Big Patagonia, little Patagonia: El Chalten to Puerto Natales

If each section of this ride is defined by a distinct feature, then this is the Postcard-Patagonia phase. The iconic towers of rock and walls of ice feel almost familiar after poring over so many photographs through the years, but to sit in the icy breeze for hours and marvel at them in three dimensions still knocks the breath right out of you.

El Chalten in particular is a place we’ve long had in our sights, and we park ourselves in this low-key, dusty little wind funnel for a stint of hiking, rest, life admin and catching up with some friends from the road. The Casa Azul becomes our base and is a literal trailer park and campground full of fellow dirtbags, all there for the same and only reason – it’s the cheapest place in town. It’s merely a place to be horizontal, consume calories and wash in between feasting our eyes on views of Fitzroy, Cerro Torre and the Southern Patagonian Icefield from the classic Fitzroy circuit and the incredible Huemul trek.

Dragging ourselves away towards El Calafate and Perito Moreno glacier, then onwards to Torres del Paine the only (legal) route option draws us east into the windy flatlands of the Argentine Pampa. Patagonia’s ‘greatest hits’ attractions are linked by long stretches of this desolation, which could not be a greater contrast. This is the little, forgotten Patagonia counterpart to the big, famous Patagonia. It gives the ride what could be a tedious, anti-climactic rhythm but I like to imagine these stretches are a necessary opposite to allow the epic sights to sink in. This is what I tell myself anyway. On a dull day there may, admittedly, be no duller place to ride than the Argentine Pampa. Browns and greys, straight and smooth roads, wind always on a spectrum from stiff breeze to gale force blast. But sunshine, clouds and shadows can transform the place. To call it impressive would be overselling it, but it can be beautiful.

With a bend in the road the wind can flip between propelling you forward at hilarious speeds or slowing you to an exhausting crawl. An effortless 35km one hour, a 6km grind the next. It ain’t no Puna wind (in the desert of northern Argentina), we often say, but it’s not to be scoffed at. With few natural windbreaks in the landscape, shelter for the night is a highly sought after commodity. Fortunately the Pampa delivers on this front in the form of abandoned buildings available at sparsely distributed, but oddly convenient, locations. The fine array of accommodations on offer to passing cyclists include the legendary abandoned Pink House, an abandoned police station, and an abandoned hotel. Not quite four walls and a roof in most cases, but close enough, and the price is right.

The final and most famous Patagonian mega-attraction is Torres del Paine National Park. With a dire forecast though, we skip our detour through the park and race straight down to Puerto Natales, returning a few days later with the bikes on a bus. One advantage of this is that my largest bottle cage is now stocked with two litres of wine for the jaunt. Tourist attractions generally do not make for the best bike touring – pedalling can feel somewhat pointless when you’re constantly being stared at by passing busloads of freshly showered tourists, en route to the same place. The stronger the headwind, the stronger the sense of futility. But despite the crowds, rules, mismanagement and costs of visiting this park, and the tumultuous weather it unleashes on us, the road is undeniably outstanding and worth every pedal stroke.

Few things will get me out of bed at 4am, but sunrise at Lago de los Tres and a bag of pastries will do the trick.

After our middle of the night start to see the sunrise we were so sleep deprived that it somehow seemed like a good idea to knock out the rest of the classic Fitzroy Circuit. 37km later we hobbled back into El Chalten for a well earned beer.

Andy tackles the first zip line on the Huemul circuit. Over a gorge with a ferocious torrent of water, for added drama.

Passing a few glaciers on the way up to the appropriately named Paso del Viento (Windy Pass) on the Huemul trek. In an effort to avoid the main campsites and crowds we camped in a bivvy spot heading up to the pass and felt like we were going to be blown off the mountain all night long.

Vistas of the Southern Patagonian Icefield

Glacier Viedma spilling into Lago Viedma and icebergs drifting into the bay where we camped. I waited for morning light to photograph a particular hunk of ice, but by morning there was a completely different set of sculptures.

Thousands of names and stories from cyclists on the walls of the famous Pink House. The place feels like a museum of cycle tourists.

Hiking up Cerro Cristal with distant views over to Perito Moreno

Tiny and tough little succulents

The 70m face of Perito Moreno Glacier. The headland opposite the glacier makes this such a unique viewpoint. You can spend hours strolling the paths and watching pieces of ice calve into the water. Or rather hearing them calve as soon as you turn your back.

Pampa riding, on a good day when the sun is shining.

Abandoned police station and hotel, and a pleasant evening of dinner and drinks underway in the hotel bar.

Torres del Paine. The sights of this park are amazing, but the commercialisation is frustrating and sad to see.

Incredible roads through Torres del Paine. One place where perhaps the roads are quieter than the hiking trails, thanks to most people arriving by bus. For fear of breaking my camera with flying stones, being blown over, and it generally being difficult to see clearly when the wind is stripping the tears from your eyeballs, I have no footage of the period of obscene 100+kmh wind funnelling through a stretch of road. We pushed for a while, bracing for the gusts which would push me and my bike backwards, sliding on the gravel, before finally giving in and hitching a 5km lift out of the funnel.

An endangered Huemul deer grazing casually by the roadside and completely ambivalent about us being there.

Aline and Florian from Switzerland were the only other cyclists we met in Torres Del Paine. After a few days cycling we spent some great rest days together in a cabaña back in Puerto Natales eating and drinking (of course).

Route

Download our GPX file

Download GPX for the Huemul circuit

Cycled in March 2018, ~11 days cycling

3 thoughts on “Big Patagonia, little Patagonia: El Chalten to Puerto Natales

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