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.