The Final Frontier – Part 2: Patagonia: Carretera Austral and Ruta 40

Bariloche – Futuleufu: 220 Miles: Riding our own ride

Having now made the decision that if a perfectly good paved road will get us to our destination regardless of how much “fun” an alternative, unpaved road might offer, we studied the map last night and found that we could reach tonight’s stopover by using the famous Ruta 40 for most of the way.  The alternative additional 80 miles of gravel and sand, while appealing to those who enjoy that kind of surface, just did not compete for our attention today.

The mountain and lake setting of Bariloche is idyllic and it was a pity that not only did we arrive off season but the enjoyment was further marred by the strong winds and volcanic ash which found its way into everything.  Setting out this morning the road South took us through deep valleys with volcanic peaks lining the heavily wooded flanks and glacial lakes filling the valley floors.  This could be Switzerland, and easily accounts for why the early settlers came from southern Germany and called this their new home.

Leaving Bariloche

Connecting back to the Ruta 40 was 80 miles of delightful twists and turns through mountain-lined valleys on good asphalt roads with only light traffic which was easily passed.  Stopping in El Bolson for fuel we also spotted a sign for “churros”.  These typical Spanish snacks are basically thicj strands of deep fried dough and are traditionally dipped into melted chocolate.  An Argentinian variation is the “submarine” which is hot milk with lumps of chocolate left to melt and frequently stirred to create a milk chocolate drink.

Refreshed and back on the road we left the mountains and headed to the higher elevations, around 1,000 metres, the equivalent of altiplano, and began to deal with the Patagonian wind…again. Although not really cold at 13C, the wind chill from the snow-covered mountains lining the high valley, laden with dampness from the rough vegetation and yesterday’s rain, created a blast that seemed to go right through even the warmest clothes.  I put on my final layer and picked up the pace to get us through this section.

The final section of the day involved a border crossing, and also our only off-road section of the day…it is not of course properly off-road, but just not paved.  Turning off Ruta 40 at Esquel towards the old Welsh settlement of Trevelin, the roads once again start to wind through valleys towards the snow-capped mountains and more than once I caught a glimpse of what looked like volcanic peaks with smoke and ash being emitted into the low grey overcast skies.

Esquel and the smaller town of Trevelin are primarily tourist locations for outdoor pursuits, but also for the agriculture that the harsh climates permits.  From Trevelin towards the border the road turns to quite good hard-packed dirt with stone chippings to fill the ruts.

Gravel road to Chilean Border

On this surface we can average 30-35 mph, although some of our more eager riders managed 60+mph.

Road from Trevelin to Chile Border

The scenery was in fact getting more attractive with the Rio Grande cutting a deep valley through the mountains.

The border post was understandably “rustic” in this remote location, and we were told ahead of time that the most important feature was the cat which seemed to rule the place, sitting anywhere it chose to sit regardless of the functioning of the office.

The Border Cat!

Border formalities dispensed with to our surprise the Chilean side of the mountain pass was paved with good tarmac for the last 6 miles to the Hosteria Rio Grande in the small, sleepy town of Futuleufu.  The hotel was, shall we say, “rustic”, though they did prepare a spit roast lamb and some good Chilean grilled Salmon too.

fresh lamb on the parilla

It rained all night….

Futuleufu to Puyuhuapi: 120 Miles:  The Carretera Austral– A damp introduction

Yesterday’s dirt road was acceptable as dirt roads go…hard packed, obvious gravel and with only minor inclines, curves and with reasonable visibility.  On the wrong side of a short and meaningless relationship with a particularly pleasant bottle of Concha y Toro Gran Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon, I managed to make my “brief siesta” last through last night’s route briefing, so really had little idea what to expect today that was not detailed on the route notes.  With no mention of dirt roads I was hoping for some paved surfaces through the Carretera Austral.  We understood that the most challenging roads were the Dalton in Alaska, and then the Carretera Austral and Ruta 40 in Patagonia… we were about to find out why.

The rain persisted from overnight and since the day of 120 miles was very short, I postponed the inevitable departure until around 9:15 hoping beyond reason that the rain would stop.  Packing the bike in the rain and setting off, the paved road turned to dirt within a few hundred metres of the village.  The surface was mostly good, like yesterday, but the overnight heavy rain had turned the hard packed dirt into a less predictable surface, with a slippery veneer of mud. But with the experience of yesterday and increasing confidence in the bike and competence in myself, we maintained a steady 35-40mph through the twists and turns, ascents and descents of the Carretera Austral.  This “road” was built during the Pinochet era initially as a military road, but also to link the remote Chilean farming communities of the south of the country.

