El Calafate, Argentina.
The next week’s travel carried me through some of the most stunning places on earth:
Paso Verlika: A raw and rugged hiking route requiring 2 illegal border crossings (my 11th and 12th crossings between Chile and Argentina) through unknown high mountain terrain. All to avoid 100km of intensely windy pavement… well… and because this is what it’s all about — adventure, discovery and nature’s silent cacophony! (This route was shared with me by Campbell Goodwille, he’d found it here).
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: Among the most traveled parks in all of South America, and for good reason…
NOTE: Please take your time with the photos. I spent a lot of time trying to avoid overloading this post with too many pictures, but in the end I just couldn’t help myself! Each one conveys a unique momentary magic…
Rolling out of El Calafate at noon, I considered waiting and getting a jump on a longer ride the next day. But why? Just dragging my feet really, the ease of access to amenities can be addictive… The climb started immediately. First on steep paved roads in town, then gravel fading to dirt. At the entrance into the deep mountain valley, I reached a closed gate stating private property, Estancia Huyliche… first challenge, but easily resolved. The kind owner warmly welcomed me through so long as I kept the gates closed for cattle.
The climb was continuous and quite steep up to the first pass at just over 1000m. Then up and downs through very very muddy clay-like dirt road, leading to drivetrain clogs, tires locking against the frame, and a general sloppy mess of a ride. Right out of the gate, I had multiple technical failures. The small tear in my shorts’ crotch which I’d been ignoring grew to a gaping hole with a moment’s snag on the saddle. On a bumpy descent, one of my fork-mounted dry bags shook loose, immediately lodging itself between the front tire and fork, tearing a large hole in it and bleeding quinoa as if it had struck an artery. Moments later my right shoe sole tore completely in half from front to back, causing the shoe to peel up and around the inside of my arch. Not good for a cold, muddy day. I’d bought these Bontrager shoes only 2 months ago! Well, no more bike shops South of here, so I’ll have to limp them to the bottom… Plus the zipper on my tent is now virtually useless and it leaks steadily in the rain. What will go wrong next? How will I afford to get my mobile home functional again once I get back north? So much to replace. So much that is far beyond repair. Ugh. Everything is falling apart, but with about 2 weeks left to Ushuaia all I could do is try to hold it all together with strong will and weak duct tape. Luckily there deep magic to traveling roads like this. Vehicles around here are old, mostly lacking the capacity to roll through really tough terrain. Fresh tire tracks are rare. Silence is ubiquitous. Solitude is grand.
Many camelids accompanied the day’s ride. As opposed to their North Andean cousins called vicuñas that warn the herd of danger with a squeeky noise resembling a stuffed animal getting squeezed, guanacos express a characteristic “laughing” warning call, the only sound that pierced the gentle breeze throughout the day.
Eventually the ever-fading track dropped down to a river where it joined another old road coming up from the valley. Lots of steep climbs while traversing the undulating slopes.
The only signs of life around here were occasional aluminum-sided shacks, and most of those seemed either abandoned or only seasonally used for cattle herding. I marveled at that old bus, wondering how long it had been there, and how much worse the roads would have been when driving it all the way up here, apparently many years ago.
I loved watching the fading track demonstrate progressively less traffic, the re-growing grass within it got longer and greener as I continued up the valley.
Around 8pm I dropped around a corner to see the house that Campbell had informed me he’d stayed in when passing through this route (pictured far left).
The setting was epic, with huge mountains and cliffs surrounding me and a perfect river with clean water for cooking. The hour: late enough to stop. I set my tent up inside the tiny shed adjoining the shack, hearing creaks of the aluminum siding responding to the wind’s advances throughout the night. While there were no signs this shack was in current use (main door was padlocked shut, inside was only an old mattress laid up against a wall) I feared someone might appear, angry at having a squatter in their space. I likely wouldn’t have stayed here if Campbell hadn’t paved the way, I don’t actually like entering private spaces without permission, even if nobody is bothered by it. After a less-than-restful night’s sleep, tiny avian footsteps woke me up as they scampered across the thin aluminum roof just after sunrise. I immediately noticed a moving shadow cast against the gap under the shed door by the early morning light… Preparing for a potential confrontation I was relieved to be greeted peacefully by a curious cow!
