• 15 July 2017

Continuing towards El Calafate and El Chalten in Argentine from O’Higgens Mayer Pass in Chilean Patagonia on bike

Continuing towards El Calafate and El Chalten in Argentine from O’Higgens Mayer Pass in Chilean Patagonia on bike

Continuing towards El Calafate and El Chalten in Argentine from O’Higgens Mayer Pass in Chilean Patagonia on bike 1024 768 Gürkan Genç

After I left Hugo’s house I rode back for 14 km on the direction I came to O’Higgens and entered the Paso Rio Mayer route.  I really don’t like to ride back the road I came, doesn’t matter if it is 14 km or only 1 km but there isn’t any other road going to that pass. With an approximately 600 m climb till Chilean border it is a very comfortable and easy road.

In winter, neither the wind is strong nor the weather is so cold to overdress in this region. In general, it can be said that the winter months in Patagonia region are not so cold for the ones grown up in Northern Hemisphere. For Finnish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Russian people, the cold weather of Patagonia would feel like a spring breeze. I must say that for me grown up in Ankara, Turkey, it was like a chilly weather therefore I spent the whole winter in Patagonia wearing shorts, technical underwear and wind-stopper jacket.

After O’Higgens I came to Chilean border gate riding for 45 km. This is a military post just at a big delta. At the beginning I was confused because it didn’t look like a control point to get an exit stamp. When I parked my bicycle in front of the door, the soldiers inside got surprised and started to laugh. They were right, I guess not many people would come to this place. One of the soldiers came out of the building and started to speak in Spanish. I said I don’t know Spanish and he started to speak in English. They asked for my passport and in a shortest time the exit stamp was applied on my passport. It was faster than I expected. They told me that also in summer this post was not crowded and only a few cyclists crossed the border from Argentinean side. The last passing cyclist was the Finnish Taneli.

They handed my passport. While heading to my bicycle I looked at the road and then turned to the soldier

  • Hey! Where is the road?

He showed me two roads one was going into the river. I said “into” because the road continues really inside the river, you cannot see it. The second was a road he told me that I have to cross the delta once again. In both cases I have to ride in water.

In O’Higgens I had bought long plastic fishing boots. The bicycle shoes I bought in 2015 were worn out and became water permeable while I was still wearing them in 2017. Since I was riding for months in this region my toes got second degree frostbite and became purple. I had sent their photos to my doctor. She said to me: “Gurkan, be careful, this is already over second degree! Don’t ever get them wet again and protect them from cold, otherwise you’ll lose your toes.” Therefore, I had bought these plastics boots just in case I’ll need.

Before entering the water, I changed my shoes and walked towards the other side of the delta. It was getting dark. I found a nice place to camp on the top of the slope and set up my tent. By this way, Nicholas could see my camping place. Before it got dark I cooked for dinner and started to read a book in my tent. While I was about to sleep Nicholas arrived and I helped him to find a suitable place for his tent. Before it got dark he also had set up his tent.

The other day we got up to get prepared early in the morning. We both knew that a hard day was waiting for us. As usual I started to ride early. After the climb, I saw a cabin surrounded by wire fence. About 5 or 6 dogs immediately surrounded me. A man inside the cabin called the dogs and then came over to open the door. He talked to me in Spanish, but I didn’t understand anything and saluted him continuing to ride. Then I exited from the door on the other side of the road.

The road we have to take is on the left side according to GPS and MAPS.ME maps but that place is completely fenced. How come? I followed the road I was on a bit, but it was obvious that it was going to another direction. I have to move towards East, but that place was completely surrounded by a wire fence. I turned back and started to move towards the area where the cabin was. In the meantime, Nicholas arrived.

  • The road is closed, we have to cross the wire fence but there isn’t any gate here. Can you ask the man inside the cabin?
  • Did you go till the end of the road Gurkan?
  • This side goes to an irrelevant direction, the road we have to take is on the east of this area.

