Patagonia region spans over two countries, Argentina and Chile, and were quite distinct. There were several gravel road sections which my road bike tyres didn’t like and this on its own provided for some adventure.
After Bariloche, the theme of lakes and mountains continued for about two days until El Bolson after which I had to detour to avoid some gravel roads. Just some 30 kms away from the mountains, towards east, the landscape was totally different, pampas as it was called; dry landscape with not much water and nothing else for that matter, arid and barren.
Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, an infamous region for cycle touring can’t be missed but several sections of gravel roads posed a problem. I pored over some cycling blogs and figured out which sections were paved. From Esquel in Argentina a bus ride took me over to Futaleufu, the border town in Chile where I rode the 10 km paved road. This town was nested in a valley surrounded by high mountains and a beautiful river well known among rafters for the forty or so grade 4/5 rapids. Another bus ride from Futaleufu took me over the 60 kms or so gravel roads to join the Carratera Austral at Villa Santa Lucia where 30 kms pavement began. I rode that and waited at the end of it to hitch a ride to escape the next 30 kms gravel to La Junta where I camped out next to a river just on the side of the road. La Junta to Puyuhuapi was 47 kms including a 17 kms gravel section which was sort of rideable. From Puyuhuapi there was another 60 kms gravel road which I ditched. After this it was all paved. Two more days of riding took me to the city of Coyhaique.
Carretera Austral was characterised by lush vegetation, glacial melt waters gushing out of the mountains, forming water falls and rivers that fed several lakes and was scantily populated too, an excellent rural setting. The crystal clear water in the lakes, that reflected the mountains around it, tasted divine. Camping opportunities were plenty. Of the more than 1000 kms or so of this road I only rode the northern half for the second half was fully gravel; at least I had a glimpse of this paradise.
The villages along this route received vegetables once in a week and I was not able to find tomatoes, apart from this tomato crisis, I did not find riding in Carretera Austral an adventure, perhaps in the past it might have been as some cycling blogs report. In fact I found it lot more relaxing. The nature was pristine and unspoilt. I would like to return here someday and would probably add some rafting, cayaking and glacier walking to make it more adventurous.
I spent four nights in Coyhaique to make use of the excellent campsite and the friendly atmosphere. The supermarket in this town even had chocolates from Waitrose, a supermarket chain from the UK known for its quality products; I was full of smiles. On top of this they even had basmati rice which is very hard to find in South America, except Chile. I stocked up two kilo grams of this for the next ten days. After a day of hard cycling basmati rice with some vegetable curry felt like a treat, especially in the Argentinian Patagonia.
After Coyhaique, two days of riding, all on asphalt, took me over to Puerto Ibanez where a ferry crossing to Chile Chico, the border town, was due. From Chile Chico I crossed back into Argentina. I found Chile, in general, was lot more organised and developed. I would say almost first world, at least compared to the other countries in this continent.
Riding in Argentinian Patagonia can be a challenge as I was going to find out. In shark contrast to the Chilean side, the landscape here was dry water was hard to find and long sections, hundreds of kilometres, of nothingness. Indeed the major challenge here was the Patagonian winds known for its brutality, at times, headwinds, tailwinds and crosswinds; I had it all and of varying intensity. Except for a seventy kilometres section the roads were paved all the way from Chile Chico to El Calafate. After a 130 kms ride from Perito Moreno I arrived in a small village called Bajo Caracoles where there was a police station, health centre, petrol station, a hotel and one kiosk. In total 15 people lived here, I was told. I needed bread for the next two days but the kiosk won’t sell me bread but only homemade sandwiches which costed 60 pesos just two bread slices with some cheese in between (3GBP or 4.5USD approximately Patagonian price they say). I explained to the lady that I eat an awful lot of bread for breakfast and 20 GBP for breakfast was beyond my budget, I would rather stay hungry. She took some pity and asked me to come back at 9pm when she sneaked some bread for me through the kitchen window, the left over bread after making sandwiches for the following day. There was more than half-a-kilogram of bread and I walked back to my tent with big smiles for having staved off the forthcoming bread crisis. When there is a will there is a way. Having learnt the lesson, when I arrived in Gobernador Gregores after two days, I bought two kilo grams of pan Frances (baguette) for the next 3 days. I was not prepared to take chances, besides the Argentinian Baguette was super good, I loved eating it with dulce de leche (caramel) and that too an awful lot of it every morning which gave me decent energy for most of the ride every day.
