Austral acceptance & a nod to ‘normality’

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.

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Some routes are popular for a reason… Monte Fitz Roy, El Chalten

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.

Patagonian Morning

This leg was a story of boats as much as bikes

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.

Coyhaique to El Chalten Route elevation profile

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?

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After a series of cold and wet days in Coyhaique I cannot believe my luck when gorgeous blue skies accompany me out of town…

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… but the roads are paved and the riding dull

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A cold descent…

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… down to camp in Villa Cerro Castillo ends an uninspiring first day on the Carretera Austral

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When morning comes I’m glad to be back on the loose stuff and feeling good until the traffic picks up…

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… and I find myself defenseless against the draw of a detour away from the highway

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These are my roads, traffic free and bursting with character. I climb up towards fantastic views of Lago Verde…

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… and start to pity the riders who stick to the main road below

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After a relaxing lunch admiring Lago Verde I turn south skirting the glassy Lago Alto…

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… on the way towards Lago Lapparent

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As my traffic free detour turns back towards the highway the road conditions deteriorate and the riding becomes even more fun…

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… until the road levels out and rejoins the Carretera Austral

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What should have been a relaxing night in camp is frustratingly ruined by the irresponsible antics of others cyclists. But the sun is shining again and I’m able to pedal out my anger…

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… on the fast climb up to the Rio Cajon-Cofre Pass

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A little despondent at the annoying levels of traffic I slog on to the enormous Lago General Carrera…

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… and Puerto Rio Tranquilo

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In Rio Tranquilo I meet up with Leah…

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… and a new partnership is formed between two riders notoriously bent on shunning ‘progress’ in favor of enjoyment

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The weather goes from great to incredible…

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… as we slowly make our way around Lago General Carrera

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Unable to resist the constant lure of the lake our frequent photo stops make for a fun and relaxing day

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The next morning follows a similar pattern as the deserted little settlement of Puerto Bertrand sucks us into an early lunch…

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… before spitting us out onto a beautiful stretch of road bordering the vibrantly blue Rio Baker

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The riding reflects our relaxed attitudes and the flawless weather, delivering us into the town of Cochrane for the night

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A morning of mincing and resupplying in Cochrane means it’s almost lunch time before we start riding

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When we do eventually engage our cycling brains progress is quick…

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… traffic minimal…

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… and the scenery enchanting

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The nights are drawing quickly in which fools us into some night riding before eventually finding a camp spot. It’s only when the sun rises…

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… that we’re able to appreciate just how aw-inspiring the surrounding landscapes are

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The further south we ride the more enjoyable the Carretera Austral becomes. I can feel the dwindling traffic, fun little climbs and an evolving landscape start to weaken my defenses…

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… and the penny finally drops on why people rave about this road

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There is a small section of the Carretera Austral between Yungay and Rio Bravo that involves a free ferry crossing. Having arrived in Yungay too late to catch the last of the three daily crossings we’re offered the modern waiting room in which to sleep

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Next morning we’re on the first ferry. As Leah takes a turn steering the boat I try to stretch out the stiffness of a small tumble I took the day before

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Back on dry land the landscape is feeling increasingly wild…

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… reflecting the moody skies and increasingly persuasive wind

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Having never even considered taking the ferry south from Villa O’Higgins over lunch we unanimously decide to change our plans and gun for the boat. What we believe to be the final crossing of the year leaves early the next morning…

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… so we put in a 100 km shift…

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… arriving in Villa O’Higgins just as the sun is setting. By the time we’ve found out the details of the next mornings boat it’s late and we’re both exhausted

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But there is little time to rest as we’re up at 4:30 am the next morning to ride 7 km through the morning darkness to Puerto Bahia Bahamondez. Arriving at the small port we’re greeted by a small collection of other cyclists, some of whom have been waiting a week for the ferry

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During the three-hour crossing it becomes clear that our period of excellent weather is well and truly over

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Rain accompanies us back onto land where we climb steeply up to Chilean border control…

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… before continuing up on a really fun piece of track

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I soon find myself riding alone well ahead of the rest of the pack…

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… loving the space and autumnal colors

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A few km before the Argentine border I stop under the shelter of some trees, brew up some tea and wait for Leah. She soon appears out of the rain with an enormous smile plastered across her face. We celebrate our shared love of dirt roads with some interesting poses on the Argentine border…

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… before spilling out onto stretch of single track infamous among touring cyclists

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The rain has made much of the first half of the track unrideable due to mud but we’re able to wrestle our way through. A variety of obstacles give the afternoon an assault course feel

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Leah and I have very different techniques on the trail. As she splashes through the mud, rides into bushes and cuts herself up, I tip toe through focused only on keeping my feet dry. My efforts are successful but win me the new name of Nathan ‘dainty hooves’ Haley. Eventually we pop out onto the shores of Lago Desierto…

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… where Argentinean officials stamp us into their country and we camp. Moving shadows and the sinking sun make for a glorious evening, almost distracting us from the cold rain and in some cases… wet feet

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At 11 o’clock the next morning we board a couple of boats and make our way across Lago Desierto. Having not booked anything ahead of time Leah and I find ourselves on a separate boat to the other cyclists, a situation I’m more than happy with

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Once across the lake we’re left with just 37 km of ripio to El Chalten

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The surrounding mountains hold a unique and powerful character… pure and natural beauty

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It’s not long before magnificent views of Monte Fitz Roy slow our progress to a crawl. The first time I catch a glimpse of those iconic spires I come close to falling off my bike. If any single justification were needed for abandoning plans to ride Paso Rio Mayer in favor of catching the ferry this mountain is it

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Rolling into El Chalten we locate the Casa de Ciclistas, find a space to pitch up and start to decompress

 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.

Route Tips

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).

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2 responses to “Austral acceptance & a nod to ‘normality’

  1. Hi Nathan!

    I found your site looking for informations how to cross through paso rio mayer between villa o’higgins and el chaltén. We might be too late to take the ferries across the lakes.

    I understand you did not go via paso rio mayer in the end. Yet you have published the very helpful GPS track. I would like to ask if you could write me a mail how you planned/found the route between the two border checkpoints? Do you think the track is accurate in that area?

    regards,
    Marco

    • Hey Marco, I did a lot of research, read a lot of accounts and figured out which of the tracks on RideWithGPS to plot the route on from there. Like you said I have never done the route but I know it was possible about the time of year I went through as three lads did it the week after I was in the area. I suggest it would be more difficult at the moment as I assume the river levels are higher. I would be confident in following the track I mapped in conjunction with directions from the border guards but obviously can’t guarantee anything having never been there. From what I’ve read, if you can cross the river safely then you won’t have a problem.

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