A Big Steppe

El Chaltén > Cerro Castillo > Torres del Paine > Puerto Natales

Warning: This post contains excessive amounts of spectacular photos, which may prompt spontaneous purchase of flights to Patagonia.  I would strongly consider doing whatever necessary to facilitate the aforementioned purchase.

The day after my hike up to Lago de los Tres, the weather turned and it was clear that the beautiful weather window that I’d experienced was closing.  With it came rain and high winds and the prospect of getting on the road was fairly unappealing.  After two days waiting it out, but with a forecast (yet to materialise) for a slight improvement, I finally decided that I couldn’t afford to wait much longer and left El Chaltén in drizzly and blustery conditions.  Whilst riding in the rain is never all that much fun, there’s something that makes you feel good about choosing to ride out, braving the conditions whilst others are sheltering indoors.  And, lo and behold, as I made it further out of town, my boldness was rewarded as it started to brighten up and I soon realised that it was just the mountain range that was enveloped in a bank of cloud!

It was worth getting back on the road as I got my first proper experience of the legendary Patagonian tailwind!  A rip-roaring ride heading SE following the Northern shore of Lago Viedma, I averaged 33km/h (21mph) for three hours until I had turn SW and it became a somewhat trickier crosswind.  At the crossroads where I turned, I met a small group of cyclists heading the other direction who had accepted that it was likely to take them two days to reach El Chaltén and they would have to camp halfway in the shelter of a small farm that offered pretty much the only protection from the fierce wind!  This is why most people cycle North to South!
I had read a blog about an abandoned observatory en route, which would make for a great spot to spend the night.  However, on closer inspection (having hopped a gate to go look) it transpired that somebody had built a house nearby, which was inhabited, and it looked like private property now.  There was, however, another option which was to spend the night at the legendary ‘pink house’.  Famous amongst touring cyclists in Patagonia, this abandoned former hotel has become a sanctuary to many on their way between El Chaltén and El Calafate, on a stretch of road that otherwise offers few places to shelter from the tent-shredding gusts.  I arrived as two motorcyclists were squeezing their bikes through the barbed-wire fence and past the ‘keep out’ signs and, shortly after, Mirko and Ina turned up, my German friends with whom I had spent Christmas in Mendoza.  I knew they had been in El Chaltén but didn’t realise that they were hot on my tail, so that was a lovely surprise!  They decided to camp in a sheltered spot next to the river, whilst I opted for the ‘penthouse suite’ of the hotel (the cleanest room with makeshift boarding over the smashed windows), wary of the possibility of the now calmer wind picking up again overnight.  As darkness fell, I was joined by two more Argentinian touring cyclists, who took the next room along.
The next morning was a reasonably early start, to try and make good progress before the wind got up too much – I had 100km to go and the last 30km would be directly into the prevailing wind, back along the Southern edge of Lago Viedma.  It was a beautiful, if somewhat desolate, landscape…
The final slog into El Calafate was pretty torturous, but that just made the copious baked goods taste even better!  I spent the next day hanging out in town, arranging a trip out to see Perito Moreno Glacier, getting my threadbare shorts repaired (the arse was finally wearing through!) and visiting the Gendarmería Nacional.  I had read in a few places of a route (here and here) directly South from El Calafate, that would offer up some challenging terrain and cut out a massive 300km detour that you normally have to do to get from El Calafate down to Torres del Paine national park.
The main catch with the route is that it crosses from Argentina into Chile and there is no official border crossing!  Having read that it might be possible to do it legally by getting permission from the Gendarmería, I went to ask them about it.  The response was that the only way to cross the border officially was by taking the 300km road detour round to Cerro Castillo and crossing there.  Sounded like it was time for an adventure!  Danny of BikesandBackpacks had kindly shared the route he’d taken a year earlier, along with his route notes, which gave me the confidence to give it a go on my own.
Before that, however, I took the bus out to see the epic Perito Moreno glacier – a chance to get up close to the leading edge of this 30km long monster.  It’s an impressive sight to behold…

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