The Germans, Michel, and I were all staying at different hostels and left separately, but found each other less than half the way to the ferry and finished it up together. I had expected an "End of the Carretera Austral" sign at the city limits of Villa O'Higgins, but here it was at the ferry dock. We had a photo session.
More cyclists showed up: three Argentinians who had done only the southern half of the Carretera Austral, having done the northern half last year. The tallest didn't talk much, the middle one seemed pretty normal, and the short one talked fast and excitedly, almost more like an Italian.
We weren't on the normal boat, as it wasn't working. So instead of a comfortable day cruiser, we were on a fishing boat, captained by an old man that smokes three packs a day, and which didn't have enough room for all sixteen passengers. Of course, we were still charged full price, though some of us were forced to stand on deck next to the stack of seven bikes.
Not that I minded that much. The weather was nice, and the views weren't bad. It was exciting, felt like a new kind of adventure!
Inside the cabin was almost a carnival atmosphere, full of people from all over the world. The sixteen passengers hailed from at least seven different countries! I got caught in a conversation about soccer, and I think a few of the others were surprised an American knew anything about it.
Upon landfall, it was entertaining to see seven cyclists and two backpackers all getting their luggage together and changing clothes out in the open, going from bundled up on a windy deck to clothes for sweating up a hill.
The first 16 km had been described as "moderate for bikes" and were on a road. At least, that's what they called it. It was not a road. It should not be called "moderate." There were seven cyclists trying to get up the first hill, and five of them were on mountain bikes. All of them were pushing their bike.
I left my sneakers on, rather than bothering with bike shoes. There was no point.
After the initial climb, the trail (I refuse to call it a road) went into the woods, and improved. It was now about on a level with the bad parts of the Carretera Austral, which at least made it rideable. I caught up to the Argentinians and both hikers, who had all previously been ahead of me. They were stopped for a quick lunch. I decided to press on.
On the boat, the Argentinians had told us of a good camping spot halfway through, next to a landing strip that exists for some unknown purpose. I can only assume it has to do with the customs offices, but there’s no road nearby. All of us, to a man, agreed that camping at the landing strip sounded like a good idea. But when I reached there, the Germans were nowhere to be found. They must have continued. I waited a little while, then decided to keep going too. The weather was good for the moment, and tomorrow, it might not be. To imagine doing this in the rain!
The trail made a dramatic change at the Argentinian border, going from a pathetic excuse for a fire road to narrow, unmaintained singletrack. I got off Valeria again and started walking. There was simply no way to keep moving forward.
6 km of a never-ending obstacle course of roots, rocks, hills, deep, sticky mud, and countless stream crossings. I couldn't figure out the stream crossing part. We were going to a lake. Shouldn't the streams be pointed in the same direction, parallel to the trail? If that's the case, why do we keep crossing them?
It looked like the trail might be kind of fun to hike, but was horrible when pushing a bike that weighs more than half as much as I do. Valeria was constantly getting stuck in the mud, and was almost impossible to push up some of the steeper river banks. More than once, I just had to lay her down in the stream, climb around, and drag her out by the front rack.
Somehow, when I started my bike tour, I never quite had this in mind. The brochure had described this section of the trail as "difficult for bikes." It should be described as "impossible." It's possible to complete it with a bike, but not on a bike.
In the last two km, the trail narrowed further, until there was no longer enough room to walk next to your bike. As a result, both my shins got their share of scratches, one from branches, and the other from repeatedly kicking the pedals. I considered taking the pedals off. I wasn't using them anyway.
At long last, I made it to the lake. There were a total of three buildings and two people. One of them, a fisherman, saw me. I waved to him.
"Have you seen two other cyclists?"
"Other cyclists? No. But you need to come this way."
Oh, right, immigration! Quick and painless this time. No charge, no forms, didn't have to eat all my produce. I asked the immigration officer, seemingly the only other inhabitant of this place, if he'd seen the Germans, and he pointed me towards where they'd set up camp.
The Germans started applauding when I made my way over, then promptly invited me to dinner. I set up camp nearby, in the location that looked like the best combo of flat and windless. I put on another layer and happily partook of rice with curry lentils. After a day of all cold, a hot meal was just the thing.
