El Calafate, like El Chalten, has seen unprecedented growth over the last twenty years. This is due to tourism and, feeling a little uneasy about it, we joined the throng. We stopped at the edge of town at the police check point where our passports were given a cursory glance and we were cheerfully waved into town. The city itself is at lake level and this meant for a nice run downhill to hit the main shopping street. Every building on the main drag is a restaurant, souvenir shop or outdoor clothing store. The outdoor clothing shops we hoped would give me an opportunity to buy a new thermarest as mine had delaminated (i.e. punctured in an unrepairable way) the month before in Rio Tranquillo. Alas it was not to be. The shops did not stock Thermarests and all of the sleeping mats were about three times the price of home and of poorer quality. I would be destined to sleep on an uninflated mat for the remainder of the trip with stones and bumps sticking into me on most nights. However it is still better than sleeping on the uninsulated ground, an experience that, even in summer means a poor night’s sleep. Incidentally both Izzy and Will sleep on half length adult mats from Decathlon and seem to have very little trouble sleeping through the night. If you do intend to travel to Patagonia it is worth noting that you should arrive with everything you will need by way of kit and equipment as it can be hard to find what you want and even if you can it is very expensive!
Once on the main street we headed straight to an ice cream parlour. It was barely 11am but it was warming up already and ice cream seemed like a great idea. Charly sent a message to Alejandro and Yaz who had arrived in town a few days before and they joined us. It was lovely to watch the kids reunite like long lost friends and to see Alejandro’s beaming smile. We chatted about what we could do with our bikes. We had realised that we just could not ride across the steppe and onto Tierra Del Fuego towards Ushuia, it was too far, too windy and starting to turn cold. As a family our trip had been fantastic trip so far and we had made a decision to ship the bikes to Buenos Aires and to go to Ushuia on the bus. This was not the difficult decision that many cyclists have to mull over; the trip was a decision made by Charly and I, the kids had little choice in it and our reasoning was that to continue to ride would have been detrimental to their enjoyment of the trip (even in hindsight) and we wanted them to have positive memories of the adventure as opposed to never wanting to step out of their comfort zone again.
To complicate this a little we felt strange about leaving the bikes. When your bike has been your only vehicle for the last 3 months and has safely transported you for 2500 km across rough terrain saying goodbye to it is a little bit of a wrench but we knew after our experiences riding from El Chalten to El Calafate we knew that the remaining 1000 ish kms to Ushuaia would be unpleasant and perhaps even impossible given the terrain. The dryness and remoteness of this region is hard for a to grasp at first. Southern Chile is remote but there is at least something, a village or some houses every fifty kilometres or so and a few shops. In Southern Argentina it can be over two hundred kilometres between Estancias (ranches) and therefore water sources even then the surface water here is an unappatising muddy brown. We would have a tail wind for part of the way but comfortable progress would mean early starts and lots of time at roadside wild camp spots. This would be uncomfortable and unpleasant for the kids and us; we wanted this year to be challenging but there comes a point when things have to give.
The problem was that we had no idea how to ship our trusty steeds and most of our kit. I was worried that the cost would be high and that, once in the capital city we would have nowhere to store them safely. We mentioned this to Ale and he instantly became our fairy godmother (minus the pink frock and wand) and he made a simple but invaluable offer to us. We could send the bikes to his Mum in Buenos Aires and he would make sure they were safely stored so we could pick them up when we reached the city. Equally important he told us of a logistics company who brought building supplies to the city from the capital region and often sent back empty trucks. They were shipping Ale and Yaz’s enormous cargo bike for $100 US – a ridiculously low fee for a 3000km journey.
Ale and Yaz also shared their camping location with us and we decided to go and check it out. It was fairly central and very busy. This would almost certainly mean a bad night’s sleep for us, let alone Izzy who struggles to sleep in the darkest, quietest, of places. We decided to look at another campsite we had found on an app called iOverlander and set off in our little convoy. Almost immediately I regretted it. We rode into an area of town filled with beaten up cars and down at heel shops. Turning down the once tarmac but now potholed and gravelly road to the campsite we encountered a group of twenty or so dogs running from one of the nearby houses. They barked louder than any had before and I was genuinely worried that Will and Izzy were at serious risk of being bitten. Both growled, barked and shouted loudly at the animals and we pulled past them into the campsite. To describe it as a post apocalyptic holiday camp would be flattering. I am not sure even Zombies would have wanted to stay here. We rode one lap around camp, ran the gauntlet of the dog pack again and returned to the first campsite. We knew we looked a little silly returning to the site but it was certainly better than the alternative!
