Cycle Touring through Patagonia


A few months ago I took the plunge and decided to book flights to South America for a month with the plan of cycling southwards down through Southern Patagonia stopping to backpack in some of the famous mountain ranges along the way. So with 3 weeks to go before my departure I suddenly had to try and find a bicycle suitable for touring, panniers, racks and a few other bits and pieces. What this meant was that I never actually had the time to test the bike fully loaded until I had landed in Chile and started cycling! With a starting point of Coyhaique halfway down on the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) I had roughly 500km of off road trails to try and negotiate before reaching smooth asphalt. Then I would travel a further 750km to the bottom of mainland South America whilst passing through Argentinian desert and backpacking on the edge of the Patagonian ice sheet.

The first day of cycling was a real baptism of fire with a 70kmph headwind the entire way. That evening I quickly forgot the difficulties of the day and headed to the nearest nightclub with four French travellers to try and learn how to Salsa dance and see if we could survive the onslaught of double tequila slammers that somehow became obligatory. At some point we got invited to a house party in a nearby Bario. Naturally this seemed like a good idea at 5am despite how dodgy it sounded. The next morning my plan of setting off early didn’t exactly happen…I ended up setting off at 2pm! Whilst great fun, I was a little worried that this was going to be the norm for the remainder of the trip.

The sweeping hairpins on the descent into Villa Cerro Castillo
Not what you want to see when the nearest bike shop is 1000km away

The second days cycling was amazing with high mountain passes, which provided stunning views and wide-open hairpins on the descents which gave it a real alpine feel. That evening I was lucky enough to see the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy and could even see the stars through the inner and outer of my tent! The next day was when the going got tough with my first experience of ‘el ripio’, the off road trails for which the Carretera is infamous for. My fears for my equipment were justified because after only 30km my left crank had worked itself loose and subsequently required tightening every 2-5km. A further 15km later at it fell off for the first time. With the next collection of houses a further 110km away I persevered although having to tighten up the crank bolt every few minutes was tiresome to say the least as well as worrying because the closest bike shop was around 1000km further along my route! Eventually the problem got so bad that I was having to stop every 500m, so I cycled one legged for about an hour before deciding that this was just ridiculous and started to walk my bike and waited for a car which I could try and get a lift with. Eventually a pickup passed that kindly let me jump in the back and dropped me off at Puerto Tranquilo. Here I scoured the two village shops and found a small cardboard box with plumbing bits in where I found a few washers and bolts. From these I made a bodge for my crank and the next morning I was able to continue albeit with a lot of trepidation.

The wild last section of the Carretera

A winding mountain pass on the Carretera
Reaching the end of the Carretera Austral after around 500km of ripio

The following 150km was incredible to say the least with huge blue lakes surrounded by lush forests and falling glaciers and snow capped peaks above. Unfortunately the ripio on this section was awful and I had to descend at 10kmph to avoid sliding out at times. After the most idyllic wild camp by the edge of Lago Bertrand which I shared with an ex-French Pro Cyclist I arrived in Cochrane my first large village. Here I found a mechanics store where I spent an hour rummaging to find some better bits and pieces to try and build a better bodge for my crank. This new bodge only required tightening every 10-15km so was a vast improvement on the previous version. My next leg took me into the wildest part of my trip so far with a 220km stretch with no civilisation apart from a short ferry crossing midway. This section was really impressive and was littered with fantastic wild camping spots in between the steep mountain passes. Unfortunately, I did have a few days of damp weather during this section, which embarrassingly forced me to resort to using petrol from my stove to light a fire. Once in O’Higgins I had reached the end of the Carretera and enjoyed my first rest day before catching a series of two ferries with fourteen other travellers to a seasonal border crossing with Argentina, which is only open three months of the year. Crossing was difficult by bike to say the least and required a lot of pushing and lifting of the bike over fallen trees and broken wooden bridges. This did provide some amazing singletrack mountain biking though and I had a great time despite the pannier bags best efforts. It also provided us with our first view of Mount Fitzroy in the distance.