I’ve been noticing a bit of tension with respect to this route. Campbell first discovered it through a blog called Bikes and Backpacks, doing the leg work to contact the writers and get the GPX file to follow. He sent me this route with some slight adjustments in a couple spots. He kindly shared exactly where I could stay and how to most easily cover the challenging terrain. So helpful, right? But there was something off… It takes away from the sense of discovery to know someone else just passed through here. A big contributor to the sense of adventure is entering the unknown, about where to sleep, what experience lays ahead and how to find the way. When that’s been precluded it feels a bit more like just following a fabricated factory line, despite how VERY few cyclists have passed through there. I reflected on the motto of Hampshire College (my alma mater): Non Satis Scire — to know is not enough. In this case it’s not quite accurate. I played with the Latin for a moment to come up with a more appropriate motto for traveling, arriving at the following:
Satis non Scire — It is enough not to know, or Saepe Melior non Scire — It is often better not to know. (not sure if my Latin grammar is correct here, feel free to correct me!)
Even if there is knowledge about certain places or experiences, sometimes it’s better to reinvent the wheel if your intention is discovery. The majority of our species learns to walk and talk, but that process of discovery is unique to each individual. They OWN their own discovery no matter how similar their process is to many others’. The problem in experiencing this sense of discovery and ownership arrises when we base our experiences on those of others, normalizing and comparing ourselves. I could walk down a trail that’s been travelled by millions but if I don’t know what’s around the corner I am discovering it, more so than being the second person to climb a mountain when the person prior has told me every detail of his/her experience up there. It is often better not to know. Powerful lessons are revealed in every moment… especially the challenging ones.
I’m really glad I followed the route. Not just to deepen this understanding, but to experience this place with my own eyes. While it’s predictably hard so far, I don’t find myself wondering why I’m doing it. The landscape is fabulous with huge canyons surrounding me and looming snow-capped mountains beyond them. There is no one here, except of course the odd shadow casting cow, a few scampering birds, and lots of guanacos.
I pushed off the following morning, literally. In fact, I didn’t actually hoist my leg OVER my saddle to attempt riding it for the first 4 hours of the day. An impossibly steep climb initiated the day’s travels, only to be followed by lava-filled valleys and scree fields preventing any form of actual bike “riding”. No worries. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and I was fortunate enough to tread through paradise, no matter the means.
Guanaco skeleton. Upon close investigation I found the cervical (neck) vertebrae intriguing. The amount of bony protrusions onto which dense muscle and ligament had been formed to support such a massive head at significantly horizontal angle… Made we want to see a giraffe’s neck bones!
Glancing back down at the valley through which I’d been dragging my rig all morning. In the upper slopes the rough rocky terrain transitioned into sopping wet, mossy mounds, the grade was beyond ludicrous. Hard to depict by photo, but it was a slow and sloppy zig zag up a steep ridge with lots of sliding back down, the bike falling over me more than once. Always an interesting challenge to shove a 90 pound, awkwardly-shaped object up a mountain. Sisyphus would be proud.
Reaching the high pass by mid-afternoon, I realized I was again standing alone atop the Chile/Argentina border. No signs, no documents. Just wind, snow and beauty!
Looking down the valley through which I’d be descending, looks totally rideable to me…. and it was!
Well, at least for a little while. Riding through the waterlogged marshlands below was a practice in leg strength, patience, and uncontrollable laughter at the absurdity of having a bike here. Kind of like riding through sand, grass and river all at the same time. Well, it was exactly that.
