Patagonia Report #3: Two Weeks of Storms and Stories

The gaucho, the border, the Pink House, a bum knee. Cochrane to El Calafate, 2/26–3/12

Rachel and I are in El Calafate, Argentina, the regional tourism hub of Santa Cruz Province: an improbable scattering of homes, hostels, shops, and tour companies that is nestled in the scrub brush between mountains and high desert on the southern shore of Lago Argentino. We originally planned to bypass this town on Ruta 40, heading south by bicycle across barren steppes to the Chilean border and the infamous Torres del Paine — but an unprecedented collusion of circumstance has left us recuperating here for a few days.

The past few weeks of bicycle touring have seen us riding storms to the wild terminus of the Carretera Austral in O’Higgins, porting our bikes across the rugged and mucky Argentinian border, and battling our way southward through the windswept and desolate scrublands that characterize much of Argentine Patagonia.

[1]: The Gaucho

Two days out of Cochrane and my last update post, back on the Carretera, we took refuge from the driving rain in a remote roadside bus shelter at the turnoff to Caleta Tortel. We rose early and rode 20 wet gravel kilometers over the rainbow-bouncing mountains to Puerto Yungay, where we ate a voracious hot lunch of Nescafé and homemade empanadas at the only café in town before catching a free military-operated ferry down the river to where the road continues from a concrete boat ramp near the tiny settlement of Rio Bravo. From there, we rode another 45 km in the rain over a tortuous procession of high mountain passes along the final 100 km push to Villa O’Higgins.

Late in the day, wet and cold and tired, we were scouting sheltered spots to camp when we passed a small estancia beside the road. Rachel flagged down the owner, an old-school gaucho in traditional garb, who happened to be returning from the fields at that moment. We asked him if he had a dry place for us to stay the night. For context: the rugged folk who make their living in rural Patagonia have proven to be quite friendly and hospitable to strangers in need.

The gaucho showed us to his wood-and-aluminum tanning shed, where we happily slept on handmade sheepskin rugs beneath a dried-and-hollowed sheep carcass that hung from the rafters.

The gaucho let us use his wood stove and his rustic outhouse. We shared mate, fry bread, chocolate, and conversation in his warm, rough kitchen as the rain fell fierce upon the metal roof. After a while, he brought out an old copy of Patagon Journal, and we were amazed to see a photo of our host on the cover. Turns out that our new friend was Erasmo Betancourt, a well-known local gaucho-turned-rancher who has been an outspoken opponent of the damming of Patagonia’s remaining wild rivers. He was interviewed and photographed by Jeff Johnson, the star of the documentary 180 Degrees South. There’s even a video on YouTube of this guy singing a traditional folk song.

In the morning, the sun came to warm the puddles. Wood smoke wafted into the trees and over the cold, clear stream that runs through Erasmo’s property.

We said our goodbyes and rode the remaining 50 km to the end of the road at O’Higgins, where we spent two days in a hostel waiting for a ferry in one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. We joined a lovely, ephemeral community of adventurous travelers — mostly from the U.S. and Europe — who’d all wound up in this beautiful, isolated end-of-the-world waypoint by bicycle, motorcycle, foot, or hitched ride.

[2]: The Crossing

From O’Higgins, we entered Argentina by a remarkably wild and complex route — the only way to get through without heading 100 miles north. We took an early-morning ferry across Lago O’Higgins to the Chilean border station at Candelario Mansilla, then rode a good dirt trail for several hours through beautiful birch forests until we reached a sign in the middle of the woods proclaiming “Bienvenidos a la Republica Argentina”.

The story goes that the Argentinians didn’t hold up their end of the border infrastructure deal, and thus the remaining several miles to the army customs office on the shore of Lago del Desierto became a muddy and miserable three-hour slog along a poorly-maintained single-track trail.

We ported our heavy-laden bikes across rivers and got stuck in the muck nearly up to our brake pads. At some points, the trail was actually a creek. Rachel’s brakes failed, making downhill difficult. All of our friends from the ferry passed us on foot. At the end of it all, the Argentine customs officer stamped our passports and waved us on our way without even a glance at our bags.

The next morning, we took another ferry and rode the remaining 40 km into El Chalten, a bustling climber-and-backpacker mecca nestled into the hills just shy of the infamous Monte Fitz Roy. We rested up, drank some excellent local craft beer, and explored the area with new friends before continuing south along paved roads into the windswept high desert.

