Patagonia bikepacking: Huella Andina and Ruta 40 from Bariloche to El Bolsón

Patagonia bikepacking: Huella Andina and Ruta 40 from Bariloche to El Bolsón

Part 1: The mountains

Ever since our Tahoe Rim Trail trip, my cousin and I had been planning to go on another adventure trip together. Since both of us like to bike, we quickly decided that we wanted to go bikepacking. Both of us wanted to visit Patagonia, so we started planning our trip to Argentina. 

Planning the route

The route we planned was inspired by the Patagonia Beer Trail that Taneli put together on bikepacking.com. The original trail is a point-to-point route from El Bolsón in the south to San Martín de los Andes in the north. 

We were flying in with our bikes, and we wanted to avoid having to shuttle our bikes with buses. Instead, we extended the route into a figure-eight loop that started and ended in Bariloche

We’d start by taking the Ruta 40 and parts of the Huella Andina trail down to El Bolsón. From there, we’d follow the original Beer Trail up to San Martín, and finally, take the Ruta de Siete Lagos (part of Ruta 40) back to Bariloche. The length of the route was 690km, which we planned to cover in 10 days. 

So that was the plan. But what adventure follows a plan?

Getting to Bariloche with bikes

I met my cousin in Buenos Aires. We spent two nights there before continuing down to Patagonia. Both of us had brought our bikes with us from home. 

An intersection in Buenos Aires with colorful houses and a cobblestone street
The Palermo neighborhood in Buenos Aires
Grilled sausages and meat
Grilled meat. Lots of it.

The cases we had were small and light enough to count as standard baggage. The bag fee for the bike bag on the Latam flight from Aeroparque (AEP) to Bariloche (BRC) was only 700 ARS, which at the time was about 10 USD. 

Large bike bags are a necessary evil of bikepacking abroad.
The hard part about traveling with bikes was finding cabs that would fit the bags.

Although our bikes made it to Bariloche just fine, the airline managed to lose my cousin’s other bag, which meant that we had to stay an extra day and a half in Bariloche while waiting for the bag. 

Town square with a statue and alp-style buildings
Centro Civico in Bariloche

We had great weather, so we explored the city, its surroundings, and went to Patagonia Cervezería, which overlooked the lakes and mountains.

Lawn with lots of people sitting and drinking beer
Cervecería Patagonia
Feet up on table. Views of lakes and mountains.
Views from Cervecería Patagonia

Beautiful views and brutal bushwhacking

Once the bag arrived, we were finally ready to head out. 

Two bikes leaning against trees and a man giving a thumbs up
Bikes loaded and ready to go

The touristy downtown area quickly gave way to residential areas and shantytowns as we headed out of Bariloche. Trucks and cars whizzed past us nonstop. 

A man putting on a rain jacket
Putting on rain gear along Ruta 40

The traffic eased up significantly once we got outside the suburbs. Unfortunately, it also started pouring rain. Nevertheless, we were finally on the road, and we were making good progress. Between the clouds, we could catch glimpses of deep blue lakes surrounded by green mountains. 

A blue lake with low cloud cover
Lago Mascardi
Dark sky over a lake
Gloomy skies

After Villa Mascardi, we left asphalt road and trucks of Ruta 40 behind us. We followed the shoreline of Lago Mascardi into the Nahuel Huapi national park. We stopped for some homemade empanadas at a camping area, enjoying the views as the clouds began to clear out. 

It was already after 5, but we decided to push on anyway to make up some lost time. 

A lake in the distance
Looking back towards Lago Mascardi
Man on bike giving thumbs up
Finally on dirt roads

At first, the Huella Andina was a narrow dirt road that climbed slowly up the hillside. Behind us, we could see the lakes we had passed in the rain. 

Double track through bushes
Initially, the road was in good condition

We crossed a few small streams, but the going was easy. The road ended at a farm. An open gate and a blue-and-white Huella Andina blaze told us to continue through the yard. We just needed to navigate around the cows first. It turned out to be good practice for later. 

