The Carretera Austral is sometimes called the road at the end of the road, because it starts more or less at the end of the Pan-American Highway (depending how exactly you define that one) and continues south from there. But now we’ve reached its end too and there’s no more road to continue on. So what happens next?
You take the boat at the end of the road at the end of the road of course! For cyclists and pedestrians it is possible to cross the border to El Chaltén in Argentina. Many borders are just an imaginary line on a map, but there is no imaginary component to this one, so it must be real then. Bad maths puns aside, it involves cycling, two boats and biking/pushing your bike through difficult terrain for 22 kilometers between the two lakes. Like the Carretera Austral, crossing this border is is an essential part of almost every bike tour heading this far south.
Sunday 10 December
The main operator of the ferry across Lago O’Higgins should go on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, so we arrived in Villa O’Higgins on Sunday afternoon and planned to continue the next day. When we arrived at our hostel we got the first bit of bad news. The boat had just broken down and needs to wait for spare parts from Germany, so it’s out until at least Christmas.
There is one other operator, but when we arrived a number of people had already been waiting for several days to get across Lago O’Higgins, some even going out onto the lake twice and returning unsuccessfully just as often. One cyclist got tired of waiting and just as we arrived he was getting ready to leave via the longer and even more difficult route through Paso Mayer. That one involves crossing through rivers, under fences and sections without a path. It makes one wonder why there even is a border crossing there at all. Just imagine being a border guard at one of these. On any day maybe someone will show up to cross, but if the weather is bad or something else goes wrong you’re just waiting for nothing.
Update: I later heard that he rode down from Alaska to Villa O’Higgins in just 7 months where most people need about 18 or more, so I can why he doesn’t like waiting.
We soon went to the boat operator to ask about our options. Whether he goes on any particular day mostly depends on the weather, which isn’t looking too good for the coming week and in good Patagonian tradition the predictions change all the time. Monday is certainly out because of high winds and rain. He plans to go on Tuesday, but that one is already fully booked. Thus we ended up getting a spot on the boat on Wednesday. The weather in the morning looks fine, but later there will be winds. Thus the captain wants to leave very early. He doesn’t know the exact time yet, but it might be 5:00 or 6:00. We also have to ride for about half an hour to the ferry landing, so that means a very early start for us.
It also means that we are stuck here until Wednesday. It’s not a huge problem for me, as I was already planning to take some days off in El Chaltén, so a few of these days now move to Villa O’Higgins. I’m also very tired from the last three days on the Carretera Austral, so I don’t mind getting some rest for the next hard bit. I think I was subconsciously already factoring this possibility in when I made my plans. People getting stuck in Villa O’Higgins is nothing out of the ordinary.
Monday 11 December
On Monday we went to the ferry operator to check the status and it had changed again. He now preferred to do two rides on Tuesday instead of leaving on Wednesday, so our boat is now supposed to leave Tuesday afternoon at 16:00.
Furthermore we walked a short way up to a viewpoint over the village and just talked to other people at the hostel about their travels. My phone’s charging connector broke, so it’s essentially unusable until I can get it repaired or replaced. Not too big a deal for me, I still have my computer and camera for the most important tasks.
Tuesday 12 December
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Our boat leaves at 16:00, so we spent most of the morning hanging around in the hostel. I made some final supply runs to the supermarkets, finally succeeded in uploading the photos for my previous post and fixed the backup server at home. At about 14:00 we started loading our bikes for the 7 km ride to the “harbour”. We got there way too early of course, but whether we are waiting at the hostel or at the dock doesn’t matter that much. At the dock is also the official endpoint of the Carretera Austral, so now we can really claim we made it.
This being South America, the boat naturally didn’t leave at 16:00. Some people had a shuttle from Villa O’Higgins, which dropped off the first few people at about departure time and then had to go back to pick up more. So it was about 17:00 when we left.
This boat is much smaller than the other, broken one. It can take 16 people and a few bikes, but then it’s really full. On the lake it also gets tossed around quite a bit. The waves weren’t that big, but we were initially moving with them and going slightly faster, so that made for interesting movements. That got some people worrying about the possibility that the boat would turn back before reaching our destination. Obviously the travel time was not an hour and a half as announced, but more like two hours, so we got dropped of at Candelario Mansilla at about 19:00.
After a kilometer is the Chilean border control, which stayed open for us. For some reason they ask you about your marital status and profession when you are trying to leave the country, but didn’t care about the note on which I had to declare my bike when I entered.
