Part 1: The Escape
16 backpackers and cyclists gathered outside the ferry captian’s house on Sunday morning at 8:30. The ferry was still being repaired, but the captain had arranged another smaller boat. The previous day he (and the chef working across the road) had confirmed, once again, that ‘mañana’ (tomorrow) would be the day that we could cross the lake into Argentina. The smaller boat had space for 15, something all 16 of us knew but nobody mentioned.
A few minutes later the captain’s wife emerged from their house and let us know that the weather was ‘bad’ and that we should come back mañana. This was my 4th day in O’Higgins waiting to cross the lake and the promises of mañana weren’t sounding any more certain as time passed.
I decided to take my chances with Paso Rio Mayer.
Going east through the pass, dropping away from the Andes into the pampas and then looping back further south to get to El Chalten (other side the lake) would add a few hundred kilometers to the adventure. It would also be the only way to escape from O’Higgins.
I announced my plans to what was left of the 16 and convinced James, a British guy that had been cycling for months, and 2 Germans to join me. The Germans needed to get more food in town and while they did that James and I started up the pass.
45 kilometers later we found the Chilean border – a small outpost at the end of the track that wound through the pass. The only indications that it was an official building were the circle of rocks marking a helipad and the tatty Chilean flag fluttering in the wind.
The next 20 kilometers were incredible. Real mountain biking! The Chilean border officer explained to us that there were no roads for our bicycles until we found the Argentina border post. He also mentioned there would be some river crossings and that we should ‘turn right at the fence.’ We walked, carried out bicycles and cycled whatever we could as we traced a dotted line on my GPS east through fields, forests and rivers in search of the Argentina border.
A few hours, lots of mud, countless river crossings, a dodgy swing bridge and some awesome mountain-biking later James and I spotted the Argentine flag flying next to a small white building. The border guards were pleased to have something to do and took their time checking and stamping our passports. We had crossed the Andes from Chile to Argentina! Looking ahead the mountains dropped down and flattened out.
The Germans hadn’t caught up with us yet and James wasn’t planning on going too much further that day. I wanted to knock off the 120km between the Andes and Argentina’s Route 40 that afternoon. We said our good byes, wished each other luck and I took off for the main road.
Route 40 came into sight a few minutes before sunset. I found a spot near a river to camp for the night, very happy that I had managed to navigate the 185km’s from O’Higgins, over the pass, across the remote border and then all the way out of the mountains to the main road.
Part 2: Round One: Jethro 1/2 – 1/2 Patagonian wind
The next day looked relatively easy in comparison – 125km of paved road to the town of Gobernados Gregores. I was to be proven wrong. There are no easy days in Patagonia.
The wind sweeping over the Andes and across the continent to the Atlantic is relentless. And it’s really, really cold.
With the wind at my back I would run out of gears as I was pushed forward at over 45km/hr. Turning sideways across the wind is extremely dangerous – it’s impossible to keep a straight line on the side of the road. Trying to pedal head on into the wind is almost futile. Progress can be made but cost of doing so in terms of energy loss is incredible. The never changing view – a flat wind-swept desert – does nothing to make this experience pleasant! Moving forward is more of a mental game than a physical challenge.
Cycling into the wind became a formula. Fighting against it I could get my speed up above 10km/hr, but I couldn’t maintain that all day. I settled for a consistent 8-9km/hr, stopping regularly to eat and take a short break from the struggle.
I arrived in Gobernados Gregores many, many hours later. Shattered. My Spanish is quite rough; that afternoon I was struggling to put English sentences together.
Part 3: Return to the Andes
El Chalten is 310km south-west of Gobernador Gregores. The wind sweeps across Patagonia from west to east. I did the maths; 310km divided by around 9km/hr. The answer scared me.
Hitching a lift to El Chalten was also an option, but not yet. I wanted a round 2 with the Patagonian wind. I wasn’t ready to stop and wanted to see how far I could get. Maybe day 1 in the wind was as bad as it gets and I could make those 310km’s? I needed another day out there.
I decided to do the 60km’s out of town to the first intersection the following day. When I got there I would make a call on how to deal with the remaining 250km to El Chalten.
The bakery in Gobernador Gregores sells amazing cheese & ham filled pastries. These are also useful when measuring riding time – I bought 10 and planned to eat 1 per hour. That way I would know how long I had been riding: 10 – X hours, where X = the number of pastries left in the bag. If Patagonia was going to get all formulaic on me with its headwinds I would have to hit back with heaps of determination and some formulae of my own!
A few minutes after 7:00 the next morning and wearing all the warm clothes I had with me, I packed in the mountain of food I would need, loaded extra water (I took 5 liters) and aimed my bicycle south west. Trying to get up to 10km/hr I started counting down until I could eat the first pastry.
Words, or even formulas, couldn’t capture the challenging hours that passed that morning. There were times when I stopped after an hour to inhale another pastry, looked backwards and could still see where I had stopped an hour earlier. The intersection at 60km coincided with my 6th pastry.
Round 2 with the wind wasn’t any faster than round 1. Given enough pastries (about 25) I could cross the next 250km of desert to El Chalten. I didn’t have that many pastries or the desire to see any more of the desert. I decided to hitch a ride with the next vehicle that came past, but would keep grinding forward until that happened.
Two hours later the first headlights appeared on the horizon behind me. I stopped and waited a few minutes. The lights belonged to a motorbike – a German guy traveling down to Ushuaia. He stopped and offered me something to eat and drink. It was late afternoon already and fast approaching Christmas eve; we wished each other Merry Christmas and continued our solo journeys across the desert.
An hour later another vehicle appeared, this time it was a bus! The bus stopped next to me, the driver got out, looked at me and said: ‘Como estas?’ He gestured for me to join them on the bus and said that they were going to El Chalten.
Around 16:00 I got on the bus, having covered 75km’s in almost 9 hours. The remaining 235km would take only 4 hours, while a reclining seat absorbed my entire body and I ate through most of the food I had stockpiled.
On Chrismas eve I was delivered to the centre of El Chalten. Leaving the bus terminal I ran into some of the guys that had also been waiting for the ferry in O’Higgins. Some had gone back to the previous border crossing and others waited until the ferry did eventually operate. Somehow almost all 16 had all arrived in El Chalten minutes apart, and just in time to cook up a huge dinner and celebrate Christmas together!