Patagonia – Rio Gallegos to El Calafate

January 29th, 2010

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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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Joe Rothgaber  |  January 26th, 2012 at 5:49 am

    I just cannot thank you enough for this fantastic blog.Genuinely thanks a ton! Great.

  • 2. Ana Schiavoni  |  June 2nd, 2012 at 5:08 am

    You are so lucky, I livd in that area when young and love every inch of it, I thank you for a reminder of happier times, now I live in Hallandale Beach Florida, I would like to know about the estancia of the Lenzner family, I spent many a happy day there in the
    sixties, at that time Ernesto Lezner was the owner, he is not longer with us but
    he was my best friend, the estancia was named LIBRUN.
    If you have the time and the inclination please call me at 754-263-3395

  • 3. Administrator  |  June 2nd, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Hi Ana,

    yes, I remember the Lenzner family at the Estancia Librun. The extreme wind literally shut me down for the day, and I just happened to be nearby at the time the wind kicked in. I rolled my bike to the estancia to see whether I could take a break there. To my pleasant surprise, the Lenzner family invited me in and shared some coffee and cookies on their patio. It was a wonderful break from the monotony out on the long roads; it felt like an oasis of green and comfort. They also had several dogs and other animals around, which gave the place a special feel. I ended up staying there over night, sleeping with some of the gauchos in a nearby building. One of the most memorable events that afternoon was the slaughter of a cow by those gauchos. Now that’s something I don’t get to see every day, and it was most impressive to see how much work and skill is required to process such a large animal.

    I will send you a collection of photos from that place.

    Kind Regards,


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