Archive for January 29th, 2010

Patagonia – El Calafate to El Chaltén

Leaving El Calafate after the rest day

From El Calafate to El Chaltén the road leads around two large lakes: Lago Argentino in the South and Lage Viedma to the North. These lakes are fed from glacial waters off the Campo Hielo de Sur, one of the largest ice-fields outside the polar regions (similar to the Kluane Ice-fields). On the West end those lakes have many arms like fjords and there are trees and lush greens. On the East end it is very arid with only grass and some small bushes. Often it rains on the West end and the sun shines on the East.

Leaving El Calafate with nice tailwind and Lago Argentino in background

When I have breakfast in the morning at the campground there are extreme wind gusts which almost blow tents away and send garbage lids flying and dogs running for shelter. This doesn’t look like riding weather. So I take my time, buy groceries, do email etc. Eventually I pack my stuff and get ready to leave around noon. Upon leaving town you pass a police checkpoint; the police man makes a note of my passport and warns me about the wind, stating that there had been a car accident in the area with one fatality this morning due to the wind! My first leg though is 32 km to the East end of the lake, and that means downwind! I am flying at 40-50 km/h, on the slight downhill often exceeding 60 km/h. This way the wind is fun…

In less than an hour I reach the intersection where the fun ends and the hard work begins. The road turns to the NW and now the wind blows from the front-left. My speed goes down to 10-12 km/h, patience is the name of the game now. But it is warm and sunny, with excellent visibility. In fact, I can already discern the characteristic shapes of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, even though they are well over 100 km away from here.

Short stop at Rio Leona

I ride along the Rio Leona and enjoy the fact that this road has only been paved less than two months ago (no lines painted yet). I take a break and eat some fruit and drink – after that I always feel better in this dry environment. I have plenty of time and enjoy the beautiful views of the mountains in the West against the turquoise waters of the lake. I often find that my mood depends heavily on how much time I have. If I need to hurry for some reason, I am much less relaxed than if I know I can take a rest break if I need to and just enjoy the scenery.

View of Mountains behind Lago Argentino

The road at times turns to the NE, which gives me a slight tailwind component; that helps me work down the distance to my next goal on top of a 150m hill, a road construction depot of some sort. I stop primarily to ask for water; the people are quite friendly and also talk about the accident due to the enormous wind this morning. Now with fresh supply of water, a downhill ahead and even a slight tailwind my mood is soaring. On the long downhill I exceed the speed limit by nearly 350% – doing 68 km/h in a 20 km/h zone – and life on the bike is good again.

Cruising down a hill with tailwind at 68 km/h

Horses running beside the road - a very scenic moment

Rock walls along the Rio Leona

Some horses run next to me behind a fence for a little bit, a very scenic diversion. Some more undulating hills and a little rock canyon along the river are along the way in the late afternoon. My goal for the day is the Hotel La Leona, situated near the shores of Lake Viedma. Towards the end the wind turns into a headwind again which makes for slow progress, but then again, I am close enough for this not to bother me. Eventually I pull into the parking lot of the hotel, at 108 km exactly in the middle between El Calafate and El Chaltén.

Hotel La Leona between El Calafate and El Chalten

Many tour-buses stop here due to its great location and more than 100 years of history, as well as its fresh-baked pastries. This hotel also offers camping behind wind shelter fences and poplars. So for me it is an ideal supply point to stay for the night. To my surprise, they even offer WiFi Internet access, so I unexpectedly get to check email and Skype with my wife. Later I brush my teeth and then fall asleep to the sound of the wind swaying the poplar trees.

The next morning I take it easy as there is already lots of wind and no chance to use a few calm early morning hours. I have breakfast and send some more emails. Around 11am I am starting to ride. In a repeat of the previous day, the first hour or so is relatively easy due to a slight tailwind component. Once I get to the intersection Routa 23 turns to the left (NW) and leaves Routa 40. From here it’s 90 km to El Chaltén, all straight into the wind.

Intersection where Routa 23 leaves Routa 40 for El Chalten - 90 km headwind ahead!