Man leading his bike past cows
The cows were wondering what we did there

On the other side of the farm, the trail was a narrow, muddy footpath. Prickly bushes had grown over it, making it impossible to ride at times. We ended up pushing our bikes for several kilometers. 

Man pushing his bike through mud
The path was impassable with bikes for long stretches
Man pushing his bike through bushes
The trail was overgrown

Now and then, the trail cleared up just enough to give us hope, but would quickly regress into a muddy mess of overgrown bush. The Huella Andina was better suited for hiking than biking. 

Man pushing his bike through mud on logs
Mudventure

After a standoff with the biggest bull I’ve ever seen, we eventually rolled into the Lago Steffen camping after dark. We were soaked from the rain and mentally drained from the bushwhack. 

We set up our tents in a cow pasture and made some dinner before passing out. 

A rainy ride to El Bolsón 

It rained overnight but cleared up as we got out of our tents. We ate breakfast with horses, cows, and ducks walking through our camp. The horses were especially interested in chewing our bike bags.

Horses next to a table with two bikes leaning against it
We had some breakfast company

After the previous day’s ordeal, we had decided to skip the Huella Andina and instead ride out to the Ruta 40 and take it to El Bolsón. 

But when we paid for our camping, the lady running the camping area told us the trail down from Lago Steffen to Rio Villegas is in much better condition than the part we’d shoved our bikes through the day before. 

Taking the Huella Andina would save us countless kilometers, so we figured we’d give it a try with the new info.

A calm lake with snow covered mountains behind
Lago Steffen in the morning. The mountains had a fresh dusting of snow.

The first kilometers were a pleasant mix of rideable singletrack and dirt roads along the river. But soon enough, we were right back in the same kind of terrain we had been the day before. 

Man carrying a bike on stairs over a fence
Obstacle course
Blue sky and white clouds
At times, the sun came out and we had great views
A man dragging a bike over wet logs
The wet logs were slippery

We rode on the riverbank above the Manso River. Even with the overcast sky, the river was a deep sapphire blue. A rock had carved a massive hole in the soft rock on the river bottom. 

A blue river with a hole carved by a rock
A cool rock formation in the river
A man pulling his bike up a steep, rooted, path
The trail was steep at times

At Rio Villegas, we met up with the Ruta 40 again. At this point, we were soaking wet and exhausted. We stayed on the paved road and headed toward the restaurants in El Foyel. 

The restaurants had put up signs every few kilometers, giving us the energy to keep going with the promise of a hot meal.

A man with an empty stare
What two days on the Huella Andina in pouring rain does to a man

We stopped at a traditional roadside restaurant and got two big plates of regional lamb dishes. The restaurant had a wood furnace in the middle of the room, providing much-needed warmth. We sat for a good while at the restaurant so we could dry out and get warm again. 

We still had over 40 km left to El Bolsón, but most of it was a gradual downhill. The sun had also come out while we had lunch, so we felt better heading out. 

Bikes leaning against chairs, blue sky behind
The weather got better while we had lunch

We averaged close to 30km/h on the long ride down to El Bolsón. It felt great to be moving. We rolled right into downtown and one of the tens of craft beer bars for a well deserved cold beer. 

A happy man with a beer.
Celebrating that we got to El Bolsón

We hung out for a while and headed to a cabin we rented for the night. It was good to get all the gear dried out and to sleep in a warm bed. 

An A-frame cabin
Our home for the night.

Rest and relaxation

We did a situation assessment the next morning. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to complete the whole loop as we had planned. We decided that we would instead end the trip in San Martín de los Andes and take a bus back to Bariloche. Shortening the trip gave us some slack in the schedule, and we decided to stay for one more night at our cabin in El Bolsón.

A man fly fishing
Fly fishing on the Río Azul
A small rainbow trout with a nymph fly in its mouth
Small, but pretty

We grabbed our Tenkara rods and went on a day trip down to Río Azul. The river was a bit big for our fishing gear, but we managed to get a couple of small rainbow trouts. 

Back at the cabin, we did a bit of bike maintenance and then headed into town for dinner.

When we went to bed, we felt well relaxed and ready to continue our journey, leaving the mountains behind and heading into the desert.

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