There is always another way. And often I take these other ways, the less travelled, the forgotten, the difficult paths. It may be out of curiosity, for the thirst for adventure, for reasons of money or just because of the desire to do it differently than the majority.
This story is about another route to Chile, to the village of Villa O’Higgins at the southern end of the Carretera Austral. From the Argentine village of El Chalten, the trekking and climbing mecca, it is only 100 km to Villa O’Higgins, as the crow flies.Almost every day a couple of cyclists arrive through this normal way. It also has something adventurous: Two lakes must be crossed by ferry and in between the bikes must be pushed over a hiking trail for a few kilometres. What puts me off is the price for the ferry crossings. With the raising numbers of tourists every year, the prices are rising as well and this year it is the equivalent of 90 euros which you have to pay for the two boats.
Back in the pampa
How good that I hear from another cyclist about the Paso Rio Mayer, the other way to Chile. There is talk about river crossings, of an area between the border posts without any route and, of course, the absence of costly ferries. However, it is 500 extra kilometers to go reach Villa O`Higgins and I have to return to the windy Pampa, back to the Ruta 40.
The first leg of 300 km will take me to the next Argentine town, Gobernador Gregores, where I plan to spent my last Argentine Pesos in exchange for food. From Chalten I have to go back to the east and that means tailwind. The transition from the idyllic mountains to the barren pampa is almost seamless, and in the evening, after 120 km (tailwind!), I reach the village of Tres Lagos. Here it is always windy and the inhabitants retire to their homes, the streets are empty. I find a sheltered sleeping place in the stand of the Rodeo area, a facility that can be found in every small town.
The next morning I get up with the sun, regret that the panaderia, the bakery, has still closed, and leave this windy town. The road does a big turn and the curve stretches over a few kilometers. With every meter the wind turns a little more until it finally blows from the front. I switch patiently into the small gears and pedal forward at a snail’s pace. It seems to be one of those days where, even with the best of intentions, one cannot move forward. The wind is still increasing in intensity and after three hours, meanwhile I have retired to pushing my bike, I lean it exhausted on the guardrail. I overthink my options. I could cycle back 10km to Tres Lagos, stock up on sweets in the bakery and hope for the next day. Or try to stop a car and perhaps make it to Gobernador Gregores today. I choose the latter, even if I don´t want that to become a habit.
There is not much traffic here, like two or three cars per hour, but what else can I do? Cycling is not an option, even walking is difficult in this storm. After all, it doesn´t rain. I sat down next to my bike and exercise patience. Every time a car approaches, I jump up and stretch my thumb out. After two hours a big motorhome stops. Great, that was fast. A Brazilian couple on a big South American tour. If everything is OK, if I need water, they ask me. But hey don`t want to take me, they would have no place. For real? Well, thanks anyway.
I wait and wait and think about how long the bakery in Tres Lagos will be open? The sun is moving across the sky, the wind is constantly storming and the shadows are getting longer, when finally a car stops. Seven hours have passed, seven hours on the roadside, but now I have a ride to Gobernador Gregores. Provided I can fit my bike and all the luggage in the small car. Enthusiastic I disassemble both wheels and squeeze all the bags into the car, the trunk closes barely. Mariana is my savior and out of the car the landscape looks so peaceful, the wind is no longer felt. It had been the right decision. This becomes particularly clear to me as the paved road turns into coarse gravel that ecen the small car get into trouble. It would have been ordeal on the bike. We pass two motorcyclists who were blown over by the wind and can´t continue to drive (or don´t want). A few hours later, (with the bike it would have been days), we arrive in Gobernador Gregores and Mariana helps me to find a spot to camp by the local river.
It rains the next morning. After all, no storm, I think. I stay in the tent until the rain stops, pack up and search for the only supermarket in town. This is closed, Siesta they call it. From one to five, many businesses are closed down. For me just annoying, I wanted to continue today, but otherwise, of course, a good thing. Instead I cycle to the gas station for free Wifi. Almost everyone who comes through here fills up. The distances are long in Patagonia. Many cars are muddy, people are cleaning their tires from the mud. The rain has turned the Ruta 40’s gravel section into a dirty and slippery track, making it impassable for cars without four-wheel drive. Luckily I passed this section dry and clean yesterday.
