The route taken North through Argentina started in the desolate, windswept landscape of Tierra del Fuego and ended in the high Southern plains of the Bolivian Altiplano.
The riding through Argentina was generally fairly simple, fast and flat – one particularly notable exception of course being the famed Patagonian wind which plagued some of the more southern sections of the route around El Calafate and El Chalten, and of course when crossing Tierra del Fuego.
Travelled: 3205 km
Tierra del Fuego – Ushuaia to San Sebastián
Of course the beginning of the ride came with its share of shocks, culturally and physically. The feeling stepping off the plane in Ushuaia reminded me of a prior airplane departure in Canada in late 2008 – though of course with less snow and with temperatures a little warmer. Ushuaia wasted no time letting me know who was boss, over the next few days while I fine tuned the bike, small flurries blew in and the temperature dropped below zero.
Some days were spent out at the nearby national park, others were spent considering food requirements for the beginning of the journey, but mostly time was used to mentally prepare for what lay ahead and catchup briefly online with the internet access.
Day one of the journey climbed up and over Garibaldi pass at around 500m and offered great views of Tierra del Fuego’s snow dusted mountainscapes. While the first few days didn’t present any difficult riding (retrospectively considered), it did offer the first experience with the Patagonian wind, which topped out somewhere near 80 or 100 km/h and was enough to send me looking for a ride in the back of a pickup – the locals where more than happy to help.
After Rio Grande the wind died considerably, and a more substantial daily distance was achieved to the border post at San Sebastián.
The whole route on the Argentinian side of Tierra de Fuego was paved, in contrast to the Chilean side which was entirely dirt.
El Calafate to El Chalten
Some of the hardest riding and some of the most rewarding. More battles with Patagonian wind and exposure for the first time to the jagged mountains and hardened locals that this remote part of the world is known for.
Crossing the border shortly after Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, I briefly had the wind behind me. For those lucky enough to collect this experience, it’s surely one you’ll never forget – I topped out at a little above 60 km/h without pedalling on a moderate downhill. The experience was shortly countered with some truly horrible dirt roads to shortcut towards El Calafate, though the morning progress was enough to add up to a respectable daily distance given the conditions.
On the way to El Calafate I had my first real taste of Gaucho hospitality, and gratefully accepted the offer of Gaucho Luis when an opportunity arose to sleep on the floor of his shed, even if the sleep was marred by the constant bleating of a lamb he locked in the room next to me. The hospitality compounded after El Calafate, with friendly offers of food by the side of the road and another roof over my head in a disused observatory courtesy of Gaucho Ramon.
El Calafate was decidedly touristic and not so much to my interest, though the nearby Perito Merino Glacier reminded me of Canada’s Rocky Mountains and my time at El Calafate was enough to make some new American friends which I hope to see later on the journey.
The wind between El Calafate and El Chalten was truly soul destroying, and when I rolled into El Chalten it was in the snow. I quickly sought out a warm bed for the night, though didn’t have a chance to actually see the ranges around me (the famous Mount FitzRoy) until a few days later when the weather cleared.
The last section of this journey was spent lazily riding on dirt track towards Lago del Desierto for a well known boat crossing and hike over the border to Chile’s famous Carratera Austral.
Futaleufú to Pucon
A great section of almost completely paved riding to jump North towards the Chilean Lake District, and taking in some beautiful landscapes en route. Along the way I crossed over again with an Australian friend heading North and was thankful to spend Christmas time in good company and with good wine.
Highlights along this route most definitely included Parque Nacional Alerces which skirted cold, freshwater lakes, as well as the famous Ruta de los Siete Lagos between Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes.
Bariloche, I found overall, was not really to my taste. It was fun, and surrounded by great scenery, but I felt like I was sharing it, and it had a flavour much closer to dusty cityscape than remote landscape. After leaving and arriving in San Martin, I was pleasantly surprised to find a quiet, flower dappled town with what felt like a much slower pace.
Onther towns along this way which deservedly gets a mention are El Bolson (great and full of hippies), where it’s possible to camp at the local brewery and the speed at which life passes felt at times slower than bicycle progress – just what I like.
