I have quickly learned the power of the Patagonian weather and its ability to gift the cowering traveler time. They said it couldn’t be done, but here it is, a post painfully constructed using the laboriously slow internet connection of El Chalten. Storm + some semblance of internet = lots of time + some semblance of blog-post.
As the Patagonian tourist season slowly wraps itself in a thick blanket and falls into hibernation the infrastructure of life starts to shrink. Encroaching cold and the exodus of ‘buffs and boots’ leads to the shut-down of many of the regions transport options and the flight of seasonal staff. The tip over into April from March is of great significance here, it marks the official fall out of summer and onto the broad shoulder of Autumn. Things are accordingly on the move: leaves turning and falling and the stragglers of the bicycle touring community pumping their little legs in a panicked effort to reach Ushuaia before the weather really turns.
Myself I have no intention of scampering back to more tranquil climes, I adore the leaching of greens and the flurry of electric colors that come with the turn to Autumn and thrive on the trials of winter riding. The further south I pedal the more energising these Autumnal colors have become and the more excited I feel for the slip into Patagonian winter. The changing seasons have also bought changing plans and with them a departure from my usual mode of riding. As I recouped and researched in Coyhaique I determined to continue Operation Austral Avoidance, and further massage my desires for lesser traveled routes. The plan was to pursue a route south to Cochrane via Paso Roballos and a brief return to Argentina (see that route here). From Cochrane I then intended to join the southern tail of the Carretera Austral down to its end at Villa O’Higgins before taking the overland option over Paso Rio Mayer, through days of Argentine pampa to El Chalten (see that route here). The familiar swell of excitement accompanied my research, mapping and preparation for these routes and a calming relief descended with the promise of more traffic free solitude. But Patagonian fun is positioned on a foundation of pragmatism and these plans were to quickly change.
Villa O’Higgins is the southern full-stop calling halt to the divisive poetry of the Carretera Austral. It’s also effectively a dead-end: onward travel involving either a hideously overpriced ferry ride or a river wading marshy plod over Paso Rio Mayer. Thanks to the efforts of a work tamed wild Pike I had a box of much needed bike goodies waiting for me a bit further south in El Chalten, Argentina. Reaching these via Paso Rio Mayer would make for a 510 km round trip through potentially very windy pampa. The crossing really excited me but the subsequent trawl through unforgiving pampa made me nervous. In view of this I figured it prudent to ensure the boat option remain a contingency should the weather develop an attitude. So when I discovered the last ferry of the season to be leaving Villa O’Higgins on March 28th a time restriction suddenly appeared. I had eight days to get south if the boat was to remain a safety net. Concern led to compromise and the exciting route through Argentina to Cochrane got reluctantly dumped in favor of dragging a heavy heart down the Carretera Austral.
Despite my general ill feeling towards and successful avoidance of the Carretera Austral north of Coyhaique, it had still managed to haunt me with intrigue. Surely a gazillion cycle tourists couldn’t all be wrong. This was my time to get ‘normal‘ so I embraced the decision to try to experience the road in the manner of the majority of others cyclists who ride it. It was time to drop the attitude and get Australly motivated. Desperate to understand its lofty reputation I decided to approach the ride south from Coyhaique down the southern half of the Austral in the same way most others do: I’d stay in camp grounds, ride the highway, put up with the traffic and enjoy the scenery. To make the experiment even more realistic I’d also pick up a riding partner on route. It just so happened that Leah, a former riding partner of my Peruvian cohort Cherry was only a few days south so we arranged to meet up and form a tardy twosome. I vowed to open my mind and extend the hand of friendship to the Carretera Austral, but would my advances be accepted? Would the Austral forget my previous bitchings and accept my friend request? Could I deal with the absurd humiliation of paying to sleep in the dirt? How easy would it be for me to ignore exciting backroad detours and stick to the main highway? Could I deal with having a riding partner again? And would we get that boat?
After all my research and planning I ended up riding the ‘normal’ popular route down to El Chalten. Despite all my misgivings I cannot deny that the Carretera Austral grew on me the further I pursued it south. The closer to Villa O’Higgins we got the less traffic there was and the more the road came alive to bicycle riding. I had made up my mind that the Carretera Austral was like the out of this world gorgeous girl you pick up in a bar who turns out to have a personality like cardboard, so dull that her beauty becomes ugly. But the further I rode the more I was forced to reevaluate that opinion. Despite the route still languishing pretty low on my list of top South American rides I’m glad I rode it as within its kilometers are some really fun and beautiful sections.
I set out on this section of the Austral hoping to gain some understanding of why it continues to be an iconic bicycle touring route and I think I get that more than I did. However, when I look back over this past ten days on the road I cannot ignore the fact that the most enjoyable stretch of riding for me was by some distance the detour I took away from the main highway after Villa Cerro Castillo. Unsurprisingly this was the only section of road less traveled, it was traffic free, involved a much tougher style of riding and allowed me the space I crave while out riding. So in conclusion I have to say that despite my new found acceptance of the Carretera Austral and the fun I’ve just had riding it with Leah, it remains somewhere I don’t really want to be.
10 days, 654 km (406 miles), 9,780 m (32,100 ft.) of climbing
Finding information on riding the Carretera Austral is not hard so I shan’t waste my time with general details here. However I strongly recommend that riders take the detour that threads between Lagos Verde and Alto just after Villa Cerro Castillo. There is an option to take a track from just beyond Cerro Castillo that joins up with the X-725 by Lago Las Ardillas but I wasn’t aware of it at the time of riding. I rode down the Carretera Austral for 6.7 km from Cerro Castillo before taking a left onto the Camino Ardillas (460 m elevation). After a further 2.4 km (560 m) there is a right turn onto the X-725. There is 18.7 km on this road before ignoring a left turn and continuing straight (505 m) onto the x-727. The track turns a bit rocky here for the remaining 7.65 km to the junction with the Carretera Austral (355 m).