At the supermarket I buy food for six days. Rice, lentils, oatmeal, peanuts, biscuits, jam, bread, canned tuna and some of the expensive fruits and vegetables. Two days on the Ruta 40 follow, always against the wind. After all, cycling is possible. I see Nandus and shoo for kilometers a poor baby guanaco that can´t jump over the fences and is too scared to run past me. I find a gum boot and ten kilometers ahead the other one and pick them up, for the river crossings. I can´t wait to leave the Ruta 40 behind, I’m sick of the wind and the pampa, too. I prefer the rain which awaits me on the Chilean side (That´s what I say now!).
It is afternoon when I reach the intersection where the gravel road begins. Unfortunately, it leads right west, straight into the wind, and I decide that I have worked enough for today. I find a reasonably sheltered space behind the only bush, just big enough for my tent.
[Tip for imitators: 3 km after the junction with the Ruta 40 comes a bridge. In front of the bridge on the right side of the river, about 200 m away, there is a single bush which offers wind protection. Otherwise, after the bridge at the concrete pillars on the left side there is a windless place behind a sand dune. However, you have to share it with Pedro, who is buried there. It is better if you can make it 30 km further. There is a great place under trees right on the river, with a fire pit and gooseberry bushes.]
An early start
To take other ways also means other approaches. I have to make progress every day to get there, and I don´t have enough food for a rest day. And that means aligning everything with the wind.
At three o’clock in the morning my alarm rings. It is pitch dark and windless. At four o’clock I had breakfast and packed up and push my bike back to the street. There is already a light breeze, today the wind seems to have set an alarm as well. At half past four it is already a strong wind I´m struggling against, well packed in my rain jacket, the woolen hat pulled deep in my face and the headlamp pointing the way. Finding a good trail on the gravel road in the dark proves to be difficult and it’s a pretty bumpy affair. The wind is blowing in my ears and makes my hood flutter. Just as the horizon begins to brighten slowly, I press the gear lever one last time. The chain falls rattling on the smallest chainring and thus in the first gear. The last step before surrender – and that before sunrise. It seems to be over before the day starts. This time no bakery lures with it´s offers and also the chances of a car are low. Until the end of the road in 100 km there is nothing but a few estancias, habited or abandoned, you never know.
But when the sun pains the clouds pink and finally appears bright and warm behind me in the sky, the wind seems to get tired and gives way a bit. Just enough that I can cycle and I know it will be a long day at this pace.
Towards noon I see a car appearing in the distance. It’s one of those typical pick-ups people drive in the country side. The tires crunch in the gravel as the car comes to a halt next to me. The window slips down and two middle-aged men, unmistakably brothers, look at me. “Necesitas algun?” – “Do you need something?” one asks and the brown eyes sparkle in a friendly way. “Fuerza y mas patiencia, porque el viento!” “Strength and more patience, because of the wind!” I answer and the two laugh. To Chile it´s quite a bit more, they say and wish me luck before they continue.
A little further
I make progress only slowly. At noon I eat my in the morning prepared oatmeal and take a glance at the map. I want to get as far as possible today, because the mountains which appear at the horizon, promise more wind protection. Besides, everything I cycle today doesn´t need to be cycled tomorrow.
Recently I read an article about Shackleton, the British Antarctic Explorer. One of his mottos was “a little further”. Not that I would like to compare this little adventure with the strains and the danger or even the madness of an expedition to the South Pole, but the attitude in the head, the mindset which is needed to push through difficult moments and to break someones limits, that is the same. For a long bike trip you need exactly this willpower. And occasionally to enjoy physical torments.
