The lake region, a must-visit world destination
From Chile I returned to Argentina through the Hua Hum pass, to go into the most spectacular region of the country and, without a doubt, one of the most wonderful places in the world to bike tour. It can be compared to Jasper National Park in Canada or the Denali Highway in Alaska.
I already knew this, not only because other word-class bikers told me, but because Ale, my brother, lives there and he has also travelled the world and is a great explorer of the area. Yes my friends, I can confidently declare that the Argentinian Patagonia lake region is one of the most astonishing places I have ever seen – it crosses 5 National Parks in just 500 km and it has it all: it has amazing sceneries between lakes, snowed mountain tops and forests, camping areas every 30 or 40 km, little traffic, travelers from all over the world and the much better weather than the Chile’s southern highway, the other cycling option of the region. On top of all this, there are all kinds of excursions, alternative activities and extreme sports. That is exactly why this part of the famous route 40, that starts in Junin de los Andes and finishes in the Alerces National Park is a great option for those that are making their first steps in bike touring – because there are not so many altitude differences and because most of the road is paved. I encourage every person that writes to me asking for a good place to cycle to just go for it: this is the best choice. And to those who decide to set out on the quest to cycle through the Chile’s southern highway, take a detour and cycle through this region as well. You won’t regret it.
After a few days exploring the El Bolson area with Ale, and after camping in places worthy of their own postcards, I continued my journey down to Ushuaia. It was the best season to cycle the region, when trees are blooming and the weather demands nothing more than a shirt to wear. I didn’t really want to leave, but summer in Patagonia is short and I still had another 2,000 km to go to get to the other end of the continent. I left 6 pounds heavier (that is a conservative number) – more that satisfied with asados made by my brother, which I thought would make me pour meat out of my ears. The guy is a carnivore, in typical Argentinian fashion. When it was not red meat, he honored me with trout that he himself fished and stationed. Saying goodbye is never easy – each time I have to bid farewell to a loved one, family member, couple, friend or someone who took me in as one of their own is always hard. Sometimes I think that my soul is begging me to stop this. 16 years of cycling the world, packing and unpacking, is a lot of time.
After camping in the Alerces National Park – definitely my favorite – with Ale for a few days, I continued towards Trevelin, and once there I crossed to Chile, to cycle the southern highway.
The most authentic route
From Chile I returned to Argentina through Los Antiguos, Santa Cruz province. And I was not alone – in the southern highway I found my French friend Laurent, who started to cycle around the world in 2012. Our plan was to cycle the 41 provincial route towards the Roballos pass, because an Italian Laurent met told him this was the most authentic route. And this wasn’t just some random Italian, he was a great bike traveler, a fan and explorer of the Argentinian-Chilean Patagonia – he had already made 9 journeys in the region.
Unfortunately, Laurent and I had to go separate ways as I had to stay in Los Antiguos for 4 days. Due to the fleas I picked up in Chile, I was forced to stay at a hotel and send ALL my luggage and my sleeping bag to the cleaners. I was extremely lucky in Los Antiguos because the cleaners owner, besides cleaning everything free of charge, introduced me to Guillermo Mercado, town mayor, who decided to sponsor my trip through the province. As if this was not enough, he gifted me 2 kg of top quality cherries. Delicious. It is worth mentioning that Los Antiguos, with its 2.5 million kilos of cherries harvested this last season, is the biggest cherry producer in Argentina, the city is world recognized by the quality of its cherries, and they celebrate the Cherry National Festival each January.
Stuffed with cherries, and with no fleas, I pedaled through Santa Cruz’s 41 provincial route – a pretty rough and lonely gravel road – that gains and loses altitude endlessly. It is a place where nature makes its presence notice in all its splendor, and the sights change abruptly, from plateaus into mountain forests, and from mountain forest to mountain ranges.
