Just like that, we’ve reached the end of Carretera Austral.  Con dos Français, ripio, tres barcos, mostaza, y mucho vino.

Biker Gang

Despite the puma scare, we had another great sleep at the awesome bridge camp.1 Our Aussie mates were packed up before us (shocker), so we exchanged contact information and said goodbye. Their plan was to veer eastward around Lago General Carrera to Chile Chico, then cross into Argentina and head south down Ruta 40. Since they were in a van, they’d likely be in Ushuaia within a couple of weeks.

Cat needed to redress her wounds, so our morning routine was a bit slower than normal. They seemed to be healing quite well and the plan was to remove the stitches in a week or so.

Ouch!  Photo snapped about a week after the crash.

A half hour into the day’s ride, we bumped into a couple from Portland, Kurt and Renee. They were also cycling south and Kurt was the first person besides Kale that we’d seen carrying a guitar — new friends! We hadn’t met a lot of Americans on the road — mostly Europeans (French, Swiss and Germans primarily) and Chileans — and it was great to chat with some fellow west coasters.

Twenty minutes of chatty biking later (crazily, both Kurt and Renee make a living as tour bike guides while back in the U.S.), we caught up to two more cyclists — a couple from France. As we approached, Kurt informed us that the foursome had been traveling (somewhat) together for the past four weeks.

The two bearded Français were Bassem and Fred and as of the date of this writing, we are still traveling with them.

Fred and Bass have been biking for over a year. They began in France, then cycled through Spain and Portugal. From there, they jumped on a cargo ship to Rio de Janeiro (the Atlantic crossing took two weeks). So far in South America, they’ve biked through Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Their luggage is lighter than ours, but their kitchen is heavier: they never fail to have a well-stocked pantry pannier.

As a pack of six, we conquered a few hills before stopping for a potluck lunch on the shores of Lago Bertrand. We weren’t in the habit of stopping for lunch breaks, instead opting for a large breakfast, small midday snack, and a large dinner. Our gang stressed the importance of a good lunch and since then, we’ve been carrying more food.

That afternoon we passed through Puerto Bertrand, picked up some groceries (including a six pack of Chile’s cheapest beer, Cristal) and began riding adjacent to the vibrant, turquoise Rio Baker. The foursome’s goal was to make camp near the Confluencia, an area where the Rio Baker meets the much greyer, Rio Ness in a beautiful spectacle of colors. Seemed like a good plan to us, so we decided to tag along.

Kurt and Renee. Kurt decided to rock his California jersey given the nice weather and the fact we have matching socks. His buddy back home forged an addition to his rear rack for his guitar.

About 10 kilometers before the Confluencia, we spotted a helmet on a grassy knoll, just off the road. It lay at the entrance of a poorly fenced driveway leading to a wonderful grassy area on the banks of the Rio Baker.

Kurt explained that they’d occasionally been sharing camp with two more cyclists: Julia and Richard.

Their story is too good not to share, so here goes. Julia is from Comitán de Domínguez in southern Mexico, Richard is from Bolton in England. Richard began his cycling journey in Alaska. While in southern Mexico, he stayed at la casa de Julia (she was a warmshowers.org host) and the two fell in love. Six months later, Richard left Comitán de Domínguez — with Julia riding next to him! They’re a bit older than the average tour biker (word on the street is that Richard is 51 and Julia, 46), but they’re in incredible shape (Julia just passed 10,000 kilometers and safe to say Richard is nearing or has passed 20,000) and are filled with information and wisdom.

If part of the gang was cycling ahead and found a good wild camp spot, they’d leave an indicator for the trailing cyclists. Thus, the helmet. That night’s spot, on the shores of the Rio Baker, was wonderful. We weren’t sure if we were allowed to be on the land, but the lack of a “propiedad privada” sign encouraged us.

We maneuvered our bikes around the fence and soon there were four tents up around the grassy riverbank. Bass and Fred surprised us with an amazing rice meal and the eight (!!!) of us shared beer, wine and stories, late into the night. Fiesta!

