Cycling The Glaciares National Park

Cycling The Glaciares National Park was the culmination of our epic Patagonian cycle ride. The park covers a huge area  and combines several glaciares and lakes.  It is close to the town of El Calafate from where we flew home via Buenos Aires.  But prior to this we had the not insubstantial matter of the infamous border crossing from O'Higgins in Chile to Lake Desierto in Argentina.  This track almost becomes impassable at times and we ended up soaking wet, muddy and tired by the end of it. We needed a week to recover from our exertions of the previous several weeks and we spent time in El Chalten hiking around the spectacular Fitzroy national park and sampling the excellent local ales.

Our ride descriptions give an account of the ride that we completed. As part of the description we also provide links to Wikiloc or Google maps and elevation profiles based on mapping data available through the internet. The ride profiles are smoothed to give what in our opinion is a more beneficial view of the profile. We use paper maps, GPS and on line data to plan and conduct our rides. We are happy for you to use our descriptions, but be aware that we do not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided as situations surrounding any ride change over time.

Cycling The Glaciares National Park - Day 1 - O'Higgins to Lake Desierto

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Cycling The Glaciares N. P. - Day 1

The border crossing from O'Higgins in Chile to Lake Desierto in Argentina was one of the highlights of our trip that we had  looked forward to with a mix of trepidation and excitement. It did not let us down and proved to be one of the most difficult days of our tour. But boy was it worth it!

Ride Description

The end of the CarrateraThe end of the Carratera

At 6pm the ferry office opened and there was a long queue. Most of them were people we had already met on our journey. We were soon initiated into the 'ferry routine'. Day 1; buy tickets. Day 2; return and queue again to be given a possible day and time for the boat. Day 3 on-wards; return each evening to get updates on the weather and seat availability. Calm weather conditions allowed the company to run two ferries the next day so we only had to wait two days.

O'Higgins sunshineO'Higgins sunshine
The O'Higgins ferryThe O'Higgins ferry

We filled the time in between visits to the ferry office with exploring the town and cycling down to the official end of the Carretera Austral at the ferry dock.

Road to the ferryTraffic jam on the ferry road

Strong wind was forecast for the afternoon so the ferry would depart at 7am. It was 8km along an unlit, un-surfaced road to the small ferry quay, so we departed in the pitch dark at 6am. Karens front light refused to work so it was a rather tense journey. Just as it got light we arrived at the jetty and met the three other cyclists and seven backpackers who were crossing with us.

The boat departs from the north of Lago O'Higgins and heads south, taking three hours to reach the southern shore. In the north section the lake is narrow, with high rocky cliffs, so sheltered from the wind. Further south it widens and the wind speed increased, with waves breaking over the roof of the boat.

Climbing to the borderClimbing to the border
Getting near the borderGetting near the border

We were all glad to get off the boat, get our bikes and packs unloaded and set off up the rough, steep hill to the Chile passport control office. Service here was friendly and rapid as not many people travel this road. From here it was 16km to the Chile/Argentina border proper. The first 4km are up a rough, loose and steep track. We pushed while the three other (much younger!) guys rode. Once at the top it was a pleasant ride through mature forest. At lunchtime we all sat together to eat our packed lunches.

At the post which marks the border between Chile and Argentina the double width track that we had been riding on ends abruptly and becomes a narrow, muddy footpath. This path followed a tortuous route through the tall forest, over rocks, tree roots, bogs and rivers, constantly climbing and descending. To begin with we carefully pushed the bikes through the water, balancing on rocks and tree trunks and detoured round the worst of the mud and bog.

Border markerBorder marker
Path into ArgentinaPath into Argentina

But now the heavy rain started and the biting cold wind numbed our bodies and brains. With half the panniers on our shoulders we waded through the rapidly rising streams and hauled the bikes over the rocks and tree roots. The nadir came when we arrived at a wide bog. With no possibility of avoiding the mud we just waded through calf deep, trying to keep the bikes moving forwards. Not long after that we waded thigh deep through the next river which washed off a lot of the mud.

