Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Rain Rain Rainy rain

Battling through the wind in Tierra del Fuego some weeks back we met a number of cyclists heading South off the carretera (with the wind very much in their favour!!) who were bemoaning the weather in Chilean Patagonia; many had not seen a day without rain, and on occasions there had even been sleet and snow. At the time we considered it would be a welcome change to be out of the wind, and after the near drought levels of dryness on the estancias, thought rain would be an absolute pleasure!! Thinking about it now, it's a harder to make a call as to which is worse! Part of the reason for starting in the South and heading North instead of vice-versa was an attempt to miss the worst of the rainy season in this region. Unfortunately however, this year there has been a freak weather front (being blamed on everything from El Nino to global warming) resulting in there having been no let up from the rains at all yet! All this water makes for extremely beautiful terrain to cycle through (and photograph in the brief reprieves that we have had), but makes it quite hard to pinpoint why or when we decided against taking the turn off for (the supposedly hot balmy climes of) Chile Chico, and instead continue on in the wet for Coyhaique.

The 331km from Cochrane to Coyhaique is on quite poor, undulating ripio with a number of high passes (around 1200m) to negotiate. We had thought to complete it in 3 to 4 days, but with the elements still conspiring against us, and with the addition of a mild bout of illness it ended up taking 7 days to get to there (although this did include a number of unplanned rest days).

Some weeks back, much to my disgust but in keeping with his slightly anankastic side, Ja discovered the delights of calorie counting. Previously, when calculating how much food we would need to get us between places I have used an (oh so Conservative) calculation for shopping purposes based on the number of meals we would require in that period. Ja has consistently insisted on reducing this down to a weight calculation; estimating that we need to eat around a kilo of food each per day, irrespective of from what that might consist. This accompanied by his new habit of 'doing' food, rather than eating it (something like...“hmmm, I could do another one of those” uttered after most ingestions) has been making recent meals more of a tiresome mathematical exercise than a pleasurable gastronomic experience, and make me fear for his reintegration into the London restaurant culture. Discovering calories has added a whole new dimension to this, as now our individual daily intake not only needs to weigh at least a kilo, but also to contain at least 5500kcals (which I am assuming it always has done, since the only change to what we are eating since Ja's discovery is the semantic one of how he refers to it, and his quest to find food stuffs containing ever higher quantities of calories!!). After his recent delight at discovering a cracker that contained more calories than bread I fear he has started planning a recipe for the ultimate cycling snack, which will probably look something like one of those fat balls you put out for the birds in winter and consist mostly of crumbled dry crackers mixed with peanut butter and dulce de leche (which is apparently obligatory in all south american cooking). Anyway, I mention this because I found it really interesting that what seemed to slow us down so significantly whilst trying to cover the kilometers between Cochrane and Coyhaique was not so much being slightly unwell, as the resulting loss of appetite which made it impossible to consume anywhere close to either of Ja's calculated recommended daily intakes.

We have now, finally; after a number of tears and tantrums, and for the first time doubting whether we should continue solely by bike, arrived in Coyhaique. The largest town on the Carretera (with a population of 50000) Coyhaique has been a much needed break from the road and with appetites returned we have taken the opportunity to visit a number of the local restaurants and have once again been able to enjoy food for more than simply it's mathematical, density or nutritional qualities.

After a few days off we now plan to leave in the morning, heading north towards the town of Chaiten, which is still officially closed following the recent and ongoing eruption of the Chaiten volcano, but which we have heard may still be passable.