The road is lonely, but there are a couple of ranches, so one can count on the locals’ help. In my particular case, before I arrived at the Roballos pass, I was well received by Gaucho Ortiz, who was watching over some land at the highest point of the road. As if taken from a postcard, the gaucho – who lived in a miniscule cabin made of metal sheets – desperately called me in when he saw me pass, and invited me to stay the night. Due to the intensity of wind and the low temperatures of the area, I preferred to continue pedaling, but the perseverance of the man made me accept his offer; maybe I will never have another chance to share a moment with a proper gaucho. To avoid another flea risk, I pulled my tent up, because works better for me: it is my personal room. Once with dry clothes, I sat next to the stove to drink some mates with the gaucho. Even though I don’t usually drink mate, I did this time until I almost dropped. I was surprised by the sheer loneliness in which he lives. His only company is a dog that doesn’t leave his side nor for one minute, and the horse outside. The house has no electricity and no running water, just a battery radio that can barely tune to a signal. According to Ortiz, he spends the 6 “summer” months working for a rancher, who periodically provides him with meat and other needs. That night the gaucho didn’t skim on anything: he made mutton stew and potatoes – and I devoured most of it. It was the most delicious stew I ever tasted.
From Roballos pass I returned to Chile to cycle the last leg of the southern highway.
I did the last mountain range crossing from Villa O’Higgins, Chile, to Desierto lake, Argentina. To make the crossing I had the company of my French friend, Laurent. Had I done it alone, it would have been hell, because the trail is 6 km long up to the Argentinian migratory outpost and and it can’t be done by bike. You have to push it the whole way. After going through customs, and because we arrived late, we were able to camp by the lake with all the other travelers that come and go in both directions. The place doesn’t have any facilities, but the scenery is majestic, including the Fitz Roy mountain in the background. To follow the journey down the road that takes you to Chalten there are two options: you walk another 12 km down an even harder trail, or you pay a boat ticket – an expensive one – to continue traveling. My French friend went for the more adventurous option and, as his bike was not so heavy as mine, he did it in 2 days, in which he walked 12 hours. I preferred the boat option, which cuts through the Desierto lake towards Punta Azul, from where I could continue by bike. I was lucky, because after telling my story to the crew I was able to travel free of charge. Thanks to the Exploradores del Desierto company.
I pedaled towards Chalten for 3 hs under intense rain. There was nowhere to protect myself from the downpour, so I arrived completely soaked. Upon my arrival, hostels were fully booked, so I wandered under the rain looking for a place to stay. I was shivering, my shoes had water in them, my toes were frozen, and my waterproof jacket was wet. I just wanted to stay in one place; I was exhausted by the mountain crossing and worried with uncertainty. I felt sadness. I had no strength left and now I wished, more than ever, for a miracle to happen. Suddenly I heard someone screem “PABLO, WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” I couldn’t believe it, the miracle I was waiting for actually happened. It was Seba, a person from Mendoza I met in Mexico in 2013. Seba hitchhiked through Latin America for 3 years, we crossed paths 3 times during his travels, and in two of those occasions it was me who came to his aid. The embrace was intense, emotional, and tears dropped. Immediately Seba and his friend, Kai, took me to their home and cooked me a hot meal. Not many times I found myself imploring to the heavens like that time. It was crystal clear in my mind: “what goes around comes around”. The last time I had crossed paths with Seba was in 2014 in Merida, Venezuela.
That time Seba and Sergio were at rock bottom, without a penny and I gifted them 100 USD. I was not lacking money, and I was traveling from Colombia, where business had been good. It was not the first time I did this, and I find pleasure in helping a fellow traveler I admire. Fortunately, I was able to stay in the house Seba was looking after, for as many days as I needed to rest. It wasn’t just me, there was also Laurent, who arrived a day later.
Patagonian wind – your best ally or your worst enemy
Heading towards Ushuaia, the French and I kept on pedaling, but we parted ways once more at the crossroads on the way to Calafate. Laurent had already been there some years back, so he went southeast, with the wind. Fellow biker traveler: please know that in Argentinian Patagonia wind tends to blow in a northwest-southeast direction. That is why the biker that pedals from north to south will always find less wind than the person traveling in the opposite direction. In my last 35 km to Calafate I hit headwind; the ones that through you off the bike. the ones that could through you under a vehicle and kill you if it’s not your lucky day. That is why having mirrors is always, always, always ESSENTIAL. It took me over 4 hs to reach Calafate.