It’s a bit past 12:00pm noon; I do the math: For 90 km of headwind at say 11 km/h average it will take a solid 8 hrs of ride time to get there in a day. Sunset is around 9pm with daylight fading by 9:30pm or so. So as long as I can ride at speeds around 12 km/h it would be possible. And today I’m really committed to reach El Chaltén under my own power and not accept another ride by truck or bus. My first stop is to chat with two riders (Lindsay and ?) from UK and Germany; they are in great spirits as they have left gravel and rain behind and are flying down a paved road in sunshine with great tailwind for 90 km! (You have to be a touring biker to understand what an exceptional combination that is…)

Two happy cyclists going the other way - 90 km tailwind!

After some 15 min of rest and chatting I need to continue, my clock is ticking. The scenery changes ever so slowly, with some great views of the lake after the first 20 km or so. I allow myself a short rest stop to eat some fruit and drink plenty of juice to stay well hydrated; I also re-apply sunscreen so as to not burn in the intense sun (which you don’t feel because of the cooling wind).

At one of only two rest stops on the long road into El Chalten - Lago Viedma in background

Approaching Estancia Santa Margarita at midpoint between intersection and El Chalten

The distance is naturally broken in two pieces of equal length due to the Estancia San Margarita in the middle after about 45 km. Up to there I had sunshine, behind there some dark rain clouds were waiting. So I stopped there both to get some water as well as change and put on my rain gear. One of the residents, Diego, kindly offers me not only water, but also some coffee and some fresh bread.

Diego at Estancia Santa Margarita gave me water and coffee and bread

It’s always hard to leave a warm, cozy place like this when it’s windy and rainy outside. But today I definitely don’t have a lot of time, so I’m quickly back out on the road braving the elements again. First I hope that the rain will calm the wind – as had been previously my experience in Patagonia – but no such luck today. Instead, the wind became more gusty, with ever stronger gusts between periods of relative calm conditions. Beautiful scenery unfolded around me, with mountains rising around me and exposing interesting rock band formations. Also the vegetation slowly changed, with more and more fresh green along the way due to the increasing precipitation near the mountains.

Rainbow over interesting rock band formations North of the Routa 23

I had covered about 70 of the 90 km by now and felt more and more confident about making it to El Chaltén by tonight. The mountain massif around Fitz Roy was rising ahead of me, but unfortunately remained shrouded in clouds. I felt good about having come this far and witness the change in scenery.

Fitz Roy massif in clouds

There was one more challenge, though, of some repeated uphill towards the village. With the wind now gusting extremely strong I could no longer ride uphill but had to push the bike. At times even pushing was too hard and I just hit the brakes and waited for the gusts to subside. My rearview mirror was now essentially useless as it kept folding back and vibrating so much that I couldn’t discern a clear image anyway. Once a strong gust from the front-right pushed me way over to the opposite lane, which really scared me! From that point on I just stopped every time I saw a vehicle approaching either way; the risk of being blown into passing truck or car was just too great. Another time a gust announced itself through a dust devil of flying dirt and branches. I just stopped, pulled on the brakes and still had trouble controlling my bike and trailer at a stand-still! These were the most frightening conditions I had experienced so far; but for being this close to my goal and this late in the day I would not have continued. It took me more than an hour to cover the last 10 km.

Reaching El Chalten after a very hard day at 9:15pm at dusk

By the time I saw the village and rolled down the last little hill to the river and into town it was 9:15pm and slowly getting dark. Still strong wind and rain showers made it very unpleasant to be outside. I looked around for a hostel and found some space at the second place I asked. I had not taken any breaks for the last 4 hrs since leaving the Estancia and was extremely exhausted. When I walked into the hostel I could barely stand straight and needed to sit down and drink something. But I had made it after 9 hrs of riding in a bit more than 10 hrs elapsed time – one of my hardest days ever on the bike. After some steak and potato omelet dinner and some hot shower I fell into a deep sleep in the warm dorm of the hostel…

