towers of granite
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
Leaving El Calafate I found myself brimming with excitement about heading towards El Chalten, perhaps the most legendary mountain town in Argentina. Reaching the town meant one final slog across wind blasted pampa. Together with Emma and Julian we loaded up and rolled out. It was heads down, earphones in, big tunes on and pedal! The first 30km were a joy as we flew along propelled by a gorgeous tailwind. Just before turning North into the wind again, we bumped into Adrain. We had met him back in El Calafate, a Singaporean with a contagiously happy disposition who was skateboarding from Canada to Ushuaia. After stopping to chat and wishing him luck for the final stretch of his journey we pushed onwards.
For the next two days we cranked out the kilometres across the pampa. Being motivated by the outlines of the mountains on the horizon slowly growing larger and holding promises of the next chapter to the adventure. Occasionally we would find some roadside bank or hole to shelter and cook up lunch, or greedily wolf down cookies. The nights we spent in abandoned buildings, hiding from howling winds. There was one brief interlude in the wind during this stretch. On our first night out of El Calafate we were staying in abandoned hotel deserted in the pampa and a mysterious stillness suddenly descended over the place. We wasted no time in finding a beautiful spot to spend the evening by the river, watching the sun dip below the horizon and warming ourselves by a small fire.
The final ride into El Chalten is something I won’t ever forget. The winds proved to be some of the fiercest of the whole trip and we alternated between slowly grinding our pedals around and pushing the bikes when cycling was no longer possible. A thick blanket of cloud obscured the Fitzroy mountain range, only further disheartening us. Then as we crested the final ridge before town, the clouds parted and for a short window of time we were granted a spectacular view of the full mountain range. It felt surreal seeing this iconic landmark that I’d dreamt about for years in the flesh, it was this mountain range that first captured my imagination about Patagonia. I stopped and watched in awe, taking a few pictures before battling on down the final straight into town.
El Chalten is a famous mountain town for good reason, with some of the worlds best trekking and climbing being free and easily accessible. This brings with it a unique vibe, a mix of professional climbers, dirtbag travellers, wealthy holidaymakers, keen trekkers and everything in-between all mingling in the dusty streets and bars of the town. Being on a tight budget we naturally shunned the five star mountain lodges and headed to the cheapest option we could find. Our home here was Casa Azul. A gaudy and rundown blue building, basic and a little grotty, but welcoming and full of character. We stayed in a converted trailer out the back of the house.
A lazy day in town flew past, planning our strategy for seeing the nearby mountains and next stretch of the ride. Washing was done, showers were enjoyed, bikes maintained and the kitchen was feasted in. Early the next morning we ditched our cycles and headed up the valley towards the lofty mountains. We spent a glorious two days trekking amongst the peaks, lakes and glaciers. Whilst clouds obscured the summit of the elusive Mount Fitzroy, I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It felt refreshing to be on my own two feet again and the unspoiled beauty of the park lured us in with each turn in the trail. Our original intention was just to hike up to the mountain and return to town with a stop to camp between. However so much were we enjoying ourselves and the mountains proving so enchanting that we extended our hike and pushed on towards Lago Torres.
The trail twisted through ancient forest. Every so often there was a break in the foliage and we would glimpse vast glaciers towering over us. The way the light dappled through the treetops was magical. We paused only to marvel at the nature and to drink from the pure snowmelt streams. As the evening drew in we arrived at our campsite for the night, hurriedly pitching our tents and satisfying our ravenous appetites. In the morning we walked the short stretch to Lago Torres and gazed across at the glacier. The remainder of the morning was spent enjoying the leisurely stroll back down to El Chalten.