Carretera Austral

Making quite good progress, with occasional slower sections where the mud became thicker, or sand filled the ruts, we slipped along for the first 30 miles feeling reasonably comfortable, even accelerating on some gravelly downhill sections where previously I would have been braking!.

Carretera Austral

The rain was intermittent but occasionally heavy and the low cloud obscured the adjacent mountains, though occasionally offering glimpses of snow covered peaks.

The temperature hovered around 14-15C (58-60F) but on exposed corners where the wind managed to whip into a local frenzy, the cold gusts caught us by surprise.

Carretera Austral - Pinochet's legacy

And then things changed.  Crossing a bridge and turning a corner we encountered the dirt rider’s nightmare….the grader  (motoniveladora en Español).   A hard packed surface is quite good, even with a thin mud veneer, but when a grader passes over the top, pushing a bow-wave of loose mud scrapings over most of the road, the impact is immediate and dangerous as there is no grip and with a steep, loose ridge created by the blade of the grader, no way of crossing to the smooth surface which has just been created.  This continued for about 4 miles and re-occurred twice more along the road.

My assessment of most gravel roads that we have taken is that the promised “spectacular” views are rarely fulfilled.  This is partly because I am so concentrated on the road that I cannot look at the scenery, or as per today, the low cloud and rain obscure any view that might be attractive.  But just occasionally you catch a glimpse of something appealing and can even find a place to stop in the gravel road to take the photo.

Carretera Austral

Arriving at Puyuhuapi, a small tourist town on a fjord inlet from the Pacific Ocean, we are staying in Casa Ludwig, a 4th generation Germanic family home now used as a guest house.  Options for dinner were limited, but this close to the sea, fish was a good option.

Puyuhuapi – Coihaique: 145 Miles: Lupins, Horsetails and the toughest road yet

I was awake for last night’s briefing.  Having survived my first 120 miles of the Carretera Austral dirt road yesterday, I was not overly concerned about today’s comparatively short 35 miles of additional dirt before reaching some new black-top paved surface.  But the briefing served to stifle any complacency that may have started to set in.  The co-leader had travelled this road just a few months ago, in summer I might add, and described the road as a “technically challenging”.  To describe a road as “technical” means that the rider is expected to stand on the foot pegs, throw his/her body in any direction required to re-balance the weight in order to counter-act the effects of steep inclines, steep descents, deep, rutted surfaces, rocks, pot-holes, mud, etc.. etc…

It has now been raining for 36 hours without a stop.  It rained all night and the thought of the technically challenging road in addition to the rain gave rise to at least a little foreboding.  Setting off at 09:15 the road turned to dirt in less than 50 metres on leaving the village. But the route around the fjord was mostly flat to begin with and the gravel no worse than yesterday.  Settling into a 3rd and 4th gear groove at 40-45 mph, weaving around the pot holes and negotiating the gravel ridges between the ruts at a reasonable speed I was happy to see a few miles click away before encountering anything difficult.  The “road” was cut into the foot of the cliff face, and so occasionally suffered from rock falls which reduced the road width to a single track with rocks and loose chips roughly graded into a semi-coherent surface.  The road was deceptive – 100 metres or so of good hard surface followed by 50 metres of deep pot-holes preventing any real speed being built up or indeed confidence.  Occasional section of deep sand had been graded into the surface, but the constant rain had made this hard enough not to grab the front wheel and throw out the balance.

And then the world changed.  Moving away from the fjord coastline we began to rise up through a series of tight hair-pin bends, gravel covered with rocks protruding through just out of sight of the approach track so guaranteed to catch you out just when you have chosen a preferred line through the blind bend.  Several people dropped their bikes on this section which lasted almost 8 miles through narrow tracks between the cliff face and a deep drop obscured by dense green foliage.  Recently graded deep, wet mud added to the “fun”, especially when encountered just before a tight bend adding some rear-wheel weaving to the approach and just a few missed heart beats!  At mile 28.5 the road flattened out and then began to descend in a similar manner, so the controlled up-hill section changed to a gravelly downhill, twisty section with equal challenges of hairpin bends with uneven rocks.

