Forming part of the border between Argentina and Chile, Lago O’Higgins connects directly to the Campo de Hielo Sur, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. It’s rugged coastline and the incredible turquoise colour of the water make for some of the most beautiful and undiscovered scenery in Patagonia. An abandoned, unmapped and overgrown gaucho trail running along the mountainous coast of the lake connects the town of El Chaltén with seldom-used dirt roads past several deserted estancias, coming out at the edge of the barren pampa and finishing back in civilisation at Tres Lagos. Ruta Nana O'Higgins is just about as remote as it's possible to get with a bicycle in Southern Patagonia.
Once used to connect estancias along the shore of Lago O'Higgins, the gaucho trail that makes up the meat of this ride is now slowly going back to nature as all of these estancias have since been abandoned. This is an extremely challenging and remote route that should only be undertaken by experienced and well prepared bikepackers. Multiple days of strenuous hike-a-bike up very steep trails whilst carrying food for almost a week makes this route physically demanding, and the lack of a clear trail makes following the route difficult at times. This route should not be taken lightly! For those prepared to take it on however this route is incredibly rewarding; offering some truly spectacular scenery, immersion in a true wilderness, some fantastic wild camping and several challenging but fun rideable singletrack sections. One of the highlights of the trail is a night at ‘La Nana’, surely the best refugio in Patagonia, which comes complete with a fully functioning bathroom, working shower, comfortable mattresses, blankets, and all the maté you could drink. Wild horses roam the grasslands and enormous condors patrol the skies, but other than its animal and bird inhabitants you will have the trail entirely to yourself.
This route can be done from either direction, although due to strong westerly winds during the dirt road section between Estancia El Condor and Tres Lagos it is best ridden starting from El Chaltén and finishing at Tres Lagos. The singletrack sections are very challenging and the majority will not be rideable. Hike-a-bike makes up about half of this route, adding up to several days of carrying your bicycle up and down steep, rocky and often extremely overgrown trails. Route-finding skills are necessary as the trail is generally unmarked and sometimes difficult to follow. There are many false trails so backtracking and even bushwhacking with your bike may be necessary. Advance scouting on foot is often a good idea when in doubt. You should be able to carry food for the entirety of the route, at least six days. There are multiple river crossings, though they are not difficult. Because the gaucho trail has been largely abandoned, with no inhabited farms or settlements along it, it is highly unlikely that you will see anyone else. This also means that if anything goes wrong along the way there is almost zero chance of help coming along, with no phone reception either. The trail is challenging, steep and potentially dangerous, so be careful. Tell someone your plans and do not take risks. This trail should be treated with caution and taken seriously.
The Border Crossing
The majority of this route takes place in Argentina, but a short section goes through Chile before returning to Argentina. There is an official crossing between Lagos Desierto and O’Higgins, which is used by hikers and cyclists taking the ferry to Villa O’Higgins, but for this route you will not want to be stamped out of Argentina into Chile because there is nowhere to get stamped back into the country when you return to Argentina; you would end up in Argentina illegally. Instead, for this route you will need to sneak past the border checkpoints without being stopped and having your passport stamped. The Argentinian border post was very straightforward for me; I went straight past in broad daylight, giving the guard a confident wave. He didn’t stop me and didn’t seem to care. If I had been trying to get into Chile officially I would have been turned back without a stamp, so I suppose he figured I either had it already or if not, I would be sent back anyway. If stopped and questioned, I could always have simply said that I wasn’t crossing the border, just going up to the top and coming back. It’s a very laid back border in general so I can’t imagine it would be a problem. If it really came to it you could always just walk past at night, but that shouldn’t be necessary. The Chilean checkpoint is easily circumvented as the route takes you a long way around and you won’t even see it. If you wanted to do this route 100% officially you could probably obtain a permit for the short time you’d be in Chile, but it’s such a brief visit and it’s so easy to get around that I don’t think it’s really worth bothering with. For the very short time that you’re in Chile it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll see anyone anyway.
•Water is not generally a problem on this route, and the water from the rivers is fine to drink without filtering. Only the final dirt road section to/from Tres Lagos requires that you carry enough water for the day.
•This route is best ridden in summer. Heavy rain would make certain sections extremely wet and boggy, and could make some of the steeper hike-a-bike sections slippery and even more difficult. •Long trousers/pants are recommended to protect your legs from the scratchy Patagonian gorse bushes. The trail is often very overgrown so if you only have shorts expect your legs to be scratched bloody. •Horseflies can be an issue for parts of the trail, another reason to have long sleeved clothes.
