The Carretera Austral officially ends at Puerto Bahamondes on Lago O’Higgins, a further 7km down the road. From there, it’s a 1-2 day journey across lakes, gravel roads and a forest track to El Chalten in Argentina. We aim to do this in a day because, well, we like a challenge and, over the last few days of repose, we have gone all “soft”, and would prefer a comfy bed to a damp tent.
The forecast for Monday is reasonable, but we will have to wait for white smoke from the captain’s lodge before waving goodbye to Villa O’Higgins and crossing over to Candelano Mancilla. The lake can get pretty rough when the wind is blowing (which is most of the time) and, as we later discover, the “ferry” itself is about the size of a lifeboat on a regular ship; no place to be surrounded by 4-metre waves.
At 5am, a convoy of 10 cyclists are scurrying their way down the shoreline to the port in the early light. The captain is holding his rosary beads and a figurine of St Jude, so we assume we are good to go, although the wind is picking up. The deck-hand/dispenser of boiled sweets is loading the bikes and strapping them down with heavy rope. The captain sets the dials on the dashboard to spin-cycle 2 and we are on our way. “This is a normal day, no problemo” he declares manically, as we are thrown from side to side of the boat and the bikes are pounded by the waves. We have life jackets on the back of our seats and assume this is a good sign. They appear to be unused.
2 hours later, we are at the dock on the other side and the water is perfectly still. From there, it is a short but steep climb to the Chilean border post, where we spend a couple more hours waiting for clearance from a higher authority in some other place. Time is passing and, by the time we reach the Argentinian border, it is early afternoon. We have to get to the inappropriately named Lago del Desierto by 5pm if we are to having any chance of making it to El Chalten that day.
Between us and the lake, there is a 6km assault course to negotiate. We ride, wheel, carry, drag and throw our heavily laden bikes through mud, across streams and over fallen tree trunks before descending sharply to the Argentinian border post. It is now raining and we take cover inside, where the police provide us with soup and bread. The ferry to the other end of the lake has gone already, but the police have a boat left over from the Normandy landings, and are willing to drive us to the other side for US$50 each in cash. We need a minimum of 10 people, although, mysteriously, when we mention camping instead, and taking the official ferry the next day, this number reduces to 6 and then 4.
An hour later, we hand over unmarked dollar bills and are on our way. We are under strict instructions not to take pictures of us on the boat and assume, as the light conditions are poor, the skipper is concerned the photos will not be any good. He has his binoculars out too and is scanning the shoreline as we approach harbour. He must be an ornithologist.
The final 37km to El Chalten is on gravel and into the wind. I get my first puncture in 15 weeks but, fortunately, it’s a slow one and I do not notice until two days later. We roll into town at 9.45pm – it is wet and dreary and accommodation is expensive and hard to find. I blame the tourists! Hotel los Nires has space though, and we are soon changing US dollars into pesos and heading out for pasta and a beer. After what feels like a 17-hour episode of It’s a Knockout, we are battered, bruised and ready for bed.
I had not heard of the “blue dollar” before this trip but wish I had. Like many other countries with pretensions, Argentina has an official exchange rate for the peso that is tied to the US dollar. This exchange rate values the peso at around twice its real value. Most sensible visitors bring US dollars or Euros with them and change them into pesos when they arrive, as the various hotels and shops are more than willing to change money using blue dollar rates, even though this is, um, not allowed. Having discovered this by accident (Cathy sent me money via Western Union) I am avoiding banks, ATMs and other official outlets from now on. Things have suddenly become a lot cheaper…
El Chalten (whose name means “smoky mountain”) is the dangly dog-appendages for hiking in this part of the world, and the Laguna de los Tres trek is the dangliest trek of them all. It’s a 24km round trip with 800m of climbing to a viewpoint above, you guessed it, Laguna de los Tres. We are still recovering from yesterday’s excess, so it’s past noon before Tommaso and I head out of town to the start of the walk. Tommaso is wearing sandals with highly polished soles, perfect for the rugged ground we are about to cover. Cerro Fitzroy is visible but its summit is in cloud. The forecasts say the cloud will clear later.
