Argentina & Chile with Style: Part 2

Bariloche – near Coyhaique (18 days, 597 miles)

The campsite at Bariloche was difficult to reach – up one of the steepest stony hills imaginable. I got stuck half way up, leaning against my bike and unable to move it any further. Luckily a man came down from the campsite and gave the back of my bike a heave and I managed to get to the top. The campsite was expensive but there was no way we were going back down that track again anytime soon! We ended up spending two nights in the campsite (mainly because it had a bar that not only sold cold beer but baskets of chips). Getting back down the track was equally tricky and it wasn’t long after I had to have my brakes tightened!

The next stage of our trip was to cycle along the Carretera Austral – an iconic road for cyclists from across the world. But we had some miles still to go before reaching it. Before getting onto quiet roads again we had another section on Route 40 (the busy road with lorries and a gravel hard shoulder). It was extremely hot and we stopped at a petrol station for some drinks. Whilst here we met a couple who were cycling to Ushuaia (our final destination) all the way on the Route 40. We couldn’t think of anything worse – weeks of heavy traffic through a dry barren landscape. The lady had a huge black eye and bad bruising on her face, arm and leg. There was a bit of a language barrier but we managed to work out that she had come off due to a close lorry a couple of days earlier – scary.

Once we were back on quiet roads, the route was fairly flat and followed lovely turquoise rivers with snowy mountains in the distance. Tim became concerned that the expedition was becoming far too much like a holiday! We continued south to a fabulous town called El Bolson. Here we sat in a bar drinking beer and eating meat and chips topped with fried eggs. Even better the bar had live music and we watched a fabulous, upbeat Columbian band for most of the afternoon. Ooops this really was becoming like a holiday.

That evening in the campsite we met a French family who were also cycle camping. They didn’t arrive until late evening and whilst putting up their huge tent, their three young daughters drew pictures. They had been cycle camping for 5 months and would continue for a further 7. They cycled around 25 miles a day on two recumbrant tandems and one of the girls – who couldn’t have been more than 8 years old – was on her own bike. As they began to cook for 5 we were truly impressed and somewhat humbled.

Each day we would get up early (around 6am) to make the most of the day and hopefully arrive at our destination early enough to get some washing done or just chill. This usually involved me waking Tim up by letting the air out of his sleeping mat! As he slowly sunk to the hard ground he’d wake up properly and climb out of the tent to unlock the bikes whilst I packed everything up. Our routine worked well and after a couple of weeks we were able to go from being asleep to on our way within 35 minutes. Because of getting up so early we were usually in bed by 8.30 pm.

One evening I was walking back to the tent around 8.30pm when an Argentinian man smiled and said “You are English – yes?” “Yes” I replied – “How did you know?” He said “You eat your dinner when we eat our lunch and you go to bed when we start to think about dinner!” This was so true. At 9pm other campers around us would start to light their BBQ to cook dinner and would rarely go to bed before midnight. Luckily this didn’t bother us too much as we were comatose well before 9.

During the next day we were lucky enough to see a beautiful Hawk dive down right in front of us and pick up a dead mouse. It had been sitting on a fence post and allowed this photo.

That night we decided to treat ourselves to a hostel bed as there were no campsites and we had read really good reports about the hostel. The owner was very friendly and after we had settled in, asked if we would mind keeping an eye out for other guests as he had to head into the mountains for some business. One young couple arrived and I did my best to check them in – much to their surprise as I didn’t speak Spanish! I gave them the book to fill in, showed them to their room and explained the recycling system with lots of waving hands -speaking a little louder if they didn’t seem to understand. I was very proud when the owner came back and thanked me – a little less proud when he repeated everything I had said in Spanish!!

The following day we came across Butch Cassidy’s Hideout. He was holed up here for a few months with the ‘Sundance Kid’ until being tipped off that the sheriff knew where he was. He would have been caught had the weather not been so bad that the sheriff couldn’t reach the hideout before Cassidy had left for the mountains. The hideout is now a museum and bar.