After arriving back at Casa Azul we begun our preparations to leave the following day. Purchasing food for the next stretch and working out the final route details. We awoke in the morning to winds howling against our trailer with renewed vigour. Pedalling North out of town the bikes felt especially heavy as our tyres crunched over the loose and corrugated ripio. The road was however a beautiful one and again we enjoyed views of glaciers and wild country. The road ended at Lago Del Desierto, here we took a quick break for lunch. Whilst eating we met two Chilean cyclists Hermano and Guille and swapped tales from the road. However our paths were to diverge here, whilst they boarded a small ferry across the lake, we turned off into the wooded hillside on the lakes Eastern shore. Most cyclists headed this direction opt for the ferry crossing as it avoids an arduous and at points dangerous hikeabike around the lake. The boat takes just over one hour, but we didn’t fancy the expensive ticket, plus the call of adventure was whispering and drawing us into the forrest.
Instantly it was apparent what a challenge we had set for ourselves. The track was almost totally unrideable and the pushing begun within the first two hundred meters of the twelve kilometre trail. For the following two days we did battle with the forrest and mountains surrounding the lake. We pushed, pulled, carried, hauled, dragged and wrestled our heavy bikes along. Moving them one painstaking meter at a time in every fashion imaginable aside from actually riding them! At times we struggled up loose and near vertical climbs, or carrying our bikes through icy mountain streams. The thorns and spikes of the trail wrecked havoc on our skin, clothes and drivetrains. Towards the later half of the hikeabike we also had to contend with deep and pungent bogs, slipping up climbs made of wet clay.
Despite all these difficulties mentioned, I can safely say that all three of us throughly loved the route and didn’t regret our decision. The opportunity to spend two nights in such a pristine forrest that few even pass through was reward enough for our efforts. We saw woodpeckers and enjoyed spectacular views back across the lake to the Fitzroy mountain range. After two days on the trail the last kilometre offered up some rideable sections and I enjoyed the twisty singletrack. Emerging onto the lakes Northern shore that is home to Argentinian border control we were all euphoric. “Nosotros somos animales!” I exclaimed whilst we exchanged high fives. After stamping out of the country we begun the next section of trail crossing the no mans land between the two borders, an infamous crossing for touring cyclists. Whilst we did find parts of it challenging, in comparison to our ordeal around the lake we made relatively quick progress of the trail, with my bikepacking setup I was even able to ride large sections of it. After officially entering Chile we charged down a pulse raising gravel decent to the ferry port of Candelario Mancilla. Each switchback revealed new vantage points over the turquoise Lago O’Higgins.
At the ferry port we found a hidden clifftop perch to camp for the night. Here we met Jamie, a friendly English climber working his way up the continent. After apologising for intruding on his privacy we all shared dinner and good company until it was dark. Jamie revealed that the next days ferry was due at eleven, meaning that we had a nice relaxed morning. Once camp was packed away we sat waiting as the small boat on the horizon gradually inched towards us. Upon arrival however the Capitan informed us the ferry was very busy and they would only be able to fit us on the return leg of the journey at five in the afternoon. So begun a wonderfully lazy and relaxing wait. The four of us basked in the sun like walruses on the dock. Jamie had the nerve to swim in the frigid glacial lake, and after some coaxing I was soon to follow. We spent the next hours eating the remainders of our supplies and listening to music.
When boarding the evening ferry we were instructed to sit in the cramped little kitchen below deck as they had no room for us in the seating area. The departure was delayed for some time as a rather unfortunate Chilean tried in vain to rescue his expensive drone that got carried away in the winds; safe to say he didn’t look to cheerful for the remainder of the journey. Once the boat got out onto the lake it was immediately apparent to me that the kitchen situation wasn’t going to agree with my unseasoned sea legs. I watched the sky rock up and down through a tiny round window and felt my palms grow sweaty. I could stand it no longer and rushed up through the cabin and onto the open rooftop. Emma and I spent the remainder of my journey up here braving the savage winds whipping across the lake and the cold spray being driven over the roof; it was infinitely preferable to the kitchen.
After a crossing of several hours I was grateful to get my feet back on dry land. The ferry deposited us at the Southern terminus of the Carratera Austral, a vast gravel road that would be my route North for the coming weeks. We rode just a few short kilometres on the road and found a secluded campsite next to a river for the night. Drifting off to sleep I could feel the excitement building for exploring this legendary road.