Even the downhill towards the Argentine border post was a nightmare. The path was a narrow trench, just wide enough for panniers at both sides of the bike. So we had to walk down, balancing on top of the trench while steering the bike along the bottom and trying to avoid getting too much of the mud on ourselves or the gear.

Rain, mud and tree rootRain, mud and tree root
Before we got caked in mudBefore we got caked in mud

Needless to say, we were the last ones to arrive at the Argentinian passport office and get our entry stamps. From here we had to get a ferry across Lago Desierto to the beginning of the road to El Chalten. It was supposed to leave almost an hour ago but had waited for us at the insistence of the our traveling friends.

Thoroughly soaked and caked with mud, we sat and shivered all the way to the south shore and a campsite. Then all we had to do was put the tent up, shower, cook dinner and fall into bed!

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Cycling The Glaciares National Park - Day 2 - Lake Desierto to El Chalten

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Cycling The Glaciares N. P. - Day 2

An easy 37km ride on ripio with a following wind all the way to El Chalten.

Ride Description

The rain poured down all night, then eased off around dawn. It did wash a little of the mud off the bikes. Today promised an easy flattish ride along the gravel road number 23 to El Chalten.

From the beginning there was a following wind, which gradually increased in intensity to the point where we had to use the brakes at times to slow down. This flat glacial valley with its meandering river was beautiful, but low cloud blocked all view of the mountains above.

Malvinas MemorialMalvinas Memorial

Slick tarmac began on the outskirts of El Chalten, where the main industry is tourism, with easy access to glaciers, mountains and lakes. The main strip is lined with cafes and restaurants so we had coffee while checking the web for accommodation.

Natural rock sculptureNatural rock sculpture
Road to El ChaltenRoad to El Chalten

On the way we passed the first 'Malvinas' (Falkland Islands) memorial. Apparently most of the conscripted troops who were sent to fight there were from southern Patagonia

Rio Canadon valleyRio Canadon valley

The internet was so slow it was quicker to just cycle down to the place and make the booking in person. It was like a palace compared to some of the places in Chile,with everything we needed including a washing machine and central heating. Within half a day all the gear was washed, dried and packed away.

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Cycling The Glaciares National Park - Days Off - El Chalten

First priority for the week was to binge on calories as we had both lost quite a bit of weight. That wasn't too difficult as there were lots of restaurants and even more bars selling craft beers.

Next was to see the sights for which this place is famous. Unfortunately there was low cloud for the first few days. We did some walks but couldn't get good views of the peaks.

Our border crossing buddiesOur border crossing buddies

We went out to eat and returned to a very apologetic owner who confessed that there had been a mistake and the room that we had booked on line was a poky little place downstairs with no view. She did reduce the price to make our disappointment a little less bitter.

Cerro Torre lakeCerro Torre lake

At the end of the week the weather improved and we walked to the viewpoints for Cerro Torre , Mount Fitz Roy and the Salto de Chorillo waterfall, all stunningly beautiful.

Las Vueletas valleyLas Vueletas valley
Salto El ChorilloSalto El Chorillo
View of El ChaltenView of El Chalten

After three days we left the flat and moved to a bed and breakfast place that we had booked several weeks ago. This place only had three letting rooms and we were shown to a beautiful, spacious bedroom with a large en suite bathroom and views over the town.

El Chalten sculptureEl Chalten sculpture
Path to Cerro TorrePath to Cerro Torre
Cloudy Mount Fitz RoyCloudy Mount Fitz Roy

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Cycling The Glaciares National Park - Day 3 - El Chalten to La Leona

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Cycling The Glaciares N. P. Day 3

After a week off we were in good shape for the 109km ride to La Leona.  The road was well surfaced, quiet, and we only had one significant climb of 100m. Turning south onto route 40 we came into a lively head wind and the effort increased.  We were glad to arrive at La Leona.

Ride Description

Overnight there was heavy rain but that cleared at dawn and we awoke to a beautifully clear, still and freezing cold morning. Several additional layers of clothes were gradually added until the sun got a little higher and warmer. The route continued south on the 23 road along the shores of the massive Lake Viedma and there was little traffic.