Villa O'Higgins-Cochrane

After the unexpected days off in Candilario Mancilla we only had an overnight stop in Villa O'Higgins, keen to finally get underway with the 1300km of the Carretera Austral. The Carretera was one of Pinochet's undertakings, to connect the rural villages and Estancia's of the Aysen region of Chile. The Southern most sections we are starting on were only finished in 2000 and prior to this the majority of the region was only accessible by boat or air, consequently it remains still largely independent from the rest of Chile and retains a feeling of extreme remoteness. Outside of the towns most people seem to be either self sufficient from small holdings or working for the larger Estancias. Water is drawn from rivers running off the glaciers and from what we have seen on smaller dwellings electric lighting is either gone without or drawn from car batteries. The average rainfall in the region is massive and as a result the terrain couldn't be more different from the drought ridden, wind swept pampas we have cycled through in Southern Patagonia.

We had a fairly slow start to the carretera, splitting the 100km to the boat across Rio Bravo at Pt Yungay into 2 days, enjoying the incredibly beautiful scenery and stopping to fish at regular intervals. First impressions are of cycling through a cold rainforest; surrounded by lush green vegetation filled with wildlife.
The huemul is one of the national animals of Chile; a timid deer-like creature, on the verge of extinction – we were told there are only 50 pairs left in the whole of Chile (although I think this may have been an exaggeration), and there are many commercial treks offering the opportunity to go wildlife spotting to try and get a glimpse of them (from what we have heard these are rarely successful!) We were therefore extremely surprised to nearly run down an anything but timid family of three of them, grazing on the side of the road, who happily posed for photos!

At Pt Yungay we were very sad to wave goodbye to Carl as he made the difficult decision to take a break from cycling and hitch-bike up to Bariloche after developing a reoccurrence of a knee injury.

We decided to make a short (22km) detour to Caleta Tortel, a town built entirely of the wood it was developed to exploit and connected by 7km of wooden boardwalks. It is a bizarre little port, perched on the steep slopes of the banks of the Rio Baker, with no roads or vehicle access (we had to leave the bikes in a parking area at the entrance to the town), and very little contact with the outside world; the road connecting it to the carretera was only built in 2003 and there seemed to be only limited public phone or internet access.

We took a day off here, as in spite of the enforced rest days we have been feeling pretty tired and achy recently, but the town had a strange claustrophobic feel to it and Ja was keen to get moving again as soon as possible (to be fair this is as likely to have been a result of the lack of wifi as the strange atmosphere). Although it wasn't helped by staying in Chile's equivalent of Faulty Towers, where the patroness was so astonished at our lack of Spanish that she thought we were trying to trick her, and kept slipping in insults to the constant stream of (largely uncomprehended) Spanish that she bombarded us with, to see if we would react and she could catch us out!

Quite relieved to leave Caleta and be reunited with the bikes again, we split the 130km to Cochrane in to 2 days, having an enforced stop 86km in; completely drenched after 6 hours of continuous downpour. The refugio we had found was full (only taking 2), but the family whose land it was on invited us in, and we were again transported back in time, as we dried off around their woodburning stove, and were made a bed of handwoven blankets in their candle lit spare room.

Cochrane, the largest town we have been to in weeks (actually having a bank, albeit one that won't service international cards), is a pleasant little place where we have been mostly eating complejos (hotdogs with copious guacamole) and chilling out. We will move on again tomorrow, as the town is without public internet connection and we are keen to make it to Chile Chico, which we have heard has it's own micro-climate and promises sunbathing on the banks of the lago in 30degree sunshine; a welcome change from wind and rain!!!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

El Chalten – Villa O'Higgins

El Chalten is the end of the Ruta 23, and the only way out by car or bus is back the way you came. There is however a route back into Chile, across Lago O'Higgins, that can be done on foot or (with some difficulty) with the bikes, that takes you right to the start of the Carretera Austral.

From El Chalten there is 40km of fairly poor and flooded, but cycl-able ripio to Lago Del Desierto where there is a boat that goes twice a day to where you can cross out of Argentina. There is then 22km before the border crossing into Chile, 7km of which are a up a steep, muddy, tree root lined rain channel (not wide enough for the bike+panniers), where in places there is no choice other than to make separate journeys with the bike&panniers. Once across the border it is another 1km to the bank of Lago O'Higgins, where a boat calls (supposedly) 3 times a week and can take you back to mainland Chile at Villa O'Higgins.
The crossing was significantly easier having the help of Carl, a Swedish cyclist who started in Ushuaia at the same time as us, and who we have been crossing paths with at various places as we have been coming North.

