We arrived in Bariloche Airport after 40 hours of flying and squeezing large amounts of luggage and boxed bicycles through x-ray machines. My silly mind thought that despite our state, we would be able to simply rebuild our bikes and cycle out in to the vast empty expanses of northern Patagonia. Things often look different on the ground, than they do on a 1:400,000 scale map. The road I had though was a dusty by-way was in fact the only route in the area for heavy traffic transporting goods from Argentina to Chile.
The ride from the Airport to Bariloche was alright for the first 3 kms, until we joined the main road. Tired and disorientated, we rode towards town on the bumpy rocky shoulder of a packed two lane highway.
This was Pia’s introduction to cycling on a foreign continent, not yet used to her heavy load, and she wasn’t taking it very well. We turned up at the bottom gate of a campsite late at night completely exhausted, to find it locked. We set up the tent in front of it, and fell in to a deep long sleep.
The next morning the world seemed a friendlier place. we packed our bikes, went to buy some supplies for the next couple of days, and some petrol for the cooker, before stopping in to a little cafe for a coffee and yummy local pastries.
A local outdoorsy type had spotted the shinny Rohloff hub-gears on our bikes, and wanted to know what they were. It turned out he was an avid cyclist who knew the area well… and that the route we had planned was going to be a truckish nightmare. He told us however, that we were but 40 kms from an alternative crossing into Chile which involved crossing three Patagonian lakes with boats, and riding over a mountain pass through dense uninhabited forests, if we were willing to spend €120 each for the boat tickets. It didn't take us long to make up our minds.
The forty kilometres to the ferry were already exactly what I had come to South America looking for. The asphalt soon gave way, and we found ourselves riding across a gravelly dirt track through scrub and brush, with only the occasional car or motorbike interrupting our relieved solitude. Our Rotor Komets felt solid beneath us, as we enjoyed one of the nicest rides I have had to date. Scrub was crisscrossed by rivers and turned into forest, which opened up to reveal a lake, whose vast blue expanse bedazzled and dwarfed our city minds.
Pia couldn’t say anything except "Wow" all day, if I had counted it would have been a hundred Wows.
We slept long and well by that beautiful lake.
We woke, packed up camp and headed for the first ferry, which would take us from Llao Llao across the Lago Nahuel Huapi to its western most point. We enjoyed people watching, taking in the mix of Iberian, Northern European and less familiar softer, indigenous latin american features of the passengers around us.
After a brief three kilometer ride through dense forest, we reached the next boat, which took us across an especially milky green lake. The lady told us over the speakers that this was because of "glacial milk", volcanic dust scraped off the mountains by the slow movement of the ice.
We arrived at a tiny Argentinian border checkpoint in the middle of a forest, in the middle of nowhere. The same lady had been telling us repeatedly, that if we wanted to catch the boat across the third lake later that day, we would have to hurry in order to put the twenty four kilometres behind us in time. She insisted that it was a manageable distance if we didn’t stop and have picnics in between. She was completely delusional. There was no way we could have made that distance in the given time.
The first five kilometres were the steepest I have ever ridden, along a track that was riddled with large stones. Still under the impression that if we took the iron man challenge we could make the third boat, we were putting pressure on ourselves to reach the summit as fast as possible. Pia was on one of the steepest hills that I as an experienced bicycle tourist have encountered, and this was her second real day on the road. It was too much. The race ended after about half an hour with a justified outburst of frustration on Pia’s part.
We sat down, had a drink, and decided we were going about this all wrong. We had six months in front of us, so what was the rush? I took Pia’s heaviest bag and attached it to my bicycle, and we pushed the bikes up the rest of the steepest part of the mountain. We took breaks whenever we needed them, and took in the untamed wilderness around us.
We crossed the summit of the mountain and were rewarded with an exhilarating 15 km of downhill through ferns, huge trees, plants with leaves the size of elephant ears, waterfalls and creeks bursting out of the mountain beside us at every turn. I kept telling Pia to slow down until she was more used to her bike, but there was no stopping her. Through trial by fire, she had found her bicycle legs.
We arrived exhausted but in awe of our epic surroundings, at a Chilean border check-point housed in a shack. We had arrived at the edge of a tiny little village called Peulla, which is only reachable via the rough track we had come in on, or the boat which arrived there once a day from the other side of the vast lake on which it rests.
Once through, we road our bikes down to the quaint little port, pitched our tent in a picnic area, and after a some well earned pasta, crawled in to our sleeping bags.
We were in Chile.
The two hour ferry-ride the next day was a breathtaking experience. We crossed a truly Patagonian lake surrounded by wild green mountains, and were spoilt with epic views of the Osorno and Puntiagudo volcanoes.