Drainage channels make for entertaining singletrack
Reaching the middle of no-mans land at the seasonal border crossing
Fitzroy dreaming…

Once in El Chalten I spent a few nights in Fleur’s Casa, which is free for cyclists providing you cook communally. Over the next two days I walked 66km (30 of which in 5hrs) taking in the major walks within the range and saw the seriously impressive Cerro Torre with it’s snow and ice mushroom guarding the summit and the easier but higher Fitzroy up close. During my time here I got my first taste of what was to come with brutal winds during the night. Despite being in a sheltered garden three tents broke whilst I was there. From here I had virtually left the ripio behind and could enjoy the feeling of smooth asphalt beneath my wheels for the next 750km. Very early on after starting the next 220km section I discovered that the tailwind I was expecting wasn’t playing ball and it decided to make my life hell at times. My first stop was at Casa Rosa, an abandoned hotel which happens to be pink in colour, so that evening a friend and I set up our inner tents on the varnished wooden floor and made a huge fire in the fireplace which was completely unnecessary but who could miss such an opportunity. The following day was heavy going with a long climb and 30km of undulating roads heading directly into a strong headwind, which reduced me to 10kmph on the flat at times. It was at this point that I learnt how to use my touring bike in time trial mode and with a strict regime of one Oreo biscuit and two swigs of water per 5km I time trialed my way to El Calafate where Hugo and I treated ourselves to 500g of ice cream each before taking advantage of an all you can eat BBQ that evening. The lamb ribs were simply sublime.

The climber’s Everest: Cerro Torre (Pinnacle on the right)
The impressive nose of the Perito Moreno Glacier (50m high and 5km wide)

After another rest day where I visited the vast and hugely impressive Perito Moreno Glacier I set off on another 260km leg, which took me up an 11km climb before cycling across the barren and worryingly dry Patagonian Steppe. Here I spent the night in the stables of a police station with a group of cyclists that I had met in El Chalten. Trying to learn and play dice games whilst conversing between Spanish, French and English was hard but it actually helped my Spanish quite a lot! The next morning we set off early to try and avoid the forecasted wind, despite this the limiting factor was actually the quality of the ripio. At times it would have been described as a boulder field on a downhill course. Just moving forward was a challenge on occasion. With only 5km of ripio to go before the shortcut ended and I reached the asphalt again my second major mechanical of the trip occurred. 8 spokes all on the cassette side of the rear wheel decided to snap at the same time. With 36 spoke wheels I had decided not to bring spare spokes, as the likelihood of a large number of them breaking was pretty slim. After attempting to true the wheel and swap spokes from the opposite side over, it was clear something more radical was required so I re-bent all of the snapped spokes and loosely tightened them up to try and pull the rim over slightly. Despite my best efforts the wheel was no longer circular and I had to run with only a front brake to enable it to rotate. It did however get me to the Argentinian border control post that evening where I spent the night in one of their abandoned guard houses, which was very kind of them.

The next morning I only had a short way to Puerto Natales, however despite an initial tailwind, which was blowing me along nicely, the last few kilometres where awful with torrential rain, cold and a buffeting wind. It was me stamping on the pedals trying to race to the relative shelter of the town that caused the trip ending moment for my crank. This time my bolt hadn’t come loose but the metal that sat in contact with the axle spindle (Square Tapered BB) had worn itself into a circle. So I could physically spin my left crank round independently from the other crank. Not good. I really did think that this was the end of the cycling on my trip. After giving in and finding a hostel to stay in I went to an info talk about backpacking in Torres del Paine and caught word of a bike shop nearby. My saviour, here I bought a crank that would fit my bike and could be held on by my bodge, with the one caveat, that my cranks where now at 135 degrees to each other instead of parallel…

Early the next morning I embarked on the ‘Q’ trail in Torres del Paine, with six days worth of food and all my equipment (I estimated that my starting pack weight was a fairly low 16kg which all fitted into my 55L rucksack, just). I was hoping to cover around 160kms plus a few thousand metres of height gain in under half the recommended time. Initially this went quite well with gorgeous weather on the first day if you exclude walking 22km into a 110kmph headwind (I was still at sea level…). The next two days were spent in the most travelled part of the park which was at times quite strange due to the sheer number of people but it was nether the less beautiful and any bad weather was very quickly blown over. During the day it was possible to see and hear huge seracs falling above from the white covered peaks, which was a bit worrying given the location of the campsites. The most sought after vista in the park is the three huge granite spires, which require a fairly gruelling 2km walk through a boulder field to reach. I planned to watch the sunrise over these but unfortunately despite the 5.40 am wake up the view was masked by cloud, rain and snow. Fortunately I had decided to take advantage of the good weather the previous afternoon and had managed to see them and the impressive geological structures beneath them (Laccolith flow pipes – feeder magma pipes for a Sill like structure).