The fun started in earnest at 20:00 with a 5 kilometer climb. It was sometimes steep and had very loose rubble, so I pushed until we were close to the top. My cycling shoes are not made for this kind of work, so both of them have broken soles now. They are still fine for riding, but not much for walking on. William insists that it’s impossible to push his bike, but riding didn’t work well for him either: He got stuck all the time.
After the climb the road got much better and we started overtaking the hikers who went ahead of us on the hill. We had great views over the lake and the surrounding mountains and soon we caught our first glimpse of the Fitz Roy range at sunset. Normally you would camp at the northern shore of Lago Desierto with an even better view, but due to our late arrival that is now impossible.
We rode past the airport, which has flights to and from Villa O’Higgins for people who can’t wait for a boat to leave and don’t care about money. At the moment there are no flights either, since the plane is in Cochrane for a maintenance check. At the end of the air strip the road goes through a river, probably because the bridge is being rebuilt, and they diverted us over the airport grounds. Naturally I had to ride on the gravel runway for a bit.
At 16 kilometers we were the first to reach the border line. This is where the real fun continues, as Argentina didn’t bother building any road at all. But by now it was 22:30 and getting dark quickly, so we set up camp. I put my tent right in line with the border post, so I’ll be sleeping in two countries tonight. Soon many more hikers and the two other bikers on the boat arrived and also stopped for the night.
It’s only 6 kilometers of downhill to the Argentinian border control and the next ferry, but it will likely take us several hours to get there. Our plan is to leave at 6:00, so we’ll be sure to make the 11:00 departure. The next one is only at 17:30 and means you’ll be in El Chaltén very late that evening.
Wednesday 13 December
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William and I were the first to rise at 5:00 and packed up our camp. We started the next stage of the hike-your-bike World Championships at 5:45 with plenty of light to see by. The road soon became single track with many stones, trees, branches and roots on it. Maybe it would be ridable on a lightly packed mountain bike, but certainly not for us. Then the rivers started. Initially they were quite small and often there were a few logs to push your bike across on. There was also some up and downhill to make it more interesting.
At some point we got to a large kind of marsh, where I think it was impossible to cross without sinking the bike into it until well above the rims, but the brake rotors and chain were spared this treatment. At its end was a river with clean water to wash off the mud again. After pushing some more through narrow and deep tracks we rounded a corner and got an amazing view of Lago del Desierto with Fitz Roy in the background. The clouds were playing nice and gave us the occasional view of the top. At this point the first of the hikers caught up with us and one more overtook us before the lake.
After one more interesting river crossing and some steep descent we made it to the Argentinian immigration at the lake shore at 8:40, so we needed about 3 hours for these 6 kilometers. It was of course hard as expected, but also very awesome. Some sections were very difficult, but much of it was relatively easy pushing and potentially ridable.
At this checkpoint there are no fancy computers to scan passports and check if you’re in some database. Instead the officer just copies some of the information into a list (on paper) and gives you your stamp. After completing the formalities he asked where we camped last night, which we told him truthfully. He then said the Chileans should have told us yesterday evening that it’s illegal to camp in the no man’s land between the border checkpoints. You either have to stay at the boat landing in Candelario Mansilla or here. We got the feeling he said it more to bash on his Chilean colleagues than that he really cared about our illegal camping activity, some of which wasn’t in his country anyway.
During the wait the weather turned once again and it got very windy and started raining a bit. No more nice views for us 🙁 . The boat showed up on time and it’s a much nicer and bigger one than on Lago O’Higgins. The lake is also smaller, so the boat ride itself was pretty uneventful. A few glaciers were visible from the lake. As we neared the southern dock the sun returned.
Here the last section of our dash to El Chaltén followed: 40 kilometers of dirt road. The quality was variable, but overall not too bad. Initially we got rained on while riding in sunshine, but later the rain disappeared and the sun returned. There’s Patagonian weather for you: You never know what it’s going to be an hour from now. Except windy, that’s almost certain. First we were mostly riding through a bit of forest and were shielded, but when we got out into the open we got a huge tailwind. This should be with us most of the time from now on, but there are some sections where headwinds are the norm. We arrived about 25 hours after leaving Villa O’Higgins, which is faster than average as far as I know, but of course there are people who do it all on the same day.
El Chaltén appears to be a nice town, but it’s also very touristy, mainly with people hiking to the nearby Fitz Roy and other treks in the region. From what we heard it’s also a very expensive town, but we found an affordable place to stay at the Casa del Ciclista. They offered us the option to camp in the back yard or get a dorm bed, which is not a hard choice with this wind. The weather keeps changing all the time here, so predictions are not very useful.
I’ll be taking a few days off from cycling to go hiking instead, but I still have to figure out where I want to go exactly.
Distance covered: 66.9 km. Total so far: 4527 km.