Reaching the tarmac after 35 miles we took a well-deserved break, in the continuing driving rain, with the thought of dismounting and kissing the tarmac inpapl style crossed many riders’ minds!  The remaining miles were covered fairly quickly though the continuing driving rain and gale force winds made driving fairly hairy at times. The scenery, now that we could at least relax for a few seconds to look at it, was mountainous occasionally breaking out into a broad valley with sheep and isolated cattle farms.  The green, lush landscape with broad leafed ferns, dense trees and thick grass certainly indicates that the rain we have experienced must be a prevalent feature of this area.

Two plants caught my eye:  We had noticed along the side of the road an increasing number of wild Lupins.  Now as we entered the narrow valley floor between the adjacent mountains, great swathes of Lupins now bathed the landscape in a purple hue.

Lupins everywhere

The second plant to catch my eye was the Horsetail fern.  This is one of the plants which you learn about in Palaeontology as being one of the oldest plants on Earth and present in the fossil record.  As we continued our long, wet ride to Coihaique, we also passed through some exposed coal measures in some of the road cuttings.  Horsetail ferns would certainly have contributed in the past to the formation of these coal beds, although in the carboniferous period when the coal was being formed in swamps, the ferns would have been tens of metres high.

Horsetail ferns

The cabins where we are staying are located next to a raging torrent, the Rio Simpson.  It is still raining…..and we were pleased to have arrived safely even if our motocross boots were filled with water.  I understand that the dirt road this morning was the hardest that we are likely to encounter in terms of intense technical riding.  Many bikes were dropped, especially on the tight, gravelly corners, but at low speed, damage to bike and rider was negligible.  I was happy to have not been one of the dropped bikes, and although I did not enjoy the dirt riding, I did have a certain sense of accomplishment at having completed a tough day with the shiny side up.  Or more precisely, the very muddy side up!

Coihaique to Puerto Guadal: 170 Miles:  Carretera Austral

It rained all night….now 72 hours of constant rain.  The whole countryside is under water and the rough track from the cabins to the main road is a morass of brown slime.  The narrow suspension bridge linking the cabins to the main road is also a challenge as the wooden slats are slippery too.  Donning all the layers for warmth and rain that I brought with me, we set off south, skirting the edge of Coihaique, such that I never did see the town, apparently the second largest on the Carretera Austral.  I enjoy a rustic location from time to time, but to have an option to walk around and know a new location would have been preferable.

Leaving in gentle rain we started on the first 60 miles or so which as tarmac until Cerro Castillo.  Gently rising from a few hundred metres to almost a thousand, the road was good quality and with enough twists and turns to make it an enjoyable ride, especially as the rain began to die out and a weak sun tried to poke fingers of light through the clouds creating a rainbow.  As we approached 1,000 metres the snow-capped mountains which had accompanied us on both sides now narrowed to a valley head.  The snow line was a hundred metres or so below the level of the road, but for the most part the road itself was clear of snow, with only some slushy patches in the areas where the road remained in shade.

Carretera Austral

There was no real hurry as not only was the day relatively short at 170 miles, but also because after yesterday, no-one was really eager to get back on the kind of dirt roads we had yesterday.  But the inevitable cannot be postponed for ever, and after a little more than an hour of riding twisty mountain roads we arrived at the end of the hard top surface.

The first part of the dirt road was probably the toughest, and in many respects like that of yesterday.

River cutting through Carretera Austral

Narrow, winding, steep, gravelly with rocks poking through the surface on tight corners, and a speed-sapping corrugated surface that made it hard for the rear wheel to get traction.  I should mention here perhaps that this was partly my fault.  The BMW R1200 GS Adventure is not only a very robust bike, but also quite sophisticated.  The suspension can be adjusted with the press of a button giving you much more travel on rough surfaces…. I remembered that.  But also the ABS and Traction Control can equally be adjusted for off-road use by the touch of a button.  If the traction control is left “ON” then every time the rear where starts to spin on a loose surface, so the power is reduced to the wheel.  I am only just now beginning to feel more at ease with the rear wheel spinning and a strange sense of floating across rough surfaces not unlike the feeling of water skiing and jumping across the bow wave and wake for the first time.