A little further it goes, actually even a quite a lot, until my body signals me it needs food again. Sugar would be best and as fast as possible. I’ve already eaten all my biscuits, so I have to stop to cook something. On the horizon a rain cloud comes towards me, I have just enough time to build my Tarp between two big rocks. The shelter is just big enough for me to stretch out, and after cooking and shoveling in noodles with tomato sauce, I sleep for an hour.
The rain cloud has moved on and I make it a little further. It gets hilly, trees appear and finally I leave the pampa behind me. Finally! I cycle until the onset of darkness and pitch my tent next to the road with the last rays of sunshine. Tired but satisfied, I crawl inside. I’ve been on my feet for 17 hours, most of this time on the bike. Probably one of the longer days of this trip, but I’ve made it far enough to make it to the border the next day.
This is gaucho country
The term pass is a bit misleading. It is not much uphill but rather between the high mountains. Without the wind it would be a breeze, at least so far. The last stretch of road leads across the land of the Estancia Entre Rios. Succulent grassy plains offer good grazing grounds, and wild geese and cranes rest on the banks of the river, which meanders gently through the plain. It rains a bit, but then the sun breaks through the clouds. A Gaucho appears on his horse, chasing a group of horses in front of him. He skillfully changes direction to keep them together, but at the sight of me they prance nervously and try to break out. What beautiful animals horses are. The gentle eyes, the shiny, healthy coat and the swinging tails. Elegantly they seem to fly over the ground. It’s a movie-like scene, or more like a fairytale. These wild and livly animals, looking shyly at me, the nostrils steaming, I can barely avert my eyes. And then this gaucho figure, in leather boots, heavy worker pants and wool sweater. A scarf around the neck and the typical gaucho hat on the head. The face brown and tanned by wind and weather, laugh lines around the eyes.
The scene is too beautiful for my camera, I even don´t try to capture that magic of the moment and leave it in the handlebar bag. The gaucho comes over and looks at me curiously. I tell him where I come from and where I want to go. “Always against the wind!” He says and shakes his head, laughing and in disbelief. He tells me that it is 14 km to the Argentine gendarmerie post and a river has to be crossed before he chases after the escaped horses. I watch him ride. At some point I’ll trade my steal horse for a living horse, I think. But until then I have to pedal myself.
Life on such an estancia has to be simple. There is no mobile phone network, no power line, the nearest store several hours away by car. In wind and weather they work outside and in the evening sit together by the fire with vino tinto and asado. At least that’s how I imagine it.
If you could only be a sheep
The first river to cross is wide but not deep. If my panniers had no holes, I could have easily pushed my bike through. But so I have to unload everything and wade through the river several times. The water is freezing cold and makes my feet hurt and numb. I had lost the gum boots by now. Anyway they wouldn´t have been high enough.
I arrive at the gendarmerie. A hut in the middle of nowhere, the Argentine flag flutters in the wind. Instead of looking forward to the rare visit (and work), the police men are distrustful. The boss, in tracksuit pants and flip flops, looks at my passport and checks all stamps carefully before disappearing into the hut. From another one I learn that the crew is stationed here for four weeks , and it’s rare that someone crosses here.There is a four wheel drive track but the rivers are impassable almost all year round.So it is only for the handful of adventurous cyclists for whom this border post is manned (apart from the prestige). If the Argentine taxpayers would knew. I finally get my exit stamp and with the end of the official road the adventure begins.
[Tip for other cyclists: After the border post take the path through the gate, instead of the left one past the fence. The left path is way longer and it is much easier to get lost (I speak from experience)]
I cycle through pastureland and then into a forest. The track is overgrown but easy to follow and rideable. Then the landscape opens into a wide valley. Chile is on the other side of a river with many side arms. The track disappears in a more than knee-deep river with fast current, but I discover tire tracks from other cyclists in the mud and follow them up the river.
