Paso Mayer to Argentina

Home for two nights

Villa O’Higgins was one of the more pleasant towns I had visited on the Carretera Austral, but I do not like waiting around, so when I learned that the ferry to the southern end of Lago O’Higgins ran sporadically based on last-minute decisions about the weather, the alternative route to El Chaltén via Paso Mayer (Paso El Bello in Argentina) sounded more appealing. On the downside, it takes at least a day longer and involves much more distance. On the upside, my schedule would depend entirely upon my own will, I would be primarily on the dry side of the mountains, and I would have a respite from the tourist track before returning to Gringolandia in El Chaltén. On neither side, it was rumored to involve a fair amount of hardship and bike-pushing. To someone who has crossed the Paso de las Damas, such things are meaningless.

Drizzly approach to the pass

Despite my intestines’ continued complaints, I loaded up with five days’ food, bid farewell to the Czech hostel-keeper, and retraced my route to the Rio Mayer turnoff. The weather was gray and unsettled, but I suffered only intermittent drizzle on the gently-climbing road toward the border. There were a few houses along the way, and some pickups driving up and down, but little traffic on this route to nowhere. Other than the houses, the border post, and a lake that may attract a few tourists, there is no reason to drive this way, since the pass itself is designed for livestock.

This guy rules!

Where the road forks between the border post and the lake, there is a tin-roofed wooden shelter with a fireplace and an outhouse. It is not a full day’s ride from town to the shelter, but the afternoon looked to be unpleasant, and I wanted a full day and semi-decent weather to do the hard part of the pass between the two border stations, so I set up camp inside the hut and took the rest of the day off. The hut was in good condition, with a reasonably-swept floor, very little trash, and a stack of firewood next to the hearth. It also had graffiti all over the inside, mostly from bike tourists. These were not the kind I had been meeting along the Carretera, tourists out for a few weeks, sometimes on rental bikes, but the passionate lifers I had met east of the High Andes, following their idiosyncratic muses. Their brief biographies (and Instagram handles, sigh…) made me both humble and curious. One guy had even passed through in July with skis. The low-level tension and unhappiness that had been weighing on on me lifted, and I felt relaxed and at home.

Inside refuge

After a restful night listening to the rain and wind outside, thankful that I was not in a wet and shaking tent, I woke to see unsettled weather and a dusting of fresh snow on the hills above. I found this impressive in mid-summer at 48 degrees north and only about 4000 feet elevation, especially since I had been hot in a t-shirt only slightly farther north in the Ñadis a few days before. I listened to the wind and intermittent rain, and periodically checked to see if the weather was improving. When it looked no better at mid-morning, I decided to spend another day in the hut. I had food for an extra night, plenty of listening and reading material, and I was enjoying the quiet isolation. I listened to Whymper’s Scrambles amongst the Alps, pausing after each chapter to check on the weather, let my mind wander, and reflect on the past and future of my trip.

The next morning’s weather was only slightly more promising, but I did not have another day’s spare food without going to starvation rations, so I geared up for the cold and made the short ride to the border post. The border is somewhat confusing, with the road winding north to cross the Rio Mayer, and the station itself on a side-road next to a more direct ford. It would be easy to pass by unnoticed, and I am not sure when or how the consequences of this transgression would catch up. A man came out to greet me as I propped my bike on the sign, and invited me in to fill out the paperwork. He generously offered me the Chilean rocket breakfast — instant coffee, white bread, and dulce de leche — and although I had just eaten, I happily accepted.

Customs was as slow and involved as expected, with them apparently verifying my airport entrance stamp via a slow internet connection. Just like last time I entered Chile by land for the first time, they were also disconcerted by the fact that I did not have paperwork for my bike. While this is apparently standard, it does not seem to be issued at the Santiago airport, but they had the piece of paper on hand, and duly recorded my bike’s make, model, and serial number. There were three guards, and the senior one helpfully explained the least-bad route to the suspension bridge (pasarela) over the Rio Carrera. He also suggested that I ford the river rather than making a long detour around via the road then, helpfully, loaded my bike into his truck to drive me across to the next fence. Despite the paper-shuffling, my Chilean sendoff left me in a good mood.

Warning to cyclists

The border guard had told me to turn right on a trail after the second gate, but this part quickly got confusing. I never did find a main trail or old roadbed in this section, but only a network of cow-paths through thorn bushes. Nor did I find a route that avoided full-on barbed wire fence-crossing. After exploring a bit on foot, I crossed a single fence at a place where part of a broken bike helmet had been hung, perhaps like a dead coyote meant to discourage its live compatriots. The bike and trailer went over, the bag slid under, and I left the road to follow the least-bad cow-paths generally east and north. This section was perhaps half pushing, with one stream crossing and a couple of loose, steep hills that required the technique of locking the brakes, stepping forward, then pushing the bike a few feet.

