As Emma and her boyfriend Rob explore South America by bike, they find the most exciting parts to be far away from the well-known spots.
“Que pasa?” said a man we didn’t know, leaning out of the window of his car. We were in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in between Ushuaia and Puerto Natales, waiting on the side of the road with our bikes. The plan had been to ride north on our bikes, through the Patagonian Wilderness, exploring some of the famous natural sights along the way. We had tried to avoid the fierce headwinds which usually arise in the mornings by setting out before sunrise, but by the time we called it quits for the day the sun was already up. Rob’s knee was playing up, and since his pain was getting worse, we decided not to fight the headwind and instead try to hitch a ride to the next town. A tough decision since we were committed to cycling as much as possible.
Within 15 minutes of standing next to the road, a big red 4-wheel drive pulled over. The driver didn’t speak any English, but we understood that he was Chilean and his name was Ricardo. Without hesitation, he helped us lifting the bikes into the back of his 4-wheel drive. So here we were, on our cycling trip through South America, sitting in a pick-up truck. We chatted in broken Spanish trying to explain where we came from and Ricardo showed us pictures of his family. From what we understood, he was a fisherman on his way to Puerto Natales to start his working week aboard a ship. While it was sad we didn’t get to cycle this part of our route, we felt so thankful for his help, and to experience the kindness of a local, not leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere.
It was odd being in a car all of a sudden after days of cycling, and stranger to arrive at our destination so quickly! After a few short hours, we arrived in Puerto Natales a charming little town in Chilean Patagonia. The town is a tourist hub, serving as the main gateway for entering the famous Torres del Paine National Park. Life in Puerto Natales was good; a bit of sunshine, good coffee, even better cake, and even some tacos and craft beers. Suddenly surrounded by countless other travelers we tried to figure out how to best explore the national park.
Torres del Paine is famous for its breathtaking views with monumental mountain peaks towering over glacier lakes. This beauty makes it a popular place and soon we discovered that things get rather touristy and are tightly controlled as a result — not as adventurous as we’d hoped. All the campsites along the trail require reservations and they are all managed by different agencies. As an added complication, cycling isn’t allowed in large parts of the park. Not to be discouraged, we used the imposed rest days to do some research and came up with a plan. Rather than taking the bus like most other travelers, we decided to cycle to the national park and explore the areas where bikes are permitted. We’d visit the popular highlights by foot during a number of day hikes from the campsites.
After a few days in Puerto Natales, Rob’s knee had recovered enough to continue. We were excited to get back on the bikes and ride towards the famous park. The best thing about cycling is that you truly get to enjoy the journey and not just the destination. The roads into the park were mostly unpaved gravel, but easy enough to ride. As it turned it out, the route to and from the national park was at least as beautiful as the park itself. All day long we rode towards the most beautiful view imaginable. It was like watching a painting while you cycle. The massive mountains and glaciers on the horizon had us in awe of the power of nature.
As if to drive the point home, as our route followed the roads up and down, clouds quickly turned into heavy rain. In Patagonia you really experience all seasons in one day. We felt strong in battling these elements and kept our spirits high by cooking a warm cup of tea on the side of the road. It helped that we didn’t meet any other cyclists on this whole section. Having the road to ourselves allowed us to enjoy the experience without any distractions. It was magical.
When we reached the park entrance, we were back on the tourist trail. Suddenly we had to share the campsites and trail again. It’s always nice to talk to other travelers, but you can see nature is suffering under all the crowds. During our stay in the park we did two beautiful hikes. A welcome change of rhythm for our cycling muscles! Most hikers prefer to see the torres with a clear sky, but we really enjoyed the misty view and the feeling of tiny cold snowflakes falling onto our warm faces, and sprinkling the ice blue lake. When we descended, we saw traces of a rain shower. We avoided it because we were at the top.
After leaving the park behind we found ourselves on long empty roads again, riding towards Cerro Castillo. This time we were blessed with a strong tailwind. What an amazing experience after weeks of battling against the wind. We were literally flying and made quick work of the 65 kilometers to the next town. In Cerro Castillo we re-stocked our food supplies with enough pasta and oatmeal for the next 3 days. We’d planned a remote route towards the trekking town of El Calafate.
This ripio (Spanish for gravel road) was the worst we had encountered so far, with large stones and potholes in the road throwing us around in the saddle, slowing down our speed and hurting our sitbones and arms – not the best time to get caught in the rain! But it seemed the universe was smiling on us. The heavens opened just when we passed the only building in about 100 kilometers. We decided to check the place for shelter and met Fabian, a policeman who lived there, and Eduard, another cyclist who had also just arrived.
Fabian lives in this very basic police station year round, guarding a remote 200 kilometer stretch of road that sees little traffic. Happy with some company at his lonely outpost, he offered us a place to sleep while we cooked him a pasta dinner in return. While the storm raged outside, we played cards with Fabian and Eduard, thankful to be in the warm police station instead of in our tent outside. We enjoyed a good night of sleep.
The next day the rain had luckily stopped and we continued down the gravel road. Unfortunately the water had turned the gravel into thick, muddy clay. It was almost impossible to ride our heavy loaded bikes on this and we had to push for long sections. When we finally reached a tarmac road again, we were super relieved to be out of the mud and got rewarded with an amazing descent. With high speed and shouts of joy we rolled down all the way to El Calafate.
Photos: Rob Hermans & Emma Cornelis
Words: Emma Cornelis
Emma und Rob used the multi-day planner to plan their route. They also checked the on-tour weather every day to be prepared.