El Chalten (Argentina) to Villa O’Higgins (Chile )

Day 1 – El Chalten to Lago del Desierto (north)
We had spoken to many people and read several bogs about the next stretch of our journey from El Chalten to Villa O’Higgins. Some had loved it, some called it hell but everone agreed that it was unforgettable..it did not disappoint!

In summary, the route between the small Argentinian town of El Chalten and the smaller Chilean village of Villa O’Higgins travelling from South to North involves a 37km cycle on dirt track, an hour long boat journey on Lago del Desierto, a 6km slog uphill along a single horse track, a 15km downhill ride on very undulating dirt track (of which the last 5km are very steep down), a 3 hour boat journey north on Lago O’Higgins and an 8km cycle on the most southerly strech of the dirt road Carretera Austral, to Villa O’Higgins…However that doesn’t even start to tell the story!

We set off from El Chalten at around 8.30am. We were a winging things a little as the only bank in town had no money and we had little Argentinian and Chilean cash for the boat trips, hoping that at least one of them would take a card. The 37km cycle to the ferry at the South of Lago del Desierto was really enjoyable. Initially the headwind made slow going but around 15km in, we turned a corner in the valley and were sheltered by stunning woods, sprinkled with beautiful mountain views and the occasional waterfall to our west and stunning rapidly running river to our east. This made for a good second half of the ride, interrupted only by the odd photo stop, a couple of wild oxen who decided it was their road not ours and the clouds of dust kicked up by passing motorists on their way to or from the lake.

Reaching Lago del Desierto at around 1pm we found that one boat had only just left and that the next would be at 4.30pm. We sat down to make lunch and also discussed the price of the boat with the single staff member present, we were advised that the cost of a single person plus bike was 650 Argentinian dollars (approx $65 Australian) and that a single bike was 300 Argentinian. This pretty much covered all our Argentinian cash and with no card option we started to worry. Speaking to 2 cyclists who had just got off the boat heading south, they advised that it was possible to walk (definitely not with bikes) to the north point of the lake along a designated path. The official time given for the walk was around 5 hours but we figured this would be for someone with backpack and that we might cover the same distance a lot faster. After a little discussion, Jon set off with water bottle in hand to walk, whilst Vanessa waited with both bikes for the 4.30pm boat.

Jon’s walk/jog along the lake took in some of the most breathtaking views possible. The weather was kind and the path, whilst not obvious in some parts, was in reasonable condition, with a number of river crossings and varying terrain, sometimes climbing well above the lake below and other times coming out along the lake shore.

Lago Deserto hike view
Without the burden of heavy backpack the walk took just over 2 and a half hours and he arrived at the northern shore with time to laze in the sun for half an hour until Vanessa and the bikes arrived.

Meanwhile, Vanessa watched locals come and go, lay in the sun and wrote a few blogs, catching up with a few days missed. 2 hours into waiting another two bike riders arrived. Marie and Miguel from Belgium. They had already pre-booked there tickets for both boat rides in El Chalten (should have done this ourselves, but what you don’t know, you can’t do). We had around 1hr left before the boat arrived. It started up at 4.30pm on the dot. Luckily for Vanessa, Miguel and Marie were readily available to help out with lifting the bikes and panniers onto the front of the boat. We sat at the front, next to a flamboyant Argentinian man, who was very keen on chatting to us and had a huge amount of luggage. He was going to a secluded little refuge hut and camping with his family. His family had started walking and would be meeting him there. The views of the lake, mountains and Mt Fitzroy were just absolutely unbelievable. We stood outside snapping some photos and taking in the scenery.

Boat ride views
The ride over was smooth and took just under an hour, as we approached half way, our new Argentinian friend got up and opened the small emergency door at the front of the boat. The boat crew helped him place all his luggage at the front of the boat, then reared the engine and approached the pier carefully trying to avoid the rocks on either side. The Argentinian jumped onto the pier and the crew member started quickly passing luggage over, whilst the boat tried to stay close to the pier, unfortunately we drifted off to the side and had to reverse and try again. Second time lucky all the luagge and Argentinian were safely on the pier. We waved him goodbye and headed off, stopping only once more to drop off some other hikers at another pier. We approached the Northern part of Lago del Deserto’s pier and we were pleasantly surprised to see Jon waiting to help us with the bikes/panniers.

Once unloaded from the boat the 2 of us, plus Marie and Miguel found a couple of sweet spots to pitch our tents next to the lake, near to the Argentinian border patrol hut and ate our respective dinners. We talked to a very informative Scottish couple who were also camping and were heading south with bikes They described in some detail the task that faced us the following day and gave us some very useful tips..not least was that we should remove bike pedals for the 6km push uphill (we are all very grateful for this advice), that we should set our panniers high on the bikes (using backpacks if necessary), that we should expect several river crossings and to get our feet wet, and a recommendation to team up if possible.

Marie and Miguel had agreed to be our travel buddies for the following day. Before we went to bed we remembered that we had to get our passports stamped before leaving Argentina and made a dash to the border hut. Fortunately the duty officer was happy to extend opening hours a few minutes past 9pm for us, which meant we wouldn’t have to hang around to get stamped in the morning.