Although never mentioned, there were signs everywhere in Argentina that the Falklands (Las Malvinas as they are known there) are part of its national territory. This is especially evident at the borders where there are posters declaring ‘Las Malvinas Argentinas’. The Argentinian Government have also decided to include the Falklands in its Corona Virus statistics – something the islanders are not happy about. Although there is this conflict still with the UK, we always felt very welcome and safe in both Argentina and Chile.

The next day we entered our first proper National Park (N.P.). We paid the entrance fee alongside other cycle campers. We knew we must be getting nearer the Carretera Austral as the number of cyclists along the way was growing.

We began talking to one young lady whose bike looked like it was about to crumble under the weight of luggage. She had very worn panniers held together with bungies and apart from a tent, she had a guitar, laptop case, huge camera slung over her shoulder and large pile of cardboard. This, she explained, was her sleeping mat. She had been in Argentina for about a year and wanted to cycle to the far South – Ushuaia – to pick up a sailing boat that had hired her to film their voyage. Her dad had flown out to cycle with her for a couple of weeks and not being a cyclist – had bought his bike for very little money at Halfords!

On entering the N.P., the first sign we came across told us “You are entering a wild natural area that involves risks to your safety and health”!!

We are still not sure exactly what the risks were. The road turned to gravel and it was slow going but the scenery was lovely and we were following a turquoise river. We decided to make the most of the N.P. and stopped early at a campsite on the banks of the river. We were told it was full but there was room for our tent if we didn’t mind not having a table and benches or bbq area. We sat watching the river and doing Suduko races and some hours later the girl and her dad arrived. They both hated the gravel roads and the girl was fearful of rain because of her guitar, laptop and camera (probably the cardboard as well!). Because the campsite was full we watched them cycle away – the dad way too big for his bike and the girl having trouble keeping the camera from falling forwards over her shoulder. They were going to look for a free campsite as they were almost out of money and the girl needed to find work for a month before carrying onto Ushuaia. More about her in the next episode!

The next day brought another surprise – we knew we were heading towards a Welsh town but didn’t believe it could be totally Welsh in the middle of Argentina! Trevlin (Welsh for Mill Town) was a small town and after pitching our tent (the campsite owner was called Jones!) we decided to explore. The Tourist Office had a Welsh flag and dragon outside and inside they spoke Welsh and Spanish with a little English. They asked Tim if he spoke Welsh!

We then headed to the famous ‘Maggie’s Welsh Afternoon Tea Shop’ and were surprised to find that we had to queue. By the time it opened at 3pm there were enough people to almost fill the place. We had no idea what we had ordered as no English was spoken and we just nodded to whatever was suggested.

What a lovely surprise – a variety of Welsh Bread with butter and jam, Scones with cream and jam, a variety of cakes and proper tea in a teapot with milk. We left feeling very full and very happy and spent the rest of the day looking around a very interesting museum.

The following day our speed reflected the difficulty of riding on a gravel road. Every time a car passed we were engulfed in a cloud of dust and I became good at managing to pull my buff up over my mouth and nose whilst managing to keep upright. The road led to the Chile border. After formalities we arrived, exhausted, into Futalaufquen where we were to spend another rest day.

Being scared of water, rafting didn’t appeal to me so Tim booked himself on a trip the following day and I had a lovely time wandering round the town and even looking in some shops. I knew I couldn’t buy anything because we didn’t have any luggage space but it was nice to look. Tim thoroughly enjoyed his adrenalin trip on the raft although he said the drive to the start was very steep on a very bad dirt road.

Feeling rested we set off and, yes you guessed it, we soon turned onto the same road Tim had taken the previous day. The hills were indeed very steep and the road surface difficult to cycle on but the scenery was lovely and we were both in high spirits.

During the ride we saw a sign for a café – we had learnt not to take these signs too seriously as there was often no café or they were closed. This time it was a beautiful wooden farmhouse and after knocking on the door we were shown into a typical Chilean house where we were given a tin of Nescafe, a tea bag, milk powder and a flask of hot water. Perfect! I always have trouble asking for milk to have with my tea and often end up with a tea bag floating in hot milk.

