In the footsteps of Che: how to cross the Andes (but by bike)

🌎 From the Argentine Patagonia and the Chilean South

Of all the possible ways there were to cross into Chile, Ernesto Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado In the summer of 1952 they chose the one that forced them to leave Bariloche and navigate three different lakes with their motorcycle on their backs until they reached the town of Petrohué. So there were no seventy border crossings like nowand although it required driving on gravel, climbing the Andes Mountains and mounting and dismounting the motorcycle in different barges, that was at the same time the most attractive path to do from Patagonia.

Guevara recounted it very passionately in his Motorcycle Diaries. Not so the film, whose script took the volume out of an experience that was brief but, supposedly, founding: Two twenty-somethings leave Argentina with two bags and a battered motorbike over complex roads, reflecting pools and the dense Valdivian jungle that embraces that section of the mountain range. It all happened in the same day and it was also the only international crossing they were able to do with the bike before it finally broke down.

The journey begins in Puerto Pañuelo, on the banks of the Nahuel Huapi, and ends facing the Osorno volcano, already in Chile. In the log of the trip that began to turn Ernesto into Che, the flash is permanent: he talks about the “temperate waters” of the All Saints Lake (although he calls it by its other form, Esmeralda) that “make the task of taking a bath pleasant”, unlike the icy ones of Argentina; and also of the “imposing volcano” thunderer and the feeling that “now he was looking at the future, the narrow Chilean strip and what he saw later.” Guevara was 23 years old.

More than 70 years after that trip, the road infrastructure was evolving by leaps and bounds. Although today it is still as difficult as then to make the journey known as Crossing of the Andean Lakes, a road that was already used by different indigenous peoples until it was commercialized by an Argentine businessman of Swiss origin who discovered the area at the beginning of the 20th century.

The derivation of that tourist kiosk that the private sector did before the State is the so-called Andean Crossing, name under which a transfer package is sold with the three navigation tickets and the two land tickets between the port of arrival and the port of departure. All at a dollar price, of course.. It is either that, or go all the way around and cross the Cardenal Samoré pass, at the height of Villa La Angostura, full asphalt, although twice as long, long queues at the customs of the two bordering countries and, mainly, a less shocking.

The border crossing is called Pérez Rosales and can be crossed on foot. Literal: between one customs office and another there are 30 kilometers away and the dividing line of countries –imaginary in the middle of a mountain in a jungle– can only be estimated in the presence of a wooden sign on the gravel road invaded by the vegetation. The issue is that, both to get there and to leave, a transfer is necessary that articulates land with water: the bed closest to the Argentine side is two lakes away, while the one on the Chilean side is on the other side of the mountain range.

The only alternative between the Guevarian and the all inclusive ends up being the bicycle, the only means that offers a bit of epic to a crossing that would not be more graceful than the one in the photo if it were completed in buses (which, anyway, would not be little).

In any case, it will always be necessary to rent the connection with the boats that are going to cross the Blest arm of the Nahuel Huapi and then the Frías and Todos los Santos lakes, the latter already in Chile. Only that the bike offers to unite all those ports on two wheels: the 20 kilometers from the center of Bariloche to Pañuelo, 4 between Blest and Frías Lake and around 40 for the onslaught of the Andean crossing proper to Peulla, the departure point of the last boat. Then, of course, each one will decide how far to follow it.

Che went to Caracas, although it doesn’t take that long either. The normal thing is to continue through the area, surrounding the towns and volcanoes on the banks of the Llanquihue (the second largest lake in Chile) and maybe even stretch to Puerto Montt in a final coronation facing the Pacific, something that Guevara and Granado did not do because they decided it was time to leave the south (that night they ended up in Osorno, 100 kilometers north of the last landing in the Port of Petrohué).

In all cases, the departure is from Puerto Pañueloin the final kilometer of the strenuous Bustillo avenue, on the Llao Llao peninsula. The interlude with cruise and tour clients makes the port procedure somewhat cumbersome: Pañuelo is a hot spot of tourist concentration (boats leave for other sides of the Nahuel Huapi) and load the bike onto the boat requires patience between the crowd and the obligation to untie all kinds of objects tied to the vehicle, from luggage to an inflator.

The first voyage on water involves an hour of navigation through the Blest arm of the Nahuel Huapi to a place that Che, in his diary, pointed out “pompously called Puerto Blest”, almost in mockery. At that time tourism was just becoming popular in Argentina, it was not something that generated supply or demand, but years later the industry became more sophisticated and today Puerto Blest is a relatively charming place: It has only one hotel that the day this chronicler fell was closed. “The family of the one who runs it will occupy it,” explained someone who worked in the place shared with a kind of bar-confectionery.

The gravel begins on the way to the second boat: 4 pleasant kilometers of gentle slopes from Blest to Puerto Alegre, shore of Lake Frías. Again the ritual of untying the gear of the bike before getting on it to a short trip, half an hour to disembark in Puerto Fríaswhere the adventure truly begins as Mount Tronador looms, the first of the companion volcanoes.

The Argentine customs wait for an agile procedure. Eventually you can ask for the purchase invoice of the bike, something common in this type of paperwork and which, by the way, never hurts to have on hand. A few meters from the office is the only record on the entire path of the crossing that Guevara and Granado made in 1952: a replica of the Norton 300, some images (most of the film) and a map of the route from San Francisco, Córdoba, to Caracaswhere they say goodbye until next time.

what follows is an intense climb of 4 kilometers on a demanding slope. It depends on the time of the year, it can be accompanied by rain or stupefying heat, and in no case should you be ashamed to drop your bike and take it within walking distance. Sirs: welcome to the valdivian jungle. At the end of this difficult but brief section, a descent will come as a reward that must be done carefully: Chilean gravel is different from Argentine, and certainly much more uncomfortable for any type of wheel.

The second half of the way to Peulla is flatter and more predictable, and begins in a place that is the same as when Guevara met him and was dazzled: Casa Pangue. In a curve of Route 225, a police station coexists with the banks of the Peulla River, which opens a valley directly to Tronador in meltwater. “The viewpoint allows us to see a beautiful panorama of Chilean soil,” wrote Ernesto among the highlights of the crossing.

Peulla is a small town: no more than 150 inhabitants, two hotels and a bar in four blocks. After an intense and non-stop rush, the body begins to ask for a bit of relaxation and contemplation. The Andean Crossing requires a lot of haste and paperwork: getting on the boat, getting off the boat, getting on the bus, getting off the bus, queuing for the other boat… and so on, with everything on topranging from the bag to the bike.

The first thing you see of the little town is the Chilean customs post. Almost like a sign: Do not forget to do the immigration procedures, essential above all to re-enter Argentina. That the doors are open and there is no one is not a problem, at any moment the administrator will return and we will leave there with our papers in order. They are the challenges of going on your own, off the bus and in the times that your battery allows you.

In any case, this delay will serve as an excuse to go to the port the next day and cry a little about the letter: Normally, the dockers never get rid of a bike and they allow you to take the last boat of the three one day after what the ticket says. And that even enables a dip in the temperate and emerald waters of Lake Todos los Santos before crossing it for two hours.

The final nautical crossing deposits in the port of Petrohué, at the other end of the lake, and a quick exit to Route 225 in a paved version and with a bike path on the shoulder. Instantly opens on the horizon the Osorno volcano, the main companion of the journey. From then on, the map opens up again: reaching the last section by boat implies the beginning of a new path.

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J. A. Allen

Author, blogger, freelance writer. Hater of spiders. Drinker of wine. Mother of hellions.

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