The walk is easy enough to start with and is shared with a couple of other routes. There are plenty people on the trail, as this is the nicest day for a bit, so we sharpen our elbows as we overtake the stragglers. The final kilometre is a steep climb of 300m or so but Tommaso doesn’t seem to notice. His sandals give him superpowers.
By now, the clouds have cleared and we are standing on the terminal moraine. The view is up there with the best I have seen, but is expansive. My drone struggles to get me, the lake and the mountains in the same shot and goes back in its bag in a huff. I rely on my iPhone for the wide-angle shots. While I am gawping at the view, an Andean fox strolls past. He has seen it all before and doesn’t hang around.
An hour later we are on our way back down again. It’s getting late but there is a string of people coming the other way. The clouds will be back later so they’d better hurry. Tommaso has blisters on his feet but redoubles the pace and we are back in El Chalten by 7.30pm. It’s pizza and beer before bed. If only every day could be like this one…
On Wednesday Sven, Sarah and I pack for the two-day trip to El Calafate, a town named after a bush. You would think they could do better. We have a tailwind for the first 80km, which is flat and, quite literally, plain-sailing. My speedo hovers around 30km/h: I am sure I will pay for this later. It is raining as I turn onto Ruta 40 for the final stretch. The wind is now from the side but I grit my teeth for the final 25km to the Parador la Leona, our home for the night.
Ruta 40 to the Argentinians is what Route 66 is to the Americans. While the “parador” has only a few rooms (I slept on the floor) it has an oversized carpark for the coach loads of tourists that stop here to photograph themselves in front of the “Random Point on Ruta 40 that Everyone Seems to Stop at for No Obvious Reason” sign. Dutifully I take my turn, hoping all will become clear when I am back online. Later I discover that Francisco Moreno (explorer and namesake for the Perito Moreno Glacier) was mauled by a lioness here. Mmm. I am about to delete the photo when I learn that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent a month here in 1905 after robbing a bank in Rio Gallegos. This makes all the difference. If it’s good enough for Paul Newman, it’s good enough for me.
Google maps tells me the final 105km to the town named after a bush is mostly flat. This statement is true if you replace “flat” with “hilly”. Despite the dashed expectations, I am in Bushtown by 4pm and settle in to the place Sven and Sarah have found. It turns out to be a newly converted apartment owned by a German ex-pat and his wife. As I luxuriate in the shower I’m reminded of warmth, comfort and other sensations I’ve not felt recently. [Note from editor: no, that’s not what he meant!]. I cook a proper meal (well, spag bol) for the first time in months and drink coffee from a cafetière.
The next day is a holiday, and Argentina is playing the Netherlands in the World Cup. The two may be related. The weather for Saturday is better, so I spend the day lounging around and sorting out a car to drive the three of us to the Perito Moreno Glacier. Come Saturday, we are barrelling along the highway to the park entrance, winding our way round the headland (which conveniently blocks views of the glacier until the park fees have been paid) and pulling up in a carpark near the trailhead for the hike we intend to take. 3.5 hours and some scrambling later, we’re sitting on a peak 1,000m above the glacier, enjoying yet another stupendous view. A condor is gliding up and down the ridge inviting me to take pictures. I gladly oblige, as I’m playing catchup. The condors have been few and far between on the trip so far.
2 hours later, we’re back at the car and have 2 more hours before heading back to Bushville. We spend the time on the walkways in front of the glacier, hoping to get video of a large piece of glacier calving off into the lake. We have to settle for popping and creaking noises and the thought of how many gin and tonics you could make with this much ice. My calculations are interrupted with the news that France has just beaten England 2-1 and we are out of the World Cup. Never mind, at least I got some good videos of a condor.
Tomorrow I head south once again, although I’m going to run out of “south” soon as South America tapers to a point. I need to be in Puerto Natales by next weekend before setting off to the Torres del Paine. For me that is no problem, as it’s no more than 3 days by bike from here. The bigger challenge is for Cathy and Adam who are coming over to join me. They will have to negotiate baggage-handler and cabin-crew strikes. They can’t even post themselves, as the postal workers are on strike too. It is touch and go but my fingers (and toes) are firmly crossed…