rough when the wind is stronger. As it was, there was enough spray against the boat’s windows that it was pretty hard to see much of anything on much of the trip, and the last part was pretty bumpy. But we got there. The crowd of people waiting at the dock (who had been stuck on the much more remote side of the lake for up to 3 or 4 days) cheared when the boat docked.
It was a short ride (well, about half walking up steep loose gravel) to the Chilean border control post. The line moved really slowly as the single guy working liked to chat. For folks who didn’t speak much Spanish, he seemed to spend his energy on the conversation instead of entering information. By the time I got through, the second boat had arrived and there were 8 or so bike waiting outside instead of the 4 from my boat. Along with a whole bunch of backpacks.
Nobody quite knew what to expect from the 20km crossing between the two boats, except that the first 15km were supposedly rideable, and the last 5km (in Argentina) weren’t. The Alaskan couple were the first bikers to set off, and I was second (not counting a bunch of walkers) despite taking some time for an early lunch. I figured that with half a dozen bikers behind me I could wait for someone to catch up if I needed help, and set off on my own.
The road existed, but the surface wasn’t great, and right out of the gate was a big climb with some pretty steep switchbacks. I ended up walking about half the uphill, probably. Pushing a loaded bike up a steep hill is slow going, but I got there eventually. There were some nice views back the way I had come as a bit of a reward.
After 5km or so, the road flattened out and also became more hard packed, so it was back to pleasant riding through woods. I started passing the backpackers who had set out before me, some of whom had stopped for lunch.
I passed the small airstrip that is right at this middle-of-nowhere border, and then found the end of the road (along with the vehicle that I guess will carry luggage and people to the Chilean border for a price). After a short cookie break,
Unlike the Chileans, the Argentinians haven’t built a road. There’s just a path through the woods. At least it’s fairly easy to follow.
The first half of the 5km trail had a few small stream crossings and lots of pleasant (if root-filled) wooded path. Part way through I was passed by a Canadian cyclist from the second boat who was really trucking. She really wanted to make sure to catch the second boat today. I was impressed by her speed. I didn’t rush and figured I would probably make the boat (but if I had to wait til tomorrow, it was no big deal).
A bit later two more cyclists caught up to me, and we ended up doing the second half of the trail together. There were a few more places on that stretch where having an extra pair of hands was nice.
I was wearing my crocs, which turned out to be perfect for this hike. While other people tried to cross streams without getting their shoes wet, I just walked straight through, which made things easier a few times. There was one larger stream where it seemed like it really would be worth building an actual bridge. But none of the streams were too deep to wheel the bike through while keeping the hubs and such above water.
Shortly after the largest stream crossing, we were rewarded with a fabulous view of Lago del Desierto.
From there, it was a few minutes downhill to the Argentinian customs building by the dock. The internet had warned about deep ditches in the path on this section, and though they existed, they were plenty wide for the loaded bike. It wasn’t really a problem.
While I was making my way downhill I chatted with a couple Australian backpackers who were planning on camping and then hiking the trail along Lago del Desierto the next day. It would probably be nice on foot, but 5km of bike hiking was enough for me.
The Argentinian customs was much more efficient than the exit from Chile. The officer just took passports and wrote down our information in a physical book. No questions or anything.
The bikers mostly beat the hikers to the end (those 10km of easy riding in the middle got us pretty far ahead I think) but I think almost everyone made it before the second boat. I ended up with a couple hours of lounging on the grass chatting (mostly with the Chilean and Canadian bikers and a Swiss hiker, who all turned out to be variations on electricians).
The boat arrived pretty much on time and we all piled on. It was a much more relaxed boat ride this time, with nice views of the lake and surrounding glaciers. One of the Alaskans runs a tourism business in Alaska and demonstrated his professional skills of making endless glacier puns. The Alaskans also told me they had both tried to ride a bunch of the path through the woods and had both gone over the handlebars. Far braver than me!
I had thought I might camp near where the boat dropped us off, but enough people were talking about going all the way to Chaltén that I decided the idea of not biking at all the next day was too tempting to pass up. One of the ferry operators also told us that the road was mostly downhill. So I set off around 6:30 for the ~37km ride to town.
As seems to be a fairly common pattern, 4 cyclists passed me on the way but then I later passed all of them stopped along the way (for food, looking for wild camping, resting, etc). Slow and steady is my style, I guess.
The last stretch of road was pretty bumpy in terms of road surface, but it was pretty flat in terms of topography. The riding wasn’t hard, and I made it in to town around 9pm. El Chaltén is overflowing with tourists. It was a bit of a shock, actually, after the relative emptiness of the southern Carretera Austral. I checked with a couple hostels I saw, but they were full. So I gave up (fairly easily, I’m sure I could have found something) and decided to camp in a large campground in the middle of town. It’s a bit of tent city, and the indoor common area is always packed, but I found a cozy spot between a couple of bushes and set up camp.
What with setting up, cooking dinner, and grabbing a shower, I didn’t get to bed until after midnight. Long day!
I made up for the long day with a rest day in Chaltén during which I did basically nothing except buy food, eat food, and nap in my tent. It’s been raining all afternoon, so I don’t even feel like I’m missing anything. I’m planning on spending one more day in town, and if it’s not raining tomorrow I will try to find a good day hike. My legs are feeling pretty tired (for the first time this trip, really - I think pushing the bike uses different muscles or something) so I probably won’t do anything too intense.