Confluencia

The next morning dawned and it was a beaut. Julia and Richard were the first to hit the road. The rest of us enjoyed the morning on the river fishing and playing guitar. Kale even got a mustache trim from Bass (when a French man insists on cutting your mustache, how do you say no?)

Kale’s ‘stache getting a much needed trim.
Bass had some fishing line and Kale had a hook. Combined, this amounted to one unsuccessful fishing experience.
Bass the (graceful) fisherman.

Around 11am, the owner of the property showed up (he was quite friendly, given the invasion of tents and gringos on his land) with a van of kayakers. Everyone quickly packed up and we hit the road. The gang’s plan: a late lunch at the Confluencia and onto the next “big city,” Cochrane.

A few kilometers down the road, we spotted a farmhouse with a bunch of greenhouses outside. With Bass at the helm, we approached the owner and asked if we could purchase some veggies. She agreed — score!

Sidenote: The veggie situation at the supermercados on the Austral is bleak. Usually you can find potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Sometimes green peppers. Not much else. Avocados aren’t too hard to find in this part of Chile, which appeases us (most of the time).

In the greenhouse, we were stoked to find zucchini, carrots, snap peas, green beans, chives, cabbage, oregano, beets, cucumber and lettuce.

Most of the gang checking out the green houses.

We arrived at the Confluencia and lunched. Most of the gang made sandwiches; we splurged and cooked up a delicious spicy rice dish, loaded with veggies. The view wasn’t half bad either.

Collecting water.

After the (really) late lunch, the foursome set of for Cochrane — a 38 kilometer, uphill ride. Despite the prohibition on camping at the Confluencia, we decided to chance it and have a relaxing afternoon. We would tackle the road in the morning. We gave hugs and planned to meet up with the group the next day in Cochrane.

After exploring the park, we found a hidden spot tucked away on the cliffside.

Killer cliffside camp at the Confluencia.

We had slept in an awesome location, but it wasn’t the most accessible of campsites. A few steep uphill paths separated us from the road. So, the next morning, we tackled one hill at a time. Bags first, then our bikes. Almost two hours later, we were loaded and ready to face the ripio road.

The last 30 kilometers into Cochrane were some of the toughest on the Austral.

Just when we felt like complaining, we passed a 70 year old cyclist, pushing his fully-loaded steed up the steepest hill of the day. Inspired, we soldiered on.

Rolling into Cochrane, we scouted for a place to stay. Amazingly, the second hospedaje we inquired at fit our needs (wifi, our own room and 8,000 chilean pesos per person). Fred had messaged us with their location, so we stopped by and said hello to our friends. Kurt and Renee had learned that they needed to return to the U.S. in a few weeks (to lead a bike tour), so they would need to leave Cochrane the next day to make it to El Calafate (the next town with an airport) within two weeks for their flight back home. 🙁

After promising to return for some evening festivities, we hit up the town’s ATM (the first since Coyhaique) and then to a cerveceria for a HUGE meal and some HUGE (well, 1L) beers.

The meal? A serving bowl layered with french fries, hotdogs, chicken, steak, cheese and topped with fried eggs. Fantastic.

Armed with wine, chips and salsa, we showed up at the foursome’s cabaña and partied until the wee hours of the morning.

The next day, we shifted into the room of the cabaña left vacant by Kurt and Renee and nursed our hangovers (grrr… wine!) with a few daytime beers. Richard and Julia stopped by and said hello before also hitting the road. Bassem, el cocinero, made a delicious ceviche with pasta for dinner and we met a few Italian cyclists, Manuelle and Roberto. They were headed south too, at least as far as Villa O’Higgins (the end of the Carretera Austral).

Chau, Cochrane!

The road from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins contains much less traffic than the rest of Austral. Why? It’s a dead end for autos. If you want to continue south after Villa O’Higgins, you need to take a passenger ferry across Lago O’Higgins… more on this later.

But first, we needed to conquer the remainder of the Austral — about 300 kilometers mas (still all ripio!). Before leaving town, we visited the (relatively) large ferreteria in Cochrane and purchased some back-up brake-pads, food for one week(ish), and a large bottle wine.2 Chilean bread comes by the roll, which is quite handy. Each roll costs approx. 200 Chilean pesos ($0.30).3 If you pay a little more, you can get a sopapilla (fried bread). Toast a sopapilla over a fire and add some jam or honey? Boom. You’ve got yourself a delicious donut.

We rode out of Cochrane with Bassem, Fred and the Italians, appreciating the absence of vehicles on the road, but not appreciating the dust the occasional passing vehicle would kick up. After a (now) customary stop on a riverbank for lunch (pan con palta y mostaza), we tackled a few climbs, then enjoyed a looong downhill into a canyon where we found a nice free camping spot at a bridge.

A gaucho herding his cattle just outside of Cochrane.
The switchbacks down to the valley.

When it began to rain, we shimmied a make shift roof from our tarp, shared some wine and cooked up some spicy rice4 for dinner. Jose, a Chilean from Punta Arenas biking north, joined us for the evening. He had started his journey that morning in the small port town of Tortel, 81 kilometers away (quite the distance for one day, especially on ripio) and told us it was a must-see.

Tortel sits 22 kilometers west of the Austral. Going there would mean a 44 kilometer detour. But we’d be able to replenish our pantries (and wine flasks) there. Hmmm… We still had ~50 kilometers until we had to make a decision, so we’d noodle on it.

Ripio Back to Rio Baker

The next morning we awoke at around 8am and, rather than face the continuing rain, we crushed some bread and honey then went back to sleep. By the time we emerged from our tent, it was midday. The rain had stopped, Fred was tending a fire and Bass was collecting more wood. Jose was probably already half way up the monstrous hill to Cochrane. We moved our tent out from under the trees and into a more open space where it could dry in the wind and (scattered) sunshine. Around 3pm, the six of us (Bassem, Fred, the Italians and us) finally hit the road.

The first portion of the day’s ride was much flatter than the previous day. We made good time through a forest, where the rain had firmed up the dusty road a tad. Ten kilometers in, we stopped for some lunch. The afternoon plan was to bike until the road met up with Rio Baker (the same river we’d camped on pre-Cochrane) — 33 kilometers from where we were lunching.

Fred brushes his teeth just before hitting the road.
Scouting out the day’s lunch spot.
We passed this could-have-rabies-dog in the woods.

Given the distance and the hour (it was past 4pm), we were a bit anxious. So, we cut our lunch short and hit the road ahead of the gang. The ride was tough, but scenic.

Cat seeing how many kilometers we have left.

Around 8pm we stumbled upon a good spot to camp along the river. Cat tied her orange bandana to a tree to indicate where we’d stopped, and we set up camp. An hour later, Bass and Fred rolled in, then 15 minutes later, the Italians. Since it was raining, we created another tarp-roof, whipped up some pasta and said goodnight.

Tortel

The next morning, we were greeted with some scattered sunshine and over breakfast, the gang all agreed to make the detour to Tortel. The turnoff to Tortel was less than 10km from where we had camped — leaving us with a manageable 30km ride into the port pueblito. We set off at different times — the French, the Italians, then us (our tent had been sheltered from the wind so was slower to dry).

All smiles packing our tent in the rain.
Shake it off.

And we’re off! Eight kilometers in, we hit the intersection and swung a right for Tortel (not before getting a look at the road we would face after Tortel… big hill!). Less than an hour later, we rounded a corner and saw our friends, perched by the side of the river. Lunch time! On the menu for lunch today? Various combinations of bread, crackers, tomato, cucumber, cheese, mayo, mustard and jam. Oh, and some cookies of course. Our favorites in Chile? Triton (dirt cheap Oreo knock-offs). Buenisimo!

The last 15 kilometers into Tortel were tough riding. No inclines, but terrible ripio.

ripio-road-tortel
Fred on the tough, bumpy ripio.

