One of my favourite aspects of The Very Long Bike Ride is how seemingly few decisions are left to make once you’re on the road. It’s a beautifully simple lifestyle. One decision always remains though, at times blindingly obvious but often not, and a thoughtful decision or a careless one can shape the following days or weeks: Which way shall we go?
Our first few weeks of 2018 became a tale of two route choices. What began with blissfully isolated days spent navigating snowy mountain tops and quiet trails, weaving between lakes and forests, was all too jarringly followed by wrestling for space amongst hordes of holidaymakers, dodging traffic and piles of discarded toilet paper.
Our tour of parks begins with Villarica National Park, set around the centrepiece of a perfect volcano, a Chilean trick that never gets old. Having been warned of late lying snow, valiantly or foolishly we push on nevertheless with our plan to follow some hiking trails through the park. The slog is steep and tough but the adventure memorable, including getting caught in a whiteout and (possibly) pioneering some new methods of bike travel in unrideable terrain. ‘I travel with bike, more than by bike’ someone once said to me. They meant they often hitched rides, but it seems a relevant distinction here too where bum on seat time approaches an all-time low.
Back on the road a wonderfully quiet border crossing via Paso Carririñe delivers us back into Argentina’s eternally sunny embrace. Despite this coming at the cost of Chile’s lusher scenery, Argentina has earned a special place in our hearts so we’re happy to back. Weaving through the lakes and forests of Lanin National Park and wild camping every night it seems as though this really is the life. And then, more from a lack of planning than any intent, we hit the highlights of the famous Argentine Lakes District.
Rolling alongside the crawling traffic in San Martin de Los Andes we stare with awe and horror at the campground, tents crammed side by side on a dusty patch next to the main road. Discovering with some dismay that this ritzy part of Argentina doesn’t do things like affordable municipal campgrounds, public wifi in the plaza and Grido Helado (the cheapest chain of ice cream stores, snubbed by locals, adored by cyclists) it takes a little time to find our bearings in this ‘new’ Argentina. It’s somewhere around here that we declare ourselves ‘post-shower’. (That is post needing a shower, not to be mistaken with post having a shower.) What we’d expected to be a rather civilised and comfortable portion of our tour, has instead lead us to hit peak-dirtbag. We justify that the many lakes and rivers and perfect weather make swimming and rinsing clothes a viable alternative to anything actually resembling cleaning, generally only achieved by paying for accommodation or camping. I’ll save my pennies for the next Grido.
Two whole months of intense summer holidaying are now underway on both sides of the border. At a junction, both literally and figuratively, we’re forced to address this daunting prospect and make a last minute decision – seek out some (hopefully but unlikely) quiet dirt roads in Chile, or blast it down the paved Ruta 40 in Argentina, and hope to emerge south of the madness, quick-ish. Argentina promises good hiking and escaping on foot seems a sure bet for avoiding the traffic, at least temporarily, so we push through the chaos. The hiking is indeed fantastic, but witnessing Bariloche in full swing, even for an hour, is so grim that the path of most rapid progress away from this Disneyland prevails.
An attractive but bland stint of clinging for dear life to the white line between speeding traffic and a sad excuse for a shoulder brings us to Los Alerces National Park. This last stop on our shuffle through the region’s national parks is a mix of calm and chaos. A favourite for locals, but mostly overlooked by tourists, it makes for an immersive cultural experience of holidaying with the locals, great people watching and a free lesson on asado techniques. Their commitment to the campfire is second to none and throughout the day piles of firewood grow to impressive heights next to tents in preparation. Interesting fact: You’ll never see ground so devoid of any scrap of wood as in an Argentine campground. I even see a guy try to wiggle a hefty wooden bollard, which I can only assume he is scoping out for its firewood potential. All of that is to say, bring earplugs, these people know how to party. The only ones awake when we pack up in the morning are those that haven’t yet made it to bed, and there are more than a few of them.
Climbing up a hiking trail in Villarica National Park. In case anyone was wondering what’s taking us so long…
Out on the tops of the Villarica bikepack, with Volcán Villarica draped in cloud. Not for the first time we were sceptical of advice that the trails were all closed due to snow. On this particular occasion I will admit they may have had a point.
Approaching the pass the clouds closed in around us. We pitched the tent to have lunch, watched Netflix for three hours while waiting for the bad weather to pass, then finally emerged and carried on through the most beautiful part when it had hit peak-whiteout. There was logic to the decision at the time. GPS for the win.
We dropped below the clouds to camp at Laguna Azul, then of course the weather immediately cleared up.
Laguna Azul, Volcán Villarica and what we affectionately call ‘Killer whale snow’. Unsatisfied with have completely missed the views on the ride down, we hiked back up in the stunning evening light. It was so good we did it again for sunrise, returning to this spot with breakfast and coffee.