After 10 or so miles of very rough surface the road levelled out, just like yesterday, and we were happily slipping along the gravel at 40-50 MPH.  I can never admit to enjoying the off road experience, but settling into a 3rd and 4th gear pace, standing on the foot pegs and letting my body balance the bike into the bends at least gives one the satisfaction of knowing that the effort  put into the off-road skills course was not wasted.

Road to Puerto Guadal

And so it continue for most of the day except for two stretches where the grader had been at work again and left a 2 foot high ridge of loose mud in the centre of the road which you had to cross to make progress.   Finally arriving at Lake Buenos Aires, no relevance to the city of the same name, the spectacular views of the mountains lining the lake made the journey almost worthwhile!

Carretera Austral to Puerto Guadal

Tomorrow more dirt and a long day…..

Lake Buenos Aires

The road - Deep ruts and gravel ridges to the horizon

Puerto Guadal – Estancia La Angostura: 310 Miles –Carretera Austral and Ruta 40

It was a long day.  Although 300 miles is not huge, the inclusion of an estimated 180 miles of dirt, and a border crossing made for a significant distance.  Starting immediately on dirt roads, the circumnavigation of Lago Buenos Aires continued.  This is a huge lake and after 100 miles we were still running alongside.  It was not supposed to be a tough ride but when one is dealing with dirt roads they can change not just between seasons but between days depending on the weather and the road works to maintain the surface.  Today was difficult, and for me perhaps the most difficult we have dealt with so far. The “road” runs alongside the lake and in parts is cut into the overhanging rock face, and single track.  With steep inclines and descents, covered in loose rock chippings which accumulate in the dips and tight, twisting corners it was a challenge as great as we had seen so far.  Add to this recently graded loose sand and mud, and the recipe for adventure increases by the mile, exacerbated by the need to maintain a reasonable speed to reach our destination before dark.  The views were indeed stunning.

Puerto Guadal along Lake Buenos Aires

Having felt pleased with myself that I had survived yesterday’s ride with both bike and pride intact, today it was only 6 miles before I was horizontal across the road.  Following a tight, gravel covered uphill corner, I briefly glanced in my mirror to check if my riding partner had made it around, and losing concentration for a split second found myself in deep gravel on the side of the road.  Instinctively I gave it a pulse of throttle, and recovered enough to get back on the road, but then with insufficient forward momentum, laid the bike on its side across the gravel track.  Thankfully, at a slow pace there was no damage to me or bike, and the following bikers helped to put it upright again, ready to move on.

Carretera Austral views

Carretera Austral Views

 

The technically challenging surface continued for 65 miles until we reached Chile Chico where coffee and regrouping occurred.

The border with Argentina was a few miles later and with experience of previous Chile-Argentina crossing, swiftly taken care of.  The road was unexpectedly paved from here for another 100 miles and so our slow pace so far was quickly recovered, although the cross wind was increasing by the minute and making driving a very tiring experience.

I have often observed that borders are set for a reason.  Sometimes a watershed in the mountains, sometimes a river or occasionally a cultural boundary.  Immediately crossing this border, even though it continues around the Lake Buenos Aires, we leave the mountains behind us and we are in a high, gently undulating, semi-desert plain with scrubby grass and large expanses of just sand, not unlike parts of the altiplano in Peru.  After 100 miles the road turned back to dirt, with parts of the new Ruta 40 running alongside, asphalted surface, waiting to be commissioned, teasing us to dare to use it when it was officially not opened.  But the frequent gaps for culverts or bridges not yet completed prevented us from trying.  The dirt road was roughly graded, with deep sections of gravel and occasionally deep sand also.  In places the soft, loose surface turned to fine dust sending clouds of opaque dust up into the air and behind an occasional truck, impossible to pass.  And so it continued for another 120 miles, on and off sections of completed hard top surface between sections of deep and rough dirt until we reached the destination for today, Estancia La Angostura, a working ranch located at the end of about 3 miles of rough dirt track in the middle of nowhere.  Spit-roast lamb, homemade sausage and home grown vegetables washed down with some acceptable wine, and then writing up this blog before an early bed-time.   A hard, but rewarding day and only one minor spill without damage.  I am physically exhausted from riding on rough roads.

