Our next leg of the journey north required a bit of preparation as we were heading into no-man’s land north of El Chaltén to make our way to Villa O’Higgins and the beginning – or end, depending on your point of view – of the famed Carretera Austral, a mostly gravel road running on the west side of the Andes for 1,200 kilometres between Puerto Montt and Villa O’Higgins.
To get there, the route involves two boat rides with limited schedules and both are somewhat sporadic, depending on the wind and weather. We gathered information from other travellers, as well as from the tourist information office in town, looked at the weather forecast for the days ahead and stocked up on food for a week, just in case we had to sit and wait for the boat crossing Lago O’Higgins.
The weather was the deciding factor pushing us out of town a day earlier than we had planned. It was Sunday afternoon and the wind was at a moderate 25-30 km/hr from the north-northwest. The forecast for Monday was 50-60 km/hr. We left that afternoon at 3 p.m. for the 35-kilometre ride north to Lago del Desierto and the first boat ride.
It soon became clear we would not make that evening’s boat as the road was bad and the wind quite strong. It took us two hours to go the first 16 kilometres. After that, the road got a bit better and we had more protection from the wind as we moved from a north-south valley into another that ran northeast-southwest. Four hours after leaving El Chaltén we arrived at the camp site near Lago del Desierto.
Besides the proprietors, we were the only people there. Since there was no hot water, they kindly lowered the price from 80 pesos per person to 50 ($5). It was very quiet and protected from the wind but overnight it rained quite heavily. The morning dawned grey and damp but at least the rain had stopped. We had our usual breakfast of oatmeal with raisins, cinnamon and honey and coffee – we’re not sick of it yet! – before packing up the wet tent.
At the boat dock we met another cyclist who had camped out behind the vacant Argentinian border police office. His name was Brian and he is from Buenos Aires. His English is about as good as our Spanish so it was fun trying to understand each other but also a good way for us to learn more Spanish and for him to learn more English.
The boat left on time and an hour later we arrived at the north end of Lago del Desierto and the Argentinian border control where we were duly stamped out of Argentina and headed into the frontier for what we knew would be a tough crossing on a bad trail.
Ahead of us lay a six-kilometre climb to the pass, and the actual Argentina-Chile border, followed by a 9-kilometre rough road across a plateau before dropping the final seven kilometres down to Lago O’Higgins and the Chilean border office.
The track up was steep and narrow and there was no way any of us were going to push a loaded bike for any distance whatsoever. We teamed up immediately as Brian and I pushed my bike, Brian and Jan pushed his bike and Jan and I pushed her bike. We did this for a little while but as the trail got rutted so that the bike’s front panniers wouldn’t fit any more, we changed our tactic. We hiked up the trail with two heaviest paniers and a backpack, returning for the bikes with only the light panniers and the handlebar bag. Even this was often too much for one person and we had to resort to the two-people-pushing-bikes routine again.
Progress was very slow but at least the weather had improved from grey and gloomy to warm and sunny. Creek crossings added another challenge with rickety log bridges balanced on rocks and other logs. Getting the bicycles across was an adventure in itself.
The trail improved somewhat as we climbed higher into the pass and we were even able to ride short sections of it but there were many obstacles in our way that required the two-person push or lift-over again and again. Eventually, after six hours of carrying, pushing, dragging and lifting our bicycles and panniers up six kilometres of rough trail we gained the pass.
Another couple of hikers we met told us of a place to camp and we were happy to ride down there and call it a day. It was 7.30 when we made camp, eight hours after we had begun this epic slog. We teamed up on dinner as well and cooked big pot of rice accompanied by a spicy tomato sauce with sausage, onion, garlic and lentils. Stuffed and exhausted, we collapsed into our tents knowing the worst was over.
The wind howled overhead during the night but we were completely protected from it in the little trail-side hollow where we were camped. Listening to it in the dark of the tent, it sounded like giant brush strokes on rough canvas made by some entity much larger than ourselves. I kept waiting for the gusts to hit us but none ever did.
We awoke sore and still tired but to an amazing view of Fitz Roy in the valley behind us. We knew it was all down-hill from here so we were happy to have such a beautiful day to finish this difficult section of the journey.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at the Chilean border crossing we learned that the Tuesday boat no longer sails in March and we would have to wait for the last scheduled Wednesday boat. No problem. The weather was beautiful. The camp site in a great spot with a magnificent view of Lago O’Higgins and we were only too happy to lounge around the rest of the day to help us recover from the previous one.
We did some bike maintenance, especially on Brian’s, as he did not have functioning brakes. After we got the brakes all set and the wheels straightened we discovered a crack in his frame. The top tube was almost completely broken about 15 cm behind the head tube. A disaster! This put a bit of a damper on our spirits, however, Brian’s positive attitude helped him get through this and we will try to help him find a solution in Villa O’Higgins. It is a steel frame so it can be welded. We hope we can find a welder in town.