Day 118: El Chalten to Le Leona,109k
The wind was gusty and strong leaving El Chalten, as it had been all three days we where there. Everyone joked about not even needing to pedal the whole day since the wind was behind us, literally pushing from behind. About 4k out of town, we reached the top of a small hill next to a mirador. It happened to be the iconic view of Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. Although clouds were swirling about the peaks of the mountains, it was still a worthy last look of the beauty. The wind continued to push us from behind with gusty bursts, we were able to maintain 40kph for at least 30k straight. At one point the wind was so strong it pulled me off the road! I had to unclip from my pedals to keep from falling. It took a few minutes of bracing myself in the wind before it slowed enough for me to get back on my bike. It was hilarious and scary at the same time. We have finally met the epic Patagonia gale force winds were have been anticipating/dreading the whole trip. We rode along in the tail wind/cross wind for most of the day. I had forgotten how vast Argentinian deserts are, the land has mountains surrounding with flat lands with brush covering the ground. It is beautiful and monotonous.
After 88k of tailwind and high speeds, we tuned right onto the Ruta 40 and had insane headwinds. I immediately thought that the rest of the day was just going to suck, 20k of headwind. Since we were on tarmac, I was still going faster than I had been riding on the gravel so it didn’t seem too horrible. After 5k the road curved back south and we enjoyed cross wind again until the last 7k of the day. The winds had picked up even more and all the riders were riding at a 45 degree angle. I swear if you stopped pedaling for a millisecond you would have been blown over. I have never in my life wished that I weighed more to be more stable on the bike!
Our camp was at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. La Leona is a historical hotel and restaurant that has been the midway point between El Chalten and El Calafate since the mid 1800’s. It is about 250k between the towns and absolutely nothing else around. The restaurant is a cozy place with coffee, wine, and snacks, a gift shop and tiny museum. The staff was very friendly and the place gets packed with each bus or van that stops with tourists. Apparently, in the late 1800’s three American travels stayed in the hotel for several days then left. The Police arrived soon after and the hotel staff learned that the Americans were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and his wife Helen Page. The bank robbers are epic in South America, we have passed by several historical landmarks from the adventures.
119: La Leona to El Cerrillo, 135k
We woke up to bright sun, no wind, and warm temperatures. It was weird. Everyone was a little worried about what was going happen today, since we were starting off with such a good day. We continued on the Ruta 40 with a slight headwind, nothing too bad. The scenery was vast desert valley with mountains along the edges and we followed the turquoise Rio Leona for most of the morning. The sky was crystal clear and the temperature was perfect for cycling. We passed several abandoned farms along the river and a few road facilities departments, there was absolutely nothing else. There were a a few road signs warning of high winds and it was humorous and unnerving that wind was so light. We did have some lovely views of snow capped mountains with the turquoise rivers, I believe this is the standard for Argentinean Patagonia. Around 85k we began the long climb for the day, we had to climb over a mountain pass gaining 650 meters in 12k. Since the area is so open you could see the daunting work ahead from about 80k, Luckily the wind was behind us and basically pushed us up the gently graded hill. At the top was a plateau and then the wind came out of nowhere and with vengeance! Since the wind was coming from the west or my right side, I had trouble staying on the correct side of the road to avoid oncoming traffic. I had to unclip my right foot and stick it out for a counter balance. On the plus side, I barely had to pedal for the last 30k! There were times I was bracing for balance so hard that I just screamed out loud and hoped for the best.
When I reached camp, it was actually one of the road facilities departments. Which was a main building and a few other buildings for trucks and road salt. Each of these departments are manned 24/7 and the employees have a living quarters inside the main building. What I found interesting is that travelers would stop for random needs; air for tires, hot water for tea, stopping point for prepacked dinner, and of course camping. I guess when there is nothing available its a nice service to provide.
The wind was so heavy that we had comical difficulties setting up tents. After two failed attempts with ours, I told Bruce we would wait until later in the evening when the wind “died down” for the night, which was supposedly around 7pm. Everyone was deflated and exhausted after the long day and not being able to nap or have quiet time in their tent, it was going to be a long evening. However, a rider surprised us with 12 bottles of wine that a previous sectional rider had purchased for a difficult day in our future. It was the best medicine! Spirits were instantly lifted and we enjoyed many laughs. It ended up being a good day after all!