We went back and asked the man. Even Nicholas couldn’t understand the Spanish of the guy. While he was speaking, Nicholas was laughing. I hadn’t seen anyone before, speaking that fast Spanish. Hahaha

In the end Nicholas told me that we had to jump over the fence. Don’t get surprised when you come to this point.  First, we transferred our bags to the other side, then our bicycles. We continued to ride on a horse track we found.

The bushes were so thick and high that my panniers were continuously rubbing to these brushes. The first 2 km was not so problematic but then I experienced serious difficulties. The bushes got stuck on my panniers resulting in damaging the bottom parts of them with small tears. After a while we lost the horse spoors, we were just trying to move towards east among the bushes.

At this point I started to recognize the advantages of bikepacking. While I had to push my bike in some places, Nicholas could ride through narrow paths. Actually, bikepacking is not preferred by long distance touring cyclists. Though it looks a bit showy, it is hard to carry all the stuff you need if you travel both at summer and winter conditions. It is not impossible but hard, because the cost increases with decreasing size of gear.

Given that you bought the right gear, this time you look at the capacity of luggage which is almost the same. For example, I have 4 pieces of 12.5 L capacity panniers attached to front and rear wheels, an extra 21 L capacity bag, 6 L capacity handlebar bag, on the total I’m traveling with 77 L capacity. On the other hand, Nicholas carries 25 L capacity on handlebar, 10 L capacity on the main frame, on the back of saddle 15 L and a 12.5 L bag. If I don’t count the backpack, it makes up 62.5 L capacity. Now, we are crossing Paso Rio Mayer. Nicholas carries 10 L bag packed with food on this back. In the same way, his water carrying capacity is quite low, and the water cages look like ready to fall. But on the other side, he is incredibly fast off road because he doesn’t carry bags on the sides which would hold on bushes. At my spare time and if I get the financial opportunity I’ll try to switch to this setting. I want to see whether I can make it use for 5 seasons (The fifth season means extreme cold or extreme hot weather conditions). (In November 2017 I could switch to this setting though hardly and I’m planning to continue with an even better setting at the end of August).

For example, while I was removing all the bags on bike carrying them through ice cold water, he was just carrying his loaded bike. During those crosses our fingers got frozen. My plastic boots were not useful since the depth of the running water came to our waist at many points.

Well, I really hadn’t step in such cold water for a long time. And when we came off the river we couldn’t feel our legs due to the wind blowing. We were about to lose our toes. During the day, we had to cross 6 rivers one after one, it was really a painful experience.

There was a flimsy bridge on one of the rivers. I guess I had to make 6 returns to transfer all the bags and the bicycle to the other shore. And we couldn’t walk fast on that bridge. This bridge was built to cross the ship and cows once but abandoned after many cows have fallen into the river. It was a bridge with short guard rail swaying. Therefore, motorized vehicles do not come to this region.

The height of the water was above 2 m which was much lower, about 1 m, in other areas. Another interesting point was the high water in winter season. The cyclists who knew that area sent me messages seeing the photos I had posted: “There was a bridge, why didn’t you use it, Gurkan?” Well, we used but at the time we passed, the water level was higher than usual due to heavy rain. At all the remaining river crosses we got wet till our underpants. On the other side, there was no drinking water shortage in this region.

The distance between Chilean passport check point and that of Argentinean side is 15 km. But our efforts to find a suitable road, the parts we pushed our bicycles, undressing for river crosses, afterwards drying ourselves and then redressing, we couldn’t make the 15 km till the end of the day.