Another Fitz Roy viewAnother Fitz Roy view

After 69km we reached the junction with route 40 which is the road we had ridden further north at the beginning of our journey. A chilly headwind slowed progress through the strangely beautiful bleakness of the grasslands. There are no signs of human life here at all. The only habitation marked on the map is La Leona.

Lake Viedma mountainsLake Viedma mountains

It has a 'campsite', a scruffy dirt yard covered in dog and cat excrement,. But on the plus side the hotel had a cafe and did serve good beer! This was the coldest night we have ever spent in our tent, wearing all our clothes, hats and gloves. At dawn the tent was covered with ice, inside and outside.

Early morning viewEarly morning view

Progress was slow because we constantly had to stop and look back at the most beautiful vista of Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy, illuminated by the rising sun and glowing above the dark Patagonian grasslands. The bare mountainsides along the road were sprinkled with snow which highlighted their geology.


La Leona was the site of the old river ferry that the farmers used to move their cattle. A roadhouse was built to shelter people waiting for the ferry. Now there is a bridge, but the old roadhouse has become famous for its association with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who stopped here while on the run, following a bank robbery in Rio Gallegos

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Cycling The Glaciares National Park - Day 4 - La Leona to El Calafate

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Cycling The Glaciares N. P.- Day 4

Another 100k+ ride today with light winds and reasonably easy terrain and only a couple of reasonable climbs to reach our final destination.

Ride Description

Yes, it was a very cold morning but there wasn't a cloud in the sky and no wind. It was almost noon before the chill lifted. The grasslands seemed endless, the road following the river valley which links Lake Viedma with Lake Argentina. This second lake has the most impossibly vivid turquoise waters, contrasting with the drab greyish yellow hues of the grasses.

Road to El CalafateRoad to El Calafate
Lago ArgentinoLago Argentino

El Calafate is a surprisingly modern town. Its only industry is tourism with over 90% of the population employed in it. Consequently there are lots of cafes, restaurants and accommodations. A hostel at the bottom of the hill had a big 'BAR' sign above the door and we booked into here for the first three days of our cycling the Glaciares section of our ride.

Long way from everywhereLong way from everywhere

Halfway into the days ride we got a good view of our destination, only a few kilometers across the water. But the road goes east around the lake shore before turning west. The road from Highway 40 to El Calafate is legendary for its strong winds but today we struck lucky, and with only a light breeze progress was easy.

Patagonian grassesPatagonian grasses

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Cycling The Glaciares National Park - End of the ride, El Calafate

The tourist information about El Calafate suggests that there are endless things to do here. In fact there is very little to do in the town itself. All of the suggested activities are very distant and require transport and organisation that can only be achieved by a tour company, meaning VERY costly.

Our hearts were set on visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier and the key viewpoint of cycling the Glaciares about 75km south of the town so this was the only trip we did. It was spectacular, well worth the money and the weather was brilliant. We took hundreds of photos!

Perito Moreno GlacierPerito Moreno Glacier

After three days we moved to a small B and B booked through It had the best reviews of any accommodation in town but we were not impressed. It was run down and scruffy and on two morning no-one appeared to prepare breakfast so we had to raid the kitchen fridges to find food and fix it ourselves!

Grown-ups at playGrown-ups at play

One of the main things that was different in this town was that the visitors were older, around our age. We sorely missed the company of the young crowd of optimistic backpackers who we had made friends with while traveling south.

Typical PatagoniaTypical Patagonia
Cycling the Glaciares National ParkCycling the Glaciares National Park

The rest of the time we were pretty bored and struggled to entertain ourselves without drinking the town dry. 

Glacial lakeGlacial lake

We did do a lot of walking around the lake shore, played on the adventure playground and spent a couple of hours in the small town museum.

Museum dinosaurMuseum dinosaur

Waiting for us at our B and B was the box full of packing materials that we had posted from Esquel weeks ago. So now the bikes had to be dismantled and packed ready for the flight back to Buenos Aries.

El Chalten from the lagooEl Chalten from the lagoo

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