Monday, January 31, 2011

Tuesday and Wednesday: border crossing to Villa O'Higgins


When I was young, I always imagined land border crossings must be in the remotest locations, requiring battling through forest and mountains to cross. This probably was a consequence of being brought up on a island, but integrated Europe meant I always found it rather an anticlimax when I did eventually get to cross borders by land. Until now.

We left El Chaltén Tuesday morning with a feeling that this was the first place we'd visited that we'd really liked to spend quite a bit more time in. The previous evening had turned out fine weather after a damp and windy afternoon, so we'd taken the opportunity to do a 1 hour hike up to the mirrador Laguna Torres. Beside the Fitz Roy mountain this offered great views over the valley behind the town and other granite peaks, and glaciers. I can start to see the real attraction of ice treking which many of the agencies offer.

We took our time cycling out to lago del desierto, knowing we had a good 5 hours to cover the 38km before the 5.30 ferry. More great weather and views of Fitz Roy as we passed by meant many photo stops.

We also fitted in a 45 minute hike to see the huemul glacier, and enjoyed a lunch or barbequed chorizo in bread ("choripans") from the park attendant.Once across the lake we had to decide how to split the 7 + 15 km hikes either side of the border - although passport formalities are down on exiting or joining the ferries at either end so effectively the whole trek across is in no-man's land. Knowing that carrying a tandem would be challenge enough we were keen to hire a horse to carry the panniers, so when we found the only option was to set off that evening and stay the night at the horse man's hut, just over the border, the decision was made.

On the Argentine side the track is a very poor mud walking trail - much less maintained than any the previous trails we've used this trip. Coupled with the fact it is steep - effectively climbing to a pass over the Andes - and of course with a tandem bike in tow, this was quite a job of work. Several river crossings, without bridges, also added to the adventure.

Eventually, with a lot of heaving and shoving and quite a few scratched ankles, soaked shoes, and fruity language, we made it to the border itself. As this was a location that gun fire was passing over around the time of my birth, it was quite evident the location was very important, with a cast iron marker half way between the respective welcome to Chile/Argentina signs. Almost immediately beyond that, the mud track turned to gravel track. Not up to NCN standards (excuse the cyclist's sarcasm!) but quite rideable compared to what came before. 15 mins later we were setting up our tent by the horse wrangler's shed. (Evidently an ex-military border-bullying building).

There we met his wife and daughter, and numerous cats (one had even led us into there from the other side of the border sign!). It must be interesting to live your childhood in no-man's land like that, with no motor vehicles about and only access being by ferry at either end of the road; a virtual island up at 700m altitude in the mountains.

As we were setting the tent, I heard a shout and looked up just in time to see some luggage (including  a bob-yak trailer!) being kicked way into the air by a bolting horse. Bolting straight towards me! A moment of indecision, and then I leapt to my right and it shot pass and crashed into the woods behind. As we hastily moved our tent to be a bit further from the bolt-hole gap in the hedge, it passed through my mind just how far we were from anywhere at all in this strange island-like location, let alone from NHS care!

Next morning we continued the journey toward the Chilean border post. Despite being twice the distance we covered it in much less time as the roads are for the main part rideable, except some gravelled steep descents (with sheer drop to one side with no railing, of course!).

The history here is that under pinochet Chile wanted to push this road right through to join up Puerto natales and the magallenes region with the rest of the country. Snag being the southern Patagonian icefield means the only possible route goes through Argentine land, and Argentina weren't so keen on this. Hence the roads being more substantiated on the Chile side, but Argentina doing the least possible to now allow it as an expedition tourist route, but not encourage any more Chilean integration ideals. In fact El chaltén was only established 25 years ago, as a means to reinforce Argentina's claim to the land.

On the final descent to the northern end of the road, the moment happened that we'd been anticipating since we left the UK. We met a tandem coming up the hill toward us. Not any tandem though, this one was carrying my work colleague Steve, and partner Steph. Of all the coincidences we'd both planned the same trip along the caraterra Austral at about the same time, both on tandems, and without knowing the other was doing the same. We had a good catch-up but only wish the boat timings had been such that we could have spent more time with them over an evening; they need to catch flights this coming weekend so need to make good time over the crossing, and unfortunately horses were not available for their trip. Hope the get across ok.

 map (Tuesday) 

 map (Wednesday part 1) 

 map (Wednesday part 2)