DAY 792 - PASO MAYeR
Day 792 - Paso Mayor, Argentina - 18845 km
The border crossing to Argentina via Paso Mayer was a new level of “thrill” that I won’t forget soon. A 15 km no-mans land without a road, crossing multiple rivers, thick bush land, and a rope bridge, while it didn’t stop raining for the entire day. All images are video stills from my (waterproof) dslr camera.
Villa O’Higgins is where the 1,240 km Carretera Austral comes to an end. From here two border crossings are optional to continue into Argentina, only passable by foot or horse (or bicycle). Any car traffic that wants to go to south has to cross borders further north. The more common option for bike travellers is straight south to El Chaltén, which include two ferry trips, but this crossing is closed for winter. The other option is going eastwards via Paso Mayer, where the Chilean and Argentinean border posts are separated by a wide river bedding and 15 km of no-mans land, only connected by cattle trails. Nobody crosses borders here, except from some local gauchos.
Sophie and Jeremy had left early that morning from Villa O’Higgins, while I had to finish up some things on my laptop. Eventually it was in the afternoon that I left and had to camp on the Chilean side, and cross the border the next morning. I slept at a refugio, a small cabin built for hikers and bikers, where the frenchies left a note that they crossed borders early in the afternoon. That evening it started raining. What I didn’t know that it wasn’t going to stop for the next 24 hours. In the morning I started slow, I was reluctant to get going in the drizzle. At 11 I arrived at the Chilean border post, already soaking wet. A carabinero officer welcomed me with a handshake and I joined him inside the border post, which was more a big living room, than a border office. There were four officers, one of them preparing lunch for the group. It took a while before my passport was stamped, because they needed to send an email to another office for approval via slow wifi connection. The men offered me food while I waited. One tossed me a can of tuna to put in my bag, I’m sure he better aware than me of what I was up for to the coming hours.
Around 12 I was ready to go. With the help of an officer I put markers on Maps.me (smartphone map app) on which trails to choose. First I had to cross a farm. The dogs came for me, but than the farmer came out and explained to me in rapid Chilean spanish where to go. I could hardly follow him. There was a fence without a gate, which was the official divide between the two countries. The farmer lifted up the barbwire while I pushed my bike underneath. Ahead of me were vague trails of mud and low, thorny bushes that disappeared in the mist. I followed them, keeping an eye on my phone to see if I was still heading in the right direction. The screen had already trouble in the rain. There were many trails. Sometimes it turned into a puddle, sometimes that puddle turned into a small lake. Parts of the land were flooded. Sometimes I lost the trail and got stuck in bushes.
Then the first deeper river presented itself. A threatening torrent of brown water crossed the trail. It moved fast, fed by the long night of rain and the glaciers melting by the mild temperatures of the past week. I looked for the widest part, thinking it would be the most shallow part. I took my shoes off to keep them dry. On my socks I went through. The temperature of the water was just above zero, gripping my ankles like claws. It was much deeper than expected, I struggled to not loose the bike in the current. However my socks were thick, the stones cut in my sensitive foot soles. Once I reached a little island I dropped the bike and took a deep breath. I needed to go back to pick up my camera which was filming, before crossing the rest of the river. My feet were numb and my skin felt like rubber. This was not a good idea. I needed to keep my shoes on. I rubbed them warm as much as I could, put dry socks on and continued.
I was heading to the pasarela, a simple suspension bridge that would take me over the roughest part of the river. It was only about 50cm (20”) wide and in a state of decay. Most of my bags needed to be taken off. I lifted the bike on its rear wheel to manoeuvre it vertically to the other side. The bridge dangled dangerously, sometimes I thought it would tip me over into the river. It went slowly, but all my stuff made it to the other side. I took a short break to eat something. The rain made the bread easier to chew quickly. It gave me some energy. There was not time to stand still to long. I needed to keep moving to not get cold. I crossed a few more rivers, but this time I kept my shoes on. It would be cold for a short while, but then my efforts would warm up the water in my shoes.
At the end of the afternoon I reached the Argentinean post, obviously in a state of wetness I’d never been before. They were expecting me, Sophie and Jeremy were here in the morning and told them I was coming. I wondered how they were doing. They had done most of this part a day earlier in dry weather… There were three gendarmerias, one senior and two juniors. Like the Chilean border post, it was an informal place. The immigration process was fast this time. I asked if I could camp nearby and dry my clothes inside. The young gendarmeria showed me a place on the property, but the generator engine that provided the building with electricity was so loud that I searched for a camp spot a bit further. It was getting dark and still raining. They must have felt sorry for me, because eventually they came outside and offered me to sleep inside. They had a few bunk beds available. Above the wood burner I could dry my clothes. I discovered that my Android phone had completely died, being soaked with water. I could literally shake out the water. It was inevitable. I had to use the map function to be able to stay on route.
The border post, that has been here since 1994, was a pre-fab building with a few rooms. Because it’s in the middle of nowhere it generates its own electricity and has a tall antenna for connection to the outside world. There are a few sheep ranches in the near vicinity. The first town is 230km away and the next one 400 km. In between there is nothing but pampas, the Argentinean desert. But because there’s no road, there’s no traffic coming through. Only at the end of summer, when the river is at its lowest, a 4x4 with good driving skills could make it through here. The gendarmerias have barely anything to do than keeping the place clean and doing some errands.
I was invited for dinner. Asado (barbecue) as usual, served with bread and potatoes. There’s a few kilos of meat on the table for only 5 men. Argentineans love it. A local farmer has joined for dinner. I got asked all kind of questions. About the journey, about drugs and the price of prostitutes in Amsterdam. It’s a mens world. I felt welcome.
The next morning the rain had transformed into snow. I couldn’t imagine how flooded the fields and valleys must have been, it hadn’t stop raining for 36 hours now. The stream behind the border post was a lot higher. If I was a day later, it would have been impossible to cross the rivers by bike. I wouldn’t be able to find the trails in the snow.
They offered me a ride to Route 40, the paved road south, 95km ahead. It would be dry there because it’s on the pampas, far out of the wet Andes. At the end of the afternoon we left with a camioneta, a small 4x4 army truck. The cargo space was covered with canvas hood that flapped in the wind. There’s no space in the cabin so I was alone in the back among the cargo. It was dirty, there are straw bales, fuel vessels and other junk and smelled like mud and gasoline. First we had to pick up some large pieces of corrugated steel at a nearby farm, which were more or less leaning on my lap while I sat on a straw bale. It was a rough ride, shaking dangerously where I had to hold myself and the cargo around me. Through an opening of the canvas I could see the white landscape, the tyres leaving two brown stripes in the wet snow. We crossed numerous rivers and mud lakes. I was more than glad I didn’t have to get through here with the bicycle. I thought about Sophie and Jeremy, how they are doing. It must be a crazy ride, despite the fact that they’re a day ahead of the snow storm.
At dusk we reached Route 40. A completely different world. Everything was dry and the road smoothly paved. Even the temperatures were mild. The gendarmerias helped me loading my bike, they were moving north to another post. I thanked them, having been extremely helpful. I decided to cycle a bit to warm up from the freezing ride and then find a camp spot. A strong tail wind catapulted me onto the wide pampas.