That said, I wouldn’t do it any other way. I felt a surprisingly powerful sense of camaraderie when I discovered this lone tire track ahead of me, heading down the field. Based on Campbell’s gpx file, he’d already crossed to the other side of the river by this point, so the tracks were from some other bike… Whose bike? I would never know. I must have forded that damned river about 15 times as it sinuously snaked down the unceasing valley in order to shave distance.
Two hours later, the slope flattened into a grand cattle pasture, the grass dry enough in places to pedal. In the distance I saw a small structure with a green roof. Campbell had mentioned this one too: cozy little house all by its lonsome in a big valley. Given my whole lower body was soaking wet due to river crossings, I welcomed an opportunity to get out of the wind for a little respite…
Inside the unlocked doorway I found a fully-furnished little cabin: wood stove, kitchen, even some old beds in the corners. But not enough stuff inside to convey someone was actually LIVING in it. No clothes, no personal articles. It was weird. Almost like a summer vacation cabin out in the middle of nowhere. There was even an incredibly tempting, unopened bottle of wine.
Of course I didn’t use the stove. I didn’t open the wine. But the comfort of this little gem simply could not go underutilized. So despite arriving to the green house by mid-afternoon with at least 4 more hours of light to continue on, I quickly realized this opportunity must be taken. So I stayed. Laid out all my wet clothing to dry in the cool afternoon light, pulled out my fishing gear (20 meters of line with a spinner hook on the end wrapped around a bike water bottle) and sought to catch me some dinner…
Well, that didn’t go all that well. An hour was quickly spent in casting, re-casting, and occasionally wading into the river to release my stuck lure from under some rock. Pasta it is.
I spent a lovely, leisurely evening reading a book, resting in comfort as the wind whipped by outside. I guess walls have their merits at times!
I rolled early out of the cabin on a faded 2 track. Very faded. Most of it looked like this: slightly less bushy grass in a 3 meter wide band that extended through the valley through some undulating hills and troughs. I’ll take it. Mostly rideable, and sometimes pretty fun! A few more knee-deep river crossings (I don’t bother to take off my shoes for these anymore. It’s not cold enough and I’m too lazy.), and I hit a real gravel road after crossing the large Estancia La Cumbre.
Remember those patagonian thistles from Paso Roballos? Replete with bumblebees here as well!
The flowy dirt track wound through magnificent country as it descended toward Rio Baguales.
Just shallow enough to ride without falling in. Lovely.
A few turns later I came upon a beautiful little ranch, the Awasi Lodge. Knowing I was currently illegal with regards to my visa status after crossing into Chile the previous day, I rode right past the ranch and hoped to be unseen. No go. Some men were loading a truck and all turned to see me as I rode by. I waved but didn’t stop…
Moments later I noticed a large white pickup following behind. I had reached a small barbed-wire gate (seeming to be their property boundary) and was attempting to open it when the truck pulled up…
“Where are you going?” The driver asked as he made his way over.
“That way,” pointing to the large valley ahead of me. I figured the less information I gave about my plan would be to my benefit.
“You can’t pass through here. It’s private property and if the local police saw me letting you through it to cross the border here I could get in trouble. You’ll have to turn around.”
Um… I’d just spent the last 3 days dragging my bike over the pass to get here. I sheepishly pleaded with the man, stating that I didn’t even have enough food to get back the way I came. If he could possibly let me pass, I promised I would not tell anyone I saw him, even if caught I would say nobody was there to stop me.
Considering this for a moment, and understanding the challenge I faced in trying to return from whence I came, he told me I could indeed pass, but I would be the LAST biker he would let cross his property. I thanked him profusely, but didn’t wait around for him to change his mind. After promising to close all the cattle gates behind me I bid him farewell and pushed onward. The faded 2 track all but disappeared over the next mile of terrain. Clearly it was just an access road within the local ranch, and the owners had no need to go past a certain point. Hopping one more fence and fording one more small river, I reached the above signpost, the only marker of the international border I was currently straddling.