That night we found a lovely wild camp on a beach. There was plenty of firewood so we made a fire and spent a peaceful evening watching the sunset over the sea. We were joined by a stag beetle that seemed to enjoy the warmth of the fire. There was even a signpost to a ‘Bano’ – bathroom. This was a hole in a square of wood and I’m not sure if it was better or worse than just hiding behind a tree!

Finally we reached the Carretera Austral. We were excited to be on this iconic road and to find out what it would bring.

As we set off, one side of the road had towering forested mountains and the other rivers with mountains in the distance. Along the side of the road were huge leaved plants – they looked like giant rhubarbs.

There were also patches of the same plants absolutely decimated by large caterpillars. It was quite a sight to see.

It began to rain and this made the gravel road sticky and strange to ride on. We continued until we reached the Pacific Ocean and the following day entered our second National Park where we were taking a trek to see the Ventisquero Colgante – ‘Waterfall of the Hanging Glacier’.

We were at the entrance of the Queulat Puyuguapi NP as it opened and were soon making our way up through a dense rainforest known as the Enchanted Forest Trail, climbing steeply through the overhanging trees and plants. The walk was only around 3km each way but involved scrambling up slippery rocks. We could hear the glacier long before we could see it as pieces of ice came away and fell to the ground. Suddenly we burst out into the open and in front of us was the most amazing sight – a glacier literally ‘hanging’ down the rocks.

The waterfall is 80 meters high and the glacier 1.4km long spanning two mountains. Our early start had paid off as we were alone with only our thoughts as we watched this amazing sight. On the way down we passed hordes of people climbing up, queuing at the difficult points and were glad we’d done the walk alone.

By the time we had reached the road again it was early afternoon and we knew we still had a difficult climb ahead before reaching our campsite. The road once again turned to gravel as we made our way up the 7 mile climb of hairpin bends.

It was so steep in places the lorries passing looked like they would roll backwards at any moment! It was another 50 miles before we reached a campsite where we were too exhausted to eat anything but tuna and biscuits. We had shelter from the wind but the farm dog kept insisting our tent was the best place in the whole field to pee!

The following couple of days passed without incident through lovely scenery. Although Chile towns can be quite modern there are still sights from the past such as oxen pulling carts of wood and gauchos(ranchers) on horses wearing berets, helping their dogs round up the sheep.

The next town we were to visit was Coyhaique, a large non touristy town. We stayed at the campsite for two nights as there was really heavy rain forecasted for the next day. Because we didn’t need to get up early we treated ourselves to a night out at a micro-brewery famous for delicious burgers and believe me, after weeks of pasta they were indeed delicious. Tim also had a variety of beers to try which he thoroughly enjoyed!

The following few days we had rain. On one mountain pass it was really raining hard and we were completely frozen. Our hands and feet were numb and we were seen doing jumping jacks by the roadside to try and keep warm. On one such day we arrived at a road junction at 1.15pm. We were stopped and told we couldn’t pass due to roadworks until 5pm as they were dynamiting the cliffs!

It was really cold as we sat on the road reading. After a while a few cars began to queue and as the workman made his way along the line to talk to each car I found myself with a job, moving the cone each time a works vehicle needed to come through. I enjoyed my new job, laughing at the surprised faces sitting in the trucks. But after an hour it became unbearably cold so we persuaded the workman to let us go into the adjacent woods and put up our tent for a few hours. Through the woods was a glorious view of mountains and lakes and we enjoyed the warmth of the tent.

At 5pm it had stopped raining so we packed up and continued. In hindsight maybe a mistake as the skies once again opened and we were completely soaked by the time we had made our way through the roadworks section. It got so bad and we were so cold we ended up squeezing the tent in the middle of some trees by the roadside and using our cooker to get some warmth back into our bones.

I began to wonder if we’d ever see sun on this trip again.

Still to come; fighting guanacos, a wooden campsite and penguins!