Tuesday, March 8, 2016

El Chaltén or Bust

Wednesday, February 10th thru Saturday, February 13th

Question: What do these three things have in common: backpackers, roadkills, and abandoned houses?

Answer: All three have been common sights on our ride thus far through Patagonia.

Backpackers have been a common sight as we've traveled through Patagonia. They are everywhere. We see them in towns drinking beers, in the backs of pickup trucks on their way to towns to drink beers, and by the side of the road with their thumbs held high seeking rides in the backs of pickup trucks on their way to towns to drink beers.

Though we didn't actually hitchhike, I couldn't resist posing as a backpacker when I came across this "El Chaltén" sign.

Roadkills have also been a common sight. If you know me well, you know that I am intrigued by roadkills. I have a morose fascination with lifeless animals that litter the roads. I enjoy attempting to determine precisly how the little critters lost their lives. I apply my paltry forensic skills to study the entrails, deducing the speed and angle at which the deceased was traveling, as well as the speed, make, model, and color of the vehicle that struck the deceased. It's weird. I know.

An armadillo roadkill. That's a new one for me!

And then here are the abandoned houses. We had been hearing from a number of fellow travelers about La Casa Rosada ("The Pink House"). Many cyclists had suggested it was a great place to spend the night. At first, I thought La Casa Rosada referred to a hostel, similar to Casa Lili, where we stayed in Puerto Natales. Or perhaps it referred to someone's home (think Warm Showers or The Cookie Lady). It was only after awhile that I realized that La Casa Rosada referred to an abandoned house.

Before we could experience La Casa Rosada for ourselves, we first needed to take a 60 kilometer we're-running-out-of-food-and-desperately-need-to-restock detour to the town of El Calafate. As all of the town's ATMs had been emptied of cash, we paid for our provisions with plastic currency and exited the tour trap as quickly as our legs could travel. We were now Casa Rosada bound, on the way to El Chaltén for our final big hooray before beginning our trek along the Carretera Austral.

We had heard four things about La Casa Rosada. First, we had heard that La Casa Rosada was "between El Calafate and El Chaltén." Hmm, that is nice'n'vague, as 215 kilometers separate the two towns. Secondly, we had heard that La Casa Rosada was along the Rió La Leona. Fortunately, that tidbit limited the search zone to about 70 kilometers. Thirdly, we had heard that the house was hard to miss. After all, it was pink, right?

La Casa Rosada is definitively a pink house.

The fourth thing we had heard about La Casa Rosada was that its walls were covered with graffiti from bicycle travelers. If there was any doubt whether we had arrived at the correct abandoned pink house along the 215-kilometer stretch between El Calafate and El Chaltén, a quick glance into the graffiti-filled living room would quickly set our doubts at ease.

Holy bicycle traveler graffiti!

The decorations adorning La Casa Rosada were carefully chosen, down to the details on the mantel place.

The details on the mantel place.

And the graffiti included some very sage advice.

The sage advice.

I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the walls of the pink house. It was fun to see all the messages sprawled on the walls, many written in languages I could not decipher. And it was fun to see the hometowns of the cyclists; a handful of cyclists hailed from the Pacific Northwest.

Just a sampling of the graffiti on one wall of the living room.

Brian added his graffiti.

El Mecánico adds his scribbles to the wall.

And tucked beneath the Rueda Libre ("Free Wheel") drawing, I added my own grafitti, too. Can you see it?

Can you see my grafitti?
Here, I can zoom in for you.

The dilapidated windows of the Casa Rosada provided great photoframes for viewing the out-of-doors.

The view to the north, from the kitchen.
The view to the south, from one of the bedrooms.

As it was only midday, it seemed too early to make La Casa Rosada our home for the night. But that didn't stop us from lingering. The sun was shining, the temperatures were comfortable, and the winds were nonexistent. As much as we enjoyed viewing the open air museum that was La Casa Rosada, we needed to peel ourselves away. After all, we still had many kilometers ahead of us to pedal.

