Battle of the Brush: A Funky Border Crossing, Then Back Again

2/15/2017.

Valle de Cochamo, Chilean Patagonia. 

Today was my first morning waking up on my own in over a week, after riding with Brendan for one of the longest continuous sections of shared riding I’d done so far on this journey. I reflected on how odd that fact must be for all the couples who have been out touring for months, even years, always with the same partner. What a different experience that must be. I couldn’t even imagine it, not because it didn’t interest me, but because it’s simply not how my life has unfolded. I felt curious as to whether such a person, be it friend or primary partner, was out there in which our passions, speeds, interests and connection led us to share a journey indefinitely. Would I recognize them were we ever to meet?

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 Waking up under the shady jungle rainforest within the Valle de Cochamo, it was cloudy. Quite cloudy. While I had enough food and supplies to hike up the 13km valley trail to La Junta and maybe even do a day hike from there, I just wasn’t quite feeling it and the weather served as my confirmation: I learned that 3 straight days of rain were in the forecast, which was substantiated by the droves of climber types who were descending from the valley to seek comfort until the rains passed. Once my gear was packed I stood with bike at the road in to Valle de Cochamo. I could risk the weather and take 1-2 days extra to explore a potential rain/mud fest, or say yes to other opportunities down the road. I opted to continue South. I can’t say yes to every single opportunity in this period as I have precious weeks left before reaching Ushuaia before Winter, and this was one opportunity I felt okay about letting slip past. Luckily, I’ve gotten better over these years at reminding myself that within a couple of hours after making whatever choice feels so substantial, I’ll have moved on and forgotten about what I might have missed anyway, occupied by the choices that still lay ahead. 

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The Southbound road paralleled the Estuario de Reloncaví for 30km, a long and undulating, profoundly dusty road. So dusty that I was later inspired to search for, and discover, the longest word published in the Oxford Dictionary:

Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis: Lung disease caused by inhalation of very fine ash and sand dust.

Every vehicle driving by kicked up such immense clouds of dust that they took up to a minute to fully settle. Luckily some gorgeous glaciated peaks off in the distance and the enormous beautiful lake views managed to keep my spirits up until I could pull onto a side-road and save my lungs. It appeared as though the 3-5 day storm was isolated within the Valle de Cochamo, or so I hoped as a slight fear of missing out back there flowed through…

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Looking up the Rio Puelo from the large bridge. Patagonia, I LOVE YOU!

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 A quick stop in Rio Puelo town for supplies. I had recently decided to follow a section of foot trail that would cross over to Argentina, ridden recently by Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlin Boyle. It appeared to be mostly rideable road with a 10-20 mile long hiking trail of unknown condition. Hard to plan. I needed enough food to get me to Lago Puelo town over on the Argentina side and I didn’t know how hard the trail route I’d planned would be, so I packed 3 days of food just in case. After much snacking on fabulous enchiladas of various flavors, I looked at my clock in time to realize I had only an hour to board the last ferry across the lake, 13km of hilly dirt road away. I powered through some intense climbs and made it to the dock with 10 minutes to spare. Perfect timing!

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Once aboard the small ferry I met Manuel, warm Chileno who was also heading to Argentina, but by foot. He also had no idea how long the crossing would take. We both reveled in the awesome colors of the lake water, the towering mountains. This place is magic. 

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The ferry let us all out on a tiny doc, a narrow dirt road would be the only way onward from here. This road was similarly dusty to my morning endeavor, but luckily it’s dead-end at the dock made for a quiet and peaceful ride once I let the ferry traffic pass. The road was by no means easy however.  Endless steep climbs and descents through the undulating terrain made for slow progress. Luckily a beautiful river crossing presented itself early on and after a leisurely lunch I jumped in to refresh. The water was PERFECT temperature and so clean I could just drink and swim at the same time. In terms of the immaculate water, and for so many other reasons… I love Chile. 

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By early evening I passed through Llanada Grande, a small village in the mountains with what appeared to be a wealthy local community. Big houses and lots of construction. I was curious about the story here, given how hard this place is to access. While grabbing a soda at the local store, I met 3 young bike tourists who were also planning the international crossing.  They were on cheap 26” wheeled bikes with skinny tires and a bunch of shit strapped loosely to their rear racks. I wondered how they’d fare on the trail crossing to Argentina… I wondered the same for myself actually, but at least my bike was more set up for that sort of thing. They were trying to get their clogged camp stove working, and I got to feel helpful as it was an easy fix with the right tools. But they felt a little immature energetically for me, so rather than suggesting we join forces for the crossing I bid them luck and continued on for a stretch in hopes of the perfect camp site. 

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On my map was a large lake in the distance, Lago Azul, and seemed the perfect spot to find camp via a dirt track. I followed the rough and hilly dirt 2-track for about 30 mintutes before it ended at a private property sign that said ABSOLUTELY NO ACCESS to Lago Azul. I guess my idea wasn’t that original! I turned around and ducked into a huge open field about 1km back from the lake shore to find plenty of open space and fantastic views of the looming peaks that laid ahead.  An enchanting spot and I was totally alone. I loved it. 

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I awoke gently to the early morning light before the sun had a chance to summit the far mountainside, the cool grey air threatening precipitation but managing to hold off, for now. Packing up, I rode along the dirt road towards the final two settlements before the international border trail began. First stop; Primer Corral. Never actually saw this place. Came across a military settlement which I thought was it, but my map said further. Unfortunately when I lined myself up with Primer Corral on my map, I was just amidst a long steep climb, no town to speak of. So I pushed on up and over and down and back up and more to get to Segundo Corral. From there I’d have to find a boat ride across the Rio Puelo to begin the trail.

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Evidently this place, as so many others are, is in danger of dams being built, threatening the nature and wildlife in the area. Glad to see there are people working to protect it. 

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 Pristine blue/green waters flowing through narrow canyons. Spectacular. 

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Out of the corner of my eye, noticed this little guy hitching on my backpack strap. Closer investigation revealed amazing and rich colors!

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A couple of km before Segundo Corral I noticed a line of cars parked aside the road. Upon passing them I came to understand why. The road became incredibly steep and rocky and uneven, a true jeep road, as it descended to the river’s edge. Clearly the only vehicles that were travelling on this section of road and beyond were just ATVs and high cleareance 4x4s. I reached the river, walked across a sketchy narrow foot bridge (sign reads, “Cross one at a time, bridge can’t handle much weight.”). 

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 Following a complex system of trails through “town” (which was really just a few farms as far as I found), I got back on fun and rocky ATV roads for a while, eventually reaching a sign high above the trail stating, “Segundo Corral Port”.

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I turned a corner to see the port, essentially a small beach with a sign stating the rough schedule during which time a local boat owner ferried people across the beautiful glowing green Rio Puelo.  The weather varied from grey to downpours, and as I waited for the captain’s lunch break to end, a small family arrived for a fishing vacation. They kindly offered me an apple and a beer (deeply enjoyed I must say), and we all chatted to pass the wet and chilly time. After a while, the three young bikers I’d helped the day prior arrived. They seemed a bit tattered, but still in good spirits. 

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Our captain. This kind man has lived on the Rio his whole life, fishing and farming. I wondered what he thought of us bikers, passing through this challenging terrain in precisely the WRONG vehicles. Alas, he was kind and generous, offering many intriguing facts and history about the area as we chugged our way up the river toward the Chilean customs office. 

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After he dropped us at a similarly desolate riverside “port”, we began the hike-a-bike up a 300’ embankment to reach the customs office, the only building anywhere in sight, only accessible by boat and horseback. 

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I was soaked through. I’ve yet to find rain gear that is actually waterproof over long extended rains. Most seem to eventually soak through, then serving more as wind protection and slight insulation than anything else. So upon reaching the warm and dry customs building, I sat for an extra few minutes to enjoy my last comfort for the day. 

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 Following the hiking trail out of the customs office, I relished in seeing the little sign directing soggy travelers over to the next country. 

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I was surprised to find the trail following a gentle grade, and totally rideable. Even fun! 

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It twisted along the hillside as it traversed the river valley, those glowing waters peaking through the trees on occasion. 

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Within moments of taking in the fun trail, it got harder. Steeper, many more rocks and obstacles. It quickly deteriorated into such narrow, dense, wooded trail filled with rock vomit and downed trees that I was lucky to execute the odd pedal stroke every few minutes. The rest was walking and bike-shoving. I’d been recently labeled a “grunter” by Brendan during our time on Puyehue and upon consideration, I wholeheartedly agreed. I make a lot of noise as I drag and shove that bike up the steep hike-a-bikes and when I have to use all the strength available in order go gain a mere 1-2 feet of progress up a steep and clumsy trail.

