Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Things that go whoosh in the night

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We made it to the Argentinian customs on the north side of Lago del Desierto. It was pouring with rain and we hastily dropped the bikes and hurried into the small office to get our passports stamped and take cover. The jolly border official told us that we’d made it in time to catch the second ferry crossing all within the same day if we wanted.

Given the cold and rain outside, we figured that an hour or so sitting inside a closed boat whilst we dried off and warmed up a little would be no bad thing. Having said that, there ended up being no heating inside, and by the time we’d sat inside in wet clothes for the crossing, my face had turned white and my lips were blue.

We could see many small glaciers hanging from the mountains on both sides (we were now within the Parque de los Glaciares in Patagonia), but in a near-hypothermic state, I wasn’t too interested in opening the window to try and make them out through the descending mist.

We unloaded the bikes at the southern dock, by which time it was about 7.30pm. The Italians decided they wanted to ride the remaining 35km down the gravel road to El Chalten to get a roof over their heads. Rosanna and I were more of the mindset of pitching our tents and warming up as quickly as possible. But then we had a bit of luck.

Back in the land of Argentinian hospitality

As I was walking down the pier, I asked the captain of our boat the way to the campsite nearby. He told me it wasn’t very good, but if I asked in the police office by the dock right here, they may well let us put up our tents right next to the lake and use their facilities. I stuck my head round the door and muttered something about camping. A youngish-looking guy came out and pointed to the gravel parking lot next to their cabin, and said I could put my tent there. It wasn’t glamorous but it meant we could get sorted quickly. I asked if we could put both our tents up and he agreed.

We set up our tents on the gravel driveway just to the right, in the shelter of this bus. The police office (manned only during the day) and the portacabin are to the left.

Rosanna and I set to work pitching our tents and doing our best to peg them out as securely as possible in the wind and rain. As she’d already put hers up and then taken it down again in the rain on the north shore (in order to stick with the rest of us on the boat), it was absolutely saturated inside. The young guy told us to start drying out our stuff and took our shoes to hang them next to the generator that was powering his small portacabin. In a fit of ‘completer-finisher’-ness, I decided that whilst I was wet and cold, I may as well finish off all the wet and cold jobs I would need to do, so I donned my flip-flops and took my bike back down to the shore of the lake to give it a good wash and get rid of all the mud that was clogging it up from the border crossing.

Next we were invited to the cabin for a maté or cup of tea. It was dry and warm in there, and Rosanna and I leapt at the chance. As we sat in the cabin, we made our best efforts at conversation and learnt that his name was Matteo and he was the captain of a smaller boat that did day trips onto the lake. He lived in this cabin throughout the tourist season and then went back home to east Argentina. He offered me more hot water (I think this is the happiest I’ve ever been for a hot cup of Earl Grey tea, made from a squished teabag hidden at the bottom of my panniers!!) and I cracked open a packet of Chilean lemon biscuits to share. Gradually Rosanna and I thawed out and warmed up.

Matteo then offered us the use of his stove. I mentioned that we had pasta and sauce and a few veggies (as per every other camping day!) and would he like us to cook for him too? He looked at me vaguely unimpressed and disappeared out the door. He came back with a huge pot of casserole and asked if instead, we’d like to join him and his boss Diego for dinner in the cabin. A proper Argentinian stew! After ensuring we wouldn’t be eating them out of house and home, Rosanna and I very gratefully agreed.

A warming Patagonian meat stew for dinner – so good!

In good company with captain Matteo (left) and his boss, the owner of the boat, Diego (right)

We had a good laugh chatting over dinner, with Matteo trying to learn how to pronounce ‘spoon’ in English giving us much amusement. We jokingly requested breakfast in bed in the morning, and were asked in turn if we’d like our tea made from glacier ice or lake water. They were entertaining guys and I imagined they probably appreciated having some company too. Given the weather had been so bad recently they hadn’t had much custom for the boat the past few days, and with no signal at the cabin, they were pretty cut-off.

We started to make moves to go out to our tents and Matteo asked how Rosanna’s was drying out. It wasn’t. It was still dripping water inside. Further offers of hospitality were made as Matteo invited us to sleep in his cabin. He had two more spare beds, so if we didn’t mind sharing the small room with him, he didn’t mind us sleeping there instead of in our tents. (Yes, yes … I can honestly say that Matteo and Diego were so incredibly hospitable and respectful towards the two of us, we only ever felt completely at ease in their company). Plus, there was heating in the cabin and our tents were wet and cold. It was a no brainier!

Matteo let us get sorted in his room before heading out to switch off the generator and crashing for the night.

Now you see it, now you don’t…

At 4am I woke up to rain lashing the roof and windows of the cabin. I lay there for about half an hour, wide awake, worrying about the tents. The weather had taken a turn for the worse during the night, and the tent pegs had been difficult to secure in the gravel. Eventually, I heard the rain ease off a bit, so about 4.30am I grabbed my head torch and clambered down from my top bunk to venture outside. I checked all our pegs and guy ropes were secure and bashed a few pegs in a bit further. I had two wet pannier bags in the porch of my tent that I’d been trying to dry out (lost cause there!). Still wet, I threw one to either end inside my tent to weigh it down a bit. I clambered back into my bunk for a much better sleep for the next few hours.

Morning broke and Matteo headed out for work whilst Rosanna and I remained dead to the world following all the physical demands from the border crossing the day before. He soon came back in and woke us up, saying there was good news and bad news. My tent was fine, but Rosanna’s had blown away! Apparently the wind had got ridiculous at about 7am and eventually, with nothing inside to weigh her tent down, had pulled all the tent pegs out of the ground. Rosanna’s tent was hanging up in a tree a few hundred metres from where it had been pitched.

My tent the following morning – Rosanna’s had been pitched right in front of it – if you look carefully you’ll see a few of the pegs lying on the ground.

Rosanna’s tent caught up in the tree

Recovering the tent – luckily the inner and outer were both fine but two poles had broken under the strain

I’d have been bawling my eyes out if it were my tent, but Rosanna took it in her stride. She thought she could repair the poles with some good old fashioned gaffer tape and a home-made splint, and at least we’d be in El Chaltén that night which was likely to have a lot of camping shops. She was mostly grateful that the tent itself hadn’t ripped.

After sharing some dulce-de-leche (a caramel spread that Argentinians seem to be obsessed with!) on bread for breakfast, we packed up our stuff and said farewell to Matteo and Diageo. Matteo would be in El Chaltén on Friday night, so we said we’d meet up for a few beers if he gave us a shout.

We followed the gravel road to El Chaltén. It was only 35km and relatively flat, but seemed to go on for ages like a road to nowhere. We were glad we hadn’t tried riding it the night before (despite the broken tent). A few sections were really muddy again, but the clouds gradually lifted and as we neared the town we did a short walk from the road to see the waterfall ‘Chorillo del salto’. Eventually the trekking-hub town of El Chaltén appeared as we rounded the final corner.

We did a small circle round the town on our bikes to catch our bearings and I spotted a rather fabulous looking micro-brewery. For now though, I was rewarded in the central cafe with a hot chocolate and tasty piece of apple cake:). To our surprise we bumped into Peter and Leila at the cafe – it turned out they’d only arrived at 8pm at the northern lake shore having somehow got lost at the swamp crossing, so had camped there for the night. They’d then leap-frogged us when they hitched a lift from the lake to El Chaltén a little earlier. Peter had bandages on his knees from the border crossing and like us, they also looked pretty happy to be able to ‘rest’ for a few days.

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