But before it gets dark we will make to the border gate. We crossed so many creeks and rivers during the day, this is the last one. I look and see grass on ice surfaces. I think that it won’t be so deep, no need to control, I’ll cross without even dismounting from my bike.  I come to the shore speeding up to cross and then after 1 or 2 km we can camp. With the first stroke of my front wheel on water, I start to sink to the bottom of the creek. I am traveling for the last 7 years and my bike has faced so many things but sinking in deep water. Dude, it was like a movie scene, you must have seen how I was gradually sinking in water with the bike. And then I tumbled over my bike. You must have seen this. While falling down my knee cap hit the handlebar and my scream was swallowed by the water. The scene of me emerging from water was legendary. The water was more than 1.5 m deep. I came out of water yelling. Nicholas didn’t know what to do. He was murmuring: “Gurkan, I’m very sorry, very sorry”. Dude, forget about being sorry, come to the other side and help me. My bicycle has completely sink in water, help me to rescue it. Well, normally my panniers were waterproof but especially the front panniers rubbed against small bushes were damaged, that is they were in a condition to permeate water. But, the most important thing was the handlebar bag because all the electronic devices I had used during the day were placed in this bag. Let me list what was damaged after this accident: Kindle whitepaper (e-book reader), external battery, Sony Alpha 7R MII camera and full frame lens, GoPro (was not in its waterproof case), Sony voice recorder, Sony external power bank. Even I tried my best, I was not successful in saving them, all those devices were irreversibly damaged. At one side the pain in my knee, at the other side psychological effect due to the damage those electronic devices. I didn’t have the financial power to replace some of these devices anymore. I was done.

  • Nicholas I’ll camp here. I’m not in the mood to continue.
  • Alright Gurkan.

I immediately set up my tent.  I had to change my cloths, I was feeling cold. At the mean time it started to shower. I went inside the tent and were about to zip the door.. The slide got off at the missing tooth of the zipper. Hahahaha.. I fell into a heap and then shook with laughter.

  • What happened Gurkan? Why are you laughing?

was Nicholas asking and he was right in wondering.

  • Dude, you know that one of the zipper teeth was broken. Now, the slider came off and I cannot close the door of the tent. Help me to fix. Hahaha

Of course I wasn’t able to fix it totally, but we brought the two wings of the door close to each other and fixed with a hooked elastic robe. By this, the tent was protected from the strong wind. Dude, what the hell of a day it was, everything came on top of another.  I put all the devices getting wet inside the handlebar bag in my sleeping bag after draining the water.  We spent the night under a tremendous wind and rain shower and rode to the Argentine border 1 km ahead the next day.

My knee cap is seriously injured, the pain in the knee increases when I pedal but nothing to do. After we crossed the border, we had to cross another river immersed in waist high water after 3 km. The water being so high in winter season, I cannot imagine how high it will be in summer season. I think it will be better that the cyclists ask for information from the police officers in O’Higgins before passing Rio Mayer.

After we passed the border we arrived at M40 main road on our third day around 11:30 a.m. Indeed, this was a two days’ road with a good performance. There were two farms along the road. We asked for permission from one of these to set up hour tents under a covered place. Since there was no one in the second farm to ask for permission and it was very windy in Patagonian Desert at night, we just got inside a depot and camped there. Then, set off early in the morning and arrived at M40.

On M40 I didn’t come up with heavy truck traffic.

It was really a hard route but was worth, worth for every pedal turn. Well, I lost many of my electronic devices. Among them I felt most sorry for my e-book but the moments I experienced were invaluable. Paso Rio Mayer is one of the passes worth for seeing and experiencing. I wish from the bottom of my heart that every cyclist touring in South America may experience this.

When I arrived in El Chalten, the road brought me another world traveler; Javier. He was for about 7 years on the road. After the accident I had at Paso Rio, I had not only lost my electronic devices but also a big swelling on my right knee cap was still visible. I had to rest for a while here. We found a cheap hotel and stayed there with Javier. By the way, Nicholas was 2 days away from here; he wanted to stay a couple of days more in the village we stopped over. He found cheap internet and the place was very cheap. I also thought to stay but I had run out of cash. So, I decided to continue. Nicholas came afterwards to the place we were staying in El Chalten.

El Chalten is one of the iconic places in Argentine. Fitz Roy Mountain is situated in this park. Since I came in winter, there was no body in the park. More than half of the road was covered with snow. I didn’t have crampons to wear on my boots and a backpack to climb to the top of the mountain. Since it was out of touristic season it was hard to find an open place in the town. There weren’t vegetables and fruits in the groceries, snacks were rare and the ones you could find were very expensive and not tasty. All the hotels were closed but 3-4 hostels were open. The number of people living in the town was quite low. But the center selling camping gear in the town was open where we could rent boots, a backpack and crampons. Thanks to Javier’s sweet talk we paid for rented gear less and got the crampons for free. The result; we were sitting in a tent on the summit of Fitz Roy Mountain the next day.

Walking with backpack is not for me. Dude, my lower back hurt. Well, the gear was not top quality and the boots pinched my toes. Well, I wouldn’t expect more from rented gear. But it was a nice adventure. Since we were ascending in this region in winter we could see puma spoors everywhere. The spoors were fresh and the animals not far from us. But though we walked for 2 days in the region we didn’t see any.

At the evening we first stamp the snow to level the ground and then set up Javier’s 5 season tent on the summit. Well, since we were on the top we had to make a night shoot. We set our alarm clock and got out of the tent in the night and saw …..

  • Dude, there are puma spoors everywhere
  • Gurkan turn the light on inside and I’ll adjust the camera to automatic program, in the mean time we shout as loud as we can to scare the animals.

Though some people may say that pumas don’t hurt humans, we saw them and took photos of them, let me share this information. It is an additional risk to enter their habitat in winter months when hunting is rare. Especially, when you go outside at night, the time when animals hunt, the risk doubles. Therefore, it is wrong to say that pumas won’t hurt people, no need to get afraid. We got informed from the farmers in this region that pumas attacked a touring cyclist in Carretera Austral region in 2016. He was rescued by the people in a car passing by. Well, what we did was also risky. Since I didn’t have a camera, Javier shared with me the photos he took.

The next day, it was spectacular to watch the sunrise. We took a lot of photos. Starting to descend I realized that it was harder than to climb. Batons made my life easier. But, to tell the truth, the next time I would prefer to bring my own gear if I would climb such a place to camp.

The next day after we descended, Nicholas joined us. As he told us, he had to ride almost the whole day with front wind and was very tired. Therefore, he wanted to rest for couple of days here and then climb to the summit before going to El Calafate. We also decided to set off the next day. My leg’s condition was better, although not at full strength I could make a whole turn on the pedal.

The next day we set off, it was incredibly windy. Fortunately, we had back wind and my speed changed between 45 to 55 km/h. Since Javier’s bicycle was 28 inch and had thin tires he was supposed to go faster but the load on his bike was 20 kg heavier than mine (we weighed them in next days). We had a comfortable ride reaching El Chalafate in two days starting from El Chalten. We both had friends which would host us in El Calafate:

  • Javier lets meet in the evenings and talk. We can go to Perito Moreno glacier together.
  • With bike or another transport vehicle?
  • Maybe my host Laura has a car and we can go with her. I’ll let you know.

I met Laura thanks to our common friend. He had told me that she was living in El Calafate and I could stay at her home if she would be suitable at that time and she was. She was living in a single-family house outside the city. She had bought the land and constructed the house by herself. She told me that it was a hard process in this region. She could hardly find the materials she wanted in the city. Her house was such lovely furnished, couldn’t be better match with this amazing landscape. She said that, since there wasn’t much wind in winter she could enjoy the landscape but during summer due to strong wind noise came from everywhere of the house, from the roof to the basement, that she sometimes became afraid of the house to collapse.

The construction and labor expenses are very high, the region is already expensive, a dinner in a restaurant costs at least 50 USD. Since Laura’s kitchen was beautiful and had a nice view we cooked almost every evening there. She was Brazilian having German roots. She was working as art director for TV series in Brazil.

