After spending a few days in Bariloche waiting for bike parts and writing resumes, it was time to hit the road again. We weren’t too disappointed to be leaving Bariloche behind. It was nice enough and does have a European feel, but it wasn’t really to our taste – we found it to be overpriced, over-commercialised, over-crowded and generally, not very friendly to cyclists. Whenever we cycled from town back to our wonderful hostel (Alaska Hostel – highly recommended, with great homemade bread included!), we literally felt as though we were taking our lives into our own hands, as there was no shoulder on the narrow, windy road and the cars zipped passed us without giving any room.
That said, we would still recommend a short stop in Bariloche – if your budget can accommodate it! The highlight for us was cycling the Circuito Chico (sans luggage). The scenery was exactly what we had been hoping for – gorgeous, crystal-clear lakes, surrounded by mountains and lots of green!
It’s also a good place to meet up with other cyclists. As we were in town for a couple of days, we were able to catch up with Andre, who we cycled with in Colombia and Ecuador, and also Sam, another German cyclist that we had been following online.
Here is an overview of our 4 day journey from Bariloche to Futalefu. It is detailed for our own records, so feel free to skip ahead to the photos!
Tuesday 19 January 2016: Bariloche to Restaurant clearing
Given the traffic around Bariloche, we had hoped to get an early start, but after 2.5 weeks off the bike, we were slow to get started! The friendly staff at Alaska Hostel recommended that we take Ruta 82, which would take us to the Ruta 40 and save us having to cycle fully loaded into town again. This was a good suggestion and took us past lovely Lake Gutiérrez – a popular spot for kayaking. The road was mostly gravel, not in the best condition and at times, quite steep – but, most importantly, quiet.
Once we hit the Ruta 40, we turned right, continuing along beside Lake Gutiérrez, followed by Lake Mascardi and then Lake Guillelmo. Being greeted by stunning blue lakes around every corner, made the cycling easier, which was quite up and down over the first 55kms. But by early afternoon, we were struggling in the heat, and by the time we were hot and bothered enough to contemplate going for a quick swim, there were no more lakes in sight! I could feel the time off the bike (and the effects of indulging in Bariloche chocolates!), so I was very happy when the road started a steep descent, which lasted for a good 10-12kms or so.
But, what goes down, must go up again and this final push was hot and tough. By the 70km mark I was pretty much done and looking for a campsite. When we passed a sign for bike camping (and food!) ahead at the 1960.2km mark – I was sold! However, when we reached the 1960.2km mark, there was only a restaurant (which was closed for the day) and no official campground, which was a bit strange and disheartening after the sign (false advertising!). But I was done for the day and promptly collapsed into a chair outside the restaurant. Thankfully, the owner took pity on me and said we could camp in the empty clearing next to the restaurant (which was a great space, with little tree stumps to sit on and a little makeshift table) and she let us use the facilities from the restaurant – bonus! We tried to pay, but she wouldn’t let us, as the clearing wasn’t an ‘official’ campground. We made up for it by taking some beers off her hands!
Wednesday 20 January 2016: Restaurant clearing to El Refugio del Lago
This was another hot day in the saddle. Thankfully, in total, we descended more than we climbed.
The scenery was mountainous, with lots of green pine trees. After our first day, I had expected to see more lakes (we were in Patagonia after all!), but there was a general absence of lakes, which made the already hot day, seem hotter still.
Around lunchtime, we reached the supposedly ‘hippie’ town of El Bolson. It was a little quieter than Bariloche, but still seemed to draw in the tourists. We found a lovely steak house – La Marca Parrilla, with tables and chairs outside, so that we could keep an eye on our bikes. After lunch we made a beeline for the nearest bank to replenish our cash reserves, but no matter which bank we tried, our card was refused. This was to be a recurring problem for us in Patagonia on the Argentinian side of the border …. ☹ We liked El Bolson a lot and would have liked to spend longer there, but we were worried about our cash situation and wanted to get to Chile as soon as possible to see if we could get money out there. So, after making another mandatory stop (for ice-cream!), we got back on the bikes and headed out of town.
Our Garmins recorded the temperature as 49.2 degrees (which was probably inaccurate), but suffice to say, it was a HOT afternoon. By 4pm we were looking for somewhere to camp. We passed Restaurant El Mirador and saw signs for various accommodation options, with a dirt road heading off to the right, leading steeply down into the valley. But, we didn’t want to camp in the valley, as it would mean a steep climb out the following morning, so we pushed on in the hope that we would find a suitable spot to wild camp beside the road.
Eventually we came to the little ‘town’ of Epuyen, which surprisingly has a ‘Tourist Office’. We made a little detour into town and asked if there were any opportunities for camping in the next 10-20km along the Ruta 40. We were given a decisive ‘no’ and were informed that our best option was to descend into the valley (which we had been trying to avoid). So, if you are even coming this way by bike, be sure to take the turn off after Restaurant El Mirador and save yourself some time!!
We got back on our bikes and rolled down to El Refugio del Lago (Lake Refuge), an excellent campground, surrounded by trees and dotted with little picnic tables (although we never saw the lake!). The place was packed with families and seemed very popular. The owner was concerned about the safety of our bikes and so offered to lock them up in the office overnight, which was kind (although a little concerning!). Thankfully, our stay was entirely uneventful, and we left with all our belongings the following morning.
KMs travelled: 93km
Thursday 21 January 2016: El Refugio del Lago to Esquel
This day will be seared into my memory forever, as the day that we ran out of water and were saved by the Patron Saint of Travellers! If I had thought the previous two days had been hot cycling, they were nothing compared to this day.
We started early for a change and made our way back up to the Ruta 40 from the valley floor to Epuyen. Once back on the Ruta 40, the road continued to climb, until reaching a plateau of sorts.
