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  • Toby Elliott

pampa and Ice

Updated: Apr 24


I never in my life thought that I would spend two full days living out of a bus stop, however that’s exactly what happened in Cerro Castillo. The small settlement had a large one available to travellers as a refuge. There was a television, sofas, bathroom, woodburning stove and even some patchy wifi. The first evening I braved the “shower”, not much more than an ice cold trickle from a small pipe, but it was a wash and refreshing nonetheless. We camped out back of the bus station sheltered from the wind, for two days we pottered about working on bikes, eating, drinking Mate and playing yatzy. After a resupply in the basic but expensive shop we were ready to hit the road again.

Crossing the border into Argentina meant no fresh fruits, meats or vegetables due to import regulations, so the diet looked bland for the next few days. Entering Argentina the section of paved road ended and we were back onto the ripio. We wound our way along a small network of such roads before we spilled out onto the main Ruta 40. This road was paved and cut right through the pampa, it would be a pretty boring route but fortunately we had one of the few and certainly the strongest tailwinds of my trip. I got super excited and flew off at what felt like warp speed. I cruised and weaved along the road, singing to myself and sticking my legs out, waving at passing traffic like a maniac. In just a few short hours we were able to cover the distance that might have taken a couple of days otherwise. Outside a small petrol station we hid from the wind and made lunch. Emma enjoyed chatting with a group of Finish motorcyclists. I had my first Alfajor (a sickly sweet South American treat) and promptly utilised the sugar rush by starting to cycle again. We diverted off Ruta 40, taking a terribly eroded and rocky route across the pampa. The sense of desolation and isolation was great. For miles in every direction the pampa stretched to the horizon. Only far off to the north could we see the silhouettes of mountains.

We saw almost nobody for hours and in the evening as temperatures plummeted we came across an abandoned police station in the middle of nowhere. After quickly exploring the place we decided to spend the night taking shelter in one of the few clean rooms. Suddenly we heard a motor and the sound of a car pulling up. The next moment a policeman was peering through the window. We quickly went out to see them, feeling a little guilty, however we needn’t have worried. They were friendly and just took our passport details, saying that it was fine to sleep the night. They also explained that they were the special pampa devision and often spent days on end out here, they carried tents and other gear ordinary police wouldn't. I couldn’t help but wonder what crimes they police out here, the only living things seemed to be guanacos! After dinner Emma left a small mural on the wall where other cyclists had done the same.

For the next couple of days our tailwind unfortunately subsided and we turned once more into the wind. Rejoining Ruta 40 the route was a boring grind towards El Calafate. We met a few cyclists coming the other way and stopped to swap stories and tips. One night we found a great camp spot under a bridge and all enjoyed a restful nights sleep. The last stretch into El Calafate was full of heavy traffic and headwinds, an awful combination, so we were all glad to reach the town and find a quiet campsite to pitch our tents under cherry trees. Here we met an American couple Curtis and Jenny, who had cycled from Alaska, they joined us in the evening for a meal. We took advantage of the campsites grill and Julian cooked up a huge Asado. Tons of beautiful grilled vegetables, meats and cheeses all washed down with wine. Vanja a dutch traveller we had met in Puerto Natales also joined us and we all had a great evening swapping stories until long after dark.

El Calafate sits close to the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the largest in South America and one of the few globally advancing glaciers. It is 74M high at points and vast in its scale, being a part of the expansive Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Being so close it felt almost essential to make a diversion to see such a spectacle. Leaving all but the essentials we set off with lighter loads on a smaller trip to the national park. Camping outside the entrance to the park we entered early in the morning and enjoyed a fun ride to the glacier. We could see the glacier for a long while before we arrived and the size of the thing was mind boggling. Up close it was incredible, the glacier is very active, with regular booming cracks and crunches echoing out from within it. Every so often a gigantic chunk of ice would come crashing off into Lago Argentina with a thundering boom and splash. Being the first glacier I had ever seen up close this was a fantastic experience. The glacier was busy with tourists but there were so many good vantage points that it was never an issue.

After some hours here we began to cycle back out of the park, stopping to cook a meal with a last view back on the glacier. That night we camped in the same spot once more, enjoying relaxing in the long grass and watching the clouds float by. Much like our time in Torres del Paine the weather had once more been in our favour and I felt blessed. In the morning we returned to El Calafate making swift progress with tailwinds and arriving in town for lunchtime.

That evening we headed to a campsite near the edge of town where some friends were staying for another Asado. I didn’t plan to stay late as I was tired, but the food was good, the company better and the wine was flowing. Before I knew it was 2am when I eventually tucked up into my sleeping bag.


​© 2019 Toby Elliott

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