After leaving Bajo Carocoles for about 108 kms there were no water sources, at least the previous day there were some small streams where water would trickle down enough to supply a handwash basin. Also, I was going to find out the different between headwinds and tailwinds on the same day, I was riding at an average of 13 against 30 kmph respectively. It was a long straight road for about 50 kms where I fought the headwinds for straight 5 hours after which came the sharp turn and tailwinds. Make some distances while tailwinds prevail. I rode an extra 30 kms and stopped at Estancia Sylvina ( a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere), instead of the previously planned destination. I did not know what was in the water at this estancia, the next day I rode 91 kms in two hours and fifty minutes to arrive in Gobernador Gregores, a record that won’t be possible again without the same tailwinds.
On leaving Gobernador Gregores, after 60 kms, at the junction with Lago Cardiel to be precise, was the 70 kms gravel road section. I was mulling over whether to ride or hitch. When I arrived at the junction the first 20 kms where quite compact and rideable dirt so I continued. However 70 kms of dirt road/gravel road on one day would be torturous if not unpleasant. So after 20 kms into the dirt road I stopped at the only estancia called La Serbia for the night. The next day was quite hard on the saddle. The final 30 kms of this unpaved section was gravel with big stones and I had to walk at times. It took about 6 hours of grinding through the gravel to navigate the remaining 50 kilometres of this unpaved road although the rest of the roads were all paved.
In Argentinian Patagonia the the views did not change for long distances but there was a certain beauty to it. Whilst the Chilean Patagonian section, Carretera Austral, was teeming with cyclists only handful of them travelled over on this side. Many site the lack of visual stimulation, barren and arid landscape as reasons but I found the shear thrill of riding through some of the challenging routes compensate more than enough. The open skies, vastness, expansive views and no distractions provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the journey, i.e life, and happiness arose from within, one that does not depend on any external factors. This happiness, I felt, was real. This was not one-off but happened over several occasions on several days in this section. Perhaps the nothingness around me reflected the reality – this is all there is, nothing! I was glad to have made the decision to cycle the Argentinian Patagonia.
El Chalten, a famous town known for that special stone, rock climbers tease, was an 180 kms de tour from Routa 40. But I was keen to visit even though I have been here four years ago, for this was not an average garden stone, a mammoth rock that rises up to an altitude of about 3000 metres called Mt Fitzroy. I was able to see it from 90 kms away, quite a panoramic view which remained the same for 90 kms, a range of ice covered mountains, including some glaciers and Mt Fitzroy itself at the end of it. With clear blue skies it was an panaromic view to he had for about 4 hours all the way into El Chalten. I was glad I made this detour. The next day I hiked about 7 hours in total to watch Mt Fitzroy up close, for the second time in my life and the blisters that resulted was worth it. I was so lucky to have clear blue skies the whole time.
From El Chalten it was two days ride to El Calafate where I am at the time of this writing. The night in between was spent at casa rosada (Pink House), an abandoned house that has been appropriated by touring cyclists. The walls were littered with signatures of cyclists, hundreds of them, whom used this place and some of them I recognised, an interesting social experiment I thought. El Calafate welcomed me with some 30 kmph headwinds, well this is Patagonia after all!
Bariloche to El Calafate (1620 kms of riding; route map): Bariloche – Rio Villegas (68) – El Bolson (52) – Leleque (73) – Esquel (90) – Futaleufu (60 kms by bus, 10 kms riding) – La Junta (60 kms to Villa Santa Lucia by bus, 30 kms riding and another 30 kms on a pick-up) – Puyuhuapi (47) – Villa Manihuales (60 kms by bus followed by 90 kms riding) – Coyhaique (90) – farm house at the turn off from Carratera Austral towards Puerta Ibanez (92) – Chile Chico (30 kms ride to Puerto Ibanzez and a ferry crossing) – Perito Moreno (73) – Bajo Caracoles (130) – Estancia La Sylvina (140) – Gobernador Gregores (91) – Estancia La Siberia (82) – Tres Lagos (90) – El Chalten (125) – Casa Rosada (120) – El Calafate (97).
Some route notes: At Rio Villegas the football field is a nice place to camp there was a river, a school nearby with open wifi and a mini market across. In Leleque there was a police station on the side of the highway the only sign of civilisation in this section for about 140 kms up to Esquel. The pavement information on Carratera Austral found on crazyguyonabike site on this page (https://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=tS&page_id=412915&v=Qm) was accurate as of January 2016. The road between La Junta and Villa Santa Lucia was being paved when I passed through. Cyclists will note that, in general, the gravel roads were worst when construction work is in progress. On the route 40 between Perito Moreno and El Calafate except for a 70 kms section the remaining were all paved. The construction work in this section seemed to have been abandoned half way through. Water source on route 40 was very scarce and on some days there were none, be prepared!