Sunday, March 27, 2016

Bikes, Ferries, and Views -- Oh My!

Saturday, February 13th thru Tuesday, February 16th

The travels of these few days are best summarized by the following map:

We travelled from A to E.

The red circles indicate Points A thru E, as described below:

  • Point A is El Chaltén, in Argentina. This town is where we left off with my last post, El Chaltén or Bust.
  • Point B is Lago Desierto. We traversed this lake via a 45-minute ferry ride. From the lake, the views looking south to Mount Fitz Roy (the blue circle) were ahhh-mazing.
  • Point C is where travelers were stranded waiting for the Lago O'Higgins ferry.
  • Point D is an appendage of Lago O'Higgins, which we traversed via a 3-hour ferry ride.
  • Point E is Villa O'Higgins, in Chile. Villa O'Higgins is the southern terminus of the Carretera Austral, a 1,247 km primitive road though Chilean Patagonia.

Ok, now that you have the high-level summary of our route, let's dig into the details.

As you may recall, we had spent the previous couple of nights camping aside an odoriferous sewer vent at Casa de Ciclistas in El Chaltén. Our lungs were itching for some fresh air, and so we were ready to skip town. Plus, I was getting more'n'more excited to start riding along the Carretera Austral. But first we needed to get to the start of the Carretera, and that would involve a few days of biking and ferrying.

The first leg of our journey involved a 37-km ride from El Chaltén (Point A) to the south end of Lago Desierto (Point B). The ferry we wanted to take departed at 3pm the following day. Although we could very well have slept another night in El Chaltén and biked the distance to the ferry in the morning, we couldn't bear another night sleeping next to a stinky sewer. So we left town mid-afternoon, intending to find a place to comfortably camp on the side of the road somewhere along the 37 km. Fresh aire and stealthiness were the only requirements for our campspot.

It was sprinkling lightly as we left town. But after just a few minutes on the bikes, we encountered thick fog and heavier and colder rains. The change in weather quickly prioritized our desire to find a campspot sooner rather than later. After traveling a mere 10 km, we located our home for the night, well-hidden behind some trees. We set up our shelter in the soggy rain, and then situated our soggy selves into the soggy tent to prepare a soggy dinner. Sleep (fortunately not so soggy) followed shortly thereafter.

We woke up the next morning to crisp, clear blue skies. When we stuck our heads outside the tent, we were surprised to find that we had chosen a campspot with a perfectly direct and magnificent view of the rugged peaks of the Mount Fitz Roy range (marked by the blue circle on the map). Score! We enjoyed eating breakfast while watching the Fitz Roy nature channel on our make-believe televisions.

After breakfast, we packed up and rode the remaining 27 kilometers to the ferry. There was a generous helping of gorgeous views along the ride. Every turn in the road caused my jaw to fall from my face and a "wow" to escape from my lips. These were the views I had been eagerly anticipating!

Me, riding towards Lago Desierto, with Mount Fitz Roy in the background.
I loved the colors as we came around this corner in the road--golden grasses, brilliant green trees, and wispy, marshmallow clouds drifting in the ocean sky.
Another view of Fitz Roy. There was a gentleman fly fishing just downstream.

When we arrived at the ferry terminal, there were four others waiting to board. They happened to be four German cyclists who we had first met at Casa de Ciclistas in El Chaltén. Us six cyclists would have the whole ferry to ourselves!

Rolling our bikes onto the ferry.
The views off the bow of the boat, towards the north end of Lago Desierto, were mesmerizing... were the views off the stern, looking back towards Mount Fitz Roy.

Forty-five minutes later, the ferry dropped us off at the opposite end of Lago Desierto, at the Argentian border crossing. With permission to spend the night outside of the customs and immigration office, we set up our camp and kept ourselves busy in a continuous state of "wow"-dom for the remainder of the day.

Brian enjoys the views from our camp, at the north end of Lago Desierto.