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I began noticing a dull roar that seemed to gain in volume as I continued along my route, grunting and yelling. I reached the source of the roar, a raging cascading drainage clamoring down the steep forested hillside. at first it appeared that I’d have to ford the thing, which I was extremely nervous to do. This was not just white water, it was full on raging death water. I’d be really nervous to ford it without a 90lb bicycle in tow. Turning a corner, I saw a flimsy bridge used to cross it. 3 narrow tree trunks laid unevenly across the death current with an awkward rail of sorts for stability. At times like these I’ve learned to not think too much. Just go. It will only get harder to set across a scary thing the longer I wait. And there’s not much to plan out, just put the bike on your shoulder and start those baby steps across, making sure not to slip on the very slippery trunks into the angry flow beneath.

Once across I saw the next hurdle immediately before me: the trail didn’t just go up. It went up a WALL. 20’ up of hands-and-knees slippery mud scuffling… and that’s without a bike. Any misstep or significant slip would have slid me not only back down the wall but directly into that raging death water. So every time I began to slip I had to fight, with all I had, to grab on to anything I could for dear life. This would not have been so difficult, again, without the 90lb extremely awkwardly shaped and weighted object I’d so intelligently elected to drag though these woods. Finally arriving to the top of the wall, I could resume grunting my way through incredibly difficult trail, albeit not-cliff hauntingly so.

Very curious as to how those three guys on their skinny tired, panniered bikes were faring…

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While the trail’s challenges didn’t ease for a long while, the views did at least ease my frustration a bit. 

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It’s amazing how similar some images in Patagonia are to the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada.

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At long last the trail widened and the gradient settled. I crossed the first sign that would have welcomed me to Chile from the other direction…

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Moments later I was welcomed to Argentina! My 5th crossing between the two countries thus far, second of which on foot trail! 

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Almost immediately after the Arg entry sign, the trail became rideable again. Unfortunately my front brake problem that had caused so much challenge with Brendan (no braking power and randomly locking my front wheel) had gotten worse again. So it would go like this: reach a steep descent. Use all hand strength available to both brakes (neither of which were fully operational by now), get to a flatter spot but not be able to pedal forward since the front brake would not release, lean back to avoid endo-ing over the handlebars. I had to rock the bike forward and back to get it to let go after every front brake lever depression. Soooooooooooo frustrating. So I began practicing seeing how much of the trail I could ride, slowly, gently, without using my front brake at all. As it turned out: not much.

At least I didn’t have to use the brakes on the climbs. So I took the opportunity to pedal though every climb that was remotely rideable. On one such climb, I was giving it all I had to huff my way up a steep slope. I suddenly noticed to my right that the trail was actually quite exposed (the view had been absconded by thick brush) with a signfiicant drop off just about a foot beyond the trail’s edge. I didn’t pay it much heed until my front tire got stuck on a big boulder in the trail. I unconsciously used both brakes to control my approach to try to track stand, then bunny hop onto the rock, but when I was halfway onto it, that damn front brake would not release… I could not pedal forward with the brake engaged and started to loose my balance. Of course at that moment my right foot was stuck in the pedal (been meaning to lube that…) and I couldn’t pull it off to gain stability, so I fell to the right… off the trail and over the edge of a SIGNFICANTLY high precipice…  

Wanna know what you’re missing by riding on pavement?

When the falling motion of me tumbling ass over tea kettle came to a halt, I was hanging off of my bike, looking UP at the ground, some 30’ below me. Luckily the bike got caught on some vines that were all that kept it and me from falling off of the cliff. The handlebars had caught on my jacket, so I was being slowly but increasingly strangled by my own clothing as my weight dragged me downward. Hanging there, upside down looking up at the forest floor below, I talked myself slowly and calmly through how to untangle myself, find an arm hold in case the bike gave way, then climb OVER the bike to the ledge without letting it fall off, then dragging it with screams and grunts of maximal effort back up to the trail.

The hard part: going back for my water bottle that fell off the bike! 

I was in the middle of the woods and had seen nobody for hours. Not sure if those 3 cyclists made it this far or turned around. I doubt anyone would have found me or even thought to look down that big cliff given the thick overgrown, vine-covered forest. I’d also managed to forget to inform anyone of my route plans before setting out on this trail. Bad idea. 

Moral of the story: I promise to tell someone where I’m going before setting off on future bushwhacking adventures.

Lesson learned.

In the aftermath it was quite interesting to notice how not only was I deeply effected by how lucky I felt to have emerged such a catastrophe uninjured, but I had so much adrenaline in my system that my short-term memory seemed to be nonfunctional. I couldn’t remember where I put the water bottle I’d thrown up onto the trail. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with that oil bottle that had fallen out of my bike bag and I’d some how managed to catch before it fell off the cliff. All I had mental space for in those moments was staying alive and all else faded into into the background. very interesting. 

