After the W trek in Torres del Paine we took a couple of days to recover while Dad his bike gear organised and had a few practice rides around the lovely Puerto Natales. We climbed up a steep hill to a great lookout and Dad got his first taste of our enemy number one, the Patagonian wind.
Captain Mick and his vessel near Puerto Natales.
The view over the town from the Lookout.
Dad out on his first practice ride with all of his gear.
It was so hard to leave the tranquillo Puerto Natales that we didn’t make a start on the next leg of the ride until after 3pm the next day…. after not being able to pass on some thin and crusty pizza for lunch first…. Hmm it was definitely time to get back on the bike!
Dad got a nice and easy first taste of bike touring that afternoon with what to us could be described as a light breeze, and sometimes at our backs (would probably be described as strong winds everywhere else in the world). The road north of Puerto Natales to the Chilean Border station at Cerro Castillo (also the turnoff to Torres del Paine) is about 65 kms and is currently being repaved in long stretches. We asked the workmen nicely if we could ride on the almost completed paved stretches, and it being a friday arvo they seemed very happy to wave us on, so we had a 30km paved bike lane to ourselves while the cars and buses were stuck on the dirt bypasses - great stuff! All we had to look out for was the random 1m droppoffs, bits of steel sticking through the road and a couple of snoozing workmen who got a bit of a fright as we hurtled past! Oh, and we weren’t going to be camping anywhere around there either….. some nasty leftovers of border disputes between the Chileans and the Argies put a stop to Micks idea of a camp and fishing at a pretty little lake we passed.
Maybe not such a good camp spot….
He just had to…..
We were almost at the Cerro Castillo junction when we spotted one of the little shelters built for sheep herders and passing travellers. Not knowing what sort of camping was available at Castillo we decided to stop and set up there, since we could use the little shelter as a wind break for the tents and cook inside. My initial hantavirus concerns were pushed aside quite quickly when we found it even had a little wood fired stove inside so we were toasty warm. You know you’re having a good day when you find an unopened can of premium Dutch beer, called ‘Polar’ something, laying on the side of the road in almost pristine condition. It went down a treat that night with spag bowl and the chilean cask wine that dad had got a serious taste for in the past week and insisted he carry along…thanks Dad!
The first camp site behind the little shelter.
After coffee and a second brekkie (hey we are bike tourers again!) at a cafe in Cerro Castillo we crossed a little pass over the barren mountains with some great views back to Torres del Paine. After the Argie border station we knew we were back in Argentina, the land of consistent inconsistency, when both maps we had showed completely different roads that we had to turn off on leading from the border, and there was only one little road to turn off on going in the right direction, which had no sign of course. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing we finally got the info from a passing tour bus that a new paved road had been built but that the turnoff was 10kms up the (wrong way on the map) road. we could have taken the dirt road which would have got us there in twice the time, but instead we had an unexpected bonus of 30kms of beautiful new paved road, and even better the wind at our backs. Ahh it was good – averaging 25km/h with absolutely no effort. We even stopped into a pub-turned-road construction site for lunch were we were able to buy some Quilmes beer tinnies from some very weathered-looking workers to wash down the sandwiches. Life was good.
Riding over the pass in the desert.
After a few more kms of heavenly riding we had to turn north onto a gravelly and rocky dirt road. About 30kms more and the bums had had it so we camped at a great little spot with a clear spring and a flat green meadow just by the road (amazing since we were riding through barren desert).
Mel and Mick doing the dirt with style.
A great camp site by the road
The next day we had only ridden for a couple of hours when we spotted a lovely spot by a clear running stream with trout that we could see below the bridge. Well Mick of course was off with his fly rod for an hour or so while Dad and I sunned ourselves by the river. It was good to be alive. Micks poor excuses about the wrong size fly done with with we started off again but the wind hit us hard as we started to turn west again towards El Calafate. Dad had his first taste of it and it wasn’t much to his liking, especially as soon we were off the deserted dirt road and onto smooth but heavily trafficked highway. Swerving about in the wind trying to keep your balance when the gusts hit sideways while some more impolite argie truck drivers give you about a metre of space is slightly unnerving at first. After our experience in Tierra del Fuego Mick and I had learnt to take our little part of the road and not bother about getting right to the edge - they would come just as close if not closer…. you had to teach these people to respect the bike! Ha ha.
Sweet rest stop by the river
We stopped for lunch at a little house at a road junction who’s purpose wasn’t very clear – called a ‘Puesto Fijo’, which translates as something like ‘fixed point’. Anyway there was a funny little old guy there who seemed to just enjoy a bit of a chat and was used to bike tourists passing through. We got some water and stayed for a few rounds of Yerba Mate (addictive argentine tea). He also gave us some advice that fired us up – apparently there was a pub about 30kms down the road at a beautiful river where you could camp and have some beers for cheap. Right, we were off!
