Part 2: The desert
After two nights in El Bolsón, we felt recharged and ready to continue our Patagonian bikepacking adventure.
Instead of taking Ruta 40 back out of town, we took a smaller dirt road that ran parallel with it. We passed tiny houses and hop farms getting ready for harvest. Just before rejoining the 40, we had to be careful crossing a bridge that was ready to fall apart.
On the way down to El Bolsón, the road had felt like an endless downhill, so we were afraid that the way up would be painful. The grade turned out to be much gentler than we expected, and we made it to the junction of Ruta 6. That would be the last pavement we’d see for many days.
There was barely any traffic on the gravel road from Ruta 40 to El Maiten, only a few locals driving out to their ranches. It was easy to understand why: the road was in terrible condition. The washboard ripples slowed us down and made riding our non-suspension bikes less than comfortable.
It wasn’t all bad, though. As we climbed over the foothills separating El Bolsón and El Maiten, we had sweeping views of the green hills to the south. As we cycled on, the landscape became dryer and dryer, until we were riding through semi-desert.
We stopped at a small stream for some lunch and fishing. We didn’t catch anything significant, but it was at least fun. Our meals consisted of shelf-stable foods with good caloric density. In this case, we enjoyed some cheese and salami with a big pot of instant soup.
The rest of the ride into El Maiten was relatively flat (elevation-wise, not surface-wise). Our goal for El Maiten was to resupply and continue quickly.
We had our longest stretch without access to resupply ahead of us. We picked up granola, pasta, tuna, salami, and pasta sauce for later. We also got 2 fat steaks and a bottle of red wine for the night. We were only about 15 km from where we planned to camp, so we didn’t mind the extra weight.
Somehow, the road got even worse when we headed north. Our plan was to camp at an old abandoned railroad car, so we’d have some shelter from the wind out on the open prairie. However, when we got to where we thought it would be, it was nowhere to be found. We even asked some confused locals, but they had no idea what we were talking about.
Since our plan fell through, we continued biking. We only had an hour of sunlight left, and we were on a dirt road with fences on either side. There were very few places flat enough for a tent, let alone two.
Finally, half an hour before sunset, we found a spot where the fence had fallen over, and the ground was flat. It would be our home for the night.
We got our camp set up just before sunset. With that out of the way, we could focus on the highlight of the day: steak dinner. The steaks turned out fantastic, and even the cheesy instant polenta was tasty (we may have been somewhat hungry at this point).
As we were getting ready to go to bed, we heard a car stop a bit farther out on the road and somebody yelling in the dark. The voices came closer, accompanied by a rumble. All of a sudden, a herd of horses ran right past our camp in the night.
It turned out that the horses had also seen the fallen fence and taken the opportunity to go out for an adventure. They had been wandering on the road, stuck between the fences, so the rancher had come to herd them back.
We went out to say hi to the rancher and ask if it’s ok for us to camp there overnight. He said it’s okay but clearly didn’t understand why anyone would want to camp in his field full of horse manure. But we did. We were tired.
Riding back in time to the wild west
The next morning, we woke up to frost all over our things. The night had been clear, and we were in a cold sink between the hills. But without trees, the sun started warming us up almost immediately.
We let the sun and wind dry out our tents as we made some breakfast consisting of thick-cut bacon in hamburger buns, dipped in bacon fat.
From our campsite, we had less than 5 km into Ñorquicó. It was like riding back in time into a wild west town. Cowboys were riding down the gravel main street on horses, and the sheriff stopped us right when we rolled into town. He wanted to know who we were and where we were going. I’m pretty sure he thought we’d die out in the desert because he wanted us to swing by the sheriff’s office before leaving town to give them our details in case we go missing.
Before going to the sheriff’s office, we stopped at the village market to get some water and snacks. The shopkeeper wanted to come out and take a picture of us because she hadn’t seen tourists in her village before. We were definitely off the beaten track.
We continued on RN 6 out of Ñorquicó for a few more kilometers before turning straight north on a smaller road. The road passed small ranches, getting smaller after each.
We ran into horses stuck between the fences again. We had a hard time getting past them. We didn’t want to drive them too far from where we found them so we wouldn’t get an angry rancher after us for moving his horses. Finally, the fences widened up a bit, and we were able to get past.
