updated the last post with a few pictures…more to come
Monthly Archives: April 2012
Five thousand kilometers, three months and nine days – we made it to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. And we´re just in time. Not surprisingly I was a little too optimistic about late fall weather in Tierra del Fuego. Given my strong preference for snowy Canadian winters though, I have a strong affinity for cold – a preference no one else seems to share. Earlier in the trip we saw plenty of cyclists heading south, but a few weeks ago we realized that we’re probably the last ones on the road and the last in ones to arrive in Ushuaia before winter sets in (if it hasn’t already). While waiting out a snowstorm in Tolhuin, only a hundred kilometers from our destination, I wondered if we might not make it; if perhaps, we were too late. But the clouds parted and on our last day of the trip, we left under clear skies in warm (er) temperatures. The final mountains of the trip looked more impressive covered in snow.
Tolhuin, a little village in a mountain valley 100 km from Ushuaia, was almost better than the end itself. We stayed in the Panaderia La Union, a legendary place among people biking through the Americas. We first heard about the bakery about a month ago, but word has spread as far north as Alaska about the endless supply of pastries and free bed bed next to the sacks of flour. I guess cyclists biking the length of the Americas (a surprisingly not un-common phenomenon) have something to look forward to two years down the road. Emilio, the owner, arrived in Tolhuin years ago on a bike and decided to start this gigantic bakery and offer a place for passing cyclists to stay as they made their way north or south.
After biking through another snowstorm on the way from Rio Grande to Tolhuin, we decided to wait a day before starting over the now very snowy mountains to Ushuaia. Taking any form of motorized transport was obviously out of the question, even if it meant riding on potentially dangerous snow and ice covered roads. We were on a bike trip. No excuses. This delay meant we could spend the day eating as many pastries and empanadas as possible, which we did. After one too many dulce de leche filled treats, I bought a mate gourd and sipped brewed herbs for the rest of the afternoon.
The next day we were back to eating pastries on the side of the road…
We rode towards the mountains and our final crossing of the Andes over Garibaldi Pass, where the fall colors gradually disappeared under more and more snow.
At the top it was the middle of winter…
but we rode into blue sky as we coasted down the final hill, remembering once again why biking up mountains is not insane.
(A few hours later as we gingerly pedaled along sections of road covered in black ice, our opinion may have changed) After 40 km with some of the most stunning views of the trip, we rounded a corner and saw the Beagle Channel before us, where the Andes took their final plunge into the southern ocean. Ushuaia, the “southernmost city in the world” sat between mountains and sea and somewhere not too far south lay Cape Horn. And then Antarctica, just a thousand kilometers away.
But the road ends here, so we’re packing up the bikes and getting on a plane to Buenos Aires. Right now warm temperatures might be the best part about going to BA. The nightlife, however, seems like it might be a tougher adaptation. In this city people start dinner at 12pm and they don´t go out until 2 am. We go to sleep at 8:30 and my only clothes are bike shorts, baggy hiking pants, and some very unwashed merino wool shirts. Alex has some really stylish zip-off pants and gore-tex shoes. Needless to say, we both look good.
Five days ago we took the ferry across the Strait of Magellan from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, the only real town on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. This group of islands off the southern tip of South America is synonymous with extremes – even by Patagonia standards. The Yaghan people lived here when Magellan arrived in the early 16th century and he named the archipelago after the smoke from their fires that he saw from the sea.
Some of the best and worst moments of the trip occurred during the 300km between Porvenir and Rio Grande, on the Argentine side of the island. The most straightforward route cuts directly across the island from Porvenir to the border crossing at San Sebastian where the only paved highway in Tierra del Fuego leads south along the Atlantic coast. But we know better than to take the “standard” route. An unpaved road through the wilder Chilean side sounded more appealing. So once again we took the “adventurous” route which involved carrying 5 days of food, winter weather, a river crossing to get from Chile to Argentina, and penguins.
A rolling coastal road and tailwind take us out of Porvenir along Bahia Inutile. But these were mostly the last of pleasant biking conditions. In reality, there is probably no “good” time to bike through Tierra del Fuego. In summer it can still frost every night and gale force winds range from horrendous to dangerously unrideable.Winters, although less snowy than they used to be due to global warming, are obviously out of the question, and spring is just a combination of the other three seasons. Right now, the end of autumn, winds dies down, but as we´ve discovered, temperatures often plunge below freezing and snow is very probable.