Retracing our bike tracks on foot in better weather
Volcán Lanin peaking through the clouds
Riding on the Greater Patagonian Trail
Not-riding on the Greater Patagonian Trail. Beautiful single track, but lots of trees down make for frequent dismounts.
A ‘stealth’ camp on the way to Paso Carirriñe, which turned out to be lacking some stealth when the land owner paid us a morning visit
Great riding on Paso Carririñe
The wonderfully casual Argentine border control at Paso Carririñe consisted only of one guy and a couple of containers on wheels – one for business and one for living.
These post-shower times demand we make use of rivers and sunshine to swim and do some laundry. No, Andy is not completely naked.
The good times continue in Parque Nacional Lanin, which offered some great little dirt roads weaving between a string of lakes
Lago Lolog has a private lakefront spot for everyone. With traffic quickly increasing we packed it in for the day and opted for beer, books, swims and a beautiful camp.
Classic Argentine lakes district scenery on the wildly popular Siete Lagos road. The route offers a few free campgrounds, presumably to discourage wild camping. They’re scenic but crowded affairs with no toilets, and behind every bush awaits a pile of human shit decorated with toilet paper, extra toilet paper clinging to branches and blowing in the breeze. We nickname these free camps ‘designated shit pits’. It’s sad to see so little respect for nature, but it’s so often the case in very accessible places.
Peace, it turns out, is not to be found riding late in Argentina, with traffic continuing on well past our dinner time. Early mornings are much better, and while the late-rising Argentines are still snoozing after partying into the night, we enjoy the all too brief periods of quiet roads and crisp air.
A traffic-filled stretch to Bariloche slightly redeeming itself with a brilliant lakefront camp
Hiking the Nahuel Huapi Traverse near Bariloche was the sole reason we’d chosen to come this way. Unfortunately it turned out that due to late snow the middle section of the traverse was closed. We still managed to string together a smaller but fantastic three day circuit.
Classic Argentine countryside
Parque Nacional Los Alerces was a mixed bag. Some really nice parts, other parts where we felt the full weight of the heaving tourist season. Early starts and short days were our only remedy, with varying success.
Pucon – Liquiñe – Paso Carririñe – San Martín de los Andes – Villa La Angostura – Bariloche/Colonia Suiza – El Bolson – Parque Nacional Los Alerces – Trevelin
708km, 12 days
Part 1. Pucon to San Martín de los Andes (5 and a bit days cycling)
We used the notes from Fatcycling for the Villarica bikepack route (thanks Dan & Gina!) We entered a more direct way but it’s hard to say if it’s any easier. Their description involved more riding than our experience. Going this way you’ll be charged 3000pesos to cross private land, which is a bit of a joke considering it’s about 500m before entering the park. You’ll approach the house through an open gate. The track is immediately on the left, 100m or so before the house. Rideable at first then too steep most of the way up.
We had a lot of snow patches in early January which may be unusually late. Unfortunately it made much of the generally rideable terrain across the tops unrideable. Merging onto the Greater Patagonian Trail it becomes very rideable until the road, the only impediments being quite a bit of treefall and some washed out or rutted sections of trail.
The dirt road through Villarica is also meant to be a wonderful alternative for those with heavier loads / not keen on a hike-a-bike.
Paso Carirriñe is a great pass. Lovely, quiet dirt road after Liquiñe with a few pretty steep sections.
Parque Nacional Lanin is free to enter in this area and is beautiful. A few wild camping spots to be found though the dense growth makes it a bit hard.
Once you join the shore of Lago Lolog there are dozens of tracks and trails to the lakefront, so it’s easy to find a hidden spot to camp. There are a few small shops 2-3km past here. The dirt road to San Martín is busy.
Part 2. San Martín de los Andes to Trevelin (7 days cycling)
Hitting this area in January gave us the busiest stretch of riding we’ve encountered, often without a shoulder on the road. Though the scenery is nice, it’s been far from our favourite place to ride.
Early starts helped keep us out of traffic in some places and offered some relatively peaceful riding until about 10:30/11am.
There are a few free campgrounds along the Siete Lagos route. Useful as it’s totally fenced after the first climb from San Martín, but busy and dirty.
Great wildcamp between Villa La Angostura and Bariloche, 29km after Angostura at 40.924668 S, 71.436000 W.
We didn’t want to stay in Bariloche itself so headed out to the much more tranquilo Colonia Suiza, a bit of a daytrippers haven with some cute food stalls/markets. Camping Ser is a good, friendly spot with reasonable prices (for the area) and was a great place to leave the bikes while we hiked. Proper supermarket is 10km away though, so stock up on the way.
We hiked up Cerro Lopez, to Laguna Negra and back down the valley. A great 3 day circuit. Going up Cerro Lopez would also make a great day hike.
Parque Nacional Los Alerces charges about $13US for entrance, only during high season of Jan-Feb. Plenty of free campgrounds, with the first at the northern end being our favourite.