Doing things the hard way – Paso Portezuelo de la Divisoria: El Chaltén to Villa O’Higgins border crossing

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After the 6 days of cycling from Puerto Natales via Pereto Mereno Glacier we had two days off in El Calafate but we only had about half a day’s rest. On our first day off the campsite became almost submerged after 6 hours of heavy rain, forcing us to take shelter in a dorm for two nights while we dried everything out. We now know that the tent is highly waterproof and a bit of light flooding doesn’t do it, or it’s contents, any harm!

It was by chance that when we did venture out in the rain we saw another couple on bikes, Laura and Herbie. We went for lunch with them the next day and heard about how fantastic the next year or so will be (they cycled from Vancouver and have a few weeks to get to Ushuaia), which was a great morale boost. It was actually a busy social day for us – we went from lunch with one pair of cyclists to dinner with our German cycling friends, Till and Lucas. We first saw them on Tierra Del Fuego, spent a few days in Punta Arenas with them and we found out that they had reached El Calafate to take their flight home the same time as us. They cooked a huge meal for us all, which was greatly appreciated, and it was nice to share tales from the road with others that have been following the same path.

We made the journey to El Chaltén in three days and having nice weather for our time on the bikes was a real treat. We were happy to find an ideal wild camp spot behind some ruins by a river only 40km from town on the first night and La Casa Rosales (the pink house) was our home for the second. I say ‘home’ for the night… it’s an abandoned building with no windows or facilities of any kind, there is rubbish or rubble in most rooms but in our minds it was perfect. (It’s funny how many places are abandoned around here but it’s hardly surprising when you see how scarcely populated it is). It was in an awesome location to watch the sunset and sunrise and it had the same feel to it as La Union, the panaderia in Tolhuin. It’s a piece of cycle touring history. The walls are adorned with names, pictures and dates of when others like us had stayed there and what journey they were on.

From the pink house we had a long day round the lake on a poker straight road but it was made interesting by the view (and we met an armadillo!).

We saw the mountains that surround El Chaltén for almost 100km, slowly getting bigger and clearer as we got closer. It was hot though with not a cloud in the sky and barely a breeze, it definitely feels like spring is making itself known in Patagonia at the moment.

We had heard that this stretch of road is infamous for its headwind, so we planned on the ride taking us two days to get to El Chalten from the pink house but we were exceptionally lucky and rode the whole thing in a day. It was a long day though and Steph’s knee was quite sore by the time we reached the town, but it was worth it.

El Chalten is a frontier town and it definitely feels like the end of the road (because it is!). The weather continued for our time in the town so we did a small hike to the Cerro Torre mirador which was a 6km round trip. Sadly we were unable to do more hiking as Steph’s knee was still playing up, so we used the couple of days off to rest and recuperate. We have already decided that we want to come back to El Chalten with hiking boots, a backpack and more time so that we can explore the amazing Fitzroy National Park further. It really is stunning!

It was fortuitous that we took this time to rest as there would be difficult days ahead as we crossed the frontera between Argentina and Chile that can only be passed on foot or by bicycle. The infamous Paso Portezuelo de la Divisoria.

The start of this infamous border crossing was actually a very pleasant day, riding up a beautiful valley with the sun high in the sky. We took it very easy to keep as much energy in reserve for the difficult bits we knew we would be doing soon. To get to the Argentinian border point you have to go from the south end of Lago del Desierto to the north, either on the regular boat service which you pay USD$40 for, or you can take the 12km hiking trail around the east edge of the lake.

Now $80 for both of us seemed like an awful lot of money for under 1 hour on a boat and we had already decided we were going to attempt to push around. We really hadn’t realised just what we were letting ourselves in for. Our very first obstacle should have been a hint: a decrepit rope bridge with steep steps up onto it and big holes in the span itself. Consider this a qualifier for the rest of the trail.

