A roller coaster three weeks have seen the adventure begin, tracking its way from Buenos Aires down to, and then across Tierra del Fuego. A short handed wave to Argentina with the promise to return shortly and the first of many border crossing’s between the sister nations of Argentina and Chile.
Along the way liberties have been taken with hygiene as well as places to lay my head for the night. My grasp of the Spanish language continues to improve, and the collection of smiles and local music grows – sure to provide a groovy soundtrack to the upper Andes in due course.
I’m yet to develop anything I might consider the bicycle equivalent of cabin fever.
The flight over had me seated in a row with two other bald men to match my newly created dome – birds with no feathers fly together. The hair has started to grow back now, slowly making its way to the tangled mess it will inevitably become.
On the front end of the trip I spent a few days in Buenos Aires. Roaming the streets of the old port, inhaling empanadas, having a first exposure to Argentine asado, and generally walking around with a face resembling an inverted umbrella. Tom arrived and we explored the city further on rental bikes, taking our chances with choripan from food vans and drinking big boy beers from whichever graffiti coated patios announced themselves to us. We rode widely and caught up with friends. On a broad level it wasn’t sensible, and a mental pact was made to return later on in the trip – the cobbled streets of San Telmo, after all, can’t wheelie all by themselves.
The flight south to Tierra del Fuego departed at a brisk 4:40am, so the night was spent at the airport on a rolled out mat, warmed by a carefully draped down jacket and surrounded by my earthly belongings for the next while. I think about at as a micro version of the way I’ve lived in Sydney for the last few years, with even fewer belongings in an even smaller space, but in a cavernous airport to amplify the reality that I was a long way away from any of those past comforts.
Piecing the bikes together at the airport offered me fair warning of the sort of weather I’d be cycling through, my hands warmed by nipping up screws and pumping up the tyres. We hit the road shortly after, pausing briefly for a photograph as we stared upwardly at the frosted landscape we would be attacking shortly.
Ushuaia is officially the southern most city in the world, excepting of course Antarctica. On that note, it’s also the launching point for most people heading down further towards the pole. I’m convinced that if you wanted to meet some of the most interesting people in the world, you’d need not do more than park yourself in this place and speak to everyone you saw. You’d encounter a healthy mix of arctic researchers, bucket-list ticker-off-erers, and those special lonely souls who like to surround themselves by remote places. Maybe a few penguino’s.
Days were spent exploring the adjacent Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego, hiking up through Lago Roca and preparing ourselves for the beginning of the ride which would commence shortly. I had a crick neck by the end of it, spending more time looking up at the surrounding mountains than at the ground in front of me.
Tom and I took off riding after a few days in Ushuaia. the first day was spent in a haze, not completely sure where the day would take us, and how the defining first day of the journey would end. I was aware that we would scale Paso Garibaldi that day, representing one of the the smaller climbs to be expected in South America. I knew there were some good photo’s to come when I heard Tom yell out from 75 metres above my head. The road had switch back on itself and as I gazed skyward I saw him vertically above pointing a camera back down to me.
As I ascended further I saw two cyclists ahead, surely my mind playing tricks on me, since I knew only Tom to be in front of me. Trying as best I could to catch up to them I watched them hop on their bike’s and continue on. A mirage perhaps, I ate a chocolate bar gifted to me by a travelling Spanish family who looked at me cock-eyed when I told them where I was going. I hope they find this writing some day and understand that they set the tone for the trip early on.
Approaching the saddle of the pass I finally caught up to the the pair and met Laura and Facundo of Suenos de Ruta, also just beginning their journey through the length of Argentina’s Ruta 40. When you find a moment please explore their idea and journey, it has a lot of merit – while I like to collect smiles, they’re actively in the process of manufacturing them.
We continued up over Garibaldi pass to meet Tom before a rapid ascent down towards the lakes.
Levelling out at the bottom of the descent, we rolled into a roadside restaurant to ask if there was a nice place nearby to set up our tents. We were duly informed that behind the restaurant was ‘muy tranquilo’ and that we should set up there, fronted by a small lagoon and backed by a small forest for the night. Lau and Facu found us shortly after and we spent the afternoon looking at maps and talking about our journeys over a few bottles of vino tinto. The following morning we parted ways and independently set off towards Tolhuin.
Tolhuin was a short ride away and a goal for the reputation of the local bakery. Panadaria la Union was the first of what I hope is many experiences with ‘casa de ciclistas’. Dotted throughout South America is a network of souls who happily house touring cyclists in beds or tents, with the intention of fostering bicycle tourism. The panaderia in Tolhuin is particularly famous, with many well known cicloviajeros passing through and leaving their marks on the wall of a small back room behind the baking operation. When Tom and I were there, we met Sebastian, a German bicycle traveller who had ridden from Germany to Indonesia, before flying to Buenos Aires and riding to Ushuaia, where he made the decision to ride back to Tolhuin to work at the bakery and improve his Spanish. He will work there until January, when he’ll hop on his bike and push North to Colombia, no doubt finding new adventures along the way.