Tortel is a small port town connected to the Pacific Ocean, with approx. 640 year-round residents. It is built on the side of a hill, overlooking fjords and contains no roads. The town’s buildings are connected via wooden bridges and stairways. Quite literally, it is a city built on stilts.

We arrived at large roundabout which marks the end of the road and the entrance to town. Some cars, a few buses and a dozen or so tourists were congregated here. Naturally, we bumped into Richard and Julia, who were on their way out of town.

Given the stairs, the city is accessible only on foot. The free camping site Jose (the Chilean from two camps ago) had told us about was at the other end of town. Conceivably, we could have lugged our bikes down the stairs and along the wooden platforms for 3 kilometers. Instead, we (Bassem, Fred and us) saw little choice but to opt for the (relatively expensive) cabaña, right at the entrance of town. The Italians, on a stricter budget would search for some free camping nearby.

We had heard rumors of a boat that would leave Tortel and take us to Puerto Yungay. This would save us 40-something kilometers of (mostly uphill) riding. Alas, we didn’t have any luck — it was difficult to get straightforward answers from the locals and the internet was down in the entire town.

After a shower, we were ready to explore.

Tour bikers!
tortel-stairs
Walking down the many steps into town.
tortel-boardwalk
The boardwalk with chubby Chilean children running by.
Fred being attacked by a Tortel local, Victor.
We decided not to fuck with him.
We popped into a home/restaurant/bakery for some tasty sopapilla for a few pesos. We think she’d make a mean marmalade.
And a wide angle shot of her kitchen.
tortel-cerveza
Complete with cerveza!
Yummmm… Sopapilla.
Inside the mercado.
Getting some fresh pan from the pan lady.
Hungry cow on the beach (seemed a tad old to be breast feeding, but we’re humans and we (occasionally) drink cow’s milk so who are we to judge).
Strange alien bug, hanging out on the wooden platforms.

River Rest Day Near Tortel

The next morning, we used the cabaña kitchen to cook up a large pot of rice and veggies (food for future meals). Our fuel bottle was running low and we needed to conserve until we could refuel in O’Higgins. We headed out of town, back the way we had come.

Six kilometers into the ride, we spotted a nice place to camp, on a river. The entrance to the area was a tad swampy, but as you neared the river, the ground firmed up and we were able to find suitable spots for our tents. We used some sheet metal and a wooden plank to get our bikes across the muddy entrance (naturally, Cat dropped her bike into the mud as she navigated across the home-made bridge).

The owners of the property stopped by and were nice, giving us the green light to pitch our tents and spend the night. It was still around midday, so we spent the remainder of the day enjoying the sunshine.

A great day for a nap in the sun.
Cat carefully collecting water. The owners had warned us that the bank was gradually breaking off into the river.
Kale exploring.

Bass went wandering and came back with some mushrooms (direct from the source… cow poop). On the off chance they were magical mushrooms, he popped a few in his mouth. He then took a “wonderful” nap. A woman from Holland, traveling via 4WD (with a fold up tent attached to the roof of her vehicle) also stopped by the site and made camp for the night (her tent was up and ready in seconds). At dinner time, we made a fire and heated up the rice we’d prepared that morning. It was a grand evening… until about 9pm, when the mosquitoes arrived in full force and sent us running into our tents for the night.

Bungee Cord Fail

In rained all through the night. We awoke, had a dry breakfast of bread and jam, and packed up. Fred and Bass also have a Hilleberg tent. One great feature of Hillebergs is the tent has a detachable inner compartment. We took Fred’s advice and packed the (mostly dry) inner layer separately from the soaked outer layer. Kale strapped the drenched outer layer to his front rack, (somewhat) securing it with bungee cords… more on this later.

The plan for the day was to make it to the Puerto Yungay ferry crossing (free for cars, humans, and bikes). We gradually made our way back toward the Austral, stopping for lunch at a bus stop shelter at the Tortel junction.

Doubling back to the Austral.