As we turned the corner and headed east to circumnavigate Lago Viedma, we were propelled forward by a massive tailwind. Sweet! Unfortunately, it was a brief'n'bitter sweetness, for as we rounded the east side of the lake, we knew we'd have 90 miles of westward travel to reach El Chaltén. As the tailwinds pushed us forward at 30 kilometers an hour, all we needed to do was steer the handlebars and occasionally soft pedal so that our legs wouldn't cramp. If the tailwinds were effortlessly propelling us at 30 kilometers an hour, however, we could only imagine how brutal the headwinds would be traveling along the opposite side of the lake.

As we rounded the lake and turned our bikes to the northwest, the dreadful visions conceived by our imaginations were brought to fruition. We were rudely knocked off the bikes. The wind was atrocious!

In our opinion, a strong-yet-manageable headwind enables us to pedal at roughly 12 kilometers an hour. Judging by our speedometers, these winds definitely were not "strong-yet-manageable." No matter how hard we tried, we weren't able to get our speedometers past 9 kilometers per hour. After a little while, our speedometers sadly read 7 kilometers per hour. As we pedaled, it felt as though our leg muscles were on fire. It was still early in the afternoon, and we had hoped to pedal another 30 kilometers or so. What to do?

In hopes that the wind would die down later in the afternoon, we found ourselves a ditch where we could hunker down and allow the winds to tire themselves. While taking refuge in our wind bunker, we refueled, we read, and then we fell into a much-needed deep nap.

We awoke a little while later to find the wind blowing just as strongly as it had been before our siesta. Damn! We biked a few more kilometers, just long enough to find a place to set up our camp for the night. The best we could do was to pitch our tent behind a how-in-the-hell-did-this-rock-get-here kind-of-rock that was on the side of the road. There were no others rocks like this along the route; it was as though the rock was placed on the roadside just to provide shelter for us...

Pitching our tent behind the how-in-the-hell-did-this-rock-get-here rock.

...and also for the memorial of Difunta Correa, who apparently passed away at this location in 2007 -- presumably from attempting to cycle to El Chaltén.

Difunta Correa can rest in peace knowing that she has plenty of water.

Although we hesitated about pitching our tent centimeters away from someone's memorial, our hesitation only lasted a split-second, as we desperately needed shelter from the wind, and we needed it now. Heck, maybe we could even borrow some of Difunta's water! A closer survey of our temporary home revealed that others had spent the night with Difunta as well; the area was littered with plenty of used toilet paper, and a fresh pile of human fecal evidence suggested very recent residence. Lovely.

This seems an appropriate segue into discussing "bathroom issues"...

Whenever one ventures off the road in Patagonia, there is always a risk of one's pant legs and socks being attacked by "sticklers."

Brian's sock, shortly after a stickler attack.

Depending on the quantity and type of sticklers, a bathroom break that was intended to last a quick one-minute has now swelled to a five-minute break; the additional four minutes being necessary for the diligent removal of said sticklers.

For bathroom breaks that require squatting, it is prudent to ensure that the squat zone is stickler-free. One particular full-bladder episode caused me to pop-a-squat so quickly'n'carelessly that I accidentally hovered right on top of a stickler plant. Suffice it to say that my lady bits were attacked by the sticklers. Despite my best efforts to quickly return my pants to their around-my-hips position before the next set of cars passed, I instead stood there with my pants in the around-the-ankles position as I removed stickler after stickler from the inside of my pants. Duh!

While we're talking potty talk, I will also mention the importance of understanding the interplay of gravity and wind speeds on the excretion of urine. Men, I'm told, quickly learn at a young age to position themselves in such a manner that any winds will catch'n'carry their urine away from their bodies. Call me naïve, but in my pre-Patagonia life, I never had to consider wind direction in positioning myself for a pop-a-squat. With my coochie hovering just a few inches above the ground, thanks to gravity, my experience has always been that my pee falls directly to the ground. But on the ride to El Chaltén, I experienced something different. I learned that gravity is no match for strong winds, particularly when coupled with strong gusts. Oh my dear lord -- never before has my pee traveled parallel to the ground!