By the time we'd finished dinner, Michel and the backpackers showed up together. They each set up their tents, then joined us and each cooked their own dinner. Three stoves going, I was tempted to sit in the middle of all three of them for warmth!
Finally, the Argentinians arrived. All nine of us had made it the whole way, after all of us planned on stopping halfway! We hung out together until late, sharing stories about how we made it through the wilderness. My feet remained wet from the stream crossings, and the pain of the cold wind blowing on them had me wincing all night. It felt so good to take my shoes off and get in my dry sleeping bag!
When I unzipped the door to my tent the next morning, I saw two of the Argentinians pointing their cameras at the lake. I stepped outside and turned around.
Nice way to wake up!
The wind had picked up considerably overnight, making me worry that the ferry wasn't coming due to rough waters. I went to the customs office and asked the guy if the wind was always this bad.
"This is nothing," was his response.
The normal ferry didn't run until 6:30 PM, which would all but prevent anyone from doing the last 37 km to El Chalten the same night. But as it turned out, if there are enough people, the customs office will call a tour company on the other side of the lake and they'll do a ferry on demand. Apparently we had reached critical mass, and a ferry arrived just before noon. A few of us had prepaid for the later ferry, and rather than pay another $40 just to leave six hours earlier, they stayed behind.
Once we got to the other side, I was excited. Only 37 km of gravel to go, and then almost everything is paved to the end! We even had tailwind, so it should be easy!
Just before I pushed off, someone remarked that it's a "good" gravel road. Goodness, I've heard that one before...
I don't know how many times I've been told about this mythical good gravel in South America, but I'm yet to see it. Sure, I've seen it for half an hour at a time, but people lead you to believe that the gravel is good the whole way, for days at a time. Like always, rocks and washboard. Worse than the Carretera Austral. But I was able to ride it - most of the time - so it was an improvement over yesterday.
For the majority of the ride, the road curled around Fitz Roy, the famous mountain that we had woken up to this morning. Good views. And as I learned later, it's not always clear around the summit. I was lucky enough to be able to see it as I rode past!
The wind had gone from annoying to formidable to legendary. It was behind me - most of the time - but strong enough that I still wished it wasn't there, or was weaker. Depending on the way the road was pointed, sometimes it came more from one side, but was always behind, not in front, thank goodness.
For the first time ever, I was blown OFF MY BIKE. The wind was coming over my shoulder at that point. I stopped pedaling entirely, but then a strong gust sent me at least two meters to my right, and then a second wind sent me over. I landed about a meter from Valeria. The wind stayed strong enough that it took two tries to stand up, and I had to wait until it subsided before I could get Valeria vertical again. Nothing else to do but hop on and hope it doesn't happen again!
I eventually made it into town and found a hostel. I took the next day off, hoping to upload a whole crapload of journals and photos, but the town is only serviced by satellite internet, which meant it's unbelievably slow. No luck.
There were an unusual amount of French speakers at the hostel. I tried out my French on a few of them, and compared to a few other times I’ve tried French in South America, I think it's a little better now. It's annoying that I know more French, but have gotten so used to Spanish, I can't use French instinctively anymore.
I’m almost always the only American at any hostel or tourist location. That's disappointing. There are lots of Americans out there, and we have the money to travel, but we don't. I don't know if it's because Americans are less likely to stay in hostels, or because we're less likely to go to South America, or because we don't get enough vacation time. That last one stings the most. When I tell Europeans that 12 vacation days per year is normal, and 15 is considered a lot, they look at me with disbelief, then pity. In both France and Germany, the average worker takes 30+ paid vacation days per year. I'd take another three or four weeks of vacation over the marginal difference in per capita GDP. Even though teaching is a crappy job with modest pay, there's rarely a shortage of teachers in the United States, and I think I know why.
I could've gone hiking on my day off, but the wind was even more ridiculous than the day before! Besides, all the hikes would merely go to places I'd ridden the day before. I wrote a few journals, fixed small problems on Valeria, and took a nap. I needed that.