Part 1 is here..
We begin this section by stepping off at Candellario Mancilla having finally left Villa O higgins behind. Our first step was to successfully cross the border and get stamped out of Chile. You might assume this is an easy task, but we found out at the border, that the tiny slip of paper we had been given on arrival in Santiago was not a receipt, but in fact our visa. The stamp in the passport meant nothing. Be warned! Hold on to that tiny scrap of paper. Whilst I had kept mine tucked away safely, Huw had to do some mad, desperate digging whilst mumbles of big fines and dirty looks were bandied about by the officials. Finally, he surfaced from the depth of his bag with a big grin and the disappointment of the guards. We had officially left Chile!
Now we had several miles of no mans land stretching ahead, some double track that as we drew towards Argentina, became, we had been told, gullied single track, impossible to ride and a horrible push. We set off into the torrential rain as the track climbed steeply from the water. Our first stop was to descend down to the river, where we hoped to cross and follow another trail over the mountains to the ice cap. Sliding down the treacherous clay we knew it would be a long shot. The water was pouring off the hills, every stream gully gleaming white out of the mist. They are not too fond of bridges this far south, they use horses and ford the cattle, swimming them up to a kilometre to cross rivers. As we expected there was no bridge, the river was a seething mass of brown, massive logs barrelling down. We had no chance of crossing. Frustratingly the trail was clear on the other side, tempting us forwards. We considered camping in the hopes levels would drop by morning, but with the rain still pouring, gave up and set of back towards Argentina.
We needn’t have worried about lack of adventure, the next few hours involved waist deep, fast stream crossing, some with horrible consequences if we slipped. The water brown, full of debris and impossible to tell depth or see a footing. We were worried about all the other cyclists behind us, but soaked to the skin, needed to push on to camp and get warm. The trail itself was awesome, flowy and swoopy, everything we had been looking for. The rut was ride able with our Revelate bags, but would be less fun with panniers. Eventually we were spat out at Refugio Punte Norte, the Argentinian side. We went to try and get our stamps, but they were unfriendly and told us we were too late for that day. We told them about the dangerous crossing and the 15 or so folks behind but they were not interested. As we huddled in a shed by a small fire we were delighted to see the others beginning to arrive. Their tales of heroic crossings and epic teamwork, having to unload all their kit and relay it across every stream made us again very glad of our light weight set up and soft bags, rather than panniers.
Setting up camp as the rain stopped and the clouds lifted we became aware of some mountains across the Lago, dominating the sky. We watched in awe as they grew with the rising clouds. High spires and glaciers appeared, reaching upwards into the sunset. These were the mountains of Patagonia that we had come to see. They were magnificent!
From here onward, our Patagonian journey was a catalogue of attempts at single track loops into the mountains, and their failures. We tried at least six different routes, being turned back by big river crossings, non existent trails, park regulations, bureaucracy and land owners either denying permission, or charging outrageous sums for access. Every time we turned back disappointed, formulated a new plan based on what we had learnt and got turned round again. These were the most frustrating weeks of my life, never have I tried so hard, to gain so little. We kept bumping back into the other tourers, as they would pass us when we forayed off into the hills, then catch them up again after giving up. We felt we had become a bit of a joke, with our high hopes and expectations. We felt we would be so much happier, by just being content to tour the road.
Heading south we past through el Chalten, shocking us with its endless bars, donut shops and millions of trendy tourists. Staying at the casa del ciclista, we shared stories and had a well needed rest. Whilst we both do a lot of hiking and running, Huws duff ankle meant we couldn’t join them in hiking in the Fitzroy national park. Like in Chile, bicycles are banned and although several folks reckoned wed be fine, we didn’t want to risk the wrath of the rangers. Carrying on, new year was spent with another group of cyclists in El Calafate. We didn’t linger, not enjoying being in a town, where, as in all countries it seems, boy races revved their engines all night and it felt stressful in its business.
Setting off for Chile again, and Puerto Natales the wind howled. We were now on the infamous plains, where the wind rises on sunny days and poured in a powerful stream off the icecap. We knew it was going to be hard, although we didn’t realise quite how hard!
Carrying only enough food for the four days we thought it would take, we soon realised we would run out. The Headwind was slowing us to about 5 km per hour, working at about 80%. This was not something we were physically capable of, and in our defeated mental state, felt like it was just Patagonia giving us another finger, telling us to shove off. Eventually we accepted the inevitable and gave up to hitchhike. A big burly truck rolled to a stop, a large imposing Argentinian at the wheel. We threw our bikes in and spent the next few hours whizzing along listening to Pink blaring.
Arriving in Puerto Natales, we met our friend Will, who was working as a sea kayak guide, He had a few ideas for us and we also went into the National park headquarters to try again to get permission to ride in the park. Incredibly they produced a map for us, with great reluctance, which showed there were some trails we were actually allowed on. In the end though we stuck with Wills plans and stayed out of the crowded park.
The next week and a bit were a mix of carrying up mountains, slipping past ranchers and gauchos, swimming rivers, bushwhacking through forests, cursing our maps, ourselves, the land and the omnipresent cow poo. Our trail sniffing ability dissipated deep in a forest, 200km from the road so we had to backtrack. We carried up a mountain Will thought we could ride, but forgot to mention the cliff and rope required. We were forced to camp twice in the same awful spot on two separate bail outs.
So far from the wonderful wilderness we had hoped to discover, we found Patagonia a place of poor land access, deforestation, infinite cows and ultimately disappointment. We did think if travelling by foot or pack raft, or being a bit more rebellious and overcoming our British compliance, we may have had a better time. The scenery is spectacular, although the main national parks are ridiculously busy and as such have to have tight restrictions. Our heart will always lie with big, open empty places, where you are free to roam and travel respectfully. As far as we could tell, Patagonia did not provide those things, at least not without breaking a few rules along the way. Looking back now, we did have some incredible times, we may not have succeeded in finding a good bike packing route, but we did get to some awesome places, way out in the lenga forests, away from any people. Not that I would recommend trying anything similar with a bike, nor am I in a hurry to ever return!
Cheers https://backcountry.scot/ for help with kit and enthusiasm. And thanks again Huw for some pics.