Fred (who has a great map application which also covers altitude) informed us that we were about to hit a mega uphill. With tummies full of avocado sandwiches, we confidently tackled the hill. Up, up, up and over. We enjoyed some spectacular views and were heading downhill, into Puerto Yungay when…

In the video you can see cause of the crash. On a bump, one of the the bungee cords securing the wet tent to Kale’s front rack is bumped off the rack. Since Kale didn’t wrap it around the top portion of the rack, it flies off and gets caught under the front wheel of the bike. This jams the wheel, which comes to a sudden and abrupt stop, sending Kale over the front handlebars. Being an ex-gymnast, Kale nailed the leap-frog-like landing, before firing off a thumbs up to Fred. Annnd, since Kale’s now been using his GoPro (ever since he lost his iPhone), here’s the footage (crash at 0:35):

We all descended a bit slower than normal into the Puerto Yungay terminal.

Puerto Yungay

The next ferry across the lake was in an hour. We learned from some north-bound cyclists that there is a small cabin on the other side of the lake, which we could sleep inside. Great news. We changed into dry clothes and Bassem took a rain shower (with soap) followed by a lake shower (the water pressure on the rain shower wasn’t so great). At 6pm we piled aboard the Don Fernando and sailed to Rio Bravo.

The Rio Bravo shelter was a great place to call home for the night. We shared it with two Chilean cyclists (Nicholas and Paulina). For dinner, Bass made a hearty soup (we contributed crackers con cheese, and tomato as an appetizer).

rio-bravo-terminal
Hanging outside our shelter, looking out toward the lake. We attempted to dry our clothes, but they were still soaked in the morning.

It rained all night, so we were thankful to have had shelter. The first northbound crossing was at 10am, so cars began arriving soon before then. Many took photos of us (crazy cyclists!). We waited for the first southbound crossing to arrive, just in case the Italians were aboard (the last place we’d seen them was in Tortel). The boat emerged and sure enough, there they were!

The Italians have arrived!

Refugio de Ciclistas

With the crew back together (and now with Paulina and Nicholas), we made our way south. We were 100 kilometers from O’Higgins — for us, two long days of riding. Today’s goal: make it to a refugio (shelter) specifically for cyclists, approximately halfway between Rio Bravo and O’Higgins. We’d heard of the shelter from other cyclists — supposedly, it is quite easy to zoom right by. We must be on the look-out for a gate marked with bicycle tires, Fred informed us.

The first 20 kilometers were smooth sailing. We stopped multiple times to pick and eat wild Calafate berries (a mix between a blueberry and blackberry, but with extremely bitter skins). At the 20 kilometer mark we stopped for lunch on a rocky shore of a river (out of the reach of most mosquitos). The next ~30 kilometers were some of the toughest we’d faced yet. Three absurd uphills. Hmmm.. no wonder Fred (our cartographer) had been so quiet during lunch.

Emanuele and Roberto (the Italians) making lunch.
Our first condor sighting!

On the first two hills, Cat lead from start to finish. The guys couldn’t do more than struggle to keep up. We (Fred, Bass and us… the Italians and Chileans had fallen behind by this point) took a rest just before the third hill. Customarily, Bassem rapidly smoked a cigarette and Fred offered everyone mints. Then we tackled the last (and toughest hill). We’re not sure what was in that cigarette, but Bass flew up the hill like a condor.

Cat struggling up the last hill before the refugio.

It was getting late and the temperature was dropping. We came around a bend and there it was. Super subtle. But sure enough, a driveway with an open gate, marked by two bicycle tires: El Refugio.

Two bike tires.. this must be it!

Bass was already inside, making friends with two Chileans. The shelter itself was a tad underwhelming: one room, a few benches and a table. Enough space for, perhaps, four people to sleep. Fortunately, the fire was roaring. Unfortunately, it required constant attention — the thin, oily branches left by previous tenants weren’t the greatest of fuel. Rather than stay inside, we decided to pitch our tents — still wet from two days prior — and leave space inside for the trailing Italians and Chileans. In the strong winds, the tents dried quickly.

El refugio!
Camp Hilleberg outside the refugio. Complete with a view of a glacier (top right).
Our neighbor who joined us for desayuno.