 

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After myriad more bike heaves heaves, ho’s and tosses over down trees, I reached the open field of the Gendarmeria Argentina (Customs). Just as I arrived, I heard a voice yell, “Scott!”

It was Manuel, the hiker from the boat yesterday! Having hitched the entire length of road I’d ridden the previous day, he’d hiked the trail with his girlfriend and arrived there hours before. There was actually quite a large group of hikers all camped out in a small area by the Gendarmeria. Very interesting. I headed to the office to get my passport stamping out of the way and returned to deal with my quickly plummeting body temperature (Did I mention it was raining during most of this hike?). Surrounded by happy hikers who’d been comfortably in their dry cloths for hours, I hurriedly tore my wet clothes off and threw on all the dry layers I had. Set up the soaking wet tent and damp sleeping bag, cooked some pasta and collapsed. 

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 I packed up my still wet (thus heavy) tent and left the hikers behind at the Gendarmeria. I made it about 1km before the uphill shoving continued. Up and over a steep pass, I began the descent down what would normally be really fun and rideable single track. But my brakes were at their worst so it was a stressful and dangerous shitshow. At one point my front brake was locked in engagement just after trying to control the 1 1/2 foot drop off of a root system, causing me to endo over the the handlebars. Not a big deal but this time snapped my bar end in half. The same exact place on the same side where the last one broke back in Mexico over a year ago. Fuck. I hate that. I so quickly returned to awareness about how much I use those damned bar ends to climb. I felt so weak without the leverage of repositioning my hands there. I happened to have been carrying some metal epoxy and electrical tape I’d been given a while back, so attempted a glue/tape job to stabilize it, with no luck. Looks like I’m riding to Ushuaia with a broken bar end. 

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 Eventually the trail opened to smooth, flowy wide single track. A welcome change. 

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 The trail descended onto a huge beach, surprisingly with a variety of bike tire tracks along it. I wondered if it was travelers who’d made the full crossing or just local Argentinian bikers who wanted to ride that last smooth section of trail I’d just enjoyed…

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Nice views either way. I had to ford a few small rivers that bisected the beach, no big whoop after the shit show I just crossed. 

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And within a few minutes I was back on a paved road, heading through the small town of Lago Puelo! Big sigh. I stuffed my face with cheap food and warmed/dried myself at a local gas station for a few hours. Argentinian gas stations are pretty cool. Most have seating areas, cafes and free wifi. Great resource for weary cyclists… 

I finally rolled our of town around 4:30pm with hopes of slamming out the 68km to a cabin that my friend Campbell had stayed in a few weeks back, supposedly build and occupied at one time by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid while evading the law in Argentina. But everything slowed me down. The wind. The rain. Then I realized I was low on Argentinian cash and stopped that the ATM which wouldn’t let me take out cash. Nor would the next. I eventually found a supermarket that took cards at which to buy extra food in case I couldn’t withdraw nor use it at another market int he future. More weight to carry with this exhausted body.

Stopped at another gas station around 7:45pm. No way I’m going to make it to that cabin with 27km to go, it was 8:10 by the time I rolled out and had more hills to climb. The light was fading fast. But I just kept riding. and riding. It got dark. Then, of course, started POURING. But I kept riding. The paved road had minimal shoulder and among the dysfunctional aspects of my rig was my dynamo-powered headlight. So with tiny flashlight I tried to make myself as visible as possible to traffic in the dark, rainy night. Eventually as the final shreds of visibility were gone, I looked down at my map to realize I was AT the curve where I’d marked the cabin was to be. Perfect!

But, of course, mo cabin was in sight. I rolled back and forth along the highway looking nervously around in case Campbell’s waypoint was off by a bit. With complete faith, I followed the only side road off the highway, and discovered a small sign, “Cabaña de Butch Cassidy” !!! YAY! What I saw before me, however, was a tiny 6×6’ shack. No door to close, trash on the inside,  barely enough room to lay inside, never mind fit the bike. Was this THE cabin? NO. Couldn’t be. I continued on along a random 2 track after hoisting the bike over a locked gate and after another kilometer of hopeful, rain doused hiking, another much larger cabin stood before me. it almost seemed too nice though. New doors on a very old structure. But no lights. I peeked in and the place was completely open and empty. Just bare floors. But the door was open, so I walked in… 

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Now inside Butch’s cabin I was only accompanied by a family of bats, squeaking at my rudely interrupting their slumber. I set up my tent inside to avoid potential bat dive-bombings, again peeled on my soaking wet clothes, and collapsed yet again. Incredibly appreciative of having a dry roof over my head and dry ground on which to sleep. It was so curious to reflect on the contrast of this day. From an Argentnian border patrol campsite in the middle of a hiking trail to sleeping in the silent and almost haunted feeling cabin that had once been occupied by one of the most famous bank robbers in US history. This is living! 

