We spent another day in Puerto Natales to hang out with friends and fellow travellers. Here is our cast of characters:
Mike, from Adelaide, Australia, was at the camp site when we returned from our hike. Mike began his trip cycling from Ushuaia with a couple of friends but on the first or second day he hit a pothole. The forks on his bike broke and he went skidding along the pavement, knocking himself out in the process. He was in hospital for some days but recovered from the crash, seemingly without any major injuries. He ended up shipping his bike home and buying another from a French cyclist who finished his trip in Ushuaia. He got on his new bike but soon realized that he did have a shoulder injury and was unable to cycle. His friends have carried on cycling and Mike is taking public transport with his bike, catching up with them in a few places along the way, hoping his shoulder will heal enough so he can ride. His plan was to cycle to Vancouver from Ushuaia. We hope to see him there.
Henrik, from Cologne, Germany, was also at the camp site. He had met Mike in Torres del Paine, as well as Laura and Christoph, from Hamburg, Germany. We met Laura, Christoph and Mike when we arrived at the camp site prior to our hike in Torres. Laura and Christoph were scheduled to return that night, so it was an easy decision to spend another day in Puerto Natales. Henrik has been hitching and bussing and hiking in South America. Laura and Christoph have been travelling around by bus and hitching and hiking in select destinations. Check out heir blog: http://blog.intothewide.com/
It was great to meet them all, make new friendships and spend some time together. We’ve all gone our separate ways now but we will meet again. Buen viaje, amigos.
We rode out of Puerto Natales on a brilliant, sunny day with a light wind at our backs. Perfect conditions. It’s a beautiful road to Cerro Castillo with great views to the west of the mountains of Torres del Paine and surroundings. At Cerro Castillo we had a cold drink and a snack, filled up the water bottles and crossed the Chilean border into the frontier. The road to the Argentinian border is a rough gravel one, climbing up a bit to make it a tough, slow ride. Crossing the border into Argentina was a mere formality and after another six kilometres of gravel road we arrived back on the pavement of Ruta 40.
With the wind at our back, we cruised the final 40 kilometres to Tapi Aike and the turn off onto an old section of Ruta 40. When we went up to the house there to ask for water, the man invited us to camp in the yard, sheltered from the wind by the building. It was not the nicest place to camp, especially the loud droning of the generator nearby, but we had cycled 115 kilometres and we were tired, so, we happily accepted the invitation. We made dinner while the sun set and went to bed as soon as we were done cleaning up. With ear plugs firmly installed, the droning of the generator was only a dull roar but it mattered not as sleep came quickly.
In the morning, the weather had turned cloudy but it was dry, however, just as we finished breakfast and were packing up, a torrential downpour hit us. We fled back to the safety of the tent and waited for the rain to stop. We read and listened to one of our Spanish lessons, trying to learn at least some of the language to enable better communication. We’re going to be in Spanish-speaking countries for a while, so we want to learn as much as we can.
After a couple of hours, the rain stopped and we packed up, heading out on the old gravel section of Ruta 40. It’s a short cut, saving about 90 kilometres, but it became quickly and painfully obvious it probably wouldn’t save us a lot of time. The first 20 kilometres of the track were absolutely dismal. Large stones, lots of washboard and climbing in elevation. To make it completely unpleasant, the weather closed in and an unstable front dumped repeated showers on us, punctuated with lightning and thunder. We met a Swiss couple riding south and they gave us some hope, informing us that the road would get better.
Six hours and 65 kilometres after leaving Tapi Aike, we arrived at the end of the gravel, ecstatic to be back on pavement. There is a large building at the intersection and we had been told by the Swiss couple that there was a possibility to stay there. Mario, the sole occupant, graciously pointed us to a small, old house on the property and said we could put our bikes inside and spend the night. There was no water or electricity in the house but it had four walls and a roof, and even a bunk bed and a bunch of mattresses. Mario also let us use the shower in his house. Bliss is hot water!
While the rain fell horizontally outside, we were safely ensconced inside Casa de Mario, thankful and grateful for his hospitality. We hung our stuff all over the little house so it would dry over night. We made a delicious dinner of rice with black beans, salami, onion and garlic in a spicy tomato sauce. There were no left-overs. I took the top bunk and Jan the lower one, each of us on two mattresses. Again, sleep came quickly and easily.
The sun piercing through the window woke me up at about 6.30. The sky was a brilliant blue with not a cloud in sight. The wind seemed to be fairly light so we were happy to get out of bed and make breakfast. By 9, we were packed and ready to go. We thanked Mario for his hospitality and turned north on Ruta 40 towards El Calafate into a light headwind.
The road slowly climbed as we travelled north. The landscape is pure pampas. Rolling, golden hills as far as the eye can see. No trees, only the occasional patches of black scrubby bush. Guanacos, sheep and one fox were the only animals we saw. There was little traffic so the cycling was quite pleasant, despite the wind. After about 35 kilometres, the road turned due west, along with the wind. We had slowly been climbing and reached an altitude of just over 800 metres when the view opened up to Lago Argentino and the mountains to the west.
The wind had been building all morning and now, on the edge of the descent to Lago Argentino and El Calafate, it was blowing at a steady 40-50 kilometres per hour from the west-northwest, right in our faces. After climbing all day, the downhill ride was a gift, despite the strong headwind. It was about 10-12 kilometres of steady downhill with great views of the mountains and glaciers stretching all the way across the western horizon.
At the bottom of the downhill run, we stopped to have lunch before tackling the final 45 kilometres to El Calafate. We found a little spot out of the wind in a dry ditch adjacent to a culvert where we found the skeleton of an armadillo. It would be cool to see a live one, but until then, I am the armadillo.
The wind was relentless as we headed west on Ruta 11. At times, the windspeed must have gusted up to 60 km/hr, pushing us around. We slowly pushed on not being able to go much faster than about 10-12 km/hr. We took turns leading to give the other one a bit of a break from the wind but often the wind blew from the side so there was no benefit from drafting. It took us four hours to ride the 45 kilometres to El Calafate. Already beaten up from the day on the gravel section, were now pretty much completely thrashed.
We found the camp site Los Dos Piños, recommended to us by Laura and Christoph, made camp and sat down to have a beer and a bag of chips. After that we had hot showers that helped to perk us up enough to head out for a nice meal, our reward for three long, tough days of riding from Puerto Natales.
We will stay here for 2 or 3 days to rest and recover and to go see the one thing that drove us all the way to the end of this road in a brutal head wind: Perito Moreno.