Paso Rio Mayer in Winter – the Carretera Austral alternate exit from Villa O’Higgins

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)).

His face says it all

A safe crossing across this narrow shaky ‘pasarela’ required full bag removal, 3 trips and a rather awkward bicycle shuffle.

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:

A short dirt road after border control offers immediate confusion; our GPS shows the route deviating on an invisible path passing straight into a four or five foot wire fence. We are rescued by a local with a virtually incomprehensible Chilean accent. He confirms the way and we slide under Argentina / Chile border(!) where we immediately pick up some rideable singletrack.

Which turns to a rough 4×4 track for a few kilometres followed by a  return to singletrack and (sometimes) no track at all.

This ‘pasarela’ was built for sheep transportation and can be crossed by foot (and therefore bicycle). With low water levels (after long dry or cold spells presumably), the occasional tourist can sometimes experience a wet river crossing further downstream in their 4×4 vehicles (calling ahead essential!). Considering the state of the 4×4 track I was amazed to discover the route is on the Argentinian ‘road maintenance’ map.

Hard to see but our toes are quick to inform us that this water is close to freezing.

Gurkan’s plastic waterproof boots, picked up the day before in Villa O’Higgins

…which, understandably, immediately fill with freezing water when the water reaches knee height. However, they offer protection from the rocky river bed.  With no plastic boots of my own, I cross again with bare feet which causes predictable discomfort.

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.

Back on to the open pampa

We successfully seek refuge at the welcoming Estancia Ensenada 20 kilometres after the Argentinian control.

Wet tents.

Drying his torch over a wood fire stove in our basic cabin. Just one of many damaged electrical items from his unfortunate fall.

The next day is rain free…

…across a huge open pampa.  A mild headwind and a road of wet sand consistency make for slow and frustrating progress.  I struggle immensely with the boredom but my mood is raised considerably by the occasional view

We find another farm the next evening and put our tents up after a rather unimpressive 37 kilometres. It’s a dirty barn coated in dust, fag ends and obligatory animal parts. There’s no one at the farm except a cat, some chickens and a couple of tied up ‘guard’ dogs that have a heart wrenching case of learned helplessness. They pretty much ignore us but their howls of pain can be heard throughout the night. An eerie sound against the windless silence. Below freezing the maddening wind offers their only companionship.

The next day the wind turns to our favour and we fly towards the paved Ruta 40. Can you see Gurkan’s head?  My pleas for him to ride on for a more interesting shot go unheard over the deafening wind.

Finally on the Ruta 40 tarmac

Gurkan leaves our mark at the exit

Gurkan’s winter tyres: slightly worse for wear and out of their element on the dirt road and change in weather conditions. Shelved…for now.

But it’s still cold so I keep my 2 lire plastic bottle ‘pogies’. Extra plastic bags inside increase the insulation.  They make a huge difference to the windchill factor.

Still rolling well after several hundred kilometres. Secondhand Bontrager 26x2in donated to me in Coyhaique by Una Velocidad after some Carretera Austral roadworks slashed my Maxxis Ardent 26×2.4in.

A strong afternoon backwind on asphalt has us flying and we clock a respectable 110km for the day. In last hour of daylight an old cart appears out of nowhere marking the entrance to Estancia La Lucha saving us from an expected (and undesirable) night without shelter.

It’s not 5 star but we find ourselves indoors once again and are treated to ‘torta fritas’ and homegrown lamb!

The morning starts below freezing as normal as we climb briefly back to the highway.

Gurkan repairing his bicycle in the distance

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 (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.


7 thoughts on “Paso Rio Mayer in Winter – the Carretera Austral alternate exit from Villa O’Higgins

  1. Another wild adventure Nick. I have been loving your photos keep it up. It looks like you are close to completing this voyage after 4 years? What’s next?

  2. Hi Nick,
    I remembered you post and went back to read it again. Thought you might enjoy seeing the photos from BBC. Hope all is well. Am checking Gurkan’s Facebook once in a while. Looking forward to your future posts and photos. I am in AWE as always…
    Chile’s Atacama desert: World’s driest place in bloom after surprise rain

    • Thanks Brian! It works fantastically well. A tough returnable type bottle may work best and plastic bags stuffed inside help with extra insulation and covering holes.

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