The Italians showed up, exhausted but in great spirits. Then Paulina and Nicolas. Both groups opted to pitch their tents (perhaps in solidarity with the rest of the gang). Then, three more Chileans (with great hair) showed up.5 Each changed in front of the fire, grateful for it’s warmth. Cat (like a champ) tended to the fire.

It was raining, but the cabin was crowded so we hurried to the tent and enjoyed cucumber, tomato, apple salad sandwiches for dinner.

Villa O’Higgins

The next day was gorgeous and sunny. Bass made Calafate berry-infused oatmeal for breakfast, then painted Kale’s face with the leftover juice. A few kilometers into the ride, the Italians spotted a nice waterfall and decided to take a shower.

Although a relatively long day (50 kilometers), the route was much flatter than the previous day. The scenery was wonderful and the riding pleasant.

A South American horse fly. They are two times the size of a house fly, they bite and it can hurt.
Oh hello, little caterpillar.
Kale & Lago Cisnes in the background, about 20k from Villa O’Higgins.
The gang.
Almost there!

We rolled into O’Higgins at 6pm and grabbed a camping spot at El Mosco, a relatively expensive campsite (6,000 chilean pesos per person).

Apparently, that evening, O’Higgins was having a fiesta. We were in luck! We picked up the necessaries (wine, beer, bread, cheese and cookies), pitched our tents, took a (cold) shower6 then headed to a nearby barn for the fiesta! The night was filled with music, dancing and small-town Chilean culture. Overall, a splendid way to wrap up our time on the Austral.

Gauchos dance at the fiesta.
Wine time!

The Journey Back into Argentina

The next day (Sunday) was reserved for logistics: we needed to plan our journey to El Chaltén, Argentina.

Getting to El Chaltén would be a mission.  First, we would need to bike to the O’Higgins port and jump on a passenger ferry across Lago O’Higgins. After that? Half-push/half-ride our bikes 23 kilometers through some muddy, rocky terrain and across the Argentinian border to Lago del Desierto. From there, we would take a 45-minute ferry ride across the lake, to where the road begins again. Finally, it’s 38 kilometers of “tough” ripio into the tourist hub of El Chaltén.

The plan: bike, boat, bike, trek, boat, bike.

The next boat across Lago O’Higgins left early Monday morning from the docks, located 8km south of town. If we missed that, we’d be stuck in the pricey little town of O’Higgins til Wednesday. So, first we needed to get boat tickets. Then we needed food and fuel for the trip. Finally, since we’re not the quickest to get ready in the morning (especially when we have to pack up a tent), we wanted to make things easier on ourselves for our early morning. So, we decided to leave the overpriced camping and find a cabaña for the night.

To Do List…

  • Pack and find a new place to stay
  • Secure boat tickets
  • Buy food and cooking fuel

Doing all this with a hangover sucks. And doing it on an empty stomach sucks even more. Unfortunately, we had both.

Needless to say, we were slow moving. The rest of O’Higgins must have been recovering as well because everything was closed.7 To make matters worse, our cash situation was bleak (something we’d overlooked when splurging on wine and beer the night before).

Step 1: New Accommodation. Kale and Bass found a cabaña, which turned out to be owned by an old lady Bass had danced with at the fiesta. It was probably due to this that we got such a good price (30,000 Chilean pesos for the night).

Step 2: Boat Tickets. At 4pm, the boat office opened and we secured the last 4 tickets for the next day’s crossing. We also got our tickets for the second ferry (Lago Desierto) because we were able to pay with credit card. Win.

Step 3: Food and Fuel. The only supermercado in town that accepted credit cards opened (yay!) and we stocked up on (probably too much) food for the next few days. Bass and Fred “accidentally” bought two bottles of whiskey (instead of just the one) and only realized their “error” when they were packing later. We also stopped by the house of a lady that made bread to pick up 40 rolls (+12 sopapillas) and the gas station, where we filled our fuel bottles.

All accomplished. Phew!