Mendoza to La Quiaca (Frontera Bolivia)
This section of the road was mixed fast riding and long waiting. Heading North almost exclusively on Ruta 40, I collected fast km’s on paved, flat road with only a few excursions to higher altitude until after Salta. That said, the landscape seemed to change every day and offered stunning red mountains and clear sunsets.
I generally opted to avoid large city centres here, and spent every night camping as I ambled North to Salta to await a package from home. It took another 2 and a half weeks to arrive and I found myself stranded in Salta, which may not have been a bad thing but for the fact I was more or less without money while I waiting for credit cards. Cities are horribly depressing places when you don’t have currency to your name, I made the best of it and rested for the highlands to the North however.
The road between Calafate and Jujuy was beautiful, foggy, and at times wet. Ultimately it was solitary and the high landscapes reflected this. I found bus shelters and refugio’s to lay my head and slowly made my way up to the Bolivian Altiplano one revolution at a time.
Though Argentina was decidedly western in most aspects, there’s no denying that outside the large city centres, hospitality was never so difficult to find. Even in places saturated with cyclists, my experience was that help was always easy to find when needed and Argentinean’s were always more than happy to offer their assistance. Notably:
Gaucho Luis and Gaucho Ramon offering their floorspace to a rider wearied by the Patagonian wind. A fact of life for them, a whole new experience for me.
Juan’s roadside workshop and cafe was in fact a vintage RV. Though during a simple day of riding, it was absolutely appreciated and not easily forgotten.
La Iglesia de La Intermedia – another roof over my head and dinner/breakfast with great company. I bartered labour as a small exchange.
Patagonia offered some of the best here, with endless possibilities in the fence free landscape and mountains wherever you turned your head. My favourite was some of the camping in and around Bariloche, where acute sunsets sent purple’s barreling overhead with regularity and there was rarely a day that ended without a lake or riverside campsite to take a dip.
Gauchito Antonio Gil
Gaucho Gil, this is my favourite Argentinian story. Right from the beginning of my time in Argentina I noticed vigils along the road for Gaucho Gil.
Gauchito Gil is somewhat of a folk legend/Jesus figure here in Argentina. The story goes that Antonio Gil was a farmworker from Corrientes in the mid 19th century, who was chased out of Argentina after an affair with a wealthy local widow which upset her brothers.
After fighting with the Argentinian army in Paraguay, he returned home as a hero. Brief future stints in the army wearied him, and he deserted to become a Robin Hood type folk figure, eventually becoming somewhat mythical with healing powers, ability to hypnotise, and immunity to bullets. As an outlaw he was eventually caught by the local authorities and hung in a tree, but just prior to his execution he informed the local sergeant that shortly after his execution, the sergeant would return to town to find a letter of pardon for his indiscretions, as well an incurable illness of his son. The sergeant didn’t care, and slit Gil’s throat, only to return to town to find Gil’s predictions true.
He prayed to Gauchito Gil to save his son, and the following morning his wishes were granted, after which he erected a shrine at the tree of Gil’s death, and spread the word as far as he could. To this day you’re lucky to travel more than a few km’s without seeing a shrine in Gaucho Gil’s honour.
Selling a car
For quite a long part of my ride through Argentina I noticed half full bottles or jugs of water perched on top of cars by the road. I never thought much of it, expecting the owner had just forgotten to take it inside. I got the explanation from a French cyclist I rode with from Santiago de Chile to Mendoza.
The explanation is far stranger than I thought. As it turns out, this is a relatively universal sign in Argentina that the car is for sale, interested parties only need to stand by the car and clap there hands until the owner turns up to negotiate terms – go figure. Perhaps they have other ways to initiate the transaction, but I bet none are as strange as the old bottle of water on the roof.
Painted on the roads along the way are collections of large yellow stars. These are there to symbolise road deaths, while equally common are roadside vigils/shrines that highlight the same sentiment, there’s something far more poetic about the painted stars, which are there to indicate another star being added to the night sky, and serve as a reminder to other traveller’s to always be careful on the road.
My experience with Argentina is that it is a country full of fiercely proud people, but is most definitely for the most part still very Western. The Patagonian landscapes are remarkable and everything I expected of them, hard and isolated – but when required you can usually get everything you need with minimal effort. Especially in the Southern end, the hospitality and beauty of the place makes it perfect for a long bike ride.