Carl had heard that the lake in between the border posts was good for fishing, so we made camp for the night in an orchid filled forest in no-mans land and fished on a lake which was so clear you could see the fish swimming from the banks! The first fish I caught was a rainbow trout big enough to be dinner for all 3 of us (and luckily Carl is more skilled at fishing than us, and there was no need to resort to sporking anything to death), so after that we put back what we caught. I think there probably aren't many places in the world where such big fish are so keen to be caught; the one we ate, which must have weighed 3-4kg, was the smallest of the four that we caught that evening! Carl was so excited he didn't even want to stop whilst cooking; attempting to develop a new sport of 'fry-fishing'.

We crossed into Chile leaving plenty of time to get the boat, which turned out to be a pointless precaution, as it didn't turn up (leaving a steadily growing group of wet, hungry cyclists and walkers stranded for a further 2 days). Fortunately we were saved from having to resort to cannibalism after Carl somehow managed to procure a large quantity of beef from a local Estancia (via some German walkers travelling the other direction), which we supplemented with much smaller and harder catch fish from Lago O'Higgins. (I should probably note that for those who had the foresight to bring Chilean Pesos across the border with them, the estancia where we camped would also provide food, negating any real need for picking off the weaker members of the group. For those who didn't bring cash it's a long and hungry 180km to the nearest bank, where standard cash cards don't work and they won't change dollars or euros).

We were told the boat was delayed due to the weather, but it seems that the weather tends to be bad when there are fewer customers, as we have subsequently heard many stories about it only showing up when there are enough people to

make it worth their while. When it did finally arrive we had a very pleasant and calm crossing (no sign of the reported problematic weather!) accompanied by a selection of farmyard animals and military officials!!

From the ferry it is only a short 7km ride to the tiny hamlet of Villa O'Higgins, where a warm shower and meal not cooked on the MSR were an extremely refreshing and welcome change!

El Calafate to El Chalten

From El Calafate to El Chalten is 220km, the first wonderful 35 of which usually have a tailwind, followed by 95km of debilitating sidewind, followed by a final 90km straight into the headwind. After a late afternoon start we were looking out for a suitable camping spot about 60km in, when a truck driver stopped and asked if we would like a lift. This seeming too good an opportunity to turn down, we chucked the bikes into the back of his very large truck and jumped in, affording us a far more rapid and entertaining (although I suspect a little less safe) shortcut, dropping us off at the cross road to face the last 90km on the bikes again.

Angel, the driver, was on an 8 day journey across Argentina to pick up a load to take back to Buenos Aires, and was keen that we enjoyed the beautiful scenery we were driving through – winding his window down so we could take photos (and taking photos himself, when he wasn't texting, or making the near constant supply of mate he shared with us on the calor gas stove he kept lit, next to the gear stick).

This was our first proper experience of mate, and we were pretty much instant converts. Mate is the Argentinian tea, which seems to be more of a national activity than a drink, and the preparation and sharing of which is surrounded by a multitude of social niceties, to which we are of course largely oblivious. It is drunk out of little pots, often very ornate, which all Argentinian's seem to carry with them along with a thermos of hot water (or in Angels case a little gas stove). Watching him make it reminded me of the way dad used to smoke his pipe – spending far longer cleaning out the bowl, repacking it with leaves and topping it up than actually smoking (or in this case drinking) it! The taste is very strong and bitter, and easy to see how it could be quite addictive- Ja even suggested we might carry the extra weight of a mate kit ourselves (and he hasn't even weighed it yet!)

