Almost the entire southern half of the South American continent is called Patagonia. In this article we only refer to our trip from Punta Arenas to El Chalten, which took us to the huge (and most famous) national parks Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares. The rest of Patagonia will follow in further articles.
From Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
Gone with the wind: So we can summarize our days between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. Or “Tierra del Fuego 2.0”. The landscape has not changed since the island of Tierra del Fuego, and the wind is still blowing extremely strong, from all directions except ours. Fortunately we had beautiful landscapes and some unexpected spectators (flamingos, nandus and a skunk). We can hardly wait to get to the mountains to be protected from the wind!
Torres del Paine
In Puerto Natales we could finally see the mountains in the distance, only a day’s journey away before we reach the Torres del Paine National Park, the highlight of this region. On the way we passed the Cueva del Milodon, a small nature park with a huge prehistoric cave and two smaller caves. We made the short walk to the big cave and also explored the second biggest cave. At the end, we climbed up to the view point on the roof of the big cave (finally a few meters of altitude for our legs!): the view over the whole valley up to Puerto Natales was worth it!
After a quiet night in our tent next to a waterfall we cycled the last kilometres to Torres del Paine. The way there was already spectacular: We knew that this day in the national park will be incredible! We arrived at 11am at the entrance of the park (later than planned, but we didn’t take into account the steep hills up to the entrance and the bus full of Canadians who all wanted to take a picture with us at the lookout…) After paying the somewhat salted entrance fee (42’000 CLP ~ 49 EUR for both of us), we calmly crossed the south of the park between mountains, rivers and crystal clear lakes. We got closer and closer to the famous mountain range, and around noon we finally had a complete view. For lunch we settled down on a small peninsula of Lago Pehoé, in front of us the central massif of the Torres del Paine. The incredibly blue lake had not a single wave and reflected wonderfully the surrounding mountains. We enjoyed a lot this unique moment, cut off from the rest of the world only with the lake and the mountains.
After the picnic we put on our running shoes, we wanted to see the whole thing from above. We walked in direction of the Mirador Condor, a small, beautiful hike, which was marked with a walk of 1 hour. At the summit we weren’t disappointed. A spectacular view to the many lakes of the park, behind them the mountains and glaciers awaited us. We didn’t stay very long, our program was still quite full. We descended running and cycled to the next lookout. This time we had hardly any altitude difference to overcome, but a lot more tourists on the way. But the view made us forget the people around us, we only had eyes for the peaks of the nearby central mountain range, the glaciers and the reflections in the crystal clear water. On the way back to our bikes we passed by a waterfall, but we do not stay long. We will to check in at the campsite at 8 pm at the latest and we still had 30 km to go, we had to hurry! On these last kilometers we suffered quite a lot, it went up and down incessantly, but in the end we arrived just in time at 19.45, lucky us! We deserved a beer at sunset, cheers!
On the 2nd day in the national park we exchanged our bikes for the running shoes, we wanted to hike to the viewpoint “Base de las Torres” to enjoy the most famous view of the national park, the lake with the 3 rock towers behind it. The hiking map and the park rangers told us that we will need 8 hours for 10 km and approximately 1000 m altitude there and back. That seemed quite a lot to us. The first kilometres in the plain invited us to jog and warm up before the first ascent. We quickly saw that we won’t be alone at the top: We passed whole columns of tourists of all kinds, from instagrammers dressed as if for a fashion show and holding the phone ready for photos all the time, to the old Asian couple advancing at the pace of a turtle; it was all there. Most of the people here have never been to the mountains before, the 8-hour time now made sense to us. But we didn’t worry about it and went up at our own pace. After 300 m ascent a nice surprise awaited us: we reached the Paso de los Vientos. In front of us, a long and narrow valley opened up with a small river, which we followed for the next kilometres. Behind us a panoramic view of the campsite, the lakes and a large part of the national park. The next flat kilometres along the river passed quickly and without much effort until we arrived in front of a kind of wall: a huge moraine of rocks and sand, which we had to overcome on the last kilometre. We were already quite tired, but once we reached the top, we were amazed: even if the sun was hiding behind clouds and the top of the towers were covered in fog, it was even more beautiful than what we saw on the pictures! Nevertheless, we did not stay long, it was too cold up there. We prefered to eat our picnic further down the valley. We started the very slippery descent in the sand slopes and landed on our butt more than once. Fortunately we make the trip by bike and not on foot! At 3pm we were back at the campground after 5,5 hours walking, so far under 8 hours. But we were pretty tired, we took a little nap in the sun which finally returned and in the end we postponed our departure until the next day. Instead, we had a beer on the terrace. This is the great thing in the life of a traveller, to live according to your wishes without a schedule!
