Villa O’Higgins (4th July) – Paso Rio Mayer Chilean border (4th July) – Paso Rio Mayer Argentina border control (6th July) – Ruta 40 junction (8th July) – Gobernador Gregores (9th July)
“Todos los pasos están deshabilitados (All the passes are closed)….It’s very complicated here in winter my friend.”, the Villa O’Higgins carabinero officer explained. “The river can be up 100 metres wide and 3 or 4 metres deep.” After days of strangely warm weather and high rainfall in Villa O’Higgins, his words made some sense. Maybe it was impassable? After all he should know what he’s talking about, right?
After a little pressure he made a quick phone call to the border control. Strangely, I still couldn’t get the full facts from him. Perhaps because his subordinates were there; even though I’m sure he meant well pride can be a funny thing. “Well, it’s closed now but maybe in a couple of days the water level will drop enough for you to pass”. The next morning Gurkan and I cycled the 45 kilometres to the border and checked for ourselves. It had been open all along… (I recommend calling Border Control directly for a more accurate appraisal of the conditions: 672567196 (Spanish only I imagine)).
It could perhaps be more appropriately described as an obstacle course than a border crossing. You must: climb under/over a fence (i.e. the Argentinian / Chilean border!), navigate unmarked trails (GPS recommended), cross a very narrow hanging bridge over a fast flowing river, wade across 3 or 4 notably sized streams / rivers and cycle an additional 100 kilometres of dirt road (notably soft and laborious when wet) across open and potentially (read: almost definitely) windy pampa. The widest river was maybe 40 metres across and just below the crotch in depth (I’m 6’4″) although I hear it’s normally much shallower. This was unexpected, maybe due to recent heavy rain and unseasonably warm conditions. The general consensus for winter seemed to be low water levels (with significant quantities of precipitation locked up in ice or snow).
That said it’s perfectly doable on a reasonably light setup with some preparation, even in winter. However, if crossing with bare feet prepare for rocky river beds with some “blanking” cold toes! Neoprene boots / socks or some sandals would certainly come in handy (I didn’t have any).
Onwards from Villa O’Higgins: Normally progress south of Villa O’Higgins is made using the Lago O’Higgins ferry, a rough dirt track, another ferry across Lago Desierto and a road to El Chalten. It is this second ferry that shuts down in Winter. However, it sounds feasible to hike and carry your bicycle around Lago Desierto several kilometres if you’re packing light (but please research further if you decide to go!). Cherry hiked this section (three or four hours) although sent her bike on the boat. We didn’t since the next Lago O’Higgins ferry was a 12 day wait (every 15 days or so in winter, check ahead). Plus we were somewhat intrigued by Paso Rio Mayer.
How our plan unfolded:
Gurkan’s accident: Back on an obvious four wheel drive track the route passes various streams. One of which appears shallow but is actually waist deep. Without slowing even slightly he ploughs straight into it and his bicycle is brought to a violent halt as his front wheel drops to the bed of the stream. He flies over the handlebars into the freezing water; a nasty little accident causing a minor knee injury and damage to all his electrical equipment. We’re only a few kilometres short of the Argentina border and refuge but decide for an emergency camp. It’s extremely windy and exposed and we experience a whole manner of weather conditions, none of which are relaxing or warm. My old and tired MSR Hubba struggles and I detach the insect net from the fly to stop it touching as water fills my noisy unstable tent. We pass through Argentinian border control the next morning.
The final stream is surprisingly wide and of unknown depth. We have our doubts. How deep could it be? Could we sink into the mud and lose our bicycles? A 1 metre slab of ice floats down the middle of the river as we consider our options with the threat of imminent rain. Not far off 0C?
Crossing first, I borrow Gurkan’s cheap rubber boots crunching through its icy shoreline into the shallows. They immediately fill with freezing water. I lose sensation in my toes but the boots help with the rocky river bed and I reach the other side unharmed carrying the entirety of my loaded bicycle clear of the water. Then I badly misjudge how hard it is to throw the boots back to Gurkan across the wide river. One of them comically slips from my hand going sideways and lands in the middle. For a couple of seconds, I am relieved; it’s floats! But then, to my horror, sinks rapidly into the murky current and is lost forever!! I cross there and back again to help with some of his kit in attempt to compensate for my feeble error. I have no option except to ignore my desperate screaming feet that now feel like they belong to someone else, protected only by my socks.
We arrive in Gregores early afternoon and head to Restaurante El Refugio and are taken ten blocks to their respectable apartments (at 400 peso for 2, it’s possibly the cheapest in town).
Route: I computed the section between the border controls of Paso Rio Mayer afterwards and therefore it is a somewhat rough estimation of our route. Use it in combination with the OSM map or Maps.me. (There is an apparent short cut on the OSM map before the pasarela (i.e. to the west of) that seems to avoid a big loop. Another cyclist went this way and doesn’t recommend it; there was no track and he lost a lot of time). I think our route is probably the least complicated.