May 14, 2012 GMT
Episode XV: Argentinian Patagonia

Where has the time gone? We sadly no longer have the time to savour each day as we did during our travels and suddenly weeks and months fly by as we rush around our busy daily lives.

Yes, this IS sent out to deliberately confuse you - yes, we HAVE been back home now for six months - and yes, we really ARE that behind in the cataloguing of our adventures. It's lovely looking at the photos again though and re-living the experiences. Here we have a few more bits to share...

At the end of the last blog we arrive in El Chalten, Argentina. Self-professed to be the "walking capital of Argentina". With the rest of our companions from the previous couple of days - the O'Higgins to Argentina crossing - we choose one of the campsites to rest for a little while. Walking around the very tiny town, it is overflowing with tourists and we feel quite ill-at-ease after the relative seclusion of cycling on the Carretera Austral for the previous month or so and certainly the fairly solitary existence for pretty much the rest of the trip. None of that. El Chalten is THE place to be. Particularly as the near by Chilean attraction of Torres del Paine has recently undergone a disastrous forest fire and is not yet fully open - in fact I think some parts are still burning. (This is an interesting story in itself - one of two major attractions of Chile, huge forest fire... the government took 4 days to mobilise forces to help to control the fire... hmmmm...)

Anyway. A lot of people here. The campsite is jam-packed. Tents side-by-side in every available spot. I feel more than a little claustrophobic despite the fantastic scenery and the surrounding scenery being just wide-open spaces. Alex and I quickly latch onto a 3-day circular walk into the backwaters - in an attempt to escape the crowd - hoping that most people will likely do day drips and not bother with the whole tent shennanigans on their backs for 3 days.

We reach a beautiful lake fed from glaciers a few hours into the trek - way above El Chalten. The further we are from the village, the less people we see. Hooray! We have escaped! The view is stunning. I've only ever seen that shade of blue in glacial lakes.

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We wander on to the approved campsite...to find a ge-zillion tents! Side by side with a few trees peppered amongst the rows.

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Crazy. Oh well. Still less people than the village down below.

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We fill our water bottles directly from the glacial rivers and don't bother with filtering for now. There are strict rules of how far you must be from the river to cook/wash/clean etc, to avoid contamination - we hope that everyone obeys!

We continue along the walk and eventually reach another view point which is along a slightly rocky path - we see some fairly elderly people struggling up with walking sticks and marvel at what people can do when they're determined enough. Their reward is this gorgeous view:

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I do like a good glacier...

We return to basecamp feeling fairly proud of our three-day hike, to find Bernard, our 50-something friend from the crossing from a few days back, still at the campsite. We greet him and proudly tell him that we're just back from the 3 day hike, to which he replies - "Oh yes, beautiful views. I did that in one day."
"No, no, we mean the three day circular route?"
"Yes, it took me 9 hours, and I was pretty tired by the end of it."
"..."
We slink off quietly to our tent and resolve never to speak to anyone else again about that walk.

Luckily to take our mind off matters, we see that a whole group of cyclists have arrived at the campsite. John, Cathy, Andi, Anita who we spent New Years with in Cochrane, Meg and Jules - we met actually a couple of months back in Bolivia (can't escape from anyone in this game...) - and Chris and Jako - a "new couple" - i.e. we've not met them before - who happen to have the same tent AND same bikes as us. And quite a few others that we met before Christmas on the Carretera. We spend a very jolly few hours catching up before going to bed. Initially worried about too much jollity and a singing guitarist serenading the entire campsite, we are actually woken up by the wind instead...

Hmmm...I don't sleep too well - a bit worried that the tent was going to fly off with me in it!

After some marvelling at the local fauna (in the campsite)

...we leave El Chalten behind, heading South. The view is fantastic behind us. I keep looking into my rear-view mirror at the famous Fitz Roy mountains and marvel at the scenery. Luckily the road is not busy and I can weave about whilst looking.

Leaving El Chalten

When I can finally concentrate on the road again, I look around and find that the surrounding scenery is completely different from that of the Carretera Austral, only a few kilometres up the road on the Chilean side. This, then, is the Argentian Pampa. Bare. Empty. Dry. Vast landscapes. We can see for miles into the distance. Very flat.
Argentinian Pampa

We have been warned about the wind in the Pampa...
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Having spoken to the other cyclists, we know to expect a fantastic tailwind for about 90km. We didn’t really understand HOW fantastic until we get on the bikes. Look at the top left number – no pedalling...speeding up to 32km/hr.


A little impromptu interview along the road – the Ruta 40 – the only road south towards the end of the continent.