That evening, we hung out in the cozy living room of the cabaña owner. The owner made us a moderately-priced, relatively-tasty dinner and we chatted with her, a Spanish cyclist who was staying at the hospedaje, and two employees of the hospedaje. Since the conversation was primarily in Spanish, Kale played guitar.

Since we had to be at the ferry the next day by 8am, we packed everything up that night and hit the sack.

Part 1: Ferry Across Lago O’Higgins

The next morning, everything was going smoothly. We left the cabaña at 7am and enjoyed the early morning light as we rode along the lake toward the dock. Kale got cocky and began GoPro’ing while riding. This resulted in his sunglasses popping out of his handlebar bag and falling underneath his back wheel. Crunch.

fin-del-camino-carretera-austral
At the ferry terminal, the road ends. We made it to the end of the Carretera Austral! Woooo!!!
Early morning on Lago O’Higgins.

The ferry crossing was 3.5 hours and relatively smooth. Another (much smaller) boat had made the voyage at the same time as ours. Richard and Julia were aboard this boat. Collectively, there was about a dozen cyclists aboard the two boats. Unlike us, some seemed eager to hit the road. One particularly aggressive young Austrian, who in Tortel had claimed he could be in Ushuaia “in two weeks, if I wanted” was especially quick to hit the road. Not in the mood to share the road, we took our time and enjoyed a nice long lunch on the docks.

Our ferry pulling out from the dock after dropping us.  The border patrol guards here don’t have too much to do…
Fred performs a traditional French dance.
Part 2: Chilean Customs and Rocky Bike

Chilean customs was 1 kilometer from the docks. Mostly uphill. In the previous days, we had been reminded by a few north-bound cyclists to make sure we stopped at the Chilean customs office to get the necessary exist stamp. Otherwise, the Argentinian customs office (located 23 brutal kilometers later) would reject your entry and you’d be required to double-back. So we stopped. The customs agents were extremely friendly and full of laughter. They also spoke English (and French) quite well.

The official border (marked by nothing more than a sign) was a 15 kilometer ride from the Chilean customs office. After that, we’d have to conquer an 8 kilometer trek to the shores of Lago del Desierto, where we could check in through Argentinian customs. Our plan was to ride at least 12 kilometers that afternoon, camp near the border and then make the trek the next day.

The first 5 kilometers were extremely steep and (for us) largely unrideable. Where necessary, we pushed our bikes. Sometimes, on the particularly steep sections of the road, it would take two of us to push up one bike. The going was tough, but we had each other, good weather and were overall in good spirits.

A “Fred Boost!”
Kale jumps for joy as we reach the top of the hill and say goodbye to Lago O’Higgins.

After 13 kilometers, we found a great spot to camp on a river bend. It was to be our last night in Chile (for now), so we were determined to make it epic. We assembled a firepit out of large stones from the river and manufactured some benches out of large planks. The wine began flowing and we got a roaring fire going.

Part 3: Argentina & the Trek

The next morning we got a slow start. Halfway through packing up, a man on a tractor emerged and began barking at us that we were on private property. From what we could tell, we were in the middle of nowhere. Nothing was signed, and nothing indicated this was private. He seemed especially upset about the fire we had going.8 We put out the fire, and promised to move on quickly.

We were almost packed up when we saw a most unusual site: a guy running the trail, headed north. As he got closer, we realized that it was Christian, a Chilean we had first met a few weeks prior on the Austral (and who had been on our boat the day before). He had been cycling south on the Austral with his sister and cousin. In Tortel, he had met Claire, a French backpacker. They had fallen in love and were now biking south together (she somehow managed to get her hands on a bike). Christian had said goodbye to his sister and cousin in O’Higgins, opting to continue traveling south with Claire.