The hiking trail itself has almost no flat sections in it, continually changing from steep uphill to steep downhill. The trail is also definitely not designed for bikes, it’s very narrow, flanked by scratchy bushes and littered with rocks, steps and tree roots. Our bikes are definitely not the heaviest but neither of us were really strong enough to lift them up some of the climbs fully loaded. We worked out a bit of a system where Steph would go ahead with as much luggage as we could easily remove from the bikes, I would follow with the first bike until Steph doubled back and took it off me at which point I would go back for the second bike. It essentially made it so we were walking three times as far as necessary to move all of our kit.

If you are reading this and trying to decide if you are going to do it, I would say really think about if you can carry your bike fully loaded. If you can it will make everything easier, it might not be enjoyable but you’ll be better equipped than we were!

We were aiming to finish this section in a day, possibly an optimistic aim without really knowing what the trail was like. After 8 hours and 7.5km we realised there wasn’t going to be enough daylight to make it to the other side that day so we called it a day and pitched the tent. Thankfully we had beautiful weather and no real rush, so we didn’t need to ruin ourselves and make it to the north shore by that night.

A really good good night’s sleep and a huge amount of food and by the morning we were ready to get back to it. Thankfully the last 4.5km were considerably easier than the first day and knowing we would be done with it that day was a huge motivation boost. We took it steady and in another 5 hours we rolled up the beach to the north shore of the lake. Exhausted but feeling fairly accomplished (and more importantly $80 better off) we set up the tent at the free camping area in front of the Argentinian border station. The view across the lake was fantastic and we had a lovely evening chatting to several cyclists heading in the other direction (though all of them were getting the boat).

Just one more section of pushing to go and we would finally be in Chile! The final pushing section is mandatory, there is no way to skip it if you are entering Chile here. The other cyclists that had descended it had told us it was around 6km and fairly difficult. In reality it was super easy compared to the previous 2 days. Admittedly it is very steep and a narrow gulley for around 1.5km, but without panniers we were both able to push our bikes up it fully loaded. The hardest bit was navigating a way through the bog on one of the flatter sections!

We were relieved to reach the invisible border at a clearing in the forest where a sign was welcoming us into both Chile and Argentina. We knew that the last 15km would be downhill and on a gravel road rather than a single track climb, so after an instant noodle lunch we cruised down the ripio to Lago O’Higgins.

The view across the lake took our breath away. It looked like someone had photoshopped some mountains onto a turquoise backdrop as the line where they met didn’t seem real. (The photo below shows this and it is not photoshopped or touched up at all. The lake is really that blue, as is everything else in the picture!)

After checking we weren’t bringing any fresh food into Chile we were given another stamp in our passport and pointed in the direction of the campsite. Our tired legs didn’t appreciate the uphill slog but the view from the tent more than made up for it. It was our fourth night in the tent since leaving El Chaltén and it was our fourth awesome sunset and sunrise. We’ve been so lucky with the weather, I can’t imagine what this border crossing would have been like in bad weather and unknown to us, this good fortune was set to continue.

By Wednesday the novelty of the border crossing had worn off and we just wanted to get back to civilisation. The remoteness and challenges of the last five days had been great in a type 2 fun kind of way but we both felt like we needed a shower and a hearty meal. Another couple that were camping with us checked with the Carabineros if there was a boat today and they confirmed that at 11am the Robinson Crusoe boat would arrive into port. We knew from prior research that the boat across to Villa O’Higgins was at 5pm. At 11am it would only stop for a few minutes to drop off and pick up passengers before heading to the O’Higgins glacier in the opposite direction. Our day was going to be spent doing yoga, practising Spanish and writing our blog, but we wanted to make sure the boat definitely came back for us so we waited with the couple who were heading to the glacier. Everything happened so fast… we asked the captain what time the boat would be coming back for us and he said “….glacier?” We explained that all we wanted to do was go to Villa O’Higgins and we were told “35,000 pesos” and “glacier”. The confusion on our faces must have been obvious but the captain gave us a wink and a knowing smile before ushering us onto the boat. We had just enough time to lock the bikes and grab a jacket then before we knew it we were setting sail for the glacier.

