5. El Calafate to Coyhaique (Carretera Austral Part 1)

It turns out I lied. I´m now in the town of Coyhaique halfway through the Carretera Austral and decided it was a good time for a rest. Speaking in relative terms for the region, this is a full fledged city actually.

At first I was planning to hold out on posting anything until I finish the Carretera in two weeks. However so much has happened that I´m already going to have to shorten some things down from the hand-written journal that I keep.

It also seems that my already bad handwriting (which I blame on being left handed) gets unreadable even to myself after 6 hours of mountain biking – so I´ll need to rely on this online journal to recall this trip in the future……….

Leaving the town of El Calafate, it was a hard two day ride to El Chalten on windy pavement. But rolling up to this small hiking-oriented town at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy was well worth the swear words in the air. Spending 2 1/2 great sunny days in the area, I was able to get in my allotted share of hiking, biking and general fun.

During my time at the El Chalten campsite I was welcomed by two familiar Swiss faces, both Stefan and Nedo were there together and were also accompanied by an English cyclist named Matt. The four of us quickly made plans to start the Carretera Austral together.

In order to get to the southern starting point of the Carretera, we first needed cycle 35km in order to take a ferry across one lake then cross a mountain pass into Chile and finally take a second ferry across another lake into the town of Villa O´Higgins. Easier said than done.

But with one last clear night of camping in El Chalten, we went to bed with a sequential plan to get the job done.

Our plan was working out well until cultural differences got the best of us. The Swiss guys, with their typical precision, left the campsite at a sharp 12 noon. However ´Team Native-English-Speakers´ were feeling a bit lazy and had a few more stops to make around town. In result, we didn’t make it on the road until a timely 5:18pm. So at step 1, what started as a big group with bigger intentions was quickly cut down into smaller but nimble groups of two.

Our prompt 5:18pm start time put us in the position to conveniently miss the afternoon ferry after our 35km dirt road cycle and adapt the master plan just a tiny bit. Not being people to let set-backs get us down, Team Native-English-Speakers saw the bright side that they were now lined up for the morning ferry with no stress at all with conveniently located camping by the lake.

While settling into our tents and making food, we met some other travelers coming south off the Carretera who gave us tons of advice and recommendations about the road ahead. The next morning, we got an earlier start than 5:18pm this time and we were on the ferry as expected

For weeks in advance, we have been thoroughly warned about one hell of a climb/hike to get over the mountain pass and into Chile from Argentina. We needed to push/carry our bikes up hill on a wore-out horse trail with 2-foot wide ditches too narrow to fit the width a fully loaded bike. Most people we talked to have opted to take their panniers bags off the bikes and make two separate trips at the bad parts. Other people were renting horses to carry their bags through this section.

We considered the horse option for about 3 seconds, but it turns out English Matt is just as stubborn as I am and we decided to do it on our own. In the end, the trail wasn’t as bad as all the hear-say floating around and we had a great time going up with lots of laughter without even taking off our bags.

It was starting to become clear that we make a good team. Matt and myself have cycled together since then and although we have been running into Team Swiss frequently on the road, we haven’t cycled a single kilometer with them since.

Unfortunately the Swiss contingent didn’t have such a good day. About 2kms from the top of the pass we ran into a rather flustered looking Stefan. To make a very long confusing story short (but still possibly confusing), Team Swiss had a mix up about the correct trail and a Swiss team member with bad eyesight whose name I won´t disclose, but not named Stefan, got lost and separated from his teammate.

In all the confusion, Stefan put down his daypack containing his tent and searched in various directions to find his lost teammate. Upon returning, his pack had mysteriously disappeared from its location with only an Argentine horseback rider known to be passing through the area. I hesitate from saying stolen because I like the ´innocent before proven guilty theory´ but I think you can read between the lines.

Being the nice guys that Team Native-English-Speakers are, we tried to help track down the daypack but unfortunately came up empty. As a secondary helping gesture, we decided to keep a cold wet Stefan company on the top of the pass while Nedo took a last look back down at the dock from the 1st ferry to see if it was returned there.

Thinking back on it now, I´m not entirely sure if Stefan really enjoyed our company but Team Native-English-Speakers sure had a good time on the top of that muddy pass. Starting off by proving to EuroBoy that I can start a fire in the pouring rain, we next moved into an intense match of Deep-Jam-Jar-Scooping-without-Breaking-Fragile-Crackers. An olde time classic

It turns out that the British Red Coat has a little more experience with tea-time culinary delights than this Yankee, so we closed the World Series of Wasting Time tied at 1-1 for the time being.

Still without a daypack but plenty tired, Stefan and Nedo decided to camp at the top of the pass while we rode our bikes down the smoother Chilean side to wait at a lower elevation for the next ferry.

Upon arriving at the second ferry landing, it turned out that we had some time to spare with no true answer what day the next ferry will depart due to inclement weather and a broken boat. Awesome.

Along with the handful of other travelers in the area with only one small farm and a Chilean border patrol building around, we moved into a Gillian’s Island type scenario pretty quickly (pretty sure only the Americano Gringos will understand this one).

Luckily Team Native-English-Speakers are talented in wasting time and our own special World Series quickly moved into an uncountable tally with many participants involved. (Thumbs up to Andy and Helen, hope you made the wedding!)

