10 Questions: Cycling Patagonia
Friends Jonathan Tillett and Rob McLachan biked and hiked their way over 3,000km in Patagonia, South America.
This stunning, desolate part of the world between Bariloche and Ushuaia offered them amazing mountain views, fantastic wild camping and encounters with friendly locals.
Fickle weather, including some fierce headwinds, and rough dirt roads were among the challenges they faced, as they tell us in the following 10 Questions.
See more of Jonathan’s beautiful photography on his site World Images.
1. Patagonia encompasses a massive section of South America. How did you pick your 3,000km route from Bariloche to Ushuaia?
Patagonia is a sparcely populated wilderness with dramatic scenery, and the distances are large. It’s both a rewarding and challenging place to bike. We were looking for something reasonably tough where self-sufficiency is essential.
It’s a reasonably well-trodden path. We met several tourers, ranging from an American who’d biked all the way from northern Alaska, to two old men on a two week trip, fighting the headwinds smoking pipes.
2. Which resources did you use to plan your trip?
Planning a route is a simple affair as there are essentially only two roads running down Patagonia – one in Argentina and one in Chile.
The road through Argentina runs east of the Andes and is dry and stark, while the Chile route is exposed to the Pacific fronts and is wet and for the most part more challenging. It’s possible to cross in places and we enjoyed a combination of the two extremes.
Towns and villages become scarcer as you get further south so this largely dictates your planning for you.
A single small scale map and a guidebook is all you need.
3. How would you describe the experiences and sensations of cycling in Patagonia?
Wide open spaces. Strong winds (from all directions). Huge skies. You feel incredibly small. Bumpy. The roads are mostly gravel, often corrugated. The population of the region is tiny so most of your interaction is with the mountainous scenery, although the people are friendly and hospitable.
4. What were some of your favourite parts or experiences of the trip?
Biking No-man’s land between Villa O’Higgins in Chile and El Chalten in Argentina. The road on the Chilean side ends at the town of Villa O’Higgins but by taking ferries over a couple of lakes and some exciting single tracks through hills and forests, it’s possible to link up the 70km gap.
Be prepared for a bit of hike-a-bike and wading with the bike through the odd river! (You can avoid this excitement by taking the Argentina road all the way down Patagonia)
And the small pleasures – relaxing with a bottle of local cervesa in a friendly hosteria in remote little towns after a long day in the open air.
5. What kind of day-to-day conditions and population density can people expect. Are towns regularly placed along the route?
Expect all conditions – warm, cold, sun, wind, perfect days, storms. And that’s in summer. Any other time of year would be a bold undertaking, with short days and cold, blustery weather.
The density of towns varies but we rarely if ever had to wild camp more than one night in a row (while biking) so logistics are not a problem. Even very small towns will usually have a handful of cheap, friendly family run hosterias (like a B&B) which will also give you a good filling evening meal.
Wild camping was never a problem and on one occasion the road was so quiet we pitched our tent literally on the side of it without a single vehicle passing.
6. Patagonia is renowned for its wild winds. How did you deal with them?
Most of the time the wind didn’t give us too many problems but some days could be extreme. One day we biked all day into a headwind so strong it kept catching the front wheel and pushing us off the road. We struggled to maintain 7km / hour and only managed 40km in 6 hours of hard riding. We couldn’t stop because we’d planned to meet some friends at the start of a hike!
What kept us going was the thought of promised tail winds to shoot us across Tierra del Fuego but in the end we had a headwind there too! But when the tail winds do blow, there’s nothing like the feeling of cruising along at 40kph with almost no effort and we made well over 200km on one day.
7. Were there any other challenges you faced, that other cycle tourists might also encounter in this region?
No rabid dogs or gun toting rebels to be afraid of here – it’s peaceful and safe with just you, your machine and the mountains.
8. You not only cycled, you also hiked on this journey. How did you manage to combine this with bike touring?
We found it a great pleasure to switch between biking and hiking. Patagonia has some of the best hiking in the world – we walked the Torres del Paine circuit, the Fitzroy mountains and even across the island of Isle Navarino south of Ushuia where you can see the islands of Cape Horn on a clear day.
We also scaled Aconcagua (6,962m, the highest peak in the Andes) as a warm up before starting the tour.
We each took a 40L backpack on top of our rear racks which also served as useful storage when biking. With careful packing and using the side straps of the backpack to bolt on extra gear, we found we could do a 5 day unsurported hike quite easily using these backpacks. It was never a problem leaving the bike and panniers somewhere safe for the return.
I used trail running shoes as my only pair of shoes for the trip – both for biking and hiking and found this compromise worked well and saved a lot of weight. There was no need to carry any extra gear.
9. Was language ever a problem? Did you learn any Spanish?
A bit of Spanish is essential but it’s easy to pick up enough to get by.
10. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other people thinking of doing this journey?
Use the best rear rack you can find as it will get a real pounding on some of the corrugations. By the end of our trip, Rob’s rack was broken in multiple places and was held together with cable ties and some copper wire we found in a gutter! Miraculously though, it lasted the distance.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in Patagonia:
- Patagonia Against The Wind – A site with a downloadable PDF of a 4-week mountain-bike expedition in Patagonia.
- The Carretera Austral and Patagonia – Lee Taylor’s account of a 40-day tour in 2009.
- The Fuego Project – A journey from Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America.