Add comment January 29th, 2010

Patagonia – Rio Gallegos to El Calafate

Windy Road Ahead

From Wednesday, Jan-20 to Friday, Jan-22 I rode North-West from Rio Gallegos towards El Calafate. This stretch would definitely have been easier to ride the other way due to the prevailing Westerly winds. Most of the time I faced a headwind from the front-left. The winds here are usually kicking in around 9-10am and then intensifying during the day, calming only at night. This wind is so strong that it severely impacts the cyclist. At a minimum, you have to be prepared to ride long hours at frustratingly slow speed despite hard work. And unfortunately in the tree-less open tundra there is no shelter and no escaping the wind on the road.

Camping at Las Horquetas

Whenever there is a little stream – like the Rio Coyle – there are some poplar trees and an Estancia nearby. These green places offer some shelter from the wind and feel like an oasis in the desert. The hungry cyclist can also use them to get at a minimum water, often food and even a place to stay for the night. I used the Estancia and hotel / restaurant Las Horquetas at 85 km from Rio Gallegos as my goal for the first day.

Leaving Las Horquetas before sunrise

One approach is to get up very early, before sunrise, and take advantage of the relative calm in the early morning hours. I did that two nights in a row, adding to my sleep deficit. The above picture shows me leaving just before 6 am from Las Horquetas. The temperature was 4C and a slight wind was adding to the chill. However, there is little traffic and the rising sun makes for interesting photo opportunities.

First light from behind when riding West

There is also wildlife on the road, such as Guanacos, ostriches, sheep, rabbits, birds, foxes and skunks. Often a bunch of vultures indicate another road-kill ahead, usually a rabbit. Another interesting observation is that the ostriches and guanacos will usually run away from the cyclist. Due to the fences parallel to the road they often can’t escape right away. The grown-up Guanacos can easily jump the fences; only young animals have trouble and sometimes run like the ostriches until they find a break in the fence.

Straight Road Ahead

The days on these wide open plains are fairly monotonous. Often the road just leads straight to the horizon and one is alone with the wind and one’s thoughts. On Day 2 my first leg was to reach La Esperanza at 62 km, a supply point with gas station, convenience store and restaurant. To my surprise the wind didn’t kick in that particular day in the morning, so I reached it a bit ahead of schedule and took a long break. It also warmed up nicely and I need to apply sunscreen generously and repeatedly due to the intense radiation of the sun.
I continue in shorts and good spirits as it is now a lovely summer day with hardly any wind! I make good progress, riding at normal speeds, easily twice as fast as with headwind. I plan to take a break at 100 km about halfway between La Esperanza and El Cerrito. I ride along until 99 km and then something interesting happens: From one moment to the next the wind kicks in with force, literally as if someone flipped a switch. All of a sudden the last km is hard work and I stop at a little side road and seek shelter from the wind in the ditch beside the road. Now I can recuperate some of the lost sleep in the morning…
After two hours I try riding again; the first section is uphill and I need to push the bike. Even that is hard work and at times I struggle to hold the bike steady and upright. All of a sudden it seems that the remaining 35 km might be too far for the day in these conditions! In my struggle I notice an Estancia with several buildings at the bottom of a little hill. I decide to leave my bike behind a fence and check out the Estancia.

In the courtyard of the Estancia Hibrun

The Lenzner family with German roots welcomes me to their shady courtyard and we sit down and chat for a while. The lady even offers me coffee and some cake – how sweet! It’s true that the people out in the country are most often very helpful and hospitable. They are interested in my journey, of course, and so I get to practice my Spanish while getting a reprieve from riding. A lovely place, one does not want to leave here in this wind… I check twice during the afternoon, but the wind does not relent and so I decide to stay here for the night. I witness some local campesinos slaughtering and cleaning a cow – quite a visceral experience to see again which process leads to your steak or ribs getting on the dinner plate! I am invited to share dinner with the campesinos, a communal event of sorts. I also can sleep in the shack where they have their bunk-beds; I prefer my sleeping bag on the ground, though…

