I flew back to the Florida from Santiago ten days ago. I’ve been spending my time visiting family and friends, watching baseball (spring training and little league), putting off filing my taxes, and drinking beer with lots of hops in it. My insatiable bike appetite has disappeared and I’m worrying less about my post-tour transition. I reminisce about mountain view campsites as I revise my resume, almost exactly two years since I left my job to hit the road.
On February 6, I wake up in the dark to ride the ten km from town to the Lago O’Higgins ferry. The Canadians and I board the Alberto Lorenzo, the smallest and cheapest of the three bicycle-full ferries departing today. I chat with the other passengers, drink my ferry beer at 9 am on the “deck”, look at the pretty mountains. The first three hours are quiet, but I spend the last twenty minutes trying not to puke as we leave our protected channel and cross against the wind and waves. My mind reminds my stomach that that this is LAKE. A bright blue one. The Canadians and I unload our bikes in a hurry to beat the crowd to the Chilean exit customs up the hill a bit, and continue on up the gravel grade in perfect sunshine. I see more walkers than bikes…but no cars!
We cross to Argentina and the gravel turns to singletrack. I’m happy the trail is dry, but I take my time and walk my bike through much of the beautiful mature, silent forest. I am passed by a bicyclist riding a downhill mountain bike with a BOB trailer, and two backpackers on foot. At the bottom of the hill I pass through Argentinean customs and camp with twenty others, yelling out whenever Fitz Roy reappears from the cloud cover.
The next day starts with a leisurely ferry across the next lake with the Canadians, new friends from Bend (one of whom used to live in Fayetteville WV, I later discover), and Mike, the Austrian with the downhill bike and trailer combo, who has ridden all the way down from Anchorage. I learn that he’s on his third trailer of the trip. The twenty five miles to El Chalten are rough and slow, but the scenery cannot be beat, so every time I feel punished and discouraged by the washboards, I stop and enjoy the panorama. It seems I’m always grinning and happy, so lucky to camp among these beautiful mountains and hang out with my new cycling friends for weeks on end.
I spend three nights in El Chalten. The first day I hike to stretch my legs and catch a glimpse of Cerro Torre, but am unsuccessful as it hides behind the clouds. The Germans arrive into town and we splurge on huge steaks and good beer. I bid farewell to Mandy and Tony as they board a hideously expensive bus to Bariloche. I think I’ll see Crystal and Josh again down the road but never do – guess I’ll have to stop in Bend sometime to say hi instead.
El Chalten marked the start of the haunting Argentinean gales. One night it was so windy at the in-town campground I thought my tent poles might snap. It’s two days to Calafate across the pampa – the first day I push an easy century and camp contentedly on the banks of Rio Leones to watch the moon rise. On the second, I scream into the headwind for the four hours it takes to spin out twenty miles. But I still love this landscape. It takes me back to my days in the desert, across lonely swaths of NM and AZ and the continental divide eleven months before. I’ve come a long way since I was learning to ride clipless into the crushing westerlies west of El Paso. Here, as there, you watch your water and double check the mileage to the next source before you ride out of town.
(In my diary, I compare the wind I encountered into Calafate to the soul crushing westerlies I experienced near New Iberia, LA almost exactly a year before. HEADWINDS CAN SUCK IT).
Calafate is a goofy and expensive and touristy, but I’m too tired to continue, so I stay in town and enjoy the campground wifi (never did bother buying an Argentinean SIM card). It’s 30 bucks for the bus to the park, so I ride out to Glacier Perito Moreno and enjoy the scenery and fun winding ride through the park on another beautiful day (I started at dawn to avoid the headwinds as much as possible). I’ve not seen much of glaciers, so Perito Moreno BLOWS MY MIND. Blue and clear like the ends of the ocean. Clouds roll in as I sit and wait for it to calve, and I’m glad I brought so many layers with me on the short hike from where I left my bike. I watch a crooked splinter finally creak and collapse, with a loud boom and explosion of blue ice water.
I spy bicyclists camping at the roadside next to a bridge just outside the park boundary and meet Michiganers Torie and John, and friend Steve, on enviable Surly 29+ bikes. And who would appear just before sundown but bike trailer Mike! The next day I head east, the best highlight from the day a FANTASTIC LUNCH in Calafate. And some traffic program/stop at the highway junction, where I was handed a bright orange vest by the cops, and posed for a photograph at the side of the road. Hay un problema? No? OHHHHHHH, esta un regalo? Bueno, vale (and I forget to later discard the super-sized vest, and eventually carry it all the way back to the states as a useless souvenir). I camp by the only river crossing for a hundred miles. Mike does the same but he’s a few hours later and chooses the downstream corridor, out of my sight and apparently hearing. I catch him in the morning and we roll along up a climb and then atop a plateau of pampa, accompanied by guanacos (like alpacas, kinda) and aveztruz (ostrich look-a-likes. One raced me on the roadside as I sped along in a tailwind the afternoon before). More pampa, some gravel, and some cold rain on the road back to Chile at Cerro Castillo.