[Follow the river to the right, cross the streams and at the latest when you reach the big Rio Carrera, it is time to follow this one upstream to the Pasarela]
There is a bridge, a pasarela, over the biggest river, which makes this other way possible in the first place. However, it is not a bridge for people or even cars, it is a bridge for sheep and that’s what it looks like. A narrow rickety suspension bridge spans high above the roaring waters of the azure Rio Carrera. The whole construct doesn´t look so reassuring, especially not if you would have German safety standards in your mind. The wooden planks are weathered and partly missing, the nails and wires rusty. The bridge is just wide enough for a sheep, or a person, but not for a fully loaded bike. Once again I unload my luggage and carry one bag after another to the other side. It’s a shaky affair every time and I don´t feel so comfortable. In the end, only the bicycle is left and I have no choice but to lift it high above my head so that I will not get caught anywhere. It is a balancing act with arms raised to get over this shaky and springy bridge and hold the 18kg bike. In the middle of the bridge my arms get super heavy, but the mere thought of how my bike slips out of my hands and disappears forever in theequally colored blue tides, gives me strength. If necessary, the body can still endure a little more and step by step I get closer to the other side.
If you could only be a sheep, then the narrow and steep path up the bank would be easier to cope with. So I have to push with all my strength the 60 kg vehicle upwards and take care that it doesn´t pull me down. Also, the following maze would be easier as a sheep, at least easier to navigate. It is only a few kilometers to the Chilean Carabinero office, but in front of me spreads a bush landscape, traversed by countless trails. The paths run in thicker scrub, ending abruptly, or meeting other paths. Often the bushes are so close to each other that there is no way through. Time to look at the map and use GPS to determine my position. So I know at least in which direction I have to go, because the path showed on the map is only of theoretical nature.
[Tip for other cyclists: Good luck!]
I follow a path randomly, make arbitrary decisions and work my way forward bit by bit. Often it can´t be avoided to push the bike with great effort through the bushes or even to take off the bags and to carry them a bit until the path is wider again. The daylight is coming to an end, but I want to make it to Chile. Several times I check my position on the phone and finally make it out of the bush labyrinth – only to find myself in a swamp. My front wheel begins to sink into the mud and only with great effort I can wrest it from the ground. Mud is probably the most difficult of terrains to cross with a bike, even more difficult than sand, and I quickly retreat to find a way with a firmer surface. After another stream I meet a wider path and can even cycle again until a fence blocks my way. On the other side is a gravel road. That must be Chile. There is no gate and the fence is solid and in good condition, topped with barbed wire. The only possible way is to crawl underneath it. Between two disassembled wires I slide through bag after bag , then my bike, and finally myself.
Dawn is already in progress as I traverse the last river which flows directly in front of the Chilean Carabineros building. Through the brightly lit windows, I can make out the glow of a fire and police in uniforms. A policeman opens the door and, without batting an eyelid, takes my passport. I take a seat in a small office. The desk is tidy, on the wall the image of the Chilean president. A young lad keeps me company, the green uniform neat and clean, shiny black boots, the face freshly shaved and the black hair trimmed short. Quite different to my appearance: Dreadlocks pear out from under the woolen hat, half my face hidden by a wild beard. Red rain jacket and shorts, sweaty and dirty. My calves scratched and smeared with mud, bare feet dirty from dust, which remained stuck after wading through the last river.
He is curious where I come from and in my simple Spanish I tell why I have choosen this other way. That the boats are expensive for me and that I like challenges. That I’ve been cycling for a few years and that it makes me happy. That I can get along with little money and can`t imagine having a steady job.
Its obvious that this young man has chosen a completely different way. Whether he enjoys guarding the borders of his country in this lonely place? I doubt it. Later I learn that police and other government employees in these regions receive double salary, which may compensate for the boredom.
The other policeman comes back with my passport, a cabinet is unlocked and the stamp and ink pad brought out. The passport is stamped carefully and the date written by hand. As a farewell, the young policeman tells me that just two kilometers away there is a refugio, a shelter, where I could spend the night.
Exactly what I need now! I make a fire and eat up my last supplies. After all, it is only 50 km to Villa O`Higgins tomorrow. And on a gravel road, that should be done in a few hours. So at least I think – it will be a little different, but that’s already part of the next story.