You can do all the planning in the world but a bit of luck goes a long way. We prepared ourselves for 6-9 days cycling to reach El Calafate (Argentina) from Puerto Natales (Chile) but we did it in four. This was thanks to favourable conditions (we had our first tail wind!) and a fortuitous border crossing. Leaving Puerto Natales on a Sunday was the best decision we could have made because we had a quicker day of cycling than planned on the main road with very few other vehicles. After flipping a coin to see which route we would take we even arrived at the border a day earlier than expected. So when we were told the Argentinian side of the border would be closed tomorrow we thanked our lucky stars that we were able to cross that night and after a totally hassle free crossing on the Argentinian side we made it to an Estancia for a welcoming cup of tea and a bed for the night.
It’s awesome being back on the road. Even the tougher times when the wind picked up or the terrain was rough, it felt great to be riding again. The landscape was very reminiscent of Tierra del Fuego. Not quite as flat but equally as sparse and lacking in shelter so we were lucky that the weather stayed mostly bright albeit very cold.
From what we have seen so far Argentinians definitely seem less reserved than Chileans, so many drivers will wave, flash their lights and beep at us all in a positive encouraging way. It’s really cool getting so many big smiles and thumbs up when you are grinding up a steep climb, quite a different attitude to cyclists than we are used to in the UK.
So after four days on the road and 290km we arrived in El Calafate. It’s a nice town but it’s one of the major stops on the tourist trail and it seems like everywhere in town is geared towards taking your money. Both food and accommodation are generally on the expensive side but there are some nice looking restaurants and hotels if you budget will stretch to them. Ours didn’t so we found a campsite and cooked for ourselves. El Calafate is so popular because of the Perito Moreno Glacier 80km up the road. The glacier is one of the few that is still advancing (up to 2m per day!) and it is renown for its impressive calvings where huge chunks off ice break off and crash into the lake below. We looked into getting the bus to the glacier but was going to cost 450 ARS (£20) for the half day round trip NOT including the 500 ARS (£22.50) National Park entry fee. So we chose to ride and save ourselves some money.
So after doing some research we looked into some places to camp along the way as it would take more than a day or two to get there and back. We chose to take the less used gravel road from town towards the glacier. It involved a fair bit of climbing to begin with but afforded fantastic views across the lake. Our research had shown that there was a campsite 25km from the glacier but when we reached the border for the National Park (30km from the glacier) and we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no camping in the National Park, we had to rethink our plans. After back tracking a few km we found an ideal wild camp location that we had spotted on our way in. Technically it was in a nature reserve so we had what sounded like millions of birds overhead for the evening but we both slept soundly nonetheless.
We headed into the National Park early the next day to make sure we had enough time to fully explore the boardwalks around the glacier. On the ride in each bend in the road gave us new and tantalising view of the glacier but they couldn’t prepare us for how immense it is when you get up close. Pictures don’t really do Perito Mereno justice. The face of it varies from 40 to 70 metres in height, it is 5km wide and at least 8km long. It may seem a bit dull to sit and watch a wall of ice but it is creaking and cracking all the time and when pieces do fall off it, it is seriously impressive. Chunks the size of buildings occasionally detach themselves and fall into the lake with a noise that sounds like thunder. It was awesome!
As we knew we couldn’t camp in the park and there were few wild camp opportunities other than where we stayed the previous night we decided to ride all the way back to El Calafate after visiting the park. While it was incredible to go and see it, the strict rules do make it difficult to visit by bike. We had to leave mid-afternoon to make sure we got back to town that evening. We pedalled hard because we knew we were going to have a few rest days in El Calafate when we got back.
While its been great visiting some of the unmissable attractions of Patagonia we’re looking forward to getting off the main tourist trail and hitting the Caretera Austral soon. Saying that, the next stop is El Chaltén and Mount Fitzroy National Park, the hiking capital of Argentina which is apparently even busier and more expensive than El Calafate.
Ben and Steph