The road ended at an old abandoned railroad station. We finally found the railroad car we had been looking for last night. It turned out we had checked the distance from the wrong starting point.
We stopped for lunch at the railroad car and struck up a conversation with some gauchos who were resting in the old building. After lunch, we also met a family who was on their horses, heading back from their lands. It almost felt like we had traveled back in time.
From the railroad station, the next two days would be mostly on small farm roads. The grass had almost completely taken over the road. Faint tire tracks in the grass were the only thing that showed us the way.
We had to climb over a 1435m mountain pass before setting up camp. The road was steep and rocky, which meant we had to push our bikes up much of the last few kilometers.
Once we got to the top, we had an equally rocky descent. Going down, it was rideable. The road eventually faded out and ended at a river. This was where we would camp for the night.
We managed to cross the river with dry feet and started looking for a campsite. After cleaning out a couple of small sites from cow poop, we set up our tents next to the river.
I was worried about my brake pads, as hard as I had been riding them on the trip. When I went to get my multitool to take off the front wheel, I realized that it had fallen apart from all the shaking. I first needed to borrow my cousin’s tool to assemble my own before I could start working on the bike. Fortunately, the brakes still had some life left in them.
We ate a big dinner and fished for a while before it got dark. Once again, it had been an incredibly exhausting day. It felt good to crawl into the sleeping bag.
Prairie landscapes, barbecues, and a SWAT team
Our morning began with a search. We needed to find where the road picked up again to continue up north. After pushing our bikes through thorny desert vegetation for about 15 minutes, we were back on track.
The day would be mostly downhill – after we climbed over the highest mountain pass of the trip at around 1470m. Like the previous pass, the road was steep with loose rock and soft gravel. Once again, we ended up pushing our bikes for a good part of the climb.
After the pass, the going got more enjoyable. There were still small climbs, but it was mostly rideable. Every once in a while, we had to go through cattle gates. Most were unlocked, but some were locked and required us to lift our bikes over.
This day was shorter than our other days, but the relentless desert sun made it a challenge. There wasn’t a single shadow the entire day.
As we moved north, the road started improving, and we began to see occasional cars. It felt great to finally be back riding full time instead of pushing around the bikes.
We stopped to check out an abandoned farm near a river crossing. The river was running very low, and the water was murky. Thankfully, we had our water filters with us.
We stopped for lunch at the following river crossing, across from a small ranch. The ranch dogs provided us with company and entertainment as we ate. At this point, we could really start feeling the lack of shade.
We only had another 5 km from our lunch spot to our campsite. We were again camping by a river. A local family was grilling by the crossing. We started talking, and they invited us to join them for some choripan and juice—what a great treat after a long day of riding.
With our bellies full, we found a campsite and set up our tents. A dip in the river offered a much-needed refreshment.
There was a lot of surface activity on the river, a good sign for fishing. We caught a lot of small trout, but nothing big enough to eat. Instead, we feasted on some instant polenta and salami.
As we were heading to bed, we saw a car pull up near our campsite. Blue lights started flashing. Four men in camo, body armor, and machine guns came out. They were some sort of police, asking us what we were doing there. They quickly realized we were tourists and started asking if we had seen anyone else there. After a while, they headed out. We still don’t exactly know who they were looking for.
Bikepacking back to Bariloche
We already decided two nights earlier that we would end our trip early and ride into Bariloche. We would still technically have 3 days to ride, but it wouldn’t be enough for us to complete the loop. We researched alternative loops, but we weren’t confident we could finish them in time before our flight back. Instead, we would check back into a hotel in Bariloche, recharge, and make day trips from there.
The sky was dark when we headed out. It was a welcome change to the beating sun we had the day before.
We only had a small climb out from the river valley before a long descent into Bariloche. At the airport, we hit a paved road for the first time in days. From there, our average speed into Bariloche must have been over 30km/h.
When we got into town, we stopped at a food truck on the lakeshore and enjoyed burgers and cold beers—what a trip.
We spent the next couple of days exploring sights around Bariloche. We flew back to Buenos Aires with an earlier flight, so we had an extra afternoon to explore the city a bit more before flying home.