Patagonia: Of the pampa and the puma

Of the pampa and the puma

February 2018

The argentinian city of El Calafate is my next destination, to visit the famous Perito Moreno glacier. The route requires a bit of planning, because I need to cross the pampa again. Supplys for several days are necessary and there are only a few places where there is water and wind protection. An app for the smart phone makes it easier to find these places. IOverlander is based on google maps and travelers can leave information about camp spots or landmarks there. There is, for example, a small gas station in the middle of nowhere. The next spot is then 100 kilometers away, a house of a kind of road construction authority. In high season up to 20 cyclists camp behind that house at night. The workers there give them water and let them use the toilets, and are probably glad to have some company as well.

By now I’ve gotten used to adjust everything to the wind. Even if it means to get up at four o’clock and start cycling before dawn. You can rely on the wind, but it´s  also good for surprises. For a day I suddenly have tailwind and the feeling is indescribable. I’m flying without doing a single pedal stroke, the wind even pushes me up the hills, it’s unbelievable. So it must be like that on a motorcycle, only without the noise of the engine. And the strange thing is, while you are flying with speed of light, ähm speed of wind, it feels almost windless. No wind is pulling on your clothes and hair, it’s not cold and almost silent. Only the fact that you are moving without any effort and the movement of the grass and bushes remind you that it is super windy. And if you stop, of course, then you become an obstacle and it storms and roars around you.

After flying over the asphalt of Ruta 40, there is a shortcut on a gravel road. And here it is almost too fast. The wind pushes me, I just need to steer and avoid the big stones and look for the best track, but concentration is needed and sometimes I even have to brake. It is the tailwind of my life but the miracle lasts only one day. Then the road turns again and the wind is against me as usual.

Much of the scenery reminds me of the Australian Outback. The sparse landscape, the long distances between villages, the straight, endless road and the wind. Only kangaroos doesn´t exist here, but Guanacos. A kind of Lama, which occur here in large numbers and often run across the street. And there is also a large flightless bird, the counterpart to the australian Emu.

The only bigger predator is the Puma, but you don´t see them anyway, people say. I’m lucky: One evening I’m camping with two other cyclists on a creek under trees. At dusk, we sit by the fire, as on the other side of the creek, just 20 meter away, an animal emerges from behind a sand-hill. A big dog, I think, but it looks more like a big cat. “Puma, puma!” I call out excitedly, and the puma sees us too. For a few seconds he freezes and looks at us, then he runs away. An imposing encounter.

Big glacier – small world

When I arrive in El Calafate I need to stock up on supplies and eat a lot. I forgot how much you eat as a cyclist. The food just seems to disappear in my stomach and I get hungry every two to three hours. On my rest days I also spend a lot of time preparing and eating food and I think I will write more in a future article what I fill myself with.

The only reason for me (and many other, mostly Argentine tourists) to be in El Calafate, is the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is said to be gigantic and is one of the few glaciers in the world that is not retreating. It is fed by the campo de hielo sur, the large southern ice field, which forms the third largest freshwater reservoir on earth. From El Calafate it is another 80 kilometers to the glacier and I have no desire to cycle again against the wind, because the 30 kilometers from the Ruta 40 to El Calafate were exhausting enough.

So I leave my bike and hitchhike. This is easy and after just a few minutes a car stops. Three Argentinian girls take me and they have already picked up another couple. Marc from Italy and his girlfriend from Slovakia have been traveling the world for a while. At some point we talk about couchsurfing and it turns out that the two were guests in Crows Nest in Wellington, where I lived for half a year. I didn´t meet them there, but we know people in common. How small the world is.

The glacier is indeed impressive. Somewhat different than the glaciers in New Zealand. The dimensions are gigantic and the ice crackles and creaks under the pressure under which the glacier slides into the valley. Sometimes huge chunks of ice rush thunderously into the water and become small icebergs, a wonderful spectacle. The detour was worth it and also the 250 Argentine pesos (15 euros) you have to pay as a foreigner.

The next stage leads to El Chaltén – 200 km and four uneventful days through the Pampa. Fighting against the wind, cursing, eating, sleeping. On the first day the wind is on my side, at least the 30 km from El Calafate to the Ruta 40. Here only the oncoming cyclists are struggling, there are six of them today. Most come from the Carretera Austral and they are not yet used to the winds in the Pampa. Another German, who looks a bit desperate when I tell him that he still has 18 km to go and the wind even gets stronger in the evening, gets to the point: “I don’t understand that. What do all the cyclists want here? There’s nothing to see but the Pampa. And then those winds, that’s totally insane. That’s not fun anymore. “ I see it that way as well, but you have to push through it.

One night I sleep in the famous Hotel Rosa. It´s an empty pink house next to the road and often frequented by cyclists. And with those winds every simple protection feels like a five star hotel, and this one is gratis as well.