The following day I pushed on further from the panaderia, again throwing myself into the mercy of local hospitality. The day also presented the first of Patagonia’s wind challenges. My approach to most challenges is measured, considered and with the intention of a level head. The wind’s response in this case was a direct and stern, ‘fuck you’. Forget the idea of peak gust’s of wind, in Patagonia you’re presented with constant and unrelenting wind speeds of 50 knots in your face with no respite, there is no gust, just a forcible presentation of power through the day and small milage. 18 km out from the intended camp site, Fernando pulled over and yelled to get in his truck, the mattress in the back was enough of an invitation for me to hop right in, and I spent the afternoon waiting for Tom to make the same distance. We caught up hours later.
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We left the mountains of the Magallanes–Fagnano fault behind and began the slog through Tierra del Fuego's pampas. The wind has been absolutely savage for two days, frequently knocking me off the road and off my bike. Jesse escaped the gusts in Fernando's truck yesterday, but the wind seems to have doubled in response today. I had a brief moment of joy when I rode alongside a mountain bike race and a support car handed me a chocolate bar. #bicycletouring #cycletouring #cicloturismo #ruta3 #wind #pampas #tierradelfuego #patagonia
The following day presented an even greater challenge, with the wind expressing it’s anger in even more vulgar terms. The 60km required through to Rio Grande took just shy of 8 hours, with at least 10km spent pushing the bike into unrelenting headwinds. I learned that headwinds can be dealt with, but crosswinds are the spirit of evil, knocking you off of your bike and blowing away your belongings if given the chance. The hardest day of riding I’ve encountered.
Of course, on arrival in Rio Grande, it only fitted that we were welcomed with open arms into a family of local’s at the small hostel we stayed in. Diego promptly asked if we ate meat, and then told us to bring wine for the ensuing meat fest we would treat ourselves to.
Burping beef and plied with protein, the next morning we set off with new legs. The wind God’s offered us respite as we chewed up a quick 80km’s to the Argentinian-Chilean border crossing. At times I could swear we had a slight tail wind which meant that we approached the crossing by early afternoon. The Gendarmeria offered us a warm waiting room to sleep in for the night, and we rolled out our mats at the post in a heated room with a gas stove to prepare our (now well practiced) stodgy pasta and deb dishes.
Early the following morning I had my passport stamped as I farewelled Argentina for the next month or so. Hasta pronto Argentina, I’ll be back for the rest of your delicious cows.
Rolling into Chile, we watched the pleasantly paved roads switch to unsealed and rocky relatives. There was a 12km gap between being stamped out of Argentina and stamped into Chile on the other side of the border. I wondered exactly where I was, and whether this was the lawless wormhole I’d been looking for to get my monkey fighting championship off of the ground. Tom briefly joked about gravel roads for the remaining 150km to Porvenir where we could leave the mainland.
As we formally entered Chile, I asked the border guard ‘¿Ripio a Porvenir?’, and he confirmed in time that the main Chilean thoroughfare across the island was indeed gravel. Spirits dipped briefly as this reality sunk in. We pushed on for almost 100km of riding on dirt, trying to make the most of a largely windless day. The day of riding started shortly after 8, and I arrived after 9pm to a small bus shelter at a nondescript intersection somewhere in the Northern pampas of Tierra del Fuego. It was already dark, and the melange of carbs was welcomed before cosying up into a small space to sleep for almost 12 hours. The bike had rattled screws loose and a clip which holds one of my bags to the bike had completely sheared off, forcing me to repack in an unbalanced way and lash even more to the back rack.
A number or refugio’s popped up along the side of the road, each marked with text scrawled across the walls from countless touring cyclists who had taken break from the wind for the night. Some famous blogs in the cycle touring world were represented, making for a star struck day of riding.
Waking up to only a mild headwind, we set off for the final 55km of ripio to Porvenir. The day was spent spinning through undulating coastline with a view of snowcapped mountains across the bay. I rode past countless estancias and little fishing huts dotted along the coastline and approached Porvenir in the middle of the afternoon with a mild tailwind, happy that the entrance to town was marked with the beginning of a paved road.
Wasting no time, I tracked towards the local fire station to ask if they knew of a good place near town to throw the tent out. Patagonian hospitality of course crossed the border into Chile, and the local Bombero’s offered a small space behind the station where we could sleep. Our time on Tierra del Fuego was closed out over vino tinto and choriqueso, and we set to bed ready to tackle the mainland the following morning.
I’m now holed up in Punta Arenas, Tom and I will part ways here and head North to tackle Torres del Paine and the Carratera Austral solo, perhaps meeting up along the way somewhere but writing our own journey’s from this point on.
I’ll likely be land locked here in Punta Arenas until I can get in contact with my bag manufacturer after the weekend. I’m hopeful that the spare parts might be available locally here in town, or at the least I need to organise for them to posted ahead to Puerto Natales in order to pick up in a few weeks time on the way through to Torres del Paine.