Sunday, March 27, 2016

Destination: Southern Patagonia, March 20th-27th

Lago del Desierto-El Chaltén-Parque Nacional Los Glaciares-La Leona-El Calafate

Passing back into Argentina turns the page to a new chapter in our travels: southern Patagonia. The natural areas here are breathtaking, inspiring, and world-famous. As die-hard off-the-beaten-track adventurers, even we can't pass up some destination-based travel, starting with southern Argentina´s two main attractions. Compared with visiting the extraordinary hotspots, riding our bicycles through the featureless, windy landscape seems little more than transportation from place to place, a significant change from our usual "places between the places" style of travel. There's still plenty more interesting riding in the pipeline, however, so forgive us if you came here for that and don't find any in this post.

Destination 1: Cerro Fitzroy and the countless other soaring peaks, massive glaciers, and turquoise lakes that make up the northern sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. At the base of it is El Chaltén, a town with possibly more hotels and restaurants than inhabitants. For all the town lacks in substance, however, it would be impossible to design a better skyline; the Fitzroy Range was the inspiration for Patagonia's logo, and believe me, it´s better in person. 

On the way to El Chaltén, our rearview mirrors draw our eyes more than the road

See the resemblance?

We pack our tiny backpacks to the brim and set off on foot, hiking from one spectacular spot to the next for three days. The first night our tent nearly blows away with us in it, the gusts of wind through the trees sounding like a wave continuously crashing on top of us. Though they don't manage to get a hold on us, they do send all the clouds packing, leaving us with a painfully clear close-up of Fitzroy. The next morning, we and maybe twenty other people sit on the shore of Laguna de los Tres, chatting, eating, taking photos, but mostly staring silently at the jagged peaks, trying to convince ourselves that these mountains, these otherworldly walls of rock, are real.

Alaska?

Eerie lenticular clouds, commonplace here, add an extra element to the jaw-dropping skyline

With snowy peaks all around...

...and fall colors adding a tinge of spice to the landscape..

...it was a pretty nice hike!

Fitzroy: an icon for climbers everywhere



In the afternoon we head over to Laguna Torre and find a quiet campsite sheltered from the wind, but unfortunately some mice eat through our tent and join us inside, causing a very unpleasant wake-up at 3 am. After cleaning everything and moving the tent, we fall back into a restless sleep, waking again a few hours later to a reminder that winter is coming, and fast: snow. But we don't mind. In fact, we've been dreaming of winter ever since we entered the hot, seasonless tropics forever ago. We enjoy the swirling flakes as we hike back to the warmth of El Chaltén.

Snow!

The next day we hop back on the bikes and accomplish 115 kilometers, the farthest day we've done in a while, due to a flat, paved road and a roaring tailwind. Quite a feat even though we left around noon! And that was on a day forecasted to have "moderate" winds. I don't want to be around, tailwind or not, when it becomes "severe."

Again, our mirrors get most of the attention as we turn our handlebars towards the flat grasslands known as the pampas

That would be correct, if only there were trees

We share the journey with three other cyclists: Susana and Pedro, an older couple from central Argentina, and Fabio, a comical Brazilian riding a folding bike with tiny wheels. We all spontaneously convene at Hotel La Leona, the only windbreak for many kilometers around, but they tell us it costs 158 pesos (around $12) per person to camp. We paid less per person for a private room in El Chaltén! When they quote an even higher price to Pedro and Susana, we all head out and wild camp across the river, hoping the wind won't pick up.

Fortunately we enjoy a calm night, and the rare tranquility stays with us all the way through the next day to the moment we had been dreading: the turn west into the wind. The 30 kilometer westward stretch to the town of El Calafate took a cyclist friend of ours five hours to traverse a few months ago, so even though we're tired near the end of another long day, we take advantage of the calm winds and push on.

The guanaco, relative of the llama, is king of the pampas

Curious what most of Argentina looks like? This is it.

Riding by the spectacular Lago Argentino

Destination 2: Glacier Perito Moreno. Born to be a tourist attraction, the great tongue of ice known as Perito Moreno lies 80 kilometers west of El Calafate. As it advances, it drops off blocks of ice, some creating small claps like gunshots as they hit the water, some huge, house-size pieces creating waves with a thunderous roar. A series of boardwalks allows visitors to creep right up next to the glacier, making every creak and quiver and crash exquisitely audible and visible. How could we miss the spectacle?!

In lieu of paying a fortune for an hour on a bus, we try our luck hitchhiking and meet a local couple interested in discussing the ins and outs of Argentine politics (with which U.S. politics is currently intertwined), two Polish scientists studying extraordinary lightning, a young family traveling by van from Argentina to Alaska, and some restaurateurs from the Atlantic coast of Argentina. What a day! 

Oh, and the glacier! The photos don´t nearly do it justice, so as you´re looking, also try to hear the rumbles from its depths and gunshot-like splashes from blocks of ice hitting the water, feel the frigid winds blowing off its surface, imagine Patagonian steppe surrounding you and ascending into snowy peaks, dwarfing you and the hundreds of other travelers from all over the globe quietly taking it all in.

With about 15 kilometers left to go, Perito is still chiquito (very small)...

...but up close it´s much bigger!

Those walls are about 50 meters high... we´re still so far away that by the time we hear the sound from ice hitting the water, it´s too late, we won´t even see the splash.

Blue runs deep

Route notes:
El Chaltén: we stayed at Hostal Ahonikenk, a good deal at 300 pesos for a private room or 100 p/p for a dorm bed. It's a block towards town from the bus station.
Our trek was scenic, though overwhelmingly popular. I wouldn't do it in the high season. We camped 2 nights free in the park, one at Poincenot (windy) and one at De Agostini (better).
El Chaltén-El Calafate: no water for 50 km after El Chaltén, none for the 65 km after that until crossing a big river. Hotel La Leona is at the river. This distance is easily attainable with the prevailing winds on your side for 90 kms.
There's another route, a dirt one, that diverges at La Leona and meets back up about 60 kms later; see Velofreedom.bike for details. We didn't take it because we found the traffic manageable on the main road, at least until turning off Ruta 40 towards El Calafate. Unfortunately there's no other option for this last part.
It's another 40ish km until the road crosses the river again - good, sheltered campsites at the bridge - then 25ish more to another river, camping available there too. No water from there to El Calafate, very few camping options. 
El Calafate/Perito Moreno: Hospedaje Guerrero on Gregores (1 block N from La Anonima then 1/2 block east) was a great deal, 250 pesos for a private matrimonial or 100 p/p for bunk beds, including kitchen and fast wi-fi. Find a room with a window; it´s like a sauna in there.
The bus out to Perito Moreno costs 400-460 pesos round trip, and park entrance is 260 pesos for foreigners. We waited about an hour while hitching. Possible to bike, though the road would be supremely flat, boring, and windy, and camping is not allowed in that section of the park (though it wouldn't be hard to find a hidden spot).

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