A few hours after we left Porvenir, we were biking into driving rain and a killer headwind. We find shelter with Victor, a fisherman from the island of Chiloe living in a one room shack on the beach bordering Bahia Inutile. He offers up the neighboring shack and we pitch the tent inside, relieved to be out of the wind and rain. Victor lives here year round without heat, running water, or an indoor toilet, but he was one of the most generous hosts we´ve encountered throughout our trip. He feeds us lamb from the nearby estancia and hot wine to warm us up. As night falls, we ride in his rowboat while he sets out his nets and he wants us to stay another day so he can take us out fishing. It gets lonely out there and his only company is the radio and a rotund fellow fisherman who lives in the shack next door (Victor didn´t seem to know his name though).
We´ve gone from being totally self sufficent to completely reliant on the kindness of strangers – a necessity given the harsh conditions here. The following day is no different. We round the end of Bahia Inutile and the wind increases to tent breaking force. But the dot on the map that is supposed to correspond with a town is not a town, only Estancia Caleta Josephina. We escape the wind in upgraded accomodations – a room in the sheep shearers´ quarters. This time we´re fully enclosed against the elements. There are beds, but we pitch our tent on the floor – for warmth…not because we´re weird and prefer sleeping in it. By nightfall the wind sounds like a freight train roaring by the window and inside we drink tea while eating bread and jam.
On day three we see emperor penguins. The half hour we spend watching them waddle around and prod each other with their beaks makes all the less pleasant moments on Tierra del Fuego worth it (at least that´s what we tell ourselves). We ride around the southwestern shore of Bahia Inutile into yet another progress killing headwind (other cyclists´assurances that we´d have tail winds all the way south have proved false). Exhausted after 6 hours and only 40 km, we camp past the little fishing village of Cameron on the side of road, praying the wind won´t destroy our tent for the second time. Temperatures plunge at night and we wake up shivering despite wearing all our layers including raincoats. As we get on our bikes with numb hands and feet, we decide that we´re “over” camping. A thirty minute ride in a pickup truck with our bikes in the back gives us a chance to thaw our hands and feet and makes up for time and distance lost to the wind. Down the road, we resume riding towards Paso Rio Bellavista and the final frontier of the trip.
Border crossings have gotten progressively more epic the farther south we get and this last one was the best yet. Despite the Chileans’ best efforts to improve their roads, they still haven’t gotten around to building a bridge across the river which marks this border. So we bike up to the river and get ready to wade into the freezing water which looked about thigh high. The epic crossing, however, was not to be. Some men at the border station saw us and decided it was better not to let the gringos get hypothermia in the below-freezing temperatures. They ferried our bikes and us across in a truck and despite the missed adventure, this was probably one of our smarter decisions. Our feet were cold enough without being submerged in subzero water.
From the border, we rode through a five minute snowstorm followed by sun, and our first sign for Ushuaia, 266 km away. The fuegian forest with wind stunted trees covered with strange green moss became open steppe – the last stretch of emptiness before the end of the world. The austral sunset starts early, painting the entire lanscape in clear golden light. We end up at Estancia Despedida and thanks to Vivina and Eduardo, we´re given warm beds, hot showers, and delicious food for dinner. And they spoke English. Needless to say, this felt absurdly luxurious compared to the previous three nights.
From there it was a rough fifty km to Rio Grande through a blizzard, then rain. Luckily another estancia appeared just as the snow was really starting to accumulate, but in Rio Grande, there was zero availability in any hotel or hostel (it´s an industrial town not built for tourists so hotels are frequently filled with workers). We avoided sleeping in a hotel lobby with the help of the municipal worker who arranged for us to stay at the local sports facility. He also insisted on giving us our own separate mate drinks out of his gourd so once again we´re saved by strangers in Tierra del Fuego.
We made it to Rio Grande today after five days of epic riding across Tierra del Fuego. We’ll write a longer update soon. The connection is too slow at this internet cafe to upload any pictures so for now, biking in the “Land of Fire” will remain in words only. Today it was the Land of Snow, and 10 minutes into the storm we decided that riding through a snowstorm was only fun for the short amout of time it takes you to get over the initial feelings of being hardcore. But this is the most remote place on earth, so we had no choice but to keep riding. A car passed and the driver gave us an enthusiastic cheer. I silently cursed him for not having an open pickup truck. Now we can add another extreme weather condition to our list and pray that the weather will clear up for the final 200km to Ushuaia.