Lesson learned: Regardless of whatever peeing device you were born with, carefully analyze the winds before you urinate.

Ok, now, back to the trip...

After a sleepless night of being tossed and turned by the wind, we were greeted the next morning by...more wind! Only this wind was even worse, as it was punctuated with ridiculously strong gusts.

During the early morning, we did our best to bike as fast as we could in between the gusts. We were fortunate to have a long section of steep downhill, though we needed to pedal hard while descending to max our speed at an unimpressive 21.5 kilometers per hour. By late morning, we were traveling at a whopping 4.5 kilometers per hour. (For those of you who can't speak metric, that is the equivalent to a measly 2.8 miles per hour. Without a massive headwind, it's quite tricky to pedal that slowly.) A little while later, we couldn't pedal at all without getting knocked over, and so we resorted to pushing our bikes. This wasn't so fun, especially when the passing cars encouragingly honked their horns; it was hard to restrain our little birdies from flying. Regardless, somehow we managed to get 42 kilometers closer to El Chaltén.

Weary as all hell, we found a wind-protected roadside campsite for the night. The next morning we woke up super early and finished our pedalling into El Chaltén. Fortunately, the winds were well-behaved. And fortunately, unlike the previous windy days, we were able to lift our no-longer-heavy heads to enjoy the glorious views of Mount Fitz Roy and his sister peaks.

Me & Shirley, enchanted by Mount Fitz Roy.

As you can imagine, El Mecánico and I were starving for El Chaltén. We couldn't wait to get to a town where we could rest from the battering winds. As we neared El Chaltén, we were elated to see street graffiti professing El Chaltén's beauty.

A love note to El Chaltén, painted on the pavement.

After a few more minutes of pedaling, we rounded the corner to see the official sign welcoming us to the northern section of Glaciar National Park, in which El Chaltén resides. Now all we needed to do was sit back and enjoy a well-deserved relaxing'n'windfree descent into town!

The small town nestled below the peaks in the far distance is El Chaltén.

Upon arriving into town, we spotted a quiet roadside park with picnic tables. We pulled into the park, plopped ourselves down, and brewed a celebratory cup of coffee (for Brian) and tea (for me). Cheers, we survived!

Brian, looking as though he is straight out of a cartoon, heats up water for our celebratory drinks.

As we sipped our hot beverages, we reflected on our last two days of riding. As bad as the winds were in Tierra del Fuego, the Fuegian winds had not been as consistently strong as they had been the last two days. As you may recall, north of Tierra del Fuego, we had pedaled through 15 kilometers of hideous winds as well. But that was only 15 kilometers worth of a struggle; we had just pedaled through 90 kilometers of pure hell.

The coffee and tea helped to calm our trembling muscles and dispel the sounds of deafening winds from our ears. After our rest, we mustered enough energy to remount our bikes and ride deeper into town. As Casa de Ciclistas, where we would be staying, was located on a bluff above town, we needed to pedal our bikes up a most awesome set of pedestrian and bike friendly ramps. Maneuvering the wide bikes around the tight corners offered a refreshing challenge.

The bike-friendly ramps connecting the lower and upper parts of El Chaltén.

At Casa de Ciclistas, we were greeted by Flor's hearty smile and her patient Spanish. Flor and her three boys share their casa with traveling cyclists.

Me, Flor, and Brian at Casa de Ciclistas.

Guests at Casa de Ciclistas pitch their tents in the backyard and use the bathroom and kitchen as they so please. Though Flor doesn't charge guests to stay at her home, cyclists help out with chores around the house and are encouraged to make a financial contribution via the well-fed donation jar atop the fridge. In appreciation of Flor's hospitality, Brian gave Flor his guitalele, the guitar-ukulele he had been transporting since we left Ushuaia. The guitar hadn't been played as often as Brian had hoped. Plus, the guitar had taken a beating on the dirt roads, and Brian was tired of the instrument further complicating his battle against the winds.