After the first full day of torrential downpours, the clouds broke to sun for a brilliant second day including some cold swimming in a glacier melt lake. Considering that we took a bar of soap with us, this was our first shower-like experience in a few days.

Proving once again that patience and stupid games reign supreme, after waiting out our 50 hours like true champions, our ferry finally moved us forward across Lago O´Higgins.

Team Swiss decided to stay back and wait an extra day in hopes the daypack would magically reappear. Unfortunately for Stefan, the pack never did and he is now in the market for a new lightweight camping tent if anyone wants to sell one cheap. (I´m afraid that from my light-hearted nature, you might think I´m being a cold-hearted bastard here – but I´m really not in real life. This sucked for Stefan and I tried to help however we could in the following days.)

The ferry arrived on the other side of the lake at 10:45pm and although we were back on track, it was dark and pouring down rain with another 7km ride into town from the dock. Considering all these factors, we did the only reasonable thing two educated people from nice supporting families would do, look for the strangest place to sleep as possible.

This brings me to ´odd place I have slept in´ number 5, a small old land-locked boat we found 2km away from the dock. The passenger quarters were exactly what we needed to hibernate away from the rain until morning. Along with being an odd place to sleep on my list, this was by far the coolest with more dumb jokes that I thought was possible.

Well rested like proper Naval Officers, the next morning we rode into Villa O´Higgins for a much needed food re-supply and to finally start the Carretera Austral.

While doing my pre-trip research, I was most excited for this section of my South American trip. So far it hasn’t disappointed.

This section is also where my day-by-day and sequential account of the trip will break-down considerably. Everyday on the Carretera has been so different and notable that to do a daily account would require more words than War and Peace. I personally don´t want to write that much nor do I think anyone else wants to read it.

After all, I´m not exactly Jennifer Lopez so the idea that I´m that interesting to write an online personal bible blog is ridiculous. So I think the only way forward is to write about the main elements while trying to keep my incoherent rambling to a minimal and then cram as much pictures as I can in the photo gallery section to fill the cracks.

I may not be the most experienced traveler on the road, but its not my first rodeo either. What I have learned so far is that there are three crucial elements to a trip that can turn a good experience into once-in-a-lifetime experience. These elements are (confusingly listed reverse order of importance of course) weather, setting/landscape and people.

Don´t get me wrong, with only one of these elements you can still have a great time. However as the Comedian Chris Rock once loosely said ´I can drive a truck with my feet if I want to, but that doesn´t make it a good idea´.

As thoroughly covered already, I quickly found out that with bike touring, the weather heavily effects both your physical and mental stability. A nice sunny day can make you feel like superman while a strong head wind mixed with hail will have you thinking about the next flight back to New York.

In this arena, I would like to think I already paid my dues in Tierra del Fuego. Jorge the Wind Monster agrees and seems to be now taking a little siesta. Also the sun has consistently joined the tour putting the day-time temperatures around the 80´s (25-30 for you Celsius lovers out there). Overall the normally rainy Carretera Austral is treating us very well right now (knocking on wood as I type).

To compliment the nice weather, the scenery of the Carretera is constantly changing and is always amazing. From riding through a rainforest-like environment to climbing up steep mountain passes and through giant river basins carved by glaciers – the Carretera experience is unreal at times. Its extremely hard to capture in a picture the feeling of riding fast down a mountain pass with a raging river and steeps cliffs on a fully loaded mountain bike.

To do so, I would need some Disney World or Avatar-type 3D video solution complete with Dolby surround sound, a synced vibrating chair with a giant fan blowing fresh air in your face. But even if I had all the required fancy-pants gadgetry loaded on my bike, I wouldn’t wreck my own biking experience by getting off my bike to use them. Selfish I know, but I don´t remember any of you paying for my plane ticket.

Adding to the daytime experience, we have been finding some wild camping spots that have been incredible. Every night has been something totally new and never a let-down. The best campsite so far was alongside a river in a beautiful glacier-carved valley that I´m very struggling to find the right descriptive words for. To supplement my writing-block, I´ll let a picture do the talking for this one:

We were also lucky enough to find an old vacant gazebo/hut type structure built overlooking another valley surrounded by impressive mountains and glaciers. I´m not sure if this exactly fits, but I´m going to go ahead and call this number 6 in the ´odd places I have slept in´ list. (numbers 7 & 8 can also be found in the photo gallery section if you look closely – a Chilean government woodshed and a Gaucho river-side hut shared with some Israeli bikers).

To top everything off, the people I have meet along the way have always been interesting to say the least.

Whether is was children checking out our bikes and comparing them with their own (then dumping out my stove fuel for fun), the other travelers you meet along the way (bikers, hitch hikers or busers) or the locals who took us under their wing to teach us how to cook local specialties like Dulche de Leche and Empanadas – the people are happy campers here.

I need to write this very carefully to make sure you don´t think I have a man-crush on the Brit, but Matt has also been a great guy to ride with on a daily basis. Our shared style of giving each other space during the day when needed but also cooking, camping and sharing experiences together has been perfect. Once again, we´ll see where our paths go, but I´ll probably be riding with Matt for the next few kms down the road.

All in all, a great first half of the Carretera Austral with all the elements lined up. And now with only a little more than 24 hours off the bike – I´m ready to get back on for more. So until the Three Amigo´s meet in Puerto Montt for our south of the border reunion, Adios.

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