Crossing into Argentina, the hard way….

Boarding the boat to Candellaria Mancilla was a typically relaxed affair (as it seems most things are down here). We had been told to be at the port at least an hour before the boat departure time and as we arrived we realised that we were the first people here including the crew! We took photos with the end of the Carretera sign and chatted to the Chilean couple who arrived slightly after us in their 4×4. They had driven from their home in Santiago and were impressed by the kid’s excitement at having finished the road. Once again having the kids with us came is useful as a packet of biscuits was produced from the back of the car and given to Izzy. They were quickly stashed in her panniers with a look that said ‘I hope Mum and Dad didn’t see those’ unfortunatly for her we had and so the bounty was duly shared later.

At the end of road…

The crew finally arrived and after doing the pre voyage checks we were allowed to board. We loaded the bikes and watched as they were lashed to the foredeck. In due course a couple of minibuses pulled up and more tourists debussed with their back packs and boarded the boat. The biggest group proved to be good shipmates and were very friendly.

The boat journey was soon underway and while it was still quiet calm a coffee and a biscuit was served. Will disgusted at being missed out took himself to the galley and asked, in Spanish, for a biscuit. He returned smiling followed by the steward who carried a tray of hot chocolate and two biscuits. He looked suitably smug as he and Izzy tucked in. I had not really been aware of him picking up much Spanish but he had obviously made himself understood and we were really pleased for him.

The boat on Lago O’Higgins does not run everyday. It is subject to wind strength and from our experiance of the crossing I would hate to be on a rough one. Once away from the port the boat started to be affected by the wind and waves and developed a list to the port side. To go out on deck you had to wear a life jacket (of varying repair) and as soon as we climbed the ladder onto the top of the boat we knew why; Being British I would describe it as a bit blowy. There were a few green faces amoung the passangers and I even began to feel a little queezy. Izzy however was fine (as she always is on ferry crossings) and I was perked up by a hipflask of calafate berry schnaps supplied by the guide of a French trekking group. On my second trip on deck an iceberg was spotted; not a huge one, 20 or so cubic metres above the water, but an iceberg none the less. It was beautiful, blue and serene in the water, driven to it’s position after calving from the O’Higgins glacier by the incessent wind. Behind the iceberg we could see the last Chilean outpost in the area, Candelleria Mancilla. This tiny hamlet wasn’t settled until the 1950s and the grandsons of the settlers still make their living here. In the summer they offer camping and breakfasts to the steady flow of ten or so hikers and cyclists a day. For the other 46 weeks of the year they raise cattle and sheep to sell in O’Higgins.

Iceberg ahoy!

Enjoying the views on deck.

Once docked and the bikes unloaded (a feat in itself) we made our way up the gravel track to the camping field, cooked our meal in the shelter of the barn and chatted to the french trekking group. Their guide was a french woman living in Coyhaique and I was keen to find information on what lay ahead. A goods night sleep and a breakfast in the farmhouse kitchen prepared physically but perhaps not mentally.

At this point I have to make a declaration: We cheated, by this I mean that we paid the farmer to carry our panniers to the Argentine border. The road is steep, rocky and narrow and we decided that we needed to send our bags ahead to give us a chance of enjoying the ride. It was a tough decision. We had chosen not to take a truck to bypass a section of tough ripio a couple of weeks before but this was a bit different, we would still ride but with a little logistical help…

Full of bread and jam (and instant Nescafe) we set off towards the border. The road to the Carabineros station that served as passport control was along the coast and easy enough. At the station we chatted happily to the officer in charge who was intrigued by our journey and the kids. He asked lots of questions and we conversed for a few minutes before Izzy and Will grew impatient and demanded that we go through the border so they could get their new stamps.

Passpports duly inked we set off up the pass, geographically still in Chile but politically in no man’s land. The sky was grey and it was chilly but to be honest this was a good thing as it stopped us from getting too hot on the climb. Izzy had decided that she wanted to ride herself and was making good progress despite steep sections that were unrideable given the looseness of the surface. The views of Lago O’Higgins and the surrounding snow capped mountains were excellent and slowly the sun began to show itself from behind the clouds. Despite this we were treated to some flurries of snow and intermittant hail showers as well as a continued cold breeze. The valley into which we were climbing soon began to become less steep and more soil was able to accumulate meaning that trees, mainly the stately southern beech began to appear. As we continued the forest thickened and in another few kms we were riding through dense woodland. Given the combination of terrain and climate it is easy to see why this area of Patagonia was only settled last century and why it remains so hard to get to. The Chilean government spends huge amounts of money maintaining these roads and infrastructure – far more than recouped in tax revenue but I suppose the economics of this are secondary and the government presence of Carabineros (who still patrol on horseback) reminds everyone they are still in Chile.