Hikers paradise El Chaltén

El Chaltén is touristy. And pricey. Two qualities that I don´t like too much, but often there is a reason why a place is touristy. In Chaltén it is the mountains. The Cerro Fitz Roy and the Cerro Torres are not only wonderful and striking to look at (if they are not hidden behind the clouds) but are also famous amongst mountaineers. For the less adventurous there are enough hiking trails through the mountain range. The small town was only founded in 1985, that time as an outpost to underpin the border claims of Argentina. Here is still an area where the border between Chile and Argentina is not completely defined. Chaltén has less than 2,000 inhabitants (significantly less in winter), and plenty of tourists.

I camp in a small forest at the outskirts of town, here this doesn´t bother anyone, and I get invited to dinner right on the first evening. Michaela and Matthias from Buenos Aires are cyclists as well, albeit a little bit differently. Their bikes are assembled from scrap bicycles, they improvised the racks and panniers. For a year they have been traveling in Argentina, without any money. They ask in shops, bakeries and restaurants for food and trust in the hospitality of people – it seems to work. Currently they are traveling in a car with the parents of Matthias. They invite me to pasta and it turns out that we have a mutual friend and here I have to go a little bit further back: Sebastian Engel, a german touring cyclist, is as well on the road for several years. We were in Asia at the same time, but we never crossed paths. But I read his blog and we have also sporadic email contact. Two years ago, Sebastian lived and worked for a while in the for cyclists famous Panaderia La Union in Tolhuin. It is located 100 km north of Ushuaia and offers touring cyclists free accommodation and delicious pastries. Also I was in the bakery and wanted to inquire about Sebastian, because I knew that he is back in Argentina. But the bakery was full of people and it was early morning, the day before I had not made it to Tolhuin. So I decided to continue cycling, even without buying some of the goodies. What I didn´t know was that Sebastian was back there on his way to Ushuaia. Literally just meters away from me. Other cyclists told me later. For this time we had missed each other, but I was on his track

Mica and Matthias knew him, and so did Florencia, which has the Casa Ciclista in Chalten, a kind of guesthouse for cyclists. She invites me to an asado, a barbecue, and also to sleep there for free, as I don´t want to spend money on accommodation. But I already have an invitation from another friend of Sebastian, whose contact he has given me. Pamela is also a cyclist and her story is fascinating and inspiring. She had left for a trip from her hometown of Cordoba to Ushuaia. El país del viento – the land of the wind, she called the trip and linked it with various educational projects for children. Then she wrote a book about her experiences.

Pamela decided to continue cycling, but in Uruguay fate was not well-intentioned. A car crashed into her, shattering her bike and numerous bones, and when she woke from a three month coma, she could not talk, move, or remember many things. The doctors gave her few chances to ever recover from it. But Pamela told herself, who has fought against the wind in Patagonia, can do anything. Step by step, she learned everything anew and as soon as she was able to move reasonably, she moved to Chalten. Because in the hospital bed she had always dreamed of the mountains, had seen pictures of Fitzroy and felt, she needed to go there. Pamela arrived in winter, rented a small room and continued her own rehabilitation. Every day she went to the mountains, no matter what the weather was, every day she fought against herself, against her tired body, which at first refused to take on these hardships. But with each day she became stronger, gained strength and was able to take longer trips. Anyone who has the patience and stamina to cycle against the Patagonian wind can do anything, she says.

This lively and courageous girl, who has received so much hospitality and help on her journey, now gives it back to me. She invites me to live with her, gives me a key to the door, repeats several times I could stay as long as I want, makes me eat her food instead of buying something in the overpriced supermarkets, and gives me valuable tips for the surroundings.

I decide to do day trips instead of carrying a heavy backpack with food and tent. Because you can only camp at certain places in the national park and in high season there are often forty or fifty tents sharing the space. I can gladly do without that, since I prefer to be alone in nature. Here the trails are busy, every few minutes I encounter another person. But it is still nice, and if you just leave the path and walk a hundred meters into the forest, you are all alone.

In addition to the hikers, the climbers and the bus tourists, there are the cyclists who come through Chaltén. It is the gateway to the well known Carretera Austral, one of the “dream roads for cyclists”, which stretches over 1200 kilometers through the Chilean Patagonia. From Chaltén you have to cross two lakes with ferries. Between these lakes you have to push your bike over a hiking trail and cross the Argentine-Chilean border. Then you arrive at Villa O’Higgins, the place at the southern end of the Carretera Austral. The number of cyclists increases from year to year and so do the prices for the ferries. This year it costs 90 euros for both boats together. Often the boats don´t go because of strong winds and you get stuck in the middle of nowhere. I think for that money I can buy a lot of food (well, actually not so much in Argentina) and plan to take a unknown alternative route.

There is a route to Villa O’Higgins in Chile which leads over the Paso Rio Mayer. There is no road there, rivers need to be crossed and it is supposed to be difficult, but also no ferries for which you have to pay. On that way it is about a 500 kilometers detour to Villa O’Higgins and again I have to go through the pampa on the Argentine side. Against the wind, of course.