Day 120: El Cerrillo to Cerra Castillo, 119k
We started much earlier today to stay ahead of the wind. We were on the road around 7am and started with 65k of dirt into the wind. Luckily, the wind wasn’t too bad but the softball sized rocks that we had to maneuver around in mostly flat and monotonous terrain was the challenge. The facilities employee assured us that the road was good, I feel like our expectations are vastly different. It was frustrating, however the sun was shining. I did see lots of sheep grazing with the fluffiest wool and tiny babies along side. I also saw several Guanaco, the wild llama like animals. When I reached lunch at 65k, the wind had picked up and storms clouds were moving. We tuned back on to the Ruta 40 and had tarmac for 50k, but it was full headwind. I was already exhausted from the gravel and rain showers were intermittent, and of course the temperature was dropping. I did not dress for this weather today, so I was getting really cold. I stopped at least every 5k to sip water and contemplate why the hell I am doing this. I couldn’t get comfortable on my saddle, my knees hurt and I was exhausted. Around 88k, the lunch bus passed and I jumped on, as well as several other riders. We crossed back into Chile today, so at the Argentinian border I jumped back on my bike to reduce waiting time at the border. There was 8k of “No Mans Land” before the Chilean border, that is a doable distance even when tired. Rain started pouring harder, and I believe there was some freezing rain too because it hurt when hitting my face. When I reached the Chilean customs, I was frozen and soaked. The process only took 10 minutes or so then we had to meet up with the other riders at a cafe next door. The dinner bus had to do grocery shopping and would be delayed getting to camp. Even after a coffee and snacks I was still freezing and riding the 1k to camp could not go by fast enough.
Our camp was at a woman’s house. We set up tents in the back yard and she allowed us to use her bathroom and warm up inside. After putting on dry clothes, the woman offered me a cup of tea while I warmed up next to her wood burning kitchen stove. She was very sweet and hospitable. The tour chef made mulled wine and we sipped the Christmas treat in the living room while waiting for dinner. A good end to a difficult day.
Day 121: Cerra Castillo to Torres del Paine, 64k
I woke up around 3 am with the rising sun and winds. I never fell back asleep but was ready for the day to start with my 6am alarm. It was a beautiful morning although the wind was cold and cut right through you. We had a short distance to ride but it was into the headwind. Bruce and I rode together since he did not write down directions. The wind was brutal as soon as we left camp, it was deflating that this was going to be our day. We were under the impression that the whole day would be on gravel, but it was actually paved intermittently, a nice surprise even if the wind made us slower. We passed through the rolling pastures with sheep and cattle. We saw herds of guanaco and even spotted several rhea, emu like birds. At 29k we had our first view of the mountains of the National Park, Torres del Paine. It was a surprise to immediately see the jagged mountain range so quickly after a hill. We enjoyed this view for the rest of the ride into camp. The roads were rolling hills with several very steep climbs. Every time we stopped for a photo it was harder to get back on the bike, I swear I had no blood left in my legs. The wind refused to dissipate, and I became exhausted and frustrated with the false flats into a headwind. We saw even more guanaco once we were in the park and they were not skittish. We past a couple that were chasing and wrestling each other, I thought for sure they were going to bump into me!
The road seemed to continue forever and the hills became steeper and longer. Finally, we had views of the camp and hotel and it was mostly downhill. The tour leaders had arranged for camping for tomorrow’s rest day. Bruce immediately booked the only hotel once he heard about that a few days ago. Most everyone else were able to get rooms in the hostel dorms, several others booked rooms. The hotel is very luxurious and we hope to get rest.
I slept like a rock and we enjoyed the Torres Mirador hike with was about 18k round trip. Rain was threatening all morning but we pushed on. The trail was packed with other hikers and tour groups 20 people deep, hogging the whole single track trail. We ended up running for a couple of kilometers to pass people and it just felt good to run for the first time in months.
When we reached the mirador, it was slightly foggy but still an impressive view. We passed several other riders who took advantage of the rest day. The hike back was much quicker and we made it back to the hotel before the torrential downpour and high winds blew through. We watched it from the cozy couches in the hotel bar, while thinking of our fellow riders who were currently camping.