At first glance, the landscape north of Cochrane is not of the same eye-popping quality as the glacier-clad mountains and rainforest valleys to the south. The surrounding mountains are not very high. There are no glaciers except in the distance. And it’s mostly rolling grassland. And then, as we round a corner after climbing a few kilometres out of town, the Baker River appears.
This slow-moving turquoise ribbon, carved into the landscape by eons of flowing water, is incredibly vivid in the otherwise golden-brown hues of the landscape. It’s colour is almost unimaginable, a feast for the eyes, as we slowly cycle north on the Carretera Austral, a dusty grey ribbon that was carved by man into the landscape above the eastern bank of the river.
We stop constantly to make photographs. A small herd of guanacos also slow us down. They don’t seem very afraid of us. At first, all but one of them move quickly from the road to the safety of the hill just above the road but one of them just stays on the road, eating thistle leaves and looking at us with what may have been disdain. Hard to tell with guanacos.
After about 18 km, we arrive at the junction with a road that comes from the border with Argentina through the Chacabuco Valley. This valley used to be home to Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a large sheep ranch, but in 2004, the 178,000 acres were purchased by Conservación Patagónica, a conservation group founded in 2000 by Kristine Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia Inc. Kristine and her husband Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face and Esprit, have purchased more than 2 million acres of land and turned them into parks in southern Chile and Argentina. You can read about the history of the Chacabuco Valley on the Conservación Patagónica website.
Upon the advice of Vancouver cyclists Karin and Jamie, a couple we had met a couple of weeks earlier in El Calafate, we decided to make the side trip and turned east into the Chacabuco Valley. The road runs through the rolling, golden grasslands to the south of the Chacabuco River and looming on the eastern horizon are the mountains on the border with Argentina, about 80 kilometres away through Paso Roballo.
The road is narrow and rough, with steep inclines slowing us down but we don’t mind as the scenery is stunning and quite different from what we have been seeing the last few weeks. There are no sheep any more now that this has become a national park and large herds of guanacos feed on the rich grassland.
After a couple of hours we get to the heart of the new park where a posh hotel and the park’s administration buildings are located. It has a golf course look to it. There are several other buildings in the same style and work is continuing on all of them. The only people around are the labourers and we can’t figure out which is the administration building. We ask one of the guys where the campground is and he points us down a rough road a couple of kilometres further up the valley.
The road gets rougher and rougher as we go along. We finally give up trying to ride over the big stones and push the bikes down a trail through the grass and bushes into the campground called Los West Winds. We are the only people in the campground. There is a bath and shower building and astonishingly there is running hot water in the showers. Dotted around the campground are stone and wood shelters with tables. We pick one of them, make camp and go for a hot shower. Bliss, after all, is hot water.
Clean and warm from the shower, we prepare dinner and watch the light change as the sun goes down. From one of my rear panniers I produce two bottles of beer that survived the ride from Cochrane on the rough road. We sip our beers while dinner simmers on the stove and watch the hillside above camp turn into a deep golden colour against the blue sky. The wind has died and it is completely quiet as another day in Patagonia comes to an end. Life truly is beautiful.