Finally the wind has been in our favour! After such a tough opening week and a half it was a huge relief that as we left Punta Arenas the wind was pushing us along. These favourable conditions meant that the 60km stint into the evening flew by, and when it came time to set up camp it seemed a shame to halt our progress. Our strong headway continued over the next two days meaning that we soon arrived in Puerto Natales where we caught our first sight of the Andes and began to realise the enormity of the challenge ahead!
Collectively our favourite morning of riding thus far came from Puerto Natales to the Argentine-Chilean border where 60 kilometres of good road wound through the beautiful Torres Del Paine National Park (the top National Park in the continent!). In stark contrast to the flatter, and much more barren far south, we cycled through valleys framed by enormous ice caped mountains and past impossibly blue lakes. We couldn’t help but think that mornings like these where what makes all the pain worthwhile.
So far Chile has seemed like a paradise in contrast to Argentina which has been providing us with more than an ample challenge! After stamping back into Argentina, we were back on the dirt and gravel and our elated mood passed as quickly as it had come. However, we got the bit between our teeth and ploughed on along the beginning of Ruta 40 for 80 kilometres with the wind in our favour until we reached paved road again.
We were making such good time that a slightly nervous email came in from our parents asking if we had been mugged because our satellite tracker was moving so fast! Back on the paved road and numbed to the scale and aridity of southern Argentina we pressed on with the wind still dictating our pace. We reached the top of a vast plateau after a solid day of low-gradient, windy climbing, and our most amazing view so far opened out in front of us. Lago Argentino, stretched into the distance with the immense southern Andes rising up behind. After a blustery descent and the evening drawing in, we pitched camp at the first river we had seen in days, Rio Bote. Our naked bodies washing in the river under the glow of an unbelievable sunset created quite a scene for any passing Guanacos.
Our hard work over the last few days was all worth it as we left ourselves a nice 40 kilometre cruise into El Calafate for a well-earned day off. El Calafate is essentially an outdoor mall where you can eat expensively and buy souvenirs, chocolate, ice-cream, and apparently nothing else of use. However, it is also the gateway to the south Patagonian ice field which feeds a number of glaciers, the star of the show being Glacier Perito Moreno. With two pretty avid geo-hunters among our number (Toby & Guthrie), we of course rented a car and headed straight for it that morning.
Having spent so long camping in the wilderness, El Calafate was a real culture shock, so having braved the tourist crowds for a day, we made a quick exit. Calafate to El Chalten is a two-day, 215 kilometre ride. Half way we camped at the house where Butch Cassidy, Ethel Place and the Sundance Kid hid out for a month after robbing the Bank of England in Rio Gallegos. We were forced to make quite a quick getaway ourselves after using the personal bathroom of an incredibly irate owner! The road into El Chalten is iconic. So many hours spent planning back in England before Christmas looking at endless google images of Mount Fitz Roy did nothing to prepare us for the scale of it. Although, we had plenty of time to process it as we were cycling straight towards it for eighty kilometres with it never seeming to get any closer!
El Chalten had a much more relaxed atmosphere than Calafate, and we were greeted by the lovely Zoe (who runs Walk Patagonia). We would have loved to stay and do some hikes, but on Zoe’s insider knowledge of the erratic ferry schedule across Lago O’Higgins we pressed on. The road from Chalten to Laguna Del Desierto was breath-taking as we snaked through scenery that felt like a hugely oversized Jurassic Park film set. After a short ferry, we arrived at border control (a man in a hut) and the most beautiful campsite. We set up our tents and had a lovely evening marvelling at the now fairly distant Fitz Roy towering up at the far end of Laguna Del Desierto.
With the alarm rudely awakening us in the very early hours of the morning, we proceeded to silently pack away our tents as we contemplated the day ahead. Earlier in the trip we had been warned by a somewhat grumpy Brazilian that the hike to Lago O’Higgins was truly impossible let alone with bikes. Enjoying this prospect we enthusiastically began the 6 kilometre trek, lugging fully laden bikes up an incredibly steep, narrow, rocky path crossing streams and bogs in the process. Three and a half hour later, the sight of the Chilean border sign was an achievement that rivalled any of our 130 km days so far. Despite so much physical exertion for so little distance gained, it was a beautiful walk to the top with our last sights of Fitz Roy fading into the distance. Twenty kilometres of downhill – in places incredibly steep – got us to the ferry port at the south end of Lago O’Higgins, though not without casualty. Archie, still struggling with the cleat system fell victim to a patch of particularly soft gravel and sheared a pannier clean off. Despite the spectacular views from the short ferry crossing to Villa O’Higgins, we couldn’t keep our exhausted bodies awake.
So we now sit in Villa O’Higgins about to begin the 1247-kilometre Carretera Austral, which by all accounts has a claim to being the most beautiful road in the world. Stage one is complete… bring on Stage 2!
We hope to be in touch soon with our next update, we are however at the mercy of factors we can’t control. The winds, roads, and ferry schedules affect how far we can go each day, as does the availability of food. The luxury that is the internet is hard to come by for long stretches and when it does it is often frustratingly slow so please hold out for our next progress update! In the meantime be sure to follow us via our GPS on the website…and some photos will follow shortly.