Of course we should have learnt by now not to trust directions and distances from the Argies, even if he was a ‘fixed point’. After 30km of very hard slog against an ever increasing gale we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on a barren tableland with not a tree in sight let alone a pub! Since we were getting short of water and hadn’t seen any since we left lunch, while Dads knee was locking up after really pushing it into the wind, we had to make camp in the barren hills somewhere. Where the fence was down on a paddock we pushed our bikes through and part way up a small hill where there was some small flattish dirt areas. It wasn’t much shelter from the road or the wind but it was all we had and a little cattle dam near the road even provided an emergency water source if we really needed it. On the other hand there was a beautiful view to the distant mountains and we were all to tired to worry anyway.
Our little camp in the barren hills…. where is the pub??!!
The morning saw us in better spirits, helped by greatly eased winds. We rode along the barren tableland for a while before a long descent into the beautiful Rio Negro Valley where we could see one of the many fingers of the brilliant turquoise coloured Lago Argentina (the biggest lake in Argentina). It was a sweet ride down until about half way when El Viento started up again and we had to start pushing the pedalling down… quite a pity really. On the other hand we could see the pub a little ways from the bottom of the valley which cheered us up greatly, even though it was only 10 in the morning (seemed like a very good day for a beer stop). At the bottom of the descent the wind was seriously howling, as strong as we had felt it since Tierra del Fuego but we struggled on to that little oasis until we threw our bikes down (gently) at the doorway.
It didn’t seem to bad at first that the pub wasn’t open, after all it was 10.45am and they didn’t even seem to be up yet, but we were happy to wait a bit, counting our beers and thinking of what sort of stuff they might have for lunch (we were running low) since the guy at Cerrito had told us they did a mean steak. The last few days had taken their toll and since the wind kept on blowing itself up we were starting to think that maybe we could stay here the night, have a shower and get the last 60km or so to Calafate in the morning when the winds were lighter (so we hoped). People started moving around in the bar at about 11.00 which I took as a good sign… obviously they were going to open at 12pm, and fair enough, in Argentina everything gets up late.
The lady inside gave me a half wave but still the door didn’t open. At 5 past 12 we were starting to get a little impatient, the guys were defintely around and they had opened the curtains to the restaurant area so I gave them a little knock. Again the lady saw me and gave me a brush off with her hand which I took to mean ‘wait a minute you impatient bike tourist’. So we waited until 12.30 by which time I at least wanted to talk to them to ask for water as we were totally out so I rapped on the window again. Finally an old grumpy looking fellow came to the door, opened it about 5cm and said ‘We are closed, go away’ and slammed the door shut. I couldn’t believe it – they knew we had been there the whole time and were waiting for them. I had to knock again since we were seriously out of water and I could see some big bottles on the bar counter which I wanted to buy from them and this time he really looked mad when he came back and he almost shouted at me – ‘We are closed for renovations! For EVERYBODY!’ Before he shut the door again I managed to get across that we needed some water, so he went inside, grabbed a big open bottle from the counter and thrust it at us and said “Have this, its your present and theres more water in the river out there”, and not in a very giving way I might add. Well, that was it for me I was so angry since now we would defintely have to ride to El Calafate since there was no where else in between, the wind was screaming down the valley and the mean old bastard was just, well, mean! Never in the whole time we had been in Argentina had we met anyone who wasn’t really kind and hospitable to travellers, especially on bikes so it was a bit of a shock. Nothing to do about it though so it was back on the bikes (me cursing him all the bad Karma possible) and into the wind towards Calafate. Moral of the story – Don’t count your beers until they are frothing on the table before you.
We briefly sheltered in a drain for a meagre lunch at the junction to El Chalten. We were totally exhauted already but still had 40kms to go into the ever ingreasing gale so it was back up to it. Dads knee was getting really bad and Mick and I tried to take some of the wind from him – we had a good system of all of us in a line with the front man taking all the wind for 1km before changing back. We finally arrived in El Calafate just before 7pm, all 3 of us absolutely exhausted although even Dad worked through his knee pain (he wouldn’t hear of a lift into town) and at the end he was pretty good, tough bastard! Found a hostel quickly, chugged down about 4 bottles of beer and a few steaks and fell into bed. Very happy to be in Calafate.
Tags: Argentina, Bike touring, Chile, El Calafate, Patagonia, South America, The Big Bike Trip, Travel Destinations