We replaced the tent in Puerto Natales and tested it out in Torres del Paine, home of Patagonia´s other famous rock spires and the now familiar wind. The mountains were similarly stunning, but the new tent failed to live up to our old one and we might never get over the loss. That portable shelter housed us for three months through all kinds of conditions and pathetic as it may seem, we became quite attached to the little yellow nylon bubble. Sometimes after a hard day on the road, all we had was the Half Dome with her multiple interior pockets and two roomy vestibules…
Anyways, back to more interesting descriptions. Torres del Paine is one of the premier trekking destination in South America and initially we had grand plans to hike the full 10 day circuit. But three easy day hikes in El Chalten made us reconsider (my legs were so sore I could barely walk). We opted for the shorter route known as the ´W´ and the snowstorm we encountered the day after we arrived in Puerto Natales confirmed that this was probably a wise choice. In five days, we had glaciers, granite spires, the standard insanity of Patagonian weather, pill popping (my usually robust knees did not like suddenly being saddled with loaded packs on steep rocky terrain), and some wildlife encounters.
Looking out over Glacier Grey, with its giant chunks of blue ice floating in the lake and deep crevasses, we imagined looked a bit like looking at Antarctica – or the last ice age. A huge sheet of thick white glacier spreading out into distant snowy mountains half covered in mist. On the second day we hiked up the French Valley to a lookout over a cirque of towering summits. Needless to say, the views were spectacular and pain free thanks to the six advil I consumed throughout the day. Highlight of day three was the freshly steaming mystery poop we came across in the middle of the trail. It looked suspiciously like puma scat and we spent a tense few minutes wondering if there was a predator stalking us from some unseen vantage point. Alejandro had his knife out and was ready to defend us, but no puma materialized. In fact, the most dangerous wildlife encounter occurred on the second morning when I opened my pack and a very fat mouse (it may have been a rat…) scurried out after a night spent gorging on our granola. Even worse than our diminished food supply was my embarrassingly girly scream. Luckily we were the only people left in camp so no one heard (we always seemed to be the last to leave and the last to get into camp at night).
We arrived at our final campsite near the trail to the Torres lookout, a famous viewpoint at the base of the three granite spires surrounding a glacial lake, but decided to wait until morning for a sunrise view of the peaks. At 6:45 AM we crawled out of our tents to a light rain and headed up in darkness hoping for a weather miracle. By the time we got to the lookout, it was pelting rain and windy. We huddled under a rock, made coffee, and ate the last of our food still hoping for a miracle. When, at 8:45, the towers were not lit up electric red and orange like the postcards, but shrouded in clouds, we gave up and ran down the trail in increasingly the obscene weather.
We rode out of Puerto Natales ridiculously happy to be back on the bikes because walking was too painful. This is ´Ultima Esperanza´or ´Last Hope´ province, a place where a long arm of the sea comes inland to meet the mountains and between Puerto Natales and our next stop, Punta Arenas, it was 250 km of flat windswept plains. Now, the smallest dots on the maps aren´t even towns, just large sheep farms called Estancias. But as the weather and landscape get harsher, the people make up it with their hospitality. At Estancia Irene, we escape the wind and the cold in the sheep shearers´quarters and get to watch spanish soap operas in the kitchen at dinner.
Now we´re in Punta Arenas, a sprawling metropolis at the end of continental South America, preparing for our final leg of the trip across Tierra del Fuego to Ushuaia. We finally bested our biggest mileage day of the trip two days ago and it was about time given that our previous best was set on day two. 136 km almost felt effortless. We´re back to desert riding – but without the scorching heat. Flat roads in straight lines to the horizon, wind (thankfully at our backs), and limitless skies. But now that we´re almost at the end of the world – even the locals refer to this place in those extremes – the desert feels tame in comparison. Here, the few trees that can survive are permanently bent in the direction the wind blows, weather is as mercurial as ever, and the hardest part of our day is trying to get the right combination of layers so that we can bike without sweating or freezing. In the morning it´s easy. We put on every item of clothing we have and start pedaling as fast as possible to accelerate the warming process, trying not to think about our perpetually numb feet. Fall temperatures have finally caught up to us as we wipe frost off our bike seats and spot cracked ice covering pools of water by the side of the road. Daylight is scarcer too. The sun sets at 8 pm and doesn´t rise until 8 am which means twelve hours of sleep and the rest of the time spent moving as much as possible – both to get somewhere and to stave off the cold.
Tomorrow we take the ferry across the Magellan Strait to Porvenir and from there it´s a little over 500km to Ushuaia. Sorry for the lack of pictures. We´ll get some up eventually.