 

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Butch’s cabin. I rolled out early in case there were caretakers of the cabin I might upset by being there. Leaving no trace of my presence I rode back out the lonely 2-track. 

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Returning through the gate, I gazed back at that tiny little shack. No wonder I thought it was the cabin. By darkness it was the only structure in sight. Glad I took a chance and kept the faith! 

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The day began with fatigue. I needed to rest soon. It had been 13 days of continuous and very difficult riding since leaving Pucon. Soon. Tonight to Trevelin, then tomorrow to Futa. Another 30km of slogging along a dirt road, I entered PN Los Alerces. In reference to the Alerce tree, also known as Lahuan, they are among the oldest trees in the world, some as much as 4000 years old.

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Upon reaching the park gate, I asked if it was necessary to pay the full park fee (quite expensive as I remember) given I was planning to traverse the whole park that day and camp just beyond it. No dice. 

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I paid my overpriced entry fee and rode through what was luckily truly fantastic terrain through enormous gorgeous lakes with snow-capped peaks above. 

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The sun came and went throughout the day’s ride through Los Alerces, the road through which was quite beautiful (even got to ride some small sections of single track!), but I was struck by a high volume of luxury tourist infrastructure as I passed many signs to private resorts located at choice spots along the enormous lakes. 

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Riding on, I focused on the mountains, the forests, the lakes. Beautiful!

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As late afternoon became early evening the winds picked up. Not just simple gentle breezes. INTENSE gail force gusts which luckily for me tended to come from behind. Looking across the lakes I’d see frequent clouds of watery mist barreling across them as the gusts carried the whitecaps airborne. 

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Given the dense tourist infrastructure in the park, I’d not noticed a lot of places to just be by the lakes, away from development. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. But it was time to camp and I luckily noticed a tiny foot path leading down a bank from the road… Following it, I landed on a beautiful rocky beach with stellar, completely undeveloped views of the mountains across the enormous Lago Futaleufquen! I once again reflected on how incredibly blessed I am to be on this journey in general, but also to the power of following random tiny trails in the woods that might (and often do) lead to treasures like this.

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Walking along the beach in search of a less rocky tent spot, I noticed beautiful knotty trees by the lakeside, many with various colors of bark meeting in artful patterns. 

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Eventually found a soft, flat spot to camp under an enormous alerce tree. 

Looking up at the racing clouds that evening, I considered how lucky I was, and am, to experience these moments. 

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I started the next day in a  rainstorm. Entire floor of the tent was soaking with water, the foot of the tent had about 1” of standing water in it. Not good. Lucky nothing got damaged. Not sure how to solve that problem of a leaky floor… I packed it all up soaking and threw it in the bags. I rolled out on a dirt back road to get back to the “main” highway toward the Chilean border via a shortcut. Cutting through a small town, it was total washboard with soaking puddles and sideways wind rain. Yay. 

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Excited to get back on pavement to the border, I was frustrated to find that the main road was more of the same. Another 30km of this to Futa. Okay, grit and bear it. 

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Confluence of Rio Chico and Rio Futaleufu. Beautiful colors!

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A quick exit stamp from Argentina, only 2 days after entering. 6th Arg/Chile border to date…

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A few more seemingly endless winding hills to the border crossing and just as I came upon it the rough, washboarded dirt road instantly switched to fresh pavement. It feels like a bit of a “screw you” from Chile, rubbing it in the face of Argentina that their highway infrastructure has so much more funding.

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I rolled into the town square of Futaleufu, a town widely famous for some of the biggest and best rafting in the world. I’d be meeting up with Guillermo, my now old friend whom I’d first met in Mexico then again in Pucon, as he was working for a guiding outfit here and wanted to show me the magic of this place. We had even discussed him leading me down the enormous and highly dangerous river in a tandem kayak… but I’ll tell you all about that in the next post… 

4 Responses

  1. Nicholas Gault
    | Reply

    Hanging off your bike off that cliff….. What a moment that must have been!!! Did you take any photos of the cliff after?

    • Scott Pauker
      | Reply

      Well, it’s not like I got hit by lightening 😉

      No photos. I was so pumped with adrenaline I had no extra capacity for chronicling the experience!

  2. Israel Choike
    | Reply

    Malditos frenos!!!

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