A few miles from Puerto Natales, we squeezed in a visit to a cave whose mylodon remains had been found opening up paleontological insights into the times of an extinct sloth around 14,500 years ago. It was an hour neatly filled. A few miles down the road, we zoomed past Devil’s Chair, a big rock of alleged geological interest situated not far from an area abundant with condors. A flight of condors all took wing from a steep hill making a rather striking spectacle, soaring above and gliding around in search of carrion. Unlike the cave, this place I wouldn’t have missed.
Into the teeth of the wind we rode making the 170 miles from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, a region as big as Denmark whose estancias – sheep farms were as big as counties. Both bikes were flicked over like dominoes when perched on their side stands – only unattended to help each other pick up their blown-over bike. Mother Nature was peeved about something that day, she wouldn’t give us a minute to compose ourselves. At least she didn’t deny us sight of the Andes’ snow-capped mountains, which remained in our peripheral vision the whole way. With the behooving help of Jason, I got my mojo back on 40 miles of ripio, loose gravel; a scenic shortcut seducing us in a way that only off-road rural beauty can.
The approach to El Calafate was a sere and desolate land of low hills and barren windswept plains, broken up by the odd guanaco grazing. The flag trees were a constant weather vane as to the prevailing winds constantly sweeping through. I was pained when I saw a young guanaco blindly panic at the sound of our bikes; it misjudged the height of a tight wire fence near the roadside and instead of clearing it, somersaulted and flipped back over impaled on the wire. Jason ran towards the trapped animal to help although through dogged determination, the guanaco detangled its hind leg and shot off, a trickle of red staining its fur. It was probably thee only time I cursed our motorbikes – wretched noisy things!
I liked the town of El Calafate, it had a good vibe about it; bustling with ice-trekking operators, hiking shops, rustic bars and small restaurants. It looked and felt very alpine to me. Our hostel ‘Huemul’ although a little tatty was cheap and cheerful at five pounds per night, had secure parking for our bikes and closely located to town.
Out of Los Glaciares National Park’s 356 glaciers, we took our crampon-strapped feet onto Perito Moreno. Bigger than Buenos Aires at 97 square miles, it’s also 19 miles long; as icefields go, it’s the world’s third largest glacial area and freshwater reserve. We spent a good hour gaping on the tiered viewing balconies at the imposing façade, 60 metres tall. We bore witness to the odd mass of ice crash down – creating resounding roars and widespread ripples in the glacial-melt water. Shame we didn’t have the recording button on!
Next, we jumped on a boat that sailed a load of us over the milky turquoise to commence our ‘mini-trek’ on the ice. A little touristy for our taste – we followed a group, hacking our spiked feet into an established, undulating ice trail. Skirted safely around sinkholes, curved past crevasses and peered into icy cavities layered in darkening hues of blue. We tried our level best to pause only at designated spots for photos but kept failing miserably; the guide was getting rankled at us by the minute. Why get yourself in a lather about such things? Although the weather was a dire combination of freezing snow and mountain-enveloped mist for the most part, the glacier – a sculptor of the landscape – still made a spectacular sight worth seeing. Especially this close, on top of it. Jason couldn’t wait to return solo to capture some undisturbed footage on the quadcopter.
Spoilt with another beautiful riding road, we took a refreshingly windless route under cool blue skies over to El Chaltén, a small mountain village nicknamed the Trekking Capital of Argentina. I felt instantly uplifted compared to our last hostel as we checked into Lo De Trivi, costing us double at ten pounds each per night. The restaurant-sized kitchen, which was spotless, safe spot around the back for our bikes and comfy lounge boasting panoramic views of the Andes amply justified the cost.
Taking a pre-dawn hour-long hike up to Lake Capri gave us a good warm-up. It was a chance to watch the sun rise over Mount Fitz Roy from afar, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. We stayed until the first light bathed the tip of the peak at over 3,400 metres; its meringue smooth snow was the whitest I’d ever seen. It was bitterly cold but the three German, Dutch and Argentinian chaps accompanying us agreed, it was well worth the chilly 14 kilometres walked.
The following day, we were itching for a closer look so the two of us took the 25 kilometre round trek over to Laguna de Los Tres. This was about the closest we were going to get to Mount Fitz Roy, which afforded the most intimate vantage point overlooking the lagoon. As soon as we’d caught our breath from the slog endured to climb up there, the sight took our breath away once more. The lagoon was incredible, so clear and altogether gorgeous – it was all I could do not to leap into those placid waters. Mother have mercy though, we were walking on hot coals for the last ten kilometres to get back – plodding heavily down unforgiving stones salted with white on the snow-speckled trail. These peaks of Patagonia certainly make you earn it.
Daylight broke, still cold but sunny. The storm had diminished to a steady breeze – leaves and snowflakes whirling around us. It was the end of the night’s dark dance at least. Feeling the groggy end of a bug we’d both caught, it felt good to pack up, hit the open road and enjoy the wind on our faces again. It was the day I was to deal with my demons – “100 miles of relentless ripio on Ruta 40 where the section runs out of paved road”, we’d been informed by many. I hadn’t slept much the night previous, mind racing at where Jason had marked this stretch of off-road on the map as ‘tricky’. I’d tackled ripio a few times before, why was I in cold, clammy fear of this section so badly? Probably paying too much attention to other peoples’ scaremongering accounts and negative experiences since arriving to South America mid-March. None I relished the prospect of facing; being blown off the road, spraining ankles and crashing through the thick, bike-wrecking gravel. There was nothing else to do but to see for myself.
Departing El Chaltén, we rode alongside the sun-flecked waters of Lago Argentina for what seemed like an eternity. This lake was at least fifty miles long. As sure as eggs were eggs though, the smooth tarmac gave way to more taxing terrain shortly before Lago Cardiel. At a nearby petrol station, I couldn’t tell for sure but upon being greeted by a ginger kitten there, whose matching eyes flashed golden at me, this friendly little feline interaction changed my whole persona. My confidence went from zero to ‘Lets go!’. Unbeknown to me, it was just the tonic I was looking for.
The stretch of Ruta 40 I’d been utterly dreading was not nearly as nasty as I’d imagined. Fear of the unknown had definitely gotten the better of me on this occasion. Damn it. Sure, we hit the gravel but some of it was compacted, other parts hard mud, broken up by a series of freshly laden tarmac. There were a host of road blocks for us to skirt around to let the workmen crack on with surfacing the new road being built, barricading the four-wheeled traveller. The enabling bliss of being on two wheels was not lost on either of us.
The skills were honed each time the terrain varied as we switched from ripio to tarmac, to road foundations to ripio, to hardcore back to ripio for the first twenty odd miles. We practically had the place to ourselves, meeting only one cyclist en route. I actually had quite a bit of fun! We successfully negotiated over all the usual suspects: scores of stones, a few big rocks intending to cause mayhem with the front tyres, lashings of loose gravel, coarse corrugations and some sneaky sand disguised as hard dirt.
I lost control a few times veering off sharply when the wind blew me senselessly over, although manoeuved a couple of brilliant saves in the sand – somehow staying upright. Who knew I had it in me? I laughed off each bone-jarring, hairy and manic moment. Instinct took over and I felt revitalised by the whole experience. I was finally beginning to relax as my reflexes kicked in. I was consolidating my off-road skillset, now coming into its own. I wasn’t a patch on Jason’s off-road prowess but it was still ace to ride the ripio at ease.
Jason lost his balance a few times and confirmed it was due to gazing out, which coupled with the ‘tallness’ of his bike being clipped by the wind, fell victim to going down a couple of times. It was the most challenging stretch of ripio to date, even though we only encountered around fifty miles of it in total. I made a mental note to start taking bigger pinches of salt when talking to people. At the end of the day without feeling broken, my muscle memory started rejoicing at getting ‘bike fit’. Pleased with myself, I wanted to punch the air I was that happy!