Fording the Río Pico

If you had told me 5 years ago that I’d be riding across a 7-foot deep river in Argentinian Patagonia on a horse with a bike hoisted on top, I would have probably said you’ve gone off the deep end, yet here we are.

But first, let’s back up a little bit. It all started back in San Carlos de Bariloche. I was desperately scouring the other South American cycling blogs I know of along with the usual satellite maps in an effort to get off of the rather uneventful Ruta 40 that typically siphons cyclists down toward Southern Patagonia and the Carretera Austral. However, in this area, the options start slimming out quite a bit, largely due to the difficulty in building and maintaining roads. Huge rivers are everywhere here and bridges are expensive. Then there’s the whole issue of private land.

Back in the late 1800s when these lands were seized, many areas were sold off to rich Europeans for rock bottom prices. This trend has continued in recent years as Argentina goes through an economic crisis, looking for relief by selling off more land. Nowadays it’s quite common to ride 80-90 kilometers without a single gap in the barbed wire fencing that lines each side of the road. A quick ask around in a nearby town and you’ll usually find out that the area is owned by some billionaire tycoon from the States or a fashion designer from Europe.

As I’ve found out repeatedly around here, if you head off the beaten path, chances are pretty good that private land will be involved. While many landowners don’t mind a cyclist passing through, this is not a given. So when I hit the big “Propiedad Privada” sign after a few hour detour away from the main road, it wasn’t a huge surprise. As is usual, I employ the philosophy to continue on and beg for forgiveness should I run into someone (playing the “lost” gringo tourist here can also help). Thankfully, I went the better part of a full day along a blissfully empty road unnoticed and never had to break out my acting skills.

Soon after returning to the main track of Argentine National Parks and campgrounds, I detoured once again. This time heading for the remote 4×4 crossing back into Chile over Las Pampas. Two days of heavy downpours and gathering snow on the mountain peaks threw a wrench into my plans, however.

After a night in a small alojamiento in the tiny border village of “Dr. Atilio Viglione Las Pampas”, the locals started to wonder what my plans were… “To Chile?! Impossible! The river is far too high!” one local said as they stretched their arm as high as they could to indicate the water level. “No. Two weeks without rain, minimum!”.

With the alternatives being a week-long detour back to the north or a boring ride along the flatlands of the Argentine pampa, I asked around town about hiring some sort of boat or raft to get me across. With no takers, I had essentially given up. I packed up and began the return trip down the road that got me there when a man came by on an ATV and stopped…. “Where are you headed?”. I explained my situation and he thought for a moment… “I know someone who can get you across, but we must wait a few days for the water to drop a little bit”.

Running low on Argentine money, he said I could camp next to the small village’s fútbol pitch until it was time. In the end, five days would pass until a man came by in an old truck and said “Tomorrow… 5am. We go.” I camped as close to the river as I could. 5am came and that same truck pulled up near my campsite next to the little 2-track road. “Throw the bike in the back”, the man said.

We drove for nearly an hour along one of the gnarliest roads I’ve seen in my life. Mud pits, 30-degree grades on off-camber angles. By this point, I found out the name of the man on a quest to get me across, “Nelson”. He pointed to a steep bank off the side of a very tricky section of road and then at the smashed out window on my side of the truck and said “That’s where I flipped the other day!”, laughing.

Eventually, we got to a small clearing at the top of a hill. He motioned for me to get out of the truck and stay quiet. Only making hand gestures to tell me where to go. His goal was to gather up his horses, which were scattered throughout these mountains. My job was to redirect them down the mountain as he got them moving. An hour of this went on before we eventually got a group of about 20 horses back to his stable a few kilometers away.

Nelson pointed toward two horses and prepared them with saddles before we rode off toward the river, still unsure if it would be passable at all. As we approached, he eyed the water line and gave me that “it will be close” look. He jumped up onto the horse (pants-less of course. Can’t get them wet!!) and motioned for me to sling my bike up in front of him. With no hesitation, the horse sprung off with Nelson aboard in tighty-whities and plunged into the river, at times only leaving a glimpse of the horse’s head above water. After what felt like an hour, they slowly emerged on the other side and Nelson gave me a look back with a huge grin! He dropped the bike and returned to the other side where I would load up the rest of my gear and cross myself. An interesting way to ride a horse for the first time.

Somehow, our trusty steeds crossed the river once again without a hitch and we dismounted on the other side, high-fiving and laughing at the absurdity of what just happened for at least 10 minutes straight. Nelson pointed me toward the path to the road and I finally set off into Chile where the Carretera Austral awaited.

See my route at Ride With GPS.

P.S. If you’re interested in renting a cabin in this area and/or fishing along the Río Pico, shoot me an email and I will put you in contact with Nelson! Trust me, this is one of the best humans and most amazing areas in all of South America! Or if you’re passing through this neck of the woods, ask around town for him and buy him a beer for me!

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