Upon crossing the border I was immediately greeted by a huge field of prickly, sharp bushes that extended densely as far as I could see. Glancing down at my map, I realized I’d have to go straight through them. The next 3 kilometers consisted of a combination of pushing my bike, occasionally grunting at full volume to free it when a pedal or wheel would catch on a bush. The density eventually decreased over time, and I could actually ride my bike, weaving through the prickly thickets.
Having sufficiently bloodied my ankles on the prickly bushes, I reached a lone gravel road. From here it would be about 40km to reach the highway. Given my slightly slightly Eastbound track, I had a deliciously fierce tailwind jamming me South. Normally I would count my lucky stars, enjoying the gift of a free ride. But this experience was foreboding, as I would have to turn due West upon reaching the highway, and that meant a direct headwind for the next 40km to reach the border after I’d already been riding all day. NOT EXCITED. But the whipping wind did not invite tent camping and I was low on food and water, there would be no known supplies until reaching the Chilean border town of Cerro Castillo. Given only 2 hours of light left, I battled the raging wind to beat nightfall.
I breezed through customs (if they’d only known…) and asked them if by any chance I could camp in a wind-protected spot behind their building. I’d been told by a few cyclists that they’d been given a room to stay in at this customs office… but for me, at least today, no go. Perhaps those amazing and kind customs officers are concentrated at the more rural, less-used crossings. It carried an important lesson about expectation. I’ve been delighted when by total surprise I’ve been offered free lodging by previous customs officers down here. But now that I EXPECTED to be offered housing, and wasn’t, I was actually disappointed! Expectations are dangerous sometimes. Now after dark, I reached a totally silent and shut down Cerro Castillo. A sleepy town, it apparently had already begun its nightly slumber. No food for me. Alas. I did see one person on the street who suggested I find Casa Maritza, a woman who ran a low-key B&B out of her spare bedroom. Much random door knocking finally led me to her house, and she agreed to let me camp in her backyard for a minimal fee. She was also so kind as to fix me a little snack upon hearing I’d missed the grocery store’s open hours. After 130 challenging kilometers, I collapsed into my tent.
I awoke early the next day, excited to be a mere 55 kilometer from Torres del Paine! After a lovely breakfast and coffee with Maritza, I stocked up at the small and quite overpriced market and headed toward the park. While most of the road approaching the park was smoothly paved, I did notice a dirt track peeling off to the left at one point. Not marked on my map, but I followed it for a km or so in case it might be a fun and different back way into the park. Although it ended up just being the entrance to a large ranch, I did get to have the amazing moment of cresting a ridge and seeing all of the big peaks of Torres del Paine revealed in a magical instant!
I found this sign hilarious. With insane views in all directions for the last number of kilometers, I loved the idea that now, all of a sudden, was a “photography zone”. What has the last bunch of distance been, swiss cheese?!?
Sorry guanacos! didn’t mean to scare you!
Dropping down to Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lake).
Reaching the lake by noontime, I had all the time in the world to take some reflection selfies with my little tripod. I remember to do this so rarely! I hoped I might ride around the far side of the lake to avoid the highway for a bit, but a large cliff prevented that option. Back on the road!
Not even the slightest breeze. The water was statuesque in it’s stillness.
Yes. It’s upside down. Good eye.
Pink flamingos? Yes. Yes they are.
Shortly after the lake I reached a small touristy restaurant that appears to feed large tour bus groups. Amazingly one of the waiters, after showing me where to fill my water bottles, told me that down in the field behind the property there was a camping area for hikers and bikers (for a fee of course). I threw all my bags and gear in my tent and set off for an afternoon exploration into the park…
You know what they say, “Big river — big waterfalls.” Well, I don’t know that they say that.
