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Patagonia is one of the great places in the world to cycle. It has become a mecca for long distance cyclists. Many at the beginning of their South American adventure. Some having cycled all the way down from Alaska. The staggering scenery and tranquility in this sparsely populated part of the world make it high on every cyclists bucket list. I ended up cycling in Patagonia quite by chance. A few weeks before I started my cycle to the end of the world it wasn't even on my radar. I was on the other side of the world attempting to complete my London to Beijing cycle. Held up in Bishkek trying and failing to sort out a visa for China. After weeks of frustration I realised that my trip was going to fall at the final border. I was still in the mindset for cycling. The thought of returning to England in November and looking for a job didn't really appeal. I thought to myself where can i go instead? Where is the one place in the world I have always wanted to visit? Patagonia.
A couple of weeks later I began again in Mendoza on the legendary Ruta 40 in Argentina. Cycled south through the beautiful Carretera Austral in Chile. Then back into Argentina again at the iconic Mt Fitzroy, near El Chalten, where for me the cycle to end of the world really begins.
You can cycle right upto the Blue Glacier (Perito Moreno glacier) near El Calafate.
There was good reason for cycling north to south. The wind is something else in Patagonia. I've been battered by winds all over the world but nothing like in Patagonia. The wind comes flying in and down off the Pacific every day. Cycling in Patagonia is a mixture of heaven and hell. At times you can be flying along at 40km/hr without even trying through picture postcard landscapes without a care in the world. Then you turn into the wind and you'll be muttering into your handlebars wishing you were doing anything else other than cycling. It can really make or break your day. I remember one morning on Christmas day with only 30km to go to El Calafate thinking I'd be there in no time. It took me 6 hours. Cycling south you will have the wind with you more often than not but you will still have to brave the headwinds at some point as the road winds this way and that. The days when you are suffering will make you appreciate the decision to cycle north to south.
At times the cross winds can be problematic. Twice I was blown off the road. Once going over my handlebars and landing on my bottom in a ditch. At other times the cross winds would blow me into the middle of the road. Luckily traffic is extremely thin in Patagonia so it was never a problem but it is something to be wary of. If you do hear a vehicle behind you, or coming towards you, get a good grip on the handlebars as it goes past in case a sudden gust blows you into its path. The Argentinian side of Patagonia is very different to the Chilean side. The Carretera Austral in Chile is more mountainous. You get a fair amount of protection from the wind. Whereas in Argentina there are big wide open spaces and you really feel the full force. It's all part of the fun of cycling in Patagonia.
The classic Patagonia wind photo. Obviously somewhat staged but you get the idea.
Take the wind out of the equation and the cycling in Patagonia is not overly difficult. Sure the roads are sometimes bad. Over half the route down to Ushuaia is on dirt roads. They are mostly gravel, often corrugated. There are sections of washboard that will have you feeling you've just being working a pneumatic drill for a few hours. The roads are always rideable though. The route is pretty flat and progress is fairly straightforward, especially when the wind is behind you. In a way Patagonia is the perfect combination between adventure and easy cycling. The wild and remote scenery always make you feel like you are doing something special without having to flog yourself for it. Navigation is not a problem. There is a classic route through Patagonia that the majority of cyclists follow. As a result you will meet many fellow cyclists along the way. I never had to carry too much food or water. Although Argentinian Patagonia is a lot drier than the Chile side I generally came across one water source per day. Normally you would hit a small town with basic supplies at least every other day. It's always a good idea to carry a bit more food than you think you need in case you get hit by the headwinds. All of a sudden that town you thought you were approaching can start to feel a long way away. I always have a secret stash of spaghetti at the bottom of my panniers just in case.
