The first thing I remember seeing when I came out of the tent was a view of mount Fitz Roy, clear and alone, framed by the valley sides. It hardly looked real, seeming more like an alpine watercolour by Turner as landscapes often can when viewed from afar and some perspective is lost. Fitz Roy is a mountain who did not allow its summit to be reached until 1952 despite being the most obvious pinnacle in the area. Named after Robert Fitz Roy, the same man who captained HMS Beagle it is hard to access and technically difficult. Standing at 3405 metres with the easiest route graded at Extremement Difficile minus (ED-) it was first climbed by Lionel Terray and Guido Magone.It has long been on my to climb list and has interested me for many years. This morning we had our first clear view of the mountain to which your eye is drawn whenever in the El Chalten valley.
After our epic crossing from Chile into Argentina we spent a very cold night at the northern end of Lago Desierto with temperatures dropping below freezing. The morning was hard; looking after our own admin when cold and tired and sore is bad enough but factoring in Izzy and Will, passport control and trying to get a ferry made it trying to say the least. The saving grace was the other cycle tourists and trekkers; Will and Izzy moved between the groups chatting and making friends and we were periodically congratulated on managing the crossing with all of out kit. The tent packed and bikes ready we parked them by the second of two piers and cleared passport control. The Gendarme who had greeted us the night before was at the desk and greeted us cheerfully remarking on our crossing and merrily stamping our passports. He even let me use his binoculars to look down the lake and see the ferry steaming up towards us. As it grew closer we realised that we had parked ojr bikes by the wrong jetty and, along with the other 4 cycle tourists getting the ferry, we quickly swapped to the other one. We bore the $ 40 USD per person cost of the ferry graciously given the other option of a 15 km track even rougher than the crossing the previous day. We had hoped we would warm up but alas this was not to be as the captain took a long time to set off and there seemed to be no form of heating on board. During the navigation we had a chance to chat to Amanda and her husband who had been on the road for over 4 year. There most recent section bringing them all the way from Inuvik in Canada with an end point of Ushuia. The dedication to their goal was impressive as was the ingenuity they applied to making their way combining online english teaching with house sitting take breaks from riding and earn some money. To be honest it made me think about whether it would be possible to keep travelling for a little longer by earning some money to eke out our savings (our only source of funding for the year) but they did not have kids with them and seemed to have lost a little of the enjoyment of riding, perhaps from over exposure? They were however inspiring people on a rewarding journey and part of me was very jealous (Charly less so).
The main purpose of the ferry is to give tourists fantastic views up onto the Campo de Heilo Sur; the third biggest ice sheet in the world (behind Antarctica and greenland) it was a fascinating sight. The glaciers reached within a couple of hundred metres of the lake and disappears above it into the cloud. The area is famously cold due to the freezing air flowing down off the glaciers and today was no exception. As we sat inside the tender we winced every time the door to the deck area opened and scowled at the perpetrator with menace. It took a while for the cabin to warm up again and the flow of smokers coming and going was wearing a bit thin by the end of the voyage.
Arrival at the southern end of the lake brought us back into contact with awful roads and tourist traffic, something we had not missed over the previous few days. However ‘every cloud’ and all that and we were determined to make the best of it by stopping at a cafe we were told was a few hundred metres down the road. Izzy and Will were ready for some hot food and Charly and I were looking forward to a strong coffee having been surviving on instant Nescafe. When we reached the site though it was closed and not due to open for some time. The only available refreshments came from a kiosk selling snacks at double the normal price. The kids were gutted and tears were shed (by Charly and myself) but we had no Argentine pesos and no choice but to press on. Lunch that day was biscuits, not for the first time and certainly not for the last. To try to make it up to Izzy and Will and to make up for the lack of play parks on the Carretera Austral we camped about 30 kms south on a site with a superb (by South American standards) adventure playground. It also had a quincho with a gas hob and a wood stove in which we built a fire to warm up. Izzy and Will loved the playground and peeling them off it the next day to head into El Chalten was no mean feat.