Heading up an old dirt road toward Lago Azul, I saw a small sign for a hiking trail off of the road, “Lago Azul, 8km” I could ride to the lake on single track?!? Sweet! Given that I’d not yet officially entered the park I had no reason to suspect that bikes weren’t allowed on trails right here, so tested my theory. Not allowed, but not easy! Super steep climb up from the road…
After reaching the lake I decided to follow another random trail I found through the hillsides on the park’s edge. Not often hiked for sure, but a sweet view!
I didn’t see any humans for hours, just a fun, flowy single track with absurd views.
In a grand slope of only glowing green grass, a white dot stands out pretty significantly. From a hundred meters away I could see it, preparing myself to be angry to find a piece of trash. I was so pleased to find a random lone mushroom, almost identically imitating a large marshmallow the moment after you let it catch fire on the stick after roasting it!!
After a few hours of cattle-trail bushwhacking, I headed back down to the dirt road and eventually my tent. I loved watching the sun descend behind the Torres!
Upon returning to the small campsite my single tent had multiplied to 4. A group of 5 young Belgian cyclists also headed South. They were all nice enough, but only spoke in French, so not much conversation. Alas. A bit strange to share such tight space behind the wind-wall and not talk very much, but you can’t force connection.
I woke up some time later to complete darkness, the loud noises beside my tent were those of the Belgian cyclists loudly packing up their gear. I have a pet peeve about people waking up early in public places like hostels and campgrounds and not doing every possible thing to be as quiet as possible as a courtesy. They were joking and singing and laughing. I thought to say something, then realized my alarm would be going off in only 30 more minutes. I’d planned to roll early so I could pass the entry gate to the park (1km ahead) before the office would open in order to avoid the exorbitant park fee. Nothing illegal here, just utilizing prior knowledge that no admissions are charged during the nighttime hours. Given that I’d only be riding THROUGH the park during a single morning, the fee seemed unreasonable. I dragged myself out of bed as the first hints of dawn light caused the stars to lose their brightness.
Once packed I bundled up into warm layers for the cold night air, watching the brilliant stellar systems above fade into the pre-dawn light. I silently rode past the park gate confirming upon arrival that there was no risk of getting stopped. Everything was pitch black and shut down. Just past the gate the climbs started. Initiating a day with an 1100’ climb in slow rising temperature force regular clothing regulation. Freezing air and burning hot body. I passed the Belgians atop the climb, they’d staked a high lookout from which to watch the sunrise. I considered stopping somewhere as well, making a second cup of coffee and watching the light show. But I realized, so clearly, that to me the most stunning beauty was watching the vista unfold with the transitioning light. The hues changed from blue to fuchsia to blazing orange as the park’s peaks caught the sun’s first rays.
Sunrise, sunset. The most magical time to be outside. It’s like watching a film you’ve seen hundreds of times. You know the plot. But this film is different every time you watch it.
Playing with a panorama. The only way to partially represent this brilliant morning as it unfolded before me.
The road roller-coastered for the next 20km, up, down winding, dropping, all fast and smooth. No cars had begun driving through the park yet and so I was totally alone, less the biting frost in the morning air surrounding me. . So in that silence of pre-tourism within this magical place, this is everything.
A few kilometers ahead, I noticed a turnoff to a mirador. Following it to a locked gate, I rode around it on a fun and windy trail through recovering burnt forest. All that surrounded my immediate area were twisty dead trunks and branches of the wooden victims of an old forest fire, only the tall golden grass was growing in its wake.
Curving around a small pond frozen in it’s morning stillness, I stopped for a moment and followed nature’s instructions, “Reflect.”
And so I did.
The two track faded to a single track trail that got pretty damn fun for a couple more kms, little rock piles to negotiate and steep punches of vertical to jam up.