As we rounded the side of the house and entered the backyard, it was as though we had entered a convention of bicycle tourists. Unlike other hostels where we had camped, Casa de Ciclistas was exclusively for cyclists. As such, the backyard was lined with touring bikes, and scattered about were colorful sets of Ortlieb panniers and spandex hanging on clothes lines to dry.

A convention of bicycle tourists!

When you're pedaling in the far reaches of South America, it often seems as though you're the only crazy nut subjecting yourself to the beautiful harshness that is Patagonia. But staying at Casa de Ciclistas reminds you that there are many crazy nuts out there pedaling their bikes -- people from all sorts of backgrounds who are touring for all sorts of reasons.

As we introduced ourselves to the other cyclists, we recognized a face amongst the crowd -- it was the face belonging to Tió Ramón. Yes, Craig was also at Casa de Ciclistas. How fun to run into him!

We stayed at Casa de Ciclistas for a few days, relaxing, hiking, and restocking our supplies. For us and the others camped at Casa de Ciclistas, the amenities of El Chaltén and Flor's hospitality made it difficult to leave. But eventually the road beckoned us once again. What also helped to urge us back onto our bikes was the location of our tent.

When we had arrived at Casa de Ciclistas, the only empty real estate in Flor's backyard was a spot located immediately adjacent to the tin-covered septic tank. When you are a weary (need I add frugal?) traveler, you take what you can get. And so it was that we plopped our tent next to the crude septic tank, not giving an iota of thought to the ramifications of such location.

Whenever we were in our tent, our nostrils were filled with the aroma of septic scents. And whenever someone flushed the toilet, the aroma would increase in its intensity. What was an insignificant odor at first later became comical. Before the comedy had enough time to evolve into a tragedy, we decided it was time to leave.

Tent, meet septic tank. Septic tank, meet tent. You will be neighbors.

Lesson learned: Do not pitch your tent immediately adjacent to the septic tank at Casa de Ciclistas in El Chaltén.

Despite the atrocious winds, the sticky sticklers, the numerous oops-I-peed-on-myself pop-a-squats, the memorial-side campsites, and the septic tank perfumes, we really are having fun. Thank you curiosity-provoking roadkills, pink houses, snow-covered peaks, warm celebratory drinks, and Flor for reminding us that there are joys of traveling by bicycle.


  1. Loving your adventure..I guess you can't appreciate the good without the bad! So well journaled.

  2. OK just today I am dealing with a stairwell at work that smells like the septic tank! If I need to smell that I would MUCH rather be where you are!

    Yep, I remember well the the first time I peed outside and my dad explaining the wind factor.... I never thought about that for you ladies, there really is a trial and error period.

    I can't tell you how many times I have just sat and stared at Shirley and Mt Fitz Roy in the distance... Each time accompanied by a sigh.... Well done lady! Thanks for saving space in you pannier for me!

    1. There is definitely an art to peeing outdoors. El Mecánico was apparently sprayed in the face(!!!) a number of times thanks to the winds. Yuck!

      Glad you're enjoying the ride. More lovely views to come!

    2. In all my trials and errors that has NEVER happened to me! My condolences to El Mecánico!

  3. ¡Pinche viento! As a person who has lived in and with the wind for years (I always tell people we have LOTS of fresh air out here.....) your battles with the wind make me cringe a bit. Loving the updates, and it sounds like you guys earned that view of the Fitz Roy!

    1. Fresh air, huh? That's a *great* way to look at it! :)

  4. This is one of my favorite posts of your trip. Loved learning of your fascination with roadkill. I had no idea! I never considered it before, but will now certainly be tempted to analyze roadkill sightings. Also that wind sounds unimaginable. How torturous to feel it pushing along at your back, knowing you'll be turning directly into it soon. You're a beast!

    1. Ha, thanks Andy! Glad to know you are reading along. :)


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