What really put the cherry on top of the already awesomely delicious cake was a little black'n'white kitty. This kitty, who belonged to the Argentian guards, really took a liking to me. That was cool beans with me, as I really took a liking to her as well.

In the morning, as we prepared breakfast, Black'n'White Kitty crawled onto my lap, snuggled up, and feel deeply into a nap. Never in a million years would I have imagined camping in the middle of Patagonia while enjoying the love of a warm'n'purring lap kitty. Nope, never in a million years.

Black'n'White Kitty naps on my lap.

Black'n'White Kitty slept on my lap for all of breakfast. When breakfast was over, I didn't have the heart to kick Black'n'White Kitty off my lap. I tried subtle movements, but they weren't effective. I tried less subtle movements, but they weren't effective either.

Black'n'White Kitty isn't interested in leaving my lap.

With the beautiful views and the kitty love, we didn't want to leave. Plus, we had learned that there were a number of trails in the area that we would have loved to have explored. Alas, we were limited by food supplies and a schedule, as we had another ferry we needed to catch the next day. In the interest of getting our wheels rolling, I finally mustered up the heart to shove Black'n'White Kitty off my lap. No more mooching fuzzy buddy; the road is beckoning! We got our passports stamped by the Argentinians, and off we went.

If you scroll to the map at the beginning of this post, you'll notice a thin black line that dissects the map vertically. (The thin line is most visible through the lake at Point D.) This black line represents the border separating Argentina and Chile. As the Argentian border crossing was located at the north end of Lago Desierto (Point B), and as the Chilean border crossing was at the south end of Lago O'Higgins (Point C), the true border we were to cross lay in the middle of a 21-km stretch of wilderness that we dubbed "No Man's Land."

There was no road for the first seven kilometers of our journey through No Man's Land -- not even a shitty unpaved road. Instead, there was a narrow, hellaciously steep, and at times mud-ridden footpath. This footpath lead us through Argentina to the true border, which was located at the crest of a mountain. Though El Mecánico was able to ride a wee bit of the trail (thanks to his mountain bike experience, coupled with his no-fear-of-falling craziness), most of the 7 km required laboriously pushing our bikes up the footpath.

To mitigate the weight of our bikes, we transferred some of our heavier gear to our backpacks, as we figured it'd be easier to wear the weight rather than to push the weight. Though this helped tremendously, the day's travels left me with a sore back. After all, though biking is great for the leg muscles, it isn't a huge contributor to strengthening backs -- or arms or abs, for that matter.

Once we crossed the official border into Chile, the remaining 14 kilometers of the route through No Man's Land were predominantly downhill, along a poorly maintained and similarly steep road. Most cyclists traveling in the opposite direction find themselves needing to push their bikes up this section of the route. Thanks to our direction of travel, gravity, and a tight grip on our brakes, we were able to ride (though "slide" may be more appropriate) down the Chilean side of the mountain.

In my masochistic way, I'd been very much looking forward to today's adventure through No Man's Land. I'd read other people's blogs and seen their photos of the grueling push through the forested mountains. It looked like fun! And it certainly didn't disappoint!

Brian rides a wee stretch of the footpath.
Brian pushes Shirley through the deep channel in the trail so that I could snap a photo. We could just barely squeeze our panniers and legs through the narrow opening.
There were some river crossings, too.
Now on the Chilean side, we need to descend the steep and rustic road to arrive at the shore of Lago O'Higgins in the distance.

Having successfully passed through No Man's Land, we arrived at the lake on the north side of the crest. The Chilean guards stamped our passports, and we continued the short ride to the ferry dock. We were surprised to see a number of bikers and backpackers camping in the woods near the dock. One of those bikers was Craig, who had left El Chaltén a few days before us! "Interesting," we thought, "he should have been able to catch an earlier ferry."

We quickly learned that the ferries had not been operating for a number of days due to inclement weather, presumably high winds. Some travelers had been stranded at the ferry dock for as many as five days. Many of these travelers were running low on food, having rationed what little they had brought along for the trek. Restocking their supplies was not an option. The only stores were across Lago O'Higgins (which could only be accessed by the ferry) or back in El Chaltén (which could only be accessed by retracing the grueling and calorie-intense route we had just traveled).

