A Promising Introduction to Riding in Patagonia

While I’d already been into the area that is technically considered Patagonia a couple of times by this point, entering towns like Pucón in Chile, and San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina marked a noticeable shift from all of the regions I’d been in previously, which still felt largely unchanged by tourism. It was still quite early in the season for the hordes of travelers to have taken over these places, but the signs are there. Fancy chocolate shops. Overpriced hostels. Cafes on every street corner selling $8 artisanal muffins to a looping soundtrack of Adele and Sam Smith.

Thankfully, you’re never far from the chilled embrace of the mountains around here, and it’s never more necessary than after spending time in bigger towns.

Just outside of Pucón, Volcan Villarrica looms as one of the most active volcanoes in all of South America. It’s constantly huffing and puffing billows of smoke, and on the right night, you can even watch the caldera glowing orange directly from the confines of the town, despite the light pollution. Not satisfied with the city view, I scoured maps for the best vantage point I could find for an up-close view and set off up the mountain for a night of staring at the stars.

Upon re-entering Argentina, just about everyone I ran into asked “Are you going to Seite Lagos?!”. The “Seite Lagos” route is a famous stretch of pavement that curves along the edge of a string of massive lakes, and is dotted with artisanal shops and upscale rental cabins…. I’m sure it’s impressive, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that I should probably look for something a bit more rugged. With a growing mountain biking scene in this part of South America, a quick stop to ask a few local riders in a San Martin bike shop led to plenty of ideas.

While the free-for-all maze of impossibly squiggly mountain roads from previous areas of this trip are a thing of the past, there still were some intriguing options here, including the lovely and deserted steppe road that twists and turns over Paso del Cordóba. This is some of my favorite terrain in all of South America. Raging rivers cut through rugged rock formations that are dotted with trees and adorned with snow-capped peaks. There’s a little something for everyone.

At this point, I was in such close proximity to the Carretera Austral, one of the most popular cycling routes in the world, that there was a noticeable uptick in bike traffic. Almost overnight I went from seeing a bike tourist once a month or so, to seeing a few or more every day. Adding to that, more and more locals have an interest in cycling and the outdoors in general around here. When Patagonia is your backyard, I guess it’s hard not to take advantage. In Argentina, it’s quite common to find an “improvised” campsite on a weekend night and have some locals come out, throw up their tent, and fire up the barbecue. While this seems normal in many parts of the world, it’s not terribly common in the rest of the Andes.

A funny thing happened after I finally arrived in San Carlos de Bariloche, one of the biggest cities in Argentinian Patagonia. Friend of the site, Jeremy Dunn, sends me a message, “Dude! There’s a frame builder in Bariloche! I came through in 2006-ish and just rolled up on him in town”. After he mentioned that this mysterious frame builder also happened to play the tuba, it didn’t take long for me to realize that the man he met at random 13 years prior was the same man who had been kindly allowing me to stay in his guesthouse/workshop for the previous few days! The world has never felt smaller in my eyes.

Miguel Nitzsche is that man’s name. He is one of a handful of extraordinary locals in these Patagonian towns who offer up a helping hand to passing cyclists in the form of a bed and a warm shower. Though the real draw here is the wealth of knowledge and stories he has to share from his past bike trips as well as a chance to marvel at his collection of vintage and handmade bikes from across the world. Meeting and spending even a short time with “trail angels” like Miguel is really what traveling by bike is all about, and this warm welcome would serve as a small slice of what was to come in my time riding in Patagonia…

See my route at Ride with GPS.