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!

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