From Torres del Paine to El Calafate
The next day we left Torres del Paine, also because the weather was not very good and did not invite us to stay longer. All the landscapes were covered by clouds, we saw neither mountains nor lakes while we pedaled. We had a picnic break at a viewpoint with a shelter, but without seeing anything. We were soaked, it was windy and we were shivering with cold. We didn’t feel like going on, but it was even colder when we sat still. Our motivation was put to the test. We decided to drive on anyway. A little later it finally stopped raining, but it was still cold. After 60 km we reached Cerro Castillo, the border village in Chile to Argentina. We stopped at the only café in the village to warm up a little and finally decided to stay overnight in the village. We didn’t want to set up the tent in the middle of nowhere, we wanted to try to find a warm place in the village. Our first try paid off immediately: The bus station had a closed waiting room with super comfortable sofas and a wood stove! As soon as we had settled in, the door was pushed open by 3 truck drivers, who immediately started making a fire in the stove and cooking. We watched them, we chatted a little, but we were too tired to do anything ourselves. In the end they felt sorry for us, or they were just very nice anyway: they offered us coffee and cookies while they cooked. And when they were done cooking, they asked us to take our plates and cutlery to eat with them! There was very good meat, a slightly spiced onion sauce, rice and bread. What a treat, and as they left, they even left us the rest of their cookies for dessert! All we had to do is unpack our sleeping bags and snuggle into the sofas, then we immediatly fell asleep!
The next day we finally crossed the border and returned to Argentina. On the Argentinean side Matthieu talked to one of the customs officers while Katrin was standing in line for passport control. He brang us a bag of apples and a piece of homemade muesli bar, explaining that as cyclists we need a lot of vitamins and energy. Apparently people really feel sorry for us these days! By the way, it was the best muesli bar we ever tasted in our lives! We continued our way north between fields, sheep and guanacos. In the evening we found shelter in a deserted police station, where we admired the writings and drawings of other travellers who have found refuge there on the walls.
On the third day our destination was El Calafate, but the wind was so strong that we didn’t really believe we will make it. When we had already covered 80 km, we were at the end of our strength: the last 30 km we tried to hitchhike. We didn’t have to wait very long (barely 15 minutes) for a pair of Argentinians to stop in a pick up. We loaded our bikes on the back and warmed up inside. On the way we passed a motorcyclist who had a technical problem. Our rescuers droped us off at the outskirts of El Calafate to drive back and get the man with the motorcycle. Where else in the world can we find such kindness towards strangers? That was our luck of the day, together with a beautiful descent with a view of Lago Argentino earlier in the day and a guanaco burger in the evening!
70 km from El Calafate is this famous glacier, which we could easily visit in 2 days of cycling. What an impressive amount of ice! We have heard about it, seen pictures, knew what to expect. But in reality it is still different. To see these 70 m high ice towers, to hear the ice cracking all the time, to see blocks of ice falling into the lake from time to time – that was simply impressive.
But this is not the only thing to see here in the area of El Calafate. Lago Argentino sparkled in 1,000 different shades of blue, spring crept into the steppe with flowers in all colours. Every day nature offered us a new spectacle, we just can’t get enough of it!
We set off again for 3 days of cycling towards El Chalten. Unfortunately we still had the same amount of wind, we only progressed with 10km/h, so the days were long and tiring. We saw the Fitz Roy, this iconic mountain of the National Park Los Glaciares every day, but without really getting closer. At least we always found shelters for the night, even if some of them were a bit creepy (have you ever slept a meter away from sheep’s legs and other bones in the same hut? We have…).
We had already cycled quite far, it was time to train our legs also in a different way. We stopped for 3 days of hiking in El Chalten (yes, we are doing a bike tour, but with the nice weather this week and the snow-covered mountains around us we couldn’t resist the call of the mountains). We were able to see the Fitz Roy from all sides (a rather rare phenomenon, as it seems to be often hidden between the clouds), but also the Cerro Torre and many other snow-covered peaks, the many lakes and glaciers around these peaks… We can’t say more about it, just marvel in silence and contemplate the infinite beauty of nature.
See the photos here: