El Calafate to Puerto Natales

This blog post brought to you in three parts, as it’s apparently been almost two weeks since I updated. These were composed on three separate occasions in my tent. I figure this is the best way to try to show you how my trip to Torres del Paine went. It’s hard to really do a “Torres del Paine” blog post when you’re on bike, because the approach, trek, and exit are all 3-4 day experiences in themselves.

We start with wind. A lot of wind.
We start with wind. A lot of wind.

Part 1: El Calafate to Torres Del Paine

I’m reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on this stretch. This being one of the most touristy stretches of the entire trip, it’s a very appropriate setting. Lots to catch up on. Shoutout to Matt from New Hampshire, another recently-graduated lone American cyclist with a blog (wanderlusty.org) that I met somewhere on some dirt road in the middle of nowhere down here. Best of luck!

I stayed a day in El Calafate to catch a bus to the Perito Moreno glacier. Perito Moreno is one of the main attractions of Calafate. It is a monumental glacier that moves at about 2m/day against the tip of a peninsula. This makes it incredibly easy to get to, with walkways and ramps that even make it, for the most part, wheelchair accessible. Sort of because of this (I, rather paradoxically like everyone else, have an insatiable desire for only the most “unique” tourist experiences) and a general discomfort with the oppressively expensive tourist town of El Calafate, I almost didn’t go. My hostel was about as expensive as a hostel can get, and with Torres del Paine lurking a few days away, I really wanted to just get on the road. I’m glad I didn’t, as the day I went brought perfect blue skies and a very active glacier.

Perito Moreno. Worth the rather expensive bus ride and park entrance. It was very active this day.
Perito Moreno. Worth the rather expensive bus ride and park entrance. It was very active this day.
Candid. Saw a girl here with one of those extendable selfie poles. You know, the ones that you put your camera on the end of so you can avoid the difficult task of asking one of the hundreds of tourists here to take your picture for you. No comment.
Candid. Saw a girl here with one of those extendable selfie poles. You know, the ones that you put your camera on the end of so you can avoid the difficult task of asking one of the hundreds of tourists here to take your picture for you. No comment.
Panorama of Perito Moreno. It was really, really cool.
Panorama of Perito Moreno and view into the distance. Spectacular

In Perito Moreno and Torres del Paine, I’ve met tons of tourists enjoying their 4-5 day all-inclusive Patagonian Adventures. My haggard appearance is like a magnet to these poncho-wearing adventure seekers, brows furrowed with the anticipation of their next scheduled daily activity. Conversations, regardless of country of origin, all include one or more of the following:

-The question “Do you think the weather’s going to get better?” After watching four Italian 3-day cycling tourists fret over multiple conflicting internet weather forecasts one evening, I’ve started to use this as a stupid joke to break the ice with hostel/campsite owners. The truth is, there is no answer to this question. Tomorrow’s weather will be the same as today. Perfectly sunny with 90% chance of rain. Wind from the northsouthwest at 5-50km/hr.

-Some variation of the exchange:

“Are you guys going to Torres del Paine?”

“Yes! That’s tomorrow! Maybe we’ll see you there!”

“Probably not. I might make it there next week if the winds hold.”

“Oh! Golly! Good luck!”

-Different perceptions of distance:

“Where did you start?”

“Puerto Montt. 2000km to the north. One and a half months ago.”

“Oh! I know that city! We have a 30 minute layover there on the way back tomorrow! When do you go back?”

“[Something unintelligible about obligations and scientists]… December.”

Well, the winds sort of held. Better than before Calafate, certainly. A tailwind out of Calafate, a big climb, and a view of the spine of the Andes from Fitz Roy to Torres del Paine had me energized enough to write that I would make Torres in “a day or two.” This turned to despair the next day as I hit a headwind and wrote “maybe in 3-4 if I don’t have to walk for 5km again just to go in a straight line.” It ended up taking four days of riding, and a rest day in Cerro Castillo right across the Chilean border.

This picture hardly does the view justice. It was incredible.
This picture hardly does the view justice. It was incredible.
Flat. Flat, flat, flat. And windy.
Flat. Flat, flat, flat. And windy.
Borders are a little more epic out here than the nice little kiosks at the airport.
Borders are a little more epic out here than the nice little kiosks at the airport.
Signs of life. Cerro Castillo over the Chilean border.
Signs of life. Cerro Castillo over the Chilean border.

The truth is that I have been looking forward to Torres del Paine for a month and a half. With every day, the anticipation has been building and building, augmented by days of riding through nothingness to get here. Some memories from the epic approach:

Seeing the towers peeking over the horizon 50km as the crow flies and 250-300km of difficult westward riding distance from me. Listening to busses past me at the Chilean border with only 75km to go, but on legs that gave out in the wind 15km ago and no more riding fuel (carbohydrate heavy mix of cereal, granola, and oatmeal). Finally entering the park, and finding the roads washboarded and almost unrideably muddy and steep. Laying in my tent at the base of the towers, the wind and rain preventing my hike, and the campsite owner telling me “You should have been here two days ago. It was great!” Getting messages from home and people at the cafeteria here giving me advice on the best hikes, best sights, best places to view the sunset with hot cocoa. “Get the most out of your stay! It’s a really unique experience!” But the reality is that after a month and a half on the road and the days leading up to this, I want to scream that I’d be perfectly happy with just one tower, viewed clearly, from up close, with a bottle of glacial ice water.

Cerro Guido, in the distance. Only clear shot of a mountain I got on my entrance.
Cerro Guido, in the distance. Only clear shot of a mountain I got on my entrance.
Ruined glory. "I biked 2000km for THIS?"
Ruined my epic entrance. “I biked 2000km for THIS?” Note the washboards. That was a killer too.

God bless those of you on a tight schedule with things to do, people to see, and coffee to buy and complain over at the airport who, like the Italian cyclists, will miss out on seeing this park. I ended up passing them, deliriously reveling in my shattered dreams of a glorious entrance by reciting angry Eminem raps, mere kilometers from the park entrance. They turned around because “it was rainy and you can’t see anything.” I’ve got time. I can wait, Torres del Paine.

Nice sunrise from below. But clouds.
Nice sunrise from below. But clouds.

After this, there’s a road that’s marked on my map as under construction. It goes over the very tip of the southern ice cap, and I’m stopping at various outposts here to see what condition it is in. It should take me to Puerto Natales, but I’m not sure to be honest if it even exists. I changed my tires in Calafate to some gnarly 2.8 inch fatties, in anticipation of doing some backcountry riding.  After the general anxiety generated from interacting with so many “Go here now, do this, go home” adventure tours, I’m longing for another Mayer-like, off the beaten path experience. If I don’t find the road, so be it. There’s another cool one (Y-290) that looks fun as well.

Part 2: Torres del Paine
"Rustico!"
“Rustico!” I said when I created it. “OW!” I said when I finally took it off.

Packed up my homemade bag the next morning, tied together with bungee cords and took off up to the Mirador Las Torres. For the next two days, I got sympathetic and incredulous looks from those who saw my bag. So much expensive gear passing me, and I probably spent more on my camera than I did on this entire “backpacking” setup. That’s not to try to one-up those with expensive trekking poles and backpacks, or to demonstrate that HOMEMADE IS BETTER. In fact, I’d never do that again. The fact is that without a backpack, I’m just not set up for trekking, and my plans for more trekking changed after 12 miles with this horrendous strap cutting into my shoulder and all the weight falling in all the wrong places on my back. That being said, the rustic setup made me go slower, and had I rushed I probably would not have stayed the night at the campsite below the Mirador and seen what happened the next morning.

My first ascent. I was satisfied with this, to be honest. I had managed to find a window where all the towers were visible. Windy as hell, and constant rockslides into the lake.
My first ascent. I was satisfied with this, to be honest. I had managed to find a window where all the towers were visible. Windy as hell, and constant rockslides into the lake.

Funny how these small things, “mistakes” for lack of a better word, have turned into good things. My new tires, for example, don’t fit my fenders, and after a few kilometers of riding with them rubbing together, I basically had to remove my fenders and attach them again using string. This created a new problem, as my lower water bottle now squished up against the fender, messing with my steering. So I moved two of them to the front fork. This helps me access my water, and is just a better way of dealing with a bottle whose cap has become slightly leaky over time. Robert Pirsig is happy.

Fatties, with old tires attached to the back.
Fatties, with old tires attached to the back. There’s another picture of the new position of the water bottle holders, but I’ll save it for a few more words.

Additionally, my strap on my homemade bag, which was close to ripping off around Cochrane, prompted me to buy a needle and thread, which then allowed me to patch my tent and stuff sack on the go when they ripped.

You may notice that I at this point spend more time talking about maintenance to my bike and homemade gear than my own body. My body’s fine, but over time my bike has pretty much become an extension of my body (not to get metaphysical or anything). I spend much more time on my bike than I do on my feet, the implications of which is a ripe source for conversation among me and other bikers I meet. The fact is that after trekking for a bit, our legs get sore quicker than other backpackers. Our endurance is crazy good, and we don’t really get tired easily, but our legs and feet just get wrecked after some tough, mountainous trekking. Different muscle groups, I guess. We’re certainly a wiry bunch, compared to the more burly trekkers. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight. It’s hard to get the 4-6k calories/day I need to maintain weight out here. December, my appetite is coming for you before I head to SE Asia in January for another tour. (Maybe? Not sure yet, but I really hope so.)