Recently, a Chinese man who had been cycling around the world for a few years died on the 3 road (Argentina) hit by a truck. That road is very dangerous for cycling, because it borders the Atlantic Ocean and it often has much more wind than the roads that border the mountain ranges. I have met travelers that had to seek refuge in a gas station for 4 days, and finally decided to put their bikes on the back of a truck just to get out of the place. It is hard for me to believe that the tragedy of this Chinese man is not wind-related. That’s why the person that decides to cycle to or from Ushuaia must not take this road, no matter how much of an experienced traveller he or she is. What’s more, most of the roads in Argentina do not have shoulders. It’s not breaking news that the Argentinian Patagonia winds are the worst enemy of the bike traveler, that is why I advice using the Windy or Windguru apps, which forecast the intensity of the winds and their direction. And strictly follow the logic that when there are winds stronger than 50-60 km/h, it’s better not to go out.
From Calafate I visited the Perito Moreno Glacier, in the Los Glaciares National Park, declared World Heritage, which is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and astonishing places I have seen in all my journeys around the world. Getting there late, when all the tourist buses were leaving, allowed me to savor the complete silence and loneliness, which it made the place even more.
Despite the fact that the biking road continues to Torres del Paine, Chile, which is known worldwide for its wild nature and extraordinary sights, I preferred to continue my journey through Argentina because I’m not used to go trekking – and their politics of admittance and reservations through reservations does not help independent travelers due to the large amount of people that visit. In the end, this ends up transforming the beauty of the place. I was told that in the trekking trails in Torres del Paine turn into a file in which, if you try to walk a litte faster, you step into the person in front of you, and if you walk slower, the same thing happens to you. Only in January 2017, more than 47,000 people visited the trails. According to a Spanish friend, the trekking trails that start from Chalten and arrive in the Fitz Roy mountain are as beautiful as those in Torres del Paine, but the difference is that in the Argentinian side they are free and there is a much smaller number of people.
Southbound, I delved into my last 940 km to reach Ushuaia, not wanting to come across more masses of tourists. I wished to face my possibly last big challenge and to get to my destination. I already new it, but those last kilometers through the Argentinian Patagonia would be a hard, and it would require all my strength.
The Patagonian dessert challenges you constantly and is one of the most demanding places in the world. It’s just you and nature, and nature is a cruel partner. Here is where you apply all your knowledge of how to survive while cycling, of how to face the weather, of how to make your body respond and, mainly, how to make your faith stay intact. I can assure you that the person that cycles this area can get his guapo diploma. Just to clarify, guapo in Argentina means brave, bold. The distances between the few populated areas or inns demands you to plan each day in detail. I had 149 km days up to 174 km ones.
Tail winds become your best friends, but not always, because sometimes they hit you from the front. You feel fortunate when it doesn’t rain, because when it does, you can feel the cold reaching your bones, you have nowhere to take cover – it’s just you and the god damn weather. “Who on earth comes to this corner of the world so defenseless as you on a bike. Only a mad man.” Yes, that is how you feel in your miniscule vehicle in the vastness of Patagonia. The challenge: to survive and continue pedaling. I love it. Each day I reach my objective I become stronger. With out a doubt, this could be a good therapy treatment for those lacking conviction in life. And what a way to demand your body and mind.
