The Carretera Austral dead-ends at Lago Villa O'Higgins. At that point you have a choice to either turn back north, backtrack 185 miles to cross into Argentina and then head south again or take a ferry across the lake and attempt a 15-mile border crossing over a mountain pass without roads that is a test of brute force and sheer determination. This is a fine route for hikers and is very beautiful, but with fully-loaded, 100-pound bikes, it felt like some sort of brutal military-type training course. It was quite the kicker after just finishing the Carretera and we voted it as definitely the most challenging day of this entire trip to date.
The road ends here. On the ferry crossing Lago O'Higgins.
The first 10 miles of this border crossing were in Chile and though they were slow and difficult, they weren't terrible. Immediately after getting off the ferry we had a 3-mile straight uphill hike on loose, lemon-sized rock. It was impossible to ride our bikes, so we pushed them, grunting, groaning, constantly hitting our knees on our pedals, feet on our panniers, sliding a half step backwards in the gravel for every step we took forward all while trying to control a bicycle that always wanted to slip sideways out from under itself. It was a lot of work, yet at the same time kind of fun muscling our way up the side of a mountain. The last 7 miles of Chilean territory was a nice, wide, undulating trail that was mostly rideable. There were several times where we had to get off the bikes to push them up steep, sandy sections or completely unload them to carry them over fences or dilapidated bridges, but for the most part, it was an enjoyable segment of the crossing. Mike couldn't believe it when I, who had been hating the bumpy roads we'd been riding for the past 3 weeks, admitted to actually liking this mountain biking part. This off-road section wasn't nearly as bumpy as the on-road parts of the Carretera, so how could I not like it?
A troubled bridge over water...Simon and Garfunkel had it all backwards.
Mike carrying his bike over a fence.
The going got extremely difficult when we reached the Argentine border and the last 5 miles of the border crossing nearly got the best of us. Suddenly the wide trail we had been on disappeared and turned into a muddy horse trail. There was no longer even the slightest option of riding, so for the next 5 hours we attempted to push, pull and carry our bikes over a trail that was usually too narrow for a bike to fit through and definitely too narrow for a pannier-packed bike and a person to squeeze through side by side.
I enjoy playing in mud like the best of little kids and it was actually a lot of fun for the first half a mile, but then the novelty wore off. Mud was up to mid-shin, river crossings were freezing cold, our feet were soggy and many times we nearly lost our shoes in the mud. There were several sections that were too steep or too narrow to lug our loaded bikes through so we had to unload our bikes to carry our panniers first and then double back to retrieve our bikes. This trail has clearly been heavily used by horses and hikers as parts of it have narrow, waist-deep ruts filled with mud and horse poo that were impossible to fit our bikes in. We had to wheel our bikes up on the ledges and attempt to steer, brake and control them while slipping and sliding down in the rut. Then there was the constant battle of panniers getting hooked on rocks, tree stumps and the bramble-like shrubs that lined the path, all grabbing our loads and causing us to wrench our backs as we tried to control our bikes that were being suddenly stopped and jerked at weird angles. About halfway through, Mike's bike got snagged first on a rock, followed immediately by a bush and he was unable to regain control as he stumbled and we watched as his bike rolled sideways down a cliff. At that point Mike was screaming in furry and I was positive we were done for the day and that this border crossing would likely be the end of our bike trip. But we managed to keep plugging away at a whopping 3/4 of a mile an hour, every part of our bodies aching, just wanting to be done that day so we wouldn't have to be miserable the next day as well.
Cari crossing a river/mud puddle.
Mike in the mud...not having much fun anymore.
A bike stuck in the mud.
A muddy mess.
We eventually emerged from the trail at the Argentina Customs station on Lago del Desierto, tired, cold, wet and muddy, with aching knees, backs, shoulders and necks, feeling like we had just been in a major car wreck. What a long day it had been; certainly one we will not soon forget.
Mike giving our bikes a much-needed bath before getting on the ferry.
Cari at Lago del Desierto, waiting for yet another ferry.