What can I say about Mirador Las Torres? Taking “that Torres del Paine picture”, while watching the sun turn the towers pink, orange, and then yellow while just sitting there talking about how amazing bike touring is with another cyclist. There are no words.

Pic 3

Pic 4

Take two of "that Torres del Paine picture"
Take two of “that Torres del Paine picture”

Anyways, when I finally got back on my bike after the hike to Mirador Las Torres, I looked at the trekkers I was with, smiled, and exclaimed “I finally have my legs back!” I was so happy about this fact that I took off for 35km more even though everyone was tired from the 5am wakeup, climb, and descent. This distance was done on Y-150, a road that parallels the front face of the Torres del Paine massif and is a main thoroughfare in the park. It’s tough for cycling, as many of the hills were so steep they were not rideable, let alone walkable while pushing the bike. Tough going, especially with my back aching from the trek, but it was just fantastic. Going slow, just bit by bit passing the Torres and massive hanging glaciers, made this half of the day special.

Here you can see that I've attached my water bottles to the front fork, and the rear fender held on with string. This was a really great innovation, as it made less rocks get stuck in between the fender and the tire, and helped me reach my water.
Here you can see that I’ve attached my water bottles to the front fork, and the rear fender held on with string. This was a really great innovation, as it made less rocks get stuck in between the fender and the tire, and helped me reach my water.
I loved this road. Tough love, but love nonetheless.
I loved this road. Tough love, but love nonetheless. Cars fly through it, but it took me the better part of half a day.

Sitting in my tent anticipating what lies ahead, a choice between an unnamed road of unverifiable state and existence and a road closed to cars because of landslides, brought a close to this utterly amazing day. Best of the trip so far, and probably very high up on the (even though the existence of such a list is utterly absurd) list of best days of my life. Less than a week until two months on the road.

No bike in this picture, but if you could see it, you could most likely see how I have lowered the tire pressure of the fat tires to glide over the ripio and washboards. This really helps the ride, and my butt is thankful.
No bike in this picture, but if you could see it, you could most likely see how I have lowered the tire pressure of the fat tires to glide over the ripio and washboards. This really helps the ride, and my butt is thankful.
The wind is billowing up my shirt in this picture. The end of a good day.
The wind is billowing up my shirt in this picture. The end of a good day.
Part 3: Torres del Paine to Puerto Natales
Most apt description of my attitude towards the weather from Torres del Paine to Puerto Natales.

Road didn’t exist. It’s a “project” according to the park folks. Someone who is going along this route in a few years should try to find it, as I had no such luck. It would be fantastic, snaking up over the southern ice field through O’Higgins National Park to the coast and then continuing down south. Snuck onto the closed road and it snowed a lot. Dirty bike, dirty and soaked Bryan. Big grind to Puerto Natales, including a day where I chased blue sky, fought through whiteouts, and fled from oncoming storms with a tailwind. In a bed finally. On a side note, with my dad in Shanghai, mom in Antarctica and my brother in the states, my family is on four different continents. First time that’s happened.

This is the reason the road is closed. They actually paved it, but cut so deeply and sharply into the rock that now it's unusable without big modifications.
This is the reason the road is closed. They actually paved it, but cut so deeply and sharply into the rock that now it’s unusable without big modifications.
These puppies came and visited me in my tent one night at an estancia.
These puppies came and visited me in my tent one very rainy night at an estancia. Couldn’t get them to hold still long enough to take a clear picture.
Puerto Natales. At 20,000 people, it is the biggest town I've been in since Coyhaique at the beginning of October.
Puerto Natales. At 20,000 people, it is the biggest town I’ve been in since Coyhaique at the beginning of October.

Progress update: 750km to Ushuaia. 2208km traveled so far. Mostly with the wind now, so this should (SHOULD! YOU HEAR ME UNIVERSE?) be easygoing. I have nothing but good things to say about the following:

  • Surly Bikes
  • Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life
  • Shimano bar end shifters
  • Cheap Chinese tires
  • Expensive Schwalbe Marathon tires
  • The company of trekkers, cyclists, and climbers in Torres del Paine.
  • TRANGIA ALCOHOL STOVE. Life-changing.

Need to be home by the beginning of December, but plans are formulating in my head for a trip to Vietnam in January. We’ll see.

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