Estancia la angostura – El Calefate: 200 Miles: half dirt, no fuel and high winds

The Estancia La Angostura serves to show just how hard living out in the wilderness can be.  The nearest “town” is about 200 miles away so they have to be pretty self-sufficient in just about everything. Sheep and cattle seem to be the main economic activity, but also increasingly adventure tourism with some trekking and horseback riding thrown in to savour the “frontier” lifestyle on the way to some other out of the way place.

Estancia La Angostura - Old Wagon

Talking of out of the way.  Yesterday’s ride provided a little challenge in addition to the riding for the bikes with the smaller fuel tanks since we had no fuel for the last 245 miles.  For my bike, with a 33 litre tank, this was not a problem.  But today, the nearest fuel on route is at nearly 100 miles away on gravel roads.  Again for my bike, 345 miles is not a problem, but with the first 100 miles of rough gravel road, strong, in fact gale force, side and head winds, the fuel range is sure to be affected….assuming of course that they have fuel.

Ruta 40 Patagonia - rough roads

I mentioned that I arrived physically exhausted yesterday.  This was primarily as a result of riding along the Ruta 40 gravel road.  Each “road” has its own characteristics.  While some sections of Ruta 40 are now smooth, pristine tar, the section we travelled today was the original rough road, in places deeply rutted and with rock chippings and loose gravel.  As they are in process of upgrading some parts of this section, even the Ruta 40 itself is bypassed by an even more roughly bull-dozed detour while the main “road” is being fixed.  The main challenge is to keep to the wheel ruts of the buses and trucks that use the road because these are more compacted and provide better and more predictable grip.  But these tracks are usually only the width of 2 wheels, or about 80 cms…or more precisely, 40 cms on each side of your front wheel.  The deep ridges of gravel on each side of each wheel rut is often 10-15 cms high and almost impossible to cross as it is unconsolidated and grabs the front wheel out of your grip.  With a 50 mph side wind, it is a constant battle to keep the bike between the adjacent gravel ridges and you are always squirming in and out of the rut, with the bike leaning over at 10-15 degrees into the wind just to stay in a “straight” line.  Corners provide another opportunity for wipe outs as the ruts all seem to intersect in spaghetti of smaller tracks with a thin layer of gravel over the whole surface, but also collecting in deeper ridges ready to catch you out if you go into the rut “too hot”.   I had three heart-stopping moments today with the bike out of control and heading sideways down the track, but each time the technology and knobbly tyres somehow managed to keep me upright.  After 60 miles and two hours of fighting gravel and side winds I just had to stop for a “concentration break” having been focused on the 50 metres in front of the bike..  A 15 minute break to re-focus and appreciate the scenery and then back to work!.

Patagonia - Ruta 40

Remote parts of Argentina seem to suffer from fuel distribution challenges such that in the past three days and 440 miles, there has only been one fuel station, and it had no fuel!  For some of the bikes, mine included, we managed to sneak into Calafate on fumes with less than 20 miles left on the range computer.  For others, the reserve fuel supply in the support van was used up fairly quickly.  The answer in these circumstances is to go into any house or village we come across, of which there are very few, and ask if they have some they are willing to sell.  Because of the shortage, people tend to keep a reserve, and sometimes they are willing to part with some either because they take pity on us, or because they can sell it at any price they name as there is no choice.

The first fuel station in 245 miles and it has no fuel!!

El Calafate – Rest Day: Laundry, bike wash and Perito Moreno Glacier

Today was a day to catch up.  But also after the past 3-4 days of long, off-road sections, some bike maintenance and personal maintenance was in order.  I took my bike for a wash, clothes to the laundry and then drove the 80kms to see the Perito Moreno Glacier.  This is interesting in that it is apparently one of the few glaciers still growing, and the snout blocks the intersection of two lakes.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Occasional breaking off of the snout causes the lake levels to suddenly equalize with a gush of water.  Pretty impressive.  I have always been fascinated by glaciers and never fail to be impressed by the sheer size.  These are Mother Nature’s Sculpting processes, modifying the landscape and carving deep, U-Shaped valleys through the mountains.  The Geomorphologist in me is happy!

Perito Moreno Glacier

 

Leaving Perito Moreno Glacier

 

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About hutch66

Middle aged man who should know better than to ride a bike for 19 weeks across the Americas....but then you have to live before you die...
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