Patagonia day 28: La Leona to El Calafate

January 25, 2020. 105 km.

One of the things I had used La Leona’s internet for was looking up wind forecasts. And the morning was supposed to be fairly calm so I had planned to aim for an early start. But I was chilly enough in my tent in the morning that I didn’t manage to actually start until 8am. I regretted that in the afternoon, but it all worked out in the end.

The first part of the day had a bit more topography than the earlier bit of route 40. There wasn’t much wind at all, but in comparison to yesterday afternoon, no wind felt like a tailwind. I soon zoomed past the pink house (I saw a few bikers walking around, but didn’t stop to look closer).

Today’s roadside flora was some sort of yellow flower (poppy?). Nothing grows terribly tall around here, but the short grasses and flowers are what reveals when the wind starts to pick up. As it did, gradually, throughout the day.

After about 50km, I caught my first glimpse of El Calafate. Unfortunately, that was from across the lake, and I had another 60km or so to go before actually getting there.

The wind was mostly a tailwind, with occasional bits of crosswind, as I wound around the lake and river and up and down small hills.

But all too soon (again) I reached the intersection where a right turn sent me straight into the wind.

At first it was a headwind and I was able to make decent progress (maybe 10 km/h or so) while pedaling in a low gear and listening to music that I could hear well enough to provide a motivating beat. I made a plan to cycle for 5km between breaks. This plan lasted for about 5 of the 25 km to El Calafate.

So close and yet so far.
So close and yet so far.

The wind kept getting stronger and stronger, and with about 20km left to go I was walking the bike as much as riding. The wind was strong enough that I could only walk at about 3 or 4 km/h. It was sometimes hard to even hold the bike upright when standing still. There were occasional downhills or slightly sheltered spots where I could get on the bike for a bit and double my speed to the impressive rate of 8 or 9 km/h. I wished I had started a couple hours earlier, but even at walking pace I figured I would get to town before it got dark so I pressed on.

Half way from the last sign. It only took a couple hours.
Half way from the last sign. It only took a couple hours.

Slowly but surely I inched closer to town. Even walking, the wind was strong enough that I couldn’t really hear anything, and the scenery wasn’t all that interesting. While walking I decided I should take the bus from El Calafate to the Chilean border (spoiler: I changed my mind later). I wasn’t ever worried I wouldn’t make it, but taking 7 hours to go 25km is not the usual sort of pace one expects on a bike tour.

Around here, the topography is fairly flat and the scenery is pretty uniform. The real landscape is the wind. You can’t take pictures of it, but when you are here, it defines the place more than anything else.

After a slow uphill walk, a slight downhill and perhaps a bit of a windbreak from the topography let me get on the bike again to roll toward town. I rode through the police checkpoint (they didn’t stop me), and was really happy to see buildings in the distance.

El Calafate: land of glaciers, and town that the air doesn’t want you to get to.

The main drag into town goes through several traffic circles and turns into a very pleasant split boulevard with trees (and eventually buildings) providing wind shelter. The median of the road is green (unusual around here). I later saw a water truck driving down the street keeping it watered.

After all the walking and wind, it was such a change to roll down the hill into the main part of town. The main street is pretty touristy and shiny, though you don’t have to get very far off it before the town seems a lot less prosperous. The hostel I booked was just off the main street, and turned out to be quite comfortable and friendly.

I basically collapsed on my bed for a bit before getting up the energy to walk a few blocks to the ATM (cash only hostel) and grocery store. I finished cooking dinner at 10pm or so, and finally went to sleep around midnight with an alarm set to be up for my cruise pickup at 7:30 the next day.

Bronwyn Woods