Welcome to Laurel and Harvey’s (sic) Travel Blog. We just lost our awesome MSR tent! It fell offthe back of my bike as we bumped along a stretch of rough dirt road. Don’t ask how, it is all too embarrassing (not in my mind – the dirt road was a harsh replacement to the winds; awfully painful). We spent hours looking for it with no luck but as a result we had a great chance encounter with Marco de la Rosa, a weird night in the strange town of Caleta Tortel and bumped into two Finns who by chance wanted to sell their tent. So we bumble along, with a cheap Chilean tent with a broken pole and ripped fly. One does what they have to do.
Riding into El Chalten was even more dramatic than expected (we finally agree on something). The spectacular peak of Fitz Roy dominates the skyline. We were lucky to arrive on a blue bird day as the peaks are, more often than not, typically cloaked in wind whipped clouds. People come from all over the world to see these mountains and often leave without a glimpse. Amongst climbers Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and the surrounding needle-like peaks are iconic climbs with a rich and at times, infamous, history. The recent ascent of Cerro Torre by a young American and Jason Kruk of Squamish, wherein they freed the controversial Compressor Route, chopping all the old bolts as they descended. It was a remarkable climb but an audacious act that landed them in jail and infamy in the Argentinian press but, for the most part, accolades from the climbing community. I spoke with a couple of local guides, incidentally both keen to come to Squamish, who confirmed the above.
As we pulled into the tourist info centre at the entry to town we were warmly greeted by two young Aussie girls we’d met in Calafate. It is a wonderful part of this sort of travel where chance encounters, when repeated, are like meeting long lost friends.
We immediately headed to the Casa de Cyclistas as the recommended place for cycle tourers but despite the friendly proprietor, conditions were just a bit too humble for our liking (you can only imagine) so we headed, up-market, to Camping La Torcida. We set up our tent in the front yard then inspected the facilities. If you can picture something built by a stoner ‘carpenter’, with no proper tools, no skills, with no money, essentially salvage materials, low standards and some psychedelic ideas of architecture, you’ve got a good idea of the place – a little like the fort we built in our back yard as kids. Diego explained, when I asked, that after getting his ‘plans’ approved, he cut out a post that was in the way. I could only wonder at what was holding up the mezzanine. Tatiana’s and Eugenia’s hospitality and great service made up for the physical shortcomings.
Because we are early in the tourist season the staff/owners of the stores, restaurants and lodgings we’ve frequented have had the time to connect with us, greatly enriching our experience. Our second night at La Torcida, the haphazard common area was full of travellers, all glued to their technology and the vibe was very different.
In our short time in town we managed to squeeze in two memorable hikes in great weather (and this is meant to be a break from cycling. Jim encouragingly calls it “cross training”!) Hopefully our photos convey something of the spectacular scenery. Both days after returning from our hikes we had cryptic messages conveyed to us that two cycling ‘friends’ were trying to contact us. Eventually we ran into Dirk and Trudy, a Dutch couple, our ages who wanted us to join them for the crossing from Chalten, Argentina to Villa O’Higgins, Chile. Not only were they better informed about the difficulties ahead but they realized we had to leave early in the morning if we to be sure of the various ferry connections involved, so we frantically and reluctantly (we would have liked more time in Chalten) got prepared for a 5:30 AM start….and we’re glad we did.
The next morning we pushed hard for the first 37 kms of ripio (dirt road) and caught up with the Dutch and made the first ferry over Lago del Desierto with time to spare. Other than some border guards we were the only passengers. We passed Argentine customs at the north end of the lake and then began the infamous (at least amongst South America bike tourers) 27 km stretch to Chilean customs at Lago O’Higgins. The first 6 km we pushed our bikes up a miserable trough of a trail (who the hell built this thing?) crossing multiple creeks in the process. It was a tough push but our hike-a-bike experience paid off and I think we were a big help to Dirk and Trudy. Claire was a machine (imagine mountain biking in the Chilcotin with a touring bike fully loaded – crazy stuff. CH). We tried to ride when we could. I ‘endoed’ (went over the handle bars) following Claire on one stretch, did the ol’ Squamish tuck and roll and came out unscathed but for a bruised ego. By the time we set up camp in the two-house town of Candelario, after a 12 hour day, we were all bagged. Later that night, Jef, a young Belge and a friend from our early days pulled in doing the long, final descent on loose gravel in fading light and failing brakes. The following day was a rest day, just hanging out with a beautiful view over the lake waiting for the boat to O’Higgins. It is a giant, glacier-fed lake, the deepest in South America, and when the winds blow the crossing of 3 .5 hours can often be canceled, for days on end. With dwindling provisions it would be a long wait. We lucked out. Our weather window held, the long boat trip, along the austere lake without sign of life, was uneventful. We rode the 7 km from the dock pulling into town in lovely evening light, found places to stay (each to their respective budget) and all ate together in the only open restaurant and thus began our journey up the famous Caraterra Austral (Southern Highway). The crossing couldn’t have worked out better.