The mood amongst the travelers was surprisingly positive, given the circumstances. Games were played and food was shared. Rumors circulated about which ferry would (eventually) arrive -- the smaller one that could carry only 11 passengers or the larger boat that could carry 60 passengers. Should the smaller boat arrive, there was an unofficial yet well-acknowledged pecking order that established which of the travelers would board the boat first. "The Israelis" (a backpacking group who had set up in an abandoned building near the ferry) had been waiting the longest. There were some backpackers, headed up by "TheChilean Miner," who had been waiting a few days as well. As far as the bikers were concerned, there were some French folks, a Swiss couple, a Scottish and British duo, and Craig who had arrived before us. El Mecánico and I were nearly the last to arrive, only followed by the four Germans with whom we shared the previous ferry.

Fortunately, Brian and I were only stranded for one night at the lakeside campsite (Point D), as the next morning, the ferry was on its way to the dock. As news of the ferry's impending arrival spread like wildfire, bikers and backpackers began to pour out of hidden nooks and crannies in the nearby woods. We were all anxious to see whether the little ferry or the big ferry would pull up to the dock. As the colorful crowd of travelers at the dock multiplied in a seemingly exponentially manner, we wondered if even the big ferry would be able to transport us all.

The large crowd of backpackers and bikers who had been stranded at the dock for days.

There were at least 50 travelers waiting for the ferry, and at least 13 of those were traveling by bicycle. Fortunately, we were all able to board.

The long line of cyclists waiting to board the ferry.

Once on board, we settled in for a three-hour ride of more jaw-dropping views.

The orgy of bicycles, enjoying the ride across picturesque Lago O'Higgins.
Despite the cheery colors, if you look in the distance, you can see a downpour. Fortunately the rains had cleared by the time we arrived.

Having reached the other end of the lake, we disembarked and pushed our bikes over to the welcome sign for a photo op. We had finally arrived at the end of the Carretera Austral. Though, the end was actually the beginning for us, as we were about to pedal our first kilometers along the Carretera.

Me, Brian, and Craig, having arrived at the Carretera Austral.

And so it was. Bikes, ferries, and views. Oh my!



  1. O'Higgins here, O'Higgins there, O'Higgins everywhere in Chile!

    1. Ain't that the truth! Every town has an Avenida de Bernardo O'Higgins, and every other town has a Plaza de O'Higgins. :)

    2. The one, the only, El Libertador Bernardo! But is he more popular than Attaturk in Turkiye? That's a good question to ponder.

    3. No pondering necessary. Atatürk is definitely more popular--by a long shot. Bernardo may have more streets named after him, but there are a whole bunch of novelty items circulating in Turkey with Atatürk's name/face plastered all over them. He who has the most novelty items wins. Wouldn't you agree? :)

  2. What a wonderful adventurous rendition of this part of the tour. Thanks for sharing with such vivid verbal video.

    1. Hahaha. "Vivid verbal video" -- I like that. You're welcome for the share, and thank you for reading.

  3. The adventure continues!! Thanks for the update, I thoroughly enjoyed it :)

    1. Thank you, Ronaldo. You'd love this part of Patagonia!

    2. Oh, I'll be picking your brain when you return..... That area is high on my list (and it looks like i should pack a fly rod :)

    3. For you, there is no question about that fly rod!

  4. Wow! Woman you are a cat magnet! Those pictures are amazing, as always. That has to be some of the toughest 'roads' Shirley has ever navigated.

    You have proven once again that hikers and cyclists are just more civilized than most travelers! No numbers needed, we all knew who got here first.

    Glad you got away from the smelly area!

    1. Thanks for your note, Tony. Yup, loved the cats. And Shirley handled remarkably well on the roads. Hope all is well back in Seattle!


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