Out of the Carretera and into the desert: cycling through the Patagonian steppe

Our tales of Patagonia so far would probably have you thinking that the whole region is awash with luscious scenery. We were starting to believe it too, after six weeks on Chile’s Carretera Austral, with its snowcapped mountains, glaciers, fjords, forests, rivers, lakes – have we missed anything? But after we left sleepy Villa O’Higgins we were in for a series of shocks.

The end of the line

The ginormous and impenetrable Southern Patagonia Ice Field means the Carretera Austral ends 7km south of Villa O’Higgins. If you want to continue further south in Chile by land, you must cross back into Argentina. From Villa O’Higgins, vehicles retrace their tracks back north, but cyclists get to continue the adventure. After a choppy ferry ride across Lago O’Higgins we pushed our bikes along gaucho tracks, carried them through rivers, crossed another lake, cycled 39km and just like that were back on tarmac, wheeling down the main drag of El Chaltén, the hiking capital of Argentina.

We were confronted with restaurants and noisy bars full to the brim with mountaineers, hikers, climbers and probably the odd cyclist enjoying some apres-adventure. Music boomed out onto the street. Despite three wonderful days of hiking around Mount Fitz Roy and a fascinating guided-tour of Danish pioneer Andreas Madsen’s self-built estancia, I hated the place and couldn’t wait to leave.

Into the wild

Leaving El Chaltén was just as much of a shock as we entered the Patagonian steppe. Only tufts of yellow pampas grass and thorn bushes survive this side of the Andes, as well as the clusters of álamo trees which are planted around estancias as a wind barrier. The electric blue Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino were the only splashes of colour in an otherwise dry and barren landscape.

It’s difficult to convey just how vast and empty Patagonia is to someone living on a tiny and congested island called Great Britain. But imagine for a moment driving up the M1 from London to Nottingham: Luton, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby, Leicester and Loughborough, and of course all the towns and villages dotted in-between; traffic jams; speed cameras; roadside AA vans; service stations with a WH Smiths, M&S, Pizza Express and Travel Lodge. Now imagine doing exactly the same journey but there is absolutely nada from start to finish except for a handful of estancias, most of which you can’t even see as they’re situated at the end of long and winding gravel tracks. This is exactly what it’s like cycling the 215km between El Chaltén and the next town El Calafate.

Even after nine months in South America, the lead up to cycling out of town is still daunting when you know it’s remote out there. Have we got enough food? Where can we refill water? Is there any shelter en route? What happens if one of us becomes ill or injured? But with some preparation and just a tiny bit of luck, as soon as you start pedalling it’s so liberating and all fears and doubts evaporate until you reach the next town and have to do it all over again. 

Head(wind)s or tail(wind)s?

Our biggest shock was the notorious Patagonian wind. We had of course cycled in the wind before, but down here it’s almost constant. Luckily heading south it’s more likely to be in your favour, and we met plenty of northbound cyclists who only complained about it — ‘that’s your fault for starting in Ushuaia!’ I always wanted to tell them. It’s difficult to really convey in words just how brutal and soul-destroying a Patagonia head wind can be, but perhaps these anecdotes will give you an idea…

Turning west onto Ruta 11 the wind was so strong and directly in our faces that it took us five hours to cycle the 32km into El Calafate. A solid 6.4km/h. You’re not going to win any Tour de France jerseys going at that speed but you may still be the fastest in the Upper Ifold Cycle Club. Sitting on the side of the road, spooning dulce de leche out the tub with our fingers and feeling sorry for ourselves, we were tempted to stick out our thumbs and hitch a lift for the remaining 13km. Nobody would know. Except they would! Right behind us was a French family of four whose children were 12 and 8. We first met them in Uyuni, Bolivia, in August and have spent the last two months playing cat and mouse. If they could do it, so could we.

The road was so dull we took zero pictures, so here’s one of us instead on a day trip from El Calafate to the Perito Moreno glacier

With our pride on the line, we put our heads down and the kilometres began to slowly tick over. We reached the top of a hill and just a short distance away was El Calafate. Thank f-c-u-k. We went straight to El Bigote restaurant, stuffed our faces with disappointing pizza and celebrated how we had just beaten two kids to the finish line. Competitive, us? Not at all. 

Cycling out of El Calafate five days later with the wind now behind us, we covered the exact same stretch in just 1.5 hours as we headed towards the border with Chile 205km away. Again, there was absolutely nada except for several flocks of rhea and herds of guanaco and sheep as we switched between smooth tarmac and washboard gravel.

Mi casa es su casa

On our second night we paid a modest sum to spend the night in a portacabin behind a lonely back country service station, where workers are in charge of maintaining the roads in Santa Cruz province. That night, the wind picked up considerably. The portacabin rattled and trembled as we lay in our beds, worried that we might take flight. By the morning the wind had only gotten stronger – pushing 100km/h – and it was far too dangerous to cycle. Sign posts were shaking and the few trees there were bending almost past the point of no return. 

How do you spend a day off in the middle of nowhere? Fortunately for us a potentially tedious day waiting around twiddling our thumbs turned into one of our most memorable, thanks to Argentinian hospitality. Ramiro and Roxana were manning the service station in place of their colleague who had gone on holiday. Living in Rio Gallegos, they were enjoying their time away from the provincial capital and spending time with their new neighbours, the closest being 12km away.

They invited us in for lunch to finish the lamb they’d cooked the night before for their son Benjamin’s 5th birthday. An hour later, a truck pulled in with a half-recumbent-half-tandem bike strapped to the back. Out jumped Emilio and Angi, a couple from Buenos Aires who had been defeated by the wind. They could not have been more different to Ramiro and Roxana: a young, hip couple who taught Philosophy and Pottery respectively in the capital, but they were greeted like long lost friends. We were soon joined by Isandro whom we had watched in horror topple off his motorbike as he waited at the junction. Once we’d got him back on his feet and inside we chatted away over maté, ate leftover birthday cake and played indoor football with Benjamin.

The whole day for us epitomised the spirit of hospitality and openness we’ve become accustomed to in Argentina. People here love to travel, especially within their own country, and the huge distances required to cover it mean that everyone looks out for each other. If we’re sitting on the side of the road having a rest, vehicles slow down to check we’re ok. If we need to hitch a lift with our bikes it’s never a problem. People we’ve met have jumped to give us their address and contact details in case our route goes through their region. And unlike us Brits, they really mean it! Emilio and Angi were no different – “you must come and stay with us in Buenos Aires” – although sadly they won’t have returned from their own trip when we’re in the capital for our flight back home.

As we left the station early the next morning we could see sunrise on the towers of Torres del Paine 100km away. There wasn’t a breath of wind as we cycled towards them. We followed a gravel road where we didn’t see a single vehicle or person until the border back into Chile. After two weeks of noise, either from busy towns or roaring winds, most shocking of all was that even these harsh and barren landscapes can bring moments of total stillness and quiet.

And now there’s just one more ride to go until we reach the end of our South American journey. We’ll be following the Fin Del Mundo route from Bikepacking.com to reach our final destination, Ushuaia. Find out a little more about the route here. And if you want to check our progress you can track us here.

The Route

Dates: 11-31 January (21 days)
Total distance: 454 km
Cycling days: 6
Hiking days: 3
Rest days: 12
Longest day: 118 km
Shortest day: 36 km

View on Google Maps

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