After a quick roll around town, I had picked up supplies and booked a boat for the next day from the end of the Carretera Austral (a mere 8km away) to head across Lago O’Higgins, which would leave me a relatively short distance to El Chaltén. The early morning boats were all booked up, which meant for an early afternoon departure. I headed for the boat alongside Frenchman Loic, who was on a speedy tour along the Carretera Austral and down to Ushuaia. After a very bumpy crossing – the Patagonian winds whip up the turquoise waters into quite a frenzy – we arrived at the tranquil campsite at Candelario Mancilla.
The plan was to stay overnight and then make a start in good time the next morning, in order to be at the next lake (Lago del Desierto) for the ferry at midday. I had allowed four hours to do the 22km, which seemed sufficient from what I had heard. The crossing to Lago del Desierto is well known amongst tourers in these parts – it’s something of a right of passage for cyclists, many of whom won’t have come anywhere near this sort of terrain on their trips. As I started staking my tent out at the campsite, we got chatting to an Aussie couple who had just made the crossing in the other direction. It had taken them most of the day and had clearly been hard work – they were running full touring setups with four panniers each but the guy, who seemed to be fairly experienced and said that he was a mountain biker too, told us categorically that we had no chance of doing it within four hours. A challenge if ever there was one! With his advice in mind, though, and keen to make the midday ferry the next day, Loic and I decided to push on to at least the border, where we had heard that there was a good potential spot to camp.
Having cleared Customs (the crossing takes you back into Argentina), we headed up the initial climb on a fairly good quality dirt road at a fair pace. Loic’s main issue at this point was getting traction on the loose surface of the climb with his skinny road bike tyres, but he kept up a good pace and, well within an hour, we had completed the 6km climb and were careering along a much flatter section towards the border. 10km further and we reached the border, the decent Chilean gravel road replaced by very muddy Argentinian single-track! Given our good progress up to this point and a fair bit of daylight left, we decided to throw caution to the wind and keep on going. It was, after all, predominantly downhill from here. What we had in store turned out to be one of the best sections of riding I’d done in weeks! The winding single-track takes you through beautiful forest, across countless streams and through narrow gullies. On a fully-loaded touring bike with low panniers on the front that hit every obstacle and skinnier tyres with minimal tread that provided limited traction, it would clearly have been a different kettle of fish, but with my bikepacking setup and chunky tyres, it was a dream! Where others had spent hours pushing and manoeuvring their bikes, I was able to really enjoy a spot of downhill mountain-biking! This is as good an example as you can get of the benefits of a bikepacking approach over traditional fully-laden touring – it allows you, when you get the opportunity, to take full advantage of the riding in a way that you simply can’t otherwise.
Loic managed heroically in my wake, negotiating the twisty track with minimal traction, and we soon emerged to a spectacular view over the Lago del Desierto, before descending the last kilometre or so to the Argentine Customs post.
With the weather forecast looking relatively stable, I camped right down near the shoreline so as to make the most of the picturesque campsite and hopefully get a peek of the Fitz Roy range the next morning. It didn’t disappoint…
After a relaxing morning, sitting drinking coffee and ogling the stunning view, we caught the ferry down the lake and then pushed on the final 40km on a bumpy but otherwise fairly good-quality gravel road to El Chaltén, the gateway to the magnificent Fitz Roy range, a mecca for climbers and hikers from all over the world. The approach to the town, when coming in on the main road from the South East, is pretty spectacular…
Bumping into Andrey, a Russian-Canadian riding the Carretera Austral whom I had briefly met a few days earlier, we found the Casa de Ciclistas, a somewhat basic and cramped little hostel and campsite but full of other cyclists. This would be my base for a few days and a good place to leave the bike and gear whilst I headed out on some short hikes to get up close and personal with Monte Fitz Roy.