Some long overdue pictures of Buenos Aires…
In Buenos Aires we stepped out of the taxi to more traffic and tall buildings and people and noise than we’d had in months. Everything was moving very fast. We adjusted to this civilized chaos slowly. Even now, a week later, I’m still adjusting. In the past I’ve had the tendency to under-dress but since arriving home, I’ve been unable to leave the house without a sweater and jacket because – despite warm May temperatures – the prospect of being cold is too painful.
Adjusting to a more balanced diet, however, was not hard. Argentine cuisine consists of grilled slabs of meat and chimichurri sauce. Empanadas are just mini meat pies and although the locals will tell you otherwise, the famous Argentine pizza is decidedly mediocre. We dropped our bags in the hostel and immediately headed for a Japanese restaurant.
Now that I’m home, time and distance warp my memories. One hundred and ten days worth of moments have been compressed into a capsule of experiences that already feel distant. “What was the best part?” is impossible to answer so I ramble incoherently about some scenic stretch of road. To define the last four months with a single pretty landscape feels inadequate. Invariably, aesthetically pleasing experiences are easiest for others to understand, but this trip was a lot more than a series of scenic bike rides. Those sublime looking mountains appear different when you’re not just looking at them from behind a glass window, but pedaling up them – through wind and rain and snow. The mental images I have of alpine lakes and river valleys, glaciated peaks, and desert sunsets are all mixed up with bumpy roads and rain, bloody knees and numb feet, arguments and sometimes tears.
So “the best part” wasn’t really one thing in particular. It was a long series of things – some pleasant, some not so pleasant, but usually a combination of the two. It was flying downhill on smooth pavement after a long uphill slog; it was listening to the rain from inside a dry warm tent (while eating a giant bar of chocolate); it was pedaling for hours in silence along an empty road. Or maybe, more accurately, it was a string of insane – but often hilarious – experiences that we somehow prevailed through as we made our way to the bottom of the continent. Then again, it’s easy to think back nostalgically on the unpleasant bits now that I’m sitting comfortably indoors and not on the side of the road in some wind-blasted corner of Patagonia eating stale bread and looking down at my scarred legs.
After Tierra Del Fuego, Buenos Aires felt like a luxury filled playground. Suddenly we didn’t have to wake up in the cold, move anywhere, or eat burned rice off the bottom of the pot. But the improved levels of comfort had its downside. We no longer felt stylish in spandex; we couldn’t lick our bowls after eating and we couldn’t ask random people to camp on their property. When you’re forced to get out of your sleeping bag in below-freezing temperatures, a down jacket feels better than a fur coat. After a day spent pedaling up mountains, into headwinds, and through rainstorms, the dry enclosed space in a tent feels like a five-star hotel, and when you’re ravenously hungry, eating spaghetti for the hundredth time is the best meal you’ll ever eat. I guess everything’s relative.
We walked around the city, looking at beautiful buildings and beautiful people. Buenos Aires is like a cross between New York, London, and Paris – a mix of old and new, run-down and immaculate. Crumbling neo-classical buildings painted with artistic graffiti murals stand between ugly concrete apartment complexes. We drank too much coffee, a lot of wine, and some spicy margaritas at “the taco factory.”
But before we left we wanted one last hunk of Argentine meat. La Cabrera is supposedly the best parilla place in Buenos Aires, but it’s pricey. We heard about a “happy hour” special between 7 and 8 when food is half price. At 7:20 though, the place was full. Someone mentioned that Don Julio’s was also good but we didn’t have the address. We hailed a cab and asked the driver if he knew the restaurant. He told us there are infinite Don Julio’s in BA so we gave up and tell him to just drive us somewhere with good parilla. He took us halfway across the city to La Tranquera, a little place on the side of an expressway and we were a bit skeptical – I think the cab driver’s buddy owned the restaurant. Our doubts faded when a giant sizzling steak appeared on our table – the best one of the trip.
Besides the meat and the malbec, Argentina is most famous for tango, a dance that originated in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century. Official tango shows though are expensive and touristy, so we headed to La Catedral, a “milonga” or tango hall instead. These informal venues are where you can learn the steps and watch other people tango in an unrehearsed performance. We walked into a room packed with people sitting at tables around a dance floor. A live band was playing and a huge crowd of people were dancing in intimate pairings. But it wasn’t tango – more like a folk music jam session slash dance party. We watched the spectacle unfold and since it was our last night, I’ll pretend that we stayed out until 8 AM like you’re supposed to in BA. Five thousand kilometers on a bicycle apparently does not prepare you for the city’s nightlife.
In the Toronto airport, I collected my bags and lugged my bike packed in a giant cardboard box that was in danger of disintegrating at any moment toward the exit. After 24 hours of airports, plane travel, and waiting in lines, I was not in the mood for delays. I gave the woman standing at the door my customs card and she peered suspiciously at my large decrepit looking box. We exchanged a few words –
Woman: Is there a bike in there?
Woman: Is there mud on it?
Me: Nope. Definitely not. We only rode on paved roads.
She raised her eyebrows and pointed to the secondary inspection area. I think it was the extremely muddy tire visible from one of the gaping holes in the side of the box. Another hour spent waiting in line, another lie (except this time, the official believed me), and I was home. I still hav not unpacked and probably won’t until I accept that I’m too broke to go on another bike trip anytime soon.
Thanks for reading.
And thanks to this guy for ignoring common sense and coming with me…
…and for putting up with my abysmal navigation skills and frequent clumsy episodes (neither of which improved over the course of the trip).
Stay tuned for bike trip Part II: “I’m still unemployed, so I guess I’ll bike around the world.” Just kidding….that would never happen…
In the meantime, here’s some Patagonian cinematography courtesy of The Dish (Alejandro’s second favorite blog) Apologies for the somewhat corny narration . For more snapshots of Patagonia, see the photos page.
updated the last post with a few pictures…more to come
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.