Days 30 to 32: An Incredible Border Crossing - El Chalten (Arg.) to Villa O'Higgins (Chi.)
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Between El Chalten (Argentina) and Villa O'Higgins (Chile) is perhaps the most unusual border crossing I've ever undertaken. It's not possible for motorists or even motorcyclists, and is instead simply for independent travellers. With a bicycle it wasn't always easy, but certainly possible and took me through a fabulous part of Patagonia nestled on the border of these two countries.
The 35km ride north from El Chalten was dreamy, not only was the surrounding landscape beautiful, but traffic was almost non-existent. I think I saw about 5 vehicles all day. The road doesn't ultimately go anywhere, and hits a dead-end when it arrives at the southern shores of Lake Desierto, which contributes to its isolated aura. Signs advising I was in the habitat of the rare Huemel deer dotted the road side.
Arriving at Lago del Desierto, I took the first of two ferries across two lakes that would eventually take me back into Chile. It is possible to hike around the shore of the first lake and not take the ferry, but I'd be warned that was pretty unsuitable for someone wheeling a bicycle. [A couple of years later, I watched a Youtube video of Alee Denham (CyclingAbout.com) who attempted it, and remarked "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, if I had one". So there you have the other side of the story!]
At the ferry dock I met 3 other cyclists - a couple from the Netherlands and a guy from the UK, and there were probably a dozen or so backpackers waiting as well. An hour's ferry ride took us to the northern shore of Lake Desierto were there was an idyllic campsite right by the water's edge where we would hole up for the evening.
The next morning we cleared Argentinian immigration (there was an office at one end of the campsite!), and began a difficult hike up and over a hill to Chile. For someone hiking, it was probably just a strenuous walk, but for those of us with bicycle it was a bit of a mission. The hiking trail was cut narrow and deep,which made it difficult maneuvering the bicycle up it with panniers affixed. So instead it was either a case of regularly lifting the bike seat post so the panniers would rise up over the trail edge, or in some cases the panniers would have to come off and we'd move bikes and panniers up the trail seperately in a double movement.
Although the views made all of effort worth it.
After navgigating more difficult terrain, we eventually arrived in a clearing where a large sign welcomed us to Chile.
The gradient down to the next lake was far more gentle, and had allowed the Chileans to put down a rough gravel road to contrast with the narrow hiking trail up the Argentinian side. It may have been a struggle getting the bike up and over, but on the way down it was nice to be back on the bike again and whizzing past most of those hikers who had en easier time on the ascent.
After another night camped lakeside, a ferry took us across Lake O'Higgins to the tiny township of Villa O'Higgins, and the most southerly point on Chile's legendary Carretera Austral -the country's iconic road through its wild southern regions.