[3]: Ruta 40, Argentina

The barren steppes of Argentinian Patagonia are beautiful, desolate, and inhospitable. The land is mostly divided up into hundreds of miles of grazing land under the administration of several wealthy ranches. Beyond the sharp and thorny scrub brush, the predominant signs of life are foxes, field mice, llama-like guanacos, and the imposing silhouettes of circling Andean condors. The road is paved, but the wind is wild and unpredictable. When we caught a strong tailwind, we flew along effortlessly at more than 20 km/hr — but a headwind here means laborious progress, especially when combined with a rare desert rain.

We camped out along the highway. We got caught in a fearsome rainstorm at the same La Leona Hotel where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent a month in 1905 on the lam from their big Buenos Aires bank robbery. The night before the final push to El Calafate, we spent a strange night with some other bicycle tourers in The Pink House (La Casa Rosada), an abandoned estancia along Ruta 40 that has become a semi-famous way-station squat for long-distance cyclists and other budget travelers. It’s the only free shelter from the harsh elements for more than 100 kilometers in either direction, and the walls are covered with years of inscriptions from the hundreds of others who have stayed there.

Two of the other cyclists were a Polish couple who have been riding south for several months from Asuncion, Paraguay. We’ve run into them quite a few times now over the past few days. The other tourer was a friendly Japanese guy who has been riding his bicycle south from Yellowknife, Canada for the past two and a half years. He told me that once he reaches Ushuaia on the island of Tierra del Fuego, he will return to Santiago and then fly to London. If he has enough money left, he’ll ride south into Africa — and if he doesn’t, then he’ll ride all the way across the Eurasian landmass back home to Japan.

In The Pink House, we pitched our tent in a small but mostly intact bedroom that had once possessed a window and a door. I lay awake that night listening to the howling wind blow rain ten feet across the floor through the window-hole. In the morning, when the storm broke, we suited up and made a break for the remaining ~95 km to El Calafate so that we wouldn’t have to spend another unsheltered night in the desert. We made it most of the way before my rear derailleur over-shifted itself out of whack and broke a spoke. We had an hour and a half before nightfall, and I was able to jerry-rig the wheel into working order, but we made slow and painful progress because I’d aggravated the tendons in my right knee after several days of pushing too hard against the wind. Fortunately, after some stressful minutes, we were able to hitch a free ride with a passing tour bus for the remaining 20 km into town.

So here we are in El Calafate. It’s good to sleep in a bed, to wake up slow, to cook fresh vegetables on a proper kitchen stove. My knee is quite sore, so we’re going to do the next leg by bus, then take a week’s rest from bicycle touring to go hiking in Torres del Paine. After all of the exertion and adventure of the past month, I’m taking this as an important lesson in self-care.

[4]: Perito Moreno

Less than one hundred years ago, El Calafate was a remote trading center for the wool that is still produced at the far-flung local estancias. These days, the town is engorged by a commercial airport, a thriving Patagonian tour industry, and a burgeoning interest in the humongous Perito Moreno Glacier. After hearing unpromising reports on the hitching prospects, we caved yesterday and took the 80 km bus ride up to the far end of the lake.

I’ve never seen anything like this. Perito Moreno is a twenty-mile-long lick of ancient ice that flows out from the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, a major source of fresh water for Chile and Argentina. The surface of the flow is deeply rutted from centuries of ablation. The glacier is nearly 60 meters high where it meets the lake, and the edge is constantly calving in the waning days of summer. We stood atop a hill and watched great chunks of ice — horse-sized, house-sized — sheer away from the cliff to fall in slow, breathless drama, then plunge into the water with a delayed, resounding gunshot smack.

Perito Moreno is still advancing in this age of exponential warming, which makes it a rare breed of 21st-century ice block. Elsewhere, glaciers are melting away. Most of the glaciers that I’ve encountered while rambling the High Sierra remain mere shadows of their former grandeur, huddled at the high end of long scree valleys. It was humbling to stand before this Patagonian behemoth and observe a living example of the glacial cycle that has shaped so many of our planet’s iconic landscapes.

[5]: Henceforth…

For now, we continue our southward pilgrimage to Torres del Paine. We’ll cross back into Chile and try to get our food supplies through the notoriously strict Chilean military customs. It seems absurd that we may need to leave behind innocuous foodstuffs (e.g. nuts, dehydrated milk, open grain packages) that we bought in Chile, carried into Argentina in our un-inspected panniers, and now seek to bring with us back over an arbitrary national border. But I digress.

Love to family and friends. The adventure continues!

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