•Having a specific type of bike (eg. fat tyres) is not necessary as the toughest sections will be hike-a-bike regardless and you will generally only be riding the flat parts (or downhill) for the majority of the gaucho trail. Your luggage system is much more important than which bike you are using. I would consider a lightweight and low profile bikepacking-style setup to be mandatory for this route. •Because the trail is often so narrow and overgrown, I would not even consider attempting this route with panniers, and you should be as lightweight as possible.
•Bringing a backpack and transferring as much weight as possible off your bike and onto your back will make the route much more manageable and enjoyable. Mine is around 30L, which allowed me to carry almost all of the weight on my shoulders. Although not an absolute essential, I would definitely NOT want to do this route without a backpack.
•Consider removing your pedals for some of the steeper uphill sections as this will make it much easier to manhandle your bike without getting the pedals stuck in the dense vegetation (or getting your shins bashed up). •Emergency rations are stored at refugio La Nana, but they should only be used in extreme circumstances. Once onto the dirt road section there are a few active estancias where you could buy basic supplies if necessary. •There is a ferry across Lago Desierto (approx $35) as an alternative to hike-a-biking the Desierto track. •Use the GPX as a guide but do not follow it blindly. It is highly recommended to download/cache the satellite imagery for this region as the trail will often be visible if you look closely. •Check the waypoints attached to the GPX for some of the best camping spots and information on certain parts of the trail.
Day Plan (if starting from El Chalten)
Day 1: An easy first 35km on a dirt roads takes you north out of El Chalten up to to Lago Desierto. From there you will have a tough 11km of mostly hike-a-bike along the Desierto track. The first half is worse than the second. If you want to avoid this section you have the option of paying $35 for a ferry straight across the lake. Free camping just before the Argentinian immigration checkpoint, you can use their toilet facilities.
Day 2: Start early and sneak your way past the checkpoint, then follow the trail up towards the border. Mostly hike-a-bike but this is far easier than the other sections on this route. Once you've made it up to the border a good dirt roads brings you down into Chile with some fun and fast descents. Turn right off the road before you reach the bottom, taking a trail over the hill and down to the other side, bypassing Chilean immigration and providing spectacular views over Lago O'Higgins. The trail comes out by a farmhouse where you could pay to camp, or if you still have time you can get started on the gaucho trail - push your bike through the back of the farmhouse garden and you will find the trail. Easy to follow at this stage, a long and challenging uphill hike-a-bike brings you to a fantastic wild camp spot in a small wood, high up overlooking the lake.
Day 3: This will likely be your toughest day. Continue on the gaucho trail back across the border into Argentina and down to the first and largest river crossing. Be very careful on this section as there are many false trails leading further away from the coast. Advance scouting on foot is recommended, check the GPX waypoints for more information. Another tough hike-a-bike takes you back up again; the views are spectacular but the trail is often very steep and overgrown, progress will be slow. There are plenty of wild camping opportunities higher up in the bluffs.
Day 4: Continue past several small lakes, many ups and downs and across another river before emerging into a more open grassy area with some lovely riding down to the 'La Nana' refugio. Some sections will be very wet and boggy, and again there are many false trails in certain parts. Make yourself at home at La Nana as the toughest parts of the trail are now behind you. If you brought enough food this would also be a fantastic place to take a day off and relax in comfort surrounded by some beautiful scenery and the galloping of wild horses.
Day 5: Ride along the coast before the final uphill hike-a-bike section, then enjoy a steep descent back down to the very end of a dirt road running along the coast. Follow that road east, easily crossing a few small rivers. There may be people at Estancia El Condor so you could possibly find accommodation or supplies there, or alternatively you could wild camp. Some of the estancias along the road are still active and the gauchos living there are very friendly so you could also ask permission to camp on their property. Estancia El Castillo is also still in operation.
Day 6: Load up on water in the morning for the final dirt road section back out into the Pampa and down to Tres Lagos. The wind can be incredibly strong on this section, but for the most part you should have tailwind and an easy finish back into civilisation. There is little wind protection and no water available, so be prepared and aim to complete this section in one go. Tres Lagos is reasonably well stocked, so you can resupply before continuing in whatever direction you are headed.
The RideWithGPS map below is only a VERY rough overview of the route to give you an idea of where it goes and where it is. DO NOT download and follow it - I have a much more accurate GPX which also includes waypoints with more information. You can download it from my Google Drive HERE.
Note that when on the gaucho trail the GPX should not be taken as a definitive and entirely correct route, but rather as a guide. You will have to use your own discretion to find the trail, and always be aware of false trails. The GPX has the sections most prone to false trails marked with waypoints.