Narrow bridge

The bridge was much like the one at the start of the Paso de las Damas, a swinging span with steel cables anchored at either end, thinner loops supporting the deck, and dubious two-by-fours to walk on. It was also slightly narrower than my bars, so I had to walk my bike across on its rear wheel. It was again three trips: first the bike, then the trailer, then the trailer bag worn as a backpack. Fortunately it was not too windy, because although the cables on either side were high enough to make it unlikely to pitch into the river, the bridge did sway alarmingly with each gust.

Crossing in three parts

I reassembled my rig on the other side, took a snack break, then soon found a rideable 4×4 track along the riverbed, probably made by either local ranchers or the border guard on occasional patrols. I eventually lost the main track by following another into the woods, but although that one had too many blowdowns to be drivable, it was almost all rideable and quite pleasant. I eventually emerged into open fields and, with another couple of gate crossings, reached the border post and the start of the official road. The Argentine border station was, as expected, somewhat more run-down than the Chilean one, with electricity provided by a solar panel and generator attached to a large lead-acid battery and inverter, all wired together somewhat haphazardly.

Welcome to Argentina

The Argentine border guard entered my details by hand in a large ledger, then adjusted the date on his stamp and tested it before marking my passport. When I asked, he said it had been ten days since someone had last crossed this way. He declined my offer of cookies, but seemed to want to chat, so we talked for awhile. Unlike the Chilean border guards, one of whom lives full-time in a house next to the station, he only stayed there for stints. A teenager came out from a back room, likely his son, and I probably could have stayed for dinner if I were more sociable and spoke better Spanish. But I had miles to cover, so I showed him how my bike trailer worked, then bid farewell and continued on the now-official Ruta Provincial, which remained little more than a ranch track, braided to get through some boggy sections.

Argentine ford

I wanted to at least get past the river ford he had mentioned, then find a somewhat sheltered place to camp, as the tailwind that was so helpful while riding would be miserable when stopped. The ford was probably fifty feet wide and calf-deep, so I took off my socks, pulled up my tights, and crossed pushing my bike in my shoes. I then continued across a few estancias separated by ranch gates. Unlike the more familiar ones secured by looping a wire over a post, these looped the wire over a lever used to pull the gate tight, an essential innovation for this windy valley. The only other person I saw was a guy driving a backhoe, who asked me where I was coming from, then either asked if I had a cigarette or if I wanted to smoke. When I declined, he reminded me to close the gate, then continued to one of the houses off the road. It did not appear to have a garden or greenhouse, so he would have to drive a half-day to Gobernador Gregores for everything but animal products, a level of remoteness hard to fathom for a modern westerner.

Omnidirectional wind

Toward evening I decided to set up camp behind a dirt berm where the road leaves the Rio Ñires to climb to a plain. It seemed like it might be the last sheltered spot for awhile, and there was water nearby if necessary. Unfortunately it did not block the wind, but rather caused it to eddy and come from all directions. I knew how to set up my tent in high wind and anchor it with rocks, but these variable conditions proved challenging. Even peeing was difficult, as I had to constantly turn to keep the stream pointed downwind. I had hoped the wind would die down overnight, but it never did, and I got little rest as the tent shuddered and fine sand filtered through the bug netting.

After the ordeal of packing up the next morning, I was happy to once again be moving with the wind. I stopped at a bridge across the Rio Lista to refill on water, and sat behind the embankment for awhile simply to have a minute of relative quiet and eat in peace. Then I continued along the dirt road, which gradually became more trafficked and rougher as it approached Route 40. I could not get going too fast on the rough surface, so with the tailwind it took very little effort to keep going. Along the way I saw some guanacos, as expected, and then some rheas, which I took for ostriches. They easily outran me, occasionally ruffling their wings ridiculously, then went behind a hill to one side, one poking up its weird periscope head to watch me as I passed. I later met a few more flocks, and once they were running in a straight line, they reminded me of Kenyan marathoners, with thin legs, smooth forward momentum in their bodies, and a powerful, springy stride.

Back toward Paso Mayer

Things really got going once I finally hit pavement at Route 40. The road was almost perfectly aligned with the wind for miles, and I kept my speed at 20-25 miles per hour on a flat with little effort. It was actually harder to stop and remove a layer than to keep moving. I did need to stop and camp before Gobernador Gregores, though, so I stopped where the road began to turn and I had easy access to a river with trees for shelter. The bank was sandy, and some of that of course sifted into my tent, but it was a vast improvement over the night before.

Gobernador Gregores settlers

The next morning the wind had somewhat abated, so I had a reasonably pleasant ride south across the wind, then another raging tailwind into town. The YPF gas station, as expected, had a nice cafe with power and good WiFi, so I bought a bunch of food and sat down to catch up with the world. I planned to hang out for the afternoon and put in a couple more hours in the evening, but my trailer tire finally died completely, and by the time the bike shop opened again after siesta, it was too late for me to want to continue. I paid a few dollars for a spot at a campground (and about three times as many pesos as the last trip), then tried to get to sleep at a very un-Argentine hour for an early start to beat the wind as I began the long trip back west to El Chaltén.

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