We’re in El Calafate right now on an emergency mission to fix our tent. It did not survive our stay in El Chalten, a little hiking mecca filled with an odd combination of gore-tex clad trekkers, expensive restaurants, ramshackle tin buildings, and the occasional horse. This is Argentina’s newest town; it was hastily assembled in 1965 to beat Chile to the border. El Chalten sits right at the entrance to Los Glaciares National Park, home of Argentina’s most famous mountains. Along with the towering granite spires of Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, the area is known for severe weather. Unpredictable storms blow in at any time and in our four days, we had hot sun, cloudless skies, snow, torrential rain, and fog – all occurring in the span of a few hours. But it was the wind that really defined this place and on our last day it was so strong, I could feel it almost blow me off balance.
Apparently the tent felt the same way. We arrived back from hiking and found a large rip in the rain fly and a snapped tent pole. Our plans to trek around Patagonia’s other famous mountains in Torres del Paine are on hold while we try and find a way to fix this very essential bit of equipment. Otherwise we’ll have to swallow our budget and buy a new one and the tents we’ve seen many Argentines using do not inspire confidence – usually they’re sagging and in various states of disrepair. Maybe we’ll have better luck in Chile.
Aside from the wind issue, El Chalten was ideal for its proximity to Cerro Torre and Mt Fitzroy, two peaks rising 3,000 meters above the Patagonian steppe. I say “ideal” because there was no real backpacking required to get up close to the mountains. And judging by how our legs feel after three days of relatively easy day hikes, this was a good thing. Biking long distances for prolonged periods of time is completely useless for any other physical activity – except more biking.
The immense scale and technical difficulty of these peaks combined with the wild weather makes them two of mountaineering’s greatest climbs. And looking up at the mountains I had already seen in countless photographs was a testament to the stunning inadequacy of pictures in this particular setting.
The tops of the peaks are almost always shrouded in clouds; you can wait for days and never see them. But the clouds always seemed to part at some point in the day giving us glimpses of the entire summit massif long enough to take hundreds of pictures, each with a slightly different cloud arrangement clinging stubbornly to the mountain’s flanks.
Almost as exciting as the scenery and the weather was meeting up with Casey Jones, a junior at Williams studying in Buenos Aires for the semester. Our timing in El Chalten coincided and we hiked together to Laguna de Los Tres for views of Mt Fitzroy and an off-trail adventure scramble to a glacier lookout. When we got to the ridge it was snowing, but slowly the fog lifted, revealing a giant sheet of blue ice wrinkled with crevasses and studded with huge toothy pinnacles.
Having Casey around provided some much needed perspective on just how many strange behaviors we’ve developed over the last three months. He introduced us to his American friends from BA, but interacting with normal people turned out to be a little too much to handle. We were reduced to crouching behind a boulder eating spoonfuls of dulce de leche in mute silence while Casey tried without success to facilitate conversation. He chatted away while the others probably wondered why he’s friends with the two biking freaks. Sorry Casey – reintegrating into normal life might be harder than anticipated…
Sleeping in a bed for more than two nights now feels unnatural so we convinced Casey to move from the hostel to the “Casa de Jesus”. We pitched our tent in Jesus’s yard on a hill above town along with a motley crew of travelers. Jesus is a legendary figure around El Chalten, a man who offers up his entire property to complete strangers, most of whom end up staying for weeks. We arrived just in time for the nightly communal dinner cooked in a big “disco” over the fire and immediately felt more at home more at home among the dreadlocked unshowered tribe hanging out with Jesus than with the the clean “normal” tourists in the impersonal hostel.
I started writing this yesterday but as of this morning we don’t even have a broken tent. It was stolen last night along with all the cash in my wallet – confirmation of why we hate hostels. Or maybe we’ve just become too complacent after so much time spent by ourselves in remote places. We endured a morose bus ride to Puerto Natales and were cheered up by the less touristy vibes and the discovery of Alex’s camera that we thought had been in his backpack with the tent. I guess we’re going shopping now.
Below: the mountains we temporarily ditched our bikes for and waiting out the wind and rain in the tent (r.i.p.) with some wine and a book – we try to stay civilized at least some of the time.
Although we may have wanted to go hiking in southern Patagonia slightly more than we wanted to keep biking, the real reason we cut off the last 250km of the Carreterra was far more noble. The road was getting too easy and too populated and now that we’re three months into the trip, we needed a bit more of a challenge. And just to prove how well we’ve mastered the whole bike touring thing, our last 30 km on the Carreterra included me toppling off my bike yet again (I’m ashamed to admit this is now almost a daily occurrence). So we said goodbye to the “trail of tears” (Alex’s name for the Carreterra in honor of my many falls – but no real tears have ever been shed…obviously) and headed east into the Valle Chacabuco.
