By Erhard Kraus


paine2.jpg (123963 bytes)Torres del Paine, from my camp site

I walk back out into the open, happy with this place and its grandeur, discuss with the park warden the plan to use the "New Road" and cycle on. There are mountains to the left, and on the right side I pass the shores of a few lakes. A fence crosses the road and I should have asked at the farm that is about half a mile behind, set back from the road, but I assume that I have left the private area and am entering the park. I clamber over the locked gate after having lifted the panniers and the bike across, and cycle on, soon realizing my mistake but too lazy to go back and do the proper thing and get permission. Further down, there are a few buildings with the cook's house showing smoke, and I stop to get my bottles refilled. The valley gets narrower, the mountains on the left are getting higher and show they have snow, and there are the narrow straight streaks of meltwater coming down the scree slopes. It’s now getting past 6 PM and time to stop for the day. A creek entering from the left and the expanse of a lake on the right provide a perfect setting and I make camp. I feel guilty, like a thief, afraid to be discovered as a trespasser. When a van passes 100 feet away, plunging through the waters of the shallow creek, and does not stop, I am relieved and confident I’ll get away with it and go to sleep.

As I get ready in the morning, a 4-wheel-drive truck pulls up and two men make moves to unload the inflatable with the 40 hp motor that the truck pulls. One starts to heave rocks aside to make a path for the monster so it can launch at the lake when the other has second thoughts and they move on. I am glad: in my opinion, they would have ended up stuck on the steep grade beside the water, and would have churned up the shore and its plants trying to work themselves free again.

I move on, stopping at a cluster of cabins a bit off the road: I am curious to talk to people and there is the chance that I can buy breakfast and thus stretch my food supply to last longer. No, there is no dining hall but the vacationers that opened the door to their cabin invite me in to sit down for a cup of coffee. I accept, careful not to eat too much of the offered bread to keep it just a symbolic meal. They are the folks that passed me with the van yesterday evening and they thought I had found the perfect spot. The man grew up in Puerto Natales and now lives in Santiago, but every year he comes back for vacation and shares some of his favorite spots with his family.


Patag_paine_road.jpg (95721 bytes)I am now no more than 30 km from the park, with the road skirting the western edge of Lago Toro, a large lake of emerald colour, and the end of the valley reaching the huge massif of Torres del Paine. It’s so close, I see myself reaching the park by noon. Wrong! The road starts to climb the slopes on the left to avoid cliffs on the lake and starts to twist. The gravel is loose, a nightmare for the cyclist with heavy packs. I force myself to pedal the hills until the rear wheel spins and then push the bike, my boots sliding back and the wheels slipping sideways. When I finally reach the park boundary around 3 PM, I am exhausted and my knee caps hurt in a way that scares me. The bridge that crosses the Sarmiento River is just supports but no road bed; with boards nailed lengthwise to allow the hiker across and, if you have a strong stomach, even the pushing of a bicycle. It’s a delicate venture, with the wind pushing you sideways, teasing you to hang on to the bike and still stay on the boards while a green torrent, 50m wide, races below you. Patag_paine_from_south.jpg (117927 bytes)Now to the administration building to get myself a permit for the park, over a few km of road beds filled with just loose gravel. They don’t know what to do with me, they don’t do that sort of thing ("Why, haven’t they read in the Lonely Planet Guide that they are supposed to register me?") and tell me to get my permit on the way out. I have several options: I could turn left towards the Lady Grey Glacier but there are heavy clouds and I see the dark streaks of falling rain. And the guidebook warns that this area is close to the icefields and thus rain is common, even if the rest of the park is bathed in sunshine. Or I could camp somewhere along the river, but I don’t know the rules, I have no park permit and thus am vulnerable to official scrutiny. So, I turn right, along Lago Pehoe and pull into the first campground. It has a postcard view of the mountains and I pitch tent in the most spectacular place of my whole trip. The tent goes up on green grass, with bushes to shelter me, and a hundred meters away, there is a flush toilet and running water. This is just what I needed, and I am in bed by 8:30 pm. Half an hour later I am rudely awaken by a man who insists that I pay the camping fee of about US$ 20.00 (8,000 pesos). I wished I had not woken up and could have saved myself the expense.

In the morning, I have to make a tough decision. My knees are bothering me and I know I could and should not take a road like yesterday’s; I have to give my legs a rest. I cannot stay here as the camping fee (designed for car campers) exceeds my budget and I cannot hike into the mountains either because my largest pack can only serve as a day pack. I decide to work my way back towards Puerto Natales and aim for the next ferry up the coast. Thus I will have to forsake the challenge of route 40 as it crosses the wastes of Patagonia and the possibility to link up with the Carretera Austral, the serious biker’s holy grail in the Chilenean mountains. But I have told myself that I have nothing to prove and should adjust the trip route accordingly.

So, I cycle along the dirt road that leads out of the park, with a furious wind pushing from behind. Imagine mile after mile of cruising without pedalling, rather braking all the time, even up the hills, and being buffeted by the wind every time the road turns. At one point, the road crosses the bottom of a valley at a right angle to the wind and I get off the bike, anticipating the wild force. I push the bike the 100m across, struggling to stay upright and not let go of the bike, the wind ripping on the bike’s mud guards and make them chatter as if they were not solid plastic sculpted like a car’s fender, but just sheets of rubber. The hills are brown with dry grass, but there a valleys with small lakes and leas covered with lush grass. In these meadows I see guanacos, the smaller relative of the llama, about the size of a white-tailed deer. They are not shy, and I can cycle within 50 ft of them and only then will they move to keep a cautious distancePatag_guanacos.jpg (75843 bytes). Later, I see a flock of Nandu’s, the ostrich of South America. Three adults, big fluffy birds on long legs leading the way, and a set of 5 chicks, like turkeys on stilts, trailing after them. I leave the park and pay my fee, to the surprise of the warden, a pretty young woman. A bold fox slinks 3 feet past my bike to join his shyer cousin who watches from across the road. The fox’s coat is less reddish than we see in eastern North America, and the animal is bit lower in height, it seems.

Patag_paine_lagotoro.jpg (93308 bytes)I keep pedalling along the dusty road, first with the wind, and then, as the road curls south and then south-east, eventually slightly against it. The land is parched and of  a dull brown color, in eerie contrast to the brilliant blue of lake Sarmiento on the right. National Geographic filmed "Puma, Lion of the Andes" there, where photographer Hugh Miles sets up camp in the territory of a female cougar and is tolerated by this otherwise shy animal. He can observe her from as close as 20 ft and 2 years of filming yield one hour of movie. It’s well worth watching.

Patag_hitchhiker.jpg (112187 bytes)It’s getting late, I have been on the road for more than 10 hours and I am tired, as the cycling becomes a struggle with the wind and the bumpy dirt road. As I push up a minor hill, a car stops and the occupants ask whether I am OK. I can reply affirmatively and add the truth: "I must last longer than just this hill". The reprieve comes when a pickup stops and offers a lift: not just to Cerro Castillo where I had expected to spend the night, but right into Puerto Natales.

Forward to Bariloche Loop
Back to Trip Overview
Back to Erhard's Home page