I never did less than 125 km a day. In 7 days I reached my destination. Good planning is the secret to reducing suffering. I slept in the police station and in the tourism office in Tierra del Fuego, on the Chilean side. ¿How can they leave you adrift when they see you traveling by bike with this weather conditions? They have no choice, and besides, they admire you. People in this part help you out as they do in Mongolia or Tibet, where weather is extreme. I was also received by kind people in Rio Gallegos and Rio Grande, where I was able to stay for a couple of days. Thank God, because the next days it rained and winds climbed above 50 km/h. And of course, I had to pull up the tent, which is always there when everything else fails, when rain and winds fuck you up, or when it was just not possible to arrive at a destination. A piece of equipment that always saves me is my -15°C sleeping bag, that I traded Biciclown when we crossed paths in Mongolia. I was heading to Tibet and he was on his way back. I had a -5°C sleeping bag. It’s going to be cold, he predicted, and we made the exchange. Providence always manifests itself on the road, that has always been my belief. And it manifested that morning in a never-ending straight in Santa Cruz province. I started at 6 a.m. because there was no wind, and the sun hadn’t even come out – it was cold hell and with just half an hour from my departure my toe fingers were already frozen. Suddenly a car goes by and it stops. It was Martin Gamboa to offer a mate. God exists, I thought.
Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world
On my way to Toluim I encountered Laurent, who was coming back from Chile. He is a guapo, as most of those who cycle through here. Everyone is carrying their own cooker, their carefully planned food rations and their inner strength that makes them pull through Patagonia’s hostile weather. This is not for a mere bike ride – my respects to each and everyone that has cycled this roads.
Once in Toluim we went to “La Unión” bakery, famous among bike travelers cycling Patagonia because its owner, Emilio, takes in every biker that passes through the area. The first lucky two to arrive sleep in beds, if avaiable. The others sleep on a gym Emilio has for his employees. It does not matter. It is a roof over our heads, with a bathroom and even a place to cook. What’s more, it’s free. He even brings pastries in the morning, and in my case, Emilio even provided an afternoon snack for the road. When we arrived there were another 12 bikers. The man has a big heart. But beyond his kindness, Emilio is a cool guy. In April 2018 he’ll finish his project that consists of walking 4.255 km from La Quiaca to Ushuaia. “The goal will be to raise awareness for two causes: “No littering” and “Malvinas”, he said.
The last km to Ushuaia were of striking beauty. Tierra del Fuego has some spectacular landscapes.
The arrival to Ushuaia was moving – we had finally reached the south most point of the continent. Laurent and I had departed on summer 2012 from North America. The French started his journey in the north extreme of Canada, which marked the start of his biking world tour. I started from Alaska to finish my last continent in my round-the-world by bike tour. In my case, it implied more than 55.000 km which demanded 57 months, almost 5 years.
That’s a number right there! Almost 1.000 km a month – a strange number if you consider that in the past week I went over 940 km. What this number does not show are the stops – which in many cases have proven to be more interesting than the cycling itself. Even more so if these stops include love stories. And this continent, the three most important love stories were present, one Italian, one Mexican and one Brazilian. But that is for a separate chapter I’ll be including in the book. Still, it’s pretty obvious that kisses and caresses are more thrilling than the best of roads. If I hadn’t started this project of traveling the world by bike, I would have ended up with a wife and kids working who know where doing who knows what. Believe me when I say that renunciation is one more quality I have developed. Maybe the hardest. Without a doubt, my selfishness was what also helped me finish the journey. Single and without children. Cheers to me!
Once in Ushuaia, Laurent was received by Javier, a man from Bolivia that did not hesitate to take me in when I asked. Once again I’m assured that Bolivians are good people. We became friends, so much so that Javier bought a bike to cycle with us to the Lapataia National Park and, some months later, to welcome me in the Obelisco the day of my arrival. We stayed for a week, working in our computers, resting and, in my case, selling my documentary in the city center – sales were much better than what I had anticipated. Well done Ushuaia.
After a good stay in the word’s most southern city, Laurent went back to France to look for sponsors and organize a future stage of his journey. I, on the other hand, flew to Bariloche and then went El Bolson for some mini-vacations in one of my brother’s cabins with my girl, who came from Brazil, and who I had to teach how to ride a bicycle. Can you believe that?
This blog entry was translated by Antonio Miloro. You can contact him for translations at firstname.lastname@example.org