It ended at a fantastic view of the whole TDP range — the cuernos (horns, to the right), the glacier (left), the whole deal. I’d passed a couple of vans unloading hikers at the gate, but knowing I was the only biker and therefor much fast I’d have the viewpoint to myself for a while… Out came the flutes. Between the first tin whistle I got back in Durango Colorado and the quenas from Peru, I’ve had wind instruments for moments like these all along. I only play them while alone in nature, as I’m not that skilled and my purpose for playing is purely personal. A few peaceful musical moments with the mountains, then the first distance voices approached from behind. I bashfully packed up the flutes before the hikers came into sight, almost rushing so they wouldn’t see that it was me who’d been making the sound. Sometimes you just don’t feel like explaining yourself to anyone.
I rolled back down the trail, enjoying the fast and technical flow as I wiggled past a few groups of hikers. I really love mountain biking! Yet another component of my excitement to return stateside. There are few places I’ve ridden with the kinds of purpose-built mountain bike trails which are all over the US. I missed it. Luckily I’d just received notice from a small bike company, Advocate Cycles, that they’d accepted my application to their ambassador program for 2017, and I’d be receiving a new Advocate Hayduke upon return! Having ridden a fully rigid (no suspension), steep-geometry mountain bike these last few years, I was excited to get on a slacker hardtail and shred some bike trails back North! But for now, this was pretty okay too.
Okay. It was late morning and I had 115km to Puerto Natales, and an estimated 5000′ of climbing. Could I make it? Should be plenty of time but all depends on road conditions. And my energy. Time to get pedaling!
Final view of the Torres across a small lake. The afternoon clouds were rolling in, closing out the visibility just in time to send me Southward.
I was tired. Dragging ass really. I’d not slept enough the night before and my body wasn’t happy about it. I started eating all the food I had, digging to the bottom of my food bag for reserves. I needed calories. Energy. Then around another corner the rain started. Soaking and freezing, I pushed on. Around another bend I heard a loud hissing sound… shit. Front tire. Not sealing with tubeless liquid… Luckily I had a reserve of extra stan’s and squeezed some in to the valve. Surprisingly quick stop, lucky because I truly hate fixing a flat in the rain. Low energy. Washboarded and muddy road. Steep hills. Just keep going.
The final 18km were paved and fast, slightly downhill AND downwind into Puerto Natales. Arriving in town just before twilight I was exhausted, but happy to land in what appeared to be a cute little coastal town.
Lots of sea birds fishing in the calm salty waters.
Rolling around town in search of lodging as it was getting dark, I found a “camping” called Casa de Lilli. Patagonian tourist prices. It included breakfast however and there was a lively and positive energy among the travelers within, so I bit. I packed up from the small backyard campground the following morning expecting to jam onward toward Punta Arenas, the Southernmost city in Chile. After stocking up on groceries for the next 3 days of backroad travel, I sat in the park repacking them, slowly. I just didn’t “feel” like leaving. It felt rushed. And for no reason. After the last week of intense travel days since El Calafate, I needed another day to rest. I turned around and returned to the campground for another night.
Mostly young backpacking travelers there. I felt old. But I tried to stay open. My crotchety old biker vibe could use some softening and so I set an intention for kindness, willingness, non-judgement. One of the backpackers seemed oddly familiar and I could not tell why. I told him so and he pulled out a 10,000 peso bill. Aha! He was a spitting young image of Arturo Prat Chacón, a famous Chilean sea captain featured on the bill! After a few hours however the young traveler vibe started to annoy me. There was a cool vs. uncool thing happening and while I have at times strived for acceptance within such circles, I just didn’t care. I left and went for a walk to discover the town instead…
How’s this for a mail truck?!? Small town. Small mail service. I’ve seen these custom Correos de Chile bikes around town, but wasn’t sure they were actually used to deliver mail. They are!
Dropping down to the seaside boardwalk, I found a really cool skate park with ramps and bowls. Somehow the walls seemed lower and less scary than at other parks I’ve encountered, and I got inspired. I came back with my bike and attempted a bit of park riding. Super fun!
One final meal in town, and I went to sleep early in preparation for another rugged route toward Punta Arenas…