If you were planning to go visit a glacier, today would have been the perfect day to do so. It was also the perfect day to chill out on the lake front but as the Lonely Island song goes, “We’re on a ****ing boat!!” It turns out that the captain was saying that our trip would cost $35,000 clp and that would be to the glacier AND across to Villa O’Higgins. The price online was $1000 more than this just for the crossing and the glacier tour was $34,000 more on top of that. We got a free glacier tour and still paid $1000clp less than what we were expecting! We couldn’t believe our luck. Ben had read that what you pay on board depends on the captain’s mood but we assumed that it might be more, not less and definitely not a free glacier boat trip.

So the glacier, what can we say? It was amazing and so much better for being the most unexpected way to spend our day. I’ll let the photos do the talking for this one.

We had ran out of snacks by this point and the only food we had left needed cooking, but that was all back on our bikes so it was a very hungry day for us. We had five crackers left and an inch of Dulce de batata (a jelly like substance made from sweet potato and it’s used like jam. It’s hard to describe but it’s Argentinian and tastes really good!) so we prolonged lunch as long as we could and that would have to do until we made landfall in Villa O’Higgins. It’s fair to say that when we got off the boat we’ve never cycled so fast or set the tent up so quickly. Spaghetti and tomato sauce never tasted so good!

It feels as though so much has happened in the last two weeks. We’ve covered a fair distance, lugged our bikes around a hiking trail, completed an interesting border crossing and met a happy, generous Captain Birds Eye lookalike. Now we are in Villa O’Higgins, a quaint and quiet little village at the start of the Carretera Austral. Our journey will continue north and we are excited to see what new sights await us as we cycle along this iconic bike touring route.

Until next time,

Ben and Steph

Are you thinking about cycling or hiking this route and want more detailed information? Read this post where we share everything we learned from this adventurous border crossing and explain how you can cross from El Chalten to Villa O’Higgins too!

8 Responses

  1. Sal
    | Reply

    Wonderful to read that, fabulous photos and great to see you both looking so well and sounding great too! As always, stay safe and lots of love xxx

  2. Liam
    | Reply

    Hola chicos! I’ve just been reading your blog with fear and excitement – myself and a friend are about a week behind you, following a similar route. We’re in El Chalten at the moment (staying at casa de cyclistas) and will make the border crossing probably around Saturday 25th. We saw your message on the walls of the pink house!
    Buen viaje en la carretera austral. Maybe we’ll catch you up, maybe we won’t, but thanks for all the knowledge shared so far!
    Liam and Jake

    • unscriptedride
      | Reply

      Hola! Wow that’s so cool, we’re glad the blog has been useful to other cyclists too and the pink house was awesome right! Maybe we will see you on the road at some point, we are just past Cochrane now but you never know. We like taking our time! Have fun with the border crossing and the push around the lake if you fancy some pain.. haha!
      Where are you guys from and what route are you doing?
      Steph and Ben 🙂

      • Liam
        | Reply

        Haha we’ve booked onto the ferry to avoid the treacherous trail! (We have touring bikes and panniers, not your neat bike packing setup)
        We’re from Sheffield, and hope to get to Puerto Montt before Christmas. Then later we’ll go from Santiago towards Bolivia and Peru. We’ll keep an eye on your blog and get in touch if we catch you up!

        • unscriptedride
          | Reply

          That’s probably a wise choice, I’d not recommend the hike a bike around the lake if you can afford the ferry. Our set up is small but not the lightest, easier to manage than panniers though for sure.
          Sounds like a great trip you’ve got planned, do you guys have a blog or Instagram? We’re going to be in coyhaique for a while in December so give us a heads up when you’re near, it’s always cool to meet up with people from home!

          • Liam

            Cool! We’re a little way behind you now – having just arrived in Cochrane. We got stuck in Candelario Mancilla for 3 days! I’m on Instagram @liamkhardy
            We’ll be in touch when we reach coyhaique!

  3. Stephen
    | Reply

    Those mountains look fantastic! As for the lake, I’ll probably take the boat (will be about four-five years before I reach that stage). I’ll jump at any chance of a boat crossing. 🙂

    • unscriptedride
      | Reply

      Haha yeah the boat is definitely the sensible way to do it!

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