Seek and you’ll probably find… Spinning dirt to El Calafate

Somewhere along my journey south I picked up the idea that southern Chile and Argentina would hold very few, if any route options. Somehow the ‘knowledge’ that there is only the main roads south burrowed into my consciousness. This has proven to be incorrect time and time again, in fact every time I set about plotting my route I find myself confronted with choice: options of road surface, riding style and environment. They may not always seem obvious and may require a bit more work than the ‘traditional’ routes, but they’re always there, somewhere. In this regard Patagonia has been a bit of revelation for me, there are so many exciting and beautiful places to ride away into. All cyclists need to do down here is cross their fingers for good weather, commit to a route and let the good times roll.


Leaving the paved Ruta 40 not only took us onto a glorious stretch of dirt road, it also allowed us to climb and win some fantastic views of the receding Monte Fitz Roy

I make no secret of my love of dirt road riding and everything it involves, thankfully my current partner in bicycle riding crime shares that passion. So when Leah and I recently faced the choice between flat, paved main road Ruta 40 riding and undulating traffic free dirt, you would have thought the decision would be a no-brainer. Now we have the benefit of hindsight and can reminisce on a night in a Peruvianesque wilderness and a day of blissfully involved riding looking east at line of the most magnificent snow-covered mountains, that decision is indeed simple. At the time though, when we reached the junction where I’d planned to exit Ruta 40 onto dirt there was still thinking to be done. We sat for over an hour flipping back and forth between sticking to the highway for a night in a well-known cyclists camp spot, the derelict pink hotel, or spreading out west into an uninhabited and arid world of potentially vicious winds and rain. Eventually we stuck to the plan, saw sense and left the highway, but there was a process involved. That process ensured we didn’t run out of water and had as good a time as we did. It was necessary, it’s always necessary to assess the options, but ultimately it’s the decision that matters. It is what you actually do that counts, not what you could have done.

El Chalten to El Calafate Route elevation profile

Here is the story of a delightful little run of riding that we managed to stretch out over four days…


By the time Leah and I finally roll out of El Chalten it’s afternoon. Monte Fitz Roy stands proud at our backs as we spin into a slight headwind


30 km into the ride I stop, eat lunch and wait for Leah to catch up… she never appears. When a passing driver tells me she needs urgent help I ride 12 km back to find her. It turns out that ‘urgent help’ means she has a slight mechanical issue she has well under control. With time ticking on we decide to abandon the day at an Estancia only about 40 km from El Chalten


The next morning we plug on through some slight drizzle to join up with the main highway, Ruta 40


Thankfully the painfully dull Ruta 40 doesn’t hold us for long. After a bit of deliberation we take a left onto Ruta Provincial 21, leaving behind the traffic busy pavement


The dirt road fills us both with instant happiness as we eek out 18 km before the sun dies. As it returns the next morning we’re treated to some dramatic skies…


… before getting back out onto the rolling pampa hills


Climbing away from camp we’re gifted some breathtaking views of the distant Monte Fitz Roy…


… and an overwhelming feeling of space


The road winds and wiggles…


… crests…


… and falls…


… providing the perfect antidote to the paved stint out El Chalten


With only a couple of semi abandoned estancias anywhere near the road we encounter no people nor vehicles


Mechanical mishaps tend to arrive in groups, at the base of this little descent Leah’s tire blows and I get to enjoy a brief rest…


… before we drop down…


… in preparation for another climb


As the day wears on it becomes apparent that the road bears little resemblance to what our maps told us…


… something that excites us further


Eventually we start to descend…


… down towards Lago Argentino


After a brief stop to investigate this perfect shelter…


… we’re left just a few kilometers of badly corrugated road…


… before rejoining the Ruta 40


Once back on the pavement the sun quickly drops and we scamper off the road into camp


Short on water, we leave camp early…


… riding eight easy kilometers to Rio Santa Cruz for a leisurely breakfast…


… before continuing on through guanco pampa to El Calafate.

 It is very rare that there are not multiple options available to us at every juncture in our lives. It is the series of choices we make around these decisions that shape our existence and forge our legacies. One of the joys of life on a bike for me is how many of the needless decisions clouding modern day living are stripped away making for a very simplified version of life. All I have to decide on are essential and often basic things and these decisions get easier the more I understand about what I want versus what I need.

Route Tips

4 days, 250 km (155 miles), 1,835 m (6,020 ft.) of climbing

For the dirt detour away from Ruta 40 take the left turn 113 km from El Chalten onto RP21. Due to mechanical issues it took us over a day and a half to get to the turn, a distance that could be easily possible in one day with the right winds. The detour continues 76 km before rejoining Ruta 40 after which it’s a further 14 km to Rio Santa Cruz and water. I’d advise riding a little way past the RP21 turning to Hotel Leona to fill up with enough water for the entire distance as there is no water on route. We lost the road we were actually following on the map and veered well away from the GPX track I’d previously mapped, but eventually turned onto RP17 which took us back to Ruta 40. the actual GPX track for the route can be downloaded here. The shelter I have pictured above is about 58.5 km from the turning onto RP21 from Ruta 40. This could be very useful should you get struck down with some bad weather.


2 responses to “Seek and you’ll probably find… Spinning dirt to El Calafate

  1. Pingback: The End? Not even close. | cyclesouthchica·

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