With the tent pitched we hit the supermarket and bought a few bits and pieces to keep us going until the next day before a meal and a good chat to the other cycle tourists that we met on the sight. I love the broad range of people that cycle touring attracts and the number of different ways of solving the same problems that there are. This is always seen when groups of riders get together and we arranged to head out for dinner the following night en masse to chat all things bikes and Patagonia.
The next morning dawned dusty and warm but with three hard days into the wind behind us we attempted to have a lie in. Eventually at about 9am the hot sun on the tent, hunger and a desperate need for a pee forced me, Izzy and Will out of the tent. Charly, in a truly amazing feat of endurance managed about half an hour more. Her ability to stick at things however uncomfortable is one of her most admirable qualities and I do not know anyone else who could have managed any longer in what was now a very warm tent. With the whole family now up and about we set about our main task of getting the bikes shipped to Buenos Aires. The ride out to the logistics company was all up hill on a mix of gravel and broken concrete. Given that the day was a Friday we had chosen to take all of our kit with us in the hope of shipping it that afternoon. After a few navigational hiccups caused by both my own errors and the fact that the company was not actually located where it was published as being (not uncommon in Argentina) we pushed our bikes into a dusty yard where three men were unloading a lorry. We were greeted cheerfully by a man in dungarees and a baseball cap. He was bearded and of bear-like proportions. He spoke to us in quick fire spanish made even more difficult to understand due to his missing front teeth. Amazingly (to my mind) as soon as I falteringly replied, showing immediately that we were not from the local area (though to be honest this was fairly apparent given our appearance) he slowed down and made every effort to communicate. We managed to agree a price for the bikes and our panniers to be shipped but the catch was that they were closed for the first two days of the next week due to a public holiday. As with most deals in Argentina the man wanted cash and this meant a trip into town and a return the next morning. It felt very strange and we were a little uneasy to leave the bikes in an industrial park on the edge of a poor city in a country where you do not speak the language but as the roller door to the unit was opened up we saw Ale’s home made e-cargo bike ready for shipping. Our fears were further allayed when I went back early the following morning to pay to find the bikes and panniers carefully loaded onto pallets and wrapped for protection ahead of their long truck ride.
The shipment of our bikes was a huge weight off our minds and left us free to enjoy El Calafate. The main attraction here is the Perito Moreno Glacier. The glacier is unusual in that it is not retreating and no one, at least in my limited research has managed to explain why. It is named after the explorer of the same name and in a very un-explorer like fashion we paid for a bus trip to see the glacier. We had discussed riding out to see it but the entrance to the national park was 80 or so kilometres outside of the town and the narrow road coupled with the succession of tourist vehicles and buses we decided that riding with two children was not a good option. Besides this our bikes were now on a flat bed driving through the dust towards Buenos Aires.
On the bus we joined several other cycle tourists from our campsite who, like us had decided that riding was not a good option.
The glacier itself was mind blowing. Charly and I have seen and traversed glaciers in the Alps but the sheer scale of the terminal end of the Perito Moreno was astounding. Its blue colour was almost ethereal and the creaking of the face before it calved was a sound I will never forget. I know that Izzy and Will enjoyed it too and we spent hours watching flakes of centuries old ice break off the face of the and tumble into Lago Argentino. Every so often a larger chunk would break off and fall with a huge splash. Even the smaller blocks were the size of cars but looked tiny in comparison to the 75 m, 5000m long terminal face of the glacier. While we sat and watched the glacier calve we took the opportunity to try and explain about climate change to the kids. Izzy listened earnestly but Will, in his usual style was more intent on pestering his new friend Christian, an american cyclist from Washington who had joined us on the bus out to the national park.
We only had one day to spend here and it passed all too quickly before it was time to board the bus back to town. That night we lit a BBQ and stayed up far too late, drinking red wine and chatting about riding plans, destinations and past adventures. It was past midnight when we went to bed in our tiny shipping container; we had packed and shipped our tent northwards with our bikes.
For the moment we would take buses to make our way south to the bottom of the world.
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……