About 7km after Epuyen, we came to a fork in the road, where we met another cycle tourer. He planned to take Ruta 71, which looked to be a rough, dirt road. I was of the view that we would soon have more than enough dirt roads on the Carreterra Austral, so was happy to push ahead on the sealed Ruta 40. But, in hindsight, it may have been the better choice.
The landscape reminded us of Alaska on this stretch. Lots of mountains, blue sky, some pine trees and a lack of civilisation. After a couple of hours toiling away in the sun, we were getting low on water. We had thought we would pass by some little towns (where we could buy water (and ice-cream!)), but there wasn’t a single town directly along the Ruta 40 between Epuyen and Esquel. We silently thanked the lady in the Epuyen Tourist Office for advising us to stay in the valley the night before, as we didn’t pass any good camp spots and we didn’t see anywhere where we could have filled up our water bottles.
We were getting low on water when the Ruta 40 crossed the Ruta 15, which led to the Leleque Musuem. But we didn’t want to attempt a detour to the Museum and discover that it was closed or didn’t sell drinks. So, we pressed on ahead. But, when we both ran out of water soon after, we wondered if we had made the right decision and contemplated turning back and trying to reach the museum.
Thankfully, around this time we came across a dirty little lake on our left and a weird shrine on the right, which thanks to Wikipedia, we now know to be the Difunta Correa Shrine – the Patron Saint of Travellers!! Legend has it that a young lady set off with her baby through the desert to find her sick husband who had been forcibly recruited during the Argentine civil war (circa 1840s) and then abandoned when he became sick. She ran out of supplies (and, I presume, water) and died along the way. Her body was discovered several days later by gauchos (cowboys), but miraculously, her baby was still alive and suckling from her breast, which never ran out of milk. The story spread, along with the belief that the ‘Difunta Correa’ (Deceased Correa) could save travellers and she is now an unofficial saint. Shrines to Difunta Correa can be found along roadsides across Argentina and people leave bottles of water as a sign of respect and an offering to ‘calm her eternal thirst’.
Of course, when we came across the shrine, we had never heard of Difunta Correa and weren’t aware of the significance of the rubbishy looking ‘shrine’ or the reason for all of the water bottles. Quite a few of the water bottles looked as though they had been filled up at the lake, but on closer inspection, we found some brand-new water bottles, with their seals intact. We debated whether it was safer to sterilise water from the lake to drink or take some bottles from the shrine, which seemed a little wrong …! In the end, we took a bottle each from the shrine – it seemed safer than drinking water from the lake and was a lot less hassle. Plus, there were so many bottles at the shrine that we didn’t think anyone would miss them. Looking back, I can’t help but smile at our luck. We found that little shrine at just the right time! I think Difunta Correa would have been happy that we took some of her water. After all, she is the Patron Saint of Travellers and the water certainly calmed our thirst!
From this point on, we started to come across little streams every now and then. We were baking in the heat and so, we took the opportunity to soak our t-shirts in the cold water in an attempt to stay cool. From about the 80km mark, the road started to lose elevation and we were able to make better progress.
On the outskirts of Esquel, we could see massive clouds of smoke. We wondered if there was a bush fire in progress – it was certainly hot enough! And, as we finally limped into Esquel, we were greeted by a hazy, red sunset, although we never did find the source of the smoke.
Friday 22 January 2016: Esquel to Futalefu
We were looking forward to crossing into Chile and reaching Futalefu on this day. We wanted to get an early start, but not before trying to see if we could get cash out at one of the local banks. Unfortunately, not. ☹
We made reasonably good progress to Trevelin, as it was mostly downhill, except for one big climb, and all sealed. I had been looking forward to reaching Trevelin – a little Welsh Settlement. Trevelin is a pretty place and the Welsh influence was visible in the some of the architecture. We stopped for lunch in one of the local bakeries and then carried onto Futalefu.
A short way out of Trevelin, the paved road ended and we soon found ourselves jolting along a rutted gravel road. It made slow going, but thankfully the scenery was lovely, with snowy mountains in the distance and as we neared our destination, we started to catch glimpses of the powerful River Futalefu!
I was very happy when we finally reached the River Futalefu. We stopped to admire it and take a few happy snaps! Then it was on to the border crossing at Futalefu, which couldn’t have been more laid back. We filled in the required forms, got our stamps and were in. We asked one of the Futalefu border officials about the road quality from the border crossing to the town. He just laughed and told us ‘Good Luck’!
It was another 10kms or so to Futalefu and the road quality certainly didn’t improve and it was surprisingly steep in parts – no wonder the border official laughed!! We rolled into town in late afternoon feeling accomplished and ready for some rafting action on the River Futalefu (which is meant to be one of the top three spots for white water rafting in the world!).
Futalefu had a nice feel – relaxed and welcoming, with ATMs that worked!!! It had some nice little cafes (with wifi) and was geared towards adventure tourism, without being overrun by it.
As was to become a common theme in Patagonia, a lot of houses had converted their gardens into little campgrounds. Crowded with tents, we didn’t find them to be very appealing, so we kept looking until we stumbled across the rustic Puerto Espolon Campground, located a little way out of town beside the river. It was just what we were looking for – spacious and uncrowded (a bit like wild camping, but with basic facilities and cold showers!). We set up our tent up directly overlooking the river – it was magic!
KMs travelled: 105km
Saturday 23 January 2016:
We took the day off and went rafting on the River Futalefu, which was amazing fun! Sorry, our budget didn’t extend to paying for overpriced photos, so there are no pics!
Sunday 24 January 2016: Rest day
A day of chores – doing laundry and food shopping for the next stage of our journey.