We must apologize for leaving you all in the dark for so long. We’ll leave the remainder of the travels for which Bernie was present for him to finish up and we’ll try to pick up where he’ll inevitably leave off.
So where were we? That’s right El Calafate, Argentina.
As most of you have learned by now Bernie made the decision to split from El Calafate the and hop a flight back north to Buenos Aires and later back to the US. So Dan, Derek, and I said our goodbyes to Bernie and headed out Sunday afternoon towards Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to check out the famous Glaciar Perito Moreno.
Before leaving town we stopped at the Argentina Gendarmeria, the Argentine equivalent of US Border Patrol, to inquire about getting exit and entry stamps so that we could legally take an unofficial border crossing through a high mountain pass between Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile. We had heard rumors from other cyclists that it was physically possible to pass here and if we were able it would have saved us about 130KM of backtracking and an additional 170km through the pampas. If you don’t know what the pampas are yet, don’t worry, you’re going to find out. We had already asked several border officials in other regions about taking this route and were told on several occasions that we could not do so legally but we wanted to get the final word from the Gendarmeria that were actually in control of this pass. Again we were met with the same cynicism and were told that we could pass but would risk a $300US fine each or possible detention. Hmmm… no thanks!
With our big hopes smothered we headed out of El Calafate towards the park, located about 100KM west of El Calafate. That night we camped just outside the gates of the park so that we could enter early and make a full day at the glaciares. We arrived early and paid our 100 Argentine Peso ($25 US) entry fee each. After about 30 minutes of riding along the park road we came upon the first mirador(viewing area) of Glaciar Perito Moreno.
We were all clearly impressed by the view and were anxious to get a closer look so we hopped back on the bikes and carried on. A light rain had started to fall and the sky had become thick with clouds but this didn’t whether our spirits. Especially since we had expected an unpaved road through the park but which turned out to be entirely paved. Upon arriving at the Glaciar Visitors center we quickly changed into our “street clothes”, grabbed our lunches and headed into the cafeteria to fill our tanks before going to see the glacier. Within a few minutes we were asked to leave the cafeteria as we were eating our own food and not food we had bought. So we obliged and went outside and found some shelter from the rain on a grassy patch beneath an overhang. There we enjoyed some food and mate. Apparently we weren’t welcome to sit there either though luckily the woman was nice enough to allow us to finish our food before she asked us to move off the grass. It was pretty clear by this point that park was not to used to worn out DIY bicycle tourists.
So with full bellies we headed off onto the labyrinth of walking paths to view the glacier. I think I speak for all of us when I say that our first view of the glacier up close was breathtaking. For all of us this was our first time ever seeing a glacier. And I know I can speak for myself when I say that I could hardly believe what was before my eyes. Glaciar Perito Moreno has a length of nearly 5KM(3.2miles) and a maximum height of 60M(180feet).
All the while we were approaching the closest boardwalk for viewing we could hear giant crashes every few minutes which sounded like thunder from a midsummer storm. The color of the glacier ranged from pure white to aqua emerald blue to deep deep blue. Once we were on the closest boardwalk we realized the loud crashing sounds were only small pieces of ice falling off the glacier. Of course perspective is pretty hard there but in relation to the size of the glacier they were small. We also read a sign that warned any adventurous types from wondering closer to the glaciar. Between 1963 and 1983 thrity-two people were killed by flying pieces of ice! What a way to go…
We consider ourselves pretty lucky because while we were there a piece of the glaciar, easily the size of a house, came tearing off and crashing into the icy waters below. It was easily one of the most amazing natural phenomena that I have ever witnessed in my life.
So feelings fully accomplished and satisfied we hopped back onto the bikes and headed towards El Calafate. A strong tail-wind (read a cyclists best friend) sent us easily cruising along at about 30MPH and put us about 10KM outside of El Calafate where we camped for the night.
The next morning we got into town early and resupplied with approximately 5 days worth of food because we knew from talking to other cyclists that there would be no real services for over 500KM. So fully supplied we headed towards our next destination Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and also our furthest destination south. The riding was steady and pretty unremarkable. We were headed into the infamous Pampas. For those of you who don’t know the Pampas are something the equivalent of the Midwest plains in the US except much drier and a containing alot less people. Rather than there being fields of wheat, corn or some other grass there is pretty much just a land of dried up dirt, very short scrubby tough bushes and very frequently herds of hundreds of Guanacos and less frequently herds of hundreds of sheep. How or why the sheep and Guanacos are able to survive is beyond me. However, the first time I saw a Guanaco outside Cochrane on the Carretera Austral I was ecstatic. The last time I saw a Guanaco in the Pampas I don’t think I cared if I’d ever see one again.
So anyway the riding was rather uneventful except for the 10KM(6.6mile) completely unexpected hill climb we encountered. I think we expected all the riding to be completely flat at this point. Around every turn I expected to see the summit but just more climbing. However, we are all familiar with the theory of what goes up must come down so I persevered knowing id be greeted by a great downhill soon enough. Eventaully I reached a mirador near the summit were I decided to wait for Dan and Derek. There was an Argentine family stopped taking in the views. We started chatting about the trip and pretty soon I was enjoying sandwiches and juice. Before leaving they snapped a photo of me with both father and son. Soon Dan and Derek arrived and we all took a nice rest, drank some Mate with a young Argentine couple whom were on a short road trip and then we were on our way. The three of us finally reached the summit together to realize that what we had been climbing up to was a high plain. This is something I had never seen before and was pretty amazed of. Instead of there being a long downhill on the other side of the summit there were just flat plains for as far as the eye could see. However again another tailwind sent us cruising along and soon we had reached the junction of a dirt road where we decided to camp for the night.