He explained that the Chilean customs office hadn’t stamped his passport correctly. Argentina wouldn’t let him in until he returned with the correct stamp. This was the latest of a series of unfortunate events that Christian had faced. Firstly, Claire (who as far as we know has no biking experience) fell on the ripio, just a few days after beginning biking.9 Next, on the first uphill after the O’Higgins ferry (just before the Chilean customs office), Christian’s chain had broken. With no way to repair it, he’d pushed his bike all the way to the border the night before. Then, earlier that morning, he’d pushed his bike through the forest to Lago del Desierto, only to discover, while at the Argentinian customs office, that the Chilean customs officer hadn’t stamped his passport correctly. He’d done everything right. In fact, he’d been just behind us in line at the office, yet due to their error, here he was, running back through 23 kilometers of harsh terrain to get the proper stamp. Amazingly, he didn’t seem mad at all… We wished him luck and told him we’d see him that evening on the northern shores of Lago del Desierto (after, of course, he ran the 23k back to Argentina… more than a marathon… $#%@%!!!).

Back on the bikes, we rode the last few kilometers to the border, snapped a picture, then began the trek.

Yay, back in Argentina!

In total, the 5 kilometers took us around 4 hours. We crossed at least three rivers (none deeper than a few feet), and trudged through some knee-deep mud. We each took turns helping one another navigate the bikes up dirt hills, over large tree trunks and roots, and around large boulders. Eventually, we spotted Lago del Desierto. From there it was downhill through a trenched path, barely wide enough to squeeze our fully loaded bikes through.

Pushing our way through the forest.
Trudging through one of the rivers (slowly).

Much to the rest of the group’s amusement, Cat took a strange approach to tackling the trenches:

Then, we popped out on the northern shore of Lago del Desierto, checked in with Argentinean customs and set up camp.

Kale smiling just before the final descent down to Lago del Desierto. Fitz Roy, covered by clouds on the other side of the lake.
Fred snaps a pic of Bassem.

All in all, the trek was an incredibly fun experience. We were especially happy that we were able to do the whole trek without removing our panniers. Being four was extremely useful and we were laughing through most of it (falling is not so bad when you’re barely moving).

At times, traveling as a foursome feels like a game of Mario Kart.

At 6pm, Christian emerged from the forest, this time with the stamp. We now call him superman. For dinner, Bass and Erica prepared a tuna, avocado salad thingamajig. As usual, it was amazing. For second dinner, we enjoyed an ol’ classic: spicy rice.

Bass getting the dirt off after the trek in Lago del Desierto.
And then making friends with a horse.
Part 4: Ferry Across Lago del Desierto

The ferry across Lago del Desierto is a total ripoff. $40 USD for a 45 minute ride. There is a trail that follows shore of the lake but (apparently) it is an extremely tough 16 kilometer hike. We met some cyclists who did it with their bikes and it took them over 10 hours. No thanks.

After cleaning the mud off our bikes, we caught the 11am ferry and arrived on the southern shore of Lago del Desierto at noon. It was a spectacularly sunny day and (despite the ripio road) we enjoyed amazing views of Mt. Fitz Roy. For lunch we stopped on a rocky river bank and enjoyed guacamole sandwiches (sadly, the last of our Chilean avocados). Around 6pm, we rolled into El Chaltén.

Cat riding down the ripio road connecting toward Fitz Roy and El Chaltén.
Fitz Roy hiding behind some clouds.
El Chaltén!

El Chaltén

We had heard that this city was a tourist hub and extremely overpriced, so we wanted to check out the best-rated, but cheap camping. After taking a ride around town we found the campgrounds: they were tiny (literally, somebody’s front yard) and almost $10 USD per person. We asked a few other places if they had vacancy (“hay lugar?”). Eventually, a lady at a cabaña with no vacancy directed us to the back of a hardware store, where we found an apartment for approx. $70 USD per night (if we booked for at least four nights). Between the four of us, this was affordable. So we took it!

The climate here is totally different from the Austral. The winds are extremely strong (like, knock you off your feet strong) and the terrain is desertous and pampa-ish. We’re taking the next few days to rest and plan the next stage of our adventure.

Chau!

One thought on “The End of the Carretera Austral”

  1. Great that you have formed a “pack” (or would you call it a “gang”?) on your trek. Sounds like even during the hardships you’re having a great time. Stay safe and keep posting – I love it.

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