At least the road was good…

We were alone on the road for most of the day though, just before lunch, we passed a Russian family heading north. They were riding 29er mountain bikes and were riding for 3 months with their son on a bike seat. We chatted briefly about routes, ripio and traffic and they seemed put out that there were going to be more cars than they had hoped. ‘There must be other way, on smaller roads’ was their reply – well if there was we didn’t manage to find it!

We stopped for lunch in a shelter that, given its position, was for shepherds and gauchos. It was not quiet weather tight i.e. it had massive gaps in the structure but it was out of the wind and gave use a break from the weather. We were careful not to touch the floors or surfaces though and made the kids use the last of our hand gel as there is Hanta virus in Patagonia. Though rare it can lead to respiritory failure and death in some cases. It is always worth bearing in mind that travel in remote areas has more dangers to you than other humans or adventure sports….

While sat eating lunch we joked about our lack of home ownership and how perhaps we should look for an abandonned shepherd’s house complete with gaping holes in the roof and an earth floor. It would not really matter that much though as if it was in the UK we would probably not pass the mortgage checks anyway. With our sandwhichs eaten and a little warmth restored we stepped out to find blue skies and a little sunshine. It was a warmer and we pressed on through the quiet forest interupted only by bird song and the occaisional woodpecker. On reflection we had begun to see far more wildlife in the ultimate section of the ruta 7 and beyond and an (anecdotaly) inverse reduction in traffic. Either we noticed more because we were less distracted by traffic (on this road non existant) or the traffic and human activity drove the animals away. Whichever it was we reveled in the increased activity.

The Border Crossing

In Europe I have stopped noticing when we cross an international border indeed between The Netherlands and Germany it was hard to tell that we had crossed the border at all and we had to rely on a change in bus stop signs. South America is very different with passport control, queing, stamping etc. Some of the frontiers are remote and passport control olin one country is conducted long before reaching the entrance point of another. This was the case here but we certainly knew we had crossed the Argentine border. Apart from the huge sign there was a marked change in route. In Chile we had a road that, all be it rough and steep, was passable easily in a four wheel drive and probably (very carefully) in a two wheel drive. At the Argentine border the road disappeared and a rough footpath began. This was impossible in a motorised vehicle, passable by mountain bike, tricky with a touring bike and ridiculous with a weehoo trailer, two bikes loaded with a families kit for 9 months of touring, a five year old and a seven year old pushing their Isla bike. The only up side was that it was, theoretically at least, mostly down hill.

Just over the border.

Izzy and Will pushed and pulled bluebell (the Isla bike) between them chatting and singing along the trail. They did a great job especially as Izzy managed to fall into the stream at the first crossing and did the whole remainder with a wet foot, luckily however she fell in a second stream near the end and evened up her foot wear saturation.

Izzy about to get a wet foot.

Charly and I had less fun. Our bikes are heavy with Astrid (my bike) weighing about 60 kg with all the camping kit and food for 4 days, to add to this the weehoo weighs about 10 kg. I also have a set of rear panniers on the front rack of my bike making its widest point at the front. This meant that every few hundred metres a pannier would snag and send the bike off balance and almost crashing to the floor. Charly’s bike, while not as heavy, has thinner tyres and the centre of gravity is pulled backwards by the followme tandem that she uses to connect Izzy’s bike making it more unweildly. Because of this she regularly got slowed down by soft ground or stream crossings. To say we struggled is a litle bit of an understatement and I swore alot, both in my head and aloud. I am glad we are teaching the children as we travel because they learnt a good range of anglo-saxon words.

Smiling because it is nearly the last stream crossing.

We rode what we could and to be honest this was not much. By the end of the trail I would happily have thrown the weehoo into the northern end Lago Desierto, the point at which we arrived 9 hours and 22 kms after leaving Candellaria Mancilla. Izzy jad ridden or pushed all of it and Will had run or helped push a good proportion. The border was about to close but in a relaxed and friendly manner the Gendarmes (who man the passport control and regularly patrol the area) told us not to worry about passports that evening. They pointed out the free camping area and told us to come back to stamp into Argentina the following day.

Finally Lago Desierto is in view.

It would have been nice to chat to the other backpackers and cyclists who had either completed or were about to attempt the crossing but that evening we were just too tired. The temperature dropped quickly and I had numb fingers as I finished packing our dinner plates away. The night grew colder and Charly and I found it difficult to sleep. The kids, ensconsed it thermal pyjamas, warm sleeping bags and wooly hats slept soundly. We certainly needed a little bit of luxury soon. Hopefully we would find it in El Chalten.

Enjoying a chat with Izzy after a long day.

If you like what I have written about our trip then consider clicking the following link to ‘buy me a coffee’ – essentially this means more cake for the kids……

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Biologist who teaches. In 2018 I took time away from work to travel and world school my children. We travel by bike and try to treat life as the adventure that it is.

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