March 14, 2012 GMT
Episode XIV: Crossing to Argentina, the stylish way

So here we are, in Villa O'Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral. All this vibration has made a number of screws from our panniers and racks to loosen up. Some of them we don't notice in time and therefore lose. The end result is that we have depleted our stock of spare screws and are asking around Villa O'Higgins for anywhere we might be able to buy some. The answer is a resounding "no", but, as it happens in this part of the world, a rather touching (if not very effective) "solution" appears out of thin air: One of the customers of the shop where we had asked for screws overhears us, and later in the afternoon turn up at our campsite and gives us some screws from old bikes he had! Doesn't fit our bikes, full of rust, odd sizes - but still a touching gesture. People really go out of their way to help us here - warms up one's heart.

We do some research as to how to proceed from here and confirm that there is a boat across the lake (Lago O'Higgins), which takes one to a path, which should be rideable, which takes one to the border, after which you're in Argentina and then you get another boat, cross another lake (Lago Del Desierto) and then you're on regular roads again and can ride on.

This all sounded like a smashing idea at the time, so we thought we'd go for it. Luckily the boat company accepts credit card, as the tickets are expensive, there's no ATM in town and we only have limited cash on us - as Ping puts it, "Yay - more cash for cereal!"

We ride the last 8km from Villa O'Higging to the lake at some ungodly hour (the boat leaves at 8am) and board the vessel.

There we meet Micha and Sarah, the German couple we had met almost 1,000km back north, and Bernard, a Swiss gentleman who is touring Patagonia solo for 3 months. We make a nice neat pile of our luggage on board

Ortlieb panniers

..which is then unfortunately scurried away in the hold. So naturally I become increasingly grumpy - I don't like it when people deprive me of my breakfast!!

Ping is feeling a bit stressed about cycling with the others. We had heard this was a demanding stretch, and we had never travelled with these people. What if they are too fast? What if they are too slow? What if their feet smell?

The boat drops us off on the other end of the lake and we start the struggle uphill. It's quite gravelly/rocky and, save for Micha who seems to really know what he's doing on a bike, the rest of us push a good chunk of the way.


This is the customs office where we get our exit stamp from Chile. The carabineros look at my passport and say "Greece?! We've never seen a Greek before!" A sad state of affairs for my compatriots who generally don't have the luxury to travel like this.


By this point all walkers who disembarked from the same boat with us have already caught up and are overtaking us at an embarrassing rate. We are slower because we have to push the bikes all the time and stop for breaks, while the walkers just carry on.

My bike and the mountains - rough but beautiful:

Some people think it's funny that we find a shoe in the woods... Notably Ping laughs her head off and makes me tell the group the story of the dog stealing my shoe in San Pedro de Atacama. Who knows, perhaps another one-shoed cyclist is at large. I feel for them.

As the trail carries on I can't help but think how crappy the road is, how difficult it is, how little Chilenos seem to bother with maintenance... Here, a representative bridge on the Chilean side of the border.

We even have to drag the bikes under a wire fence - great trail, that! I'm constantly bitching (internally) and thinking that we'll reach "civilisation" once we step into Argentina.

Lots of uphill, lots of pushing, while the horse flies (tabanos) are feasting on us. I'm really fed up with this and want to get to Argentina NOW.
Pushing the bikes up the hill I'm exuberant when we finally reach the border and leave Chile behind!

We enter Argentina full of certainty that conditions will be far better. How could they not be?

We quickly come to realise that things are not quite that rosy. Ping takes 3 tumbles in the first 10 metres in Argentina. Perhaps because the trail has turned into a singletrack that would be lovely on a full-suspension mountain bike, but is quite a different story on our rigid, loaded, fat touring bikes.

The trail gets a bit tight, to the point where my front panniers are too wide for it and the bike gets stuck:
Stuck in a rut

I soon eat my thoughts and find myself wishing we had some Chilean bridge infrastructure around here...

The trail becomes difficult to find in the woods...

...but we push on, onwards through the forest:

Luckily this is the dry season so there isn't much mud.

Okay, some of the bridges get slightly ridiculous and we have to carry the panniers separately from the bikes:

The whole trail becomes a rut, and we scrape the sides, trying to push our bikes through...

The bridges are not getting all that much better:

...and the final descent is a deep, steep, narrow, punishing rut which exhausts us with the acrobatics it requires to get the bikes through:

But finally, in the late afternoon, we make it to Lago del Desierto. The majestic Fitz Roy mountains greets us in the distance.
Mini Fitz Roy

We take a quick dip in the freezing cold lake and then cook some dinner. We sit down on the grass, holding our warm pans, eating hot food, looking at the lake and the mountains in the distance. We're all a barrel of laughs - telling stories from our travels and for some reason dissing CONAF and their work. Almost like school kids cracking pranks at the teacher, after they're safely out of class.

Night falls quite quickly after that, and we collapse in our tents.
View of Cerro Fitz Roy from Lago Del Desierto

The next morning is rather leisurely as we have nothing to do but wait for the 11:30 boat that will take us to the south end of the lake. Walkers who have just hiked along the east side of the lake (in the opposite direction) confirm that taking the boat is the smart thing to do, as it was difficult even to walk it. I'm glad we didn't attempt it with the bikes!

Here's the whole border crossing gang (except for me behind the camera), all smiles on our small boat crossing Lago del Desierto:
Ping, Micha, Sarah, Bernard

We made it! On the other end of the lake is a rather luxurious unpaved road. We cycle the final 20-or-so KM to El Chalten with few issues (some panniers falling off due to vibration working the screws loose, a bit of rain, nothing too serious really) and camp in the least crowded campsite we can find. Time to take a couple of hard-earned days off to relax.

PS: A few weeks later we met Jako and Chris, who did the exact same crossing a few days after we did. Jako thought it was crazy they were pushing their bikes up and down mountains through singletracks... then REALLY crazy when the snow and hail started. But before she could say anything, others in their group excitedly shared just how "cool" it all was... so it became "cool"! Companionship (and peer pressure) helps!

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Posted by Ping-Yi at March 14, 2012 02:52 PM GMT

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