Torres del Paine
There are so many highlights on the cycle through Patagonia it's hard to know where to start. The beautiful Mt Fitzroy is an incredible sight. One of the most iconic mountains in the world. The blue glacier is well worth a side trip from El Calafate. I hitched a lift there into the wind and then cycled back to El Calafate with the wind. The Torres del Paine national park is magnificent. Or at least I'm told it is. All i saw was thick fog but there are soaring mountains and bright blue icebergs. Grasslands that shelter rare wildlife such as llama like guanacos. Then finally there is the wonderful road down through Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) to the end of the world in Ushuaia. Cycling through this wild, remote part of the world you do feel like you are coming to the end of the world. Ushuaia itself is a fitting place to finish. Located on a wide bay beneath the Martial mountains and looking out over the Beagle Channel. The people of Ushuaia are quite proud of it being the southernmost city in the world. There's the southernmost bar in the world. The southernmost post office in the world. The southernmost golf course in the world and of course the restaurant at the end of the universe. There are great hiking opportunities around here, especially the Sierra Valdivieso Circuit. In fact there are great hiking opportunities throughout the route, particularly in Torres del Paine and around Mt Fitzroy. I recommend the Cerro Huemul circuit around Mt Fitzroy. Here you can look out over the entire Southern Patagonian Icefield as well as an amazing view of the El Chalten skyline.
The end of the world. Ushuaia and the Bay of Beagle (Photo Credit : CNN)
Everybody loves cycling in Patagonia. It is appealing to both seasoned tourers and those new to long distance cycling. It is impossible not to revel in the big blue skies and the wide open spaces in a remote corner of the world. I was supposed to go home after I made it to Ushuaia but it just gave me a taste for the wonderful continent that is South America. I flew from Ushuaia back to where I'd started in Mendoza and headed north into the Andes.
All sorts. There are good paved sections but it is mostly gravel roads, often corrugated, with a few rough sections.
Fantastic. You will need to peg down your tent very well due to the winds. Despite the stark landscape it is quite easy to find a windbreak to camp behind. You can get gas canisters in the larger towns such as Bariloche, El Chaltén, Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. Also in most towns there are campgrounds where you can pitch cheaply and get some shelter from the winds. Cyclists tend to congregate here so it's a good place to meet others. There are occasional empty huts/houses (refugios) along the way which you could easily spend a comfortable night in. I did. Less water on the Argentinian side of Patagonia compared to the Chilean side. You should have a means of water purification if you do get stuck. There are a few ranches (estancias) along the way. They will happily help you out. I found the owners very friendly.
South America so not a problem. You can keep crossing over between Argentina and Chile and back again without a problem. All border crossings were quick and painless.
There are good bicycle shops in Bariloche and Ushuaia but there's not a lot in between and there is lot of road in between so it's a good idea to bring a couple of spare inner tubes, a spare spoke or two and a chain link.
Be sure to check out the amazing panaderia in Tolhuin about a day or two from Ushuaia. Cyclists get a free bed and all the bread they can consume courtesy of the awesome owner.
Good front and rear racks are essential as your bike will take a pounding on some of the rougher stretches. You want steel not aluminium.
ATMs in Argentina and especially Patagonia can be extremely hit and miss. Don't rely on them to work. So carry plenty of cash and some dollars. Patagonia is a safe place. You don't have to worry about being robbed.
When to Go:
The Patagonia winter (May to October) is harsh. Below freezing and extremely short days. Lots of snow and ice on the roads. A few hardy souls do venture out here in winter. Apparently it's beautiful, isn't as windy and you have the place to yourself. Most cyclists cycle in the summer (October to March). Long days and good mild temperatures. Expect all conditions – warm, cold, sun, wind, rain, storms. And that’s in summer.
Insane. Consistent. Comes in from the Pacific and swoops down through Patagonia. Best to cycle North to South. Ventusky is an excellent site for wind forecasts.
Current wind direction/speed in Patagonia
Patagonia is quite expensive compared to the rest of South America. The remote location is to blame for elevated prices, particularly when it comes to food costs. Accommodation costs vary but increased tourism has raised prices. I camped pretty much all the time. Even in the towns I would camp as a few hotels provide campgrounds for a few dollars. A bed in a dorm would be $20. Your food should cost no more than $10 a day. Entrance to Torres del Paine national park is about $30 and entrance to the blue glacier (Perito Moreno glacier) is about $12.
If you are not sick of pasta from all the camping then check out the Pasta cushions filled with chicken, mozzarella and tomato that you can get in any restaurant in the small towns.
Side of the road: