Perito Moreno Glacier

A glacier comes into sight

The weather in El Chaltén was looking grim for the next few days, with eyeball-scouring wind and the promise of fresh snow up high, so after a mere two weeks, I felt it was time to move on. There were a few more things I could have climbed, but I felt like I had become reasonably familiar with the area, and my cycling legs were getting stale. It was time to enjoy something I had earned: fifty miles of blasting tailwind back to Route 40. With a storm in the mountains, it was a particularly good day for it, so I bid farewell to Pedro and the Casa de Ciclistas crowd, packed up a few days’ food, and said “goodbye” to El Chaltén for the first and likely last time.

No Chaltén

Once past the initial climb out of town and a few turns, the road is mostly straight and level all the way to the highway, and I easily stayed above 20 MPH on the flats, often spinning out at 27-28 MPH. Despite some dawdling leaving town, and a few climbs, I averaged just over 20 for the entire stretch. I barely even noticed the wind until I turned to stop in at the shelter, at which point it nearly knocked me over. I propped my bike as stably as I could, then went inside to have a snack and turn back west and into the wind.

Storm across Viedma

There were several more cyclists huddling inside, either waiting for a ride or searching for motivation. One was a Canadian named Richard, who had retired and devoted himself to adventure by foot, bike, and sea kayak. He had a particularly fine and well-thought-out ride, a Surly mid-fat with a Rolhoff hub and belt drive, suspension seatpost and stem, and a bike-packing setup augmented by a rack and mini-panniers on back. We were both headed west and south, and after talking inside for a bit, we motivated each other to get out and fight the wind. The initial stretch back to Lago Viedma looked bleak, but I guessed (correctly) that we were in a wind-pocket on this side of the lake, and once we were past it and the road turned more south, conditions would improve.

The pink house

The first stretch was a grind in my lowest gears, struggling not to get pushed over or into oncoming traffic by the gusts. There was a good swell on the lake, and an impressively sharp rain shadow on the peaks to its west, which were receiving fresh snow. I stopped for a few photos and a snack at an overlook, where Richard caught me, then we turned southwest. My goal for the evening was the “Pink House,” an abandoned building that is a well-known stop for bike tourists on the 40. It is only about fifteen miles from the Chaltén junction, but those fifteen would be longer and harder than the first fifty. The road dipped and turned a bit along the Rio La Leona, and I was tempted by a still-in-business campground and restaurant along the way, but I soldiered on, eventually spotting the house next to the river.

Cyclist poetry

It is the kind of thing I love on a bike tour: a large abandoned building, lacking doors and windows, with a certain amount of trash outside, but kept clean inside by passing cyclists. The inner walls are covered with years of their graffiti, a mix of names and dates, brief itineraries, websites, drawings, and motivating quotes. I picked a room away from the wind to set up my tent, and had just finished when Richard pulled in and, soon after him, a young German whose name I forget. They each picked a room for their tents, then we squatted around a piece of plywood on a cinderblock serving as a table to cook dinner. Mine was a variant on the usual: tuna, oil, and bouillon, with instant potatoes instead of pasta or sémola. Richard had something similar, while the young German took out an enormous pot and alcohol stove and began chopping a leek. Ah, to be young and strong enough to roll with fresh vegetables…

Guanaco and sign

I was first up and out the next morning, wanting to chew though as much of the westward stretch to Calafate as possible before the wind picked up. The ride south past Lago Argentino was pleasant, though the fact that Calafate was visible just across the lake, but would take hours to reach, was a bit disheartening. There were numerous guanacos, and a few of the stylish Argentine bent-palm-tree wind signs. I made it something like halfway along the westward stretch before the wind became full-strength, then ground out the last part to the YPF outside town in slow motion. There is what looks like a border control post just outside town, but the guards just waved me through and cheered me on.

Lago Argentino

I ordered an overpriced burger and fries at the YPF, filled my thermos at the hot water machine, then sat down to write and charge all my things in the large cafeteria. There was still plenty of day left, but I needed to resupply and, given the distances, there was no reason to go farther than town. The German turned up just as I was leaving, so I went back inside to talk to him for awhile, then we parted to take care of our separate business. He planned to stay at a warmshowers or couch-surfing place and hitch-hike to the glacier, while I preferred to pay for a campsite and ride.

Fresh snow on Cerro Mitre

It was frigid when I woke the next morning, but I wanted to do as much of the westward riding as I could before the day’s wind. The Perito Moreno Glacier is a major tourist attraction, so there were an unpleasant number of buses headed my way in the morning, but the wind was better than expected. I made it to the junction with RP 60 around midday, and turned off on the dirt road to a known campsite. Unfortunately “known” in this case meant that two units of hashtag-vanlife were already there, but I found a spot down in some trees out of vehicle range.

Bare shore on high-side lake

I had planned to do the forty mile out-and-back to the glacier the next day, but it was early and the wind was somewhat blocked by Cerro Mitre, so I dropped my trailer, shoved some food in my jersey, and took off for the park. Unlike Los Glaciares, which is free, this park charges 5500 ARS ($15) for foreigners and 1500 ARS for Argentinians. Though average for a Chilean park, and slightly less than American National Parks, this annoyed me, and made me appreciate how both America and Canada charge both residents and foreigners the same entry fee. This small generosity seems worth more to the nation than the extra revenue, but perhaps that is my rich-country bias speaking.

Glacier gap

The Perito Moreno Glacier is remarkable in a couple of ways: First, unlike most of the world’s glaciers, which are retreating, it remains in equilibrium. Second, it flows across Lago Argentino and cuts one portion off from the outlet, leading to a difference in water levels. Once every few years, the ice dam breaks and the two parts of the lake equalize in a massive flow. Unfortunately the dam had broken not too long ago, so I would not get to see this, but I could see the bare banks of the higher southern lake, and the narrow gap where the glacier would block it off.

The site is an absolute tourist zoo, with boat tours along the glacier, kayak rentals, and hiking restricted to a metal catwalk. It was also cold by this exit from the Southern Patagonian Icefield, and clouds obscured the upper glacier. Still, the scene was impressive enough that I did not mind too much. I took in the glacier front, imagined the gap bursting, admired the bent layers of rock emerging from the lake, then rolled back to camp with a slight tailwind. I was thinking of hiking Cerro Mitre, only a couple of miles and 5000 feet above the road, but the brush looked woody, spiny, and dense. I needed a better plan…

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