Torres del Paine National Park from the start of the ‘Q’ trail
Torres del Paine 

The next 36hrs were characterised by one thing, non-stop rain. With a small one man tent trying to keep everything dry was somewhat tricky but just about manageable. On the 4th morning I woke to beautiful blue skies and just in time as I had my longest day planned, 36km over fairly flat terrain. This section was really pretty and with distinct changes in mountain types occurring around the valley and countless glaciers visible all at the same time. This day however was marred slightly by a bout of food poisoning, which amounted to me throwing up a number of times at the campsite that evening. The impact of this was that I basically ate nothing for the next two days, which made walking fairly strenuous despite views of the Patagonian Ice sheet feeding into glacier Grey. Once back in Puerto Natales I celebrated the completion of the ‘Q’ with some Israeli friends that I had met whilst walking perhaps a little too hard which resulted in me setting off on the final 250km leg of my journey later than planned.

Reaching my high point whilst on the backside of the ‘Q’ trail

This day was the hardest of the entire trip with my forecasted tailwind materialising
as headwind, continual rain and the temperature falling as I headed south with the added dehydration and lethargic feeling following my food poisoning. It all left me in a mild hypothermic state. Not to mention the bike problems. Leaving the bus stop that I ate my lunch in was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. The temptation to just curl up and fall asleep and thumb a lift the following day was massive. Fortunately I carried on and after a further 50km I pitched my tent in an abandoned barn where I hung my clothes up to dry and managed to stomach some food.

I woke early the next morning to try and beat the worst of the wind as it had been buffeting my tent all night through the opening in the barn. The morning was cold but beautiful with clear blue skies. Unfortunately after the initial 20km passing swiftly the road turned and the wind was soon at a very awkward cross headwind. This eventually meant that I couldn’t stay in a straight line and zigzagged my way forward. Having a fully loaded bike was great in that I had greater inertia so gusts had less impact but it also meant that I was effectively a huge sail. I can only say that they were on average a benefit because on a road bike you simply would have been blown over. After zigzagging for 10km a police car pulled me over and insisted that I get in their truck and put my bike in the back. I was a bit confused as to why until they pulled into there station a few miles later and told me that I must cycle in a straight line, as zigzagging was dangerous. The temptation to tell them to try cycling in what they said was 120kmph winds was quite strong. At this point I tried to fill my bottles up but to no avail. At this point I faced the remaining 100km of the 150km day (7hrs of riding) with only 700ml of water to drink which when combined with my already dehydrated body made for quite an uncomfortable few hours. The next 40km where okay but then the road turned again and this time the wind was a straight crosswind and was like nothing I have ever experienced before. My zigzagging had now become being blown not just across my lane but across the lane of oncoming traffic and onto the gravel on the far side as well and I was helpless to stop it, I couldn’t try to pedal into it to turn back because my windward pedal would catch on the road because I was leaning over so far to try and stay upright. To say this was scary is an understatement and I actually think it was probably the most dangerous thing I have ever done on a bike. I tried pushing my bike by the side of the road but just got blown over constantly. With no shelter to stop and put my tent up I had no choice but to continue. I did my best to manage for the next hour until I reached a police station where I hoped I could get a lift. Unfortunately they didn’t have a vehicle that could transport my bike so I decided that I would take the safer option and hitch a lift the remaining 30km to Punta Arenas, my final destination. That evening I was told that the wind had been blowing around 130/140kmph (80-85mph) and may have been gusting more. After an evening of relaxation and rehydration I rose early the next morning with the aim of catching a ferry to a nearby island, which was home to a huge Penguin colony before starting my journey homeward by plane.

Cold but clear blue skies in the morning on my final push South to Punta Arenas
Magdalena Penguins on Isla Magdalena

Overall I had an incredible time throughout my trip despite the pretty serious mechanicals and learnt so much along the way. For anyone interested in cycle touring I would wholeheartedly recommend the Carretera Austral although when I say the ripio is bad, it really is. The desert like roads of Argentina are also amazing to cycle through providing you don’t mind carrying lots of water and I would cycle there again without hesitation.

A selection of totals from my journal:
Distance cycled: 1,256.4km (504km on ripio)
Height gain: 13,420m (by bike)
Distance walked: 222km
No. of things broken: 11
Languages spoken: 8
Max weight carried: 45-50kg (inc. 15kg bike)
Max amount of water carried: 5.6L

If anyone would like further information on the trip for their own adventures just ask as it will probably be a long time before I finish writing up my journal completely.

William Bourne


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