The following day was pretty uneventful.
A change in travel direction from south to west put us against the wind and as well the dirt road surface became awful so biking that day was pretty difficult. The only really remarkable thing that happened that day was passing a funky old truck painted Day-Glo Orange and Aqua. Little did I know at the time that I would encounter that same vehicle nearly two weeks and 700KM later. Finally after a long day we arrived back on to pavement. Worn-out we opted for any campsite that seemed suitable and which turned out that night to be more or less a ditch on the side of the road.
The next day we made the border between Cancha Carrera, Argentina and Cerro Castillo, Chile and also hit the 2000 mile mark of our journey! The border crossing was pretty uneventful except at the Chilean border where we were forced to either throw-out Derek’s remaining three oranges or eat them all on the spot. It’s rather an interesting and strange thing but not once at a Chilean border crossing have we been asked about drugs or weapons that we might be carrying, only fruits and vegetables, which are prohibited to cross into Chile. We devoured the oranges and then were allowed to pass into the tiny town of Cerro Castillo. There isn’t too much in Cerro Castillo however it is an access point for entry into Torres del Paine. Upon arriving we needed to find a place to camp. We stopped in at a tiny restaurant to buy some empanadas and ask about camping. Upon asking the women at the restaurant she told us we could happily camp on the lawn at her house down the street. She showed us which house was hers through the window and off we went. The generosity of Chileans to perfect strangers and foreigners none the less again amazed me. We settled in to our usual routine, setup camp, cooked dinner and then heated up some red wine with orange juice, sugar and cinnamon to make the intoxicating Chilean version of mulled wine known as Navegado.
The following morning we broke camp and headed up to the restaurant to thank the women for allowing us to camp at her home. At the restaurant we told her about our trip and where we were from and she offered us coffee and more empanadas as a gift. Which we gladly and gratefully accepted. At this point we told her how we’d like to go to Torres del Paine but the headwind was too strong to ride our bikes and asked if she knew a place with the police or elsewhere that we could stash our bikes while we were gone. Sure enough she knew a great place…inside her house. Well who could turn down that offer? So again we said thank you and goodbye, stashed our bikes at her house and headed over to the road to Torres del Paine to try our luck at hitchhiking. The wind was unbelievably strong blowing a steady 30 or 40 mph with much stronger gusts. We assumed our positions on the side of the road where we played “Guess that Song”, “20 Questions” and other games to pass the time. Finally a man driving a transport van stopped and said that he was going to Torres to pick up customers and that he could bring us all the way no problem. What luck! The drive into Torres was gorgeous and a little over an hour later we were in the park.
If there is one thing you probably shouldn’t do with bicycle panniers its hike with them. Our original plans were to hike for a few days completing a large loop in the park. It soon became clear to all of us that that wasn’t something we would probably enjoy doing given the equipment and therefore we opted to simply hike up to Campamento Torres alongside the towers, spend the night there, hike up to the towers in the morning, and then hike back out that day. We got some nice views of the towers although the clouds never broke while we were up close.
It also became clear pretty quickly that none of us were all too impressed with Torres del Paine. For one it was so packed full of tourists that you felt you were at an amusement park. Also compared to many of the mountains and natural rock formations seen along the much less touristy Carretera Austral Torres del Paine just didn’t seem as impressive in real life then as it did in pictures before leaving the US . However, that’s not to say we didn’t have a good time in the park. Satisfied and ready to leave we hiked back to the trailhead and within a short time got a hitch from another transporter all the way back to Cerro Castillo. It’s worth remarking to all of you, although clearly only hilarious to Dan Derek Ted and I, that on both our hitch into and out of the park the drivers played our two most favorite Chilean songs on the radio… Osito Gominola and 1234.
Back in Cerro Castillo we bought our driver a coffee and donut as a thank you, parted ways and headed over to the restaurant to again say thanks and see if we could buy dinner there that night. The sweet lady, who we’ve at this point dubbed our mother of Cerro Castillo, suggested that we go down to her house, setup our tents again for the night and come back to the restaurant and she’d have dinner ready for us. Oh, did I mention that of course first she treated us to some pastries and coffee?
Through casual conversation during dinner we came to find out that her son is a guitarist and singer of traditional gaucho music and that he is in fact the musician whom we saw at the Rodeo in Cochrane, some four weeks and 700KM earlier. Small world indeed. Our dinner which should have cost about 15,000 pesos($30US) she would only charge 6,000 pesos and as well told us to come up for breakfast the next morning.
The next morning was really the icing on the cake. We packed up camp with the help of our new friends who showed up the night before and headed to the restaurant. Each time we had eaten at the restaurant we sat at the same table closest to the kitchen and when we arrived that morning she had already set the same table for us for breakfast. We again enjoyed our food and some conversation, gave our hugs and said our final goodbyes, and snapped a photo to remember her by. Each time the hospitality of locals has really changed our experience from being strangers in a foreign land to feeling extremely welcome and part of the community.
With full bellies we left Cerro Castillo the way we had entered and crossed the border once again back into Argentina. At this point a month and a half straight of cycling without a house or bed to stay in was wearing on us and returning to Valparaiso had been on all our minds for a couple of weeks. The three of us easily decided that riding our bikes through the Pampas was pretty low on our list of priorities and that this day would begin our journey back north some 2500KM to Valparaiso. Being the thrifty and adventurous travelers that we are we decided that our plan of action would be for each of us to go separately and hitchhike/bike all the way back north to Bariloche where we would meet up to ride some of more scenic routes in that area. So we said our goodbyes to eachother and headed out on our new adventure.
To find out what happened next you’ll have to check back for the Adventures of Patches, Gampy and The Flea: Part II