El Chalten was a really fun town to spend a few days in. Since leaving our campsite the sky had cleared and the views of Fitzroy were spectacular. The town is the start point for all expeditions to climb Fitzroy and it is a sort of meeting point for backpackers and cycle tourists. Indeed we met up with several people who we had passed or been passed by over the previous weeks. In recent years it has grown hugely and now has such amazing things as 4G, satellite wifi and the ability to pay by credit card. Arrival in the town followed its normal pattern; we found a supermarket and a play park in quick succession. While on the main square (where the play park was) we met Rob again, another cyclist who we had shared the road with, near Tortel. It was great to see him and we quickly checked into the same hostel which was stuffed with travellers including Matt, the English fly fishing guide we had met in Rio Tranquillo. Though the hostel did not take a credit card it did take US$ which made paying possible. The US$ is a defacto second currency in South America and lots of the tourist areas have a double price structure with listings in both ARG $ and US $. This is great for us as the US $ price can be cheaper and it is notoriously difficult to get local cash in some of the towns with high fees and machines running out of notes at busy times. We always carried US$ as emergency money and it was great as a backup but I alway worry about having lots of cash – especially given my propensity to lose and forget stuff.
We caught up with Rob and Matt over a beer and then headed out for dinner as a family (Rob and Matt had been in town for few days and had eaten a lot of steak). El Chalten is arranged on a grid but one long main drag is located at the eastern side of town and holds at least half of all the shops. We walked up it negotiating the heavy foot traffic flowing the other way on the way to a free screening of mountaineering films. Along the pavement Izzy and Will suddenly accelerated and crashed into another little girl in a gleeful group hug. Yazmin and Alejandro had taken a break from cycling in town and had taken to the mountain paths for a couple of days. The reunion was beautiful to see and despite Yaz and her dad’s impending departure the next morning we arranged a playdate on the main square play park. All three kids set off in their respective directions talking to nobody in particular about the games that they would play. The distraction from hunger did not last too long though and soon we took the last table in a crowded steak house. Charly ran back to the hostel to get more cash as again credit card wasn’t an option. Normally this would be my job but Charly does not have a great grasp.of Spanish so I had to remain behind to make sure we could order. It was about 2030 when our steaks arrived; we had received a few disapproving looks from British and American trekkers due to having kids with us but the reaction from the staff and anyone from a Latin country was the opposite. The waiters chatted to them and congratulated Izzy as she demolished and adult portion of steak (and here that means at least 300 grams of meat). A chat to the waiter as I paid our bill revealed that they had seen us ride in in the afternoon and that he was very impressed. He then asked the question that every child loves to hear…
‘Do your children like chocolate’? I didn’t even need to translate as their faces lit up. With two minutes a plate with two squares of chocolate brownie and two scoops of ice cream was on our table and within 3 the plate was empty!
Our plan for El Chalten had been to do a day hike or two but we were exhausted and the weather forecast was poor so we mooched around town instead. This also gave us time to just ‘be’ as a family with no pressure on the things that take up time when travelling like dinding accommodation or planning food. The forecast rain had still not materialised when we met Alejandro and Yaz to play in the park. The children played and we sat and drank coffee with a view of Fitz Roy backed by a blue sky. before they headed off to El Calafate and then spent the second day in the hostel doing school work, drinking coffee and chatting to the other travellers. We made our plan to ride to El Calafate the next day despite the reputation for the wind being awful. We had no other realistic option. El Chalten seems to many to be bigger than it really is; what infrastructure there is is focussed on tourism and the service industry and hence there was no real way to ship the bikes from the town. We had no choice but to keep riding.
Riding sucessfully from El Chalten to El Calafate is about timing and wind direction. The wind in Patagonia (as I have alrrady said in earlier posts) rises mid morning, blows strongly in the afternoon and lulls again late in the evening. There is a period overnight and early in the morning when it is beautifully still. Due to the long days and riding with children it was never on our radar to ride at these times but a long chat with Charly clarified for us both that we would have to ride as early in the day as possible – not something that really appealed but then niether was riding for ten hours into a 60 kmh headwind with Will asking every km if we were nearly there.