  • There is a topic I’m wondering about. Once the Brazilian TV series used to be watched a lot in many countries. I can count also my country among those. But then, I don’t know what happened, but then these series disappeared. Is there a reason for this?
  • Of course, there is. In the past, the curriculum especially related to media had been changed. By time neither good directors nor scenarists were educated. This resulted in the end of TV series in the Brazilian media industry.

Well, I can’t tell how much true or false, but someone working for 20 years for television would have some experiences.

As I said to Javier, we went to the Perito Moreno Glacier with Laura’s car. When we got in the car, Laura:

  • You both are traveling the world for years, are there still places you get astonished?

Both of our answer was well of course there are places we get fascinated, but I guess not to the same extend as others. But it is impossible to see Perito Moreno and not to say: “Wow, amazing”. I said: “This is one of the moments!”. Its view was amazing. I guess in Summer, the noise and view of cracking ice must be spectacular. In winter since there is no wind you cannot hear the sound of the cracking ice or there aren’t any big ice bulks falling.

In the upcoming days Nicholas joined us again and we stayed all together at American Hostel in El Calafate. Javier shared the room with us only for two days in El Chalten but then felt uncomfortable due to Nicholas’ screaming and night walking while in sleep and changed his room. Since I was traveling for more than a month with Nicholas I got used to this situation. In El Calafate, we came all together, Javier also changed his room and stayed with us.

Both touring cyclists were very nice guys. Well, there were times we couldn’t get along well and were angry with each other. But our friendship continues. I would go on long distance tours anywhere in the world with both.

I was the first who set off from El Calafate. Javier and Nicholas were too slow, but I was ready.

  • You’ll catch me on the road, I’m leaving.
  • Alright, I’ll set off in the noon (Nicholas).
  • I’m not sure, I haven’t decided yet (Javier).

After a 3 day’s travel we’ll return to Chile. Therefore, we’ll meet again somewhere for sure it isn’t important who is in the front or at the back. There is only one road to follow. While I set off early in the morning I had back wind and though I climbed 1000 m I made 165 km on that day. This being so, I didn’t see them on the road. The next day I rode 120 km and came to a road maintenance and repair center working for a branch of highways department nearby.

Let me give you some information while talking about this area. If you follow Route 40 after leaving El Calafate towards Estancia Tapi Aike using Google map, you’ll struggle a lot. There is a junction with Route 5 while at this point Route 5 continues as paved road, Route 40 as dirt road. It is OK if you travel in summer season but in winter your bicycle, motorcycle or whatever vehicle might stuck in mud or snow. While we were riding on this road in winter time, it was icy and snowy. Continuing on Route 5 and then turning to Route 7 will lengthen 50 km but there are almost no climbs and in winter you’ll have back wind during day time, in the afternoon you’ll have front wind on Route 7. The coordinates of the gas station you’ll come to at the end of the day are: (-51.289154, -72.183897) Estancia Cancha Carrera

After a small chat with the employees of highways department branch, they hosted me at their caravan at the back of the building furnished with a heater. For dinner they barbecued. Wow, I guess I ate the most delicious rib in my life here. As I always say, in Argentine no matter on the north, south, west or east the barbecued meat is always of same quality and taste. As we just sat at table we saw a light in the darkness. Aha! Javier, I went out immediately:

  • Javieeeeerrrr, come to my voice.
  • It’s Nicholas, Javier didn’t come.

Nicholas? Dude, how come, 270 km? You ride only about 60 km or less a day and don’t like to ride at night at all.

  • Dude, so that you could ride that speedy why did we ride only 50 km a day each time freezing our tail off. (Afterwards, l learned that he took a lift).

We arrived together with Nicholas at the border gate to Torres Del Paine. We crossed this area described as very windy by other cyclists with no wind and if only with back wind. There is another iconic place in the line: Torres Del Paine

PS: People following my travel from my social media accounts between September and October 2017 knew that I had an accident and lost some of my equipment. I would like to thank them once again for their support to replace them (People sending support)


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