El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins – The infamous border crossing

The overland route between El Chaltén, Argentina and Villa O’Higgins, Chile at the start of the Carretera Austral is only accessible by bicycle or on foot. When we looked into the route the information was scarce so we have detailed how we did it below.

View our route map and look at this section in more detail here

For more narrative detail and photos, read our blog here

Key Information:

  • The border control posts only open in November for the summer months. Check Chilean border status here
  • Lago O’Higgins boats are notoriously affected by wind. Check they are running in either Villa O’Higgins or El Chaltén before leaving (see websites below).
  • We have detailed the route travelling from Argentina to Chile, coming from the south going north.
  • All prices and details correct as of Summer 2017/18. 

El Chaltén, Argentina

Money

There is only one atm in town, which is often broken or out of cash so ensure you bring enough Argentinian pesos for your time here. Also if you don’t have any Chilean pesos and you can afford to bring extra Argentinian, you might be lucky enough to change with those coming South. We managed to change £150 worth and used the last updated xe rate on the iPhone app to make the exchange. This saved both of us ATM fees and meant that we didn’t have to worry about spending cash. 

Useful to know: There is no ATM in Villa O’Higgins but some of the small shops in town accept card. The first opportunity for withdrawing money is Cochrane, 250km North, but only with MasterCard. Coyhaique is the first place that has an ATM that accepts Visa.

Food

There are plenty of shops and bakeries in town but they are quite expensive. If you haven’t already got here, bring supplies with you. (We bought a lot in El Calafate, making sure we had enough for over a week and didn’t need to buy much more until O’Higgins). Important: If you are doing the crossing to Chile from the Argentinian side ensure you have extra food in case any of the boats are not running. We know people we had to spend an extra 3 days waiting to get to Villa O’Higgins and there aren’t any shops (see Candelaria Mancilla section below). 

Accommodation

The Casa de Ciclista “El Charrito” is run by Flo and her husband who kindly open their house to cyclists and are super friendly. They have room for about half a dozen small tents in their garden, Wi-fi, hot shower and you can use their kitchen. Cheap ($120 ARS pp/pn) but not free like other Casa de Ciclistas. 

There are various other campsites, hospedajes, hostels and hotels in town depending on your budget. Also if you want to do any hiking in the National Park, the campsites in the mountains are free!

Leaving El Chaltén 

Approx. 40km ride to the lake shore on a ripio road. (Gravel but well-graded surface.) There is a campsite at the lake but it is very basic and expensive. We wild camped in the woods to the right of the road 4km before reaching the lake. 

Lago Del Desierto

Two options: 

  1. Take the ferry across the lake which costs $40 USD and takes about an hour (this is the easiest and most common option).
  2. Carry your bike around the lake on a 12km hiking trail (really difficult, not well signposted and it is a serious hike-a-bike as the trail is steep and loose most of the time. You have to be able to carry your bike).

The hiking trail

Before you get to the lake, on your right you will see a sign next to a set of steps and a bridge. This is the start of the trail and to make it more challenging, there is a bike length gap in the bridge just to test you can lift your bike over obstacles!

It is most definitely a hiking trail, not an easy path around the lake so think carefully before taking this on. It is constantly climbing or descending with lots of big rocks and vegetation to climb over, with some river crossings too. It took us 13 hours and we had to camp on the way. To hear more about our experience, read our blog.

Would we do it again? No, though we have heard of people putting their bike on the ferry and walking the trail (which is less hard than with a bike), which could be a cheaper option.

Free campsite at the north edge of the lake – no facilities. You also get your Argentinian exit stamp here (do not leave without it).

The obligatory push

Going north you have 5km of narrow, rutted singletrack climb but then 16km of easier gravel road on the Chilean side. 

Going south you have the other way round, 16km gradual climb on a gravel road and then 5km steep descent. Most of the climb is rideable and even the descent isn’t too bad. Four panniers might be tight in the ruts.

If you’ve pushed around Lago Del Desierto this feel like much easier going!!

Candelaria Mancilla

The Chilean border is at the top of the hill (you roll down to it going north but have to cycle up to it going south). Easy border crossing but you do have to declare any fresh food going into Chile and they check your bike over. Make sure you get your Chilean entry stamp here.

There is one place to camp here which is signposted. It is 1km away from the border post and follows an undulating gravel road. It is 5000 pp/pn and on a hillside with very little shelter. (We were here at the start of the season and weren’t charged). There are no facilities but the owner of the house does cook meals (expensive) and make fresh bread. Friends of ours were stuck here for three days as it was too windy for the ferry so once again, make sure you have enough food or Chilean pesos with you just in case. 

The ferry goes from the jetty almost directly below the campsite (5 minute cycle) but other than a guard station, there is nothing else there. 

Lago O’Higgins

Two options for the boat across: 

  1. Robinson Crusoe – website
  2. Small local boat – Navegación Lago O’Higgins – website

Both depend on weather conditions. 

Schedule: Check the above websites but when we were here the Robinson Crusoe boat was three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday). Arrives at around 11am, drops people off that have come across from Villa O’Higgins and then goes out to the O’Higgins glacier. If you want to do the glacier tour, you can get on the boat now.

Returns back to Candelaria Mancilla around 5pm. 

Arrives into Puerto Bahamóndez at about 8.15pm where a bus leaves at 8.30pm to take backpackers into town.

Price: 36,000 clp Candelaria Mancilla to Puerto Bahamóndez (Robinson Crusoe). Considerably more to go to the glacier (check the website for prices). 

Note: The smaller boat comes at similar times to the Robinson Crusoe (local competition!) but it’s best to check with the Carabineros at the border control at 9am when they know which boats are coming across. 

Villa O’Higgins, Chile

The boat doesn’t actually drop you off at Villa O’Higgins, you arrive at Puerto Bahamóndez which is 8km away. It is the start of Carretera Austral and there are two signs here marking the end of the Carretera (most people do it north to south) so stop here if you want a photo!

It’s an easy 8km ride into town on a gravel road. 

Accommodation

El Mosco: camping 6000 pp/pn, hostel 9000 pp/pn in 6 bed dorm or more for private rooms. Basic dorm beds and less sheltered camping but you get to use the hostel kitchen/seating area and hot showers. Really friendly staff. Amazingly well stocked kitchen, 4 gas burners and a small electric oven and some communal spices. Great place to hang out and chat to people in the warm, play games or share meals. Wi-fi is painstakingly slow!

Los Nires: camping only, 5000 pp/pn. Nice camping pitches with picnic benches, lots of room, some shelter under trees and they have the cutest golden retriever. Indoor kitchen with gas hob and oven (use your own pots and utensils) and adjoining dining area with lots of room and big tables. They light a fire morning and evening (wood burning fire for hot water shower am and pm too). Wi-fi near the house only (faster than Mosco). They bake good, fresh bread every day.

Robinson Crusoe Lodge is across the road from El Mosco but it is very expensive.  

Food

Half a dozen small stores that all sell similar things for slightly different prices. We ended up going to most of them for our groceries. The shop on the corner of the main plaza accepts Credit Cards for a small fee.

Limited fresh food: potatoes, onions and apples were available but little else. Eggs and bread became a staple! (Caleta Tortel was the first place that had edible peppers and carrots!)

Have you done this route? Do you have any additional information that we have missed out or can you update this article? Leave us a comment or send us a message, we’d love to hear from you. 

Steph and Ben

You can also read our blog from this section here

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