We know that there are other cyclists in front and behind us. It’s a big happy cycling community whereby messages are passed along the road
“Have you seen X and Y? They’re two Australian girls who cycled down from Alaska.”
“Say hi to A and B! They’re about a day behind us!”
“Hey, if you pick up a collapsible stool under bridge number 3 can you pass it along to C and D who are going to catch up with us tomorrow?! I forgot it whilst packing up!”

We catch up with Andi and Anita (who were only an hour ahead) whilst they are having a lunch break. They kindly take a photo of us and we go merrily on our way.
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90km fly by in a flash – 3 hours later we are at the junction. THE junction. This is the junction heading west towards our next destination – El Calafate. Unfortunately also where we turn into head wind. Yes, the same wind that sent us 90km in 3 hours.

We turn.

Five seconds later my speedometer goes from 30km/hr to 5km/hr. I’m pedalling as hard as I can but it’s no use. Five minutes later Andi and Anita catch up with us and we wonder if it’s too early to camp!! We decide that it is really and we should make a little more effort to get there – only 30km left after all!

We struggle valiantly on. I feel like the chicken that they throw into the wind tunnel to test the airplane propellers (useful knowledge you pick up, having aeronautical engineers as flatmates at university – it’s ok, apparently the chicken was already frozen).

We start to look out for shelter though as this wind is really getting a bit silly. However, this IS the Argentinian Pampa, and there really is not much protection. The bushes are all too small to hide behind. Eventually Andi and Anita find a drainage hole wide enough to fit a person, tall enough to crawl in. They decide to “free camp” in the drain. Alex and I carry on, hoping against hope that either there’s a bigger hole further down, or we might reach the campsite that we heard about.
Dramatic right turn sign, just before we camp for the night
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We see a little clump of trees about 5km further down the road (only 45min of pedalling) and decide to head for that. Luckily it provides really good shelter, and we have a quiet night afterall.

2nd tree patch along the road, where we stay out of the wind.
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The next day we all arrive at the single campsite in El Calafate, to find more cyclists already there. It’s a jolly catch up as we marvel at the strength of the wind, and swap details about the best supermarkets and plans for sightseeing. John and Cathy are very organised and sort out a hired car for seven of us for the next day. We plan to go and see the huge Perito Moreno Glacier, one of only 3 glaciers in the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares which are not retreating in our "globally warm environment".

It’s a strange feeling getting into a car. We’re having a day out from the biking, with our new biking friends. The road speeds by in a car – it’s too fast because I can’t see everything that I want to look at.
An 8-seater for as many cyclists

We reach the glacier too early by 3 minutes. The others wanted to be the first ones at the glacier – leaving at 6am was a struggle (remember how we normally are ready to set off at about 11?). The authorities watch us from the hut for the full 3 minutes before lifting the barrier to let us through.
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We see our first glimpse of the glacier from a distance. Wow. It looks incredible. We know that it’s 30km in length, about 60m high from the water, and 5km wide. The numbers don’t make an impact though. Being there does. It’s an incredibly humbling experience to stand in front of this magnificent structure.

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It is also constantly moving and changing. We witness a big splash as part of the glacier breaks off and an iceberg is formed. All the boys are super-excited and wait with their fingers on the button to film the next bit falling off. Nature does not perform to demand however and we are left waiting for a long time.
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We spend most of the day in front of the glacier, walking around the coast seeing it from different angles. We feel secure in the knowledge that even when we go to the toilet, the authorities are looking out for our safety.
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Perito glacier from side:
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Finally it’s time to go. As we leave we try to capture just how huge the glacier is by photographing a visitors ferry sailing right up to the face of it. You may be able to see a small black dot about half way along the horizontal distance of the water in front of the glacier. That’s it!

A boat in front of Perito Moreno glacier


We spend another lazy day in El Calafate and then it’s time to leave Argentina. Cycling back the way we came means tailwind again for a few kilometres before we reach the borders with Chile again. The Chileanos are much stricter with what we can carry in, food-wise. We hold our breath but the Nutella is safe. The honey, however, is left behind to benefit the customs officers.

Back in Chile, our 10 day sojourn in Argentina has been short but full of adventure. We arrive in Puerto Natales knowing that this is really our last leg of the journey. We take the bus to Punta Arenas where we need to start thinking about packing up our bikes to fly back to Santiago, and then London. It’s a sad day as we wander around Punta Arenas looking for a bike shop which has big enough boxes for our bikes. We strike gold at one shop and no doubt look a bit of a sight carrying these two bike boxes back to the hostel. Our time in South America is nearly over.

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