Day 2 – Lago del Desierto (north) to Villa O’Higgins

The 4 of set off early morning, relieved that the predicted rain had held off, as this would only have made a tough day even tougher. Each of us had removed pedals, with Jon, Vanessa and Miguel placing front panniers in backpacks and Marie placing hers in an additional bag mounted on top of rear panniers/rack. Almost immediately we got a sample of what the day held in store. The dirt track was no more than a bike width wide, and had been worn into a U shape due to constant foot traffic over many years. To push the bike you either had to stand immediately adjacent to it or walk to the side of the path approx 50cm above the level of the bike.

My arms are killing me!
The gradient was approx. 1 in 4 and we had to negotiate bends in the path, rocky outcrops and constant tree roots. It quickly became apparent that this would be hard work. The jackets came off within seconds and, after Marie struggled to move past a particularly steep section, a resuffle of the team order was called for. We decided to have Miguel and Jon lead so that they could drop their bikes and backpacks and go back and assist Marie and Vanessa on the particularly steep sections.

Miguel and Marie
This steep uphill grind carried on for what seemed forever but was probably about an hour. Our arms and legs were burning as we climbed 650 meters. After this the terrain altered slightly with the occasional flat or downhill section but with river crossings to negotiate. After 3 succesful river crossings with no dunkings, we had our first minor mishap when Miguel, carrying bike in hand, lost his footing and had a wet leg/shoe to show for it but we kept on the slow progress.

River crossing
Mind how you go

Marie’s rear mounted extra bag caused us a few problems as it was knocked loose on a few occasions, each time needing to be adjusted re-secured with bungies. Eventually we reached a crossing where it was universally decided that there was little point in trying to keep our feet dry as the far side of the river towards the path was entirely bogged. We all waded in the river with bikes getting a good soaking and struggled to push them through the bog without losing our footware.

Squelch, squelch, squelch
Just before noon..having spent 3 and a half ours pushing, pulling and lifting our bikes, backpacks and panniers up the hill we reached the Bienvenidos a Chile sign and the start of the 4 wheel drive track…we high fived each other as this meant the worst was behind us. From this point we had 15km cycling, mainly downhill towards the Chilean border patrol and Lago O’Higgins.

Finally made it to the border
We stopped for a short while to put the pedals and front panniers back on our bikes, then set off again; this time more enthusiastically. The next 10km ran through thick forrest with lots of undulations, although mostly downhill and we covered it relatively quickly, although there was a small delay when a horse wandered onto the road and was too scared to move once it saw us heading its way.

Steep descent
The last 5km was entirely downhill and treacherously steep, with loose gravel on many corners. The views down to the lake were amazing but we couldnt relax long enough to enjoy them as we were busy holding on to our brakes which were caked with mud from the morning’s activities. Jon’s front brake rediscovered its annoying squesk, having been squeak free for the previous month. We felt very sorry for the small numbers of cyclists we passed heading uphill from the lake…they had a hard slog ahead of them.

We reached the Chilean border patrol at 1.30pm. It had taken us 5 hours. We were tired but very pleased with ourselves, as we met a couple shortly afterwards who advised they had taken 9 and half hours the previous day. A few hundred meters on we reached the ferry crossing. With 3 hours to wait until it left, we all ate lunch and decided to wash our bikes, panniers and legs in the lake. We need not have bothered with the bikes they got a soaking whilst on the boat anyway!

When the boat arrived, we all handed over our passports and boarded. The 2 of us were very happy when the boat set off as we knew for sure that we would get to Villa O’Higgins, even though we hadnt yet paid, and we were relieved to find out during the 3 hour journey that they took credit cards (but needed to be near to Villa O’Higgins for the machine to work), otherwise we would have been without cash for several days as we knew Villa O’Higgins had no banks. The boat journey was relatively uneventful. We were all tired so rested and napped, at one stage we all rushed up on deck to catch a stunning rainbow but retreated back below when the breeze hit us.

The boat arrived at 8.30pm, as we disembarked it was starting to get dark and raining slightly…the 2 of us had not cycled in the dark yet as we had previously been further south with long summer days but we quickly realised that we would be pushed to reach Villa O’Higgins before darkness and the rain really hit us.

End of Carretera but the start for us.
We were all keen to get a proper nights rest following our epic day so, pausing only to take a quick photo of the start of the famous Carretera Austral the 4 of us set off to cover the 8km to Villa O’Higgins. Fortunately the dirt road was good…the views looked Incredible but was too dark and we were on too much of a mission to stop to enjoy them. With 4 of us cycling in procession there was enough light to see the road and avoid any bumps or potholes (not that there were many on this section) and we covered the 8km in no more than 30 minutes. We pulled into the village and headed to a hostel that had been recommended to us. When we got there we were very pleased to find that it was really cosy, with ‘warm’ water (6 of our previous 8 showers/washes had been with cold water). We showered, cooked, ate, (a lot), congratulated each other on our joint efforts, and fell asleep shortly after 11pm on what felt like the most comfortable bunkbeds ever.

Villa O’Higgins