Riding again before sunrise

I get up again at 5:30 and start riding before sunrise. To my chagrin the NW wind is already blowing quite a bit, so I am not nearly making as much progress as I’d like. It takes me 3 hrs of hard work to cover the 35 km to El Cerrito. I can see the building from 15 km away in the clear morning air, but it takes me more than an hour to finally reach it. And what a disappointment: Nobody there, just an empty set of buildings around a large garage for road building equipment. At least I can find shelter from the wind in a half-open and sun-lit garage. I cook up some pasta and am joined by some stray cats that seem to be even hungrier than I am. So I share my Wieners with them and finish my pasta.

While the wind is intensifying I’m considering my options: How can I reach El Calafate some 100 km away in this wind? If not, where can I stay for the night without shelter? (The next buildings and water source are about 65 km out at a little river…) So I get out in the wind again and start riding. It’s crazy to work so hard and still only advance at speeds below 10 km/h. At a slight uphill I need to get off and push the bike. Again, even that has become very hard work, and riding on the flat legs becomes downright dangerous. I am blown off the road several times into the gravel. At one point a pickup driver stops and asks me whether I’m alright; he also offers a ride to El Calafate – an offer which in my current state of exhaustion I can’t refuse.

Loading up my bike and trailer on the pickup truck - the wind hat beat me!

This is the first time I accept a ride with the bike to get to my daily destination! I feel like I’m cheating, but then again I had reached my limits. The last 200 km into this wind have taken a lot out of me. I was low on food and hadn’t had a shower in 3 days with everything dusty and sweaty. After 9 days of riding I just needed a rest-day. And getting to El Calafate early would allow me to take care of logistics, do laundry, get cash, do email etc. So I quickly accepted the situation and really enjoyed setting up my tent at the campground El Ovejero in the center of El Calafate.

Setting up camp in El Calafate

I had a nice place sheltered from the wind and sunny, perfect to dry out my cloths and rest. Luckily my tent neighbors, a family from Argentina on vacation, invited me for steaks and bread as they had cooked up a huge lunch meal for their entire family with plenty of left-over meat. Then I just lay down to sleep for a few hours in the afternoon. I realized how tired and hungry I had become. The rest of the day was spent leisurely walking through town, getting some cash from the ATM, and doing email. I also met Dirk and Payam, two German cyclists, who had come down the Carreterra Austral and could give me some useful information about the route ahead. We went for dinner (pizza and steak) and enjoyed a leisurely evening.

Dinner with German cyclists Dirk and Payam in El Calafate

The next day I used the opportunity to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier (Link to Wikipedia). This glacier comes down all the way to the Lago Argentino and periodically cuts off a branch of it, the Braza Azul(?). This is one of the main tourist attractions in Patagonia and consequently there are large crowds, dozens of tour buses, hundreds of vehicles, thousands of tourists. But I was happy to join the tour-bus crowd for a (rest-)day! It felt good to get to see the scenery without having to ride hard into the wind…

Perito Moreno Glacier

There is an excellent system of walkways in the area which protect the tundra and control the crowds. A large visitor center also provides food and facilities – nothing fancy or cozy, just built to handle the masses (like at a large ski resort). One can walk for several km on these walk-ways and see the 75m tall face of ice from balconies at several levels. The ice groans and cracks, at times emitting loud thunder as if from a lightning bolt. Occasionally a chunk of ice falls off and splashes into the water. I even get to take a short video-clip of one of those ice chunks (the size of a truck) collapsing and falling down.

Perito Moreno Glacier

I spend the day with Ian from Scotland who I met on the bus. We have a nice conversation about tourism, my journey, his journeys (including a recent spontaneous trip from Ushuaia to the Antarctic), life, politics and philosophy. We even extend our conversation over a nice pasta dinner back in El Calafate. Then I retreat to the campground for a conversation with my wife in Florida (via Skype). It was good to have this rest day. By the time I get on the bike again the next day I spent almost 48 hours without riding, good time to rest and recharge…

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