We meet the Germans, and new Germans Vera and Richard, in Cerro Castillo as they roll up to our hostel/campground. Then onto Torres del Paine, the picturesque National Park of Southern Chile, on a day of rain and shitty visibility. They’ve changed the camping rules in the last year to require reservations, and it’s a bit of a clusterf (ok, a major clusterfuck). The now-5 Germans and I camp outside the park as Mike tries his luck at hiking the W, the popular 3-5 day hike (he does it two naturally). The rest of us dayhike in fortunately clearer weather. Vera and Richard layover at camp and photograph the only camp pest I’ve encountered on the trip thus far (and overall, besides a second armadillo the next night).
Another day in the park, and I get a little bit of adventure on the road to Puerto Natales in the form of some cowfields double track and views of a fjord. Folks pick calafate by the roadside and I join them (like blueberries, kinda). The riding is prime and I savor every quiet mile.
I spend three days in Puerto Natales, too, enjoying sleeping indoors with a woodstove in the hostel hallway. My southbound journey is almost complete and I want to spend more time with my friends in town, eating huge portions of fish and drinking beer (there’s a decent cheap brewery in PN). Horst and I chat about punk bands and I watch Vera snag breadcrumbs off the table before any of the other cyclists see them. Frank and Kersten joke about the renovation of their 1930s countryside home and its original owners. Richard and Horst tell me stories about climbing at Yosemite when camp 4 was a summertime free for all. Mike brags so much about sneaking into campgrounds and parks I wonder if he’ll ever be able to return to the Americas. My friends graciously continue conversation in English so I don’t feel left out.
Oh! I forgot. Frank and Kersten and Horst have a blog – THE IRON WHEELS. They take much better pictures than I so you should check it out and google translate from German. Iron Wheels Post from El Chalten
Eventually I return to the road, with only three days of riding left to the south. I follow Route 9 to Punta Arenas – Ruta del Fin del Mundo. This country is full of estancias, more than I’ve seen since Cerro Castillo (the FIRST one, four weeks back near Coyhaique) – it may be tough to earn a living this far south, but the landscape is far from empty, especially if you count the cows. I search out an isolated campsite beside the basalt volcano cone at Cerro Morre but have to work for it, walking my
bike through soggy ground to find the right spot. I’m already too sentimental at the end of my trip to be satisfied with a purely practical camp – I need my vistas and solitude, too. The next day it rains, but I leave the pavement in search of a beach route described on the interwebs (velofreedom and others). In the dry country along the sea, I fill my bottles with bleach water at Rio Verde town site and hope the smell/taste/oxidizing potential will fade after ten hours, ‘cause I’ve got no alternative water source. The beach route is everything I could ask for, with weather warm enough to swim (well, splash bath). I dally and stretch in the sand, and don’t see another soul all day.
The next day I head towards Punta Arenas, hopping the requisite two gates near the abandoned coal mine, and don’t bother venturing to the Seno Otway penguin colony (no penguins this year! Boo). OH and on the way into Punta Arenas, around the mine, I finally encountered bike-stopping mud. It was my first time, and I didn’t know what to do, surprised as hell when my tires were too choked with mud to turn. Too clogged for me to even walk the bike forward?!? Fuck. And tires too muddy to turn add significant weight, making it MUCH more difficult than usual to even carry the bike through the quagmire. I eventually ended up walking Charlie like a quarter of a mile along the brush at the side of the road until the surface conditions improved, and felt lucky (not to mention, I was out of water til town).
I’ll take a dozen locked gates to lift my bike over, over that mud nonsense any day. I eventually continued along for a long slog through wind into town, and stopped at a bakery to fill up and chat.
Punta Arenas is an interesting place. It’s the largest city by far I’ve encountered since Santiago. It’s not exactly warm or sunny in the summertime, and I sense it may be a little dreary for the rest of the year. I hang out with my bike friends for a few more days and meet my cousin’s husband’s brother – Francisco arrived in Punta Arenas a few weeks before to begin his three-year deployment on location. He’s a triathalete and is nice enough to not make fun of my beat-up bike. After a final night out with my friends, I box up Charlie for her seventh flight in a year, back to Santiago.