Patagonia – El Calafate to El Chaltén

January 29th, 2010

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…

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