The road out of El Chalten would initially take us east and as a huge bonus we would have the wind for a time. We waited for the wind to reach its strongest before we left the hostel. We were already near the edge of town so we were soon on the road with the wind behind us. All was going brilliantly until a sign post showing the distance to ‘Los Malvinas’; I reached to my jersey pocket for my phone to take a picture only to have a sudden vision of it sat, charging, on the counter of the hostel kitchen. I knew I had to turn around and our decision to ride as early as possible the next day was immediately the right one. The 3 or so kms back into town took me twenty minutes to ride and probably used the same energy as riding ten kms without a wind.
Finally underway again the tail wind swept us through the Patagonian steppe eastwards at a speed we had not achieved for months – at one point I even hit 35 kmh on a flat section without pedaling. My brother Rick once told
me that there is no such thing as a tailwind purely days when you feel like a super hero and today was one of those days with 90 km being covered in just 4 hours almost without a break (there is just nowhere out of the wind to stop). At the junction with the Ruta 40 we turned back on ourselves to the south south west and straight into the wind. This put paid to our speedy riding and for the next three hours we struggled into the wind. Charly is usually a strong rider (I have to say this or risk getting into trouble) but she was finding it increasingly hard to hold my wheel. She kept turning the cranks like a trooper though and through gritted teeth she pertinantly reminded me that this was only the second time she had ridden more than 100 kms in a day. We normally ride about 40 to 50 kms a day and feel really happy with this and to suddenly double this, as any cyclist or athlete will understand, is incredibly hard.
Respite from the wind came in the form of Hotel La Leona – a cafe / hotel / museum / campsite / zorro (patagonian fox) habitat / outlaw hideout / old river crossing point on the Rio La Leona. The place is steeped in history; Perito Moreno (a famous Argentinian explorer and the first ‘white man’ to see Fitz Roy) was savaged by a female puma here to give it its name and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent a month here while on the run from the Argentine army. It seems to have changed little since the bridge replaced the chain ferry in 1972 although the road is now tarmac and the horses have (mostly) been replaced with pick up trucks.
‘I’m done’ said Charly as she faced me across a table during our coffee stop and we quickly adapted our plans. There was a campsite (just behind the two graves of earlier owners of the hotel) and in a classic example of supply and demand we paid almost double what I thought was too much for camping. Luckily there were no pumas for us to contend with but on our way back from the showers we saw a patagonian fox (known locally as a zorro). Stopping immediately we watched it zig zag across the scrub looking for food. We watched him in silence for a few minutes until he slunk off into the dusk and the gloom and grey brown landscape hid him. The alarm sounded too early the next morning. It was still dark and though not as cold as a few days before it was certainly still chilly. The stove roared as we packed the tent and as we loaded the bikes the light slowly increased. This revealed a puncture on Charly’s rear tyre. We had noticef it the night before but un our tiredness and corner cutting yo get to bed as quickly as we could we had not done anything about it. Cursing my laziness internally I fixed it as fast as I could in the cold morning air we were still riding by 0830. This meant we avoided the worst of the wind as we continued to the South West. Just before the wind became its strongest before midday we turned south. The side wind took a few minute to adjust to and holding the bikes steady was tough but it was so much better than a 60 kmh head wind!
We camped on the Rio Santa Cruz at an abandoned estancia. I fetched water for cooking from the river and Charly, Izzy and Will clearing sticks and guanaco bones from the tent site.
Up before dawn the next day we busied ourselves to keep warm while the stove boiled water for coffee and porridge. The stars still present in the sky faded as the sun rose, pink and orange hues slowly creeping across the sky followed by blues of varying shades.
Sunrise was at 0718 and it was only a few minutes after this that we set out to ride the 40 km to El Calafate. The ride was almost due west and we were nervous about the wind. We had met too many cyclists who had been beaten back by it and almost every Patagonian had told us to be cautious as there was ‘Mucho viento’. The landscape was open and seemed endless; those who remember the film ‘Mad Max’ will know what I mean when I saw that I flinched slightly at every passing motorbike and V8 truck.
Thankfully there were no leather clad post apocolyptic motor cyclists riding today and we were early enough to avoid too much buffeting; only as we passed the gendarme’s check point on the edge of the city did we see the grasses and roadside shrubs begin to flutter in the breeze.
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