You can’t see the wind unless it touches something. In Patagonia, the wind touches everything. It is a rare day when the wind doesn’t blow. We have had a few occasions in the last couple of weeks when we have felt those magical, still moments. When that happens, it is silent, and you realize that silence is something you can hear.
The 32 KM between El Calafate and the turn-off to Ruta 40 took us less than 90 minutes. It had taken us three hours cycling the other direction a few days earlier. Such a difference the wind can make.
Once we turned onto Ruta 40, the wind now at our side but not too strong, we were able to make decent miles. We neared a mountain range on the north side of Lago Argentino and suddenly we had a tail wind again. We met a German cyclist on his way south and chatted for a while. We asked him about water as there are very few opportunities to get it along this route. He had cycled more than 150 kilometres already that day. Such a difference the wind can make.
With the wind at our back, we climbed about seven kilometres onto a small plateau with gorgeous views of the Rio La Leona valley while descending on the north side. And suddenly our tailwind became a headwind and we slowed to a crawl. Such a difference the wind can make.
We arrived at the legendary pink house some time later but decided we did not feel like squatting there. It is a place many cyclists have used as it provides shelter from the wind and the river nearby provides water. Even though we had a strong headwind, we decided to push on another 10 kilometres to Hotel La Leona where we could camp and have a hot shower. We also wanted to make as many miles as possible as the rest of the way to El Chaltén would be into a headwind.
After another hour beating into the wind, we arrived at the hotel. It sits on a plain along Rio La Leona where the highway crosses the river, and trees provide some protection from the wind for this historic estancia.
We bought a couple of beers – one has to hydrate – and made camp behind a wind break built from twigs and branches. Hot showers washed away the sweat and pain from 109 kilometres on the road. Dinner was spinach and ricotta ravioli with pesto, followed by tea and chocolate. In the mean time, the sun had set and we headed off to bed. It was not even 9 p.m.
We rose before day break, hoping to get on the road before the wind built up. The sunrise was spectacular: a fire red and orange horizon with indigo clouds above. The first 25 kilometres were good as we headed northeast on Ruta 40, but as soon as we turned west onto Ruta 23 we were riding straight into the westerly wind. The sign read 95 kilometres to El Chaltén.
Distant views of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy slowly inched closer all day while turquoise Lago Viedma lay on our left and a low mountain range to our right with golden pampa in between. And because of the wind, we got to enjoy that view all day long.
We stopped at a creek for a break and met another couple from Vancouver heading south. We chatted for a while exchanging information about the road, as is often done between cyclists. They headed south and we carried on into the wind to El Chaltén but after 10 minutes realized that we were done for the day and turned around to make camp back at the creek. It was 3 p.m. and we had managed 85 kilometres. Only 35 left to El Chaltén but it might just as well have been 100. Such a difference the wind can make.
Beside the creek, we had a little bit of protection from the wind but not much. As it built in strength and swirled around the creek, the dust soon coated everything. We found the least windy spot to make dinner, hoping to keep most of the sand out of our food. There was no lingering outside so we sought shelter in the tent with all the zippers closed trying to keep the dust out.
The wind never relented during the night, as it sometimes does. Sleep was interrupted constantly from the gusts that made the tent shake and rattle. It was a long, restless night. Nothing had changed at sunrise. A disheartening prospect, but to see the early morning light on Cerro Torre and Fitzroy made it worth it.
Our shiny red tent was now brown along with all the rest of our stuff. We packed it all up and headed west for our final push into El Chaltén. As we climbed, the wind seemed to build more and more and we were nearly blown off our bikes on several occasions. It seemed to take hours to go those final 35 kilometres, and it did. Four hours, to be exact. We rode into town and stopped at the first café to sit down and have coffee with something sweet but mostly just to be out of the wind.
Afterwards, we rode around El Chaltén to find a place to camp and settled on El Relincho, a nice camp site by the river with lots of protection from the wind and a large common room and kitchen. After a hot shower, we both felt somewhat human again. We spent the rest of the day cleaning up gear and wandering around this little town at the end of the road.
The next day was spent shopping for our planned hike in Los Glaciares National Park and resting from the three days on the road against the wind.
We managed to stuff our small packs with three days’ food, enough clothing to stay warm, cooking gear and tent and headed off to Poincenot camp in the park. The hiking here is very different from Torres del Paine. No fee to enter or camp and way fewer people made the experience much more pleasant. The hiking was also a lot easier with only 350 metres of elevation gain from El Chaltén.
The views of Fitz Roy on the way up were spectacular. We were lucky, as the peak is often shrouded in clouds. It is a stunning vista to see those granite towers rising 3405 metres into the sky.
Poincenot camp is set in the trees, offering some protection from the wind that unfortunately also kept out the sun light, making it a cold place to be. The clouds rolled in and there really was no sitting around outside hanging out so most people disappeared into their tents to get out of the wind and stay warm, including us. We ventured out only to make dinner with Arthur, a French traveller we had met in town, but as soon as the food had been wolfed down and the dishes cleaned, we fled for the shelter of our respective tents. It was only just after 8 p.m.
The morning was not any warmer and we hesitated getting out of the warm sleeping bag but eventually nature’s call takes that choice away. Wearing everything we had we made breakfast and immediately broke camp so we could hike and be warm.
The walk from Poincenot camp to De Agostini camp is mostly on level terrain through a valley running south before it drops down to the Rio Fitz Roy valley. After climbing over a moraine we arrived at De Agostini camp and Laguna Torres at the base of Cerro Torre. We were lucky again as the weather was beautiful and there was hardly any wind. De Agostini camp site is in a wooded area beside Rio Fitz Roy at the base of a large moraine holding back Laguna Torres. When we arrived, there were only two other tents. It’s a short walk to the top of the moraine and great views of Cerro Torre and Glaciar Grande spilling into it at the west end.
Through the day, other hikers arrived and many day hikers from El Chaltén who had walked up for the view before heading back to town. But at the end of the day there were no more than about 25-30 people there and it was more sheltered from the wind so we could actually sit out for a while to make dinner and not rush back into the tent.
That all changed overnight as winter arrived. Snow coated the mountains all around just above camp and it was snowing lightly while we made breakfast. Again, no lingering. We were back in El Chaltén for lunch. The sun was shining and it was like a different world only 250 metres lower in elevation. All in all, though, it was a great hike despite the cold and wind.
We washed the filthy tent and cleaned the zippers with a tooth brush as the repeated assaults of wind and dust had made them almost non-functioning. The wind and sun dried the tent in a few minutes while we ate lunch. We both had showers, took our clothes in to be laundered and found a restaurant to have a fine meal with a glass of Argentinian red. A nice treat.