The turnoff was ambiguous i.e. completely unmarked, but the map showed only one road leading to the Argentinean border so it had to be the right one. Immediately the landscape changed from one dominated by the Rio Baker’s turquoise ribbon, a deep gorge snaking below us, making its way from distant glaciers, to a dry windswept valley of yellow shrubs and endless skies. This is the future Conservacion Patagonia, a giant national park in the making, spearheaded by American philanthropist and North Face founder, Doug Tomkins. Herds of Guanacos, some rabbits, and the endangered Huemul, or Andean deer, roam the “Serengeti of the Southern Cone.”
The wildlife sitings were exciting, but what really convinced us that this was maybe the best road of the trip was the lack of fences. This may seem like a strange point of appeal, but when you pedal for miles and miles down a road lined with barbed wire you end up feeling a bit cut off from your surroundings. And when every day is about moving through a place slow enough so that it’s not just a blur, fenced off landscapes feel like a sort of betrayal. Of course, this is a completely ridiculous notion. People own land and have a right to protect it from rogue gringos who might otherwise pitch their tent on a scenic patch of their property. All the same, it was refreshing to come across a landscape that was as accessible as it was wild.
Further down the road we came across the future park headquarters, right now just a construction site, but the luxury lodge looked pretty much complete. From here it was 60 km to the border crossing and even farther to anything resembling a town. As the Chacabuco valley emptied us onto the open steppe near the border, the notorious winds that blow down from the Andes hit – luckily behind us or we might not have made it. On the barren plateau that led to the border, we barely survived a brutal stretch of loose gravel and crosswinds that threatened to blow us (mostly me) off the road. According to the officials, we were the only people crossing into Argentina that day, and apparently this is standard for the Paso Roballo. They shut down this station in about a month because winter makes the rough road impassable.
There was evidence that motorcyclists come this way, but not surprisingly, no cyclists. The reason became clear when we checked with the border officials how far it was to Lago Posadas, the nearest dot on the map that looked like a town. From our map, it looked about 20 km past the border, but it was actually more like 70. The scale must have been off. We left anyways – in the howling wind – leaving the border patrolmen staring at us with a mixture of incredulity and mild concern.
We pedaled into a landscape of dry cracked lake beds, eroded rocks, and wind whipped silence. Empty and desolate, it felt like the end of the earth, a feeling compounded by the impossibly distant horizon. After two hours of biking on a road that would not have looked out of place on the moon, we took a turnoff for an unmarked town and hoped it would lead to somewhere. The food situation was getting dire. We kept pedaling while the sun set, looking for some kind of shelter from the wind, but there was none. We camped on the side of road and spent a sleepless night hoping the tent wouldn’t rip apart.
Next morning we arrived triumphantly in Lago Posadas, ravenous, but relieved to have made it to an actual town. Even this far south though, the hours of siesta are holy and we couldn’t find a single place to get food for another two hours. We passed the time on the side of the road hoping a truck heading to Bajo Caracoles would give us a lift. No such luck. We gave up as soon as we could eat and decided to start biking in the morning.
Chatwin describes Bajo Caracole as “a crossroads of insignificant importance with roads leading all directions apparently to nowhere.” His description pretty much sums up this dusty little gas stop in the middle of Ruta 40’s most remote section. Even arriving here after the Paso Roballo didn’t change our perspective much.
But this bit of nowhere was the start of our little 400 km shortcut. Patagonia is a big empty place, but it has some of the most famous hikes in the world and after almost three weeks of straight biking, we were ready for a walking break. Our bikes on the bus, we headed south on Ruta 40 to El Chalten. It almost felt like cheating as we blasted along the gravel highway for seven hours of empty steppe that expanded into an even bigger sky. At this point, getting off the road and into the mountains for a few days of hiking was more appealing.
But none of these moderately adventurous experiences compares to the momentous occasion that was Alex’s newly clean shaven face. Yes, The Beard is finally gone. Two months of wild tangled growth have been reduced to some patchy scruff and strange facial tan lines. Since he didn’t have much luck with real barbers, Alejandro took matters into his own hands and spent an hour taming the beast with my Swiss army knife scissors. He now looks like a semi normal individual – aside from the zip off pants and bike shoe booties he wears on a daily basis. I don’t look any better.
See below for pictures of the new face (along with some of Bajo Caracole and its most interesting sight: the sunset)