After the warmth and comfort of Angels cab and the mate, cooking and camping on the side of the dusty road in wind that must have been gusting up to 90km an hour seemed particularly challenging, although had we seen this little fella before we pitched the tent rather than when we packed it up in the morning I think we would have had an even more uncomfortable night!

The last 90km were probably the most challenging we have had so far, and after taking 10 hours to cover 45km we were absolutely exhausted, but could find no-where out of the (by now quite scarily strong) wind to camp. Eventually we came across an estancia, where Sandra, the cook in the workers kitchen took pity on us, and allowed us to camp in a relatively sheltered area just outside their building. We were surrounded by cats, dogs and what must have been hand reared sheep judging by their repeated attempts to get into the tent, but it was lucky we found the place when we did, as the wind was so strong through the night I don't think the tent would have survived without the shelter. Sandra invited us into her kitchen, which was like stepping back in time, with a huge woodburning stove, enormous pans of stew bubbling away and cuts of meats hanging from the ceiling and served us soup and the homemade fried bread-rolls; pan frite. I don't think anything has ever tasted so good, until the following morning as we were leaving when she gave us freshly made rolls for breakfast, still warm from cooking, and tasting like savoury crusty doughnuts!

In spite of another windy 45km, and a big climb into El Chalten Sandra's kindness (and pan frites) kept us going the whole way. We have been getting used to people slowing down and taking photo's of us as they drive past, but on this last climb someone actually leaned out of the car window and handed us biscuits! We arrived in El Chalten cheerful, well-fed and relieved to have finally come through the worst of the wind; ready to face the rain of the Carretera Austral.

Perito Merino

The Perito Moreno detour ended up being well worth every (windy, difficult and mostly ripio'd) 200km of the roundtrip. The park boundaries are around 60km from El Calafate and then it's a further 30km to the glacier. It used to be possible to camp in the park, until someone caused a fire destroying 1/5th of the woodland. We arrived at the boundary planning to wild camp somewhere just outside, but after discussing with the guardaparque we were invited to camp in the garden of their house; a beautiful spot overlooking Canal De Los Temp Anos. We were joined briefly by this skunk, but he made a swift exit, probably after discovering the stench he took to be potential mate was actually just two stinky cyclists.

An early start meant we were able to reach the glacier before the crowds of bus tourists arrived, and even Mr 'seen one glacier seen 'em all' was pretty impressed by it. The glacier itself is around 60m high and 5km long, and reputed to be moving by up to 2m per day.

This means that it constantly cracks and groans, sounding like rounds of applause in the distance, with pieces breaking off and shattering into the Lago as you watch. It was strangely captivating, and we spent at least a couple of hours just sitting and watching it, trying to guess where it would break next!

We had heard that Lago Roca around 60k the other side of the glacier was also worth a visit, so we returned to El Calafate via the very lovely campsite there, and spent a day chilling out enjoying the scenery and trying to supplement our dwindling food supplies with fresh fish from the lake. This plan was an entertaining and diverting enough way to spend the day (I haven't fished for about 17yrs, and had forgotten how strangely addictive it is!), until I went and caught one. This led to paroxysms of guilt, and the realisation that short of beating it to death with our Spork (*) I had absolutely no idea what to do with the (rather fine 1.5kg) trucha, who I'm told would have tasted delicious. So after letting him flap around on the shore for a bit and feeling terrible about it, I finally decided we could probably manage on powdered mashed potato for another night (an interesting alternative to pasta we have recently been experimenting with). Ja, who had previously calculated the cost/benefit analysis of purchasing the fishing rod required for us to catch at least enough fish for 2 meals, conceded that he too hadn't thought through the plan to it's grisly conclusion, and was remarkably sanguine about our fishless dinner.

(*for the uninitiated, a 'Spork' is a small spoon shaped implement, with little points at the end, and a serrated edge, supposedly covering all you cutlery needs in one handy object, whilst in reality performing none of its stated functions particularly efficiently but with a far greater potential for oral-facial lacerations than your average spoon).